Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Philip Roth: Presidents, real and imagined

From a New Yorker interview with Judith Thurman, Philip Roth on comparisons between his novel The Plot Against America, which imagined a Charles Lindbergh defeat of FDR, and our present situation:
It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump's American forebear is Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville's last—that could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.
From the same interview:
I was born in 1933, the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I've been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish* than English.
On the present condition and role of the writer:
Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven't had their driver's licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don't live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump's river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.
* Jerkish: A term popularized by the Czech writer Ivan Klíma in his novel Love and Garbage. Said to have been developed for communication with chimpanzees, Jerkish has a vocabulary of only 225 words. Klíma characterized it as the standard dialect of Czechoslovakia's Stalinist-era politicians.

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