SABBATH’S THEATER BY PHILIP ROTH

I am sure that most of you are aware that over the last couple of days a bunch of celebrities have had their computers and mobile phones hacked, and the naughty pictures found on these devices have been leaked to the general public. Rather hilariously, in my opinion, this leak has been called, by the people benefitting from it, The Fappening. As is always the case with this kind of thing, there has been rather a lot of misguided hand-wringing and hysteria. I am not saying, by any means, that the attack on the privacy of these celebrities is ok, or justifiable, or that they ought not to be upset by it. Hacking anyone’s phone or computer is a criminal offence, and is, indeed, morally wrong too. However, that does not mean that the celebs in question haven’t been stupid. I cannot understand why someone in the public eye, someone who is aware that this kind of hacking has been prevalent in recent years, would not say to themselves and to their partner sure, it would be fun to take some sexy snaps, but it’s not worth the risk. No pictures, no leaks. Yes, in an ideal world they could do what they liked, within the bounds of the law, but this is not an ideal world. In an ideal world women would be able to walk home on their own at 3am, or they would be able to accept a lift from a stranger, without these things being dangerous. I’m not victim-blaming; I am advocating common sense. Anyway, for me, if The Fappening is about anything it is about objectification, both voluntary and involuntary objectification; the most pertinent questions raised by the event, in relation to the author under review here, are why is it that these women felt compelled to take and distribute [not to the general public, of course, but to their partners] these pictures despite the risks, risks greater than any possible rewards, and why do some commentators appear to be so surprised and disgusted that we – men – want to see and own them?

How Philip Roth fits into this is that he is the one author, more than any other, who has been accused consistently of objectifying women, of misogyny, of pornography. His critics claim that he is guilty of creating female characters who exist solely as sex objects. Much of the time I think this is bogus, that his female characters are not empty vessels [they have jobs, have opinions, etc]. In any case, i believe that sexism is levelled at the man because women do not understand how men think or, more commonly, they don’t want to accept it; to this end The Fappening ought to be something of an eye-opener. Thousands, millions probably, of dudes looking at, searching for, discussing etc, a bunch of pictures of naked women. It isn’t a minority who are drawn to this sort of thing, it is men, period. And women? All around the world, every day, they are happily taking these pictures, allowing themselves to be objectified. Yes, even celebrities are doing it. What has been most enlightening is that certain women have decided, in order to show support for one of the victims, to post saucy pictures of themselves on public networking sites, thereby achieving nothing other than further titillating the people they are so eager to disparage. Ah, well, how then can one, in the face of all this, read a Philip Roth novel and denounce it? Is he part of the problem or just telling the truth? Isn’t it simply a fact of life that, yes, women are objectified by men and that, conversely, some enjoy being objectified?

Of all the books in Roth’s oeuvre Sabbath’s Theater is the rudest, is the one that could most legitimately be labelled pornographic; it is, in places, pure filth, although never, by any means, erotic. It is also, I ought to confess, the only one of his novels that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, not because of the content per se, but because I felt, at times, as though I was being let into, exposed to, an old man’s [Roth’s] wank fantasies. For example, there are points in the narrative when Drenka, Micky Sabbath’s ludicrous Polish mistress, delivers unnecessarily lengthy monologues about her sexual endeavours and preferences, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading these monologues that only Roth himself was getting off on them, and no one else. Or perhaps, as Sabbath’s Theater is concerned [amongst other things] with the descent into madness of a dirty old man, and so does of course feature old[er] people talking about and engaging in sexual acts, my reaction is the understandable, yet arrogant, shudder of a young man not ready to confront the truth of, the existence of, a healthy elderly libido.

The stuff that generally tends to gross readers out, or offend them – Sabbath wanking over Drenka’s grave, or to a photograph of a College student while staying with her father – didn’t bother me at all; I found those parts of the novel amusing, vaudeville. That some are offended by the novel is galling, not because I want to tell people how to react, but simply because one only needs to read a single review or even the blurb on the back of the book in order to know what is in store for you; let’s be honest, anyone finding themselves offended by Sabbath’s Theater wanted to be, looked and hoped for it. In any case, Mickey Sabbath is deliberately grotesque, deliberately over-the-top; he is Shakespearean in proportion – he is a Richard III or Hamlet; Mickey is a man on the edge, tormented by the loss of his lover, who was apparently quite some sack artist, and petrified of the prospect of not being able, at his age, to replace her. At least on the most superficial level. Yet, what is interesting about a book so full of sex, featuring a man so seemingly sex-obsessed, is that Sabbath’s Theater is not really about sex at all.

I called Sabbath Shakespearean, and he is, but this is a tragedy, not a comedy, as some would have it. Like Ahab, another Shakespearean character, Mickey Sabbath is fighting against some large, terrible foe: old age and, ultimately, death. Again, like Ahab, it is a one-sided battle; old age and death, like the whale, care nothing about Sabbath: they are indiscriminate. For Sabbath his virility is so important because the loss of it would signal that he is over the hill. Once you understand this it throws the Drenka passages into a new, sharper focus; was she really some nymphomaniac, shit-hot sack artist, or is that how Mickey must remember, and imagine, her in order to console himself that he at least once had something, someone, ideal? Or is it simply that memory is often sadistic, that, without you realising it, it recreates, reinvents, your experiences with greater intensity than they ever actually had, so that the sad times become sadder, the happy become happier and so on? So, Sabbath’s breakdown, his outrageous behaviour, is not really about getting his end away, it is about what not getting his end away represents: that he is old, and no longer vital.

If I have any genuine criticism of the book to make it is that it is, perhaps, too long. For example, even if you want to justify the Drenka passages as I have done in the previous paragraph they still, undeniably, ought to have been edited, cut down; far from being shocking, much of the time they are simply boring, are too repetitious. Also, as with all of Roth’s later work the structure is all over the place and the plot pretty non-existent. That is not, for me, a problem, however. Roth’s 90’s novels are meditations, rants, essays almost, and that is why I like them. I like the passion, the drive, the devil-may-care attitude towards literary conventions, the disregard for what readers might want from a novel. Roth did not care to write the perfect novel [he tried that with The Ghost Writer], he wanted to punch you firmly between the eyes, he wanted to rub your nose, in this instance, in the dirt.

For long time Roth readers, what sets Sabbath’s Theatre apart is that it is the novel where Roth himself is least present, where he was able to obscure whatever there is of himself in the book to the extent that the characters do not feel like approximations of the author. Maybe that is why he rates it so highly. For me it isn’t his best [although I did read it five years ago, so perhaps I would value it more were I to give it another go]; that accolade I would give to The Counterlife, despite its ropey final section, or the previously mentioned The Ghost Writer. Still, Sabbath’s Theater is a great read; it is fun, freewheeling, brave and intelligent; it is challenging and controversial; it makes you confront aspects of humanity, and the human condition, that you might prefer to pretend do not exist. And yet, in a way, we should all admire, rather than loathe, Mickey Sabbath, for he is a man who, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, is raging against the dying of the light, he is someone who categorically will not go gentle into that good night.

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7 comments

  1. You’re 100% right!! I wrote a little post some days ago,expressing the same views as yours.
    If you know that you can at any time fall prey to hackers,the least thing you would do is to store nude pics of yourself on a server! And you’re very right on women constantly objectifying themselves.They should be reminded that the ladies who made history didn’t need to take off their clothes to achieve greatness…

    As for the book,I recently added it to my wish-list,along with some other modern classics,like Blindness and Sophie’s Choice,but after reading your review,I’m not sure I want to read it.Do you have any other Philip Roth you can recommend?

  2. Yeah, i just feel as though not taking sexy pictures of yourself is a small price to pay if, as we are led to believe, the leaking of these kinds of pictures is so devastating. I’m not sure i buy that. In any case, i don’t think there is anything wrong with a woman enjoying being objectified, in certain circumstances; i just find it odd that voluntary objectification is so prevalent and yet Philip Roth’s novels, in which women are generally sexually liberated, are so lambasted as being sexist. There’s a weird double standard going on. I hear him called a misogynist and i want to scream ‘do you people ever fucking look around you?’ Roth’s is nothing when you have women willingly punting naked pictures of themselves up on twitter. And I say all this as someone who is absolutely in favour of female empowerment; one would only need to read my Custom of the Country and Love in the Time of Cholera reviews to see that.

    Anyway, yes, there are loads of his books I would recommend; my favourites are: The Counterlife, The Ghost Writer, American Pastoral and Operation Shylock. If you want one without sex in it [if that is what is putting you off Sabbath] then go for The Ghost Writer, it’s a thrilling and beautiful little book.

  3. A few days ago I read the comment of a famous actress about the matter. She said she is horrified because “people lack empathy”. Ehmmm… I felt uncomfortable. I really appreciate her and her movies, but I said to myself that yes… perhaps I lack empathy. I think it’s difficult to empathize with people earning billions for showing themselves and then feeling sorry for their stolen pictures.

    However…. I don’t think your discourse about women and “sexism” really have sense. Obviously, it’s stupid to consider women only as victims. You write: “I don’t think there is anything wrong with a woman enjoying being objectified, in certain circumstances”. I agree with everything you say, but I don’t think that the matter is really concerned with these female celebrities. The only thing we shouldn’t forget is that women OBJECTIVELY are in a different position. When the power and money will be equally divided – everywhere and in the movie industry as well – then we will be able to speak of real choices. But in the matter of these pictures, I don’t feel concerned, too.

    Thus… I definetly have to read Philip Roth, I think I will really love him. 🙂

  4. Ah, see, i feel empathy, certainly. I don’t think anyone ought to be hacked, and I can understand why to be hacked, to have private pictures out there is upsetting. I get that. However, the entire entertainment industry, of which these women are voluntarily a part, is based on the objectification of women, our entire society is. I am not saying that is a good thing, i am saying it is a fact. So, for me, there is a troubling tension, or double standard, between the hysteria over these pictures [not necessarily from the victims themselves] and the voluntary objectification that women take part in every day. I am probably not making myself clear. It’s hard to write this stuff off the cuff, when ideally I would have a few days to write a proper essay and iron out my inconsistencies. Yet of course there is a difference between what one chooses to allow and what one doesn’t. But isn’t this kind of thing – these pictures being leaked – a consequence of the kind of society where we, both men and women, accept that women are sex objects? Because we do, we absolutely do, more and more we accept that. I dunno. Again, i need to think this stuff through properly. My real point was this: how can one read Philip Roth and complain about his female characters when we live in the world we live in? His female characters like sex, do dirty things, allow themselves to be objectified, and people, feminists, accuse him of being sexist. They say: this is not real women! I say: look around you, you’re blind.

    I’ll have a look at that essay, thanks.

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