The Artist as Leader – Philip Roth

Note: This blog site has been down for the last three weeks. Today chatter about leadership and life resumes.

Great art – music and movies, poetry and prose, painting and sculpture – can be and not infrequently is, great leadership. Picasso’s powerful antiwar painting, “Guernica,” is an example; as is Dylan’s prescient tune, “The Times They Are A-Changin’;” as is Scorsese’s scorching film, “Wolf of Wall Street.” In each case the artist intended to shape how we thought and what we felt. In each case the artist succeeded, brilliantly, in exercising influence. And, in each case the work lingers – timeless and transcendent.

This week died another such artist – Philip Roth. The greatest American novelist of his generation – and one of the greatest American novelists ever – was, also, a leader. From the start he had his detractors – especially women who were offended by what they perceived to be his misogyny, and Jews who were offended by what they perceived to be his anti-Semitism (Roth as self-hating Jew). But from the start his impact on American literature, and on American culture more generally, was immense.

Sex, especially male sexuality, was a running theme, and, inevitably, a forcefield. So was being Jewish in America or being a Jewish American or being an American Jew. And so was politics. Roth in midlife especially – a period during which he was as febrile as fertile – dug deep into politics, turned politics into grist for his novelistic mill. An example is The Plot Against America (2004), which I single out because in sketching an alternative universe, in this case one in which America has gone fascist, Roth is eerily, scarily, anticipatory of the time in which we live. The time of Trump.

Roth has been described, variously, as protean, prolific, profound and, of course, profane. He was also funny, regularly and occasionally relentlessly if blackly funny, which is one of the traits that separates him from peers such as John Updike and Saul Bellow.  Updike and Bellow are in different ways peerless. But, curiously, their literary and cultural influence seems even now, not long after their deaths, to have waned. Roth. I predict, will escape that fate. I predict the impact of his art will forever endure.



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