Home > 1990, About reading, American Literature, Novel, Opinion, Roth Philip > Politics, literature, Philip Roth…And me

Politics, literature, Philip Roth…And me

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in a inverse relationship to each other –they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? But how can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist, the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself –for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos,. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world –that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than that shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big relief that will change the world and the artist introduces a product that has no place in that world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”

Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

And this is why some politicians despise literature, why I’ll never be a member of a political party, a political organization or a union. I’m not an artist, I’m not a writer but I’m on the side of the artist, of the writer. I want to see the particular, I want to see the shit, I want to frolic in the grand uselessness of literature.

  1. Diane Reynolds
    August 9, 2015 at 12:34 am

    I love your thoughts! But please, use paragraphs. That makes your wonderful commentary so much easier to read.


    • Diane Reynolds
      August 9, 2015 at 12:36 am

      I am talking to Roth.


      • August 12, 2015 at 10:25 pm

        I was about to reply that I’d only typed Roth’s prose and lay-out when I saw your second comment.
        I thought exactly the same thing when I clicked on “preview” to check my post.
        It’s a big text to be without paragraphs but he’s brilliant.


  2. N@ncy
    August 9, 2015 at 10:14 am

    A lot to digest on a Sunday morning with my coffee!
    I’ve never read Roth….it’s time I start ” American Pastorale” .
    Funny, I thought about Roth just a few days ago…out of the blue. I thought how wonderful he must feel, relaxing, reading and not writing after he announced he had written his last book.
    No more pressure to write ….literature for us all to enjoy.


    • August 12, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      American Pastorale will probably be my next Roth. (This is my sixth)
      I wonder if he’ll really stop writing or if we’ll discover manuscripts after his death.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 9, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Oh my word, this is brilliant! Thank you for sharing.


    • August 12, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      You’re welcome. I knew I couldn’t include that in my billet (to be written) about the book.


  4. August 10, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Beautiful post and beautiful quote, Emma. Thanks for writing it. I haven’t read Philip Roth, but now after reading this passage, I wanted to read his books. Your post also made me think. How did someone like Vaclav Havel, who was a politician as well as an artist (he wrote plays), manage the contradiction between these two things? It is fascinating to ponder.


    • August 12, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      I love Philip Roth’s books, I highly recommend him.

      I think people like Vaclav Havel become political figures but not politicians. They went in politics as a historical hazzard and not because it was a career choice. That makes all the difference, in my opinion.


  1. May 23, 2018 at 9:25 pm

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