Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Pornography of Destruction: Performing Annihilation in the Dying Animal

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Pornography of Destruction: Performing Annihilation in the Dying Animal

Article excerpt

You don't want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them. [. . .] As it is, what you want is pornography- looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.

- D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (41, emphasis in original)

Some critics see Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal (2001), the third installment of a loose trilogy that spans The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977), as a stale reworking of themes that have already been covered in his earlier writings, a sentiment exemplified by Elaine Showalter's scathing review of the novel.1 Jay Halio, however, provides a timely caveat as to how readers should interpret the novel's voice. "It is not likely," he remarks, "that [. . .] David Kepesh is Roth's surrogate" (165). Rather, Halio seems to suggest, The Dying Animal ought to be read as Kepesh's confession rather than as Roth's diatribe, separating the writer from his character by recognizing the narrative as a literary performance rather than a direct authorial statement. It would be simplistic, in other words, to read the novel as a straightforward didactic affirmation of the views Kepesh expresses. Although Roth and his lead character no doubt share some of the withering diagnoses of modern culture that appear in the narrative, the transposition of these ideas into the realm of fiction has a crucial distancing effect. Indeed, The Dying Animal is marked throughout as a consciously staged performance, and it is this dramatic dimension that opens the novel's capacity for ironic self-reflection.

The process of rethinking the novel's voice has already taken a major step through Stephanie Cherolis's recent reading. Cherolis engages in a neo-Freudian analysis of The Dying Animal, arguing that Kepesh employs the confessional mode as a classic means of "working through" his feelings of loss and sadness (15). She distinguishes ordinary pornography from the "pornography of jealousy," the latter providing a means for gradually overcoming pain and resistance, to the point where Kepesh is able to accept responsibility for his actions. "Jealousy," she writes, "an emotion evoked by the possibility of losing a possession, takes away the distance, and, in turn, the pleasure, from pornography. It does not offer the escapist fantasy of pornography; rather, it requires that pain become internalized and therefore an extricable component of the sufferer's identity" (18). Cherolis concludes that Kepesh employs this technique to transform himself, with the aid of his newly gained self-knowledge, from an egotistical and unlikable character into one that evokes the sympathy of the reader-a contention that is "proven through Kepesh's meaningful relationship with Consuela" by the novel's end (22).

Although I welcome Cherolis's analysis as an alternative to the novel's initial critical reception, I nonetheless take a different interpretive approach. Cherolis subscribes to the general assumptions of classic Freudian thought, albeit filtered through the work of Jahan Ramazani, whereas my own reading is largely informed by one of Freud's major critics, D. H. Lawrence. Against the psychoanalytic practice of "working through," which Cherolis uses to ground her evaluation of Kepesh's character, Lawrence argues that Freud's technique is founded on a philosophical error. The root of humanity's psychological problems, contends Lawrence, derives from a modern cultural bias toward the intellect. Lawrence is not against thinking as such, but rather the ingrained habit of channeling all experiences through the mind. It is this imbalance that causes humanity to diminish or even lose its ability to experience the world directly, resulting in a separation from the full, physical experience of life. In an individual alienated from the world, each experience becomes a kind of "pornography," as Birkin says to Hermione in Women in Love, in which events are witnessed at a mental distance rather than being savored without mediation (41). …

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