Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sex, Death and the Gripes of Roth

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

- W. B. Yeats
The Dying Animal
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2001, 156 pages

I watched Isabel Coixet's film Elegy, starring Sir Ben Kingsley as 62-year-old professor David Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as his 24-year-old student lover Consuela Castillo, and liked it so much, I started reading the Philip Roth novella it was based on, The Dying Animal (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). They're two very different animals; though Coixet caught the feel of the novella, she brought the teacher-student affair with the two stars front and center, whereas the book concentrates more on the sex in the overall context of death - and as an existential rebellion against our repressive Puritan heritage (Roth even name-checks Nathanial Hawthorne's "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" - a short story based on pagan pilgrim Thomas Morton 's real-life Colonial Club Med that partook of revelries and merriments with the natives (giving us May Day and the Maypole in the process) in Merrymount, Massachusetts (near Quincy) before John Endicott's Puritan prudes spoiled the party and ushered in generations of sexual repression that wouldn't end until the Pill and the "Merry Mount" hippies of the "Free Love" Sixties turned the beat around). Most people I talk to who've seen the movie either found it digusting (women turned off by the lecher seducing lamb angle) or rife for commenting on Penelope's bodacious breasts (yes, fellas, they're very nice), which doesn't begin to appreciate what the film's really about. (But they are very, very nice.)

I'm in the autumn of my years and, while there may have been no stellar rise to offset my Fall, I can totally relate to what is basically Roth's reflection on aging and what it means as far as raison d'etre. Metaphors for time's passage abound, from the metronome that sits atop the narrator's piano to ruminations about the meaning of New Year's celebrations and entering a new millenium (the book's events transpire between the early '90s and 2000).

Much of that meditation on aging centers around sex, the one thing Roth claims gives us a tiny victory, however fleeting, against the ticking of the clock towards the inevitable end-game:
"No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you're not superior to sex. It's a very risky game. A man wouldn't have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn't venture off to get fucked. It's sex that disorders our normally ordered lives. I know this as well as anyone. Every last vanity will come back to mock you. Read Byron's Don Juan...Sex isn't just friction and and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don't forget death. Don't ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?...Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself."

Roth's David Kepesh abandoned his marriage to take advantage of the '60s sexual liberation, leading to this soliloquy on the state (with built-in expiration date) of connubial bliss:
"Yes, I understand that sooner or later I'm going to relinquish sex in this marriage, but it's in order to have other, more valuable things. But do they understand what they're forsaking? To be chaste, to live without sex, well, how do you take the defeats, the compromises, the frustrations? By making more money, by making all the money you can? By making all the children you can? That helps, but it's nothing like the other thing. Because the other thing is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies.

Great book.

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