Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: the Art of Immaturity
By Ross Posnock
Princeton University Press, 328 pages, $29.95.
For Americans of a certain age, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was formative: It’s by now axiomatic that most will never forget where they were at the time they received word of the shooting. Similarly, though probably less axiomatically, there’s a legion of Jewish males who will never forget where they were sitting (or lying) when they read the scene in Philip Roth’s masterpiece “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in which our young hero, um, makes love to a piece of liver that his family’s about to eat for dinner. (As I write this, 37 years after the book’s publication in 1969, I still fear that even this euphemistic characterization will not make it past my editors.)
It’s not that it was the first or the last literary instance in which perishables were used as sexual aids. Nor was it the first — or last — time a character engaged in strange sexual congress with himself. But a nice Jewish boy? And for all the world to see?
For some such boys, reading “Portnoy” was revelatory. For many in the Jewish establishment, this scene, along with much of the rest of the book, was offensive, dangerous, a shocking betrayal. For others still, it was simply immature. The writer Jacqueline Susann famously quipped that while she’d like to meet Roth, she wasn’t too keen on shaking his hand.
Now, with publication of “Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity,” Columbia University English professor Ross Posnock does more than offer Roth a (figurative) shake of the hand. Indeed, he scoops the septuagenarian novelist up in a great big bear hug, making the very immaturity that has launched 1,000 ulcers into the subject of a serious, scholarly book. Roth’s immaturity, Posnock argues, is the very thing that has driven his uncommonly prolific creativity. To back up his claim, Posnock references one of Roth’s most famous protagonists. “‘To affront and affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted.’” Posnock writes. “Mickey Sabbath’s sublime ambition and impossible project may be as close to an artistic credo as his creator would care to disclose.”
Although Roth’s immaturity has developed and changed from his earliest work through his more recent efforts, Posnock argues, it has always been a bedrock issue in his writing — and not simply for the purposes of shock and awe (though that’s part of it), but as a conscious effort to undermine bourgeois orthodoxies, to rebel against both the “WASP seriousness” and the particularly “Jewish piety” that Roth faced when he began publishing short stories in the late 1950s. Posnock places Roth as a descendant of Emerson, James, Ellison and even Spinoza (though not just for their respective “excommunications” but also for an “equanimity in the face of cosmic indifference”), and as a product of the “cultural apotheosis of immaturity in the American 1960s.”
For Posnock, literary immaturity comes in two primary forms: the “Huck Finnish” variety, which includes disguise, cross-dressing, interracial friendship and the like (he calls “Portnoy” Roth’s “most flagrant performance” of this kind), and the type personified by Isabel Archer in Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady.” By the end of the book, Isabel elects to throw in the towel, as it were — simply to lie back and “give it all up,” loosening her “executive will” and thereby playing “havoc with the undertaking of projects.” This kind of immaturity is the equivalent of a petulant 5-year-old telling his pleading parents, “You can’t make me.”
Roth, it seems, displays both kinds. Posnock examines the entire oeuvre (including the nonfiction), all the way through his most recent book, 2006’s “Everyman,” painstakingly dissecting each work’s elements of immaturity. In so doing, he takes issue with much of what’s already been written about Roth, who in 2005 became just the third living writer to have his work published in a comprehensive edition by the Library of America.
“I hope readers expecting (yet one more) discussion about Roth and being Jewish in America will come to be persuaded that this topic has for too long been isolated from a more capacious inquiry into larger dimensions of his art and broader questions of what it means to be human,” Posnock writes.
But perhaps Posnock’s most welcome move is that, by the very nature of his argument, he resists the temptation to divide Roth’s books between the serious and the unserious, the funny and the less funny. Rather, he sees them all as different sides of the same coin. “The Human Stain,” by challenging the “myth of the natural” and homing in on man’s propensity to play, mimic and invent, is as immature, in its way, as “Portnoy.” This is a lesson that many critics of literature, film and music could do well to learn: ribald, cranky, funny stuff can be as valid, important and, yes, serious, as that which is sad, somber and subdued.
In 2004, Roth hit the best-seller list with “The Plot Against America,” a fantasy in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and America devolves into an antisemitic haven. Some wondered aloud whether a repentant Roth had finally learned his lesson and come to focus on more adult concerns.
“Many read its fantasy of demagoguery triumphant in the land of democracy as an ominous reflection of post-9/11 political malfeasance,” Posnock writes. Sounds serious, and it is. But read in light of Posnock, it also reflects a searing immaturity: Roth has taken history itself and turned it on its head. I can’t help but remember the story about a couple I know who, after reading “The Plot,” actually invested in eurobonds so as to have an economic foothold in Europe, just in case. They ended up losing $25,000 when they sold after the euro dropped.
Like all literary criticism, the book at points reminds us that reading novels is more entertaining than reading commentaries on them. Which is only to say that Posnock’s is a book of serious criticism intended for very serious students of Roth. Still, it’s crisply written, well argued and persuasive. Reading it, one looks forward to reading Roth again, in Posnock’s new light.
Chanan Tigay has reported for Agence France-Presse, United Press International, The Jerusalem Report and JTA.