Article — From the September 2008 issue

Radiant Poison

Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and the end of the Jew as metaphor

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Roth’s was the last generation of American Jews to be born into the hyphenated existence. Thereafter, the parents of most American Jews were also American. The claim on existential outsiderness that, from its inception, had acted as a foundation for Jewish-American writing became, almost overnight, a thing of the past. No longer would the useful neurosis that marked those who’d grown up half in, half out of the culture be grounded in firsthand experience. After that, if an American Jew felt him or herself a born outsider, it was a personal problem, not a metaphor.

During this time when immigrant parents were disappearing from the lives of American Jews—the 1960s and ’70s—relations between women and men were undergoing the historic sea change that was largely responsible for the erosion of complicity between Bellow and Roth and their readers. It was the women’s movement, even more than the success of assimilation, that revealed the displacement behind all that trademark misogyny. As the social reality of Jewish outsiderness waned, the rage at the heart of Jewish-American writing began to lose its natural source of energy. This turn of events delivered an unexpected piece of information about the entire enterprise. The work was inextricably bound up not so much with being kept out as with the sickness of feeling kept out. Woman-hating had been the synthetic fuel needed to keep the sense of illness alive. Without that, the work had nowhere to go and nothing much to say.

In the nineteenth century, Jewish mockery was described by a critic of Yiddish literature as “the sick despair of [those for whom life is] a permanent witticism.” It could never get beyond the limited force of its own excoriating humor. That force held everyone and everything up to superior ridicule, but it could not penetrate its own self-deceptions; hence, it could not deepen psychologically. If you accept this observation as a given—and I do—you cannot help wondering how much of Ur-Bellow and Roth will prove to have transcended its moment of cultural glory. Somehow it’s hard to imagine yesterday’s savaging brilliance transforming into tomorrow’s wisdom.

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is the author of The Men in My Life (Boston Review Books), a collection of criticism, due out this month, from which this essay is adapted.

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