I’ve only read one work by Philip Roth previously, and that was The Human Stain. A very thorough, thoughtful social commentary. (Although it’s been a while since I’ve read it, so it’ll be a bit before I get around to blogging about it). Sabbath’s Theater, on the other hand, is a whole different beast altogether.
Have you ever had a teacher, professor, or boss, whom you absolutely hated? And I’m talking about dreading going to class/work every single day, double checking their motives for everything, whining and complaining over every single brain-busting project they gave you. But afterwards, you look back on your time with that person as a rewarding experience? I had such a teacher. A man who could make Satan shiver. Who could put hair on the chests of babies and porpoises. He pushed every single person in my class to their limits. While it was only a high school class, he demanded the very best from us and expected college level papers and presentations. He would watch us with an eagle’s eye during every report/presentation, and made us stay at the podium while he tore through our arguments and ripped apart our PowerPoint slides. On more than one occasion he almost drove me to tears, and oh how I loved to hate him.
But after I graduated and I went to university, I could look back with respect and admiration for how he had pushed us to do our very best, and because of that, I was extremely prepared for the challenges of collegiate work. Because he had tortured us with every detail of our presentations, I’ve never felt intimidated by public speaking. And I can write a paper that would impress the Norton Board of English Literature if need be. While I hated my time with him, I would honestly have to thank him with the utmost gratitude if I ever see him again; the education he gave me in that single class was better than all my years in college.
Which is exactly what it felt like to read Sabbath’s Theater. I hated this book while reading it. Mickey Sabbath, the main character, disgusted me on every page; his base, coarse, and carnal nature was unappealing to me; and what was worse was that Roth chose to make him intelligent, which not only meant that he was an ass, but he was a smartass to boot. And I’ve always hated smartasses.
Anyhow, right at the end of the novel, however, did I begin to see how I would truly miss Mickey Sabbath’s sabbatical in life, as I drew the curtain on his final performance. I would miss hating him, because hating him reminded me of all the things I hated about myself. He reminded me in that way of the Joker from Batman, the comedian from The Watchmen, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange: they are all characters that you find loathsome, and yet in some way we are drawn to them, excited by them, in love with them, because they take all the social, political, and psychological standards that we hold ourselves by, and throw them all down the drain.
And we love that about them. We love to see everything they do, because it is so utterly what we cannot do ourselves. We look at them simultaneously with jealously, respect, horror, and disgust. And while all these characters are generally pretty simple; people who mock’s society’s roles, rules, and routines, they stand for something far more complex: is this anarchy or bravery? Are they right to laugh at all the silly rules we use to organize our culture?
While there are definitely things that made me uncomfortable (the golden shower as a rite of passage) or that make me downright angry (Sabbath’s blatant lack of moral standards or personal boundaries), I have to respect this book as the saga of a man who started out with an almost perfect life (living on the shore with a perfect family), that comes crashing down around his ears with the death of his brother Morty, and subsequently forces him to daily ask the question: why? well why not?
His life, as the book’s title suggests, is about the complete and utter irony/pathetic failure of Sabbath’s life, and while he could kill himself (the central theme of the book), on the last page he discovers he just can’t, because “it [wouldn’t be] drive by despair or revenge; it’s not born of madness or bitterness or humiliation, it’s not a camouflaged homicide or a grandiose display of self-loathing-it’s the finishing touch to the running gag.”
And while we lament that dear Sabbath cannot bear to put an end to his own miserable life, there is a part of us that hopes he lives on, not only so he can suffer the pain of facing his own loss of potency and impact on the world, but so that we; oh wonderful, humble human beings that follow the rules we are given, can have someone to hate, and somehow, at the same time, envy.