Never Before: Virus Invasion of Jewish American’s Homeland
Ng Lay Sion
In the previous part of the Chapter “Never Before,” the nine-year-old Philip experiences a number of never before incidences: he had never fainted before; he had never before wished that the house where he lived was somebody else’s; he had never before received twenty dollars; he had never before encountered a suicide; he had never before had to grow up in terror (172). In this section, Philip’s never before experiences further transform into a state of “disorder” (193), emphasized by his misreading of relationships, his fantasizing of becoming an orphan, the witnessing of domestic violence at home and also experiencing it himself in public. While the Roth family encounters a never before battle in their house, for the first time in history the president of America warmly greets Nazi von Ribbentrop at the White House. In fact, this never before peaceful image is viewed as a nightmare by Shepsie Tirschwell, which urges him to flee with his Jewish family to the “heaven of Canada” in June (195). Interestingly, Sandy sees this political catastrophe as a total absurdity. Equally, for Sandy it is his parents who have become Nazi dictators, turning his home into a totalitarian state.
For Philip, the experience of being discriminated against during the Washington trip, the absorption of Bess’s anxious feelings and Herman’s breakdown, the struggling under the political collision between Sandy and Alvin, the encounter with Alvin’s uncanny stump, the encounter with the FBI, the death of Seldon’s father and so on—all these incidences are also included in his never before list. Metaphorically, these never-before incidences represent a various kind of disease or what Philip calls “childlike ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was” (172). Having experienced so many never befores in a year, it is possible to suggest that Philip has anxiety disorder. As anxiety specialists have identified, when a child experiences anxiety more frequently and more intensely than other children of the same age, it is more likely that the child has an anxiety disorder (“Childhood Anxiety & Related Disorders”). Philip’s anxious symptoms are obvious: abnormal physical responses such as vomiting, fever, insomnia; uncontrollable hallucinations and misreading of casual relationships; “following Christians” behavior and self-splitting; intense feelings of fear, love and hatred.
What is important when looking into Philip’s anxiety symptoms is the analysis of the cause of his disorder. In this presentation, I will first explore the origin of the virus: Jewish Otherness. Next, I will focus on the White House dinner, which is seen as a metaphor of the virus invasion of the Jewish American Home(land), through the perspectives of Sandy and mainly, Philip.
The Origin of the Virus: Jewish Otherness
It is suggested that Philip’s paranoia is not always attributable to the Lindbergh presidency. In fact, much of his fear is based on his own childhood anxiety, which is derived from the fear of his own Jewishness. Following Philip’s earlier statement that “no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews” (1; italic mine), one comes to understand that the origin of Philip’s fear is derived from his Jewish otherness. Before recognizing his own Jewishness as his otherness, the young Philip is an innocent and happy child. But soon when he becomes aware of his own Jewish otherness through following the Christians—“my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I” (134)—he becomes self-conscious and is confused about his national identity. Soon in the next chapter, Philip finds himself hunted by the post-memories of the Jewish holocaust. As Alvin’s stump resembles the post-memory of the Jewish holocaust (please refer to my previous presentation), the cellar in the house symbolizes a space that is linking the present world to the underworld: “when I came to study […] Hades, Cerberus, and the River Styx, it was always our cellar that I was reminded of” (139). In Greek mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades, an underworld in which the spirits of the dead are only allowed to enter but not to leave (Hill, 2015). In the context of the holocaust, the cellar seems to resemble the Nazi extermination camps, where the victims are sent to death. Descriptions that resemble the death camps are: “saucer-sized drains,” “concentric dime-sized perforations,” “a ghoulish realm,” “corpse” (139).
Terrified by these uncanny post-memories, Philip once again allows the misreading of casual relationships to occur. He misreads the death of Mr. Wishnow and concludes that it is his father who had hanged himself in the closet because he can bear no more of Lindbergh. In the previous chapter, this misrecognition of casual relationships also occurs:
[…] if it weren’t for Christ there wouldn’t be Christians, and if it weren’t for Christians there wouldn’t be anti-Semitism, and if it weren’t for anti-Semitism there wouldn’t be Hitler, and if it weren’t for Hitler Lindbergh would never be president… (120)
Following Philip’s logic, if Mr. Wishnow could become Herman, then Bess could become Mrs. Wishnow and Seldon could become Philip. When Bess disappears together with Evelyn, Philip instantly connects Mrs. Wishnow and Bess, lamenting that “there would be no way ever again of avoiding Seldon and his unceasing need to draw sustenance from me” (189). The word “sustenance” allows us to understand that Philips feels as though Seldon was cannibalizing him. Also, having a false sense that Herman is already dead plus the disappearance of Bess, makes Philip begin to imagine himself as an orphan-like boy.
Philip’s loss of subjectivity, this self-cannibalizing phenomena, is deeply related to Herman’s distinct sense in separating himself from the mainstream group: by defining himself primarily as a Jew, Herman put himself into the category of the Other.
“Don’t you understand that these anti-Semitic bastards want us to run away? […] then the goyim will have this wonderful country all to themselves. Well, I have a better idea. Why don’t they leave? […] why don’t they all go live under their Fuhrer in Nazi Germany? Then we will have a wonderful country!” (197)
The conversation above occurs when Bess finds out that Shepsie Tirschwell is planning to leave with his family to Canada in June through Herman. Herman’s use of the word “they” and “we” emphasizes the separation between Jews and non-Jews in America. This Jewish-splitting consciousness forms the basis of Philip’s mindset. As in the beginning of the novel, Philip claims, “Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate—just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love” (7; italic mine). This statement shows that his love towards Roosevelt and his hatred towards Lindbergh are not really his own feelings, rather he is taught to feel that way. That is to say, the idea of Jewishness, to Philip, is “an outsider’s idea” (Coetzee “What Philip Knew”). It is mainly through the influence of Herman and the mass media that Philip is transformed from a Jewish American into an American Jew.
The Virus Invasion of the Jewish American Home(land)
It seems to the Roth children as if there was a virus called Jewishness that had infected their home. To Sandy, the virus has dominated Bess’s mind, leading her to use violence on her dearest son.
To add to the nerve-shattering implausibility of all our disorder, she made him pay in full for his filial defiance by dealing him a second blow, and this time he burst into tears. And had he not, this prudent mother of us, would have raised her gentle, kindly mothering hand and hit him a third, a fourth, and a fifth time. (193-4; underline mine)
When Philip sees this violent scene, he assumes that Bess is controlled by something else, that the whole family has fallen into disorder: “She doesn’t know what she’s doing”; “she’s somebody else—everybody is” (194). As according to Philip’s statement, his parents are raised under a family tradition that includes the use of violence as an educational method, therefore they insist that they would never use violence on their own children no matter what happens (193). Nevertheless, Bess uses violence on Sandy and Herman, when she finds out that Philip lied about his identity in order to enter the Newsreel Theater. She hits Philip right outside the theater. To Sandy, it is not the country but the family that has become Hitler-like totalitarianism; he is living under his parents’ dictatorship: “Your father laid down the law—you better obey it” (193). To Philip, it is Lindbergh and Jesus Christ who cause this disorder. As to Herman and Bess, it is Evelyn and the Rabbi who implant the virus of anti-Jewishness into the Roth’s house. Thus, as protectors of the family and a part of the Jewish community, they must fight for their children’s interests and for their Jewish faith: “it’s not a game. It’s a fight. Remember that: a fight!” (188).
Here, the word “fight” recalls Mrs. Wishnow’s clenched fists: “That her life was a fight was indisputable: you had only to look at her fists” (188). Having known that the widow Mrs. Wishnow is both mother and breadwinner—she raises Seldon by doing “piecework at slave wages” (159)—makes her clenched fists a symbol of resistance towards the dehumanization brought by slavery and wage labor. In the factual history, the black power movement used clenched fists as a gesture to represent the struggle of the civil rights movement in the 1960s (Charbourn, 2016). Similar to this, it can/had also been used to emphasize the confrontation of Jews in Europe under Nazi dehumanization and exploitation. From this aspect, Philip’s imagination that his father will be sleeping together with Mrs. Wishnow and her “clenched fists” (190) rather makes sense as both of them resist the act of dehumanization and hold on to their Jewish faith.
The difference between Philip and Sandy in coping with Jewish otherness is that the adolescent Sandy chooses to oppose this otherness openly while the preadolescent Philip chooses to keep it inside himself in order to please his parents, as Philip has always felt that he is insignificant compared to his brother: “not till Sandy was gone to Kentucky did I learn how much he meant to [Bess] as someone distinct from his little brother” (91). In other words, Sandy’s talent in drawing and his transformation in Just Folk becomes the element of Philip’s inferiority. From the lens of adolescent psychology, Sandy’s decision to participate in Just Folk and his attendance at the White House dinner can be seen as an act of rebellion during his adolescent period. As Davis in “Teenagers: Why do They Rebel?” suggests, “All teens go through similar phases—the need for independence, a separate identity, testing authority. It’s part of growing up.” While Aunt Evelyn sees Sandy’s attendance at the White House dinner as an “opportunity” to influence his bright future, Sandy sees this as an opportunity to grow up. Davis continues to note, “As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill—and they tend to practice on their parents.” Thus, the concept of Jewishness might not have been an outsider’s concept to Sandy; rather, it is turned into an outsider’s idea in order to rebel against his parents.
When Bess hits Sandy in the face and asks him to obey his father’s will, Sandy, in “all resistance,” insults his parents by calling them “ghetto Jews” in order to highlight his adolescent “heroism” (193). While Sandy’s calling of his parents “ghetto Jews” might refer to their poor social condition, however, this calling hides a deeper meaning. In the context of factual history, as Glazer states in “Ghettos Under the Nazis,” the ghettos were established during the Second War World in order to isolate the Jews from mixing with the superior Aryan race. And with the implementation of the “Final Solution” in 1942, the Nazis began to destroy the ghettos by sending the Jews to the death camps. From this aspect, Sandy’s calling of “you ghetto Jews” can also imply a meaning in which he, who has been invited to the White House dinner, will not become a member of the ghetto Jews and will not be sent to the ghettos regardless of a program like the “Final Solution” really happening. In other words, for Sandy, the White House invitation represents an antivirus against the Nazi invasion.
On the contrary, Philip sees the “NAZI BIGWIG WHITE HOUSE GUEST” as a virus invasion of his homeland. In general, the White House symbolizes the home of America and American democracy. While some people see it as an emblem of freedom, democracy and human rights, “those who accuse America of double standards—of upholding freedoms at home while often propping up totalitarian regimes elsewhere—see it as a place of hypocrisy, even as a threat to world peace” (New World Encyclopedia). Earlier in the novel, President Lindbergh mentions “democracy” in his speech and also repeats fifteen times the idea of “An independent destiny for America”:
“it is Hitler to whom the entire world must be grateful tonight for striking at the Soviet Union. If the German army is successful in its struggle against Soviet Bolshevism […] America will never have to face the threat of a voracious Communist state imposing its pernicious system on the rest of the world. […] if we had allowed our nation to be dragged into this world war on the side of Great Britain and France, we would now find our great democracy allied with the evil regime of the USSR.” (84)
President Lindbergh uses democracy to promote peace: “keeping America out of all foreign wars and of keeping all foreign wars out of America” (84). However, keeping peace with Hitler means not to keep peace with Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Also, keeping peace with Hitler means to embrace Hitler’s totalitarianism, which is opposed to the idea of democracy, as totalitarianism is the domination of the minority while democracy is the domination of the majority. Thus, Lindbergh’s idea of democracy is indeed, double standards—he is only using democracy to uphold his totalitarianism.
Interestingly, as Hannah Arendt points out, in the Nazi variety of totalitarianism, this dictatorship was not exactly total: “there were some victims who were not merely manipulated but remained masters enough of events to assist in their own destruction” (Wieseltier, 1981). In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt notes,
Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people. (125; qtd. in Bernstein 161)
In The Plot Against America, Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Evelyn are the exceptional victims as they support Lindbergh’s Just Folk Program, his anti-Semitic propaganda and Hitler’s totalitarianism. If the Jewish holocaust had ever happened in America, they were the viruses that caused this holocaust. As to the Roth family, it is Evelyn who is seen as a virus that comes to annihilate the Roth’s home. On the surface, Evelyn, pretends to care about Sandy’s future but deep down in her heart she only cares about her own future, which is to own the properties that used to belong to the Rabbi’s late wife. When Philip sees his aunt’s showing up at the White House dinner via the theater screen, he claims, “Among the many improbabilities that the cameras established as irrefutably real, Aunt Evelyn’s disgraceful triumph was for me the least real of all,” emphasizing Evelyn’s fakeness and her giving up on her family roots (201). By putting themselves outside the Jewish American community, Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Evelyn represent nothing but the Jewish Other. In fact, they are the original virus invasion of the Jewish American Home(land).
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