From Zuckerman To Zuckerberg
09/24/12
Special To The Jewish Week
Daniel Schifrin
Daniel Schifrin

Philip Roth has apparently discovered the Internet.

In an open letter posted on The New Yorker website, the novelist explained that he recently visited the Wikipedia page dedicated to his novel The Human Stain, finding it factually incorrect.

“I am Philip Roth,” he writes. “I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel ‘The Human Stain.’ The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. ... Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”  — in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor — that I, Roth, was not a credible source: ‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,’ writes the Wikipedia Administrator — ‘but we require secondary sources.’”

What really matters isn’t the content of the letter — a detailed explanation about who “The Human Stain” is actually based on — but its very existence as an anxious symbol of the individual’s need to record his or her truth. The language of the Wikipedia Administrator (which sounds slightly Orwellian) ironically evokes the tragedy of many of Roth’s Eastern European literary heroes, who struggled to make their voices heard against the noise of Communism, and whose work Roth has tirelessly championed.

“The Human Stain” hinges on a throwaway line by the protagonist, Coleman Silk, a classics professor and a black man passing as white, who notices that two students have never attended his class. He asks aloud: “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Apparently the students are African-American, and the crowd-sourced assumption at the university is that Professor Silk used “spooks” as a racial epithet, and must be punished.

Ultimately, “The Human Stain” is about the right of one individual — Coleman Silk — to decide what is true and what is false about himself and his identity. The crowd has other ideas. Likewise, Roth’s memo argues that one author — Philip Roth — has the right to decide who or what his book is about.

One of the ironies of Roth’s situation is that much of his best work revolves around alter egos like Nathan Zuckerman, or doppelgangers (like “Philip Roth” in Operation Shylock) who struggle with the author and other characters over who has the right to tell a person’s story.

In Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral,” Nathan Zuckerman famously says, “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.” For Roth, I believe, getting things wrong represents the unique privilege of a free individual in a free society, as well as the raison d’être of artists who depend so heavily on experimentation and failure.

In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki argues, “Under the right circumstances groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” His first proof is a famous story from 1906, when a large group of people collectively guessed the exact weight of an ox — better than any single individual could have hoped to do. This is essentially the claim of Wikipedia, which, through its self-correcting system, seems to do a pretty good job of getting things right.

But what happens when the crowd tries to determine something more sublime, like the value of art. Fifteen years ago the Russian-Jewish artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid put this to a test in painting called “Most Wanted,” which was created using a poll that asked Americans what they liked in art. The result was a horrendous work featuring George Washington and a group of contemporary tourists watching deer in a lake.

Roth’s memo coincides with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti’s essay collection “Crowds and Power,” a post-Nazi reflection on how individuals subsume themselves into the political crowd, and how leaders exploit that phenomenon to stay in control. I imagine this anniversary is not lost on Philip Roth, whose work has always been about the rights of the individual voice against the desires of the group. Given the acceleration of our addiction to social media (of which I am often pleasurably guilty), I wonder at the ability of individuals to even understand what crowds they have merged into, even from the sacred privacy of their own homes.

Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, hosts its podcast series “The Space Between.”

Last Update:

09/28/2012 - 10:42

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