Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Trauma, Ethics and Psychoanalysis in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater 1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Trauma, Ethics and Psychoanalysis in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater 1

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater (1995), a late work that registers a marked ethical turn in the author's canon, brings a new dimension to contemporary American fiction in its engagement with human consciousness, temporality, and traumatic memory. It is a novel that details the memory of trauma in both content and form. If Roth's novel is reminiscent of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) in depicting the stream of consciousness of its protagonist and also of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27) in the way time is captured through memory, it also creates a central character who, in letting "the repellant in," alienated many of its readers and reviewers alike (Roth qtd. in Pierpont 198).2 Intriguingly, the novelist himself is said to have remarked: "'If he [Sabbath] were sitting right here, ['gesturing at his nice white couch'] I'd throw him out'" (qtd. in Pierpont 199). Even if the titular hero Mickey Sabbath is selfish and unabashedly derisive of middle-class propriety, yet he redeems himself in the reader's eyes through his sustained ethical acts of remembrance.

Notwithstanding Sabbath's difficult ways, however, his producers Norman Cowan and Linc Gelman defer to him in a manner suggestive of the "reverence" accorded to "an elderly clergyman" (Sabbath 142); likewise, Nikki, his first wife, views him as "her armature, her coat of mail" (102); Drenka, his adulterous mistress, took pride in being "his sidekicker" (9), just as Kathy Goolsbee, the young girl he succeeds in seducing, observes that she "love[d]" the way he "expose[d] his mind when [he] talk[ed]" (244). In other words, despite Sabbath's compulsive sexual transgressions, he strikes many of the characters affected by his transgressions as well as the discerning reader as being wise and philosophical. In this way, Roth wins his readers by foregrounding the rich fund of human experience embedded in his protagonist's memory that is as much personal as it is cultural. It is personal in the sense that, throughout the novel, Sabbath must mourn his beloved dead; it is cultural in the sense that he must negotiate his masculinity as defined through a relationship with his mother, much like Portnoy twenty-five years earlier.

If Roth's readers do not always share the fictional characters' enthusiasm for Sabbath, they would still readily concede that Sabbath's profound investment in memory makes him worthy of attention and even respect, no matter how reprehensible he is. So it is important to address the significance of memory in this novel as a way to understand the relevance of this provocative figure.3

While Sabbath's consciousness is steeped in memory, it would be appropriate to characterize the type of memory with which he is confronted. We might call this memory "traumatic," given the form in which it returns (circular, unwitting, unconscious) and the ethics of mourning it accompanies.4 Given that Sabbath's Theater is heavily invested in the logic of traumatic memory, the novel preeminently invites a psychoanalytic interpretation, though its protagonist himself more than once expresses his wariness of therapy in general. Therefore, the crucial step toward such a critical intervention involves exploring the relationship between trauma, ethics, and psychoanalysis. In showing Sabbath working through his poignant memories of loss and bereavement associated with deaths that happen too soon for him to fully process, Roth powerfully articulates his ethical vision that human beings may still rediscover their humanity through acts of remembrance.

While the novel is invested in the relationship between memory and ethics, it also paradoxically castigates a certain kind of psychoanalyst, one who appears wedded to psychotherapy as a method to approach human problems. Germane to the present discussion, however, is Roth's own clear statement connecting his experience of psychoanalysis with his approach to fiction:

If I hadn't been analyzed I wouldn't have written Portnoy's Complaint as I wrote it, or My Life as a Man as I wrote it, nor would The Breast resemble itself. …

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