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!