Philip Roth biography: faith in psychotherapy

I checked Philip Roth: The Biography out of the local branch of the Palm Beach County Library. One fascinating aspect is the faith that Americans had in psychotherapy, especially Freudian psychoanalysis, in the 1960s. After becoming a bestselling author and National Book Award winner, Roth was paying 50 percent of his income for psychotherapy (for himself, a blonde to whom he was briefly married, and a stepdaughter who came with the blonde).

How insightful were these physician-analysts?

In September 1967, … Roth experienced an ominous malaise that, Kleinschmidt explained, was a psychosomatic manifestation of envy for his friend [William Styron]. Roth denied it: he loved Styron’s novel and was delighted by its success, but Kleinschmidt stood by his diagnosis “right down to the day I nearly died from a burst appendix and peritonitis,” as Roth recalled.”

How did Roth respond to this direct evidence of psychiatry’s lack of explanatory power? By paying Kleinschmidt for an additional 10+ years of therapy.

What did he do with the other half of his money at the time? By order of the New York Family Court, he was paying it to his plaintiff (the blonde). Margaret Martinson had a father who served prison time for petty theft, according to the book. She had two children from a previous marriage that she had broken up via litigation and from which she had a compelling victim narrative to spin (according to the biographer, Roth was a sucker for women who claimed to be victims). She was intelligent and had taken a few college classes, but as predicted by The Son Also Rises, eventually reverted to her family’s overall level of success. The stepdaughter’s valuable relationship with Roth was severed on the advice of Roth’s defense lawyer (since the plaintiff would eventually accuse him of having sex with the girl in order to enhance her alimony claim). One of the topics that Roth discussed with his psychoanalyst was his desire to kill his plaintiff and thereby more than double his spending power. (One reason that Roth was angry with his plaintiff, aside from her continuing bids for increased alimony, was that she had obtained his agreement to marry via fraud. She purchased urine from a pregnant woman and turned that into a positive pregnancy test result, which induced Roth to “do the right thing.”) The topic was being discussed with the medial-psychiatric professional at a tremendous weekly cost right up to the point that the plaintiff was killed in a car accident (1968), thus putting an end to family court litigation that had lasted longer than the marriage and to alimony payments and legal fees that consumed more than half of Roth’s income (he borrowed to pay his lawyers, his plaintiff, and the platoon of shrinks).

Roth avoided remarriage, which, in those pre-child-support-formula days, was a viable wealth-preservation strategy. Roth had sex with a lot of young women, but if they’d gotten pregnant they wouldn’t have been entitled to $millions and couldn’t have made bank like Hunter Biden’s plaintiff. Where did Roth, pushing 40, find women aged 20-23? Teaching at elite universities. It turned out that young female aspiring writers at the time wanted to have sex with a National Book Award winner (and future Pulitzer winner) with connections to New Yorker, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agents and critics. Given this alternative, they did not want to have sex with their fellow undergraduates who had (a) no money, (b) no connections, and (c) no talent. (Roth actually did help launch the careers of some of his young friends.) Far from discouraging these liaisons, the Chair of the English Department at Penn actually preferentially admitted the best-looking girls to Roth’s oversubscribed class with the idea that sexual relationships would be fostered. (The procurer is described as “gay” in the book, so it is unclear if he is an 2SLGBTQQIA+ victim to be protected or an abettor of Roth’s predatory behavior and therefore on track for cancellation.)

One of the students, Lucy Warner:

Philip Roth never had any children of his own, which is kind of a shame because it would be interesting to see how they turned out and if scribbling out novels is hereditary.

Americans of only moderately high income could live like lords in Europe in the 1960s. Whenever Roth felt like it, he could move to a European capital and live in splendid hotels or apartments. What we today think of as the good life was also much more readily available, e.g., a summer rental in the Hamptons. The writer could be the host of the Wall Streeter, not vice versa.

One area where I developed new respect for Roth is in physical perseverance. He suffered a back injury in the Army (involving a massive potato kettle in the kitchen, not enemy action!) and never recovered. Working at a typewriter was often torture for his shoulders, back, and neck, but he stuck to it until an entire bookcase of works had been produced. This refusal to quit is tough to imagine in our present-day society where almost anyone will quit in exchange for $600/week.

Roth was a passionate Democrat who died in 2018, during the rule of the hated dictator and before he could enjoy seeing Joe Biden deliver his promised victories over both coronavirus and cancer. New Yorker tapped Roth’s spleen in 2017 (Roth was 84 years old at the time):

Last week, Roth was asked, via e-mail, if it has happened here. He responded, “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.’ ”

Trump isn’t a Nazi, exactly, but he is inferior as a human to a guy who had, according to Roth, “Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities.”

“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “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.”

COVID-19 lockdown proponents can certainly thank FDR for pointing out that the Constitution’s guarantees don’t apply any time that an executive declares an “emergency” (see Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court agreed with FDR that #AbundanceOfCaution was more important than the purported rights of Japanese-Americans to own property and live outside of detention camps).

“As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

In other words, Roth foresaw that there would be a military catastrophe during Trump’s administration, maybe nuclear or perhaps a peasant army would defeat our military and its puppets in a foreign capital. Do we give Roth credit for this? He was off by only seven months and even Nostradamus didn’t hit all of the dates precisely.

In the age of 77-inch OLED and streaming everything, could there ever be another Philip Roth? How many people have the patience to read serious novels? Who here has read anything by Abdulrazak Gurnah, for example, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021? Which author on the current Amazon list of best-selling fiction is in the same league as Philip Roth?


10 thoughts on “Philip Roth biography: faith in psychotherapy

  1. This is an amazing study how people feel threatened by words rather than actions. Trump hasn’t done much at all. He was the one president where I felt 100% certain that he wouldn’t set off a nuclear war.

    People really need to learn to distinguish between literature, narratives, and reality.

  2. Bet Roth avoided a lot of taxes on his IRA, too. Yes, sex was apparently something they did for fun in the 1960’s instead of a holy rite as the liberal religious left has branded it.

  3. Charles Lindbergh saved a distinguished half-Jewish scientist from real Nazis; as a private citizen consultant he was sent to advise Soviets aviation industry during WW2, tough US Pacific naval aviators how to extend rang of their bombers and shot down several Japanese fighters over pacific.
    He was never close to be nominated as Republican candidate. Republicans in US congress were pushing FDR into WWII, FDR ran on isolationist platform of Southern Democratic Socialist Huey Long.
    Philip Roth was a swell guy; his fiction is still popular with homemakers. RIP Roth, let he be not disturbed on this blog ever again.

  4. Roth’s American Pastoral trilogy is well worth reading — a very insightful picture of the US the last half of the last century. It has never been clear to me though that anything else he wrote is worth bothering with.

  5. I don’t think anyone who spends most of their time on Facebook or Instagram – or any other form of social media – has much time left over in their day after they’ve wasted most of it to even attempt any of Roth’s novels, and I doubt many could comprehend them. Perhaps if they sat there with an uninterrupted Wikipedia and Google connection they’d be able to comprehend enough to appreciate some of what he wrote, but how many people are going to go to the trouble?

    I am honestly beginning to believe that the end result of social media is a crippled ability to do anything other than consult social media, which gets progressively stupider, and is now going META, so it’s kind of stupidity referring to itself.

    I remember the grand days of Internet Promise, when people would be able to equally access all the world’s knowledge and information at their fingertips, regardless of their ability to pay for it, and be better off because of that. We had to make sure that we bridged the “digital divide” and also helped bring the Internet to impoverished people living in “backward” places where the access didn’t exist. Now we have it everywhere in the United States (or almost) and I don’t think anyone has gotten any smarter, more cultured, better educated in history or anything else. I can’t discern any improvement, and if anything we’re regressing. Why would we try to “gift” this thing to people in other places?

    • The only thing I ever read of his were some excerpts from “The Human Stain” and I lost interest in him very quickly after that. Why are academic/literary types always attracted to the creepiest weirdos in the known and unknown world if they can throw a few paragraphs together, except that they all point back to themselves?

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