- PHILIP ROTH—THE CONTINUING PRESENCE: New Essays on Psychological Themes ed. by Jane Statlander-Slote
This collection should prove valuable to Roth scholars and aficionados. Comprising critical essays, one lecture, an interview with a Philip Roth scholar, a Roth biography, plus a listing of Roth and Roth-related works—all of which focus on the psychological, mainly because of the nature of the subject—there is much here which is of value to Roth studies, to the study of psychology and literature, and to Jewish studies in general.
The essays link together in a surprisingly cohesive and developmental manner, allowing for a discussion between the biographical and the creative. At the outset, Roth is the subject: his foibles and inconsistencies, his psychological make-up, as seen through the eyes of his psychoanalyst, Dr. Kleinschmidt, whose thinly-disguised case history of his famous patient, in his essay “The Angry Act: The Role of Aggression in Creativity,” spurs the writing of Portnoy’s Complaint, and through the eyes of his second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, show a deeply neurotic, hyper-sensitive soul, struggling—but often not succeeding—to keep his life in some semblance of balance.
What emerges is an analysis of Jewish identity, post-Holocaust: divided, fragmented, questing and questioning, but essentialist in a way that other, non-Jewish identities cannot embrace, in spite of the shifting performative self. If the source of this essentialism is the Freudian mother, as Portnoy’s inability to reconcile his desire for the gorgeous non-Jewish Kay and the “identity that has been foisted upon him by his ‘ideal’ Jewish mother [that] will not allow the pornotopic fulfillment of his sexual daydreams” (30) suggests, the wellspring is the body (cultural as well as personal) [End Page 148] under siege. The Holocaust is the latest and arguably greatest experience of siege of the Jews, the inescapable common denominator that defines what must be dealt with.
The twin themes of anger and betrayal are pinpointed by Roth in I Married a Communist, which, according Jeffrey Berman, “anatomizes different forms of betrayal: personal, marital and political” (57). Written as a response to Roth’s second wife’s vitriolic autobiography of her five year marriage to Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, the personal becomes political when the Roth-character, Ira, is said to be one of the “angry Jews since World War II,” “aggressive about [his] beliefs and leaving no insult unavenged” (Roth, cited in Berman, 57).
Roth’s body of work raises questions about the nature of American Judaism, post-Holocaust. Largely secular and burdened with a neurotic vulnerability stemming from an inescapable naissance and childhood, Roth pens the nuances of the search for a (stable) identity, for himself and for American Jewry, in the traumatized spaces of betrayal and anger. As Lewis Fried writes, “[Nathan Zuckerman] is not simply a collector of voices and mere biographies; his work rescues the mystery of lives from oblivion. In doing so, Nathan comes to discover his own nature and the redemptive power of narration itself” (61).