Double Trouble: The Identity Politics of Philip Roth and Hannah Arendt

Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over for some time—on the uncanny convergence between the lives and concerns of Roth and Hannah Arendt, particularly when it came to Jewish questions such as Zionism—came out in The New York Review of Books last week. The piece starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between Roth and Arendt, who knew and respected each other, has to say about the left, Jewish identity politics, and American political culture today.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women. When the two come together in the form of Arendt, his interest seems, well, nonexistent.

The result is a life stripped of one of its vital currents. Arendt was a real presence for Roth, and the unexpected convergence between their biographies and concerns, particularly regarding Jewish questions, is as uncanny as the doubles that populate Roth’s novels.

The difference between the two writers is obvious. She was born in Germany in 1906; he was born in Newark in 1933. She fled Hitler and never looked back; he fled his parents and kept going home. She wrote The Human Condition; he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint.

Yet, throughout the postwar Jewish ascendancy in America, as other writers and scholars eased their way into the conversation, Arendt and Roth distinguished themselves—not by stirring up the little magazines but by contending with the Jews. Summoning the anxious wrath of a still vulnerable community, Roth and Arendt occupied a singular position: defending the margin against the marginalized, refusing the political pull and moral exaction of an embattled minority. Today, at a moment of rising anti-Semitism and increasing polarization, when the tendency, even among writers and intellectuals, is to circle the wagons in defense of team and tribe, their shared archive of heresy among the heretics pays revisiting.

You can read the rest here.

2 Comments

  1. Theo May 18, 2021 at 1:37 pm | #

    No you can’t read the rest; you can only if you pay New York Review’s exorbitant subscription fees. The London Review and The TLS can offer schemes that allow the decidedly unweallthy to read their journals, but the NY Review seems to want to keep the riffraff out. I would have loved the opportunity to read. To make matters worse, NY Review has gotten rid of its blog, which was free to their readers, but no longer. Everything is behind a pay wall. I have no details of their funders, but I suspect they are amply covered by the foundations, so what is their excuse?

    • Alex Wolfe May 19, 2021 at 10:04 am | #

      I do wish it were possible to pay for individual articles that I wish to read in publications I don’t wish to subscribe to generally. Robin’s are ones I’d gladly pay to read each time.

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