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

by Corey Robin on May 12, 2021

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.



Andrew Jaffe 05.12.21 at 4:16 pm

This is totally beside the point, but I am flabbergasted that you left “She wrote The Human Condition; he wrote The Human Stain” on the table….


Phil 05.12.21 at 4:57 pm

Read on I shall.

I was also reminded of Richard Rorty’s eccentric attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger through the medium of alternative history; Rorty has Heidegger take a different train (or something) at some key moment and develop into exactly the same philosopher but not a Nazi at all. In fact, after all the unpleasantness in Europe was over he became… a Zionist! One of my closest friends at the time was working towards a doctorate in philosophy while working for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; his reaction to Rorty’s fanfic alt-Heidegger was something to see.


jpr 05.13.21 at 5:01 pm

Arendt and her cohort in New York (e.g. Podhoretz who frankly admitted his “Negro Problem”) had a hard time grappling with even a minimal version of what later came to be called Identity Politics (i.e. letting schoolchildren into desegregated schools):

“Blindness” would be a charitable interpretation–Category Mistake would be a more rigorous one–of her “Reflections on Little Rock” where she defended Southern racists calling for school segregation.

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