Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over—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 this morning. It starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between these two writers, 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 on here.

Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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