Sabbath’s Indecent Theater

Life is fragile. Such a cliché. It’s something we take for granted. Also dull and yet true. Next, it seems true that we are selectively moved by events, as life is proven fragile everyday, only recently it hit close to home, sort of.

I could act out on it, exhibit another truism; another banality. I could displace onto other stressors, lurking and ominous, and wholly plausible. The latest pandemic scare, the so-called Delta variant, is disheartening because it emerges upon the heels of progress. Hadn’t we thought we’d turned a corner? Seriously, hadn’t most of us gotten vaccines, observed the number of cases plateau? Everything was opening. I’d gone back to my office, invited a few patients to come in “live”. Spring had turned into summer. The sun was out and it was time to play again, in groups even.

Ugh. Are we going backwards? I know I don’t like change, and I can tolerate plateaus of varying kinds. But I thought I was okay with the past, except for that I thought I was done with. My routine hadn’t changed much, I must admit. My interior life of daily analysis, reading, work, as in listening, sprinkled with oratory, hasn’t changed much. Next week I’ll be amongst a crowd, indoors, speaking to an assembly. Not a good idea, I contemplate? I don’t wanna cancel. It’s a risk I wanna take…I think.

Do I wish I could be like Micky Sabbath, the devilish yet down-and-out protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater? Over the last several weeks, I’ve envied some of his exploits, if not so much his fate. My experience of this novel has juxtaposed against my spring revisiting of Nabokov, and specifically Lolita, whose detached, erudite yet hebophilic narrator, Humbert Humbert, annoyed me with his elaborate denials, his tiresome reaction formations. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I’d first read Lolita in my 20s, long before I’d ever worked with sex offenders. Did I think my skin had thickened? Did I think my reactions to character, if not so much the details of sex, had changed that much? Micky Sabbath has induced a quite different experience, and he is an opposite to HH: a sort of noble savage, living mid-century 20th century, straddling wars and social movements, having lived a deceptively humble professional life as—get this–a puppeteer, and hitting his peak as a kind of circus freak in 1950s Manhattan, but gaining special notoriety for his “indecent” fingering; his generally lascivious, masculine gift.

Frankensteinish, living out a late middle age in the early nineties (and latterly set in a small New England township), Mickey’s story is largely told via flashbacks, as the reader learns about his life of pleasure and loss, plus that of the long-suffering women in his life: of his lusty Croatian mistress, Drenka; of his first wife, the actress Nikki, perhaps overwhelmed by Mickey’s toomuchness, whom he privately claims to have murdered after her never-resolved disappearance (signifying that he may not be above a crime passionale); of his second wife, the simple-life coveting, recovering alcoholic, Roseanna.

Mickey Sabbath: a backwards ascetic, described by Roth as a monk of fucking, an evangelist of fornication. The unapologetic pornography of Roth’s prose stands in contrast to the glib, avoidant phrasing of Nabokov’s character. With Mickey, we have a muscular, disrobed, phallic yet vulnerable beast, moving like a predator but eliciting concern because he is not otherwise a power player. As the author states, he has simplified his life and, unlike most womanizers, he doesn’t fit his fucking around more pressing concerns; he fits other concerns around his fucking, as if it were life’s raison d’etre. In today’s parlance, he might be termed a polyamorist, and possibly a sex addict, but one who might credibly argue that he does not fit the profile of either type: that of an objectifying narcissist with a case of closeted misogyny, for example. Instead, Mickey fits the alternative, declining yet ever lingering model of a man whose libido is simply excessive; whose desire for novelty, or perversion, or appetite to love women who are for the most part consensual, seems insatiable.

He does not exploit. On that point he is clear and especially defiant. A committed non-monogamist, he proclaims that he is deformed only by a society that demands infidelity, and challenges his mistress’ hypocrisy for demanding fidelity of him while cheating on her husband. However, he turns the tables on that score. Paraphilias? Certainly. Grieving the loss of Drenka from cancer, he masturbates in the cemetery, and comes on her grave. A voyeur and fantasist, he’d once offered to give up other women if she’d suck off her husband twice a week, all because “it would excite me”. Or, he revels at the prospect of urinating on women, and their reciprocating with their “warm juices”. Unlike Nabokov, Roth does not deflect from gory details, hoping to hide behind decorum. In this way, Mickey Sabbath curries sympathy, like a last man standing, doubly erect. A one-time puppeteer, and master of what was once dubbed “indecent theater”, Mickey skated by for most of his life, playing the role of the “dirty man”, the grinning satyr that adorns the book’s cover. With his sinewy, innate sexiness, it would seem that he’d titillated and aroused much more than he’d offended—that is, until the late 80s when, upon teaching workshop on the art of puppet theater and then supervising students individually, he disgraced himself by sexually harassing a girl forty years his junior.

Aging (into his sixties), jobless, penniless and arthritic, he presents to the reader as a hapless dependent, yet with the reader’s approval he may yet assert his individuality as he tells his back-story. In reading Sabbath Theater, I was aware of a solemn biography, of a character reminiscent of a Bellow protagonist, or an Amis lecher—of a man skirting dignity and drifting towards a wayward and lonely end, perhaps bringing to mind any one or all of the high-profile, disgraced men of the post-MeToo era. Throughout the novel, death hovers, firstly because of Drenka, as a point of focus—but also with a touch of family history. Early, for example, we learn that Mickey once had a brother named (appropriately enough) Mort, who had fought in WWII as a pilot and died at the end of 1944, shot down by the Japanese. We further learn, or at least divine, that the doomed Mort had been the favorite of a doting mother who otherwise neglected Mickey and sunk into depression after his brother’s death. It is reasonable to presume that Roth intended something like an Oedipal play within his novel’s subtext, and that a once neglected Mickey Sabbath has acted out over the course of his life an insatiable need for female substitutions.

Don’t take life for granted. Recently, I’ve had cause to think this bumper sticker wisdom due to some bad news: a one-time colleague, a supervisee, mother of two and a wife, was killed in a car accident that made local news. I’m shaken. It happens everyday, this kind of thing. It’s just that I knew her and could imagine her living her everyday life, going about her practice among other things, and then taking a vacation, unaware of the cruel fate that awaited. I’ll be going on a vacation soon, thinking I need some rest from a life that is generally lacking in risk. And I’m not even in disgrace…yet. For now, I plan to write more, spend some time reading novels like Sabbath’s Theater, whether they are salacious and brimming with life instinct, or else droll and sinister, like Lolita. I guess I’ll keep doing “live” things, and taking everyday risks, like getting behind the wheel of a car. Despite the horror, I’ll have a dirty thought or two, I guess, and let my dreams do their thing, to excess or not. Meanwhile, I’ll hide a bit in daytime, try to live simply. Or wear a mask, anyway.

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