You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Cult of Philip Roth

A writer reflects on the loss of a "True Judge."

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

Baruch dayan ha’emet: This is what Jews say upon being told of another Jew’s death. The phrase, which derives from a Talmudic blessing, means “Blessed is the True Judge”—which can seem a strange, emotionless, and even mindless phrase to utter until you understand the practicality behind it. According to the rabbis, God will refuse your thanks for the good things in life, unless you also thank Him for the bad. You must thank God for all things, no matter how shitty and wasting they might be; no matter how much they might harm you. Accepting God’s judgement—regardless of what that judgement is—accepting it with humility and grace, reaffirms your faith just at the moment at which that faith is being tested, and so this phrase is regarded by Jews as an initial step toward what some Americans call “healing.”

Anyway, this was what I said on Tuesday night, when I was told of the death of Philip Roth: Baruch dayan ha’emet.

In this case, however, I wasn’t proclaiming my resignation to any divine decree. Rather I was blessing Roth himself.

Because Roth, to me, was the True Judge. His literature exerted that authority: What he wrote, I accepted; I swallowed. Even his most outlandish fictions, I subscribed and assented to. I felt I had no choice. His writing had the style of a verdict, an edict. His sentences, with their total and carefully claused control, came down to me from the mountain—or from the high shelves of the library of the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County, New Jersey—like commandments cut into stone, and as the descriptions accumulated, as the arguments and counter-arguments piled up, and the appetites were embraced and disavowed with equal fervor, all I could do was submit, surrender, and give myself up completely to his power.

There have been fewer than ten writers—not enough for a minyan—who have ever held such sway over me, and Roth was the only one who, until yesterday, was still living: the only one who could create a world that I couldn’t object to, or overturn, at least when I was in the heat of my reading. Sometimes, to experience this force was stifling. How could I, who was born down the Shore, in Atlantic City, believe in a God who was also from New Jersey? But most of the time, it inspired my awe: How could I, who was born down the Shore, in Atlantic City, not believe in a God who was also from New Jersey?

Roth wasn’t just a maker of ukases; he was a maker of miracles, too. Let other Jews multiply loaves and fishes and turn water into wine. Roth managed the more generous and so more impressive feat of turning the parochial into the national. He made his Jersey Jews an American concern, and through that assimilation, they (and that process of assimilation itself) went international.

Every immigrant American writer of every ethnicity, race and, yes, gender, who followed in his wake—whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they like acknowledging it or not—is in his debt. Sure, other writers had tried this transubstantiation trick before—notably Bellow, whom Roth idolized, and that other Roth, Henry—but only Philip Roth attempted it so explicitly, and yet, paradoxically, so casually, in book after book after book (almost 30 novels in all), as if by sheer effort he could drag not just the Old World into the New World, but the New World into the Global.

Roth was also, please remember, a devoted chronicler of the flawed, and so before rushing to censure him for misogyny or chauvinism or any other variety of insensitivity, we’d do well to spend this shiva week revisiting the history, or anti-history, of Socialist Realism. This Soviet doctrine—which dictated that writers should write about the world as it should be, and not about the world as it is—was the bane of Eastern Bloc literature, many of whose eminences wouldn’t have been translated (Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis), and wouldn’t have been able to physically survive (Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima), without Roth’s principled and circumspect charity. He published their books under his imprint, Writers from the Other Europe; he sent them money. That Roth was such a champion of speech can be attributed to a youth that began under the clouds of World War II and finished amid the politico-sexual tumult of the 1960s. In other words, while Roth might’ve been bred for patriotism, that sentiment was retained not out of filial duty, but continually earned through his struggles against irony and cynicism. He might’ve been the last American novelist ever to fly the American flag in all sincerity—at least, he hung one in the window of his apartment after September 11.

I’ll resist the nostalgia of citing favorite books and reciting favorite passages and conclude by quoting one of Roth’s later-in-life statements, from an interview he gave to The Daily Beast nearly a decade ago, on the eve of his retirement: “The book can’t compete with the screen,” he said. “It couldn’t compete beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen and it can’t compete with the computer screen, I don’t think. And now we have all those screens, so against all those screens I think the book can’t measure up.”

Elsewhere in the interview, he predicted that the novel would endure as a popular art-form for another quarter-century at most, after which it would become “cultic.”

When I first read these comments, I thought, of course that’s what Roth would say. For any writer so engaged, the world will end when he ends.

And then I thought that it might not be such a tragedy for novels to become like Jewssmall, minority, potently “cultic.” But what I think now is this: The novel will continue to exist, if only because novelists will continue to exist. All true novelists write because they have to.

Philip Roth—America’s truest novelist, whose generation enjoyed the largest literary audience in this country’s history—would’ve written his work for no one, or for himself, for free; he would’ve written for his walls or drawer, all alone. Roth wrote for the same reason that people masturbate and the messiah comes: because that’s what they do. He wrote for the same reason that God created the world: because He’s God. He just couldn’t fucking help himself.