Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Usure et rupture - Breaking points

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Philip roth's parodies of Jamesian writer/reader relationships

Tom Pughe

Texte intégral

1In this essay I should like to conceive of the way one particular reader approaches the work of Henry James in terms of a breaking-point because I think that the discussion of this writer/reader relationship can contribute to our understanding of that much larger breaking-point that we allude to when we try to distinguish between modernism and postmodernism. The postmodern reader of James I shall be concerned with is Philip Roth. By the term "reader" I want to suggest, on the one hand, the way Roth's vision of James has been incorporated into his own writing, and on the other, the particular importance that the process of literary reception has in the fiction of both writers.

  • 1 Zuckerman's agent in fact tells the writer not to " hide from [the world] behind Henry James." (Zu (...)

2In his "Zuckerman"-novels (i. e. The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and The Counterlife), Roth represents the writer's contact with his public as inescapably comic. Although they are set in a contemporary context, Roth's "Künstler-Romane" more or less openly acknowledge their debt to Henry James,1 especially to his stories of the "literary life", to "The Author of Beltraffio", "The Lesson of the Master", "The Middle Years", "The Death of the Lion" and the "The Aspern Papers". The inspiration Roth has drawn from James concerns in particular the comic possibilities inherent in the relationship between the writer and his or her public. James in this respect foreshadows Roth. In what follows, I shall therefore focus on Roth's postmodernist transformations, i. e. his parodies, of the Jamesian model.

- 1 -

3The comic incongruity Roth finds in James's stories devoted to the relationship between authors and their readers derives from the Romantic concept of the writer-hero. The latter is closely related to the Kantian vision of the work of art as an autonomous construct that serves only its own standard of excellence. According to this Romantic point of view, the creative process remains aloof from the struggles of everyday social existence in bourgeois society and, in particular, refuses to lend itself to any kind of political ideology or commerical interest. Generally speaking, it is this refusal, and the sense of apart-ness and isolation it engenders in the artist, that nourishes the heroic image in the postromantic period. Theodor Adorno, in one of his aphorisms, describes the relationship between the autonomous artist and capitalist society as an inescapable opposition: "Total freedom from purpose [i. e. art] denies the total submission to purpose in the world of domination [i. e. capitalism]." This quotation from Minima Moralia (144) shows by its defiant tone that for the Marxist Adorno, writing in the 1950s, the concept of the artisthero was still very much alive.

4Modern, i. e. post-romantic, aesthetic ideology has in fact generated many heroic images of the literary artist--the Faustian one of Romanticism, the poète maudit and the Surrealist explorer of the unconscious of modernism, finally, the "schizophrenic" of postmodernism. Note that these images project an increasingly unstable idea of the author's self the more we approach our own time. Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and other post-structuralists have indeed declared the literary artist, in the sense of an original author of his or her work, to be "dead". The reason for this increasing endangerment of the species in the post-romantic period is the growth of industrialism and mass culture. In the course of this development, literary culture has came to be identified with leisure and the literary work of art to be pushed aside by the competition coming from mass culture. The literary artist has therefore found, and still finds it more and more difficult to uphold the idea of the autonomous work of literature and the heroic self-image it implies.

5According to Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), the gradual erosion of faith in the autonomous status of literary art is reflected by the ever more pronounced concern of writers with their own techniques and codes. "Künstler-Romane" and "Künstler-Novellen" are expressions of this concern, and so are, though much more radically, the anti-art of the Dadaists and the parodies of postmodernism. Yet the example of the modernist avant-garde in particular shows that the author of the autonomous work is not only endangered from "without", but his or her destabilisation also comes from "within", for the more the writer's defiance expresses itself in a concern with his or her own craft, the more artistic autonomy risks being judged as irrelevant in the "real" world of politics and business. Adorno and Bürger (among others) therefore speak of a self-defeating strategy that, according to them, reached the end of its possibilities (at least in the West) with the avant-garde of the first third of our century. More importantly, I believe, literature's bending back on itself draws into question the very notion of the author as a master over the weapons of language. The gradual undermining of the concept of the artist-hero is, in sum, the result of a dialectic of destabilisation from "without" and from "within" which moves towards a breaking-point rather than a synthesis.

6It must be added that the concept of the writer-hero, based on his aloofness or even isolation from the world of politics and commerce, has an evidently masculinist aspect that feminist revisions of modern aesthetic ideology have taught us to recognize. It is, however, this masculinist ideology or master-plot that structures the intertextual relations between James and Roth. More to the point, the inherent contradictions of that plot drive Roth's reading of James almost inescapably towards parody.

- 2 -

7Henry James's stories of the "literary life" confront us, at the end of the nineteenth century, with a critical point of the above-mentioned dialectic of destabilisation which is, roughly speaking, characteristic of literary modernism. The outward symptom of this critical state is the comic, that is, the fact that even--or particularly -- the serious writer's existence as it is portrayed by James cannot escape appearing slightly ridiculous. Stories like "The Author of Beltraffio", "The Lesson of the Master", "The Middle Years" and so forth in fact reveal a dual form of comic incongruity. On the one hand, James, the satirist, ridicules the boorishness of the bourgeois reading public in an age of "trash triumphant" ("The Next Time": 309) because this public reacts to works of true genius with complete disregard of their exquisite craft, consuming the literary treasure as it would the famous "pudding". In James's satire the vulgarity of the bourgeois patrons of the arts-such as Mr. Morrow or Mrs. Winbush in "The Death of the Lion"-is played off against the infinite subtelty and proud autonomy of "true" creativeness. This kind of ridicule, then, originates in the incongruity between the implied reader of a work of literary art and the reading public at large which is incapable of, or, worse, uninterested in appreciating the work's quality. Needless to say, such satire serves to heighten our awareness of the serious writer's often precarious existence and the honourableness of his struggle.

  • 2 Cf. Wegelin 1987: 643-44.

8On the other hand, James, the ironist, represents the destabilisation from "within" of the very writer-hero whose struggle we are urged to sympathise with. In defiance of the pervasive disregard of his craft, the serious Jamesian writer (the "artist to the essence", as Paul Overt is called in "The Lesson of the Master" [128]) often labours for an aesthetic perfection that is free of any concession to the taste of the public, of commercial considerations and, as hinted at in "The Author of Beltraffio", of conventional morality. James never actually shows the moment of inspired creation, although he does refer in "The Lesson of the Master" to the "ink-stained table" (128) as its banal setting. The actual moment recedes into a mythic twilight which Dencombe, the artist-hero in "The Middle Years", calls "the madness of art": "We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art" (258). That "rest" remains enigmatic in all of James's "Künstler-Novellen."2

9Instead, we are shown in Dencombe's case the "doubt" and the "passion" of the writer as well as, more banally perhaps, the limits of his physical stamina; in other stories, e. g. in "The Lesson of the Master", we are confronted with the limits of his moral stamina when he is faced with financial needs and tempted by the vanities of fame. In most of James's stories of the literary life", in fact, the rarified perfection of the literary artist's work throws into relief the imperfection of the man's physical being and the confusion and even dubiousness of his domestic arrangements and social comportment. James's main means of implying a distinction or even an incompatibility between the author and the man is the character of the young admirer or aspiring artist--for example, Dr. Hugh in "The Middle Years"--whose enormous admiration for the work ironically highlights the weaknesses of the person who wrote it. James's irony derives from the incongruous relationship between the implied author and the real writer of the literary text. His artist-hero is thus turned into an artist-anti-hero.

10This dual comic incongruity of James's "Künstler-Novellen" reveals two aspects that are crucial. Firstly, both the satiric and the ironic dimension of his comic vision derive from the way in which he presents the reception of the literary work of art. The literary process itself offers impulses for comedy. Secondly, neither the satiric nor the ironic mode of the comedy ever touch the essential integrity of the serious work of literary art itself. Given the unresponsive context and, often, the personal weaknesses of his writers, the creative act may appear like a miracle. But the "madness of art", the mythic sign of genius, is nevertheless there, in the text, to be esteemed by the true "amateur". Though James's irony does not spare his artist-heroes, the corrosive power of the ridiculous only touches, as it were, the vulgar shell of art. The dialectic of destabilisation is thus contained, if precariously, by a belief in the "assured and unalterable quality" (Eagleton: 11) of the text's "literariness."

- 3 -

11In Philip Roth's vision of the "literary life", destabilisation is no longer checked in this manner. Instead, the corrosion of the comic spreads to the innermost reaches of the artist-hero's being. Roth's essay of 1974, "Imagining Jews" (Reading Myself and Others: 271-302), provides a paradigmatic example. "Alas, it wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind," begins Roth's complaint about his celebrity after writing the succès de scandale of the late 60s. What the author of Port noy's Complaint had had in mind as the fruit of his work was honour of the kind Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" enjoyed despite the dubious circumstances of that fictional author's death. But the status of the successful American writer of the sixties is nothing like that of his modernist role models:

Instead of taking an honorific place in the public à la Gustave von Aschenbach, with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, in February 1969, I suddenly found myself famous from one end of the continent to the other for being everything that Aschenbach had suppressed and kept a shameful secret right down to his morally resolute end. Jacqueline Susan, discussing her colleague with Johnny Carson, tickled ten million Americans by saying that she'd like to meet me but didn't want to shake my hand. (Reading Myself: 272-73).

12Mann's, rather than James's, work is Roth's point of comparison with his own experience here, but the way in which Roth emphasises the incongruity between von Aschenbach's private confusions and his unshakeable honour as an author recalls the ironic constellation of James's "Künstler-Novellen". For the contemporary writer this constellation appears to have become a cultural allusion which he uses to create comic incongruity. What is amusing about the passage just quoted is that Roth yearns for detached irony à la Henry James or Thomas Mann. Indeed, the author of Portnoy presents himself as a parody of the modernist writer-hero (or anti-hero) who finds that the work of his imagination has become embroiled in the personality cult of the entertainment industry instead of receiving the disinterested critical scrutiny he thinks it deserves as "Literature". Evidently, in the experience Roth describes, the dialectic of destabilisation has reached an extreme point of its development at which commercial popular culture has become the omnipotent force in cultural life -- a force that has managed to co-opt the persona of the writer-as-hero and thereby to transform the embodiment of that persona, Roth, into an involuntary parody of his romantic ideals. This point, is, roughly speaking, characteristic of postmodernism.

13Roth's comic comparison of his own celebrity with von Aschenbach's "honour" in fact touches on two aspects that seem to me typically postmodernist. Firstly, the erosion of the status of modernist high art as the privileged representative of "culture": postmodernist culture, according to Jim Collins (in Uncommon Cultures, 1989), is plural. It is characterised by a continuum of high and popular cultures resulting in what Collins describes as a "tension-filled semiotic environment" (30). The second postmodernist aspect of the passage under discussion is the prevalence of parody. As Linda Hutcheon (among others) has pointed out, postmodernism relies largely on processes of refashioning and reprocessing and has therefore made parody into its central strategy (cf. Hutcheon 1989). The aim of such parody, according to Hutcheon, is not, however, ridicule of the original in the conventional sense, but making new. It implies both sympathy or even complicity with and critical distance from a model (the prefix para meaning both "near" and "opposed to"). Postmodernist parody is therefore defined by Hutcheon as "imitation with critical ironic difference" (1985: 37). This concept of parody as well as Collins'concept of culture as "tension-filled semiotic environment", then, are present in nuce in Roth's comic scene, which is indeed, a kind of "primal scene" of his postmodernism that he will rework over and over in his subsequent Zuckerman-novels. Roth's re-cycling of the heroic tradition is, incidentally, hinted at by the Shelleyan title of the second Zuckerman novel, Zuckerman Unbound.

- 4 -

  • 3 Notably Adeline Tintner (see my " Works Cited ").

14In the discursive world of the Zuckerman novels, references to the names and works of Flaubert, James, Mann, Tolstoy and Turgenev fuction as a kind of intertextual shorthand: they point to an aesthetic ideology that stresses the autonomy of the work of art and the quasisacral status of the artistic calling. This ideology Roth strongly associates with the values taught in a liberal arts education in the United States in the late '50s, the period in which the first novel in the Zuckerman series, The Ghost Writer, is set. Because of his own ardent belief in these values, young Zuckerman reveres an older writer, Lonoff. The Ghost Writer is the account of Zuckerman's visit at the master's house. We recognise the Jamesian theme. In fact, the novel is replete with Jamesian echoes. Most importantly, Lonoff has copied and tacked to the wall by his own "ink-stained table" ("The Lesson of the Master") the passage from "The Middle Years" about the "madness of art" that I quoted earlier. Lonoff indeed shares several qualities with James's Dencombe, especially the Jamesian artist-hero's self-deprecating and melancholy description of the artist's life. Many further echoes of this kind of Jamesian irony can be detected by a more thorough comparison than mine, a task that has been undertaken by a number of critics3 who have in fact extended their search over all of the novels in the Zuckerman-series.

15My concern, however, is with the parodistic effect of Roth's use of the Jamesian constellation, for James is not just imitated in The Ghost Writer, he is, to employ Hutcheon's terminology, imitated with critical ironic difference. Zuckerman, unlike James's young enthusiasts, does not only admire Lonoff, he tries to be like him and in particular to use the accomplished writer's praise of his work as a sanction, as though the association with Lonoff s Jamesian dignity could protect his own writing from criticism or misreadings. But the dialectic of destabilisation from "without" and from "within" has already reached its breaking-point. In young Zuckerman's case destabilisation from "within" means his play with the fictionality of his own writing; he deliberately blurs the distinction between imagination and auto-biography. Destabilisation from "without" refers to the fact that Zuckerman's readers do not recognise his experiments as aesthetic play, and this results in an alarming proliferation of "misreadings" and controversies over his writing. The dialectic of destabilisation is no longer controllable because the writer's literary discourse is no longer conceived or received as detached from its social, ethnic, sexual and commercial implications. Thus, the more Zuckerman tries to associate himself with Lonoff, the more obvious the incongruity between the master's aesthetic ideology and the disciple's actual socio-cultural situation becomes. Indeed, that ideology appears as an unlivable illusion in what Collins calls a "tensionfilled semiotic environment." Roth is evidently re-working his "primal scene" of postmodernism.

- 5 -

  • 4 A title that, according to Tintner, is an " original translation of the donné " of James's " The J (...)

16Such a re-working is nowhere more obvious than in the episode of Zuckerman's funeral in The Counterlife.4 Here Roth returns to the topos of "the death of an author" which he had earlier linked to Mann's "Death in Venice" and James's "The Middle Years". When Zuckerman dies in midnovel, "honour", granted by admirers and critics alike, is not the theme of the funeral rites. Rather, it is dispute and notoriety. Indeed, the very arrangement of the funeral scene suggests controversy, for Zuckerman's eulogy, delivered by his editor, consists in an interpretation of the author's notorious bestseller Carnovsky. As soon as it is over, the eulogy is fiercely attacked.

17The sequence is narrated from the point of view of the dead author's brother who detests the novel because in his opinion it viciously distorts and publicly humiliates the writer's own family and their way of life. By contrast, the eulogy itself praises Carnovsky as a "classic of irresponsible exaggeration" (The Counterlife: 211), and it thus conceptualises in aesthetic terms the very distortions that Zuckerman frère condemns. This juxtaposition of two opposed readings recalls the comic constellation of James's vision of the "literary life", with Zuckerman's brother representing the insensitive, unappreciative general public and the eulogising editor, the "true critic", who appreciates the work's unalterable greatness, though he might deplore, and thereby throw an ironical light on, its author's personal weaknesses. But Roth imitates James's comic constellation only to underline the much greater degree of instability that characterises his representation of the literary process, for The Counterlife suggests no privileged reading of Carnovsky. Roth's reader, in contradistinction to James's in "The Middle Years" or to Mann's in "Death in Venice", is left without a hint as to the "true" quality of the dead writer's work. Instead, he or she is confronted with a clash of differing value judgments, each of which seems to some extent justified. Roth's writer-character thus emerges as a figuration of the controversial readings his text provokes or, literally, as a figuration of the "madness of art".

18Roth's parodistic strategy is at its most incisive in this episode, which ends with the discovery that Zuckerman himself has written his eulogy. This speech, then, the writer's own interpretation of his novel Carnovsky, is nothing more than a doomed attempt at mummification through the text. For James's or Mann's writer, the work of literary art is, beyond all of life's confusions, a means of defying mortality. Zuckerman's work, by contrast, results in perpetuating not his achievement, his "honour", but in the precariousness of his author-self. In Roth's "Künstler-Roman" the author, in the sense of romantic artisthero, is well and truly "dead." Roth ironically underscores this by "resurrecting" Zuckerman after his funeral, that is, by declaring the latter part of The Counterlife to be a fiction of Zuckerman's in which he appears as a character under his own name. The self of Zuckerman is thus completely swallowed up by his texts.

- 6 -

19As I have tried to show, Roth repeatedly draws on the patterns that give rise to James's comic vision of the "literary life", but these appear like traces of a lost world. James's comedy could be said to have its origin in the metaphor of the "madness of art", Roth, by inverting that metaphor, inescapably transforms the Jamesian vision into parody. His parody thus implies a shift from (in Terry Eagleton's words) an "ontological to a functional" (9) definition of the literary text. This shift is, to be sure, foreshadowed or prepared in James's modernist vision of writer/reader relationships. The source of comic conflict in this relationship is with him, as later with Roth, the reception of the text in a rapidly changing and confusing socio-cultural environment. In this situation, James depicts "true" literary taste and appreciation as an ever more isolated and rarefied event which, of course, carries it own risks. Roth gives us a much more radical demonstration of how literature's bending back on itself draws into question the artist-hero and his privileged relation to the reader-amateur. For his writercharacter Zuckerman and his work, there is no retreat into an autonomous sphere of literary "honour" from the economic, ethnic or sexual struggles of his socio-cultural environment.

20The Russian formalist critic Yurji Tynyanov has pointed out that "the essence of parody lies in the mechanisation of a specific device" (Rose: 119). Applied to Roth's parodistic "Künstler-Roman" this observation implies that the concept of the autonomous literary work and of its creator-hero as it appears in James' stories, has become a mechanism--a defence mechanism, indeed--of the contemporary writer Zuckerman. I think, finally, that it is this sense of a "mechanical incrustation" (to use Henri Bergson's famous term) in Roth's reading of James's already incongruous stories of the "literary life" which shows that the time of the autonomous artist-hero-covered with as well as by literary "honour"--is past.



Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschadigten Leben. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1951.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Transl, by Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: Minnesota U. P., 1984.

Collins, Jim. Uncommon Cultures. Popular Culture and Post-Modernism. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody. The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

James, Henry. The Figure in the Carpet and Other Stories. Ed. Frank Kermode. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Rose, Margaret A. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1993.

Roth, Philip. Reading Myself and Others. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1985.

Roth, Philip. Zuckerman Bound. A Trilogy and Epilogue. (Contains The Ghost Writer [1979], Zuckerman Unbound [1981], The Anatomy Lesson [1983], The Prague Orgy [1985]). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

Roth, Philip. The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

Tintner, Adeline. "Henry James as Roth's Ghost Writer". Midstream (March 1981): 48-51.

Tintner, Adeline. "Hiding Behind James: Roth's Zuckerman Unbound". Midstream (April 1982): 49-53.

Tintner, Adeline. "'The Prague Orgy': Still Bound to Henry James." Midstream (October 1985): 49-51.

Tintner, Adeline. "Adventures in Life and Fiction." Midstream (June/July 1987): 55-56.

Wegelin, Christof. " Art and Life in James's 'The Middle Years'." Modern Fiction Studies. (Winter 1987): 639-46.


1 Zuckerman's agent in fact tells the writer not to " hide from [the world] behind Henry James." (Zuckerman Unbound: 280).

2 Cf. Wegelin 1987: 643-44.

3 Notably Adeline Tintner (see my " Works Cited ").

4 A title that, according to Tintner, is an " original translation of the donné " of James's " The Jolly Corner ". (Tintner 1987: 56).


Université d'Orléans

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1995

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier