Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Master and Pupil in Philip Roth's the Dying Animal

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Master and Pupil in Philip Roth's the Dying Animal

Article excerpt

"For the keenest kind of perception the body affords is the one that comes through seeing, though we are not able to see wisdom, because as with everything else which is an object of love, wisdom would cause terrible pangs of love in us if it presented some kind of clear image of itself by approaching our organ of sight."

-Phaedrus 250d

Literature has rejoiced in the relationship between master and pupil, which has inspired many writers including Henry James ("The Lesson of the Master"), Herman Hesse (The Glass Bead Game), Eugène Ionesco (The Lesson), Iris Murdoch (The Flight from the Enchanter), Joyce Carol Oates ("The Instructor"), J. M. Coetzee (Disgrace), and Saul Bellow (Ravelstein). The pedagogic situation, highly charged with erotic potential, could hardly leave Philip Roth, himself a teacher and an explorer of eroticism, indifferent. His book, The Dying Animal (2001) fills this area of sensibility. Behind an elderly professor's passion for his young student there is a wider perception of the master-pupil complexities. This short novel completes Roth's trilogy on the life and adventures of David Kepesh and his desirous journey through the country of generously breasted women. After The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977), The Dying Animal brings the latest news from Mr. Kepesh's erotic realm. The professor's hot pursuit of indiscriminate pleasure in the "kingdom of Venus," to use a phrase from Kierkegaard, has come to a stop. Roth's Don Juan discovers a Tristan in him. The author continues his account of desire, enriching it with a novel dimension-the investigation of pedagogy. Eros and Thanatos, under the auspices of Modigliani and Yeats, guide Kepesh's quest for truth. These fundamental issues, beauty and eroticism, wisdom and death, are explored in The Dying Animal against the backdrop of pedagogy.

The Master-Pupil Complex

The term "master" refers to a capital and universal experience that goes back to an old tradition: to mention one branch, in ancient Greece teaching thrived on colossus-like masters who determined the course of thought. Closer to Roth, that of Judaism "is uncompromisingly pedagogic," as George Steiner underlines, and teems with "singing masters" (150). Roth's character David Kepesh, albeit less monumental than Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, can be better understood in the long line of teachers encountered in literature where the master-pupil complex is the most promising. Literature, like music, deals with human emotion. Learned, charismatic, and established in full cultural power, Kepesh can keep his students spellbound. He is no sage, but he has the aura bestowed by the pedagogic. As seduction is inherent in the process of teaching, Kepesh's sex life is catered by the host of students who attend his courses. From the classroom to the bedroom, the master's fiery phallus seems to be his supreme magisterium. This is the new avatar of the phallic function in Roth's fiction: the pedagogic. Although the novel focuses on Kepesh's relationship with Consuela Castillo, a proliferation of student- teacher affairs frame the main one and serve as aggrandizing mirrors to the novel's centerpiece. Indeed, this affair is most complex because it involves all the modes of relation between master and pupil inventoried by Steiner in his study Lessons of the Masters, namely destruction, subversion, and exchange (2).

Seducing his students is a common practice in Kepesh's professorship. "They are helplessly drawn to celebrity," he states, implying the facility of the task and reaping the benefits of his position (1, emphasis added). The romance of the pedagogic is put in the hands of a serial seducer, an advocate of absolute sexual freedom, who revels in "the generation of astonishing fellators" bred in the sixties (9). Kepesh makes an enchanted living among the nymphs and nymphets who flock to his classes. Roth's version of the master could further enrage his feminist critics who reject his vindictive, promiscuous, and oversexed male. …

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