Without question, novelist Philip Roth, is chief among the literary giants of our time.
Unlike most of his highly regarded contemporaries, much of his work has included the politics of our society as he has known it growing up in Newark, NJ, living in the Connecticut suburbs and traveling the world.
Five years ago he voluntarily retired from writing and in recent years his voice has been heard in documentaries and in interviews as he sums up his life in his own way.
The New York Times Book Review has reprinted an interview he gave to the Swedish literary community in which he discussed his work and contemporary America as he has known it in the past fifty years – and as he knows it today. His language and his thought process cuts directly to the heart of America and our society as it can be seen by liberals throughout the country
We reprint some of his views here and add bold-faced text where we see a direct correlation to a liberal’s view of current events.
The question answered here has to do with what Roth viewed as the reasons the novelists of his time – the past fifty years – had such great success in America and what was it about the American culture that made it so potent across the World.
“I agree that it has been a good time for the novel in America, but I can’t say I know what accounts for it. (For one) the American novelist’s aesthetic freedom unhampered by the high-and-mighty “isms’ and their humorlessness. Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire, let alone one that wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into an imagination on the loose?
“(Perhaps) writing that is uncontaminated by political propaganda – or even political responsibility. In a place so vast (as America) no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, (a place where) social calm is utterly unknown , even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension all confers a certain freedom (for the writer). And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.
The recent news that the Educational Testing Center which designs, administrates and sells the SAT college tests has changed (lowered the standards of) the SAT tests again – using the excuse that the test should more closely reflect what students are learning in high school and thus simplifying the language of the tests including the expected vocabulary words….is an excellent example of what Roth means. And these are our future citizens…Roth, in that phrase, recognizes the fall from excellence of the American education which elevated him and his contemporaries to literary fame around the world…and which no longer exists.
“Very little truthfulness anywhere,
Some months ago, Dutch Shell and Exxon-Mobil discovered vast fields of natural gas in western Ukraine and began negotiating for their exploration with the then President of the Ukraine. When Russia’s Putin heard of this he began drawing that leader to him with major reductions in the cost of natural gas already discovered in eastern Ukraine. When it became apparent to the oil companies and American and European interests that Russia’s wooing of the Ukrainian leadership might seriously impede the development of those natural gas fields, they heavily financed the “democratic uprising” in Kiev’s main square….that led to the deposing of the President and the current problems we are experiencing with Russia because of its serious economic dependence on its sale of gas and oil to the West. Have you read any of this in your daily newspaper? Have you heard it discussed every night on the Evening News?
“antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, (it has begun) great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around (the Koch brothers, for instance) science illiterates still fighting The Scopes trial 89 years on, (look at science text books in most Southern States) economic inequities the size of the Ritz, (income inequality everywhere) indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing – that frenzy – (Karl Marx said that when money stands for every human value, capitalism will collapse) and (by no means new) government by the people through representative democracy but rather than by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.
Americans sit quietly by as the Senate and House of Representatives simply announce that there will be little government action in any area until the mid-term elections in November. The cost of their salaries, staffs, benefits, travel etc. is in the hundreds of millions and they have taken the rest of the year off. We have become disinterested sheep.
“You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles.
“The power of any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. (the norms of society) It is no longer, as it was for centuries in Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now it is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned, by of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.” (But with the culture).