Jay Gertzman is Professor Emeritus of English at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the seminal study of Samuel Roth, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. His study details how Roth salvaged many vital literary works, among them Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from the oppressions of a censorship that often makes sense only in terms of a cultural context determined by socio-economic factors. It is at once a piece of pure scholarship, while at the same time being an analysis of why Eros threatens and when.
Gertzman is also engaged in extensive research on David Goodis, one of the leading pioneers of Noir fiction in the US. His first essay on Goodis explored the Philadelphia settings of his novels. His current article is a statement about Goodis’s popularity. Jay met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about the history of sexuality and just how Kafkaesque David Goodis was.
To what extent do you think Samuel Roth occupies the cultural position that Michel Foucault refers to in his History of Sexuality as the rebellion ‘against the injunction to silence’?
Samuel Roth once said , “I will continue to publish what appears to me to be true or beautiful, if I have to make a barracks out of every jail in the United States.” Windy, self-inflating, but true (five separate sentences from 1929 to 1957).
He was the first to circulate unexpurgated editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in America. In 1929 he published an unexpurgated Ulysses. My First 30 Years, by Gertrude Beasley, was a biography of a Texas hill country woman who witnessed sadism, bestiality, and paedophilia, and recorded her experiences frankly. (Roth’s editions were unauthorized by the writers, who published in Paris; there was no international copyright agreement at the time). The protagonist of A Scarlet Pansy (1933) was a transvestite. Roth published books on chastity belts, masturbation, and tribal marriage rituals, and works by Jarry and Genet. He wrote about the transvestite emperor Heliogabalus, Frank Harris, and the supposed incest between Nietzsche and his sister.
But if Foucault’s interest in how “sex was put into discourse” had considered the case of Samuel Roth, he would need to consider Roth as not only a wilful pariah who brought awareness of human sexuality to people of all classes and professions with erotica they could afford. He would have to also consider that Roth was a pariah capitalist. He had lived in poverty in the lower East Side and absorbed the strategies of the luftmensch, or promoter of schemes pulled out of thin air and designed to make money. Thus the unauthorized editions of Joyce, Lawrence, and Beasley. Realizing as a teenager that his greatest skill was writing advertising copy, he therefore appealed to what makes the most money: prurient interest. He adjusted the appeal to the taste, cultural capital, and imagination of various readerships. In each of these appeals, he was in symbiotic relationship with the repressive moral authorities, who were as equally entrepreneurial as he was. Foucault’s term was “mutually reinforcing.”
From their bully pulpits, the smut-hunters made people aware of Roth’s “dirty” books. That helped him sell them. His resourcefulness allowed his prosecutors to convince their followers of the necessity of censorship. The more prurient advertisements he wrote, the more he guided his customers into substituting furtive spectating for mutual experiences. However much the censors howled about this prurience, the more they accomplished their goal: keeping desire passive, solitary, clandestine.
Both parties were Shame Agents. Roth’s mail order circulars touted “frank” treatments of flagellation, paedophilia, incest, and sadism. They relegated people curious about these subjects to having to read about them in “smutty”–yet not underground–sources. In this way, Roth’s “forbidden fruit” business helped channel people’s thoughts about sex into patterns of illegitimacy that sustained the power of gatekeepers of citizenship. The power of the State and its constraints upon its citizens’ behaviour remained supreme, made so by how credentialed physicians, psychologists, and scientists talked about sex (they were often government witnesses in censorship prosecutions), and about the people who purveyed it: amoral (yet essential) rascals like Roth.
Despite this, Roth was a subversive, a kind of cultural mutation. He was a pariah from age 8, when he resented his father’s and rabbi’s surveillance due to his early masturbation and fascination with female bodies. He continued as an adult to challenge authority vigorously. When he marketed A Scarlet Pansy as a sensational sex pulp (“he’s, she’s, and downright its”), what seemed to be exploitation turned out to be an example of détournement, given the story about a “he/she” who managed to overcome every stigma, including those held by “pansies” themselves, about the impossibility of such “queers” to find sexual mutuality with a virile soldier. When the British Board of Trade asked the district attorney of New York to order Roth to withdraw his book on The Private Lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (1952)–the book stated that the Edward was gay–Roth’s answer was a paperback edition with an illustration of the Duchess as a Lamia with a forked tongue. Her husband gazed into space indifferently. His scandal book on gossip king Walter Winchell (1953) alleged that Winchell’s father was a paedophile and that Winchell was irrationally jealous of his daughter’s suitors, a monster of power and coercion with the backing of the FBI. Roth’s most important publications were in fact deeply abrasive to power and its discourse on sex (and cultural capital and politics), for he would never remain silent about his deepest instincts. The proof that in these (and several other) books, Roth’s chutzpah was an insufferable offense against sexual and political canon was his conviction for distributing obscenity in 1957. While in prison, Lady Chatterley’s lover was “de-censored,” because Grove Press’ edition was prepared for an educated elite. Roth believed that the common man should read what those with cultural capital could. If they read pruriently, or explored what they were told was obscene, they could also ask themselves what reality those terms had. Life could be and, (as Philip Roth energetically declared) not either/or.
The obscenity trial of William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch saw the law changed and publishers such as John Calder defying the law. What do you think censorship shows about social engineering?
I think one could say that due to the way institutions work, censorship, and the ways people seeking freedom of speech must fight it legally, insures there has never been any sexual revolution.
When Barney Rosset distributed Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the mail, he hired a leading advertising agency, which had represented Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Harvard University Press. It prepared notices for leading newspapers, quoting editorials criticizing the Post Office’s unmailable ruling on the novel. That ruling was the reason for Rosset’s civil suit. Rosset’s lawyer knew how to convince the judge that Grove was going to push back the boundaries of the taboo in a legally and socially acceptable manner, by limiting its audience. He argued that in the Grove edition, scientific insights into the nature of sexual instinct replaced prurient interest as a criterion for determining whether or not a book or magazine was obscene. He relied on the principle of “variable obscenity”: if the audience for a work was carefully defined, and if the text were not advertised with appeal to prurient interest, it could not be banned. It was as if scientists, and those who respect them, could not have any feelings about sex that would not be “decent.”
This meant that people who lack cultural capital are without the discipline to restrain themselves from sexual excitement while reading or observing. That is, they are not responsible enough to appreciate art or analytical enough to absorb knowledge from it. What follows from that? A democracy that works–that is, a democracy with proper social control–must have the right kind of shibboleths—“obscenity,” “salacity,” “prurience”– to enforce those restraints that it labors to embed in the minds of its citizens.
The anger regarding this novel (it was one of a handful of books brought to the Senate floor in 1930 by a Mormon senator to show the kind of “trash” present tariff laws let into the country) identified it as literature with a powerful subversive message, a danger to youth and an insult to the institution of marriage. Barney Rosset was a hero of American Freedom of Expression, but the legality of Lawrence’s “phallic novel” occurred only by sanitizing the novel, allowing it to become part of a canon—30 years after publication.
It was this kind of obfuscation, indeed nullification, of a work’s authentic creativity (often connected intimately with the criminally subversive) that made William Burroughs refuse to listen to Mailer and Ginsberg defend Naked Lunch in court. “The defence was trying to demonstrate that Naked Lunch has social significance, and this seems to me quite beside the point, and not really getting to the basic question of the right of the government to exercise any censorship.”
Legislating morality is, as regards the formal procedure of a government judiciary, much more “reasonable” than the moral indignation of Senator Smoot of Utah in 1930 (re Chatterley) or Edith Sitwell and the anonymous TLS reviewer in 1963 (re Naked Lunch). The legislation is class-based, symbiotic with the economics of the publishing industry, and has the effect, whether conscious or part of the zeitgeist, of expelling the sex radical from a pulpit from which s/he could speak freely to the public at large.
Recently, the wild wild world of censorship in American schools has highlighted such expulsions. Parents, like postal inspectors, judges, clergy, and politicians, believe they should and can control young people’s reading habits. Those without credentials and status, especially the underage, must not defy parents. Paternalism is more powerful than ever—because parents have in fact little control of their kids since electronic media capture their attention and force them into consumption habits, especially related to their sex appeal. Therefore it is good corporate strategy to fool parents into thinking their society protects them. Some of the best young adult novels of the last five years have been removed from school libraries, for example The Hunger Games (“disturbingly violent,” “anti-ethnic, anti-family, and occult/satanic”).
Last year, we had an egregious example in the Chicago Board of Education’s statement regarding their banning of the graphic novel Persepolis: due to students’ “lack of intellectual skills for taking full advantage of the marketplace of ideas . . . guidance from those better equipped” is in order. Set during the Iraq-Iran war, the graphic novel tells of the suffering of an Iranian family experiencing bombing, government-employed mercenaries, prejudice against Arabs, and the resultant breakup of the family unit–-events students might, despite their presumed “lack of intellectual skills,” compare to what has happened in the Middle East since our own decade-old “war of choice” there. This is hypocrisy and paternalism. Yet the demand for the book had resulted in several steady-selling editions.
I think that a book that “flings all sorts of fierce questions at your head . . .demanding all sorts of impossible answers” (Lawrence) maintains a life of its own, despite the attempts of academics to categorize or intellectualize it. Which is to say, that it is still subversive, despite the judges’ decisions that it has “literary value.” That is true of Lady Chatterley, Naked Lunch, The Hunger Games, and Persepholis. “There is a point beyond which there is no turning back,” said Kafka. “That is the point that must be reached.” Burroughs seconded that when he refused to attend the hearings regarding Naked Lunch.
Jean Genet in Le Balcon dramatises sexual pathologies enacted in a brothel. Genet explores roles of power in society, in the first few scenes patrons assume the roles of a bishop who forgives a penitent, a judge who punishes a thief, and a general who rides his horse.
Given the fact that literature has always challenged social engineering and propaganda unless it is attempting to survive under a totalitarian regime, to what extent do you think the recent moves in the US to sanitise sexuality within fiction by a morally smug right wing Christian pseudo-ethic are both prurient and indicative of a deeper pathology that is denied by the nay saying theocrats?
Sanitizing sex has been going on for a long time. Ironically, one of its most revelatory fighters was D H Lawrence. And yet he lived in its clutches, by necessity. Early on, many passages were removed from Sons and Lovers by his editor at Heinemann, Edward Garnet, including the passage where Paul, waiting for his girlfriend in her room, tried on her underclothes. Garnet was a writer also. Lawrence tried to expurgate Lady Chatterley’s Lover himself, with a view to an English edition the same year his “phallic novel” was published intact, in Italy. He gave up after running out of euphemisms for “penis.” But he tried. In my opinion, when writers and editors themselves feel the need to expurgate, the pathology that motivates it is at least as deep as the bravest fight against repression. This is especially true because writers need to provide for themselves and loved ones (Lawrence knew he was dying when he tried that expurgation). There exists an inchoate shudder of fear that creative people fight (as Lawrence certainly did), and it is energizing, but also enervating.
Another example of the compulsion to repress innovative sexual discourse is the dismissive reviews (happily not the majority of them) of Michel Houellebecq’s work. The Elementary Particles is about a topic often analyzed in the New York Times’ op-ed columns: the consequences of the 1960s New Freedom. Houellebecq’s novel (English trans. 2000) depicts sexual impulses being fully indulged in sex resorts where partner-swapping, S/M, and group sex complement amateur music, painting, and “open” discussions about “hang-ups” and infantile repressions. In titillating audiences with sexual conduct and “open” confessions, the prurience-exploiting mass entertainment industry has turned an incipient sexual revolution into a “fake revolt” (polemicist Gershon Legman’s phrase). The Times and its columnists often deplore this licentiousness and the mass voyeurism related to it displayed by mass media. But its reviewers shat all over the novel (and others by the writer). Self-indulgence is mirrored, Houellebecq shows, in morally-indignant identity politics, which advocates that minorities must be granted full access to the “advantages” of the majority of citizens. The advantages allow more people to align their leisure time with the entertainment industry’s mass produced offerings. What results is confusion of clichéd “openness” and voyeurism with self-improvement and enlightenment. Yet, The Times’ reviewer did not countenance Houellebecq’s insight. He described the writer as racist, misogynist, and pornographic. The novel is “bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile.” What is going on here?
One great 1920s writer (Lawrence) is willing to expurgate, or try to, in resignation to what he characterized as his culture’s need to “do dirt on sex”; it must be prurient, which identifies it with shame. Another, almost a century later, encounters a different aspect of the pathology that requires “doing dirt on sex.” This writer shows how sexual desire has become a kind of solipsism in which the partner is no more than an arousal expert. This infection of the psyche, Houellebecq says, is proof of a terminal illness in the psyche. It is time for a post-human race. Not many novelists have so carefully teased out a readership’s loathing. The reason is that when people are told they are part of a death-leaning culture due to their way of regulating the sex instinct, the roots of a pathology are exposed. Reviewers and social critics feel a shame they cannot handle, from which they have to sanitize themselves.
The most egregious attempts to sanitize sex in the US have occurred in the censorship within public school classrooms. One example is of a Young Adult novels, TTYL; TTFN; L8R; G8R (the series began in 2005), in which teens, whom the author follows through their middle- and high- school years, use scatology and experiment with sex and drugs. There were over 300 challenges to its presence in classrooms and libraries in 2012, based on its explicitness about the presence of drugs and sex in teenagers’ lives, including its mention of “thongs, French kissing, tampons and erections.” It’s all on prime-time TV. Repress the messenger. Another example is The Color of Earth (2009), a coming-of-age graphic novel in which a Korean mother and daughter, isolated from the rest of their rural community by prejudice, find lovers. One set of panels show the mother’s lover undressing her and fondling her breasts. This in itself was enough to have parents and PTA groups (on which fundamentalist Christians clamour for seats) to remove it from classrooms and libraries on grounds of “anti-social” and “indecent” behaviour . . . unsuitable for age group”.
The novels of Judy Blume are another example of prurient “educators” sanitizing their adolescent charges’ analyses of their own desires. Blume was in trouble throughout her career as a subversive writer for young adults. In Forever (1975), two teenagers experiment with each other’s bodies tentatively and with mutual respect. Their dream of being together forever is doomed, not by the usual course of events in which the boy and girl would themselves decide to move on with their lives, but by the girl’s parents getting her a job in a summer camp where she will have to fight her loneliness by meeting other sympathetic young men. The censors, again adults whose own experience might have been close to that Blume realistically displayed, could not interrogate their own prurience regarding the topics of premature ejaculation, birth control techniques, female aggression, and homosexual desire. They thus hypocritically forbade their charges from reading sexually explicit books. The censorship zeitgeist reveals itself in such judgments as “does not promote the sanctity of family life,” “talks about birth control, masturbation, and disobedience to parents,” “demoralizes marital sex.”
There is a connection between these parents, the bilious reviewers of Houellebecq, and the editors of D H Lawrence. The common denominator is bad faith. People sense that their own sexual experience has been furtive. Naturally they regard it as an inconsequential part of “real life.” This phenomenon presents a brick, blank wall to any writer who would uncover that experience. The desire to “sanitize sex,” and oneself from a fatal knowledge about it, is what Lawrence meant by “doing dirt” on it.
Do you think the feminist leitmotif of the phallocentric objectification of women in literature is part of the trend of censorship or a rebellion against it?
I think we are referring to one segment of feminists here, who used to be called MacDworkinites before the death of Andrea Dworkin. Catherine MacKinnon in 1983 helped draft an ordinance, adopted in Canada but vetoed by the mayor of Minneapolis, stating that any expression deemed harmful to females could be interdicted from sale. Her rationale was that “pornography” (writing simply assumed harmful to women) was a civil rights issue, not a matter for legislation regarding obscenity. That meant that if Naked Lunch or Tropic of Cancer were sold in a place where her ordinance was in effect, the distributor, and possibly the authors, publishers, and printers, had violated women’s civil rights. Of course that ordinance would have been a highly punitive censorship of artistic expression.
Apart from MacKinnon/Dworkin, I have heard a comment about two writers, admired outside as well as inside any official canon, that makes me answer the question in the affirmative. The comment is that the only reason to study these two authors is to understand the way patriarchy works. The writers were John Milton and D H Lawrence. Milton thought females were only capable of serving God indirectly, through serving their husbands (just as Eliot and Celine wrote of Jews and Blacks as unfit for equal citizenship in any healthy nation). Lawrence thought contact with natural vitality required females to be submissive in intercourse. Their writings, presumably, are pernicious, because their ideology will infect the minds of their readers, as it (presumably) had done when they lived.
When would-be reformers use the tactics of the most forceful spokespeople for cultural conservatism, especially begging the question, they fall short of insightful, let alone progressive, results. They assume that writing that offends them is a danger to social order. They create false dichotomies, us vs. them discourse, which the mainstream liberal media are happy to support. A particular identity group, in the name of God, race, or human equality, discredits an opposing one and cocoons itself solidly at the top of the social hierarchy (just as the Anti-Saloon League or the Society for the Suppression of Vice, at the expense of civil libertarians and immigrant minorities, did a century ago). What masquerades as feminist anti-elitism, and subversion of (in this case patriarchal) cultural norms, is a ratification of the conventions of power, just as the early 20th century anti-Vice societies used the decency vs. degenerate dichotomy to suppress not only erotic literature, but birth control and abortion.
The complexity of both Lawrence’s and Milton’s vision could allow people to look into themselves and their cultural roots deeply. But when readers trap themselves by their belief that fiction in which their race or gender is attacked is an attack on their integrity and human status, they are refusing the writers who repulse them the power to express themselves in the medium they chose. Instead, they bury the offending writer with clichés; for example, he (and she if “man-centred”) are said to “demean” women (or Blacks or Jews). When this judgment is criticized as blandly exclusionary, the response of those making the judgment is that a feminist, or Jew or an African has been denied the power to advocate their position in the past. Thus they could not be free. The creative work of the offending society contributed to the lack of freedom of a particular race or gender therein. It must not continue to do so.
I have seen reviews of the work of Hemingway, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Bret Easton Ellis that assume moral indignation to be enough to characterize the work as “teaching” that females enjoy sexual submission to virile males. A pervasive tactic is to take it for granted that the novelist agrees with the major character. This was particularly effective in 1991, in the case of Ellis’ American Psycho. Simon and Schuster withdrew from its contract to publish to work. With the cult of personality so strong, charges of sexism, racism, or anti-Semitism make it significantly more difficult to market a book by a controversial writer. The synergy required involves appearance on talk shows and book store readings. That in turn requires admiring audiences.
Introducing students to inequality based on race or gender is important. Denigration of writers on the basis of their use of such cultural attitudes, and reducing them to examples of that perspective, is a political strategy, not an educational one. It aims at establishing power and authority by eliminating whatever seems contrary to the new orthodoxy.
For all that, negating the power of creative expression is beyond a moralist’s power. The late Prof. Gary Adelman (Reclaiming D H Lawrence, 2002), after seeing the extent of Lawrence’s inclusion in English courses decline, solicited opinions from practicing novelists and poets on why that might be so. The most shared response was that political correctness in the academy was the reason. Regarding his own students’ opinions of what he assigned, he found plenty of incredulity when he told the class that some critics, including female ones, thought Lawrence not only shared a deep affinity for women, but even “wrote like one.” But he also found students who made “astonishing intersections between Lawrence’s characters and her own experience.”
Do you think ideologies such as feminism are antipathetic to an appreciation of literature and how should censorship laws be changed to support artistic expression?
Changes in censorship law can be a breath of fresh air to masses of people. And at the same time, progressive changes are also “one in the eye” for those who stand stiffly on guard for class division. An example is one member of the House of Lords who rose during a 1960 session to deplore the look of lust he observed on the faces of truck drivers reading the just-released paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. While they were eating lunch. In a public place. He would have been better advised not to be so stiff. There was lots of money in the offing, certainly not in de-censoring literature but for the soft-core erotica industry.
I do not think changes in censorship law support creative expression, except incidentally. The nexus between criminality and creativity is a strong one. Laws are part of a network of agreements enforcing a web of conduct. These laws are political entities. Despite the fact that they at times are in the vanguard of changing mores, they are tied to a moral consensus. Legislation engineers free expression, as well as specific acts, in a social unit. It tells the people what determines public trust, and what separates the trustworthy citizen of a nation or culture from the barbarian, the criminal.
If this is true, laws regarding how one may or may not speak, write or visually represent are instruments of social control. Such laws necessarily include in their web not only anti-social acts (which may be a clear and present danger) but also public expression of what one may imagine. John Preston, the prolific writer of gay erotica, said that the censoriousness toward his work amounted to “how dare you think these things!” He did not mind readers saying so, but he could not live with legal suppression. Lenny Bruce’s complaint about being arrested for his comedy routines was that his ideas were imprisoned within him. He used four letter words and included such statements as that about Jacqueline Kennedy scrambling out of the car after her husband was shot: “she hauled ass to save ass.” What stable social unit could countenance such “irreverence” and “indecency”? One answer is that such terms are too subjective to be part of legislation. Another is that creative, passionate speech induces strong emotions, which it is the responsibility of the speaker to deal with. But that takes power from state authority and gives it over to an individual.
Barney Rosset won the right to distribute his edition of Chatterley in 1959 because his edition was soberly produced, with academic prefaces, and reproduction of the decision of the presiding judge. The novel therefore had been politicized, and somehow rendered decent. It was as if the contents of the book were less important than the format. The high price of the hardback, and the fact that the distributor was a book club for intellectuals, pointed in the right direction, the authorities believed. College students could now read it, for their professors could order it for them, and guide them through it.
That was, of course, the theory. What happened was so predictable that Rosset’s success in 1959 may be partly explained by the fact that the business of America is business. Unexpurgated paperback after paperback soon appeared. Rosset responded with his own paperback, stating, “This and only this is the original Grove Press edition” (a distinction without a difference). Entrepreneurship is an integral part of politics, as it is of law regarding the regulation of human desire. All of the conservative moral entrepreneurs did what they do did because of this fact, as did their opponents, in the name of democracy. The ideologies we live with today function no differently. Advocates of the right to marry regardless of partner, access to birth control by women, abortion rights, abolition of sodomy laws, sex education in public schools, and freedom from literary censorship are all progressive campaigns, building supporters by appealing to identity politics . They are just as conscious of how to generate intolerance against their opponents as the latter are—and as capable of inventing enemies, including writers and artists.
Writers are often entrepreneurs too, publicizing their own works and writing reviews of their colleagues’ books. Their creativity stands apart from their self-promotion. Some writers do prioritize their creativity over all other interests. J. D. Salinger stopped his paperback publishers from illustrating the covers of The Catcher in the Rye, and soon after dropped from sight. Thomas Pynchon will not release a photo of himself to his publishers, nor disclose his whereabouts. William Burroughs believed his government had no right to censor any expressive conduct. He probably had in mind what Marshall McLuhan specified during the Naked Lunch trial: preventing the book from circulating, he wrote, was “very much like finding fault with the demeanour or dress of the man who was banging on your kitchen door to warn you that your house was on fire.” To do so was suicidal. Burroughs wanted no part of a process fixated upon such manipulation of ideas, welded as powerful ideas are to desires. People who can recognize their self-interest when they see it should have respect for expression that disturbs them. Perhaps many do. That presents a political problem, for artistic expression, always in some way iconoclastic, threatens social control.
How do you place Saul Bellow’s novels historically in US fiction?
Their subject matter, certainly not their setting, style, or motifs of mystic revelation emerging in characters, cityscapes, and moments of stress, separate the Jewish American novelists of mid-century from writers such as Hemingway, Flannery O’Conner, Robert Penn Warren, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, or Jack Kerouac. The American Dream (“America, whatever that is”—Kerouac) is central to all. But it is embodied in regional and ethnic American sub-nations with as many varied cultures as have existed anywhere in a single political federation. Bellow can be grouped among Jewish American novelists such as Samuel Ornitz, Daniel Fuchs, Meyer Levin, Bernard Malamud, Hugh Nissenson, and Philip Roth, short story writers like Delmore Schwartz, I. B. Singer, Grace Paley, and Cynthia Ozick ( later Steve Stern and Nathan Englander), poets such as Charles Reznikoff and Karl Shapiro, and dramatists such as Frederick Raphaelson and Arthur Miller (later Tony Kushner).
Central themes growing out of the soil of assimilation and its gains and losses are rich indeed. One is the quick death of study-house piety and the poverty that nourishes it. Another is the Jew as striving schemer, or luftmensch. One of his successes was transforming for popular consumption the vibrant, vulgar energies of ghetto song and dance. A third is bitter hostility resulting from the outsider status of a wandering minority, now with no choice but to make themselves “at home in America,” even “America the thief.” Yet another is the mixed feelings toward the Messiah, the one to come (Yeshea) and the one who had come, also a Jew, Jesus. Both have unlimited compassion for the little men who “strive,” “envy,” “scorn,” “die,” “hide” and “want”(Bellow, in Seize the Day.) The way the assimilating, self-creating American Jew faces the Messiah is more central to Jewish American writing than might be thought. Bellow’s stories are as creative regarding these themes as any other writer’s.
Bellow starts with the ebullient, life-affirming Augie March, a young striver whose vast field of enjoyment gives the author the chance to write of it as if the reader is right alongside of Augie, on the boat ride with him. Another Chicago novelist of Jewish life, Meyer Levin, depicted this energy in set pieces in The Old Bunch, also an epic-length book bursting with scintillating entertainment that preceded Augie March. Another example is Fuch’s trilogy of Brooklyn novels. In these writings, events such as the cheers at a college football game, tenement kids roller-skating over the heads of tenants on the floor below, and road kids learning to sell women’s shoes in a bargain basement are too funny, or too close to insanity, to be banal. But by the time Bellow wrote Herzog, that enthusiasm had been replaced by puzzlement.
Herzog joins a select group of protagonists from Abraham Cahan’s David Levinsky to Malamud’s A. Fidelman, Cynthia Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser and Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman. Herzog, like the rest, had enjoyed passionate love, learned accomplishment, relative affluence, and the company of creative (not always honest) people. Now he is full of vengeance, anger, and an awareness of what it means to be a failed husband who furtively watches his own wife’s lover replacing him as father-figure to Herzog’s child. Like Mr Sammler, another Jewish intellectual harassed and terrified by the city and its madness, he “fails to understand.” Humboldt’s Gift features two similar characters, both failed husbands: one, Charlie Citrine, a well-reputed but “lazy” and “disgraceful” writer and editor; the other, Von Humboldt Fleisher, a brilliant poet (modeled on Delmore Schwartz) whose promise degenerates when he becomes paranoiac after critics downplay his work . He alienates everyone, but before he dies places in his avaricious friend’s hand an old, reworked drama script that might redeem Charlie.
There is another kind of response to American worldliness that alleviates suffering. It is exemplified by the humble wise man in Malamud’s The Assistant, the image of light in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the wandering Jew in Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene, and the failed actor in Bellow’s Seize the Day. This response is the intuition of salvation conferred by a religiosity that depends on Jesus and the Jewish roots of his mysticism. Malamud said he “tried to see the Jew as universal man.” “I suffer for you,” says Morris Buber, the Christ-like little man in The Assistant; “You [he’s speaking to his Italian assistant] suffer for me.” Allan Ginsberg, in the tear-filled process of writing of his mother’s madness and death in Kaddish, had a similar mystic, possibly Hasidic, insight, realizing “a great majesty and tenderness to life, a kind of instantaneous universal joy at creation.”
The long passages in Humboldt’s Gift on Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy are another account of universal religion. Humboldt’s last letter to Charlie reminds him humans are not “natural but supernatural beings.” In the last paragraph of the novel, Charlie is visiting Humboldt’s grave. He sees a little flower. Asked what it is, he makes an irreverent, wise-ass pun, calling it a crocus. But a crocus is an early spring flower, regenerating itself underground. Charlie does not know this, but the beauty of Bellow’s plain language leaves a hint in April’s darkening air.
In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm is close enough to the end of his rope to see sympathy with other people as the saving torture it is. His estranged wife and his father turn their backs on his weepy, morally indignant pleading. His father (Dr. Adler; Tommy had adopted a stage name) uses odd imagery. He will not let his son become his “cross. I’ll see you dead, Wilky, by Christ, before I let you do that to me.” He thus justifies his self-insulation from pity. Leave that for Jesus. Tommy, a schlemiel out of Singer yarn, gets hooked up with Tamkin, a luftmensch (pointed shoulders, “claw-like” finger nails, pigeon toes, “deceiver’s brown eyes”), a noonday demon like those who take over Singer’s stories, or the golems, dybbuks, and soul-eating Liliths of Ozick’s tales (see “The Pagan Rabbi”), and those of a later writer, Steve Stern.
Tamkin, kibitzing, tells Tommy everyone has two souls, a “pretender soul” who guides a poor schmuck into the thickets of worldly comfort, and the “true” one, originating in the Hasidic concept of the “true world.” In Tommy, the pretender soul is prostrate in defeat. His true soul, therefore, is all exposed. As Bellow put it in Herzog, Tommy faces “submission to the fate of being human.” So he weeps for a dead stranger, for himself, his father, his wife, for Tamkin even. This Jewish nudnick has become an avatar of Christ.
I wonder if this did not inspire J D Salinger, when Zooey tells Franny) that the average torpid, unwell person listening to their quiz-kid radio show is “Christ Himself.”
How important do you think Philip Roth is as a fictional commentator on the US?
Philip Roth all his life has been dedicated to championing his individual consciousness. That inner light he has defined as much by his satire of his contemporaries as by impulses and thoughts he is told are shameful and/or degenerate. He insists on “The vision of self as inviolate, powerful, and nervy, self-imagined as the seemingly only real thing in an unreal-seeming environment.” That merges with his insistence on the energy of what are called the vulgar, the low, experiences. Portnoy, he said, is a character in a Jewish joke, which makes one want more of the genre’s profane, “demystified, “de-deluded” fun. Was he a pornographer in Portnoy and its magazine antecedents? “How could I not? I too have appetite, genitals, imagination, drive, inhibitions, frailties, will, and conscience.”
Before his trilogy about the second part of the 20th century (I Married a Communist et seq), Roth’s work aroused a whole boatload of American Jewish moral indignation. In doing so, he has shown the opinion-making pundits—many Rabbis, the Bnai Brith, the how-dare-you “spokesmen” such as Leon Weisenthaler and Norman Podhoretz, as well as Academic literary critics– what it means to maintain a distance from orthodox opinions. From the Goodby Columbus stories through Portnoy’s Complaint, he had the courage to reveal what really had happened to the Jewish Mother, the successful business- and law-school college grad, the “New York intellectuals” (who could not abide the 60s anti-war movement), and the young Jewish women—“Shirleys” such as Marjorie Morningstar (nee Morgenstern). The latter had a fling with a self-absorbed rebel in the Village and Paris but wound up, not without a twinge of wistfulness, as a religious/suburban spouse of Milton Schwartz, whose big house had an upscale gold buzzer to impress visitors. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
What had become of the sons and daughters of immigrants who slaved so that their kids could enjoy The Golden Land? Many were venal, neurotic, deniers that anything sinister was happening in the world or at home. So awed of their mothers that they only could show sexual desire for girls whom they disrespected. Portnoy had these traits. He probably never would have asked thoughtful, ambitious Marjorie to dance with him. Roth made his readers laugh, understand, and painfully identify with his contemporary Jews, as a people with a suburban, often Reformed, Judaism. He insisted that his readers be aware of their lonely souls, especially since public success meant being as “ignorant as an Albanian peasant.” Roth used this quotation from Styron, with whom, along with Ellison, he compared himself, while writing about himself and others in the 1970s.
Continuing the Roth tradition of anatomizing ethnocentrism are his novels of the 1990s. Set partly in Israel (Operation Shylock, The Counterlife), they depict the Palestinian insurgents, and how they are hamstrung by the laws of a nation-state that is at bottom a theocracy. Of course, these books are complex. Operation Shylock, full of doppelgängers, confronts the Demjanjuk murders, weighs the souls of centuries of eastern European Jews with those of his own time, and ends with a conversation with a Mosad operative, so deeply respectful of the narrator that he may have suborned him.
In the late short novels (he calls them generically Nemesis: Short Novels) he faces the void. Nemesis is a trip to despair. The protagonist cannot overcome his shame at being a carrier of Polio. He lacks the strength of character to stop equating his soul with infection—the body infected with Polio, the soul with something more powerful and challenging. Both inevitable in a human being. This story is of a Job who lived in an age where God was not in the whirlwind, but in the still small voice within. Indignation is told from behind the grave of a man who defied the Headmaster of his school, would not apologize for what he said, and therefore was drafted and died in agony in hand-to-hand combat with a Japanese soldier. The protagonist of The Humbling, a once-renowned actor who has lost his touch, is dumped by his girlfriend. He musters the courage to shoot himself by imitating the climax of The Seagull.
After the great trilogy I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain, Roth wrote an alternate history of his country, The Plot Against America (2004). From the start of his career, Roth says, he chose America over rabbinic Judaism: the little man who defeated Hitler, the pop culture entertainers who claimed their place with songs and films. Sounds like Whitman here. Sounds also like propaganda for “American exceptionalism.” George Gershwin, fine. But Irving Berlin and his schmaltz? The Hollywood moguls? Al Jolson and his blackface? Fiddler on the Roof? Roth, however, was never sorry. He says, along with Joseph Heller, “more, more.”
Roth stopped writing recently. I wonder what it had to do with that promise of “more, more” having evaporated in the national security, all-surveilled state, and the replacement of that America with an oligarchy of post-human corporate depredation that “keeps us safe” from all that Roth valued.
Tell us about the work you are doing on David Goodis.
When I first read Goodis’ Black Friday, the strongest first impression was that he was writing about a good and, equally, a tough, American man. His name was Hart and he was a man with a soul. He attacked fate without flinching, using only what was inside his body and mind. Hart had the guts to live with the “fourth class ticket” (Goodis’ words) he was handed. Putting his terminally ill brother out of his misery, knowing he would have to flee his home city to avoid life in prison, was a holy act. No two ways about it. At the end of the novel, Hart is out on the silent streets again, alone, his beloved a victim of a bullet meant for him. This time not giving a damn, not even looking at the street corners. “Not feeling the bite of the cold wind.” But you knew he would never stop listening to his still voice within.
The streets were those of West Oak Lane and Germantown, sections of Philadelphia where I walked during the first 30 years of my life: Tulpehocken St., Germantown Avenue, Morton St., and the alleys behind the row houses. Hart went to the U of Pennsylvania, my school. Reading Black Friday was like someone tapping you hard on the shoulder, the voice insisting “Look at this, knucklehead.” Goodis wrote in sharp, bitten-off sentences that were like the sunlight hitting the bricks and mortar of a building where no one went anymore. Tiny shadows right out in the open that told you more than all the conflicted happy talk in the stores, lecture rooms, or on the TV. It was as if that kind of language, which Goodis knew since he had studied advertising, and had written tirelessly for pulp adventure mags, had been defatted, deveined, and remade for his readers. They were mostly the men who worked in factories, offices, loading docks, trucks, and fields, and could read about themselves and their American Dreams in cheap paperbacks:
“The big men. Big winners. Winners in a great big crap game. Big men, smart men, lucky men. The glitter, the glimmer, the gloss, and the glow. And the emerald studs in a white shirt front and seven thousand bucks. . . . Sing, dice. On the corner, outside the candy store on the corner. On a lot of corners in a lot of cities. . . . A lot of guys standing around with their hands in their pockets and waiting for something to happen . . . .”
—The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954)
My first essay on Goodis was on the Philadelphia settings of his novels, which were residential areas of a major industrial city. This writer integrated street corner candy stores, sawdust bars, skid row missions, honky-tonk mass entertainment, flop houses, and the rowdiest produce market on the east coast into stories of beaten-down post-war America as resonant as the titles (Down There and The Moon in the Gutter). Recently, I interviewed a good friend of David, Len Corbin, now 93 and still in love with life. Len and others went everywhere with the writer. Until then, I had thought that the anecdotes of Goodis exploring the underclass, especially African American districts of LA , New York, And Philly might have been exaggerated and a bit romantic. But Len assured me that his friend, so congenial and witty when relaxed, went to these places, always alone, and as if drawn by a force as strong as that which inspired his novels. Now I am sure that Goodis was so good at setting his tales “down there” because he had an almost religious attachment to the vitality, and the suffering, he saw there.
Len also told me that Goodis would have been happily reconciled, if he had to die at 50, to passing away as he did: after a mugging. It happened in front of a restaurant known for being dangerous after hours. This is seconded by Lou Boxer (to me, he is “Mr. David Goodis”), the founder of Philly’s Noircon, a convention of fans of noir literature which began as Goodiscon in 2007. Goodis knew he had congenital heart disease, but Lou said he would “relish in thought” a fate such as a mugging. The underworld he wrote about was his religion, his creativity. It was his true world.
For a while, Goodis was a screen writer. But he hated the upscale aura of the Coast’s fashions, restaurants, night spots, and private mansions. If he did go to a party, he wandered off to the piano and played a few chords of Count Basie, in the 1940s not exactly Noel Coward. The culture of affable noblesse oblige that celebrities and their handlers could display at movie premieres and parties was an intrusion on his privacy. When Len Corbin and a few friends visited from Philly, he insisted on negating the tinsel by driving his buddies around in his hideous 1936 Chrysler convertible. It stunk, and had no windows, so he bought his friends and himself gas masks at an army surplus place and took them to see Sunset Boulevard. That would have been a good story to the guys (Shotzie, Heshie, Doodie, and Harvey the Ganeff) back in north Philly.
My current Goodis project is a statement about his popularity. I was surprised to find out how high he ranks among collectors. Prices have been consistent even before Black Lizard re-issued five titles in mass market paperback . Any bookseller who gets a vintage copy of a Goodis book does not keep it long.
After 1950, he wrote paperback originals, the perfect medium for him. Gold Medal Books offered writers a very good deal. There were parameters that had to be adhered to; a first printing of 3000 copies meant a certain common denominator of interest was necessary. Goodis thrived on those requirements regarding urban setting, the protagonists’ entrapment in the way class and ethnic status determined fate; femme fatales and good girls, sexual fetishism, problems of alcoholism and violence. Paperback publishers apparently held up James M. Cain’s novels as an exemplar of what sells books: the frustrations of the unemployed, office workers, the wives of the wealthy. These traps gave rise to resentments, betrayal, and neurotic possessiveness taking the place of love and trust, and sadism as foreplay. In short, sex and violence, a single plot line, and plain diction.
Paperbacks were distributed in mass entertainment areas, in newsstands and bookstores that carried titillating erotica, in bus and train stations. They were the subject of congressional investigations making them scapegoats for juvenile delinquency. Intellectuals and academics sneered at them as “masscult.” Writing near the end of his life, Goodis denigrated his crime novels, and seemed to have thought little of himself as writer. The ways that was and was not true takes a lot of thought. In fact, there were levels of authenticity in “throwaway” fiction that works accepted as “modern Literature” could not touch.
I’d like to show that David Goodis was lovingly attached to his work as much as he was to those solitary walks to the city’s wild sides. Maybe in the way Kafka was to his stories.
How Kafkaesque do you think Goodis is and why?
This is a topic I have to work out. It has always been my impression that Goodis’ characters keep circling around a particular response to a situation with which they are presented. It’s like a flame to a moth, which is always in danger of being hypnotized and immolated. The point around which the protagonist compels himself to circle may be a criminal family (Down There, The Burglar, Black Friday), a neighbourhood and its class-based culture (Moon in the Gutter Street of the Lost), a primal fear (Night Squad), a sexual fetish bound to sadism or incest (Of Tender Sin, The Blonde on the Street Corner, Cassidy’s Girl), alcoholism or another kind of addiction (Fire in the Flesh, The Wounded and the Slain), a profession (“The Plunge,” “Professional Man,” The Burglar) or a certain kind of moral authenticity which causes inevitable, sometimes gratuitous, suffering (The Burglar, Nightfall, Down There, Black Friday).
In each of these cases, a man of moral sensitivity is destroyed, or much more commonly, brought to the point of destruction, by a situation in which he is presented with a terrible choice. It is a choice which the fact of our being human forces us to think about before we act. And that is a trap in itself, because fear of change, whether or not it is tied to moral scruples, prevents decisive action. That is the case in Kafka quite often, for instance in “Before the Law” (from The Trial), “The Judgment,” The Castle. It is also the case in many of the Goodis books mentioned above, where it feeds the power of crime, especially crimes of the powerful against the vulnerable.
Goodis’ females are often ethereal and loving, or earthly, aggressive, and voluptuous. It is the latter that arouse the protagonist. The former are either untouchable or are torn from him by a noir fate. This dichotomy tortured Kafka as well. “The body of every other girl,” he wrote, “tempted me [except] the body of the girl in whom I placed my hope. . . . I can love [as opposed to sensually desire] only what I can place so high above me that I cannot reach it.”
There are a few of Kafka’s aphorisms that are particularly apt to Goodis’ stories:
“From a certain point on, there is no turning back. That is the point which must be reached.”
“We are instructed to do the negative. The positive is already within us.”
“A cage went in search of a bird.”
There is another aphorism, which you know, Richard, because you wrote it: “A man who knows what being morally compromised means in the eye of the law.” You applied it to Goodis. Certainly it is true (Black Friday, Dark Passage, Nightfall, for example). In Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” a machine imprints the prisoner’s crime on his skin. It is the ultimate mark of the outcast. The Trial ends with the accused being led to execution on a deserted square. His last thought is that “the shame of it” will be his only surviving legacy.
You live in New York and attend film classes. Have you seen any good movies lately?
The Godard film (1963) of Moravia’s Contempt (alternate title A Ghost at Noon, 1954) was an attempt to produce a box office bonanza: the cinemascope (for snakes, not people, Godard pronounced), the “Most Beautiful Woman Alive” (Brigitte Bardot), the producers Carlo Ponti and Joe Levine, the exotic locale, and Jack Palance as the Hollywood director all point in that direction. In addition, Godard thought Moravia’s novel “vulgar” (possibly because he wanted his film to be considered superior). Yet the presence of Fritz Lang, venerable director of American mysteries such as Scarlet Street and westerns such as Johnny Guitar, and of course Metropolis and the Mabuse series, points in another direction. Lang plays the director of a modern movie about The Odyssey. That he speaks four languages in the film adds to his stature. I can imagine people finishing the novel, or the film, turning to their partner, and saying, “That’s how you men/women are.” The more people who can say (and discuss) that, the better—a justification in itself for Godard’s mass consumption goal. Better yet, the film is as stunning as the novel. It makes Capri look like heaven, while at the same time using the music of the saddest story.
Emilia and Riccardo love each other very much. Then Riccardo chooses (he doesn’t ask) Emilia to ride with his take-charge boss, producer of a film on which he is employed, in the latter’s sexy car while he hails a cab [this is a foreshadowing of the fateful climax]. He notices her discomfort. She expected him to be with her, not use her to impress the producer. He does not know it then, but he soon realizes she has replaced love with contempt. Later, Emilia tells her husband, “You are not a man.” She thinks that, even after he has seen her kissing the producer, he is thinking more of his job than of what he owes her as her lover. And he feels that he has taken the script-writing job only because he needed money to give her what she wanted. How often does this scene reproduce itself?
They are both fixed in their paths. Now the estranged man and woman are in the hands of fate. Godard represents this point by a towering male statue of Neptune, Odysseus’ enemy, arms extended as if conjuring. The statue of the hero’s protector, Minerva, proudly wearing a plumed helmet, is equally momentous. The camera pans slowly around them from ground level.
In the novel, the director of the film about The Odyssey for which Riccardo has written the script explains to him that Odysseus left Penelope because of problems with the marriage. She could only love him again when he slew the suitors, whom he had originally told Penelope to tolerate. Riccardo hates this idea. It reduces the nobility and expansive beauty of the ancient world to a reductive modern psychology, in the age of Freud a sure-fire attraction. Ricardo—possibly cuckolded by the ugly American producer–sees himself nevertheless as a seeker beyond death of love and authenticity. He also sees himself as a man of letters, thus under-employed as a hired hand on a film production for a mass audience.
Riccardo assumes he must seek his deceased Emilia “in those great sea spaces,” where he can find her “in the shape in which she had been clothed in life.” Only in that way can he be able to “set [her] free from my feelings.” Enigmatically, she would then and only then “bend down over me like an image of consolation and beauty.” I believe that Godard’s fierce, gesturing, blue-eyed and blue-mouthed statue of Neptune, and his helmeted one of Minerva, allude to the fact that what Riccardo finds will be unbending and will exact punishment, either for his hubris or for his helplessness in the face of his wife’s eternal contempt. Godard makes an interesting comment on this by giving Lang a line from Hölderlin: at the present time, “It is God’s absence that reassures man.” That is something Dante’s Odysseus might say.
Late in the novel, the desperate, self-hating protagonist has a hallucination of Emilia reconciling with him. They row to a small dark grotto, and only in the dark does he realize it was in his mind. In fact, she was on her way, due to a freak car accident, to her death. What he saw was a ghost at noon. Vowing to pursue her into the beyond, Riccardo is reminiscent of Odysseus, whose ultimate fate Dante tells us is to exist forever as a flame in that special circle of hell reserved for counsellors of fraud. Riccardo quotes the voyaging hero as asking Dante to tell people to continue, as he had done, to explore, even to “the unpeopled world beyond the Sun.” Our script-writer hopes to find Emilia in the unknown. Beyond God, that is, beyond reason, and modern science. Riccardo leaves out Ulysses’ statement that men were made to “follow virtue and knowledge.” What can he expect? What he does is write his story. But his place in it is more than a little like Leopold Bloom’s in another Ulysses: self-hating, no longer sleeping with his wife, girl-watching, tortured by the thought his wife has a suitor, and plagued by a job he knows is thankless.
This may be the most romantic story ever about love, death, and mortal frailty. It is reminiscent of Anthony and Cleopatra, where Antony followed Cleopatra, only to be unmanned, and kill himself, after her irrational naval strategies rob him of his power. Orpheus, also an artist, could not recover Eurydice since he looked back to see if she was following him out of Hades. There is a strain of Sleeping Beauty in Riccardo’s fanciful desire to rekindle Emilia’s love for him. A touch of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also a possibility: Connie’s war-wounded self-indulgent husband, a writer, becomes an oppressive force upon her spirit until she finds a virile man to bring her back to life. These stories, all of which had become accessible myths by the time Moravia wrote, may have glimmered in the imagination of Contempt’s readers and viewers as Riccardo seeks his love in world beyond the sun that only the secular magic of film and the spirituality of narrative can conjure.
Thank you Jay for an insightful and great interview.