Philip Roth, Trigger Warnings, and the Day I Brought My Lawyer to Class

By Prof. Roger Porter | June 18, 2015

Ed. Note: This is the text of a speech Prof. Roger Porter [English 1961-2015] gave to the Foster-Scholz Club on June 13, 2015, after teaching at Reed for more than 50 years. As faithful readers know, my posting something on Sallyportal doesn't imply any kind of institutional endorsement. This is simply one professor's approach to the issue—no more, no less. However, I do think Prof. Porter's remarks will be of interest to many in the Reed community.

It’s a great pleasure to speak to the Foster-Scholz Club, and since I just became an honorary Reed alumnus yesterday, I’ll now be able to join you in future meetings and listen to my colleagues—if I don’t feel I’ve listened to them in too many faculty meetings. I do feel greatly honored by your invitation, and I’ll take advantage of the occasion by indulging a little is some reminiscence—that is after all the Nestor-like prerogative given to retirees--but mostly I want to speak about what it felt to say goodbye to Reed in the teaching of my last class. Well, I cheat a little in this, since I will be teaching an emeritus course this fall. Whether that’s to ease the transition, or because I simply can’t stay away, I’m not sure. But for the moment I’ll assume that last month the game, after 54 years, was over.

I thought long and hard about what I would teach in my last course at Reed. It seemed that the subject matter of that final course would--if only for myself--constitute some kind of statement in and of itself. And I wanted such a course not to be one I had given before, but something I had long wanted to teach but for whatever reason had never done so. I have spent most of my research and critical writing on the subject of literary autobiography and memoir, and have given many iterations of courses in what has come to be called life writing. And I have taught many versions of Shakespeare, focusing on tragedy, comedy, love and gender relations, race and the outsider, as well as courses on filmic adaptations of the plays. But I didn’t want any of those subjects—or others I’d frequently taught, such as American fiction, Modernism and the Novel, Proust/Nabokov/James/Kafka, or studies in drama--to constitute my final pitch. The pervious year I had given a course in politics and the novel, and taught Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, a novel about a black man who passes as a Jew, and it seemed to go over extremely well, to considerable student enthusiasm. Roth is the only writer other than Shakespeare about whom I can say I’ve read every word—at least I think so—and in my estimation he is probably, along with Toni Morrison, the great contemporary American author. Shakespeare was the only writer to whom I had previously dedicated an entire course; and it occurred to me that I might teach a seminar on Roth alone, giving students a sense of how a significant contemporary writer’s vision, style, and values have developed over the course of a career, though I could teach only a fraction of his some 30 novels. In addition Roth had recently declared that he had “retired”—a strange thing for a writer to say (most writers simply stop without making a public issue out of it); nevertheless he said it, and since in a much humbler way I was retiring as well, I thought to myself why not, as it were, combine our waning energies?

There was another reason, to be sure, though I tried to keep this to a minimum in justifying the course: Roth and I are only three years apart in age, we were both born in Newark (in fact in the same hospital), we are both cultural Jews (crucial, of course, for his fiction), and we went to high schools in New Jersey adjoining towns: Newark and Elizabeth. It also turns out my mother and Roth’s mother often sat in adjoining hair driers at the same beauty parlor, where in 1968 Mrs. Roth whispered to my mother: “I wish Philip had written Portnoy’s Complaint in Yiddish so the goyem couldn’t understand it.” Unbeknownst to Mrs. Roth, she was implicitly agreeing with the philosopher Gershom Scholem’s rather acid comment: “Roth has written the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.”

But though I certainly didn’t agree with that screed, there remained for me a big problem when I thought about offering the course. Roth is a writer who arouses passionate responses, and often, however mistaken I believe them to be, many readers perceive him and his writing as misogynistic, sexist, and egocentric (several of his novels have a character called “Roth”). Few writers have managed to elicit both critical acclaim and skepticism, even disgust, to such a degree. Of course there is the notorious sexuality of Portnoy’s Complaint that breeds what we might call the Portnoy reader’s own complaint. When I told Nigel Nicholson I was going to teach a seminar on Roth, the Dean’s office braced for an onslaught of student grievances and protests. Of course Deans, even the worldly Nigels, are paid to worry about such matters, and they inevitably prepare for the worse. They forget of course that students swim in a culture of nonchalance about what used to be called dirty words, and that what shocked early readers of Roth is pretty small potatoes these days. Even the famous moment in Portnoy’s Complaint, where the young and sex-starved Alex Portnoy, in protest against his classic Jewish mother’s hovering surveillance, masturbates in a slab of the raw liver the family will have for dinner that night, ceases to shock contemporary undergraduates. And so, I reasoned, Reed students, being hardly overly delicate and innocent creatures, would see the grotesque hilarity in such moments. Roth once retorted to a critic who asked if he was influenced by Borsht Belt stand-up comics, “No, I was influenced by that sit-down comic Franz Kafka.” If students could not appreciate the humor even in Roth’s most outrageous moments, then they would have to face Porter’scomplaint.

There was, however, another problem: the trigger warning phenomena. Most of you I’m sure are familiar with this trend, which has swept through educational institutions in the past two years, and has landed at Reed in a way that I and many if not almost all of my colleagues have deplored. Perhaps you too have witnessed and even participated in the debates, since early this year year Reed Facebook pages were jammed with statements on the phenomenon, essentially setting current students and very recent graduates against alumni who had been out more than five years. At the heart of the trigger warning movement is the demand that the classroom be a safe place. Now I am a great lover of comfort food, but not of the comfort classroom. Education should be a mode of disruption—a questioning of safe, predictable, conventional, and simplistic ideas; an examination of values that we too easily take for granted, of thoughts and approaches to situations—whether ethical, political, social, or psychological—that challenge our expectations and our grounded assumptions, however discomforting that may be. Of course proponents of trigger warning are justified in wanting classrooms to be places where they will be free from bullying or name-calling, places where they feel guarded against intimidation of any kind. But proponents of trigger warnings seemed to want more: protection against books, or passages in books, that could provoke trauma or remind them of any disruptive past experience; they wanted alerts or warnings about scenes addressing or representing violence, sexually charged incidents, danger, even death, so that such writing would not come upon them unawares, in a way that might provoke anxiety and distress.

How, I wondered, would Roth’s novels fare in class even when they did not address specifically sexual matters, when they concerned themselves with racism, violence, murder in the context of Vietnam war protests, the dark side of human impulses (what Roth calls the “counter-pastoral”), the pain that encroaches upon human relations, indeed of the uncomfortable which is always lurking, poised to undermine all of our aspirations of optimism, hope, or serenity? How would they fare, these novels which deal not only with sexual desire in every conceivable form but with the body in decay, the ravages of age, the excesses of political correctness, the tyranny of majorities, and the surprises and dread of the unforeseen that befall everyone, against which we have minimal resistance?

As I was worrying this matter—and now I refer to the title of this talk—one day I mentioned to my lawyer I was thinking of offering such a course and he, a great Roth aficionado, asked if he could sit in on the classes. I replied banteringly though with some seriousness: “You can audit, but only if, in the event some student brings a harassment suit against me, you will defend me pro bono.” (I was tempted to add “And if you bring knishes, knaedle, kreplach, and kugel to each class,” but I understood that more explanation about Jewish matters in Roth would be needed than any culinary examples could provide, an assumption that proved true when, on the first day of discussion, a blond, blue-eyed female student asked what was meant in the text by the word “shikse” and I was tempted to respond, but wisely did not, “It’s you, sweetheart, it’s exactly you Roth is referring to”). Now here I have to admit that the title of this talk is not completely accurate, for my lawyer friend did not show up just one day, but came to every class all semester, and contributed as thoughtfully and committedly as any other student.

So, a tad nervous about all of this, aware that the entire course itself might be a trigger warning, I decided to deliver on the first day not only a few general remarks about Roth’s power and importance as an American writer, but a pre-emptive argument against trigger warnings. I don’t know if I can claim that this was in any way responsible for the astonishing maturity, sophistication, and ease with which the class confronted this complex, often disturbing, and brilliant writer, but it probably did not hurt.

Here are a few excerpts from that opening diatribe:

Unfettered expression is essential on college campus, as it is for any writer’s freedom to say things others might not want to hear. Just as we say that in an intellectual environment speakers must have right to say the unsayable, so writers must write the unthinkable, or even the unmentionable, and challenge the seemingly unchallengeable. Free expression in a writer may dissent from social norms that he or she finds questionable. Philip Roth constantly exposes hypocrisy, bigotry, and hatred, in order to promote deeper understanding. In exposing values he is critical of, he sometimes uses language that may make some people cringe, but there is never in Roth a desire to offend merely to offend.

Freedom of expression provides a forum for the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox. But what happens when a writer’s ideas are an affront to you, or offend you? What if you find the expression of certain thoughts objectionable?

We can and should discuss these issues in class. We should be interested in developing critical thought in confronting what we might prefer to avoid; we should engage in issues that might be comfortable to ignore. Roth occasionally shocks us, because he’s dealing with what he regards as a shockingly obtuse world around us. To be willing to shock may be the way to open us to ideas that are challenging.  

If you elect to take this literature class, bear in mind we will inevitably deal with what all serious literature, especially fiction, treats--namely issues which by their nature you may find disturbing, troubling, and objectionable, either in the fictional situations, in the characters’ stated values, or in the language with which their thoughts and actions are phrased. That does not mean we should avoid talking about them in class, any more than we should refuse to read emotionally difficult and disturbing literary texts. Not unlike any reader’s confronting Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tolstoy’s AnnaKarenina, or Joyce’s Ulysses, responding to the novels of Roth is bound to create some discomfort, even distress. But in this course we all have an obligation to engage seriously with course assignments, are all responsible for thinking about and discussing the readings and the papers, for talking respectfully and engaging with one another about the assignments in conference discussions.

Here is a passage from Kafka’s Diaries that influenced Roth and is an important statement pertaining to any profound and complex work of literature:

“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book does not shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

I will not be giving you trigger warnings, either on the syllabus or in conference, other than to remark in a very general way that Roth’s fiction often presents complex and potentially disturbing matters, including, among other themes, heterosexual male desire and behavior, heterosexual female desire and behavior, infidelity, anti-familial behavior, violence, critiques of Israeli politics, racial politics and prejudice, anti-Semitism, disease, depression, contemplation of suicide, and death. In short—life itself.

This is a literature course, not a therapy session, and while of course your own emotional and psychological life will inevitably enter into your reading and thinking about the works, and while issues surrounding your own identity cannot be excluded from the reading process, we will be focusing on such literary matters as the structure of the novels, how the plots unfold, the nature of narrative, metaphor and imagery, character interactions, the relation in the novels of American history to family life and personal identity, and the narrative point of view, keeping in mind that the characters in the books do not necessarily represent, nor are necessarily identical to, Roth’s own views, values, or even to his own experience.

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors has stated: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement. If [difficult or controversial] topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be avoided altogether . . . for fear of offending or discomforting some students. The demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, chilly climate for critical thinking in the classroom,” and, I would add, is a potential tool of censorship.

As a literature professor, were I to say: “Be forewarned, on page 245 the protagonist dies a terrible death,” that would interfere with a well-crafted book whose structure may be designed deliberately to surprise or to shock. The literary experience often depends on notknowing or anticipating something in advance, but seeing and understanding how the writer or narrator wants us to respond to an event we might not have predicted. This is known as suspense and is part of how fiction operates.

Trigger warnings could lead a student not to read an assignment, or it might provoke a response from a student she otherwise would not have had; trigger warnings risk reducing complex literary, historical, and political insights to a few negative characterizations. Trigger warnings predict a specific response to the content and tend to screen out other responses that may not be negative at all. By emphasizing protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging experience, trigger warnings reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than engaging them in the difficult, intellectual process of education.

What do I think the deepest appeal of Roth was for my students? Why did reading nine of his novels and a memoir go so well, exactly when I was most worried that I, Roth, and the course might have heavy sledding, crash against a wall of discomfort? I could say the appeal was in Roth’s enormous range of subjects, including his fictional forays into American social and political history and the forces working to undermine the American Dream, including his narratives underlining fears of domestic fascism (in The Plot Against America), the ironies surrounding the violence that accompanied the protests even of opponents of the Vietnam War (in American Pastoral), the violations of civic life under McCarthyism (in I Married a Communist), the sentimental exploitation of the Holocaust and of Anne Frank’s story (in The Ghost Writer), and the divisive effect on American Jews of the Israeli conflict (in The Counterlife). The dark side of our national life, and the way terror in any shape can never be anticipated, how the unforeseen is always ready to pounce, are Roth’s perennial themes, and perhaps they speak to students seeking to look outside and beneath the commonplace shibboleths and the comforting clichés with which we are fed. Certainly the students were deeply taken by a passage from The Human Stain, demolishing the presumption that gossips, inquisitors, and busybodies can ever know the truth about the interior life of others. In this book Roth is writing about the summer of 1998 when, as he puts it, “an enormous piety binge, a purity binge was let loose and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-year old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.” The passage from the novel that my students kept returning to throughout the course responds to a particular character’s belief that she understands everything pertaining to the sex life of a former colleague. It describes a typical Rothian indignation:

“Everyone knows” is the invocation of the cliché and the beginning of the banalization of experience, and it’s the solemnity and the sense of authority that people have in voicing the cliché that’s so insufferable. What we know is that nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more is what passes for knowing.

For Reed students who are inherently skeptical and radically anti-authoritarian, Roth spoke intensely to them at such moments.

Roth is always committing what he calls “serious mischief,” taking pleasure in attacking high-minded orthodoxies, genteel sensibilities, and restrictions and restraints of all kinds. His characters act out their outrage with great verbal energy, gusto, impiety, and exuberance. As a satirist Roth critiques prejudice, intolerance, stupidity, mass hysteria, and repression. In his most notorious early novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, his powerful first “dirty” book with which my students had no problem whatsoever, we learn at the end of the protagonist’s 250 page free-associating monologue that it has been delivered to his shrink. We realize that Roth has found an appropriate mode of verbal freedom, one that releases him and his protagonist from traditional narrative with its obligations of agreeableness and moderation, a mode that justifies both the saying of the unsayable (the shameful, the humiliating, and the embarrassing), and the form in which it can be said. The chaotic, wildly exuberant expression of Portnoy’s sexual desire becomes an outlet and a metaphor for resistance to civilized repression, its moral categorizing, and the demand that we be dignified. Offense is of course a way to push against the limits of good taste without apology, and in Roth’s hands (or those of his characters) is a rage that feeds their creativity. Rudeness in Roth’s novels is a style of energy, a sport, but mostly a principled antidote to niceness. The students constantly sought in his novels the ways when the author shows that what marks us as a species is not high-minded purpose but our more basic cravings. And so in conference we spoke of how the novels explore the costs to his characters when their ordinary needs are saddled with high purpose dictated either by the world or by obligations they have internalized that finally turn the characters against themselves.

Let me turn for a moment to the issue I most fretted about before the course, and that is of course the accusation regarding Roth’s misogyny. Perhaps no other American novelist aside from Norman Mailer has aroused such a firestorm of hostile commentary concerning his fictional depictions of women and of male-female relations. My short answer to those attacks is to say that Roth often writes very strong women (though admittedly what gives them their strength is their equality with men in the sexual realm); and conversely, his men do not represent, as he puts it, “masculine power triumphant but rather its antithesis: masculine power impaired. (Continuing with Roth): I represent manhood stumbling, humbled, devastated. . . . [The men in my books] are brought down by blurred moral vision, unworkable love, drastic loss, lunatic entanglements, misjudgment, illness, exhaustion, derangement, aging, dying--men stunned by life that they are defenseless against.”

When his male characters seem obsessed by their sexuality, Roth both sympathetically explains their psyches even as he calls their insatiability into question, but never with condemnation, always with understanding that their behavior, however outrageous, is a call for freedom, the return of the repressed if you will. One of his characters says, “Marriage at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious subterfuge.” But is this Roth’s view, or that of the character? Hard to say for sure. This is why it is so interesting to explore Roth’s complex narrative perspective and the distinctions between his uncensored characters on one hand and the analytic, scrutinizing, even implicitly critical narrators on the other. Aware of how his male characters often appear to exploit women, Roth frequently undermines them exactly when we think he is about to endorse them. Is Roth telling us how to live? Hardly, and this is why he is always such an interesting novelist. “The goal,” he protests, “is to position the book so you can’t answer [such] questions.” No other novelist, except perhaps Nabokov in Lolita, offers such an important lesson to readers about his characters not necessarily being identified with the writer, and my students caught on fast.

And yet I would argue that Roth is not after balance or equilibrium exactly, not after trying to be fair-minded or to write with cautious moderation. Balance he perceives as a threat to freedom, to the uncensored, the comically exaggerated that is a way to keep at bay social obligations to be agreeable and virtuous, even while at the same time male sexuality, in its rawness and explicitness, can isolate and even imprison the character as much as emancipate him.  

In relation to this matter, we explored a perhaps even larger question: the way Roth is interested in sexuality not simply for itself but for the way the libido expresses and represents a private, non-socialized aspect of consciousness, a kind of freedom from restrictions both external and internal; and how frequently his characters act out desire in the face of fears of extinction, even as an attempt to stave off death, or at least to counter the ineluctable force of the endgame.

The last aspect of Roth I believe not only appealed to the students but engaged them critically (and perhaps emotionally) is what we can call his interest in “counter” narratives. One of the novels that most provoked the class was The Counterlife, where one character appears to die from open-heart surgery, only to appear in the next section, while his brother who has been narrating the novel so far turns out to be the one who has died. The novel swings back and forth between the two narratives, and we can never be certain which story is true. And in another instance of a counter life, in American Pastoral, we have the story of a handsome, charming Jewish high school athlete who has tried to choreograph his life by marrying Miss New Jersey, becoming wealthy, and moving to the gentile and genteel suburbs, only to have his life shattered when his beloved daughter, in protest against the Vietnam war, plants a bomb in a local post office that kills the town’s respected doctor, after which she goes on the lam for years, killing three more people in Oregon and in repentance becoming a Jain and living a life of self-desecration in a derelict hovel. The hero’s life turns counter, and the novel itself--American Pastoral—gradually becomes a counter-pastoral, as we see the impossibility of the all-American protagonist floating above the messiness of history. His dream of assimilating into a pastoral story--a vision of personal, marital, and parental paradise--is held hostage to political, and cultural forces in America and in his own family he cannot control. He would like to imagine himself the Johnny Appleseed of New Jersey, but the counter-pastoral taunts him out of any mythological American Eden, any older American golden age.

This theme of the “counter life” becomes a trope in Roth; to live is inevitably to be thrust into a world that upends every expectation. We think things will turn out one way, and everything conspires to produce an unforeseen counter life. And yet for Roth counter-moves and counter-living are what beget the imagination; disappointment and even devastation, however terrible, are necessary to keep imagination from atrophying, become the way to deeper insight. I think this phenomenon attracted my students for precisely the reasons that Reed students at their best enjoy being contrarians, impelled almost by instinct to be “counter” to what might seem too easy, too predictable, or too naïve. I would argue that this strategy is what the sophisticated students in the class were enticed by because they themselves lean to counter-propositions and counter-experience, questioning how what we think is authentic may be just its opposite after all: a counter-life. And I would add that we may regard Roth as not unlike the ancient Greek tragedians, the heir to Sophocles in asserting that suffering can deepen us even as it destroys.

And so a segué for my final comment. Like so many new Reed faculty members, I started my career here in 1961 teaching The Iliad and its opening lines: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles/ and its devastation”; and I ended it a few weeks ago with a famous scene from Philip Roth’s most savage, powerful, taboo-smashing novel Sabbath’s Theater, a passage which I read aloud here with a bit more trepidation than when our class read and discussed it. In this passage the morally outrageous, ever-defiant hero of the book visits one dark night the grave of his recently dead and beloved mistress Drenka, who has always wanted him to do what he is now about to, something that at first blush seems like a desecration but in the novel actually becomes an homage and an act of reverence:

All the taboos that seek to abate our monstrosity had shut his water down. And then the stream began. . . . a trickle at first, just some feeble dribbling, as when your knife slices open an onion and the weeping consists of a tear or two sliding down either check. But then a spurt followed that, and a second spurt, and then a flow, and then a gush, and then a surge, and then Sabbath was peeing with a power that surprised even him, the way strangers to grief can be astounded by the unstoppable copiousness of their river of tears. . . .To drill a hole in her grave! To drive through the coffins lid to Drenka’s mouth. . . . He did not stop. He couldn’t. He was to urine what a wet nurse is to milk. Drenched Drenka, bubbling spring, mother of moisture and overflow, surging, streaming Drenka, drinker of the juices of the human vine—sweetheart, rise up before you turn to dust, come back and be revived, oozing all your secretions!

Whether you think I’ve come a long way, or not, from Homer to Roth, or for those who know Yiddish, from the epic to the pupik, I’ll leave to you.

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