One of Philip Roth’s least funny books, though it had a somewhat happy ending, was The Plot Against America (2004). In it Charles Lindbergh wins the Presidency against FDR in 1940 and, in cahoots with Hitler, slowly brings anti-Semitic pressures, pogrom, relocation camps, etc., to the United States. Not without American help, even from Jews –- as Roth shows varying versions of collaboration.
Roth was interviewed in The New Yorker about similarities between his novel and the election of Trump. Roth responded,
"It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero ... Trump is just a con artist."[
But a con artist with a genius for cruelty and for being able to call forth the dormant impulse for cruelty that had lain quiet in many Americans who are frightened about the future.
It is hardly surprising, for instance, that a man who bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” is now, by trying to close down Planned Parenthood, sexually assaulting almost three million low-income American women a year.
How? Precisely by attacking their sexual freedom – not only their right to choose abortion but their right to choose birth control and to have low-cost or free care for uterine cancer. He wants for him, not them, to control their genitals. What better response to the #MeToo women’s resistance than multiplying cruelty a million times?
And now, after threatening to destroy in nuclear “fire and fury” the millions of citizens of North Korea, and then toying with the notion of a summit meeting with its chief, he cancels the summit. (Who cares about such a war not only roasting and vaporizing Koreans of both North and South, but probably hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and many US soldiers and their wives and children? Most of them gooks anyway.)
Why cancel the summit? Because, he says, the North Korean government has displayed “tremendous anger and open hostility in your most recent statement.” What was this anger? Statements condemning Vice-President Pence for threatening to turn North Korea into “Libya” if it did not accept American definitions of a deal.
What was, and is, the Libyan solution? First the US persuaded its dictator to give up the nuclear weapons he had claimed to be pursuing as a deterrent against attack by the US and its allies. Then the US encouraged his overthrow, and his being killed. And then the US sat by while Libya was turned into a place of helter-skelter war of all against all. The nation was shattered, its people made desperate.
So one North Korean leader called Pence's remarks "unbridled and impudent."
Might one think that Pence’s threat showed “tremendous anger and open hostility”? Of course not. When Trump and his buddies celebrate cruelty, they are making America great. When their opponents are infuriated, they deserve more threats of war, of fire and fury and utter destruction.
If you want to explore how cruelty plays out in politics and war, read a brilliant “simulation” by the New York Times on line, following the different likely/ possible pathways of a US war against North Korea. <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/24/opinion/north-korea-trump-military-strikes.html>
Back to Philip Roth. Two of his early books -- Goodbye Columbus [Ohio] (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the latter published a few months before the Freedom Seder, satirized the stuffy, boring, complacent leaders of American Jewry in those days (and many still). They proved how accurate his satire was by going crazy in hostility.
Tens of thousands of young Jews, me among them, helplessly galumphed and guffawed at the masturbatory obsession of young Portnoy, and then collapsed in laughter all over again as iconic Jewish scholars like Gershom Scholem wrote the novel was worse than the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”
“Icon?” Another word for an idol. To paraphrase Psalm 115 about idols, “They have gullets but guffaw not, larynxes but laugh not, phalluses but ------.”
For me, Roth’s novel Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) was a brilliant satire on Zionism and its deformities, just as he had satirized the American Diaspora and its deformities. And the book is a satire on himself and his own deformities.
Visiting Israel, Roth the author hears about someone who is claiming to be Philip Roth and who calls for a “Diasporanist” movement. He wants the Israeli Jews to save themselves by returning to Europe, where the Europeans will great them in fervid joy: “At last, our Jews have come back to us!”
But this strange character is not just the butt of a joke. For Roth’s epigraph to the book quotes Torah (Gen. 32:24) on the night when Jacob, the Grabby Heel, became Yisrael, the Godwrestler. The epigraph (in Hebrew text and typography, then in English) says, “So Jacob was left alone … and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Alone – yet a wrestle. Clearly with himself – who else?
And then the epigraph continues with Kierkegaard: “The whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself. Existence is surely a debate.”
So the two Philip Roths are the one Philip Roth, affirming that his self is in self-contradiction. His Jewishness exists in a debate within himself –- all in the service not of ruining Judaism but of purifying it from its dross in satirical fire. How better to do that than with a novel that by quoting and transcending Torah names itself a midrash? – affirming Torah by contradicting Torah, contradicting Torah by affirming Torah.
The internal contradictions go deeper. Roth claimed – sometimes – that the book was, as its subtitle says, not fiction but a “confession.” But then he told a reporter .
“As you know, at the end of the book a Mossad operative made me realize it was in my interest to say this book was fiction. And I became quite convinced that it was in my interest to do that. So I added the note to the reader as I was asked to do. I'm just a good Mossadnik.”
In the [novel? confession?], the writer Philip Roth is detained [kidnapped?] by the Mossad, the Israeli CIA He writes that he wrote a chapter about his detention. But, he writes, the Mossad convinced [threatened?] him till he agreed to drop the chapter and then, on the very last page of the book, to write:
“This book is a work of fiction … Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.”
What?! “This confession is false.” Which confession? The whole book or this statement at the end? One can see and hear the prisoner standing at the show trial muttering in ultimate defiance, “This confession is false.” Defying the Mossad. Defying God. Defying “reality.”
“Existence is surely a debate.”
In Hebrew, the word “existence” is “Havayah,” the four-letter name of God, YHWH, backwards. Philip Roth was a true “Yisrael,” a true Godwrestler -– wrestling with the very innards of whatever for him was or wasn’t God.
One of his last books, all of them written about the encroachments and diminishments brought on by impending death, was Nemesis. He was born just six months before me, and I read those books about him / me weeping and laughing.
But Roth’s real Nemesis was Trump, is Trump. No laughter, no contradictions, no wrestling, there. Pure Grab, pure egomania, pure violence, pure cruelty. And war. And death.