Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Breast, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth The BreastMaybe it's just me, but like a lot of Philip Roth's work, The Breast had me constantly revising my opinion of how smart Roth was trying to be and how much he was succeeding.

Is the novella, I asked myself at least 12 times, an effort to out-imagine Kafka and Gogol, or is it an effort to or under-imagine them? And which one is the more cunning project? And is Roth successful at out/under-imagining his prestigious forebears? Or is he as confused as I am as to the nature, purpose, and success of the book?

Roth's overheated little exercise (I think 'overheated' should be Roth's Homeric epithet, btw) amply illustrates the morass that is literality. Repeatedly David Kepesh (our hero, who transforms overnight into a human breast) is disabused of any tincture of metaphor or surreality or unliterality. He is not dreaming; he is not mad; he is not even delusional. He is a breast.

At first, Kepesh acquiesces to this reality. As the days wear on, however, he finds the reality unbearable and tries to convince himself that he is delusional or dreaming. He is foiled, however, partly because his psychoanalyst and his father tell him that, yes, he is actually a breast and no, he is not mad, but also because he is more or less stumped how he could have chosen something so elementally obvious to delude himself into:
What whirling chaos of desire and fear had erupted in this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites or ancient confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a mammoth delusion of such splendid, such classical simplicity? How explain the "mammary envy" that might be thought to have inspired so extravagant an invention? Was I just another American boy raised on a diet too rich with centerfolds? Or was it rather a longing in me, deep down in my molten center, a churning longing to be utterly and blessedly helpless, to be a big brainless bag of tissue, desirable, dumb, passive, immobile, acted upon instead of acting, hanging, there, as a breast hangs and is there.
He grabs madly onto the idea that perhaps there is at least a shred of dignity left in the Kafka-esqueness or Gogolishness (Go-ghoulishness?) of his malady, believing that his love of literature and his job teaching it set the conditions for this transmogrification. "It might be my way of being a Kafka, being a Gogol, being a Swift. They could envision those marvelous transformations—they were artists. They had the language and those obsessive fictional brains. I didn't. So I had to live the thing... I loved the extreme in literature, idolized those who made it, was fascinated by its imagery and power and suggestiveness... So I took the leap. Beyond sublimation. I made the word flesh. I have out-Kafkaed Kafka. He could only imagine a man turning into a cockroach. But look what I have done."

Lots of questions are begged here, and it's difficult not to imagine Roth sitting back laughing as we pose them. Still, I ask, is Roth having a joke at the expense of professors, that they are sort of castrated or emasculated artists? Is there a statement about the role of the artist as a societal sublimating agent, taking our id-fantasies and transforming them into more acceptable forms of unreality?

But the bigger question I have is the one that might cause Roth to laugh most: referencing Kafka deploys the ponderous significance of political tragedy, of dictatorships, repression, inhuman bureaucracy. What if Roth had written a novel that was a literalization of "In The Penal Colony" or The Castle? Would someone stand at the end of the novel and say, "I have out-Kafkaed Kafka. He could only imagine this torture machine. But look what I have done." Aren't we tempted to think of the worst dictators in this fashion, as the literalization of an artist's conception of evil? Dr. Klinger says to Kepesh, "You are a better student of human nature than that. You've read too much Dostoevsky for that," as if the two sentences meant the same thing. Isn't this what we sometimes allow ourselves to think, that our knowledge of art insulates us from the worst in humanity by having already experienced it aesthetically?

The Breast has a certain spiritual similarity to Catch-22; both novels contrast the majority of the characters, who wish to act sane despite being overwhelmed by irrational circumstances, with the narrator, who wishes to act insane out of self-preservation from those same circumstances. And each questions the reliability of a distinction between imagined insanity and real insanity.

Clearly, these themes also relate to the questions I just raised about Alison Bechdel's Fun Home—what are the dangers of artifice, and what is the proper relation of life and art? The Breast does not have the scope of either work, and is probably not intended to. I liked it better, for what it's worth, than the works Roth has mounted lately whose whole purpose seems to be scope—American Pastoral would be the most egregious perpetrator of this bloat. But The Breast—it's 87 pages, it's intriguing—it's worth your time.


Richard said...

I've read a lot of Roth, but somehow this one has always seemed avoidable from a distance, slight. But you've made me want to seek it out. Incidentally, I agree with you about American Pastoral, but I don't think you can say that it is representative of what he's been doing "lately" (other than the other two related Zuckerman books, that is).

Andrew Seal said...

I guess I was referring to the way that Roth has been positioning his characters' suffering as in almost every way exemplary, as if the dramas of his novels are national dramas. I would say this is true of "Indignation," and "Exit Ghost," with its background of the 2004 election, and obviously with "Plot Against America." And then you have "Everyman," the title of which pleads for an allegorical or exemplary reading.

"Scope" was probably the wrong word for me to use, though, and I definitely acknowledge large differences between AP and the other books. I just saw a connection between the way Swede is positioned almost as if he's taking on the sins of the nation and these other characters who have similarly exemplary roles.