December 09 2010
Powerpoint Presentation on Philip Roth
The paper I am presenting is on identity crises in Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic” and “The Conversion of the Jews” from the collection of short stories in Goodbye, Columbus (1959).
First and foremost, I would like to commence my presentation by defining an identity crisis. The phrase “identity crisis” was first coined by the developmental psychologist Erik Erickson. According to Erickson, an identity crisis is a period of extreme self-analysis and self-exploration for alternative methods of perceiving oneself. This is the result of internal and external conflicts of experience. Erikson observed that World War II veterans “experienced dramatic historical changes when they entered adulthood” (160) which were a result of their trauma-inducing participation in the war. Erikson claimed that “they had “lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity” and were experiencing “identity crises”.” (qtd. in Friedman 160) Erickson states that without “a sense of what one is, of knowing where one belongs, of knowing what one wants to do” (qtd. in Friedman 161), the veterans felt their lives were disassembled and could not be reassembled.
In relation to the texts in which I am exploring this concept of identity crisis, it is also pertinent to note that Erickson’s interest in the psychology of identity originated in childhood. Erickson was raised Jewish in the religion Judaism. However, due to his Nordic appearance and lineage, he was bullied at temple school. As a result of his Jewish background, he was rejected at grammar school. From Erickson’s childhood experience of ethnic segregation and his hyphenated identity as Danish-German-American, it is apparent how he formalized his theory of identity crisis.
With that in mind, I propose that each of Roth’s protagonists from the collection of short stories in Goodbye, Columbus experiences an identity crisis. By portraying his characters in this fashion, Roth questions what does Jewish identity mean in a post-second World War America? Have Jews really achieved assimilation and American status? Or are they merely hyphenated Americans with a dual nationalism and an inability to be classed as truly American? Roth suggests this is “a self-inflicted dilemma” (Aarons “Good-for-the-Jews” 18).
Victoria Aarons argues that Roth’s characters “are in the initial stages of attempting to define themselves as Jews or not as Jews. And this tension, this push and pull between “Jew or not” makes Jewish identity the single uncompromising antagonist against which Roth’s characters must contend.” (10) The self-imposed, ethnic disunity is especially apparent in the protagonist of “Eli, the Fanatic”.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the short story, “Eli, the Fanatic” is set in the suburb of Woodenton where a group of dispossessed Orthodox Jews and Holocaust survivors have found refuge. Following the negative reaction to the European refugees’ presence, the assimilated Jewish residents nominate Eli Peck, a successful attorney, to utilise the law to eradicate Woodenton of these mementos of Jewish heterogeneity. Eli and the rest of the Jewish community have achieved assimilation into the previously predominant gentile society by suppressing conspicuous aspects of their Jewish culture and tradition. However, the Americanised Jews’ peaceful coexistence with the gentile community is compromised by the Orthodox Jews’ sporting of Talmudic attire and the establishment of a “Yeshiva” (184) in the community.
Eli’s pro bono service requires him to negotiate with Leo Tzuref, the head of the yeshiva, who he attempts to indoctrinate about conforming to the social norms of their upper-middle-class community. Eli suggests that the amicable Jew-Gentile relationship is a result of the collective abdication of “some of their more extreme practices in order not to threaten or offend the other.” (189) Ironically, Eli and the other members of his community are imposing on the Orthodox Jews what has been imposed on them by the Gentiles. It is through these interactions with the Orthodox Jews that Eli experiences an identity crisis.
The instability of Eli’s identity is apparent in the verbal exchange with Tzuref: ““I am them, they are me, Mr. Tzuref.”/ “Aach! You are us, we are you!” (192). Although he initially opposes the yeshiva Jews, Eli becomes overwhelmed by survivor’s guilt and eventually empathises and identifies with them. They awaken in him a yearning to reconnect with his authentic selfhood which he has camouflaged, by adopting American customs, in pursuit of the American dream. Eli says: “Just give me the day-them the day” (201). I suggest this may be not only be read as a Freudian parapraxis that expresses Eli’s unconscious association with the Orthodox Jews, but it also brings into question the concept of identity. William James, an American psychologist and philosopher, contends “the sense of personal identity was most closely associated with ‘I’ or the ‘self-as-knower’. A stable self-identity derives from a sense of the continuity of the self-as-knower.” (Hart, Maloney and Damon 123) By failing to distinguish himself as “me” from “them” suggests that Eli’s identity is fluctuating.
However, Eli’s moment of identity confusion also exemplifies the difficulties inherent in defining and claiming ethnic identity. What constitutes Eli’s differentiation of himself as “me”, the Americanised Jew, in comparison to “them”, the Orthodox Jews? What criterion defines one from the other? Is Eli Jewish or American? Or is his connection between both represented by the hyphenation of the two words; a partially formed bridge that paradoxically separates and joins them?
In order to fully comprehend why Eli wishes to associate with an alternative identity, I must first look at an expansion of Erikson’s identity theory. James Marcia, a developmental psychologist, constructed four identity statuses that are involved in the psychological development of identity. In his essay “The Identity Status Approach to the Study of Ego Identity Development”, Marcia claims that “[t]he identity statues are four outcomes of the identity crisis period.” (162) I think one of these statuses is applicable to Eli Peck. Eli appears to be in a state of what Marcia calls Identity Moratorium. Identity Moratorium is the status of an individual who is in the process of exploring alternative identities but has not made a commitment to one. Milowitz argues the “changing of clothes suggests that Eli is trying on alternative identities” (20).
I contend Eli posses a dual identity which is metaphorized in the two suits he wears. Eli’s identity as an assimilated Jewish American is a pseudo identity because he is attempting to pass as a WASP-gentile. I propose this identity is metaphorized in his green designer suit. The colour of the suit not only connotes American currency, but its quality as signifies his material success and assimilation in America.
On the other hand, Eli’s traditional Jewish identity is his crypto-identity, which he abandons in order to assimilate into Woodenton society. Eli progressively identifies with the man in the Talmudic hat and black suit referred to as “The Greenie” (204). Roth also creates a subtle link between Eli and the greenie by suggesting “[h]is face was no older than Eli’s” (183). Jones and Nace maintain the greenie becomes Eli’s ““Doppelganger”, or double” (32). I contend the greenie’s black suit, with its appropriate colouration, metaphorizes Eli’s traditional Jewish identity that he endeavours to recapture by wearing it. Roth states:
“Eli looked at what he wore. And then Eli had the strange notion that he was two people. Or that he was one person wearing two suits. The greenie looked to be suffering from a similar confusion. They stared long at one another. Eli’s heart shivered and his brain was momentarily in such a mixed-up condition that his hands went out to button down the collar of his shirt that somebody else was wearing.” (209)
Eli attempts to find a balance between his pseudo-American and crypto-Jewish identity by swapping clothes with the greenie. However, the psychological impact of his experimental experience with traditional Jewish identity is depicted in the moment of olfactory synesthesia when Eli “for the first time in his life […] smelled the colour blackness.” (206) Wirth-Nescher states: “[Eli’s] exchange of clothing with his double is the sign of this crossing over to the side of collective memory and responsibility.” (106) Therefore, Wirth-Nescher’s argument that “Eli, the Fanatic” is “an allegory about the perils of assimilation, about the moral price paid for turning one’s back on one’s heritage” (106) is convincing.
Eli can switch between identities because “[h]e could go inside and put on his clothes” (213). However, “[t]he suit the [greenie] wears is all he’s got” (190). Shostak suggest this “implies not just the man’s economic straits as a displaced person but also that his sole identity is bound up in and made meaningful by the significance of this nineteenth-century grab. To change his clothes is to change the man.” (120) Roth’s use of clothing to signify identity, especially ethnic identity, is highly controversial because it implies that ethnic identity is transient, ephemeral and ductile. Identities may be worn and discarded like clothes. With this portrayal, Roth intends to expose “the moral bankruptcy of post-war American Jews who happily trade their history in for a slice of apple pie” (qtd. in Brauner 109), as George Ziad claims.
This also relates back to the difficulties in defining ethnicity that I spoke about earlier. Does a black suit associated with Orthodox Jewry make Eli Jewish?
Furthermore, I contend that Eli’s failure to resolve his identity crisis and advance to Marcia’s Identity Achievement status effectuates his dissociative identity disorder. Eli’s dual identity, as an Orthodox Jew and Jewish American, is splintered into two alter egos: Eli Peck and Eli, the Fanatic. Although Eli’s black suit jacket may be torn off him“so easily, in one yank” (216) at the apogee of the story when he is intravenously sedated, it “did not touch it down where the blackness had reached” (216). The synthetic drug, like Eli’s artificial identity, cannot affect his authentic Jewish identity. This scene may be read as Roth’s way of suggesting that one’s true identity may be temporarily suppressed, like the sedating effects of a drug, but cannot be permanently denied.
Roth concludes “Eli, the Fanatic” with a shocking, ambiguous climax which is simultaneously disconcerting yet somewhat optimistic for the reader. One may read it in a positive fashion by suggesting that Eli has in fact re-established a connection with a legitimate sense of identity. However, Roth suggests this may only be achieved by what could be called self-sacrifice. The death of Eli’s identity is prompted in the statement: “Eli, you look like you’re going to your own funeral.” (214) Eli commits social suicide and defames his pseudo-identity, as an assimilated Jew, by exhibiting himself to the Woodenton public in “those black clothes…the skin of his skin.” (212). They perceive this as symptomatic of another one of his nervous breakdowns but for Eli it symbolises his metamorphosis. He sheds the shell of his fallacious facade and chrysalises himself into a representation of his authentic, ethnic identity.
In a sense, Eli is similar to Ozzie Freedman from “The Conversion of the Jews” because he also attempts to claim an individual identity. Ozzie experiences an identity crisis in his struggle with the religiously myopic and oppressive Rabbi Binder. Shaheen describes Rabbi Binder as “a totalitarian pedagogue who wishes to bind his pupils’ minds into set patterns” (376). However, Ozzie Freedman desires freedom, as his surname suggests, and “refuses to be bound” (376) by the contorting, religious ideology of Rabbi Binder.
Ozzie questions his identity in saying: “Is it me? Is it me ME ME ME ME ME! It has to be me-but is it!” (106). Before the apogee of the story, however, there is a shift in Ozzie’s search for personal autonomy to a collective assertion of freedom. He says: “Is it us?..Is it us?” (112).
However, unlike Eli Peck, Ozzie Freedman comes out of his identity crisis literally on top. Ozzie asserts his individuality from the rooftop of the synagogue by conducting a quasi-conversion ceremony and enforcing his commands to Rabbi Binder, his mother and the congregation, by threatening to commit suicide. Shaheen maintains that “only under duress could Binder be unbound.” (378)
Rodgers interprets Ozzie’s revolt as a reflection of “Roth’s own artistic revolt” (qtd. in Jones and Nance 30). Roth says: “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew” (qtd. in Rabin 9). Like his protagonists, Roth wishes to assert his own identity. He desires to be classed as a writer without the preceding ethnic stamp that in turn has inadvertently fuelled accusations of his Jewish self-hatred and anti-Semitism.
In conclusion, Roth’s characters from the short stories in Goodbye, Columbus can only construct their identities in juxtaposition to their replication of the Jew as heterogeneous. Roth utilises “the boundaries provided by anti-Semitism” as “the primary defining factors of Jewishness” (Fishman 149). Roth also implies there is a futility attached to denying one’s ethnic identity that is apparent from Eli’s failed attempt at fleeing from and denying his traditional Jewish identity. This is because as Adam Philips states, “One can neither take the Jew out of history nor history—mythic, impending, or mundane—out of the individual Jew.” (qtd. in Aarons “Good-for-the-Jew” 18) Roth’s fame is undoubtedly double-edged, like the dual identity of his hyphenated characters. His work receives both praise and criticism, but I think a lot of this criticism is a result of misinterpretation. Although he denies being the voice of American Jews, he provides his readers with a plethora of Jewish stereotypes. I believe Roth’s use of Jewish stereotypes is not derogatory. Instead, I think it stimulates and challenges the prejudicial beliefs of his readers.
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Here are some videos I find interesting: