The other morning, I read the revelations that Blake Bailey, author of a new, highly acclaimed biography of Philip Roth, had been accused of “grooming” young girls when he taught at a New Orleans middle school in the 1990s, then going on, allegedly, to grope them, and rape two of them when they were adults. The episode puts me in mind not of a novel by Roth (a predictable response), or of similar recent scandals. Instead, I thought of Daniel Bell’s classic work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
Of the many paradoxes Bell explores, one haunts the imagination of liberals and conservatives alike. As the consumerist marketplace thrives by developing new frontiers of appetite and desire, Bell argued, the values of right and wrong, self-restraint, decency, and respect melt into air. Conservatives who cherish market values have to witness the erosion of the moral values they hold dear. Liberals who cherish any change that undermines traditional moral restraints have to witness the capitalist market cheerfully absorbing and commercializing—and monetizing—what they prize as triumphs of human freedom.
Responses to such contradictions tend to create more intense contradictions themselves—and the more intense the response, the greater the contradiction. The burden now seems to fall far more heavily on liberals. Conservatives admirably and pragmatically stress the stabilizing influence of traditional morality, family, and religion, arguing that super-accelerated consumer capitalism makes them more crucial than ever. Liberals are confronted with an especially hard dilemma. They celebrate unencumbered desire, but the marketplace that welcomes it does not discriminate between the forms of power that desire takes. You can draw a more or less straight line from the sexual revolution to Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. In response, liberals now seek stability in a spirit of coercive dogmatism that they usually like to attribute to conservatives. They are creating a regime that attempts to control the most intimate human behavior and thoughts. The result is a worldview riven by contradictions.
Such woke imperatives and commercial dynamics often are not at odds. Observers affected surprise when W. W. Norton, Bailey’s publisher, after the allegations against the author became public, announced that it was stopping shipment of the biography to bookstores and halting a second printing. Yet the prospect of a salacious biography written by a suddenly scandalous biographer becoming impossible to obtain had the predictable effect of making people rush to buy it. Within hours after the revelations and Norton’s announcement, the book rose in rank on Amazon from about 700 to 10. Norton’s marketing team had achieved a woke dream: resoundingly establishing the company’s virtue and making a quick buck all at once. You can bet that the book will stay in print—and return to stores.
Fundamentally, though, the contradiction between sanctioning ever-new forms of indulgence, and then policing them when they become inequitable, is bringing liberalism to a boiling point of incoherence. Let’s begin, not with Bailey—he has, of course, been canceled, as per our new social order, before any of the charges against him have been investigated, let alone proven—and not even with Roth, but of the response to Roth and to his work.
I don’t believe that an artist’s work should be judged by his or her behavior, any more than our waking lives should be judged by the moral qualities of our dreams. Cancel culture, especially when it uses a person’s life against his work, is a kind of moral, intellectual, and spiritual murder. I do believe, though, that the peculiar liberal elevation and defense of Roth is a striking example, not just of liberal hypocrisy, but of a basic contradiction at the heart of the new woke order.
For what do you do when the work itself reflects, and promotes, the most disturbing aspects of the life? Roth’s oeuvre had an obsessional theme: the primal significance of the sexual libido. His fiction begins and ends with the permanence, and the necessity, of men having sex with women at all costs, morality and self-restraint be damned.
As I once wrote in a review of Roth’s The Dying Animal, about all the many transformations and reincarnations of libido—children or work or play or the secret, unnamable sublimations that men and women create to make more supple the bonds between them—Roth is mum. Roth’s acclaimed Newark trilogy, in fact, dishearteningly documents the failure of a wide assortment of private and public American attempts to make a meaningful life. On the subject of children, the childless Roth was downright vindictive. Children betray their parents’ love (American Pastoral); break their parents’ hearts (Indignation); or die en masse in an epidemic (Nemesis).
In just about every Roth book, someone is masturbating. It is almost incomprehensible that, over 40 years ago, the cream of New York’s literary intelligentsia were heatedly debating a scene in Roth’s The Ghost Writer, in which one of Roth’s alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman, masturbates over a picture of Anne Frank. If, like me, you were struck by the revelation that more than one man brought down by #MeToo was accused of masturbating in front of a woman without her permission, you could not help but suspect that Roth almost single-handedly, as it were, created an atmosphere that sanctioned such behavior as just another erotic custom.
So how did the custodians of the new woke order respond to Bailey’s biography of Roth, whose life and work represented everything they claimed to abhor? Consider one representative response to the book. Bailey is “industrious, rigorous, and uncowed,” writes David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, in a long review that he published in his magazine.
But Bailey is none of those things. He will state half a fact and fail to follow its implications. Why did Roth’s first wife tell the 27-year-old budding author, “If you ever fuck my daughter, I’ll drive a knife right down into your heart”? In 2014, Bailey tells us, Roth recalled Helen, the stepdaughter in question, “driving back alone with me from the beach one hot afternoon, squeezed up against me in her wet bathing suit after the two of us had rolled for several hours through the heavy surf with [Helen] safely clutched to my chest, she lifted her child’s face like a little leaf all juiced up on photosynthesis. ‘Kiss me, Philip,’ she said, ‘the way you kiss mother.’” All juiced up. Bailey rushes in to defend his subject. “Helen doesn’t remember this incident,” he writes in a footnote, “though she certainly concedes that she was flirtatious toward her stepfather.” The girl initiated the encounter, apparently. Helen was ten at the time.
As for being “uncowed,” Bailey is cowed from the very start. Not a single review of the book that I’ve seen mentions the bizarre opening pages of its acknowledgements, in which Bailey recalls the first summer he met Roth, when he spent a week with the novelist at the latter’s house in Connecticut. “Now and then we had to take bathroom breaks, and we could hear each other’s muffled streams through the door. One lovely sun-dappled afternoon I sat on his studio couch, listening to our greatest living novelist empty his bladder, and reflected that this was about as good as it gets for an American literary biographer.”
Far from being “rigorous,” Bailey dutifully recounts Roth’s sexually unhinged life because he has to. Those facts are known to many people in literary circles and were bound to be publicized sooner or later. Bailey’s presentation of them can be read as a preemptive defense of Roth. And his defense extends to Roth’s work. I borrowed from my review of Roth’s The Dying Animal because Bailey himself quotes from it, only to twist my words to his own purposes. The book dramatizes the following moral dilemma: sixtyish David Kepesh, disgusted by his twentyish ex-girlfriend’s mastectomy and realizing that he can no longer have casual sex with her, has to decide whether to visit her in the hospital—and thus surrender his independence as a single man—or preserve his freedom and avoid a wrenching emotional entanglement with her. That’s it—that’s the moral dilemma that animated a man described, before his death, as the last great living American novelist.
Commenting on the chasm between Roth’s masterful style and his puerile content, I wrote that “it is like using an exquisite piece of Carrara marble to carve a dildo.” Bailey quotes me and then uses my remark to conclude that “one can enjoy The Dying Animal as a stylishly minor tour de force, without necessarily being impressed by every one of its moral perplexities.” But my review argued that the novella, and Roth’s work in general, has no moral perplexities.
Again, I don’t believe that Roth’s writing should be canceled. I simply want to observe that the most zealous facilitators of cancel culture promoted and defended Roth, at the same time as they were engaged in the process of destroying men for purported behavior and values that Roth practiced in his life and work.
Even as Remnick was publishing articles by Ronan Farrow taking down one powerful “toxic” white male after another, for example, the New Yorker editor was promoting and publishing Roth—perhaps the country’s most prominent toxic white male—every chance he got. Even as Remnick published an article accusing Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault—an article so irresponsible that the New York Times had to point out its lack of corroborating evidence—he was establishing a close bond with Bailey, dangling, it seems, before Roth’s biographer an eventual relationship with the magazine as a reward for a well-done defense of his subject.
As for the New York Times, which at the dawn of #MeToo was in a neck-in-neck race with The New Yorker to see how many toxic male scalps it could hang on its belt, its treatment of the Bailey scandal has been as shocking as the scandal itself. Valentina Rice, one of the two women who has accused Bailey of rape, claims that he assaulted her at the house of Dwight Garner, the Times’s chief book critic and formerly an editor at the New York Times Book Review. Here, I have to quote at length from the paper’s article about the charges against Bailey:
Mr. Garner, who had previously been an editor at The Times, said he had first interacted with Mr. Bailey when he had assigned him book reviews to write. Mr. Garner did not know Mr. Bailey well, he said, and this was the only time he had been invited to his house.
Mr. Garner was horrified to hear Ms. Rice’s account, he said. He added that he and Mr. Bailey do not have a relationship.
A friend of Ms. Rice, Eliot Nolen, told The Times that she remembers Ms. Rice saying that she was assaulted by Mr. Bailey about a week after the party. Ms. Rice said she decided against reporting it to the police.
About three years later, prompted by the growing #MeToo movement and encouraged by friends, Ms. Rice, using an email account under a pseudonym, wrote to Julia A. Reidhead, the president of Norton, accusing Mr. Bailey of nonconsensual sex. She also emailed a New York Times reporter, who responded, but Ms. Rice decided not to pursue it further and did not reply.
Like Bailey’s biography of Roth, the article is a masterpiece of concealment and evasion. Newspaper reports are supposed to answer basic questions of fact, but this article leaves obvious questions hanging. Garner says that he was “horrified” when Rice told him that she was raped by one of Garner’s dinner guests in the latter’s house, but we don’t know when she told him. Did she tell him that night? The next morning? Years later? Just now? Why does the reporter not ask Garner that simple question? The question is crucially important.
If Rice did tell Garner the next day, did he advise her to go to the police? After all, a violent sexual crime had allegedly been committed in his house, as he and his wife and possibly his teenaged children slept nearby. Did he not want Bailey to be held to account? You would think that, faced with a charge that a friend of his had been raped by a near stranger in his own home, he would have insisted that she at least report the crime to the police, while herself insisting on anonymity.
Perhaps the most important question of all: did Garner ask Bailey if it was true that he raped Rice in Garner’s own house? It is impossible to believe that he would not have brought such a reprehensible charge up with the man who was the subject of it.
And if Rice adamantly refused to go to the police, did Garner keep the whole incident to himself, at a time when his newspaper was publishing any accusation against a powerful male, regardless of whether it was proven or not? Did he not at least tell one or more of his editors, at the height of #MeToo, that an acclaimed author had been accused of raping a close woman friend of his in Garner’s own house? If he did, then why did the New York Times, the chief media engine behind #MeToo, not pursue the matter? On the contrary: the Times Book Review continued to publish Bailey.
On the basis of its own article, the Times did nothing. We are told that three years later, Rice made her accusation against Bailey in an email to a Times reporter. Then we are told that the reporter “responded” to the email, but that Rice “decided not to pursue it further and did not reply.” Since we are not told that the reporter continued to investigate, it is fair to assume that the reporter dropped the matter.
This is incredible. Reporters, especially New York Times reporters, never walk away from a story simply because a source decides to clam up, do they? They pursue other lines of inquiry. During the course of the Times’s years’ long investigation into the criminal conduct of Harvey Weinstein, for example, sources were continually coming forward and then getting cold feet. It happens all the time. Reporters kept digging. Not in this case. Why?
What a travesty of everything the new guardians of the social order claim to revere. The only bright spot in this increasingly sordid mess is that the contradiction between woke proclamations and the conduct of the new woke elites when their own interests are threatened keeps getting wider. Maybe it will reach the point where we can get a glimpse of the dirty little truth at the heart of it all.
Photo by Orjan F. Ellingvag/Dagbladet/Corbis via Getty Images