YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 30, 2013

Philip Roth, The Following, and Identification with the Aggressor

Sabbaths_theaterI raised this issue after the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, (See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/12/hbo%e2%80%99s-in-treatment-and-boardwalk-empire/, and continued my theme in https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/. After having seen the PBS American Masters “unmasking” of novelist Philip Roth (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/philip-roth/film-philip-roth-unmasked/2467/) and noticing a representation of the devil on the cover of the 1995 National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath’s_Theater), a novel about sex, adultery, and suicide, and roughly based on the life of artist R. J. Kitaj (who was indeed a suicide at age 75), I thought it was time to write a very short blog on the attraction to the demonic, a theme usually tossed off as wayward Romanticism, and yet devil worship and sadism pervade popular and high culture alike. (Think of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), that made his reputation in Europe and prompted many suicides.)

Why is such identification with the demonic so prevalent? Bill O’Reilly interviewed Christopher Ruddy, a Catholic professor of theology, and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who is famous on the Right for defending America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage.” O’Reilly seemed surprised to learn that Jews have no conception of the Devil as an independent force in the universe, looking rather to inborn instincts at odds with one another: good versus evil. After pushing him, O’Reilly finally got the Rabbi to declare that there would indeed be heavenly rewards or punishment, thus bringing Judaism in line with the Catholicism that O’Reilly vigorously defends. (So much for the unbridgeable gap between Judaism and Christianity, not a popular theme these days.)

But that gap is not the subject of this blog. Rather, I want to focus on the popularity of gangsters and other rebels against such admonitions as “thou shalt not murder.”

Although it was never explicitly addressed in the PBS documentary, though the first part did dwell at some length on Roth’s middle class parents, we do learn that 1. His father expected him to be a lawyer; and 2. Before the release of the raunchy Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel that made Roth not only famous but financially independent, he “prepared” his parents for the shock of the content matter, reassuring them that the parents in the novel bore no resemblance to themselves, but were fiction. From the documentary, we might infer that Roth never separated from his parents, was afraid of their rejection, and has maintained a punitive, puritanical superego to this day. (Look at his home in Connecticut: it is a model of 17th century puritan architecture.) I would not be surprised if Roth takes his own life now that he has retired from writing, for he dreads a biography, as he made clear in the PBS piece.


How to explain this bad boy of literature and the fascination he exerts on millions of liberal readers? I have often mentioned authoritarian parenting on prior blogs. There are many ways to be authoritarian, ranging from physical abuse, incest, clinging, or abandonment to aggressive siblings or schoolmates, on to subtle or overt disapproval of the path taken by one’s children. Perhaps they marry out of the faith or “race,” perhaps they are bisexual or gay, perhaps they go native by choosing a life of bohemian lawlessness over middle-class respectability. Or in Roth’s case, perhaps some of the above, but also what if they write stories hostile to many Jews, literally taunting religious, unassimilated Jews in such stories as “The Defender of the Faith,” “The Conversion of the Jews” (published in Goodbye Columbus, 1959) or the novel Operation Shylock (1993) in which the protagonist and his double share the same anti-Zionist narrative of the founding of Israel and its subsequent history. In the PBS documentary, Roth asserts that he is not a Jewish writer at all (as many consider him to be), but an “American” writer.

Roth Conn

Finally, I get to my argument: as any clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst or social worker will tell you, a defense against the (usually repressed) rage felt against the cruel or confusing* parent or parents who may be internalized in the omnipresent superego, is to identify with the aggressor (some people call this the Stockholm Syndrome). By becoming the parent/perpetrator (even if only imaginatively), we avoid the stigma of victim and avoid intolerable feelings of helplessness, the dread of falling that we experienced as dependent infants or toddlers. (This is the profile of the sadomasochist, who, in my experience as a student of sadomasochism, harbors rage against the Mother who asks her son for unattainable perfection in a society replete with cognitive dissonance.)

I am not a Roth scholar; I have read many of his books, but not nearly all of them, and have enjoyed his writing, especially in American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Whatever I write here about him, is what I caught from the PBS documentary, and my ongoing study of the irresistible demonic in popular and high culture.

*I have not mentioned mixed messages and double binds that liberal parents often inflict (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/10/columbia-u-s-double-bind-october-1917/). Roth mentions that his family was generally “left-of center,” implying that some were communists. But if he harbors communist sympathies, he is surely a Popular Front red, for FDR rescues the USA from Lindbergh’s fascism in The Plot Against America (2004). This novel is the closest he will get to the possible extra-parental traumas of his youth: the Great Depression, the second world war, and the (supposedly invisible) Holocaust. None of that is in the PBS special. [POSTSCRIPT. Since writing this blog, I have read Sabbath’s Theater, and admire it more than words can express. It is Roth’s masterpiece, and wonderfully funny and trenchant. Of all his contemporaries, he has made the best use of Freud that I  have yet encountered, and the protagonist’s traumas lay exposed for all to see.]

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea


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