Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sour Grapes Of Roth

For decades, Philip Roth's name has been mentioned for a possible Nobel Prize.  For various reasons (rarely having to do with literature), he has not yet received one.  As it's not given posthumously, they really should get a move on. But that's not why I'm writing about him.

I was just reading an interview in The Paris Review from 1984.  Roth is a fine writer, but his perceptions of the political world (which he has sometimes turned into novels) are often simply repeating the received wisdom of his social set.  Here's his response when asked about the relative disengagement from politics that intellectuals felt around 1960:

Little did we know that some twenty years later the philistine ignorance on which we would have liked to turn our backs would infect the country like Camus’s plague. Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, just where Orwell failed; he would have seen that the grotesquerie to be visited upon the English-speaking world would not be an extension of the repressive Eastern totalitarian nightmare but a proliferation of the Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism run amok. It wasn’t Big Brother who’d be watching us from the screen, but we who’d be watching a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap-opera grandmother, the values of a civic-minded Beverly Hills Cadillac dealer, and the historical background and intellectual equipment of a high-school senior in a June Allyson musical.

It's useful to remind ourselves how the opposition to any President so easily treat the situation as unprecedented and even apocalyptic. Their lack of perspective is clear enough decades later, but really it should have been clear at the time.

Generally speaking, intellectuals have no special insight into events of the day.  It's unfortunate that they have come to believe it's their duty to trade in on their fame and reputation, and speak out on issues beyond their expertise.


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