Sunday, July 27, 2014

"The last gasp of romantic hatred of the twentieth century"

I happen to have been reading Philip Roth's 1990 novel Deception today (which is engrossing and quite interesting, though not at the top of my list of Roth-so-far), and as this passage seemed relevant to events today--25 years later--I thought I would place it here.

This is more, please note, to mark this personal coincidence (so that I might find it again) and as a contribution to the broader cultural debate about what's going on in European countries rather than as a comment on the complicated and horrifying Middle Eastern conflict that I've been watching news reports about since I was old enough to watch TV (so we're getting on nearly 40 years now) and having debates about since I was old enough to debate politics (so going on about 30 years now). 

So: keep your simplistic partisan sloganeering--from either side--to yourselves, please. That's not what I'm on about here.

For background: the passage (like much of the book), consists of a conversation between a pair who is conducting an affair, a male American author of Jewish background and an upper-middle-class Englishwoman.

The American author's question begins the exchange:  

"Why does everybody around here hate Israel so much? Can you explain that to me? I have an argument every time I go out now. And I come home in a fury and can't sleep all night. I am allied, in one way or another, with the planet's two greatest scourges, Israel and America. Let's grant that Israel is a terrible country—"

"But I won't."

"But let's grant it. Still, there are many countries that are far more terrible. Yet the hostility to Israel is almost universal among the people I meet."

"I have never been able to understand it myself. It seems to me one of the most curious freaks of modern history. Because it's just an article of faith among left and left of center, isn't it?"

"But why?"

"I simply don't understand it."

"Do you ever ask people?"

"Yes, often."

"And what do they say? Because of the way they treat Arabs. That is the greatest crime in all of human history."

"Oh, sure, that's what they say. I don't believe a word of it. I think it's one of the most extraordinary pieces of hypocrisy in human history."

"Do they know Arabs?"

"Of course they don't. In English high culture, you could say it's because of this Foreign Office fantasy about Arabs, and Lawrence of Arabia, all this, coupled with a serious knowledge of Arab interests, and families with all sorts of contacts with sheikhs and who still get watches for Christmas and all that rubbish. It's a kind of feudal thing which the British quite like. You know, our boys and their boys. But that's sort of establishment—the actual antagonism comes from the so-called intelligentsia of this country."

"And what do you think is at the root of it?"

"I don't think it's anti-Semitism."


"Not in the main. no. It's just the fashionable left. They're very depressing. I can only come to the conclusion that some people are so wedded to certain unrealistic ideas of human justice and human rights that they can't make concessions to necessity of any kind. In other words, if you're an Israeli you must live by the highest standards and therefore you can't do anything really, just go back and turn the other cheek, like J.C. said. But also it seems to me an unspoken corollary that you criticize most harshly the people who actually behave best, or the least badly. It's quite banal, isn't it? These hotheaded people disapprove selectively and most strongly of the least reprehensible things. It's just unreal, isn't it? I think it has to do with the last gasp of romantic hatred of the twentieth century. But it's not really as strong in this country as you may think."

"You think not."

"I'm sure not."

"Well. I'd feel much better if that's true. About this country, and about you too."


Laughter being in such short supply these days, I'll just leave it there. 

[Text from Philip Roth, Deception (London: Vintage, 1990), 79-81.

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