Philip Roth (1933-2018)


“Don’t judge it. Just write it. Don’t judge it. It’s not for you to judge it.”

~ Philip Roth

I was going at a steady clip, writing my daily pages for my Henry Miller book but then the GDPR (if you don’t know what that is, you have your head up your butt and you need to get more woke about this) became a fact and clients of mine needed to update their privacy policies and I was dragged down in a swamp of legalese that made my head spin.

On top of that, Philip Roth died at the ripe old age of 85 on May 22nd. He had stopped writing novels but until the very end, he had remained lucid and sharp.

Henry Miller paved the way for Roth and others, so I think I should say something here about Roth and the connection with Miller.

Roth made sure to acknowledge Miller in an interview for the National Endowment of the Arts. He “broke the ice,” Roth said, and he found a way to “look straight at sex and not from the point of view of a moralist or a physician.” The quote betrays an awareness of how we still looked at sex in America in the 1950s. Of course Roth’s own controversial, sex-laced and break-through book (Portnoy’s Complaint) was published in 1969, only eight years after Tropic of Cancer was allowed to be released in the US for the first time.

In another interview on Roth’s literary influences, Roth, once again, mentioned Miller as someone who educated him in “letting in the repellent […] Let literature contemplate the repellent.” The repellent of course also includes all the different ways we can fuck and get fucked, and some of (what many might consider) those very repellent aspects of sex were a steady staple in the novels of Roth and his contemporaries.

After the #metoo movement began to cause tidal waves, dragging Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and others into the riptides of the Seas of Shame and Oblivion, Philip Roth gave one last and insightful interview to the New York Times in January of 2018. In it, the #metoo movement was clearly the pink elephant in the room, so Roth seemed guarded and deliberate in distancing himself from the Harvey Weinsteins of the world by arguing that he wrote about men in general  (rather than himself– a little disingenuous that, as his fiction was clearly autobiographical) who were “beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by lurid taboo”.

The sex drive, Roth seemed to convey, is one that many men simply cannot control. They are “inflammatory forces” and men are “in the grip of carnal fervor” for which the driving force is desire which incapacitates one’s Reason/rationality. With nothing much to lose, Roth even argued that this drive/desire was a “form of lunacy”. But is it? Or is it simply… Nature? The Dionysian element of letting go has been as old as the sex drive itself and to deny that or write it out of our culture is a kind of obscenity in itself. Feminist Camille Paglia says in her book Sexual Personae: “Sex cannot be understood because nature cannot be understood.”

Interestingly, in the interview, Roth seemed to further distance himself from all that sexual lunacy by suggesting that he was a mere observer, a chronicler by using phrases such as “I have imagined”, “I’ve tried to be uncompromising” and “I’ve stepped inside the male head and reality.” Roth seemed to suggest he was the mere camera– and a camera that records whatever lewd acts is still just a camera and no morality or judgment machine. Miller was such a “camera”, too. In fact the sense of voyeurism, of watching and seeing is very strong in all of Miller’s work, yet when Miller recorded sex, it was considered obscene but when Roth did it in the late 1960s it was all of a sudden great American literature.

Don’t get me wrong: Sex, and perverted sex happens every day. Sex experienced from the male point of view also happens every day but many women readers may feel a disconnect (and objectified) once the male psyche gets unleashed and subsequently expresses its sexual experience in all its ejaculatory glory. The disconnect and the very inequality of the sexual act which has a physiological reason (we don’t have the same hormones and equipment) is, as Paglia hinted, a conundrum we may never overcome. However, whereas Roth launched his career with a particular raunchy book in which obsessive masturbation did indeed seem a form of lunacy, Miller was condemned for writing a similarly repellent book thirty-five years earlier and was penalized for it and is now dropping out of the canon. Yet without Miller there would be no Roth, and that is where and why we need to see Miller in the larger context of American literature, culture and the sex we love to hate.

Rest in peace, Philip Roth, you were one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.


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1 Response to Philip Roth (1933-2018)

  1. Loved reading this, Inez, apart from the Paglia quote, which I find sounds too easy, especially in a book entitled Sexual Personae. But, OK, I shouldn’t judge as I haven’t read the Paglia book. . . .

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