Harold Bloom, Philip Roth, and the State of Israel
By Jacob Abolafia
Philip Roth is a master of the obituary. It is a literary form that allows him to engage with one of his foremost obsessions, his own death, while maintaining the ironic distance of a god, one who dispenses the very rewards and punishments he now proceeds to eulogize. One of the most memorable occasions of this use comes towards the end of Roth’s late masterpiece, Sabbath’s Theater, by way of the obituary that Mickey Sabbath imagines will appear in the local Jewish newspaper after his death. The headline reads “Puppeteer Mickey Sabbath Dead at 64, Did Nothing For Israel.” In the minds of those provincial American Jews, Sabbath knows, there are very few markers of success that would excuse such callous indifference for the Jewish homeland. The fact that this meditation comes in the midst of Mickey Sabbath’s wry self-appraisal of just where his own considerable failure is deepest provokes a question about Roth’s own relationship to that most quintessentially parochial of Jewish ideas, Zionism.
It is hard to be original in questions of Roth and any Jewish concept, for no modern author has provoked such a defensive neurosis in his audience as has Roth, and consequently, there are few facets of Roth’s Jewishness that have gone unexamined. For all the attention lavished on Roth’s corpus by the leading luminaries of American criticism, however, it is unclear that Roth has been truly understood as a thinker on Jewish issues, any more than Mickey Sabbath is understood by those imagined obituary columnists in the Jewish Week. In the case of Roth’s relationship to Zionism, the weightiest critical word has been pronounced by none other than Harold Bloom, the doyen of American literary criticism and a leading hagiographer of Roth. Bloom, writing in the New York Review of Books, draws one key lesson from what he takes to be Roth’s encounter with Zionism in the mind-bending meta-novel Operation Shylock: “What emerges from Roth’s novel is the terrible paradox that Israel is no escape from the burdens of the Diaspora.” Bloom sees Operation Shylock, with its measured accounts of Israeli “hypocrisies” and its burlesques of Mossad agents and Palestinian dissidents alike, as Roth’s dismissal of the Zionist project. The fact that Operation Shylock is a relatively evenhanded account of Israel during the Intifada (not unlike Roth’s mentor Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back), proves Bloom’s belief (expressed in another New York Review Essay) that “the commonplaces of Exile—a constant sense of endangerment and exclusion—are now irrelevant [in America], but mournfully are all too apt for the prosperous but embattled state of Israel.” The desperately wan manipulations of the secret agent Smilesberger, the vengeful obsession of the Demjanjuk trial – these are the central elements of a Diaspora “ghetto mentality” Bloom sees in Roth’s description of the Zionist project. To be sure, this is not merely Bloom’s reading. Roth critic Alan Cooper interprets the triumph of Roth’s entire engagement with American Judaism to be his courageousness in probing “the myths of Jewish history by suggesting that not Israel but America may be the true Zion.”
While it is certainly true that Roth is a courageous (or at the very least a chutzpadik) writer, both Bloom and Cooper have placed an enormous burden on Roth’s relationship to the Jewish state. In fact, both have turned him into a character in one of his own novels, a “Diasporist” pointing out the ironies of the struggling Zionist entity as compared to the limitless latent possibilities of Diaspora. This strikes me as problematic on two essential levels. The first is the way in which it ignores the duration and depth of Roth’s particular engagement with Zionism and its relationship to American Judaism. The second is the problem it seems to raise with the way the critic treats the author. It is not an issue of Bloom and Roth; it is an issue of commentator and creator.
What could cause Harold Bloom, one of the great Jewish readers of our time, to so misread Roth’s picture of Zion? The easiest answer would seem to be a discomfort with a “seriousness” that is not about words, but is about deeds, that is not psychological, but rather historical. Bloom assumes the language in Operation Shylock, the language of terrorism, torture, death and degradation, to be obviously negative language. What are for Roth uniquely Israeli burdens only heighten the contrasts to how carefree Jewish life is in the Diaspora. Curiously, this criticism reads like the mirror image of Irving Howe’s attack on Roth twenty years earlier. Howe’s legendary critique of a young Roth in the pages of Commentary was, in a sense, an accusation of flippancy, of a cruelty towards characters without a fair understanding of their world. Roth’s early characters have “little of the weight of their past, whether sustaining or sentimental; nothing of the Jewish mania for culture, whether honorable or foolish; nothing of that fearful self-consciousness which the events of the mid-20th century thrust upon the Patimkins of this world.” Implicit in Howe’s assault is the accusation that Roth does not deal with serious matters, matters of meaning and import for his characters and their identity. This puts Roth in an interesting position indeed. When he focused on the nasty details of Diaspora life, he was critically excoriated for being shallow. When he ostentatiously tackles major questions of Jewish identity and existence, Bloom gleefully touts him as the Aristophanes of Diaspora Judaism, an American refutation of Shylock in his portrayal of Diaspora life as opposed to life in Israel. This seeming paradox emerges from what I take to be Bloom’s misinterpretation of the role of the satirist.
A major theme in Roth’s Operation Shylock (as noted by Emily Budick) is the question of the author’s responsibility to the Jewish community, a question that has clearly troubled Roth since Howe implicitly raised it in 1972. Roth plays with the idea, both committing to Jewish responsibility (by painting himself as a Mossad agent) and liberating himself from it (by ignoring the Mossad’s censorship). Israel is in some ways just another stage for this larger drama of Roth versus (on behalf of?) the Jews, but the fact that it is played out over the backdrop of the world-historical (the Demjanjuk trial, the Intifada) points to a different concern. It seems like a direct response to Howe’s complaints about a lack of “historical consciousness” and self-serious understanding. Roth carefully depicts Israel as both very problematic and yet not subject to the problems of the Diaspora. The Jews in Israel may be as manipulative and misguided, but they are at once liberated from and contiguous with the age-old drama of the actual Shylock. It is they, after all, who are still caught up in a Jewish revenge trial, a trial that both Roth (the real Roth) and the reader know will backfire, if not as badly as it did for the banker in Venice. Harold Bloom admires Roth’s analysis (through the rare books dealer Supposnik) of Shylock, but he misses the fact that it is an Israeli character that has such a keen, historical understanding of Shylock and his place. The lives of Roth’s Israeli Jews are always bound up in the same drama as Shylock, the problematic historical plight of the Jew. Roth’s American Jews, wealthier, safer, even more richly drawn, exist in a different world, the world of the kitchen table, a world more internal, but not more important that the Shylockian troubles of an entire nation surrounded by enemies and tortured by its own obsessions and paranoias.
Bloom, of course, is not without his own agenda here. After his influential piece on Roth in the New York Review of Books, Bloom did not present another article in that publication for fourteen years. He broke this streak with a glowing review of the work of another American Jew with a complex relationship to Israel, poet Peter Cole. If we follow this thread a bit further, we note that all but one of Bloom’s pieces in the New York Review in the past two decades have been related in some way to Diaspora Judaism and Jewish identity. Several have treated the issue at length. All share similar concerns. We might call Bloom’s late obsession the reaffirmation of “pragmatic reminder[s] that the Zionist nation remains part of the Exile while American Jewry increasingly does not.” Bloom has not really gone beyond Howe, and in an important sense, his criticism is less respectful of Roth as an artist. Bloom acknowledges that Roth has transcended the problems that plagued his early writing; he certainly views Roth as a serious writer. Yet ?it seems to me Bloom is trying too hard to turn Roth into his ally in the case for Diaspora. I would like to posit a cause for this. The cause relates to the different roles that Bloom has the critic and author fill.
The task of the creator (or poet, Greek: poiesthai), at least according to Harold Bloom, is to misread. This act of misreading is the failure to engage in the straight conversation of scholars. The creative genius misinterprets his predecessors in an anxious attempt to make a name for himself. Instead of the exactitude and punctiliousness of the scholar, the poet has a reckless, vibrant need for originality, a desire to escape from the shadow under which he matured. Where, then, does this leave the critic? He is not a scholar in the strict sense of the word, for he does not rely on footnotes or any of the other structural detritus of the ivory tower. He writes for society, not for the narrow conversation between experts. He is surely not a poet, for he does not make from nothing, but rather builds on what another has brought into existence. Surely the critic exists somewhere between the two, unfettered by most scholarly formalism but not truly free to create works sui generis. The critic, it seems, is required to both read and misread. Harold Bloom, in his need to create a coherent Diaspora narrative, misreads the satire of Roth.
In Bloom’s picture of the two figures, the creator is an almost unthinking figure. He writes furiously, psychologically, anarchically. The artist’s is an almost sexual drive to create originally. The maker is not bogged down in discussion or dialogue. The anxiety of influence is an avoidance of open dialectic. This means that the writer, while in a unique conversation with his forbears, also exists at a remove from reality. Surely this picture allows for the artistic task of the critic: he must uncover and explicate the dialogue between authors in a way the authors themselves cannot. He must use the cunning of reason, clarifying positions and making explicit what the author could only make poetic. I do not, however, think this does the critical task of the author justice.
At the end of his piece on Operation Shylock, Bloom compares Roth to Aristophanes. He seems to mean by this that Roth is an unparalleled satirist of culture. This is, to my mind an excellent comparison, but it does not sufficiently appreciate the complex task of the satirist, a task of which both Roth and Aristophanes are masters. Aristophanes was not only(in Bloom’s words) “exuberant, outrageous, hallucinatory,” he was intensely engaged in a dialogue with ideas about the way society should be. It may be true that Roth’s satire exists in outrageous monologues, exuberant lewd old men, and hallucinatory explorations of the ethnic psyche, but he does so, like Aristophanes, without losing track of the outside world. Satire is not nihilism, it is not a dismissal of the very idea of meaning. Instead it is a conservative skepticism about meaning. Aristophanes was conservative in the face of Socratic atheism and Alcibiadean demagoguery. Roth is conservative in the face of rich suburban ignorance, political correctness, and his old nemesis, feminism. Why then, would I not agree with Bloom that his conservative sharpness extends to Zionism? The task is too great to carry out here in full. Perhaps a closer examination of The Counterlife, a text Bloom acknowledges to be a turning point in Roth’s development as an artist, will suffice to at least provide a point of entry for understanding why Roth is in fact serious about Israel and what that may tell us about the possibilities of satire.
It clear how one could emerge from The Counterlife with the impression that Roth “takes sides” against Israel. Zuckerman, the novel’s presumed Roth stand-in, is incredibly dubious about Israel, even entertaining the possibility that Israel is in fact becoming “something of an American-Jewish Australia.” This type of sentiment seems to be exactly in line with Bloom’s interpretation. America is the center of Jewish consciousness; Israel exists at its periphery. As in the passage from Operation Shylock, however, the fact that the view is actually taken from the mouth of an Israeli character must be reckoned with. It is these wise Israeli characters, often thinly veiled references to well known Israeli authors like Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, who have the clearest insights into historical Jewishness. The Roth/Zuckerman insights, are, as we might expect, only psychological. What is most striking in The Counterlife is the way Roth is willing to set the historical and the psychological directly against each other, around the same table, so to speak. In one of the many “counterlives” of the novel, the brother of Roth’s sometime placeholder Zuckerman moves to a far-right West Bank settlement led by a Meir Kahane-like figure. The brother assails Zuckerman indignantly: “Is it at all possible, at least outside of those books, for you to have a frame of reference slightly larger than the kitchen table in Newark? …They were escaping history! Here they’re making history!” Roth lays out the dichotomy more explicitly when the brother continues, “-You’re a very intelligent man…but you have one large defect – the only world that exists for you is the world of psychology.” This conscious tension is mirrored on a larger scale through the novel’s structure. One of the novel’s sections posits a psychological crisis for the brother, Henry. He goes through the classic Rothian psychosexual poses and obsessions. Bourgeois sexual norms are violated, bodily fluids are exchanged, non-Jews are sodomized. In the “Judea” chapter, none of those classic tropes are at play. Instead, we have a furious argument around the question of what matters. Zuckerman half-heartedly brings up the question of family loyalty, but its clear that what’s actually being discussed is the Oedipal versus the Biblical. “What matters isn’t Momma and Poppa and the kitchen table, it isn’t any of that crap you write about – it’s who runs Judea.”
Roth is not a Zionist, per se. He has too much fun at the hands of the settlers, their bad folk art, their violent posturing. He all but admits that he does not know enough about Israel to own it as a landscape of fiction. For all that, Roth’s treatment of Israel says something important about the way he views satire. Unlike the critic who is tied to a defensible position, the mature Roth realizes the need for a satire of both sides. The critical mistake here would be to assume the fact that the master satirist realizes nothing should be safe from satire means that nothing is serious. On the contrary, it means that everything is serious. In placing psychological conflicts (Roth’s bread and butter) into the midst of world-historical ones (as he does in both The Counterlife and Operation Shylock) Roth is doing his best to colonize a new area, a new form of meaning, the world historical understanding of identity as distinct from the personal and psychological. It would not be right for him to preach at the reader, to write editorials or even critical essays in the New York Review. The only way Roth can respond to Howe’s accusation of meaninglessness was to extend his critical expertise over a new type of meaning. This critique is not all-destroying; instead, it is legitimating. Roth implicitly accepts that the answers to Jewish personal identity do not exist on a solely internal level, even if the external answers are just as ridiculous and joke worthy as sexual neuroses.
This piece has traveled much ground, perhaps not all of it coherently. The central story it wished to tell was of an author and two critics, one writing before the period of the author’s maturity, one during. The first critic in some sense helped make Roth who he was, while the second misunderstood this crucial transformation. When Roth took up the challenge laid out by Howe, he took upon himself a responsibility for a whole new sphere of meaning-questions, questions that inevitably involved addressing questions of Israel. The disparaging tone that Bloom takes to be the haughty eye of a Diasporic Pulitzer prize-winner is in fact the tone of Aristophanic humorist, panning his eye over everything that matters and mocking it most fitfully. Israel exists in Roth’s imagination on a whole different satiric continent, perhaps meant for full exploration by an Israeli novelist, one who could say about it what Mickey Sabbath does about America: “Everything I hate is here.”