Menachem Feuer’s Guest Appearance on Burning Books Podcast – American Pastoral #14

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I recently made a guest appearance of the Burning Books Podcast (a podcast dedicated to literature) and spoke about “glovemaking” in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, the novel itself, being raised in a glovemaking family in Gloversville, New York, the schlemiel, my blog, my new book project, and much much more.

Here is the description of the podcast by Burning Books and links to the podcast (Episode #14):

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Feel like making glove?? That’s not a typo. This week we discuss perhaps the best passage in any of Philip Roth’s novels, the ‘glovemaking scene’ (again, not a typo) in American Pastoral. And we do this with American lit scholar and Gloversville, NY native, Menachem Feuer. Also, we discuss the definition of a schlemiel, a person who could never make a glove. And Franz Kafka makes an appearance at the end – another person we can safely assume was not versed in the art of glovemaking, IN ANY SENSE OF THE WORD. Get that hand out of your pocket and put your headphones on. *heat*.
links:
 
iTunes 
 
 
Soundcloud
 
Check out BurningBooks other podcasts, too.  They are educational, insightful, and very interesting!

What Happened to Our Smart Jewish Kids? A Note On Cynicism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

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When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life.   All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.

Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:

Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)

Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:

They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)

Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.

What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy.   They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)

Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255).   Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”

Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:

She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)

The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:

He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)

This laughter is a kind of satanic laughter. Perhaps it is a variant of the laughter that Charles Baudelaire discusses in his famous essay, “The Essence of Laughter.” I wonder if Slajov Zizek would call this the laughter of cynicism or the laughter of what he calls, following Peter Sloterdijk, kynicism. After all, the laughter of kynicism is a destructive – daemonic (in a Baudelairian sense) – kind of laughter. Regardless, Zuckerman is right to note that this laughter emerges, in some way, out of cynicism. To be sure, this kynical laughter is the other side of cynicism.

In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism.  It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.

 

 

The Anti-American Pastoral: The Representation of Franz Fanon’s Words on Violence and Radicalism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

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Philip Roth’s American Pastoral takes American radicalism and terrorism as one of its main topics. Zuckerman, the narrator, explores the life of “the Swede” (or “Swede”) whose daughter, Merry, becomes a radical and ends up blowing up a few buildings and killing a few people in the process. In flight from her first terrorist act, she leaves home and her father. In despair, Swede imagines that if he becomes radicalized (or shows himself to her as radicalized) she will come home. Parodying his attempts to understand and become radical, Zuckerman imagines Swede as having a fantasy that Angela Davis appears in his house. I have dedicated two blogs to Zuckerman’s portrayal of Angela Davis (“Saint Angela”) which, to be sure, has its comic elements. As I noted in my entries, Zuckerman shows how Swede wants his daughter back so bad that he does all he can to “hide” some of his differences with Davis regarding her radicalism.

Zuckerman, at many different points in the novel, mocks radicalism and associates it with a kind of fanatical, religious form of worship. (I have pointed this out in his reflections on Angela Davis and Swede’s emulations of her as a “saint” who he prays to for help.) Later in the novel, Zuckerman recounts how Merry, in flight from the FBI, becomes paranoid. She recalls this moment to her father when, towards the end of the novel, the two come back together:

Merry told her father, she noticed a youngish black bum, new to the park (where she was hiding out in Miami), watching her tutoring boys (English). She knew immediately what that meant. A thousand times before she’d thought it was the FBI and a thousand times she’d been wrong – in Oregon, in Idaho, in Kentucky, in Maryland, the FBI watching her at stores where she clerked; watching in the diners and the cafeterias where she washed dishes; watching on the shabby streets where she lived; watching in the libraries where she hid out to read the newspapers and study the revolutionary thinkers (260)

Zuckerman tells us that in these libraries she would read so as to “master” the work of “Marx, Marcuse, Malcom X, and Franz Fanon”(261). Of the three thinkers, Zuckerman gives the most space to Franz Fanon. Writing on him, Zuckerman notes that Fanon was a “French theorist whose sentences” were “litanized” by Merry “at bedtime like a supplication”(261). He goes on to note that for Merry, Fanon’s work had “sustained her in much the same way as a ritual sacrament”(261). To bring out the ritualistic nature of the text, so to speak, Zuckerman quotes him at length:

It must constantly be borne in mind that the committed Algerian woman learns both her role as “a woman alone in the street” and her revolutionary mission instinctively. The Algerian woman is not a secret agent. It is without apprenticeship, without briefing, without fuss, that she goes out into the street with three grenades in her handbag. She does not have the sensation of playing a role. There is no character to imitate. On the contrary, there is an intense dramatization, a continuity between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman rises directly to the level of tragedy. (261)

Immediately after this passage, Zuckerman takes us into Swede’s mind. What does Swede think about this passage from Fanon which his daughter recites as if it were a holy text?

Thinking: And the New Jersey girl descends to the level of idiocy. The New Jersey girl we sent to Montessori school because she was so bright, the New Jersey girl who at Morristown High got only A’s and B’s – the New Jersey girl rises directly to the level of disgraceful playacting. The New Jersey Girl rises to the level of psychosis. (261)

As one can see, he thinks of this text and its recitation as evincing a “level of disgraceful playacting” and the “level of psychosis.” In his mind, this text affirms the unthinkable. These words evince the anti-American pastoral.

Edward Said, however, doesn’t deem this psychotic or playacting. He takes it seriously and argues that violence makes perfect sense. In his book Culture and Imperialism, Said turns to Fanon’s work as a move toward post-nationalism (which, in effect, is the anti-American pastoral). Said notes that Fanon turned to violence as a way of going beyond nationalism:

If I have so often cited Fanon, it is because more dramatically and decisively than anyone, I believe, he expresses the immense cultural shift from the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation. (268)

But, to be sure, one doesn’t arrive at the “theoretical domain of liberation” without violence. In fact, Said says it is necessary for the transformation of the national into a “trans-personal” and “trans-national force”(269). Fanon’s “entire work” is “set into motion, so to speak, by the native’s violence, a force intended to bridge the gap between white and non-white”(270). Violence (and not peace) is the great uniter of humankind. Said calls it a new kind of “humanism” and calls violence (drawing on a Hegalian language used by Fanon) a “synthesis”:

For Fanon violence…is the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject, Black man as object. (270).

To add academic legitimacy (or is it, rather, the “legitimacy effect”?) to this, Said cites the respected Marxist thinker Georg Lukacs who, he claims, Fanon was reading while he wrote these words about violence as “synthesis.”

My conjecture is that while he was writing the work Fanon read Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which had just appeared in Paris in French translation in 1960. Lukacs shows that the effects of capitalism are fragmentation and reification: in such a dispensation, every human being becomes an object, or commodity, the product of human work is alienated from its maker, the image of whole or community disappears entirely. (270)

Although Lukacs doesn’t call for violence, Said paraphrases him to say that he calls for an “act of mental will, by which the lonely mind could join another by imagining the common bond between them, breaking the enforced rigidity that kept human beings as slaves to tyrannical outside forces. Hence reconciliation and synthesis between subject and object”(270). In other words, Said interprets “act of mental will” as violence. But in the following paragraph he calls it an “act of the will.” There is, of course, a difference between a mental and a physical “act of the will,” but Said elides the difference in one fell swoop of the pen.

Regardless, Said’s reflections of Fanon – by way of Lukacs – have one goal; namely, the legitimacy of violence. Said goes on to call violence, citing Fanon, a “cleansing force”(271), cites another passage where Fanon says that the “native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler,” and also a passage where Fanon states that, for the native, “life can only spring up from the rotting corpse of the settler”(271).

What is astonishing is the fact that all of this passes through the gates of reason and that Edward Said makes us think that violence makes perfect sense; in fact, for Said (and for Merry of American Pastoral) it makes the most sense. What would Zuckerman or Swede think of this legitimization of violence by Fanon and Said? Given what we have seen above, we can see that they think that Merry is psychotic and childish to repeat Fanon in a religious manner. But what happens when Fanon’s advocation of violence-as-an-answer is articulated by an academic and granted legitimacy? Should we also call him psychotic and childish or something else?

If Said and Fanon make sense, then post-nationalism, the kind arrived at through violence (real and mental), also makes sense.   And this should give us pause….This is no laughing matter….

 

 

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part II)

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A good writer like Philip Roth knows very well how desperate situations can bring out things about a character that, as a matter of course, are troubling. But Roth, like Shalom Auslander or the Coen Brothers (in the genre of film), sometimes injects comic elements into troubling situations.  This has an odd affect because, in many ways, this gesture is so audacious and inappropriate.   But this affect is a gift of sorts: it prompts us to think about what we take for granted and, by way of this agitation, it discloses some form of truth.

Roth addresses one of the most radical figures of contemporary American history – Angela Davis – and one of the most difficult eras of America: the radicalism and terrorism of the late 1960s anti-war, anti-imperialist, etc movements.  He does this by way of Swede, a character whose daughter, an upper middle-class white girl from Morristown, NJ, ends up blowing up a building and killing an innocent person.   As I pointed out in the the last blog entry, Swede, Merry’s father, is forced to address her radicalism if he is to find his way back to his daughter (who had, since the bombing, disappeared).

Swede first comes into contact with 60s radicalism by way of Rita Cohen (a friend of Merry and a student of the Wharton school who is researching the leather business for a dissertation project).  In his meetings with Rita Cohen, Zuckerman looks to show us how Swede responds to her rhetoric of radicalism; namely, by way of humor. Swede sees her gestures as a part of a radical chic that has no thought behind it so much as a feeling and a style that is childish and rebellious. As I noted, this humor gives him distance. This distance is challenged when Cohen meets Swede in a hotel room in an effort to seduce him. Zuckerman, the narrator, portrays her attempts at eroticism as comical.   And although this comedy gives Swede (and the reader) some distance from Cohen’s radicalism, this distance is shadowed by something serious and “tempting.”

The interesting plot twist is found in the fact that Roth decides to metonymically (and literally) link Cohen’s (and his daughter’s) radicalism to a prominent African-American figure of radicalism: Angela Davis. This link is fascinating because it links Jews and African Americans (this is something Roth has done in novels such as The Human Stain). In this novel, one needs to look into this relationship because, in it, the Jewish-American women take an African-American woman as their model. And this mimicry is, in some ways, comical. To be sure, as I mentioned above, it has the element of radical chic. And, as I noted in my last blog entry, the figure of Angela Davis’s hair ties this knot between the characters.

Cohen has a Jewfro while Davis has an Afro. But there is more to the story; and that more has to do with Swede’s fantasy about Angela Davis.

Through Swede, we see how a character, who has an aversion to radicalism and hails himself as a liberal of sorts, becomes obsessed with radicalism so as to get closer to his daughter. The fact that he sees it as a means to an end affects how the reader takes in the ideology of radicalism. To be sure, it comes across as dogmatic and Swede’s responses to it come off as comical.

When “Saint Angela” appears to him, he wants her to believe that he is a devotee. But, in the spirit of the best Jewish humor, he shows he is with her while, at the same time, telling us that he doesn’t want her to find out about a few of his reservations. After all, that would ruin the truth effect and spoil the devotion-effect. In other words, this ruins her sainthood and preserves a margin of freedom for a narrator and a character who can’t buy into it all.

As I noted in the last blog entry, the narrator humors Angela’s radical chic. Zuckerman notes how “her hair was extraordinary. She peers defiantly out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain”(160). Following this, the narrator notes how Swede “should” relate to Angela’s description of Merry, his daughter. In her view, Merry isn’t a terrorist, she’s a hero, a Joan of Arc of the movement”:

She praises his daughter, whom she calls “a soldier of freedom, a pioneer in the great struggle against repression.” He should take pride in her political boldness, she says. The antiwar movement is an anti-imperialist movement, and by lodging a protest int eh only way America understands, Merry, at sixteen, is in the forefront of the movement, a Joan of Arc of the movement. (160)

Saint Angela, as the narrator calls her, goes so far as to link Merry to “abolitionism” and “John Brown!” This link turns the protest movement into a liberal moment. But, clearly, the radicalism is much different. Swede, however, is told to take this as truth.

Moreover, Davis repeats, over and over again, how Swede should get it out of his head that what Merry did was a criminal act. And for a few pages Zuckerman gives us an experience of the propoganda of the radical movement (in all of its rhetorical flourishes, phrases, and repetitions.)   Swede plays the role of a devotee to the Saint.

But when, in the midst of being lectured by Davis, he hears something that relates to him and his business (which has many African-American employees) he speaks up to vindicate himself:

Obediently he listens. She tells him that imperialism is a weapon used by wealthy withies to pay black workers less for their work, and that’s when he seizes the opportunity to tell her about the black forelady, Vicky, thirty years at Newark Maid. (161)

He goes on to say how, through working for him, he was able to help her to send her kids to medial school and how Vicky stayed with him during the 67’ riots in Newark.   Moreover, he goes into detail how she helped to defer the rioters from burning the leather factory down by putting signs in the window that the business had employees that were, in bold letters, “NEGROES.”   In attempt to win her favor, Swede gives this account to “Saint Angela”(162). If anything, Roth is showing us the nature of Swede’s white guilt. He wants to allay it by saying that he is not like the other white people.

However, although Swede felt good that Governor Hughes had sent in tanks to restore order in the city, he does not tell this to Angela (162). He also doesn’t tell her that he wanted to leave Newark after the riots and take his business elsewhere for fear that it would be ruined – which is what actually happens (162). In other words, he cannot totally agree with her point of view, but he is afraid to tell her as that would create distance between them.

Swede goes along with whatever Davis says because he believes that this “Saint” will bring him to his daughter.   He has a kind of faith and, at the same time, a struggle with the dogma that is based on this faith (a struggle he cannot let show on the surface).

However, in the midst of all this, Zuckerman notes Swede’s greatest fear; namely, that Merry will, ultimately, see him as the enemy. The fact that he has African-American employees and sympathizes with them is not enough for her:

Victimizing black people and the working class and the poor solely for self-gain, out of filthy greed! (163)

This message, playing in the midst of his Angela Davis fantasy, prompts Zuckerman, the narrator to mark a disillusionment with Davis’s radical ideology. It is, in his view, yet another delusion. But…Swede has no choice but to go along with it:

In the idealistic slogans there was no reality, not a drop of it, and yet what else could he do? He could not provide his daughter with the justification for doing something crazy. So he stayed in Newark, and after the riots Merry did something crazier than crazy…The factory under siege, the daughter at large, and that took care of the future. (163)

Yet, with all of this, the narrator points out that, at this point, it seemed that nothing Swede could do would counter the affect of what had already gone down. Swede and his future – it seems – is destroyed by history in general and his daughter’s acts in particular.

But he doesn’t speak his mind as much as his father, Lou Levov, who, the narrator shows us is more sympathetic that Swede is to the plight of African Americans in Europe. Nonetheless, he is angry at the decision that they made to riot. He is angry at how the radicals, in his view, were making life for African-Americans in America more difficult. And sees this all through the downturn his business takes thereafter; workers become apathetic and unfocused and the quality gloves that used to be made with pride become shabby. Everything he has worked for goes down the drain:

A whole business is going down the drain because of that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones, that Peek-A-Boo-Boopy-Do, whatever the hell he calls himself in that goddamn hat. I built this with my hands! With my blood! They think somebody gave it to me? Who? Who gave it to me? Who gave me anything, ever? Nobody! What I have built! With work – w-o-r-k! (163)

The father says he has “conscience” since he made many efforts to help African-Americans in Newark but asks “Where is theirs?” He is astonished and believes that there must be parity. Regardless, Zuckerman tells us about the father’s pain, Swede “stubbornly defies the truth” of what his father was saying (165) because he thinks that his daughter Merry would use it against him.

Zuckerman goes on to show us how, in an effort to gain Angela Davis’s favor, Swede lies about his love of communism and the cause (166). He says “yes” to everything:

So he says yes to her yes, his daughter is a soldier of freedom, yes, he is proud, yes, everything he has heard about Communism is a lie, yes, the United States is concerned solely with making the world safe for business and keeping the have-nots from encroaching on the haves – yes, the United States is responsible for oppression everywhere. Everything is justified by her cause, Huey Newton’s cause, Bobby Seale’s cause…Merry Levov’s cause. (166)

What we find in this moment is a radical shift from radical chic to the utmost seriousness. Swede commits himself, dogmatically, to radicalism. However, Zuckerman underscores the irony of this commitment, which is forced. He even hides this “secret” commitment from his African-American worker, Vicky, because even she thinks Angela Davis is too radical. Zuckerman likens this secret commitment to a kind of religious commitment to a saint, a “secret prayer”:

Meanwhile he mentions Angela’s name to no one, certainly not to Vicky, who thinks Angela Davis is a trouble maker and who says as much to the girls at work. Alone then and in secret he prays…for Angela’s acquittal. And when it happens he is jubilant. She is free! (166)

This is no longer funny. Zuckerman portrays Swede as a devotee by virtue of his desire to see his daughter once again. We see this in the preface and his reaction to Angela Davis’s release. In it, her freedom becomes equivalent to Merry’s freedom. He becomes a devotee, protester, of sorts:

Free the Rimrock Bomber! Free my daughter! Free her, please! Cries the Swede.   “I think it’s about time,” Angela says, “for all of us to begin to teach the rulers of this country a few lessons,” and yes, cries the Swede, yes, it is about time, a socialist revolution in the United States of America! (166)

Zuckerman notes how deluded this is by pointing out how “he remains alone at his kitchen table” because he “cannot do anything that he should do or believe anything that he should believe or even know any longer what he should believe.” In other words, Swede’s devotion is comical and deluded. He is in a state of existential paralysis.

All of these reflections make the narrator angry and prompt him to wonder whether he should have “fucked” Rita Cohen: “I f he would do anything for Merry, why not that? Why did he run?”(167). Regardless of these reflections, we can see that Zuckerman doesn’t take the radical ideology put forth by Davis to be truth so much as a means to an end. He mocks it and the devotion to it; yet, in this situation, he realizes that Zuckerman may have to act “as if” it is true. And this masquerading – of taking on something that is ridiculous for the sake of seeing a lost daughter-terrorist – makes this ridiculousness tragic and debilitating.

Saint Angela and her radicalism may be comically portrayed and parodied but, in the end of the day, no amount of mockery can reduce the tragic effect they this ideology has on Swede’s life.   Comedy, in other words, seems to be ineffectual. And the distance it gives seems, for Zuckerman, impossible to maintain.

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part I)

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Many critics agree that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is his best novel.   And there is a consensus regarding the fact that this is a tragic novel, or as Roth’s narrator Zuckerman says the “anti-American Pastoral.” The sections of the novel map this out: “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.” However, for this reason, critics often overlook or miss the comic elements in the novel. To be sure, Roth uses comedy at very important parts of the novel so as to inject a critical perspective.   Although the novel bears witness to the rise and fall of Swede, the main character, it, at rare moments, offers a critical perspective by way of a kind of distance that is comical or ironic.

What is most interesting about these moments is that they often go from taking an ironic distance to losing it; and, in the process, Swede (or the narrator) becomes embroiled in panic. To be sure, all of the panic is around his desire to find his daughter, Merry, the “Rimrock Bomber.” After she bombs a store in New Jersey, during the Vietnam War, she disappears. And he does everything he can to find her. In the process, he tries to understand her. And this leads him to take in her radical ideology which sees the United States and Capitalism as the enemy of “the people.” Though he at first humors it, Swede starts becoming obsessed with the ideology.  He takes to it because, in his desperation, he believes that it will somehow lead him to his daughter.   But before this takes effect, Roth shows us that, at first, there is a comic distance.

We see an important example of this comical distance (which ultimately collapses) by way of two encounters: one with a Jewish girl named Rita Cohen and the other with a fantasized meeting with Angela Davis. The two encounters – one real, the other fantastic – come together in the figure of the “afro” (or Jew-fro, by way of Rita).   But it is the fantastic encounter with “Saint Angela” that gives us the best sense of how Swede turns to comedy to give himself some distance; yet, in the end, it seems this distance is not enough to keep him from losing his mind.

Before we meet Rita Cohen, Zuckerman, the narrator, provides us with several “conversations” between Swede and his daughter which show us how she, gradually, became more radicalized. He tries to appeal to her by showing that he is liberal, but this is to no avail. The end of the first section of the book, which follows these conversations, tells us what happens in their wake:

After turning Morristown High into a battlefield (from protest against the Vietnam war), she went out one day and blew up the post office, destroying right along with it Dr. Fred Conlon and the village’s general store, a small wooden building with a community bulletin board out front and a single old Sunoco pump and the metal pole on which Russ Hamlin…had raised the American flag every morning since Warren Gamaliel Harding was president of the United States. (113)

There is nothing comical about these last lines. To be sure, they mark the end of an era and the beginning of another; they mark the beginning of the end of Swede’s life.   The following section of the novel is entitled “The Fall,” begins with his meeting Rita Cohen. She comes across as a nice, American girl who attends The Wharton School. She visits Swede with an academic interest: she is interested in how the leather business works and, apparently, is looking to write a dissertation on the topic. Swede gives her a tour of the factory, discusses the ins and outs of the business (in detail), shows her how gloves are made, introduces her to the workers, and, in the end, he gives her a glove made to fit her small hands.   The gloves are finished by Vicky, an African-American worker at the glove factory (131).

At the very end of the section, we learn, by way of a whisper, that Rita is connected to Merry: “She wants her Aubrey Hepburn scrapbook”(132).   Swede drives Rita to the airport, gives her the notebook, and, for the first time, Rita shows another face to Swede. She tells him that his daughter, Merry, hates him (133). And thinks that he “ought to be shot.” Following this, Rita goes on a tirade against Swede accusing him of being a “shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and the yellow people of the world and lives in luxury behind the nigger-proof security gates of his mansion”(133).   There is nothing funny here.

The narrator notes that “taunting him was the project she had set herself”(133). At this moment, Swede’s world is upside down. But he also starts humoring her. By way of comic jibes at Rita, Swede starts distancing himself from her:

The unreality of being in the hands of this child! This loathsome kid with a head full of fantasies about the ‘working class’! This tiny being who took up not even as much space in the car as the Levov sheepdog, pretending he was on the world stage! This utterly insignificant pebble! What was the whole sick enterprise other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed? (134)

He sees her whole of Rita’s radicalism as childish and a fad of sorts. This is what Tom Wolfe would call “radical chic.” With this comical perspective in mind, Swede looks at her hair – modeled, as we will see, on the hair of Angela Davis – as evidence of radical chic:

Yes, the nonsensical hair constituted half of their revolutionary ideology, about as sound a justification for her actions as the other half – the exaggerated jargon about changing the world. (134)

He sees her acts as thoughtless and an act of self-glorification: “Thought just paled away beside their ignorance. They were omniscient without even thinking” (134).   Zuckerman includes bits and pieces of their conversation to show how full it is of “ridiculous clichés.” In response, she maintains her rhetorical exaggerations and insists that her life was all a lie and that she was the product of privilege. Rita claims that Swede and his wife were ashamed of their daughter and “colonialized her…self-image,” “hated her” and turned her into a “piece of shit.” Rita doesn’t hear a word Swede says. He can’t hear a father’s need to see his missing daughter. Rita accuses Swede of thinking of her as a “possession” and misses his plea. In Swede’s mind, she is a “child crackpot.”

He next sees Rita in a hotel and gives her money (as per her request) to see his daughter. But Rita wants more than his money. As Zuckerman relates, she wants to “fuck.” He keeps his distance from her, however. He notes how comical she looks all made up: “She looks like a third grader who ransacked her mothers room”(142). And, to entice him she starts singing a comical song by Groucho Marx: “Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, my encyclo-pid-e-a, oh Lydia, the tattooed lady”(142).

She uses eroticism and comedy to entice Swede, but it doesn’t work. He wonders: “Could this lead to Merry, this onslaught of sneering and mockery? Was she impersonating someone, acting from a script prepared beforehand?” In other words, Swede can’t take Rita’s gestures seriously.

At the very end, Rita sticks her fingers into her vagina, pulls them out, and brings them near Swede’s face to smell. He pulls back, but then Rita makes comical/erotic gestures to herself:

The hand she’s offered him she now carried slowly up to her face, making loony, comical little circles in the air as she approached her mouth. Then, one by one, she slipped each finger between her lips to cleanse it. (147)

Following these comical/erotic gestures, he “bolted the room. With all his strength.” He sees he from a comical angle, yet, he also sees that she is using a comical/erotic strategy to break him down.

In the wake of this encounter, Swede starts thinking more and more of the ideology that inspired them. And, at a certain point, he has a fantasy that Angel Davis, “a black philosophy professor of about Rita Cohen age…a Communist professor at UCLA who is against the war…tried…for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy”(157). As one can see, Zuckerman (and Swede) make a connection between Angela Davis and Rita Cohen.   And this is brought together by Angela Davis’s hair and her radical chic:

Her hair reminds the Swede of Rita Cohen. Every time he sees that bush encircling her head he is reminded of what he should have done at the hotel. He should not have let her get away from him, no matter what. (158)

In many ways, Rita Cohen (a Jew) and Angela Davis (an African-American) are merged. And both are, to some extent humored. But, as I noted above, this humor diminishes because he becomes obsessed with them. He sees them as his way to his daughter:

Now he watches the news to see Angela Davis. He reads everything he can about her. He knows that Angela Davis can get him to his daughter. (158)

In the drawers of his daughter’s room, he finds the writings of Angela Davis (amongst other radical literature). And, in the midst of his discovery, he recalls how, in the same room, his daughter – influenced by his wife’s Catholic mother – became obsessed with Saints. He remembers how this was a passing fad. He imagines that reading Angela Davis is like reading “those tiny pamphlets” (on the Saints) and “illustrated holy cards.” But “luckily the child outgrew them”(159). Nonetheless, she would still, on occasion, pray to the Saints.   Meanwhile, “Grandma Dwyer…prayed to St. Anne to help Marry stay Catholic despite her upbringing (mind you, Swede is Jewish)”(159).

Immediately following this, Swede has an epiphany of Angela Davis. She becomes, at this moment, Saint Angela:

At the kitchen one night Angela Davis appears to Swede, as Our Lady of Fatima did to those children in Portugal, as the Blessed Virgin did down in Cape May. He thinks, Angela Davis can get me to her – and there she is. (160)

The description of Angela Davis by the narrator, however, is comical. It sets a wedge between the passion and dispassion Swede experiences in his epiphany. She looks “more beautiful than she looks on television”:

Her legs are long and she wears colorful minidresses to expose them. The hair is extraordinary. She peers definitely out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain.” (160)

….to be continued….in the next blog entry….

A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Novel, A New Life

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Since I am a hyphenated American-Jew, whenever I come across a Jewish-American novel – new or old –  I always wonder whether or not I will identify with the experiences of the characters.  What I have found – and as anyone who reads my blog can see – is that I identify with the schlemiel character.  But this is a general identification.  I often find that I am interested in some schlemiels more than others.   Some, for instance the schlemiels in the novels of Gary Shteyngart or Philip Roth, do not resonate as much as schlemiels in other novels.

The reasons for my attraction or repulsion do not have to do with the fact that I do or do not share traits or problems with the given character.  To be sure, I think I have found a standard that many people would likely agree with: schlemiels that are excessively caricatured are less meaningful than schlemiels that are less caricatured.  Indeed, the sign of a good-writer-on-the-schlemiel can be found in how they balance humor with seriousness in his or her stories or novels.     After all, schlemiels fail and failure is…a serious thing.   The art part comes in with regard to how one address failure.  If one does it right, the reader can come to the text with a sense that what they are reading is simultaneously comic, utterly serious, and worthy of his or her concern.  Unlike many writers who address the schlemiel, I am now finding that Bernard Malamud stands out in his treatment.  His work, though written for another era, speaks to me, even today.

I recently came across a used, 1961 edition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, A New Life.  On the back cover, I read something that I have never seen on any back cover: the mention of the word schlemiel.

In a New Life, Bernard Malamud has written a novel that is at once devastating satire on academia, a ribald comedy, an ironic commentary on East Coast Experience and West Coast innocence – and above all, a profoundly moving fable of redemption and rebirth, a Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.

Like many blurbs on the backs of books, this one promises a lot of interesting contents.  Reading this for the first time, I wondered, most of all, how this book would be a “Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.”  What made S. Levin, the main character of A New Life, a “holy schlemiel?”   How does one define a “holy schlemiel?”  Does he or she do things that are religious or is he or she an expression of holiness (yet in secular trappings)?    I also wanted to know how this holy schlemiel was “redeemed” and “reborn”?  Does that ever happen with a schlemiel if, as Ruth Wisse says, the schlemiel is more like an “existential condition” and less “situational?”

Another thing that concerned me was the question of how “ribald” a comedy it was.  Was S. Levin a caricature?   How much comedy did Malamud inject into the creation of the schlemiel?

With these questions in mind, I picked up the book and started reading.

The first thing I noticed, when I opened the book for the first time, was the epigram – a citation from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Lo, Levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland’s western welkin!”

How, I wondered, would S. Levin “leap” and “lighten” – in an “eyeblink” – America’s (not Ireland’s) “western welkin”?  Welkin is Old English for sky or heavens.   The irony here is that in Malamud’s revision Levin is a Jew who, in migrating West from New York City, will somehow bring light to the dark American sky.  How could this be?  Would he do something redemptive?  Hopefully, by the end of the novel, I thought, I can answer this question.  After all, the notion that a schlemiel is redemptive is of great interest to me.   What is Malamud after?

In contrast to a redemptive figure, the narrator’s first words of the novel describe S. Levin in the most fallen manner:

S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.  Bearded, fatigued lonely, Levin set down a valise and suitcase and looked around in a strange land for welcome. (7)

Levin is a schlemiel who wants to stop living a life of failure. To this end, he takes the Jewish wisdom of changing your place changes your “mazel” (luck) seriously.  He leaves for California (“a strange land”) to start a “new life.”  There, he will take up a job as a college professor of composition.

But there is a problem: although you can take a schlemiel out of New York, can you take the New York out of the schlemiel?  Can a schlemiel, by leaving New York for a new life, also leave the schlemiel behind?  Is it associated not just with a way of life but  also with a city where Jews lived en masse?

When he arrives, he is greeted by two characters who play a role in his fate: a teacher and his wife:

They stared at Levin – the man almost in alarm, the woman more mildly – and he gazed at them.  (7)

This initial gaze is telling since the gaze is not so much at the Jew (which is cloaked by the narrator) as at the stranger who is about to come into their life.  Malamud tells us that the man, who is “almost in alarm,” is energetic and has a “rich head of red hair.” Reading this, I cannot help but think of the Biblical figure of Esau – the brother of Jacob.   According to the Midrash, he has red hair all over his body. The Midrash suggests that this matches his essence: he is a hunter and more athletic than his intellectual and humble brother, Jacob.

What I love about this initial encounter is the fact that Malamud suggests that we think of the struggle between the schlemiel and a possible Esau as a struggle of epic, biblical proportions.  This gives the schlemiel a context with more gravitas and weight.

Nonetheless, as one can see from the first lines, S. Levin is a schlemiel be virtue of the fact that he has failure written into his very existence.  This failure receives some comic reflection but is still quite serious.  S. Levin, after all, really wants to live a “new life.”

How does Malamud balance out the weight and the comic lightness of the schlemiel?

…to be continued…..

Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 2)

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In yesterday’s blog entry I quoted a part of Philip Roth’s words on Moishe Pipik.  Here is the full quote.  It gives a sense of how the schlemiel returns to Roth’s later work (challenging Sanford Pinsker’s claim that Roth had spent his entire life trying to leave it behind).  To be sure, as I noted in the last blog entry, Moishe Pipik is the name for the “other” Philip Roth:

Moishe Pipik! The derogatory, joking nonsense name that translates literally to Moses Bellybutton and that probably connoted something slightly different to every Jewish family on our block — the little guy who wants to be a big shot, the kid who pisses in his pants, the someone who is a bit ridiculous, a bit funny, a bit childish… that little folkloric fall guy whose surname designated the thing that for most children was neither here nor there… the sole archaeological evidence of the fairy tale of one’s origins, the lasting imprint of the fetus who was somehow oneself without actually being anyone at all, just about the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours.

The other Philip Roth poses a counter to the serious author.  He creates mischief and this speaks to Roth’s own project; which, amongst other things, provides a new language for Jewishness which we can only understand if we play Moishe Pipik’s game.  This is what Roth teaches us in a key moment in the novel when he can’t take Pipik’s mischief anymore.

In Operation Shylock, the greatest mischief of all is Moishe Pipik’s psychotic-slash-messianic idea which, in his mind, will solve the new “Jewish problem” caused by the strife between Israelis and Palestianians.  His inspired idea is the “new Diasporist movement” in which all Jews in Israel should return back to Europe. This kind of mischief sounds like the mischief of Helen Thomas.

But he truly believes – or so it seems -that this will be good for the Jews.  The author, Philip Roth, wants nothing to do with Pipick’s madness.  But when Pipik brings him to the edge, as I mentioned above, the author imitates the madness of Pipik and plays it back to him.  The author, Philip Roth, becomes the psychotic-schlemiel-messiah, Moishe Pipik.   The key is to “say everything” (no matter how extreme) and, in the process, do a little stand-up. This leads him to the new Moses and the “father of the new Diasporist Movement,” Irving Berlin:

On I went, usurping the identity of the usurper who had usurped mine, heedless of truth, liberated from all doubt, assured of the indisputable rightness of my cause – seer, savior, very likely the Jews’ Messiah. 

So this is how it’s done, I thought.  This is how they do it.  You just say everything.

No, I didn’t stop for a very long time. On and on and on, obeying an impulse I did nothing to quash, ostentatiously free of uncertainy and without a trace of conscience to rein in my raving…I was talking about Armenians, suddenly, about whom I knew nothing: “Die the Armenians suffer because they were in a Diaspora?  No, because they were at home and the Turks moved in and massacred them there.”  I heard myself next praising the greatest Diasporist of all, the father of the new Diasporist movement, Irving Berlin.  “People ask where I got the idea.  Well, I got it listening to the radio.  The radio was playing “Easter Parade” and I thought, But this is a Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas”…And what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. (157) 

What makes Berlin “the father of the new Diasporist movement” – who is on par with Moses – is that he empties Christmas of its religious content.  He secularizes them.  And this, says Roth-as-Moishe-Pipik, is the key to his schlemiel-mania.  He realizes the power of comedy to create all kinds of secular mischief.  American culture, produced by Jews like Irving Berlin, is the source of a new Diaspora in which rooted meanings and traditions (such as Christmas) are uprooted and rerouted into different popular meanings.

The key to Philip Roth’s re-invention of the schlemiel is to “never stop talking.”  But, to be sure, it is a re-invention because the schlemiel has always, as Ruth Wisse points out, talked its way out of war and conflict and into the hearts of Americans.   In other words, for Wisse, the schlemiel tradition finds its greatest moments when it addresses the political by way of talking and winning an “ironic victory.”

Philip Roth’s Moishe Pipik is also a  “political schlemiel” of sorts.  But just because the schlemiel is “political” doesn’t mean its political. Rather, the schlemiel plays with politics and the world. He knows, like Roth does when he becomes Moishe Pipik, that, in the end, it’s all just a comic performance whose main purpose is: Diaspora.  He learned this from the new Moses: Irving Berlin.  Although Roth, the author, might cringe at this, he eventually realizes that he cannot distance himself from Moishe Pipik’s mad claims.

Just as Jews throughout history couldn’t separate themselves from the implications of Moses and the Ten Commandments, now, Roth suggests, they can’t escape from the history of the “new Moses” and the “new Diaspora movement.”

But this is the simple meaning of the text. The deeper meaning is that what Roth-the-author-says-while-he-becomes-Moishe Pipik bears a secret: although Irving Berlin was the “father of the new Diaspora movement,” and may be considered the “new Moses” in Moishe Pipik’s manic-schlemiel-mind*, we can only conclude that Moishe Pipik thinks he’s the real Moses (the Messiah).

But – let’s not fool ourselves – we all know he’s a Pip-ik.