Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Let’s continue this discussion on Roth because there have been a number of thoughtful comments made on my last post.

First, Mike raises a really interesting question.

Since an enormity of books written before 1960 (and much later in some instances) were overtly racist, do we stamp them all, fine lit, classic mysteries, humor, all of it, as shameful?

I think we could discuss the word ‘racist’ first, in the same way that I’d like to get down to the nitty gritty of the word ‘misogynist’. These are words that involve the notion of active contempt. Which I think is very important for this discussion.

First, I agree that most American literature written before the civil rights era did nothing but uphold the status quo so in that sense it simply reflected the inferior position of black Americans at that time. But I don’t think the good stuff, the stuff we study now, the big ‘greats’ actively promoted the inferiority of one culture vs. another. I could be wrong here and I’d love some input on this but I think the difference between active and passive is worth discussing. Yes, perhaps many of these writers could be faulted for including a passive acceptance of the racially imbalanced world they lived in, but an active, contemptuous promotion of racist attitudes seems much graver to me. But also much rarer. I am trying to think of an example of this among my repertoire of great American writers – McCullers, Wharton, Steinbeck, Twain….

I want to clarify one last thought on this. I would hope that in today’s world, where we have finally crawled out of our cave and at least pretended we agree that all cultures and all humans are equal, a writer would get called on the carpet for either passive or active racism.

Okay, so let’s go back to the word misogyny, a word I do not throw around lightly. If I’m reading Roth and identify this active, palpable contempt toward women, why does it matter? I do believe that literature is not meant to be Good, so why does it bother me so much? I think Jacob Russell’s excellent comment gets to the heart of this.

When a book goes wrong, what matters is aesthetics. When a good and experienced reader like you finds yourself drawn in, made to feel complicit in a failed moral universe–not because you recognize that you are, complicit in the world outside the fiction, (as can happen)… complicit in some comparable way–but because you cannot fully engage with the book without feeling as though you are being invited to confirm, not merely understand or sympathize with, but confirm what is vile and hateful–then I think the problem is aesthetic, a failure of aesthetic distance.

This is exactly true – Lolita is one of the best examples for comparison (I can assume The Kindly Ones is right up there – but I haven’t had the courage to read it yet), exactly because the reader is never asked to confirm what is vile and hateful. Humbert Humbert tries every trick in the book to get the reader to sympathize and understand, but never once to confirm.

Jacob continues: What is it then about the misogyny in Roth’s novels that breaches the aesthetic borders, that draws the reader in as a kind of enabler of his misogyny? Is there such a fault? Or has the reaction to the narrator’s attitude and behavior perhaps overwhelmed the reading, created a situational blindness to aesthetic elements that might redeem both the novel and the reader’s sensibilities?

I think that the misogyny in Roth’s novels breaches the aesthetic borders simply because it is not a part of the novel’s thematic project (like HH’s obsession for Lolita was the entire project of that novel). Roth’s misogyny is a side element, a part of the decoration, it is entirely beside the point of what else is going on. As far as I can tell, he isn’t exploring the idea of misogyny through his misogynistic characters and/or narrator. So the breach is huge, because it’s unintentional.

So that’s my answer to the first question, but the next bit is going to have me racing back to reread The Human Stain and perhaps take up a few more of Roth’s books because now I am curious whether my gut reaction to the narrator has created a situational blindness to any redeeming aesthetic elements. I’ve stated very boldly that Roth isn’t exploring the idea of misogyny in his writing but am I really sure? I haven’t read all of his stuff. Does anyone think he might be doing this? Exposing and critiquing the inherent misogyny in American culture? This has not been my experience with him, and I’ve never seen anyone claim this as one of his preoccupations. But I’m going back to the texts and I’ll be reading very carefully, very carefully….

And will be back with more thoughts!

6 Responses to “continuing the discussion on Roth”

  1. nicole

    Great points from Jacob Russell; I couldn’t agree more in general though am not ready to apply it to Roth yet without reading more of him. What I have read, I’ve liked quite a bit, and I’m vaguely planning doing a bunch more this year.

  2. Jacob Russell

    One needs be careful dealing with intentionality–with where it comes from. Aesthetic structures and their implicit critical reconfiguring of received ideas may be present quite outside the author’s conscious intentions, and the best intentions can go terribly wrong. The delicious multi-dimensional ambiguity we savor in books (and art) is about as good a representation as we get of the maddening multi-dimensional ambivalence (not of the particular author) –but of human consciousness itself.

    This is such a difficult subject to think about and get down in words. I know perfectly well you aren’t using ‘intention’ in a narrow sense, and setting that up as the necessary agent–as though, consciously naming misogyny as the explicit thematic project would have saved Roth from well justified feminine wrath (ha!).

    Take the rape scene on the floor of the bar in The Castle (and that’s what it is), or in A Country Doctor, where there’s no element of seduction left… never thought of this before, but suddenly occurs to me that there’s a rich mine for comparison here… Josaphine the Singer… and some lesser known stories, Preparation for a Country Wedding, A Little Woman. Much condensed, there’s quite enough misogynist content in Kafka to convince a Grand Jury to agree to approve charges for a Trial. Yet it would be difficult to convict (at least for me). More difficult than for Roth. Why?

    When it’s not hard to imagine Kafka being consciously as misogynist and mistrustful of everything feminine as Roth?

    In Kafka’s fiction the feminine erupts as something primal, dripping with the unconscious, with repressed Jouissance, a harmonious and integral element in the aesthetic patterns of the stories. In Roth–his male characters, and the narrative consciousness, flout their contempt… is that because it reflects a disdain more aware of itself? Or an aspect of modernity, where the 19th C. middlebrow aides to repression and masks of ‘respectability’ have been ripped off… without essentially changing the inter and intra personal sexual dynamics? That is, absence of restraint, of the euphemistic conventions of ‘polite society’ passing as greater awareness–when it is anything but.

    In other words… and I’m thinking off the top of my head here… is it possible that the very qualities that make Roth distasteful do perhaps create an aesthetic shell, a visible pattern to examine, study and understand–not because Roth made this his project, but because he didn’t, because he let that semi-socialized contempt and fear of the feminine Other have its say? Understandably unpleasant for women readers… though read deeply, should be far more disturbing for men! And suggests a different direction or target for solid feminist criticism–aimed not at Roth, but at those very same disturbing dynamics vigorously at work outside outside the fiction. Maybe Roth does a service to us…men and women… by exposing what we ‘liberated’ liberals think of as archaic artifacts of a pre-sexual revolutionary age?

    Want to be free of socially assimilated repression? Be careful what you wish for…

    We have found the Enemy and they is us…

  3. Dorothy W.

    What an interesting discussion! It’s such a tough issue. My book group dealt with it a little when we were discussing Raymond Chandler. There certainly is a lot of racism in Farewell, My Lovely, and arguably some sexism as well (at least because the female characters are little but stereotypes, again, arguably). I don’t think he’s critiquing either of these things. And while I really did like Chandler a whole lot, I see these things as flaws.

    I’ve read a bit of Roth but haven’t come to conclusions about his portrayal of women — I know I didn’t ever get the sense that he was critiquing misogyny in any way, though. I admired Portnoy’s Complaint for its frank discussions of sexuality, and I think that sort of openness can ultimately benefit both men and women, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly concerned about women at all.

  4. verbivore

    Nicole – This discussion has got me wanting to start an A-Z Roth read, just to wrap my head around him. I’ll be amassing the novels over the next few weeks and getting started. I’m actually excited about it, despite how frustrated his work made me.

    Jacob – You are so right to remind of how complicated intention is…yes, the beauty of fiction is that so much comes out of a novel that the author never even intended. Now, if this is true, isn’t the opposite true…that much of what I’m finding difficult with Roth is coming precisely because he might have no notion of his misogynistic portrayal of women?

    I haven’t read enough Kafka to get your comparison meaningful, which is frustrating because I think I see what you’re getting at. You write, “That is, absence of restraint, of the euphemistic conventions of ‘polite society’ passing as greater awareness–when it is anything but.” Yes, I think this must have something to do with it. Roth definitely flouts convention and lets his male characters say what seems like they are never ever actually allowed to say without censure.

    I am going to start reading Roth, more carefully and from the beginning. It’s going to take me a while, but I’m definitely curious to see what i make of his work once I’ve gotten through a much larger chunk of it.

    Dorothy – No, I’m pretty sure he isn’t out to criticize misogyny, he may be more interested in exposing what he feels are “real” male-female dynamics. He definitely eschews pc representations, but I hope it doesn’t stop there. I’m interested in what he’s trying to get at through his portrayals…and I haven’t quite figured it out yet.

  5. litlove

    This is an interesting discussion. Have you read Michel Houellebecq, verbivore? Only when I was writing the porn book with my colleague, he did the chapter on Houellebecq and talked about the question of the frame. Some narratives, in other words, set up misogyny or racism, but hold a distance from them. Other texts collapse that distance, and rather than deal with the issue of misogyny, etc, they become misogynist, they incorporate it into the belief system of the narrative.

    Now Houellebecq is intriguing because he does a bit of both. Sometimes he is horrible about women in a really shocking way, taunting the reader almost. It’s so extreme you can’t quite believe it, and yet he doesn’t put the frame in place that would reassure you, attributing the stance to a deluded or unsympathetic character (for instance). I think Roth does something similar, but rather than make the attitude big and shocking, it’s trivialised and built into the fictional world in an offhand sort of way. I read it still as a taunt, though, a cheap insult that ruins the beauty of Roth’s language, much as his characters always mess up their roles as heroes. I feel this is very Roth – to present ugly things intermingled with the beautiful, to taunt and be outrageous and unconcerned about the sometimes vile mix that results. I can quite understand why this would just sit uneasily with a reader, and much as I did enjoy The Human Stain (which proved Roth also knew nothing about literary theory, btw), I haven’t yet managed to tackle his other books.

  6. Nick

    Instead of commenting, here’s an excerpt from Roth’s novel Deception – 1990, p.113:

    “Can you explain to the court why you hate women?”
    “But I don’t hate them.”
    “If you do not hate women, why have you defamed and denigrated them in your books? Why have you abused them in your work and in your life?”
    “I have not abused them in either.”
    “We have heard testimony from expert witnesses, expert witnesses who have pointed to chapter and verse to support their every judgment. And yet you are trying, are you, to tell this court that these authorities with unimpeachable professional standards, testifying under oath in a court of law are either mistaken or lying? May I ask you, sir – what have you ever done that has been of service to women?”
    “And why do you, may I ask, take the depiction of one woman as a depiction of all women? Why do you imagine that your expert witnesses might not themselves be contradicted by a different gang of expert witnesses? Why –?”
    “You are out of order! It is not for you to interrogate the court but to answer the questions of the court. You are charged with sexism, misogyny, woman abuse, slander of women, denigration of women, defamation of women, and ruthless seduction, crimes all carrying the most severe penalties. People like you are not treated kindly if found guilty, and for good reason. You are one with the mass of men who have caused women great suffering and extreme humiliation – humiliation from which they are only new being delivered, thanks to the untiring work of courts such as this one. Why did you publish books that cause women suffering? Didn’t you think that those writing could be used against us by our enemies?”
    “I can only reply that this self-styled equal-rights democracy of yours has aims and objectives that are not mine as a writer.”
    “Please, the court is not eager to hear once again a discussion of literature from you. The women in your work are all vicious stereotypes. Was that your aim as a writer?”
    “Many people have read the work otherwise.”
    “Why did you portray Mrs. Portnoy as a hysteric? Why did you portray Lucy Nelson as a psychopath? Why did you portray Maureen Tarnopol as a liar and a cheat? Does this not defame and denigrate women? Why do you depict women as shrews, if not to malign them?”
    “Why did Shakespeare? You refer to women as though every woman is a person to be extolled.”
    “You dare to compare yourself to Shakespeare?”
    “I am only –”

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