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Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth
Published February 26, 2015
Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth (Bloomsbury, 2015) argues that Jewish anxiety stems not only from fear of victimization but also from fear of perpetration. It is impossible to think about Jewish victimization without thinking about the Holocaust; and it is impossible to think about the taboo question of Jewish perpetration without thinking about Israel. I use the word “taboo” here contextually as of course, it is not at all taboo in some cases—but it is in the context of a Jewish American writer’s works. The history of Jewish victimization predates by a long stretch of the Nazi genocide and this dual anxiety is perhaps not only a “Jewish” concern. That perpetration and victimization can sometimes be uncomfortably close is part of what Roth explores throughout his oeuvre. Almost all of his novels scrutinize perpetration and victimization through examining racism and sexism in America. The novels set in America often feature racist, ranting characters who express anti-black-American or anti-Japanese sentiment; progressive figures who explicitly challenge this racism often oppose these characters. The totemic presence of people of color who seem to be randomly plunked into Roth’s texts without developing as fully formed characters formally shadows these debates within the narratives about racism in America. I suggest that these characters are problematic on the one hand because they are not granted the full consciousness that many of the white characters achieve; but, on the other hand, Roth may be (intentionally or accidentally) replicating and critiquing the very structure of racial division by having these figures be so evanescently sketched. Because copious numbers of Roth’s Jewish men try (but fail) to identify with some of these characters, and endlessly deferred alliance appears as a spectral presence that conjures up shared oppression that will always be dissolved by white privilege. By placing Jewish identification with usually black characters in proximity to (often Jewish) racist ranting Roth subtly demonstrates the danger of Jews becoming the very thing the aftershock of the Holocaust would make them despise most: racist.
Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation (University of Illinois Press, 2007), argues that thinking about the role of aesthetic pleasure in complex Holocaust art, literature and monuments/memorials opens this traumatic historical event to deeper understanding. The relationship between aesthetics and history or between art and politics has generally been vexed; yet many readers and viewers of Holocaust literature, art, and memorials confess that where the historical documentary might not affect them deeply, the aesthetic power of art encourages them to remember the Holocaust rather than shunt it aside. This project asks several questions: how can we make sense of the contradictory claims of aesthetics and history? How can we understand the incredible beauty of much Holocaust art? And is there something indecent or unethical about this beauty? I argue that beautiful representations can deepen rather than detract from Holocaust remembrance. Unwanted Beauty made an impact on how representations of trauma—including but not limited to the Holocaust—are created and perceived. By trying to ameliorate the image of the beautiful in traumatic contexts I offered the hope that these beautiful works would deepen our understanding of our endless capacity both to create suffering and to heal wounds. The arguments in my book about the place of unwanted beauty in the representation of mass violence have been applied to other histories where violence, memory, trauma, and aesthetics cross.
Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory (Routledge, 2011), grapples with how space and memory connect, how the Holocaust travels through the geographies of contemporary space and finds ground internationally. How do the spaces of the past stay with us through representations—whether literary or photographic? How has the Holocaust registered in our increasingly globally connected consciousness? What does it mean that this European event is often used as an interpretive or representational touchstone for genocides and traumas globally? Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory asks and attempts to answer these questions by looking at historically and geographically diverse spaces, photographs, and texts that are all concerned with the physical and/or mental landscape of the Holocaust and its transformations from the postwar period to the early twenty-first century. The Holocaust and fascism are embedded in the physical and mental landscapes of our era and are used globally for a surprisingly contradictory series of political aims that testify to the ubiquity and elasticity of the memory of World War II today. Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory explores traumatic landscapes (both actual and literary) that encourage us not only to reflect on what happened in places associated with the Nazi regime and its atrocities, but also to analyze the political and cultural status of the Holocaust in the early twenty-first century. By examining the intersections of landscape, postmemory, and trauma I hope to have offered new insights into the effects and uses of the Nazi genocide today.
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