Review: Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth, by Lina Pantaleon

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This is human life. There is great hurt that everyone has to endure


There is no meaning in life or coherence. Indeterminacy and incoherence are in plenty, expectations are derided by reality, desires are denied, all certainties are proven fragile, the defences and all types of fortifications collapse in front of unforeseen threats, every protection sooner or later is lifted, rationalism is obliged to measure his immeasurable inadequacy, in our most serious moments idiocy invades without fail, our biggest accomplishments may be proven in vain, while the most entertaining illusions vanish with the slightest sting of a superficial truth. And as if all these are not enough, death comes constantly with an irrational consistency just to make everything even more incomprehensible. However, this life is the most admirable thing created for humans. ‘No, human life must not be extinguished. No one could come up with anything like it again.’

Through the Dionysian, profane outlook of Mickey Sabbath, Philip Roth introduces life as a farce which develops on an individual as well as a collective level in the form of tragedy. His hero seems to be besieged by a call of tribulations which has gathered against him. Only an indomitable theatrical instinct and a rare understanding of the inherently comical allow him to survive the tremendous failure of his self. Possessing ‘the talent of a ruined man for recklessness, of a saboteur for subversion’, it was a long time ago that he overcame the fact that he was nothing and had a good time exactly because he had nothing to lose. A former puppeteer with deformed fingers from arthritis and a body which heavily showed the sixty four lecherous, turbulent years of head-on collision with everything, victim of a psyche irrevocably carnal, Sabbath insists on being moved by anything life washes ashore, lust, pain, loss, grief. An ardent admirer of human contradictions, he personifies an embossed contradiction as a would-be suicide who escapes death with all kinds of theatrics and dexterous meanderings. The most exciting aspect of his portrait is the unconcerned way with which he portrays himself as a caricature, refusing to claim for himself the smallest speck of self-knowledge. He could imitate emotions, he enjoyed impersonating provocative portraits, showing preference for the crazy one who served the terror and the awe of the bourgeoisie, but had no idea of how a man who knows what he is looking for is like.

Being someone who ‘did not naturally shrink from the worst in people, beginning from himself’, Sabbath seems to constantly sway between the inhumane and the very humane, between the sublime and the base, between the waggish and the painful, mainly though, between life and death. This critical existential sway runs through the whole novel and this is where its importance stems from. Roth sets the archetypal dilemma with the terms of a farce, cleverly managing to analyse the underlying pain which exists in life and the latent jocularity of death. Sabbath, who adores life, doesn’t hesitate to think of suicide as a joke, as the ‘the finishing touch to the running gag’, and probably that’s why he prefers this end for himself. If his life proved to be a fiasco then it deserves such an ‘amusing’ death. If he has been a vulgar jester, who puts on his performances at a makeshift, imaginary stage, showing contempt for the dramas of the real world, only by committing suicide would make an appropriate exit. ‘A man who wants to die. A living being choosing death. That’s entertainment’. Only a truly big writer like Roth, can orchestrate so masterfully and so fearlessly the combination of the tragic with the farcical. Sabbath’s unholy, base world view is nothing else but a reversed, intense elegy of life.

Obviously Sabbath doesn’t want to die, although he has every reason to. Old age threatens the focal point of his well-being, sex, his lascivious mistress is lying in a freshly dug grave, his wife kicked him out of the house to celebrate her recovery from alcoholism, his fingers ache even by thinking of their indecent acts, while on the other side of the stage his dead mother, father and older brother are waiting for him. In his battle with life he has serious reasons to pose. The totalitarian arbitrariness of the constantly changing and crazy. One can only consider the presences which suddenly become absences. What is more inconceivable than thinking your loved ones, dead? In the unsurpassed “why” of death the only reply is the complete silence which imprisons logic ‘Why did you die? Where did you go?’

Roth attacks the hero’s cynicism by sending tender ghosts, his mother, Drenka his ‘genital mate’ a talented adventurer of sexual pleasure, and his brother who died when he was twenty years old in World War II as an American patriot and not tainted by his Jewish origin. All three seem to address a calling to him, in chorus with their bodiless voices urging him to die, or differently put, meet them. Although his brother only appears in the last pages, like a shadow buried inside a box with the things he left behind, and throw him in a pure, utter anguish, the two women visit him more often, reminding him the strength of their presence when they were alive. The mother surrounds her surviving son forgetting to tell the enviable truths of the grave, but only insinuating that ‘she had returned to take him to his death’. Death had turned her into a doll into her son’s hands that made her play ‘the departed spirit making ready to ferry him to his next abode’. Drenka on the other hand, the nights that her lover came to visit her at her grave was using again the artifices of her sensuality abolishing the unfathomable distance between them from inside the coffin ‘raising her dress to the stimulating latitude at which the tops of  her stockings were joined to the suspenders of her garter belt’, certain that he was aroused by this unexpected surface and he had also heard her saying “Go down on me”.

In a novel where there is so much sex, it is of no little importance that the sex scenes and particularly the most obscene take place at the cemetery. Love and death, the eternal themes in literature, combined in crazily fictitious scenes from an inventive literary mind. Sabbath, a cemetery resident, doesn’t miss the amusing resemblance of the two holes, both ‘dark with mystery and fantastic’. One in the centre of the female body and the other deeply hidden inside the earth, with perfectly dug up corners, a flat damp bottom and wavy deep sides. Although Roth gives to his puppet, Sabbath, the soul of a buffoonish satyr who ridicules life’s taboos, he doesn’t save him from the knowledge of his own idiocy, the monstrosity that is his self. While the hero talks or flirts with his ghosts he knows the degree in which he betrays logic. He also knows that mourning is beyond meaning and exaggeration because it is the reaction to what is essentially illogical and excessive. Therefore, every time he ejaculated on the soil which covered Drenka’s coffin, he effortlessly saw her risen warm body, forgetting that the grave in front of him had taken her away forever.

‘Sabbath’s sixty-four years of life had long ago released him from the falsity of sense’ His losses were so devastating that he couldn’t think about them logically. Death itself was so greatly and unrelentingly real. How much truth can someone stand? ‘Well, it is sometimes hard even for people with the best intentions to remember twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year that nobody dead can live again. There is nothing on earth more firmly established, it’s all that can know for sure –and no one wants to know it.”

Sabbath doesn’t want to know how deeply rooted inside him he holds the will to live. Although he willingly assumes his share in stupidity, he can’t stand accepting he is also absorbed by a common psychosis, the simple comfort of existing although you hate everything else present. Everything abandons him however he refuses to give up. His theatrical acts springs from every kind of obstructions to his preannounce death. In all the stops he makes in the pages, moving towards his funeral, we see hilarious one-act plays which ridicule his despair. He is a man carrying his grave inside him like a compass but is unable to forget that life despite its stupidity, pain and incoherence remains incredibly amusing. Does it matter that by becoming an adult the promise of infinity was denied; ‘betrayed by the fantasy of endlessness or by the fact of finitude’. Horror lurks to ridicule and destroy our dreams. Our hopeful entry into life never takes us to the “elsewhere” we expect. Sometimes it holds us anchored in the shallow waters or drifts us into the deep. At some point inevitably the trust will be broken. However, who can be so crazy, stupid or blasphemous to trust afterlife vastness, when all the things he had never dreamt and all the things he is afraid of will happen to him?  Before he ends up in exile forever ‘in the nonworld of no choice’, Sabbath chooses to spend the time he has left directing the drama of his funeral, leading himself to exiting his life like he already was closed in a coffin ‘you endlessly steer through the placeless darkness’. However, the clumsy acting steadily subordinated the lyricism of the intention.

In his attempt to imitate the desire of death, Sabbath turns himself from a puppeteer to a puppet, inventively balancing at the edge of the precipice, pulling reflectively however, the ropes at the last moment. Despite this, ‘he was hard put to extinguish, by an act of will, the desire not to be alive any longer” while realizing he was focused on ‘staying abreast of his wish to die’. This indecisiveness was partly because he couldn’t decide ‘to succumb like a man to the-desire-not-to-be-alive-any-longer or to affront and affront adn affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted’.

Sabbath, a savage of the western civilization, a scandal in the human evolution, a liberator of the perversions hiding in unsuspecting bodies ‘a lover and master of guile, artifice, and the unreal’, ‘[t]he Monk of Fucking, The Evangelst of Fornication’, insults with the constant ministry of cynicism and with the methodical sacrilege of every illusion of innocence. Under his sweeping point of view there is nothing worth saving from taint, as he doesn’t distinguish in the slightest the blasphemous from the holly while for him nothing compares with the pleasure of letting anything underground creep above ground. Personal relationships are extremely chaotic, complicated and insincere to deserve loyalty, faith – religious or emotional – is extremely sick as a notion in order for somebody to search for it or keep it, the flesh is unbearably overpowering in all its forms; from the most seductive to the most base, for anyone to resist while the dead are too invisible to offer any consolation by whispering from the other world. Sabbath, however, who is moved by a superfluous hatred for whatever is encompassed by life ‘war, lunacy, perversity, sickness, imbecility, suicide, and death’ is also a puppet destined to play on a small stage the part of its weak, fake hatred. No matter how strongly he pretended to be a savage despised by ‘missionaries’ of correctness or the wicked who undermined not only the ideals of the American society but also all the sacred and holly of his own tribe, he was just a bitter old man. A nihilist, as fake as his despair ready to shout at his pathetic life the loudest, most urgent, yes.

‘Yes, yes, yes, he felt uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life. And a laughable hunger for more. More defeat! More disappointment! More deceit! More loneliness! More arthritis! More missionaries! God willing, more cunt! More disastrous entanglement in everything. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence’.

Sabbath demands for death to stop existing because it is beyond the limits of logic, endurance and even aesthetic. Through the buffoonish acts of this vulgar, unimportant earthly existence, Roth forms an ugly portrait of a man, a spitting image of life – a portrait made of mud. With ruthless sarcasm he transforms Sabbath, a fallen Bacchus, into a mirror where the sedimentary sub-layers of existence are mirrored. However, his carnal, chthonic existence is tormented by an inner uncertainty, ‘the twisted notion of remaining alive, refusing to leave’, although this insistence on survival is not revitalized by an aim nor by any meaning. His past is filled with mourning and his present sleeps through his crippled fingers while he delays the end with farcical intermezzos. This time Roth’s hero is not an animal on its last breath but the animal that remembers, the only animal in the kingdom which survives by suffering with the memories and the thoughts that hurts excruciatingly and not just physically. Sabbath measures himself against zero violently but also with a self sarcastic cunningness deeply shaken by the delays which have come upon him but nevertheless eager in the prospect of all those waiting. He is sixty four and he knows that ‘he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind”. And his decision to live it to the end makes him a tragic figure. Why would you ‘want to be over and done with and leave early’?

‘If they told you beforehand about all the mistakes, you’d say no, I can’t do it, you’ll have to get somebody else, I’m too smart to make all those mistakes. And they would tell you, we have faith, don’t worry, and would say no, no way, you need a much bigger schmuck than me, but they repeat they have faith that you are the one, that you wil evolve into a colossal schmuck more conscientiously than you can possibly begin to imagine, you will make mistakes on a scale you can’t even dream of now –because there is no other way to reach the end’.

What is really great about Sabbath is the bravery with which he has fun with his own self who raises his worthless person for one last time before he is finished off by fatigue, bitterness and hate. What is shocking about him is that he gives himself to whatever destroys him. An impenitent human being.

‘We are immoderate because grief is immoderate, all the hundreds and thousands of kinds of grief’.  

sabbath's theater roth

Lina Pantaleon was born in Athens in 1979. She studied mass media and culture in Panteion University. From 2001 she started collaboration with several literary magazines and newspapers as a critic. She is the author of two collections of essays about modern Greek literature, The rights of a reader (2009) and Exclamations & Hesitations (2012). They are both published by Polis Editions. She is regarded to be as one of the most respected literary critics in Greece.   

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