Saturday, June 17, 2006

Lust & Death

When I was a young man, the thought of elderly people having sex filled me with repulsion. My grandparents! My parents, even! But that was long ago. The libido, I thought, would run out, like hair and smooth skin. But now that I have wrinkles, hemorrhoids, and even prostate cancer, my libido runs on like an Eveready Energizer bunny that just won’t give out.

The poet Dylan Thomas wrote:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
While I never intended to totter gently off this mortal coil, it never occurred to me that raging against death would take the form of relentless, unrequited lust. And a lust that was more intellectual than physical, a lingering mental erection inspired by the passing parade of beautiful women, young and old, large and small. As long as that spark of desire remains, I feel alive, I am not dead.

So it has been easy to identify with the aging wounded heroes of Philip Roth’s fiction, and in particular the men in his recent novels, the just released Everyman and Sabbath’s Theater, published in 1995. The mad arthritic lecher, Mickey Sabbath, and the slowly dying, unnamed, Everyman both desperately fan the embers of their libidos because, for Roth and for some of us seniors, impotency equals death. Unfortunately, in his novels there is no hope for transcendence of the body. It’s all down hill.

“Passion doesn’t change with age,” Roth told a Danish journalist last year, “but you change – you become older. The thirst for women becomes more poignant. And there is a power in the pathos of sex that it didn’t have before. The pathos of the female body becomes more insistent. The sexual passion is always deep, but it becomes deeper.”

Roth’s character, Mickey Sabbath, in his 60s like the author at the time that book was published, wants to believe that there is “still a chance for the old juicy way of life to make one big last thumping stand against the inescapable rectitude, not to mention the boredom, of death.” Everyman, in his 70s like Roth today, takes walks along the Jersey shore and notices that “nothing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs… except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning. My God, he thought, the man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine! No 'otherness' to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.” Flirting with one young jogger, Everyman feels himself
growing hard in his pants, unbelievably, magically quickly, as though he were fifteen. And feeling, too, that sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter ot love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.
Everyman takes its title from a 15th century morality play in which the main character is visited by death. “Oh death,” he responds, “thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” And the characters in Roth’s novels also seem chagrined, to say the least, to find their faculties failing and death a distinct possibility. In the medieval play, however, the theme is Christian salvation. Be good and go to heaven; be bad and, well, you know what happens. Roth, a secular Jew, will have no otherworldly consolation. “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life,” his mouthpiece Everyman thinks, “and he found all religions offensive,”
considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, both to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.
Everyman is a retired advertising artist who calls his series of abstract paintings “The Life and Death of a Male Body,” an alternate title perhaps for Roth’s book.

Sabbath (the name is telling), describes himself as “whoremonger, seducer, sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals, ensnarer of youth,” and he pursues sexual pleasure with an athletic single-mindedness.
The core of seduction is persistence. Persistence, the Jesuit ideal. Eighty percent of women will yield if the pressure is persistent. You must devote yourself to fucking the way a monk devotes himself to God. Most men have to fit fucking in around the edges of what they define as the more pressing concerns: the pursuit of money, power, politics, fashion. Christ knows what it might be – skiing. But Sabbath had simplified his life and fit the other concerns in around fucking.
Sabbath and Everyman, raging against the dying of the light by means of sexual excess, real or imagined, are both sad figures. The point in Roth’s fiction seems to be that death, and the manifold ways we humans invent to avoid the inevitable, is the central fact of our lives. He does not appear to advocate sexual license. A friend, whose kindness Sabbath has mocked cruelly, tells the aging lothario:
Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath.
Roth was similarly insulted, although not in such crude terms, by his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, in her bitter memoir of their nearly 20 years together, Leaving a Doll’s House.

Novelist Nadine Gordimer, in her review of Everyman in the New York Times, wrote that for Roth, “the violent upsurge of sexual desire in the face of old age is the opposition of man to his own creation, death.” His theme is “the phenomenon presented as similar to that of adolescence – of late sexual desire. The last demanding exuberance in the slowly denuded body…[and] the doubt that comes about the unquestioned superiority of the rewards of the intellect.” The protagonist in Roth’s The Dying Animal “claims the phenomenon as the undeniable assertion of ‘erotic birthright’.”

I wonder if women also experience the phenomenon of late sexual desire? In my observation, gender differences (sex plus its social construction) make for two very different paths. Many women find their fulfillment in giving birth and nurturing life into adulthood. Men tend to make their mark in the world, finding their fulfillment through deeds. Aging is probably even harder on women then it is on men because of cultural standards of beauty. And finally, not a few older women I know live through their grandchildren. As Everyman puts it, the residents in his retirement home “were able not merely to construct whole conversations that revolved around their grandchildren but to find sufficient grounds for existence in the existence of their grandchildren.”

But old men, and I now count myself among them, are more content to sit on a bench and watch the joggers pass by, thanking the gods and goddesses for whoever invented the popular bare midriff look. Lust keeps the fires of life burning. Unlike Philip Roth, however, I do not equate health with potency. Sex also can be a spectator sport for those who find beauty a constant delight but have no desire for conquest.

Roth’s spiritless vision of anguished bodies in motion, permanently erased by death, holds no appeal for me. I suspect that even lust, in the form of passionate love for others, will not die but will transcend this limited time-space continuum to permeate the universe forever.

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