Page 96 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
that even the injection of a sedative into the arm of the “flipped
out” Eli, which
does
calm his soul, does not, however, “touch
it down where the blackness had reached.” (GC, p. 298)
The Jewish reality that Philip Roth is depicting here is not,
therefore, despite Wisse’s assertion, a surface reality, but one
which explores the depths of Jewish being. In this matter, Roth
contrasts himself with both John Updike and Saul Bellow.
“Updike and Bellow,” Roth told an interviewer, “hold their
flashlights out into the world, reveal the real world as it is now.
I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”11Roth insists,
further, that when he shines his light deep into the Jewish hole,
what he sees there is not Jewish subject matter but a similarity
between the Jewish essence and the essence of fiction. “The
Jewish quality of books like mine,” he told the
Paris Review,
“doesn’t really reside in their subject matter. Talking about Jew­
ishness hardly interests me at all. I t’s a kind o f sensibility that
makes, say,
The Anatomy Lesson
Jewish, if anything does: the
nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatization, the
indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the play-acting
— above all the
talking,
the talking and the shouting. Jews will
go on, you know. It isn’t what it’s talking
about
that makes a
book Jewish — it’s that the book won’t shut up ”12 There is more
than a little Jewish play-acting and playfulness in this statement.
But Roth will develop in his fiction the idea that to remain
silent is to acquiesce in one’s fate. For Roth, to remain silent
would be a betrayal, for it would imply that one is not engaged
enough with life to try to improve it. Roth’s Jews won’t shut
up because they believe it is possible and desirable to transform
the world, and, by transforming it, to redeem it.
Philip Roth makes a close connection between the prophetic
stance and his treatment of the problem of Jewish identity. Are
Jews to look good in the eyes of the world or are they to be
faithful to their own identity? Perhaps it is not an either/or ques­
tion. As we have seen, the problematics of Jewish identity are
raised by Philip Roth in “Eli, the Fanatic,” where Eli Peck comes
Peck. Heavily he trod, and his neighbors uttered each syllable o f his name,
he felt each syllable shaking all his bones. He knew who he was down
to his marrow — they were telling him.” (GC, p. 293)
11. David Plante. “Conversations With Philip.”
The New York Times Book Review
(January 1, 1984):30.
12. Lee, p. 239.