Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Dying Animal

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

spelled out on the raised index finger, made me the obvious choice to pass over. I was left with no other option but to laud the book here (“Brilliant and a little frightening”—D. G. Myers, A Commonplace Blog). Sacks is more skeptical, especially of Roth’s books since American Pastoral.

“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:They weren’t interested in replacing the old inhibitions and prohibitions and moral instruction with new forms of surveillance and new systems of control and a new set of orthodox beliefs. They knew where the pleasure was to be had, and they knew how to give over to desire without fear.Having those girls in class was too much for Kepesh. He walked out on his wife and eight-year-old child, “follow[ing] the logic of this revolution to its conclusion.” Henceforth he would cultivate the “disorder” and “liberation” of those years, because he took them “seriously” and in their “fullest meaning.”

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:[O]nly when you fuck is everything you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption—it’s the rest [of life]. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.Except, of course, that it isn’t. Sex is in league with death, as Roth’s title, taken from Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, makes clear: the heart of man, “sick with desire,” is “fastened to a dying animal.” Unlike Kepesh, Yeats’s “aged man” does not seek revenge on death; he longs for release from nature altogether, and from countries where the young “neglect Monuments of unageing intellect”; he prays to be gathered instead “Into the artifice of eternity.”

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:This need. This derangement. Will it never stop? I don’t even know after a while what I’m desperate for. Her tits? Her soul? Her youth? Her simple mind? Maybe it’s worse than that—maybe now that I’m nearing death, I also long secretly not to be free.Or maybe death and the maiden—Kepesh helpfully refers to Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, to emphasize the point—have combined to make him aware of what he has denied himself for so long. His closest friend tries to warn him, and Kepesh knows that he is right: “He who forms a tie is lost, attachment is my enemy. . . .” In the end, though, when Consuela is diagnosed with breast cancer, he is powerless to resist her summons. She learns that her doctors have “decided to remove the entire breast,” she is alone, and she wants Kepesh with her. He gets up to go. At last the anonymous interlocutor speaks:     “Don’t.”
     “Don’t go.”
     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.
Finished as a propagandist for fucking, finished as a spokesman for “emancipated manhood,” finished as an unattached libertine. And just starting out as a man upon whom someone else might depend.

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.


R/T said...

All of this adds to the argument that I ought to be reading Roth instead of or in addition to all the other reading that I am planning. The two or three Roths I've read in the past are obviously insufficient exposure to your favorite author. But, I ask myself, where do I begin? And I answer myself--at the beginning makes sense. Then, of course, there is this question: What--in a 100 words of less--is the reason to read Roth? As Roth's #1 fan, you have an opportunity now to offer a concise answer, which may--of course--serve as a recruiting tool for future fans.

R/T said...

Thank you for highlighting the link. Now, I suppose, there is nothing left for me to do but begin a bit of self-study by following your syllabus. The next stop: the library.

Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you. This confirmed much of what I have surmised from my brief exposure to Roth. There are a couple of questions I have that may have no relevance, but if you don't mind, I thought I'd ask.

The central problem I had with "The Dying Animal" is the way in which Kepesh's past is edited and not in line with what we learn from "The Professor of Desire." At this point I don't recall the exact discrepancy--but as Professor ends, I don't believe there is a child, Kepesh is out of his first marriage and into a casual affair that may or may not result in a marriage.

I know, this are kind of OCD things--but when there is a continuing character and there are obvious discrepancies there are two possible conclusions--authorial carelessness (which I find improbable) or purpose (which I find, in this case elusive.) But given his origin in the highly improbable "The Breast" perhaps we're hearing more of the same--the fable version of Zuckerman.

Anyway, I'm going to go back through what you've written here and compare with my own reading to see if we've reached the same conclusions and on what basis I might have made significant errors in understanding.

Thank you for this stepping stone!



R/T said...

I have more to say about my plan to read Roth atNovels, Stories, and More.