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Interview by Henry Roth with William Freedman
SOURCE: "Henry Roth in Jerusalem: An Interview," in The Literary Review, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 5-23.
In the following interview, Roth discusses the mystical element in Call It Sleep, and describes his relationship to Israel.
Five years ago, when I first met Henry Roth, it was in the same but in a very different place. He had come to Israel, then as now, on a kind of pilgrimage, an artist's search for the history and possibilities of self, but he had taken a different route. Having turned down a variety of invitations and offers of special treatment in order, as he put it, to avoid commitment and obligation, Roth had attached himself to a charter flight hired for a Hadassah group tour and was staying, when he called me, in Haifa's distinctly second-best hotel. It was a flight from expectation, of self and by others, that in a way, though I neglected to investigate it at the time, threatened the goal.
When I met him in September, 1977, Roth was staying, at the government's invitation, in Mishkenot Shaananim, Jerusalem's fine and fancy guest-artist's residence where Pablo Casals, Saul Bellow, Isaac Stern and Heinrich Böll had stayed before him. Five years ago, when we spoke on the telephone and arranged our meeting, Roth had just returned from an enervating all-day bus tour to the Golan Heights and warned me that I might be wasting my time, that he might have nothing to say. He was wrong then, impressively, thumpingly wrong, and somewhere in that five-year interim he had learned that much about himself and very much more. He seemed more open, better pleased and more comfortable with both of us when he received me at the door to his apartment, and within a quarter hour he suggested we begin taping. He had been interviewed frequently since his arrival at the end of summer and used these interviews for expression and discovery. He had something to say, to himself and others, and would learn what he had to say to himself by speaking to others. I spoke almost as much as he did during our interview in 1972, filling spaces and responding to questions with my own readings, impressions and interpretations. This time my questions were almost interruptions. Roth, who had accepted obligations, had his own.
[Freedman:] I want to begin by working with the contrast between the framework of this visit and that of the last, when we did our first interview five years ago. The last time you came, in '72 if I remember correctly, you turned down offers for a special arrangement and came, oddly I thought, on a Hadassah tour. You insisted on that. You really wanted to do it middle class.
[Roth:] Middle class, and without any commitments to any institution, person or state whatever. Just as if I were a completely free individual, coming here to see for himself what it was like and what kind of impression he got out of it, if any. I wanted no sense of being obligated in the least because I felt it might inhibit me, especially if I thought this place was impossible. In the end, I think the impressions of Israel, although they were considerable, were less lasting than that of the Hadassah group itself.
Of course, whether Israel impressed me favorably or not, it's difficult to say. What did we see after all? We saw the great historical sights, the biblical sights, and very little of actual Israeli life. So the first impression is that of a tourist seeing the Church of the Nativity or seeing Masada, etc. But later on I subscribed to the Jerusalem Post, so evidently, in the very fact that I did so, the interest per se continued. And then I felt that if I were going to do anything about this revived interest and involvement, I really ought to join the Jewish community in Albuquerque—which was quite a step, I must say. I wanted to see what they were doing about Israel and try to join efforts with them. So ultimately I joined the Israeli subcommittee of the J.C.C.—Jewish Community Council. And it was very Jewish and very diaspora. Muriel [Mrs. Roth] was good enough to come along too; she became the secretary of the subcommittee, the Israeli subcommittee, as it was called. It was the most active of all. Some of the others, subgroups of the public relations committee and such, simply languished and fell apart. The most active was the Israeli subcommittee, which would indicate that it is central to Jewish thinking, even out in far off Albuquerque. At all events, my interest continued.
Did you really get involved in that community, in those activities?
Well, no. No, I didn't, though there was some socializing. Actually, I felt in Albuquerque, in the Jewish and Christian community—let me say it that way and be fair about it—I felt more at home than I'd felt anywhere in all these many years of wandering: Maine, New York, Boston. The west is open still. It still has some of that original openness, so there's a greater degree of friendliness. Through Muriel's music we were able to make friends in the gentile community and through my own efforts, in the Jewish community. We had all the social life we wanted, and it was very satisfactory. But the Israeli thing kept growing.
How about your sense of Jewish identity? Did you feel anything special, that you were making contact with something deep and important in yourself, when you began to make these other contacts?
That's a good question. The Jewish identity was cooking all the time. I think you can say, practically as a verity, that there has always been, for me at all events, in the diaspora, the inner sense that I am different, that there is a reservation, an ambivalence. I can go so far with you, and then I have a different gyroscope in me that orients differently.
What do you mean by "go so far with you"?
Well, I can hardly say what I mean by that, except that I would feel that boundary even with people with whom we enjoy great conviviality. My own interpretations seem always to have extensions in every direction that go beyond theirs. Either it was a compassion that went further than theirs, or it was some sort of introspection that they would stimulate within me, which I knew I couldn't communicate. Those are just two little examples, but there is that reserve, and despite the greatest of friendliness.
But while that was going on, the question and growth of my Jewishness, I was conducting, simultaneously, an interior dialogue between myself and the young man who wrote Call It Sleep—essentially a dialogue about what happened. Why didn't you go on, the old man would ask. You wrote a good novel, and obviously you've written what amounted to a self-fulfilling prophecy. You used as one of your chief symbols the short circuit, and you yourself are short-circuited. How did that come about? Why did you choose that theme? This is to give you an example of the kind of inner life you're leading even though outwardly you're married, have work to do, raise a family and so forth. The inner life is continually talking to the youth that was and was created, asking it questions and asking itself: Why can't you continue, and what would it take, or is there any possibility? Muriel and I had agreed there was no possibility, and a divorce, a real divorce took place. I tried to reconcile myself to it, but somehow or other you can't quite reconcile yourself to that. The dialogue goes on, this search for something that would again give you an opportunity to express yourself esthetically, in narrative form or on some level that is of some merit; and you look about for avenues that might allow this. There were none. I can say that very simply.
I recall reading an address that Bellow made to the Anti-Defamation League on the occasion of being awarded a medal for his contribution to democracy in the United States. The title of his piece was, "I Took Myself as I Was." Now there's a fortunate man. He could take himself as he was because he never went through this horrendous business of being an immigrant kid who was tremendously attracted to the Left, a member of the Communist Party who was thereby deflected almost completely and found that the deflection did not pay off in the literary sense. That person has to look for a new avenue which he can't find, having cut himself off from the diaspora which he doesn't want.
You're talking about yourself now.
I'm talking about myself. Bellow wrote his first novel, I think, around 1944. So he never went through that terrible trauma that many of us went through in the thirties, that swept Jewish intellectuals into this messianic, mystical kind of … trance (I was about to say) [laughs] … out of which Call It Sleep was written.
The book has that effect. It reads as though it were written under that kind of special influence.
It's a mystical, messianic grouping, a constellation, if you wish, and it's a constellation that didn't hold out. If you know anything about astronomy you know that in the course of time these various stars move about.
So you do see it as a kind of mystical book. I once began an article on the mysticism of Call It Sleep and abandoned the idea as a bit fanciful.
Yes. It's a religious continuation despite the individual who protested that he was not religious. It was an efflorescence followed by a wilting. Bellow's a fortunate man because he could take himself as he was. And if you take yourself as you are you can run a tremendous string of literary work. I think it was true of the Elizabethans, some of them. They took themselves as they were. They felt the society was stagnant, was going to stay that way forever, while they went on and on. Not only Shakespeare, but Webster and Turner and Fletcher and the whole caboodle. We were less fortunate. We went through this trauma, and I don't think, and I've said this before, that any of those of use who came of age in the thirties literarily—I can't speak for the whole field of art—seemed to be able to go on. The thirties were disabling, and we were all affected alike.
I can remember Eda Lou Walton saying, "Well, that one's too shallow," or "that one's run out of steam," and so on. But when it happens to you and you know you aren't that shallow, well then, it must be some kind of a social force that's at work. It would really make a good study, and I think some day it will: Jewish writers in the thirties and the proletarian novels they attempted to do.
Can you clarify for me exactly what you think the problem was, what caused the truncation? Was it the deflection into communism? The sense of being cut off from the diaspora? How did these forces work? How did they short-circuit the creative wires?
I can tell you this much—that in going into communism I found a character for a novel, began to write, wrote perhaps a hundred pages, and Scribner's and Maxwell Perkins accepted it. And then I was finished. Apparently I didn't want to go on, and this is part of the dialogue I hold with myself. Why didn't you want to go on? If I understand it correctly, it's a matter of maturity. I didn't want to go through this man's life, although he was a very colorful character. He had lost a hand, he was illiterate, and he had a very colorful way of expressing himself: really made to order. I wanted to do a character who finally realized you can't go it alone. He had once been quite a brawler, and when he was up against it, he didn't hesitate to commit armed robbery. But in the end he would see he wasn't enough, and he would join the Party. It looked good, but I didn't want to go into it. What Scribner's had accepted was the boyhood stage. Now I would have to do a whole section on his life as a young man, and then I'd have to go into his marriage, his kids, his jobs, his strikes, and so forth. That's why I say maturity. All that seemed to be a function of maturity, and I hadn't matured that way. I hadn't matured, period. I think that's an element. The fact that I was dependent on Walton all those years had in a sense been both very beneficial and very harmful.
So now you're offering personal as well as social reasons. You're not really seeing it in exclusively social terms. You also attribute the short-circuiting to your own personal history and composition.
What I'm saying is that they're interrelated and almost inextricable. You just can't take them apart. If I had been made to hit the grit of the Depression, and writing, let's say, was my livelihood, it would have been root, pig, or die, and I might have forced myself through that second novel and maybe gone on from there. Each one might have been worse than the one before, but I'd have gone on anyway—because of the Depression, because I had to.
Have you ever looked at it from the other side of the track, considered the possibility that the flight into communism, into ideology and affiliation, was a form of flight from a literary career that may have frightened you?
Now that's one. A literary career that scared me.
Perhaps something inside you quietly figured: "Maybe I can't do it again," or "It would be a hell of an effort to try it again. If I get myself involved in politics, I'll have an explanation for not going on."
Well, there may have been a subconscious factor there: Now you've become an activist, you don't have to write anymore. That sort of thing. But curiously enough I did attempt to write while being an activist, though I didn't get very far with it. I don't really know whether the deflection into communism was a fatal thing. I don't really know, because I can recall that while I was writing Call It Sleep and things seemed to be in a fairly stable state, I would get these promptings: Well, then the next thing you ought to do is take a child, or take a youth (you don't have to go back to childhood) from a ghetto and show his passage from his ghetto associations to a self-consciousness of literary ability, a passage, in more concrete terms, from the ghetto to Greenwich Village and to somebody like Walton. That seemed to be my next job.
You tried that too, didn't you?
I started it, but it didn't go. And when that didn't go and this other didn't go, then I seemed to be, as far as I was concerned … finished.
The failures shook you.
The two failures. They became self-generating, a further cause. The dying out of these things when I had already, I thought, become a disciplined writer, seemed to mark the end of my career. Then I though, well, now wait a minute; you can still force yourself to write small pieces on a high commercial level, for the New Yorker, or something. And I did for a while. But it was just too much like work—which is another indication that I was not a pro.
You weren't getting much satisfaction out of it either, were you? It was hack work for you.
Mostly. It was a great thing to get the money the New Yorker pays, but as far as that satisfaction a writer gets out of an inspired piece …
Which Call It Sleep was; it really was.
I think that the quality of intellect and analysis and all the rest of it that others had, or that I had, could not have produced Call It Sleep without the aid of some kind of inspiration.
Have you ever considered that your emotional roots may really be in childhood and that the electricity from you is somehow linked to, or grounded in, a child's mind or a child's emotional and imaginative life? Have you ever tried to write about a child again?
No, I never did, because I think that even in Call It Sleep I was trying to project a scenario of the inner life of the man who was doing the writing via what appealed to me as the most familiar, the easiest, the most accessible instrument, the child, using autobiographical experiences and everything else that goes into Call It Sleep, and rearranging them. But of course, at the same time, I was trying to build a structure out of it, an architecture of some kind. The narrative skill I had in abundance, an instinctive sense of narrative. So I drew from that particular period all that I needed, all the narrator wanted to build his particular literary edifice.
You say the book is about the inner life of the narrator, the adult author, yet he doesn't appear in the book at all. Not in that way, not as a character. Let me understand you here. Are you saying you intended the child to be read as a metaphor for the innocent, frightened, intimidated young adult of the thirties, for the author of the book who, like his contemporaries, would be short-circuited by the forces that drove and threatened him? If so, Call It Sleep is not merely a non-proletarian novel. It's an artist's fear of the proletarian novel, of everything that led to its ascendancy and of what those forces and that ascendancy might do to him: the short circuit. I doubt the book has ever been understood in quite that way.
The narrator of Call It Sleep was both naive and complex. Naive as far as recognizing, in ideological terms, the symbolic latency of the central character. He probably wouldn't have written the novel, wouldn't have been capable of it, if he had recognized it. He tried to create with all intensity the yarn of an immigrant childhood, but the factual is at extreme variance with the fable. The author never again experienced the security and happiness of the East Side ghetto. Why then all the anxieties, the fears, the intimations of apocalypse? Because those currents were continually in the author's ambience; they permeated his psyche. Hitler was already on the horizon, together with my own fears which I didn't formulate but which were there nonetheless. And there was a great Depression going on at the same time. Also, before I was through, I developed a fear of communism itself, of the demands it would make on what I regarded as my type of sloppy character and mind, on someone who was impractical and not given to militance or to arousing militance in others: there's always Joe out there with his stern demands. By the time I was through, I realized this was something I had been afraid of, though I'd never told anyone. It was to project those peculiar fears and strains into the novel that I injected Irish or goyish Harlem into the East Side—at the expense of actuality.
How long were you associated with the Party?
I joined at the very beginning of '34 and stayed on a couple of years. And then I dropped out, only to rejoin it when Hitler began to move. Of course I was shaken by the Russo-German pact, but I tried to justify it. That was very important. I knew nothing about the execution of Jewish writers, and whenever I heard anything … I mean I was really … what's the right word for it?
I could justify and defend it on any damn grounds whatever. And as I look back I feel as if I'm as guilty—well, not quite, but that I share in a certain amount of guilt for what happened there to the Jewish writers, because I approved, so to speak, of what was happening in general. And whenever some shocking revelation surfaced, something involving Jews like Zinoviev, Kamenev and others, people who were really great leaders at one time and who were executed, and when Trotsky was driven out, I applauded it. I condemned "the counter-revolution." I went along with the herd. It's terrible.
Did you feel comfortable with it at the time, or did the guilt accompany the applause?
No, I never felt comfortable with it, but I couldn't create out of it either. I was not only uncreative literarily; I was not creative in it, as a political person. I was just one of the inert members who gave his approval.
Then you weren't at home in the Party either?
I wasn't at home. There's a difference between what I felt then and the identification I feel now, with Israel. When I speak of Israel there is always a tendency to bring the identity issue in and a tendency to try to stimulate the non-Jewish community out there in Albuquerque to do more than it does. So there's really quite a difference. In the one I seem to be alive, and in the other I was really inert.
The recurrent biographical theme, as I hear it, is the search for a home.
You asked about the roots in boyhood or childhood. It's very pertinent. I couldn't go back to another childhood. I did one, the one Scribner's accepted, in an entirely different environment, the middle west. I think the key word here is continuity. The roots were there but they had nowhere to continue. I had cut myself off from the diaspora. I disapproved of much, if not most of the diaspora. I cut off the religious aspect of it. The kids I grew up with simply repelled me because they were doing what they were taught to do: drive as hard as possible towards success. It was almost completely mercenary, and most of the diaspora that I came to know, including my own relatives, were doing the same thing. So there was nowhere to go from that childhood. Had I remained on the East Side, there would have been a development. But I was taken away at the age … taken away I say; my family moved when I was eight and a half, just short of going into Chumush and the other great religious texts. Had I remained there, in that homogeneous society—there again, there's the old man asking the young man, "What would you have done?" And I think that while I probably wouldn't have written Call It Sleep, I might have been able to run a string of books, with a less apocalyptic end, had I remained in a Jewish community and seen what the development of a youth is in that kind of community.
How do you talk to that young man when you talk to him? Is it strictly in terms of this one question, or do you have other questions to ask him?
Mostly it's in terms of that one question, since it's such a deep-seated thing. The creativity of the individual is so deep-seated that to cut it off like that creates a profound shock. It's a kind of trauma that sets up a polarity. I began to feel, and I now almost certainly feel, as if we were two individuals.
Do you feel emotionally identified with that person? Is there still an intimate bond of some sort between you, or are you speaking to someone else when you question him?
I don't feel emotionally identified with him. He was cut off, and there's a vast gap and a vast bridge to be crossed. The only continuity between us is this identity I now have with Israel.
I had always missed that, felt the need for the identity and continuity that Eliot, for example, had found in his commitments. As I said in this little article of mine in the January 1977 Midstream—and this may represent the first awakening of the literary ability in the new dispensation—Eliot had gone through a transformation by accepting Classicism, Royalism and Anglo-Catholicism; and I thought: the lucky bastard! But that sort of thing was absolutely beyond me, impossible. There was no outlet for me, at least not until the '67 war. But even before that war I was in a way crystallizing. I was beginning to become curious about this place; and then the war seemed to crystallize it. From then on I realized I had bridged this awful chasm, this awful discontinuity, by the identification with Israel. And this continuity made another possible. I could feel, arising again, a kind of literary urge. But it takes quite a while, at least for my slow kind of mind, to move from commitment to its literary expression. I began to write in a rather confused and haphazard way about what I did feel—about what communism meant to me, what I felt about Israel, and so forth. I have the notebook somewhere, and I imagine that will become part of the raw material for what I expect to write.
But what the war and the newly solidified identity did most was to liberate the youthful period. That may be both ambiguous and interesting. It liberated me to examine and write about the whole youthful sexual awakening in relation to Walton, which I had previously felt inadequate for. The kind of thing I did, the kind of person she was—I just felt completely unable to treat that sort of thing. Maybe what I'm representing or attempting to represent is not Walton, but there is a character there.
So that's the book you're working on now?
Yes, and it will be different. I can no longer depend on a linear narrator; too much is happening. But I think I can deal with the diaspora youth leaving his Judaism, or attempting to, trying to get as far away from it as possible. And then, against that, the old man, in a counter movement, reuniting, because returning is impossible, reuniting with a Judaism in the form it has taken now in the state of Israel.
So the book would span these forty years or so.
Yes. And there would be, I hope, a kind of double movement taking place not quite simultaneously—because you can't do that—but with narrative on the one hand, on the other expositions about the author's views of certain things, or reports of certain conversations. That's the kind of book it will be.
Have you ever thought of writing the story that in effect you just began to tell me, the story of this dialogue itself, the one that centers on the question, Why didn't you go on?
I think that's part of it. You see, you write the narrative, but when you're dealing with the old man again you can treat it as a dialogue then. He can ask the question, What happened? even in the midst of one of these subcommittee meetings. To him all his past, all that he can recall, is contemporaneous.
I was thinking of a book in which the dialogue on that one question would be more central, the focal point and dramatic force in a work of its own.
I really don't know how it's going to come out, but what I see before me is that kind of thing: the intervention in the narrative of the old man and the queries he puts to himself, or what he attempts to do at some particular time, or a letter he may write in protest of, let's say, some editorial. I suppose this may be somewhat Herzogian, but his letters are sent; these things are done in the recognition of his shortcomings, and they have practical consequences.
OK, but one thing is still not quite clear to me. Exactly what is it that Israel has been or done to you to make you feel and respond this way? Where does this re-stimulating power derive from? Can you pin it down?
That's a damn good question. What did Israel do to me? Well, that guy Eliot must have known he was at the end of his rope, that unless he found a way to regenerate himself he was through as a poet. So he found a way.
So you see his political and religious choices as basically literary decisions.
As basically literary decisions. This was what he had to do if he was going to regain his coherence and his literary expression. I had no such vehicle. What I saw was that I had been continually looking for something in the nature of a regeneration, but scarcely realizing it. And then came the '67 war with its preliminary fears, that terrible pall, and then the sense that Israel was holding her own, better; and then the cease-fires, one after another, and what seemed like a total victory evaporating all those fears. So I said to myself, What the hell are you waiting for? This is a people that is regenerating itself, and in battle too, and you'd have to be out of your mind not to go along with this regeneration. Perhaps this is the equivalent of Eliot's regeneration.
And this too you saw as a basically literary decision?
I saw it as a literary decision. I think that is what Israel means to me. I'm not coming here to help Israel in any way or to contribute anything at all, except inadvertently, in cash.
You came here to redeem yourself.
I came here because I feel it is a necessary element in my own writing.
In a letter you wrote to Harold Ribalow, which he printed in his introduction to the Pageant edition of Call It Sleep back around 1960, you said, "I had one theme, redemption, but I haven't the fable." What you're saying now, if I understand you correctly, is, "That is still my theme, but now perhaps I've found a fable to carry it."
That's a very good point. I think redemption still is my theme; and in this case perhaps not so much the redemption of the individual soul, but of the writer.
Well, how is Israel doing as a redeemer?
I came here with no expectations of utopia. After all, I'd had a look at it before. What I came here for was, again, to get the material that will make for a construct, an edifice. And I think it will. I really think it will.
Where are you getting this literary injection from? From the concept of Israel as a Jewish nation? From the geography? From the people? The military victory?
A little of everything. It's a question of guessing at what you want and then going out to find it. It's not the other way around, where the experiences make for some kind of fusion in literary form. I think the fusion has already taken place, and I think it has something in common with Call It Sleep. That was a very Jewish book; all the elements in it are very Jewish, and yet it was written by somebody who no longer felt Jewish. He simply went out and got the material, the components for his architecture. And I think I feel the same way now. It's hardly the sort of thing someone else would come here to look for.
You feel as though you're exploiting Israel a little, don't you?
I'm self-interested. I think that's really a very good sign—that you have a definite self-interest in a particular place, and in a place like Israel in particular. Being here I can see how I can play off one thing against the other—Israel and the youth, his movement towards Greenwich Village and his movement away from it. I can see that. Whether it comes out that way or not I can't say.
I guess that's what I really wanted to know. I know what Eliot got out of Anglo-Catholicism, or at least I think I know some of the benefits he derived from it: authority, tradition, a warehouse of symbols. What are the equivalents here? What are you taking out of Israel that's equivalent to what Eliot mined from orthodoxy?
It probably will not be on that level at all. What I take from here is contrapuntal, a counterpoint between the young man who comes to literary consciousness and who is continually moving away from Judaism and the old man who had to come back, not just to come back but to reunite with it in some way in order to redeem the literary abilities that went to sleep in the youth.
Do you identify a reuniting with Israel with a reunion with Judaism?
I think this is all that Judaism means to me now. I don't think the Judaism of the diaspora is vital anymore. I think Judaism's next stage, whatever it's going to be, is probably here, in this country. Israel, for all its conflicts, inequities, treadmill, errors, and vicissitudes—the quotidian, in short—represents to me both the regeneration of Judaism and its future. And only Israel does. The diaspora may be far more pleasant in creature comfort and such, but only Israel is the state of the Jews. An irreducible value. I've received letters from people in Israel telling me, "You don't have to be religious here. We do the traditional things." But I can't see doing the traditional things unless I'm really communing with some Being or other as I did when I was a child.
The need for miracle again?
Yes, but today they seem to be mainly military. First '67. Then the revival after the first days of the war in '73.
But do you think these wars are anything but postponements? How many wars do you think we can sustain? How many miracles, if that's what they are, can we expect or hope for?
I don't know. I really don't know, and maybe we are doomed in one way or the other. But I know we're damn clever, given the emergency. If we could pull off an Entebbe, and time it to the split second almost, for all I know we could take their oil wells away from them before they woke up to what was happening. So now we're big oil magnates. I don't know. Fantasies go through your mind. You're so identified with the state and its survival you're willing to try anything. That's really what it amounts to. You get a Begin and you say, "O.K., I'm willing to try this guy. If he can get us out of this alive, then I can't deny him even though I don't like his politics. And the same goes for [General Ariel] Sharon. The canal crossing was a marvelous military achievement. So who am I to say this dream of yours is a fruitcake?
Perhaps this all ties in. Perhaps what I'm hearing from you now is a reflection of the same mysticism that energized Call It Sleep, the same belief, the same quest for redemption at a preternatural source.
Damn it all, I don't know. Apparently that is the one great theme of my life, and nothing else would do. And why is that? I think you put you finger on it. That childhood indoctrination, that childhood formation, the childhood religiosity which nothing will satisfy except a similar, an analogous thing.
So you see Israel being touched by God the way Isaiah was, and you hope somehow to absorb a little of the power by making contact at the other end, with the fingers of Adam's other hand.
I'm a man who proclaims that he's without a religious belief, but when I look at that proclamation I say, "No." Reading Victor Frankel's book, Man's Search for Meaning, was really an eye-opener because he adds to the Freudian classification of instincts two more: an artistic instinct and an instinct towards the transcendental. I feel it as a kind of tectonic thing, plates sliding against other plates. I feel the religious urge is part of the intuitive structure.
Yeats described himself as a religious man deprived of his religion, and he became a mystically inclined occultist, if not quite a mystic in the orthodox sense. Does that in any way describe you as well?
I think that's who the author of Call It Sleep was: the religious man without a religion who becomes a kind of mystic, with an accretion of communist ideas. And now you have it again, but it's late in the game so I can't guarantee anything. There is the same mysticism, I'm sure, and now it has to tax itself here.
With the same kind of almost magical belief in the power of the state.
Well, I don't know if it's the power of the state or the power of this people in this land. I really don't mean a state. The power of this people in this land is really where it taxes itself. So what you're seeing is what no one has brought out of me before: the continuity of that theme, the stream that still requires a redemptive, mystical association for it to flow. That's what infuses Call It Sleep and gives people a kind of religious charge. Some have an almost worshipful attitude towards it.
It has something in common with Invisible Man in that sense. Ellison also wrote an inspired and a religious book without orthodoxy, and he ran into the same blank wall.
The same wall. I don't know what his regeneration will be, if he ever achieves it. In my case it's the strain that goes all through Judaism, the prophetic and mystical element. I do think this is what Israel aroused again.
Had you formulated that to yourself before?
No, I think your questions brought it out. That's why I thought I'd like to tape this—because it causes me to attempt to articulate what's happening. And I think you got something here that did not appear and won't appear in any other correspondence: the recognition in me that this is some kind of a conditioning, for lack of a better word. And like other conditionings this alone seems to be able to trigger the profound literary or artistic impulse. When that isn't there, I could probably force myself, and have forced myself to write New Yorker stuff, and made some dough. But I was never really involved in that kind of writing.
All right, I'm going to leave this. I want to ask you one other question and change the subject, though perhaps not. Perhaps this too ties in. You seem to me quite different than you were when we met in '72. I mean this very personally and in a very positive way. You seem much more open, more sure of yourself. Accepting the invitation to Mishkenot Shaananim may be a sign of that. Five years ago you didn't want any commitments, partly, I think, because you weren't sure you could meet them. You weren't sure you would live up to expectations. I think you're no longer afraid because you know who you are, what you have to say and what you have to offer. Even honors have become acceptable because, well, you feel you've earned them.
I don't know about deserving honor, but I can now accept it without being thrown off balance or swayed by it or by all the attention I've received. I think you're observing very well. I do feel a much greater certitude. It's too bad it happened so late in life.
What did you say the theme of Bellow's speech was when he was awarded the medal?
He said, "I took myself as I was."
You seem to me to be approaching that kind of acceptance yourself.
I'm taking myself as I am now, but I certainly didn't take myself as I was. I was nothing, so there was nothing for me to take. Bellow took himself as he was and he was satisfied, apparently, with himself. And God knows, why shouldn't he be? He's a Nobel laureate. But being satisfied also has its disadvantages. You can also stop growing in that kind of an attitude, stop that struggle that goes on and on on, I know, in the best of us.
Well, anyway … [Muriel enters] … HERE COMES ME WIFE, THE IDOL OF ME LIFE!!!
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