virility

SABBATH’S THEATER BY PHILIP ROTH

It seems to me that Philip Roth 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 by people who do not understand how men think or, more commonly, they don’t want to accept it.

To this end The Fappening – which was the name given to the hacking and release of a large number of explicit celebrity pictures – 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 pretty much 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. And, 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 in certain circumstances?

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, titillating. 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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