Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Pornographic Elegy: The Dying Animal as a Contemporary Meditation on Loss

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Pornographic Elegy: The Dying Animal as a Contemporary Meditation on Loss

Article excerpt

In his 2000 study, Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation, Michael Rothberg suggests that, for Philip Roth, "there might be something pornographic about making images and ultimately commodities out of the Holocaust" (188; emphasis in original). Rothberg here refers to a touching and comic scene in Roth's Patrimony: A True Story (1991), during which Roth is introduced to the World War II memoir of his father's friend, Walter. This is not your typical memoir, but rather a pornographic account of Walters sexual relationships with the women who hid him from the Nazis. After learning about the pornographic nature of Walter's memoirs, Roth's father comments that people did what they had to do to survive. Walter's sexual exploits perhaps provided the needed distraction from the unfathomable reality of loss around him.

Critics of Roth's more sexually graphic novels, however, would argue that the sex is gratuitous, even over-the-top, and completely unnecessary to the topic at hand. The connection between genocide and pornography in Patrimony, for example, appears as not simply pornographic in the popular sense, but also in terms of what Carolyn J. Dean has described in another context as "the aimless and compulsive pursuit of self-gratifying pleasure and the depletion of will, discipline" (91). To his critics, in other words, Roth himself is aimless, compulsive, and self-gratifying not only in his representations of sex but also in his representations of traumatic history, death, and loss.1

To answer such criticism, Roth's 2001 novel, The Dying Animal, appears not to indulge in, but to critique, the defenses that humanity builds to ward off the pain of loss and the ineffectiveness of society's attempts to cope with loss-via such mechanisms as funerals, burials, and even elegies. Through David Kepesh, the protagonist of The Dying Animal, The Professor of Desire, and The Breast, Roth examines not only how we have used sex to distract us from loss but also how we as a society have transformed this loss into something pornographic.

At first glance, David Kepesh, in his most recent incarnation, appears to be a caricature of Roth's characters as described by his critics. He is crass and misogynistic toward women, shallow and devoted to the simple pleasures of life. The novel, however, crucially centers on a time of transition in Kepesh's life, a time when he must confront the loss of Consuela, a woman he truly came to love. Here, Kepesh's traditional coping methods, such as emotional distance as well as a rigid independence, are of no help to him, and he is left groping for reparation in the face of extraordinary pain. The novel tracks Kepesh's final stages in life from detachment to attachment, from the safety of solitude to the dangers of love and loss.

Crucial to understanding the novel's relationship to loss in the twentieth century is Kepesh's distinction between ordinary pornography and what he terms pornography of jealousy, or "the pornography of one's own destruction" (Roth, Dying41). The latter term is first introduced when Kepesh contemplates losing Consuela to a younger man, and in describing his situation states "I am rapt, I am enthralled, and yet I am enthralled outside the frame" of desire (41; emphasis in original). For Kepesh, as we shall see, ordinary pornography allows the viewer to imagine that he is a surrogate in sex; pornography of jealousy, by contrast, only reinforces the fact that the viewer cannot have the woman that he so desires. In fact, not only can he not be with the woman but also must watch as others fulfill and are fulfilled by her. At this critical moment, Kepesh is fixated on losing Consuela and finds that nothing is left to protect him in his vulnerable condition. He is an aging man acknowledging his mortality for perhaps the first time when he realizes that he has spent his entire life avoiding the realities of aging, love, and loss. Suddenly, he comes to understand that "sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. …

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