The January issue of Commentary is out, and Philip Roth’s novella The Humbling is reviewed by Sam Sacks, editor of Open Letters Monthly. I am sick with envy. I had begged for first shot at Roth’s latest, but my reputation as an unrepentant fan, sporting face paint in Bucknell orange and blue, carrying an oversized foam hand with
“A green rubber phallus is described with more zeal and embellishment than are any of the people,” Sacks writes in the review’s best line. Sex remains Roth’s main subject. His characters “have never renounced” it, no matter how old they get; “their terror is that it will renounce them,” Sacks says, because they know that the “libido is life’s fuel gauge.” Not perhaps an error-free account of The Humbling, something like this is surely the case with Roth’s best novel of the past dozen years. The Dying Animal (2001) is the clearest statement about Roth’s lifelong preoccupation with sex. “[P]leasure is our subject,” reports David Kepesh, the narrator and tour guide. “How to be serious over a lifetime about one’s modest, private pleasures.”
Kepesh, who back in 1972 found himself transformed into a gigantic breast in the novella The Breast before being restored five years later to his public role as The Professor of Desire, is now seventy years old. He still teaches the seminar in Practical Criticism at Columbia, still selects one girl each semester to share his bed the next, and still—with his long white hair, his wattle, and his little pot belly—still he serves as “the great propagandist for fucking.”
The quest for pleasure through miscellaneous promiscuity is at odds with marriage and family, of course, and Kepesh is their sworn enemy. They are “the standard unthinking”; he is determined “never to live in the cage again.” Married in his twenties, he fathered one child—a son, Kenny—but then he was swept up in “the sixties revolution,” the “great overturning,” which extended “orgiastic permission to the individual” and diminished “the traditional interests of the community.” In his mid-thirties, he was particularly impressed by his female students. The birth-control pill had granted them “parity” with men at last, and many of them took full advantage:
Although he complains that his “education in genteel notions of seriousness” was a weighty obstacle to living out his own revolution, the truth is that Kepesh’s insistence upon taking pleasure and disorder seriously—setting out to study and master them, as if professionally, rather than indulging them playfully—is simply the adjustment of his fine education to different ends. He remains a literary critic; his text is now “this wild, sloppy, raucous repudiation” rather than novels translated from Russian, German, and French; but he remains dependent upon “genteel notions of seriousness.” How else to tackle his biggest problem—namely, turning “freedom into a system”?
In The Human Stain, published the previous year, Nathan Zuckerman spelled out the novelist’s credo when it comes to sex. One can’t say that sex is not an important part of life, because it always is. And why? It is “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.” The paradox is no accident: sex may “de-idealize” a man, but all the while he remains “everlastingly mindful” of the fact. There is no escaping mind—until the very end when a man is reduced, finally, to “the matter we are.” In The Dying Animal, Kepesh advances a different view of sex:
For Roth, sex represents the refusal to surrender to what Walker Percy calls angelism, the neurotic condition in which one fantasizes of deliverance from man’s biological destiny. For Kepesh, though, sex is itself angelic: in taking “revenge on death,” the rutting man could delude himself into believing, even if momentarily, that death shall die. But this is not Roth’s view.
In short, The Dying Animal belongs to the same literary class as Lolita, in which a moral monster arraigns himself by means of his own self-defense. The life of sexual freedom has never before had “a social spokesman or an educational system,” Kepesh says, but his attempts to fill the gap end in absurdity. The “great propagandist for fucking” calls into question all propaganda for fucking. No one could build a better case for sexual license, but Roth subtly undercuts Kepesh’s case throughout the novella.
First there is Kenny, the son whom Kepesh deserted three-and-a-half decades earlier. Although he himself has yielded to adultery—the apple did not fall far from the tree—Kenny rejects his father’s arguments for “claiming personal sovereignty” and deserting his wife and son. “You’re a hundred times worse than I thought,” he tells Kepesh. “The long white pageboy of important hair, the turkey wattle half hidden behind the fancy foulard—when will you begin to rogue your cheeks, Herr von Aschenbach? What do you think you look like? Do you have any idea?” But it is not merely that Kepesh is ridiculous, and oblivious to his own ridiculousness. He is also a sexual predator. “These girls go to college,” Kenny says to him, “and they shouldn’t be protected from you? You are the living argument for protecting them.”
Then there is the unnamed “you” to whom Kepesh addresses his confessional narrative. At one point, relating how he tries to talk an old lover out of marrying (“One stands in awe of the masochistic rigor required”), Kepesh interrupts himself: “Why, why are you laughing? What’s so hilarious?” He assumes it is his “didacticism,” his readiness to adopt the stance of a sexual educator, but in fact, the hilarity lies in the genteel seriousness of Kepesh’s sexual wildness, the ascetic discipline of his licentiousness, the strict purity of his impurity; to say nothing of his obtuseness to the human need for attachment, a pull that is stronger than sex or death.
Kepesh himself experiences the pull. Much of the novella is taken up with his account of a love affair, eight years before, with Consuela Castillo, a young woman of twenty-four, “the daughter of wealthy Cuban emigrés,” who has “the most gorgeous tits in the world.” When he loses her, he suffers for the first time in his life:
But I must. Someone has to be with her.
“She’ll find someone.”
She’s in terror. I’m going.
“Think about it. Think. Because if you go, you’re finished.
V. S. Pritchett once quipped that “The Age of Reason conceived wild nature and the noble savage to be tamer than they were.” In The Dying Animal, David Kepesh conceives the cage, the masochistic rigor of attachment, to be much weaker than it really is. And Philip Roth, in one of his best books, shows that the case for the “wholesale wrecking of the inhibitive past” ultimately cannot stand up to it.