Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.
I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.
The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:
A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.
High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)
But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. He circles back to that tittering audience at Kent, those eminent and English souls, sylvan and stupid (“smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium”). He can’t shake that image of the well-heeled Steiner: “Not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp.” At times, he gets ugly: “His style, in all its mincing equanimity.” That word: mincing.
I moved onto Howe’s essay on Lukács and Solzhenitsyn, which appeared in Dissent in 1971. Howe wrote a manifestly sympathetic introduction to Lukács’s The Historical Novel back in 1963. Howe clearly respected Lukács then. And even in this later essay, even with his criticism of Lukács’s political compromises and apologias for Stalinism, he still respects Lukács.
But the respect and the criticism are eclipsed by something else. A simmering contempt for Lukács’s “silken” captivity that reaches a boil in Howe’s conclusion. There Howe dwells on what seems like an over-reading (or at least an undefended reading) of Lukács’s use of the word “plebeian.” Lukács’s Stalinism, Howe suggests, is a function of his snobbery; his real sin is a condescension that cannot be contained.
But Lukács, like Steiner, is a mandarin, I thought, so perhaps Howe’s temperature is understandably raised.
Then I got to Howe’s epic broadside against Philip Roth (upon which Roth took some fun revenge in
The Ghost Writer The Anatomy Lesson.) Roth was/is no mandarin, but he gets under Howe’s skin. So much so that we find Howe, midway through the essay, speaking like an outraged attorney on behalf of his clients, the aggrieved middle classes of Roth’s early fiction. “Even a philistine character has certain rights,” Howe thunders. Accusing the author of “not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault,” Howe defends the Patimkins against Neil Klugman, Mrs. Portnoy against Alex, the Jews against Philip Roth.
What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground.
For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self.
Their [Roth’s characters] vulgarity is put on blazing display…the ridicule to which she is subjected…immobilizing the Patimkins…straight-arming all the other characters…
Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story [“Eli the Fanatic”] finally comes apart.
There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author.
You might say it’s a point in Howe’s favor—his almost intuitive grasp of the will to power of a writer, his willingness to stand up to the bully on behalf of the little guy—except that it recurs with such frequency that you begin to wonder whether the judgment is required more by the critic than his text. To turn Howe on and against himself, it’s as if he feels slighted by the writers he’s writing about, as if he needs to wrestle them into some properly belittled proportion.
You come away from Howe depressed. Not with enlightenment but with the sense that the world is ugly and small, that nothing can escape the irrepressible struggle for dominance, not even the words on a page.
In a throwaway line about Roth, Howe gives some sense that he knows this:
His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue says, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.)
It’s a moment of acute self-understanding. Yet it’s marred by one thing: the realization that Howe never took pleasure even in this, his momentary triumph over the object of his critique, even when that object was himself.