There is one sentence that I keep in mind when I’m thinking about sermons. I say ‘keep it in mind’ - but that’s not strictly true, it’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary, it’s more true to say that this sentence haunts me, shadows me, nags at me, won’t let me go – and because it could end up persecuting me, I long ago decided I’d rather befriend it, have it as my travelling companion, to let it guide me (inspire me even), but also if need be to warn me.
Have I captured your curiosity? ‘What is this extraordinary sentence?’ I’m giving it a big build-up, I know: like a storyteller, one might say. I will let you in on my secret – though it might come as a bit of an anti-climax. I’ll have to risk that.
First though, I want to put this sentence I’m talking about – it’s a Philip Roth sentence - in its context. Ever since some of his first stories were published in 1959 in the volume Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s work was (in his own words) “attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest and irresponsible”. He was accused by various Jewish leaders, and rabbis, of creating “a distorted image of the basic values of…Judaism”, of “being anti-Semitic and ‘self-hating’”, “tasteless”, of “offering ‘fuel’ for the fire” of anti-Semites, and so on. When he spoke at Jewish events at that time, he’s said that invariably there would be people who’d come up to him afterwards and say: “Why don’t you leave us alone? Why don’t you write about the Gentiles? Why must you be so critical? Why do you disapprove of us so?” “This last question”, he says, “asked as often with incredulity as with anger” (p.50).
I am taking all this from an essay Roth wrote in 1963 called ‘Writing About Jews’ [in Philip Roth, Why Write? Collected Nonfiction, 1960-2013] in which he describes some of these responses to his early short stories. He writes:
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all. Not always, but frequently, what such readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have more to do with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defence. Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do – in terms of “approval” and “disapproval” of Jews, “positive” and “negative attitudes toward Jewish life – they are likely not to see what it is that a story is really about” (p.51).
In other words, Roth is saying that his Jewish critics misunderstood what he was doing when his stories contained Jewish characters: they were poor readers, in effect. “It is not my purpose in writing a story of an adulterous man”, he writes, “to make it clear how right we all are if we disapprove of the act and are disappointed in the man. Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everyone seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct…Ceasing for a while to be upright citizens, we drop into another layer of consciousness. And this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, is of some value to a man and to society.” (p.51-2)
Let’s think about this for a moment. He’s saying that reading works of fiction allows an expansion of our “moral consciousness” – this is a very significant claim: that literature helps us imagine other people – their joys and struggles, their life dilemmas, their victories and defeats, their passions and heartaches. It helps expand our sense of what it is to be human. This is what fiction does. And poetry, one might add. Non-fiction can do this too of course, but I am focusing here, as Roth did in his career, primarily on the way that fiction can help sensitise us to complexity, and the emotionally and spiritually layered nature of moral issues; in other words stories, well-written, can make us larger moral beings rather than narrow ones.
All of this essay, by the way, was written years before Roth became an international name with Portnoy’s Complaint (in 1969) – a novel which was in part his pent-up fictional riposte to all those years of being told how ‘tasteless’ he was, how he was portraying the Jewish community in such a bad light to the goyim. It was if in Portnoy’s Complaint he was saying ‘You think the fiction I’ve been writing is tasteless? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet…’
I came to Philip Roth’s work relatively late, in the mid-1980s, prompted by a friend who encouraged me to overcome any prejudices I had about him – and I did have some - and just read his Zuckerman books; and so I did read start reading them and I was captivated. He was writing about life - about desire and death and human folly and human vulnerability and human ambition - in a way I found compelling. And it was during this period that I came across the sentence that has steered me, and goaded me, ever since.
It’s at the very end of that 1963 essay ‘Writing About Jews’, which he concludes with this remark: “The question really is, who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children. If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.” (p.64).
That struck a deep chord with me; and there’s a lot packed into Roth’s words that have particularly stuck with me. Firstly – and this is actually the prelude to the sentence that I want to speak about - if you are going to offer your thoughts in the public domain, whether it is in writing or in speaking, you need to address people as adults, not as children: so you don’t talk down, you don’t patronise, or condescend, but assume that the audience is able to take your words and think about them. This may sound obvious but I’m not sure that it is. Addressing people as “men and women” means granting people a kind of basic respect: a belief that they, like you, are thoughtful beings, capable of holding two or more contrasting ideas in their minds, for example, and a belief that people are able to reflect with some degree of fairmindedness on what you are offering. Yes, they may well have feelings about what you say – people may not like what you say, but you don’t avoid saying difficult things for that reason.
‘Able to reflect’ of course is not the same as ‘prepared to’ – and one knows that people are not always able to listen open-mindedly or open-heartedly: that people listen with prejudice and judgment and criticism and envy and a whole range of emotional responses that can get in the way of listening to what you are saying; but in Roth’s terms, addressing them as “men and women” means speaking to the best selves you know people can be, not the worst selves – so, hopefully, not pandering to people’s prejudices and emotionality.
By the way, I think you should also talk to children in the same way as to adults: that is, without condescending to them or patronising them. I don’t believe in hiding from children the complexities of life, they know that anyway: you might just as well validate their experience rather than deny it or over-simplify it or, worse still, cover over something because you might find it hard to talk about, things like sex or death (two of Roth’s major themes, by the way). So in that sense I don’t go along with Roth’s splitting things into ‘you should talk to people like adults not like children’. But I get what he is saying, it’s a kind of shorthand way of talking – and dare I say, a touch of laziness on his part.
But the next point Roth makes is the key one I want to focus on: that what draws people in is storytelling; people find stories “provocative and pertinent” - by which I understand him to mean intellectually thought-provoking, imaginatively thought-and-feeling provoking, and relevant to their own experience, pertinent to the joys and troubles and moral dilemmas of their own lives. And that when you are in the presence of a good storyteller, when you are engaging with well-written fiction, this is what people are drawn to – it reaches ‘regions of feeling and consciousness’ that, in Roth’s view, sermons can’t reach. Of course Philip Roth never heard one of my sermons but I forgive him for that: anyway, he was talking about the kind of sermons that were common fare in 1950s America, that he describes, in a somewhat provocative, and more-than-slightly condescending way as ‘the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.’
But if you read those sermons now, and such sermons are by no means unique to America, or to the 1950s, we can recognise what he’s talking about. “Self-congratulation” refers, to my mind, to all those sermons that tell us how wonderful the Jewish people are - all those Nobel prizes! – all that wonderful Jewish philanthropy and ethical high-mindedness; or how wonderful Israel is, making the deserts bloom, our cutting edge technology: you know - all that PR stuff. And ‘self-pity’ – well, we are good at that: Jews as eternal victims, the world hates us, poor little beleaguered Israel, all that anti-Semitism flooding through Europe or behind the chintz curtains of middle England: we almost take pride in our capacity for self-pity, the rich profusion of forms in which it comes. We certainly joke about it. ‘How many Jewish sons does it take to change a lightbulb? It only takes one, but don’t worry about it, I’ll just sit here in the dark’. If there was a Nobel prize for self-pity, we’d walk away with it every year.
I hope you can see what I’m doing now: I’m doing what I learned, one of the things I learned, from Philip Roth. I’m beginning to move into a narrative/storytelling mode; and also one of his gifts was in using humour to make serious moral points.
I do try to avoid “self-congratulation” in my sermons and writing, and “self-pity”. I don’t think I always succeed in this, because it’s very easy to slip into, like comfy slippers - it’s simple and tempting, but it’s also lazy and manipulative. ‘Look how wonderful we are’ is ‘feel good’ stuff for sermons, and sometimes we do just need to feel good about ourselves, individually and collectively: but it’s always only part of the truth of things, and sometimes only a very minor part. And ‘poor us’ is also, paradoxically, a kind of ‘feel good’ form of speaking, because self-pity is comforting, it’s like wrapping oneself up in a warm duvet on a cold winter’s night. To feel that the world’s against us, and that’s how it always was and is and will be, can offer a paradoxical form of pleasure - even if it avoids the complexity of how we are experienced, the huge range of responses through time (and today) to Jews and Jewishness. And maybe ‘poor us’ is perversely pleasurable because it avoids the messy complexity of real life, real experience.
Anyway, Roth has been a touchstone for me as I think about what I am doing when I write or when I speak. One of the things I learned from is that if you find the right ‘voice’ to speak in, you can explore even the most difficult ‘regions of feeling and consciousness’. He was the master craftsman of narrative art who acted as a guide to me in the moral seriousness of literature. He helped me understand story as argument, story as exploring moral dilemmas, commitment and betrayal, “uncontrollable longings, unworkable love…exhaustion, estrangement, derangement” , and the rest (p.381), and in his last decade of writing produced a series of works exploring in a profound and moving way the vital topics of the second half of life: ageing, illness and the inevitability of death.
I know that many women readers have found his work hard going, and some refuse to engage with it at all: accusations of misogyny have dogged him from the beginning. And it’s true that his female characters sometimes lacked the complex inner turmoil of his male characters – maybe that’s why he never received the one award that eluded him, the Nobel Prize for Literature – but many of his characters are wrestling with universal human concerns rather than solely male concerns, so if you have turned your back on him, for whatever reason, give him another try. Try ‘American Pastoral’ where Roth explores America’s political turmoil of the Vietnam years, a book which contains a beautifully loving evocation too of the Jewish Newark he grew up in. Or try ‘The Plot Against America’ with its counterfactual exploration of what happens in America in the 1940s when a right-wing demagogue captures the presidency and the fascistic takeover leads to the gradual exclusion and then persecution of one ethnic group: not Muslims but Jews. In the era of Trump, of course, this novel from 2004 has taken on an eerie prescience.
Roth had his finger on the pulse of our times like no other novelist. I’ll really miss him. But I will continue to re-read him, the ruthless intimacy of his fiction and the discursive intelligence of his essays. And I hope to be able to use the spirit of his gifts to continue to inform my own work with a minimum of self-pity or self-congratulation.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 9th, 2018]