We had planned on leaving the corpse of Philip Roth to molder in the grave, but the hagiography reached a fever pitch today when that venerable institution of the British literary establishment, Martin Amis, weighed in with a spectacular pratfall.
Writing in that bastion of liberal-left hypocrisy, The Guardian, Pastor Amis delivered a eulogy truly worthy of the genteel polite professional anti-Semites of Britain.
Informing us that Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint had infuriated so many people upon publication, Amis adds that among those enraged were:
Ah yes, the monolithic hive-mind of the Jews. We were all enraged.
Pastor Amis, with his deep knowledge, and his rabbinical insights into Jewish culture has looked back into some dusty hymnal and regurgitated the era’s zeitgeist.
No doubt he means that there were no Jews who had read Ginsberg, or enjoyed Woody Allen’s earlier funnier work, or Lenny Bruce, or Mort Sahl or Mel Brooks’ The Producers and enjoyed Roth.
In other words Amis has blown hard and inflated an antique of anti-Semites everywhere; the myth of a singular Jewish tribe. That it is factually inaccurate is almost beside the point as in its casual grotesquery, it defies the fact based response and cries out for ridicule.
But it’s not just Jews Amis seems to want to insult but also, logic and intellectual rigor. Consider this whopper:
“This choric hostility (towards Roth) was in both cases essentially socio-cultural, and not literary.”
Notice Amis doesn’t stoop to actually offering any examples of these splenetic diatribes devoid of literary (qua literary) criticism. The pastor has spoken and we are to take him at his word that there exists a demarcation between the word, and the “socio-cultural” as if politics exists outside of the social and the cultural, or that the culture is not that which produces the political.
But Amis is not quite finished. Somehow Amis’ critique of the critique of Roth is strictly literary, and not tainted by either his social position, or his cultural position or the culture that formed him. Or, he’s just full of shit and has written himself into a logical cul de sac of contradictions half-truths and pettifogging.
He then adds:
“…but World Jewry got it wrong about Roth, a proud Jew as well as a proud American.”
First, again the assertion of some unified ethnic tribal entity, that thinks with one mind and speaks with one voice, which of course means that if Amis is correct then Roth must exist outside of the very Jewish culture we are told he so brilliantly excavated. Or, the assertion must be the thinly veiled and shallow mutterings of a man committed to producing a perfect imitation, of a perfectly British type of bigot, who has inserted his head so far up his ass that if he were to belch, one wouldn’t know if he were passing gas or speaking.
But then, the assertion is anchored by the utterly absurd idea that the tribe got it wrong because Roth was a proud Jew, as well as a proud American. As Pastor Amis has it:
“My subjective impression is that Portnoy’s Complaint is still the diamond in the crown. Here the Jewish-American Novel is narrowed down to one idea: gentile girls, shiksas (“detested things”)”
Which of course means that if there is a singular thing defined as “world Jewry” then either there can only be one “Jewish-American” novel, and Amis’ thesis (however subjective) is impossible, or Amis is correct and as Roth’s missive is the crown jewel, then “world Jewry” can’t exist, and Jews couldn’t dislike Roth’s novel.
But wait, there’s more.
The Jews who didn’t and don’t like Roth, are not proud? And exactly what does being a proud American have do with anything, especially since Amis seems to have forgotten that in the lines right before these he was at pains to tell us there is a distinction between the socio-cultural, and the literary.
One then assumes that Americans like James Baldwin, who fled America were not proud Black Americans but embarrassed exiles – and in fact while that’s at least partially true it doesn’t mean Amis is correct, rather it highlights not just that he’s wrong, but that he’s wrong in the same way that a belly flop into an empty pool is wrong.
And then there is the other elision by Amis. In his narrative the Jews who either enjoyed Portnoy or were indifferent to it, but hated Roth don’t exist – that is, the Jews who would have hated Roth not for Portnoy, but because of Podhoretz and his anti-Trotskyist reactionary stance. This of course serves to establish the catastrophically mile wide inch deep nature of Amis’ eulogy, and its establishment turgidity. And while the Podhoretz of 1961 was not the Trump puppet of later years, the fact remains that Roth’s Writing American Fiction (originally a speech at Stanford but then rewritten for Podhoretz in the spring of 1961) is so devoid of honesty about the nature of the issues confronting American writers, that it serves as a template for everything that came later. The reactionary Roth (or the imitation reactionary with a gelatinous sense of ethics) who wrote, Writing American Fiction, is the same establishment reactionary who wrote American Pastoral which claims to be about the tragedy of the 1960s, but as with Writing American Fiction, skips over anything that might give credence or context to the violent edge of the American left.
Amis is not just wrong on points, he’s wrong ethically and that ethical lapse demonstrates the true nature of Roth’s use as the Golem of certain corners of American and European Jewish culture, as well as his usefulness for the casual bigots of the non Jewish establishment. In order for Roth to be their singular genius, “The Jews” or “world Jewry” must be reduced (or expanded) into a singular entity that has no diversity of consciousness or ethics, and thus is denied humanity except as allowed and defined by the oppressing class. This is of course essentially identical to the argument put forward by another member of the British chattering class, James Wood, who in his hysterical denunciation of Anthony Julius, made the point that while T. S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, the Jews shouldn’t get upset over it because Eliot’s bigotry was really “a light rash confined to one limb.” That said limb belonged to someone other than James Wood, and thus perhaps Mr. Wood might be more circumspect in detailing a cure, and that even if true the fact remains that the world was (is) full of people who upon seeing said rash conclude that the best response is to kill the person with the itch, all seems to never have occured to either the Vicar Wood or Pastor Amis.
The phrase “world Jewry” is at best an inelegant misnomer, and worst a perfect example of what Adam Gopnik (sic!) in the New Yorker (in praise of Roth) described as the politie anti-Semitism of the professional British chattering class. And while one could be charitable and say in his defence that Amis just isn’t very bright, the truth is he’s not stupid enough to have chosen the words “world Jewry” without considering how they would sound, and how grating they would seem. Thus one concludes that his aim was if nothing else to ride Roth’s vapor trail and incite certain quarters to call him an odious little man. Fear not dear reader, our view is that while someone else might say Amis is not fit to sleep with the pigs, we would defend him and say he most certainly is.
Thus for Amis – No, it wasn’t until the seltzer squirting messiah Roth burst upon the consciousness of “world Jewry” that there was the great awakening!
Rabbis held forth! Shonda! They cried as mothers wept and hysterically force fed matzah brei to their children.
The Schwartzman’s of Hoboken had to cancel their son David’s Bar Mitzvah, because Bubbie Schwartzman had a fainting spell, wailing as she went down: The Cossacks are coming! The Roth is here!
And of course one must applaud the consistency if not the moral flexibility of The Guardian. Imagine the steam generating outrage had a conservative rag used the phrase “World Jewry” or “All the Negroes” – oh yes, one can picture the Twitterverse having a melt down; Bill Maher would feast on it for days, The New Yorker would opine about the ill effects of the Age of Trump, and The Guardian would provide a portrait of a transgender teen coping with the angst, by launching a boycott of said conservative rag.
Martin Amis (and The Guardian) can go fuck a stale bagel.
See the Pastrami and mayo here:
For a look at the execrable Vicar James Wood see the following:
And for a deep dive into the back catalogue of Roth: