Philip Roth’s Self-Indulgent Paranoia Comes to the Small Screen

March 19, 2020 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Monday saw the premiere of a miniseries based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot against America. The novel presents an alternative version of U.S. history—and of the author’s own childhood—in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, allies with Hitler, and begins persecuting Jews. Ruth R. Wisse, reviewing the book in Commentary when it first appeared, wrote that “Roth’s lack of conviction about his own central plot device is palpable throughout.” Despite his statement that he wrote the book because he “wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat,” Wisse found that the novel actually shied away from taking such a threat seriously—and was left wondering why Roth wrote the book at all:

Why ratchet up the peril, raise the temperature of fear? The question, alas, answers itself. Many American Jews, including, it would seem, some of the most enthusiastic reviewers of this book, define their own Jewish consciousness and values not by means of religious worship, observance of commandments, community affiliation, or work on behalf of Israel, but through commemorations of the Holocaust. Behind The Plot Against America stretch the many years that American Jews have consecrated to Holocaust education and Holocaust simulation, activities based on the notion that there is moral and spiritual merit in the vicarious re-experiencing of so dire a past.

But while the original impulse behind such commemoration was linked to the vow of Never Again!, implying a need to take effective political action on behalf of the Jewish people, Holocaust memorialization has increasingly slipped into little more than self-indulgent paranoia. For all Roth’s intelligence, and for all his sophistication in turning this tendency to literary advantage, his book also exemplifies it.

There may be, as well, a more urgent personal aspect to Roth’s nostalgia for a time when anti-Semitism was in flower. Creating a fictional climate of fear has paradoxically allowed him to write about his childhood with greater tenderness and appreciation than he has ever done before. The same qualities in his parents’ generation that once drew his satirical ire—above all, their sheer, maddening decency—acquire dignity and worth when seen against the background of an America that wants, as it were, to stamp them out. Without the anti-Semitism, they were simply the Jewish bourgeoisie, avatars of the reviled middle class; magnify the background of fascism, and they step forth as moral heroes.

Naturally, the literary imagination is free to wander where it wishes, and Roth’s produces very lively fiction. But as a novel about politics, this book is irrelevant—except perhaps inadvertently. . . . For the real fear aroused by Roth’s novel is not that America is under “threat of becoming fascist” but that many of its leading cultural figures, and a part of American Jewry, are not prepared to sustain a war against the anti-Semites and the America-haters of our own time. The danger it points to is not the danger it describes; the danger it points to is of political infantilization.

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