The Construction of Identity in Saul Bellow's and Philip Roth's Major Novels - Anca Popa
After World War II, Jewish-American literature started to shape its own genre and become very popular in the American literary mainstream. Critic Max Schulz considers that this was due to the “nobility of the state of Israel after the Holocaust... [which] has renewed the Jew’s pride in Jewishness” (5), so that he does not hide it away in exclusively Jewish ghettoes but tries to reconstruct it in American society.
Although, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are first-rate Jewish-American representatives of this new cultural tendency, they both rejected this label out of the desire to be “writers who happen to be Jews”. In an essay, “Starting out in Chicago”, Bellow rejects being placed into this category stating that: “I am often described as a Jewish writer in much the same way one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist” (49). He further wonders whether “Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and I have not become the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of our trade” (49). As James Atlas points out, they saw themselves “as belonging to the mainstream” (290), as Americans of Jewish origin. This attitude may be also traced in the characters that populate their novels.
Roth writes in a different style from Bellow’s, but he has definitely found inspiration in the latter’s literary endeavours. As James Atlas noticed, Roth came out from under Bellow’s coat. If Bellow is more concerned with the mystique of being Jewish and the way one relates his rich heritage to the modern Wasteland of postwar America, Roth represents a later stage in the drama of Jewish assimilation. Where Bellow’s resolutely American character still bore traces of his immigrant parentage (they spoke Yiddish, were city bred, struggled to decipher a new world), Roth’s grew up in the suburbs. He is more concerned in his early novels with the emotional dynamics of a Jewish rearing. Jewishness is thus conceived as “a psychological condition to be worked through on the couch or in print” (Rubin-Dorsky 91), while his characters are continually rebelling against the taboos of “ the world of our Fathers.” In his later novels, he will broaden the scope and the attitude of his novels, by relating the private theme of Jewish identity to the public political life of America. Thus, the issues connected to Jewish identity are reflected in the background of historical change and disruption.
At first sight, a direct comparison between Bellow and Roth might seem inappropriate, all the more so as Bellow has been regarded in literary circles as a serious writer, whereas Roth was many times the object of ridicule in the T. V. showsof the 70s, in Johnny Carson’s more exactly, where his guests would say that they like Mr. Roth’s work but they would not want to shake hands with him (because of the incessant masturbation depicted in Portnoy’s Complaint). Another critical reaction was that of hurt Jewish pride, because of his satiric use of Jewish stereotypes which would produce laughter for the Gentiles and embarrassment for the Jewish community. Nevertheless, what they both share is the intention to transcend the local interest of their works and reach universality, by revealing a stifled human cry in the plights of their Jewish characters.
Saul Bellow’s novels evince an indebtedness to his Jewish, European and American heritage that imbue the majority of his characters. These are expressed in the ideas, the attitudes and the “moral vision” that permeate his works. Critic Brigitte Scheer-Schaezler clearly underscores the characteristics of these influences: his Jewish background has shaped “his rejection of despair and allegiance to survival – a hallmark of Jewishness developed in the course of unending persecutions of Jews leading to his moral seriousness or moral stance” (2). His epistemological quest derives from the European tradition and it is enriched with the celebration, possibility, and choice, the belief in the dignity and importance of the individual who has the ability to rescue himself from the confusing whirlpool of everyday life. Therefore, his novels are structured as double identity quests:
On a cultural level, they depict the painful and ludicrous Americanization of a hero caught between the academic teachings and culture of his European forefathers on the one hand and pragmatic America on the other; on an existential level, they show the predicament of a man of thought and feeling who attempts to lead a meaningful life in the emotional and spiritual barrenness of our contemporary world. (3).
Roth, on the other hand provides an intergenerational interpretation of the self by his embroilment in and rebellion against the values of the world of parents. Roth’s major themes are located and delineated in terms of cultural dynamics and subcultural perspectives on mainstream existence. His characters’ dilemmas dangle between the endeavour to affirm the “raw I” regardless of social consequences and following the precepts that have been laid by Jewish customs.
Thus my aim in this paper is to underline the way in which Bellow and Roth shape the American-Jewish sensibility in their identity quests. I focus on what I consider to be three key concepts that shape the Jewish condition: assimilation, alienation and the way to cope with these by resorting to the particularised Jewish humor.
Chapter 1 deals with the way the Jews have managed to merge their heritage with the American Dream. I present particular patterns of assimilation, which range from the external means of acquiring social and economic success to those which intertwine with psychological ways of adapting, while hoping to penetrate mainstream life. The corollary of these endeavours is a feeling of alienation, which is different from the stereotype of the eternal alienated Jew. As I shall demonstrate, in the postwar context, the Jews are alienated from their own heritage due to their immersion in American life.
The two concepts delineated above produce a crisis of identity, which is presented in the second chapter in two manners: first as a trial of consciousness that resides in the double status of the characters, who are vacillating between assimilation and alienation, between their private conscience and social responsibility. In illustrating this aspect, I consider instrumental the motive of the patriarchal figure as a stabilising element between these poles. This is all the more so, since Bellow’s characters revere the father figure, whereas Roth’s fiction has been founded on transgressing the well-established set of rules embodied by the father. If the first trait of the identity crisis is to be split between two worlds, the second is to project one’s insatiable ego and repressed desires on a double figure. The direct conflict between the id and the ego brings about a renewed Jewish conscience and awareness of one’s identity.
The third chapter serves to introduce the concept of Jewish humour and its role in constructing ethnic identity as “the Jew functions in his deepest imagination... as his own other, his own inferior, and he must consequently laugh at himself” (Lee 38). I will expatiate on the causes that produce this phenomenon, on its social role for the Jews as an ethnic group and its effects on American humour. I will also trace precise characteristics and humorous elements that define Bellow’s and Roth’s humor by focusing directly on their works.
The last chapter is meant to provide a bird’s eye view of Bellow’s and Roth’s reception in Romania. I will explore the critical and personal reactions that their works stirred in Romania. Ravelstein produced an unprecedented critical debate around the real identity of its characters, due to the allusions to Mircea Eliade’s support for the Iron Guard. When commenting on Roth’s works I shall present the critical acclaims that he has received for his latest books, which are considered by many to be “the quintessential Roth”.
Thus, this paper is an invitation to the world of Jewish immigrants who try not so much to forge after Joyce “the uncreated conscience of [their] race, but to find inspiration in a conscience that has been created and undone a hundred times in this century alone” (Roth 221). To this end, Bellow and Roth create characters who are Jews who do not practice Judaism, but are deeply committed to the values, aspirations and meanings embodied in Jewish history, all these dramatised against the backdrop of a secularised and free America, which thus gives them the possibility to reinvent themselves.
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