The Warning behind Philip Roth’s Joking

Jan. 31 2023
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. 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.

When she first encountered Portnoy’s Complaint being read aloud by a friend, Ruth R. Wisse remembers that she and others present “were laughing so hard that we begged him to stop so that we could catch our breath.” Half a century later, Philip Roth’s most famous—and most notorious—novel seems less fresh, less shocking, and less funny. She writes:

The changed status of this book has a lot to do with what has since happened to this country’s culture, and with the newly precarious standing of its Jews. It is hard to imagine a gathering of Jews convulsed with laughter over this book today.

[Roth’s] timing was perfect. It was because he was not living in Germany, because Goebbels and his family had been driven to suicide, and because American culture was becoming so pagan that he felt no longer bound by taboos, whether personal or public. . . . But then, just try imagining Roth publishing this a little later in his career, say, during the #MeToo movement. Which of the two would have been coming after him first today—the feminists or the anti-Semites?

Yet even if the book has lost some of its appeal, Wisse finds herself able to appreciate it in a different way:

Philip Roth was onto something important that Freud had ignored when he analyzed joking as a creative means of restoring psychological balance. What if there is too much reliance on joking, and the cure proves worse than the disease? Laughter may be an excellent way of coping with anxiety, and is it not wonderful that a quarter century after Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz, the American branch of a decimated people should have become the national champions of comedy? But Roth identified a streak of hysteria in all that laughter and a heavy dose of pathology in letting it all hang out. Portnoy feared that he was spinning out of control, not just a beneficiary of the sixties but a casualty of its unhinged freedom.

Read more at Sapir

More about: American Jewish literature, American Jewry, Philip Roth


Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University