The great essays – Why we must write? Philip Roth’s Hamlet-style doubt in front of the slime of the contemporary

Why we must write? Anyone who entrusts a substantial and hopefully conscious part of their emotional and intellectual existence to writing cannot fail to ask it often. Net of the horror vacui that can catch some in front of the blank page, of course, because there are other reasons to ask a question like that; and even net of individual expectations, destined to be disappointed in almost all cases, compared to what in our aspirations should arouse the writing, between expectations of a judgment and the discrepancy between what was expected and what, sometimes (only sometimes), it is perceived and shared. Writing is rarely happily cathartic, as can the plastic, tersicoree or music arts be and can be: writing is not immediate, in the etymological sense of non-mediated, it requires application even in memory, and almost all of the message is lost ( both for the author and for the user), after an effort that is sometimes immense to spread it. Why write, then? We continually ask ourselves, from our well of anonymity: but the question becomes as cogent as we encounter the same doubt, which is not everyone’s, however, proposed by Philip Roth.

Why we must write? is a collection of “essays, conversations and other writings”, published by Einaudi, which covers the period 1960 – 2013, in which the American-Jewish writer deals with the theme of the title, directly and indirectly, and countless others. “Innumerable” may seem a hyperbole, a literary device: but anyone who has a minimum of familiarity with Roth knows that, with his peculiar style he puts himself at the service of an unusual (even for an intellectual) range of themes, in a way of all different, but in a certain sense complementary to his narrative. So, Why we must write? Speaks of Kafka, reports Conversations with Primo Levi, Milan Kundera, analyzes his books and his characters from the outside and from the inside (Zuckerman in the first place), “reads” Saul Bellow, leads us to we are intrigued by authors from the American scene who have come to us little and badly, speaks of tyranny and freedom, of personal humiliation, and, of course, of literature; all divided into three parts: To read myself and others, Workshop chatter and Explanations.

Criticizing Philip Roth puts David in a position against Goliath: the trivialization of using a “ready-made comparison” has its own raison d’être, since the limit of Roth, and of many other authors, is that it does not place itself on the public and to the world as an intellectual / writer, but as a Jewish intellectual / writer, and this, despite the fact that Roth also placed himself in an extremely critical way in his narrative with respect to Jewish culture (one of the chapters of the first part is titled New Jewish stereotypes), since from Lno of Portnoy – nevertheless it seems unable to get rid of the filter of Judaism, which acts almost as a judgmental algorithm of reality. Apart from this, it is clear that it is not possible to succeed in compressing the kaleidoscope consisting of the 500 pages of Why to write ?.

We therefore refer to the short essay American Writing Fiction, dated 1961: in which Roth starts from the news – black, in this case – to arrive at a reflection on the relationship between reality and literature. «The American writer in the mid-twentieth century encounters great difficulties in understanding, describing and then making reality credible. It is a reality that baffles, disgusts, sends us into the beast, and is also a source of embarrassment for our poor imagination. Current events make a mockery in our talent, and every day figures emerge that would be the envy of any novelist ». The starting point for the news was the double murder of the daughters of a lady who later became a media figure, like the alleged killer, earning a dishwasher, a new floor and getting her 15 minutes of fame as her daughters, even baptizing two brand new parakeets with the names of the creatures that were torn from her.

Following this, Roth focuses on Richard Nixon, a character of a smallness and squalor beyond imagination, unheard of and uninvited until then: beyond that, at least, of his intellectual contemporaries and storytellers. “… it was all so over the top, so absurd, bizarre and amazing, that I would have liked to have invented it.”

In both cases, we reiterate, we are in 1961 in the USA: sixty years later, and with the advent of the Network and functional illiterates, what Roth and his colleagues could still seem exceptional has become the everyday life and absolute cultural guidance – just look at any generic portal, or an afternoon television container. And yet, this does not obstruct Roth’s thinking: he cites Benjamin DeMott who speaks of a “sinking into unreality”, and we feel him close; he explains that for his intellectuals at the same time it has become impossible to feel that they belong to the country they are striving to represent, and we understand it.

More and more

As they say, Writing American fiction (which contains a lot, but much more) alone is worth the ticket price of Why write ?: the rest, is a theological summa, but to give an account of the volume – and the title – is enough already this handful of pages where even the most acute observers of reality “cannot imagine (to the end, we add) the corruption and vulgarity and disloyalty of public life”. American or not. Doubt expands and pervades us: Why we must write? But not only that, why paint? Play? Studying, how about that? Take part? And solidarity, empathizing? Why anything? In 1961, Roth again mentions DeMott: “the suspicion that these days lurks in us is that the faculty of changing our era, my life and your life, has been lost”.

Writing is therefore a form of resistance. But Why we must write? Why resist, if “a writer … feels for our times a disgust of such proportions that dealing with them in narrative form seems out of place”.

Why we must write? We always ask ourselves in our microcosm.

We don’t really have answers, we prefer to sit by the questions side.

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