Commentary Magazine


Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

Sex, Love & Death

Sabbath’s Theater
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 451 pp. $24.95

Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? . . . What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath. The discredited male polemic’s last gasp. Even as the bloodiest of all centuries comes to an end, you’re out working day and night to create an erotic scandal.

Substitute the name of Philip Roth for that of his protagonist Mickey Sabbath in this passage, and you have a fair and witty put-down of his new novel, Sabbath’s Theater. Some of Roth’s critics through the years have indeed charged that he is nothing but a pornographer, out to create “an erotic scandal.” Here, Roth anticipates the attack by airing it, and bringing it up to date: the literary sensation that D. H. Lawrence once created with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Philip Roth himself with the dirty sex of Portnoy’s Complaint, is by now very old-hat; challenges to bourgeois propriety have grown tiresome, especially when coming from such a veteran of the genre; intelligent people should have more important things on their minds. But wait: the character who cleverly chides Mickey Sabbath in this manner is himself a foil, a prim and proper family man whose judgment we accept at peril of selling Sabbath short, and Roth, too.

To anyone who has kept up with Roth’s prolific output over the years—Sabbath’s Theater is his 21st book—this sort of double-bubble ploy is a trademark, and one that has often cost him that fuller imaginative miracle which novels at their best produce. Drawing attention to his own conscious calculations as a writer of fiction, he has again and again blunted the mystery of the fictional life he creates. Thankfully, in Sabbath’s Theater, the habit is held in check. In this novel, Roth has fashioned an autonomous hero who for the most part manages to break free of his creator while still sharing much of his biography, his habitual preoccupations, and his familiar stand-up-comic routines. In short, Sabbath is what used to be known as a “flesh-and-blood” character.

At sixty-four, Mickey Sabbath, late of New York, now of a small New England town named Madamaska Falls, suffers the death of Drenka Balich, wife and business partner to the local innkeeper, sexual partner to most of the county, and Sabbath’s own incomparable love. For thirteen years, Sabbath and his Croatian-born mistress had been fully absorbed by their erotic adventures, which battened on their separate marriages and their simultaneous adventures with others. Only when Drenka discovers that she is dying of ovarian cancer does she demand from Mickey the troth that distinguishes love from lust. The novel opens with Drenka’s ultimatum that Sabbath renounce all other women, and ends with Sabbath’s realization, a year after her death, that he can survive her loss. The rest takes place in between, mostly in retrospect.

Sabbath is a puppeteer, forcibly retired from his profession by acute arthritis. (Like the writer of fiction, the puppeteer animates characters through the use of his fingers; unlike his character, Roth appears to have grown artistically more nimble with age.) After a brief failed career in off-Broadway theater, Sabbath and his wife Roseanna Cavanaugh find refuge as teachers in Madamaska Falls, he at a regional college, she in a high school. A sexual scandal with one of his students precipitates Mickey’s firing and Roseanna’s lunge into alcoholism. Mickey’s wickedly comic take on her “recovery” in a treatment center and with a lesbian partner is a politically-incorrect section of this book that the New Yorker, which printed its early chapters, would never have excerpted.

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If his erotic interests make Mickey Sabbath, in the narrator’s words, “the ‘missing link’ between the respectable 50’s and the rambunctious 60’s,” his attraction to death makes him a guide to the end of this century. The sex in the novel takes place in the past tense, in remembered brothels and bedrooms and bowers. In the present is death: the prolonged death of Drenka; the funeral of Sabbath’s one-time theatrical sponsor, Lincoln Gelman, which summons him back to New York; the memory of his first wife, Nikki Kantarakis, whose unexplained disappearance 30 years earlier he now imagines as a murder that he committed; and over and above them all, the never-forgotten death in a single moment of his older brother, Mort, shot down by the Japanese on December 13, 1944, and of his mother, stricken dumb by the news.

Somehow, after Drenka’s death, Mickey begins to hear his mother speaking to him from the beyond. In a not-unrelated way, he also recalls that Drenka had used the only money she ever took from him to buy machine tools for her only child, Matthew, and that when Matthew became a policeman, Drenka tuned in to his dispatch radio all night to make sure he was not in trouble. The two insatiable lovers, Mickey and Drenka, thus turn out to be banished children who can never get over the loss of their families and never create adequate ones of their own. Their carnal appetites are as great, and only as great, as their want of family love. Upon losing his beloved mistress and most of his powers of sexual persuasion, Mickey returns to his childhood home like an old dog who has stopped doing tricks, and thinks to die.

The final section of the book is its finest, and possibly the best writing Philip Roth has ever done. When Mickey Sabbath goes “home” to New Jersey to arrange for his own burial, he finds a solitary living relative and a box of his brother’s memorabilia, including the Purple Heart “for military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death.” The encounter with Cousin Fish, an Alzheimer’s-ridden centenarian who still lives in the once-Jewish neighborhood of Asbury, and the recovery of letters that his beloved brother sent home from the Pacific, reawaken in Mickey a need to go on living. “How could he kill himself now that he had Morty’s things?” Between them, Cousin Fish, a tragicomic spokesman for what we all come to, and the recovered words of Morty, the twenty-year-old U.S. Air Force Apache, succeed in reminding us how sweetly and hopefully Americans once loved their country and enjoyed their physical lives. In its own way, Mickey’s final decision against suicide hands an aging America, too, a reprieve.

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Since the author mentions it, remember the D.H. Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? And remember the young Philip Roth? Both hailed sex as the great principle of energy, too long controlled by crippling religion and social prohibitions. With preachy earnestness, Lawrence’s gamekeeper, Mellors, teaches Lady Chatterley, his aristocratic pupil, how to celebrate nature; in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the masturbating Alex Portnoy, in manic glee, escapes the prisonhouse of a Jewish family by freeing the “Id from the Yid.” Each author uses explicit language to secularize, to democratize, the sacred secret. Sex, associated with procreation, had always been recognized as the principle of life; but for these liberators, the orgiastic energy of the sexual act takes precedence over the fate of the seed, whether fructified or wasted. (As a Jewish wit said of Roth: “Though he forgot Jerusalem, his right hand did not forget its cunning.”)

But now here we are in the middle of the 90’s, and life has taken its cue from fiction. The “liberation” has been effected, not only in the mind but in the flesh, and its price, in flushed fetuses and abandoned children, has been beyond counting. Has the severing of fornication from family redounded to human benefit, or to human horror? Philip Roth, at any rate, who perhaps not coincidentally has no children of his own (like D.H. Lawrence, like Henry Miller), is no stranger to such reflections. What reviewers of this book have been slow to acknowledge is how much Roth has in common with cultural conservatives, to the point of seeming willing to acknowledge some of his own pernicious influence in the moral anarchy he sees all around him.

Sabbath’s Theater is the (Jewish) sexual liberator’s reckoning. Take the scene between Mickey Sabbath and a character named Donald, a recovering alcoholic who “vaguely resemble [s] Sabbath of some 30 years ago.” Donald’s wife has left him to run off with another woman (as will Mickey’s), and he has just received a description of the ensuing wedding:

“. . . My ex-wife stood under the chuppa with this broad, and when the time came she broke the glass. My wife is a shiksa. The two of them are lesbians. This is what Judaism has come to? I can’t believe it!”

“Donald, be kind,” said Sabbath. “Don’t disparage the Jews for wanting to be with it. Even the Jews are up against it in the Age of Total Schlock. The Jews can’t win. . . . Either they’re mocked because they’re still wearing their beards and waving their arms in the air or they are ridiculed by people like [you] for being up-to-the-minute servants of the sexual revolution.”

“What if she’d married a zebra?” Donald asked indignantly. “Would a rabbi have married her to a zebra?”

“Zebra or zebu?” asked Sabbath.

“What’s a zebu?

“A zebu is an East Asian cow with a large hump. Many women today are leaving their husbands for zebus. Which did you say?”

“Zebra.”

“Well, I think not. A rabbi wouldn’t touch a zebra. Can’t. They don’t have cloven hoofs. For a rabbi to officiate at the marriage of a person to an animal, the animal has to chew its cud and have a cloven hoof. A camel. A rabbi can marry a person to a camel. A cow. Any kind of cattle. Sheep. Can’t marry someone to a rabbit, however, because even though a rabbit chews its cud, it doesn’t have a cloven hoof. . . .”

Those who have not yet read the book should be advised that this shpritz is far from spent. They should also be advised that, as always when it comes to Jewish matters, the fiercely cerebral Roth has not bothered to check his facts: camels are expressly prohibited under the laws of kashrut. But that is not the point. Philip Roth’s comedy has long been directed at members of the American rabbinate for their hypocritical perpetuation of a religion in whose purpose (he assumes) they no longer believe. Here, however, he is doing something else, registering the full casualty count of the loss that occurs when an entire culture, rebelling against moral distinctions that are considered too narrow, ceases to make any distinctions at all. The failure of Jews to withstand this general collapse of values is not singled out by him for opprobrium but treated almost kindly; it is the universal madness he is after.

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Mickey Sabbath, self-declared agent-provocateur, started out in the 1950’s offending the propriety of relatively innocent New Yorkers by exposing a girl’s breast in the street. At the time, he could not have known how many old-fashioned prohibitions he then still honored, in common with the policeman who pulled him in. Now, overtaken by a culture of license such as he never dreamed of, he has lived to see the old sexual censors replaced by revolutionary tribunes, whose vigilance on behalf of their prohibitions is driven by their knowledge of how easily authority can be overthrown.

Although he still champions sex as vigorously as West Virginians do their right to hunt, Mickey Sabbath is at least as estranged from the Robespierres—and the hermaphrodites—of the 90’s as he ever was from polite society. In the hellish afterlife of sexual liberation, he can even be seen taking a place, of sorts, alongside the old, failed authorities of religion and state. Thus we find him at the conclusion of this book, urinating on the grave of his beloved, wearing a skullcap and wrapped in the American flag as his prayer shawl, attempting a mock-religious ritual of resurrection of the flesh. It is not pretty, but it is a close enough emblem of his life and times.

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Still: “Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero?” In the 1950’s, a girl could get herself into trouble in Philip Roth’s fiction by owning a diaphragm; in the 1990’s, all the outrages that Sabbath commits against the corpse of Drenka cannot provoke her son the policeman into arresting him. No matter how hard Sabbath tries to convince Matthew he is serious—“Sensationally serious. Unspeakably serious. Solemnly, recklessly, blissfully serious”—the policeman will not play the role of a policeman.

And so it is with Philip Roth and his audience. This is a very funny book, a desperate book, a book that even invites comparison with Roth’s beloved Kafka. But the weight of fiction, too, depends on the possibility of outrage. Who is left today to be outraged? In the America of O.J. Simpson, who can object to Philip Roth?

Ultimately, Roth’s art falls short of Kafka’s—partly because we have lost our capacity for outrage, more because of something else. In Kafka, deprivation, which is the human condition, is unbearable because the deprived never stop craving for life—not sensual life only, but life everlasting. Behind Kafka’s sense of the radiating failure of the human enterprise are intimations of God, family joys, sterling friendships, the glory of the Jews, the grand potential of Europe, the wish for profound personal happiness. By contrast, and for whatever reason—his formative childhood and education, his sense of being a Jew and being an American, appear to have been impossibly thin to begin with—images of freedom and community and joy in Philip Roth’s work are paltry things at best. In particular, his understanding of the creature impulse of sex as our true source of satisfaction and solace bespeaks a pauper’s idea of human potential.

Kafka’s hunger artist is dying to be part of the colorful scene beyond his cage. Roth’s goes on snatching peanuts from a crowd that is still amused enough to watch him suffer, but whose moral attention he cannot command.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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