A Moral Education

In praise of filth

Garth Greenwell

Milena Mihaylova, Silence Creative Commons


Here’s a way of putting the problem: on one hand we want art to be free, and on the other we want it to mean. Not just to mean, but to be meaningful—to be useful for, and so maybe responsible to, other realms of life: our sense of community, say, or politics, our moral relations. As often happens when competing positions have claims to truth, the pendulum of consensus swings between them, and the pendulum has swung quite far, in recent years, toward the pole of responsibility and holding art to account. Within the small world of people who care about literature and art, the culture is as moralistic as it has ever been in my lifetime: witness our polemics about who has the right to what subject matter, our conviction that art has a duty to right representational wrongs, that poems or novels or films can be guilty of a violence that seems ever less metaphorical against an audience construed as ever more vulner­able. We have a sense that the most important questions we can ask about a work of art are whether and to what extent it furthers extra-artistic aims, to what extent it serves a world outside itself. The idea that artists should make what they feel compelled to make, regardless of such considerations, that in fact art should be pro­tected from responsibilities of this kind, seems part and parcel of a discredited Romantic model of the artist as exempt from workaday morality, licensed by genius to act badly, or at least to disregard the claims of others. When I work with students now, graduate or undergraduate, their primary mode of engagement with a text often seems to be a particular kind of moral judgment, as though before they can see anything else in stories or poems they have to sort them into piles of the righteous and the problematic. These responses sometimes seem to me an index of an anxiety I see more and more in my students, in my friends and myself, a kind of para­noia about our own moral status, a desire to demonstrate our per­sonal righteousness in our response to art.

Such responses can sometimes place me in what seems an anti­pathetic relationship to my students as they fail to respond as I wish they would to books that I love. But this is a false antipathy, or a mis­placed one; really my students and I share the most important val­ues, and our visions of a desirable world, and even of the place of art within it, overlap far more than they diverge. When I was beginning my literary education in the 1990s, the pendulum hovered close to the other pole; at least among a certain cadre of poets and literary scholars, maybe in response to moralistic crusades of the ’70s and ’80s, a doctrine of ars gratia artis reigned. I chafed against that, too. To treat art as purely aesthetic, a question merely of formal explora­tion and sensuous experience, is one way to preempt the claims of moralism, as is treating art as exclusively play, a stage for invention and virtuosity. (To be clear, I think art can be all these things, all of them valuable.) Another, more extreme claim for the freedom of art is articulated in Maggie Nelson’s “Art Song,” which entertains a con­ception of art as “a metabolic activity, a ‘way of churning the world.’” In my darker moments I sometimes think it’s true that art is simply a biological process, shorn of significance; but I’m not sure it’s a truth I can live with, a story to tell about myself that I can bear. Certainly it’s not an adequate account of my experience of art, of what I would continue to call “great” art, though greatness is another idea called into question in our anti-exceptionalist moment. Maybe it’s a delu­sion to think that the central activity of my life, art making, has more significance than digestion; maybe it’s a saving delusion. One reason a particular strain of our current moralism—the strain that would subject artists to tests of acceptability, that says we shouldn’t con­sume art made by bad people—is so dismaying is that it sees works of art as endlessly fungible, just another commodity on the market. There’s so much art available to us, this reasoning goes; there’s noth­ing Lolita or The Enigma of Arrival or Wise Blood might offer that we can’t find in a writer less problematic than Nabokov or Naipaul or O’Connor. But a profound experience of art is an experience of something like love, which is to say of singularity; when you’ve had a profound encounter with Giovanni’s Room, say, or a portrait by Alice Neel, you can’t imagine swapping it out for something more conveniently affirming of social values we cherish. This affinity is more mysterious than evaluation or ranking or canon-formation; it seems to me analogous to other relationships we form. The love I feel for my partner or my friends isn’t the result of comparative eval­uation, it isn’t founded on a claim that of all candidates I’ve judged them worthiest. The question of comparison doesn’t enter; they are simply themselves, incommensurate, irreplaceable. My life wouldn’t be my life without them, as my life wouldn’t be my life without any number of artists who failed, in various ways large and small, to be excellent outside their art.

The problem is that, in much of our discussion of art, we’ve made a mistake about what moral engagement is, and so what art’s role in it might be.

The value I find in the art I love seems different from and greater than formal experiment or technical display, greater than play, certainly greater than “metabolic churning.” Art has a value that seems to me moral, and, like my students, like much of what we’ve taken to calling The Discourse, with its purity tests and can­celations, its groupthink and dismissal, I want to think of art mak­ing as an activity with moral implications. More, I want to place it at the heart of one way of striving toward a moral life, by which I mean at the heart of our attempt to live flourishingly with oth­ers, or at least bearably and with minimal harm. The problem is that, in much of our discussion of art, I think we’ve made a mis­take about what moral engagement is, and so what art’s role in it might be. In much of our commentary, there’s a desire for art to be exemplary, to present a world the moral valence of which, whether positive or negative, is easily legible; there’s a desire for the work of art to provide an index of judgment clearly predicated on val­ues the reader can approve. We want the work to give us a place to stand that grants access to righteousness, a place from which to judge a work or its characters. But more and more I question the role of this kind of judgment in moral life. I don’t mean the constant, shifting, provisional evaluations we make moment-to-moment, the moral echolocation by which we position ourselves and our actions. I mean the act of coming to judgment, to a verdict: of assigning someone a durable or even permanent moral status. This is sometimes necessary, of course, though maybe less often than we suspect; it’s what we do, hopefully with some seriousness, in courts of law, and what we do sometimes flippantly, recklessly, in social media campaigns for de-platforming and cancelation. The seriousness of our verdicts depends in large part on the density of their contextualization; and, since the context of a human life is so nearly depthless and made up of such incommensurable ele­ments, ideally righteous judgment is impossible. To be bearable, to be plausibly adequate, even our imperfect, sublunary judgments require an immense amount of work; the idea that we might carry that work out on social media is one of the genuinely repulsive aspects of our moment. I am immensely grateful, every day, that judging others in this way is not my job. The best thing about being a novelist, in fact, is that my job is actively to resist coming to such judgment. Plausibly adequate verdicts may be a necessary fea­ture of the real world, but they are never necessary in matters of art.

When we place this kind of definitive moral judgment at the heart of our engagement with others, assigning a person or a work a status as problematic or righteous, we make a mistake about what a moral relationship to another is, I think. If a moral rela­tionship means to live with or beside another in such a way as to recognize the value of their life as being equal to and independent of our own—that impossible, necessary Kantian standard—then passing judgment is the abrogation of that relationship: it destroys the reciprocity necessary for moral relation, it establishes a hier­archy utterly corrosive of it. This is another reason to reject the idea that we should only consume art made by good people: Who am I to judge the goodness of another? (For all the ravages of Calvinism in America, one misses a sense of the inscrutability of election.) Coming to judgment in this way is anathema to the nov­elist because the task of art isn’t to judge, but to know, to observe, to carry out research into the human—and passing judgment is a radically impoverished form of knowledge. An important part of the moral work of art is to teach us how much richer and more capacious our engagement with others can be.

This essay is an attempt to clarify my sense of what the relation­ship between art and morality might be, since the loudest accounts of that relationship in our moment seem to me inadequate. To help think that through, I want to consider how a book that flouts all our pieties about decency and responsibility, about sociality and moral uplift, a novel about a rancidly obscene, sexually voracious, invet­erately grieving puppeteer—Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, prob­ably the filthiest major American novel I know—seems to me as powerful an example of morally engaged art as English-language literature can offer. More, I want to test my intuition that it is pre­cisely the book’s obscenity, its determination to shock and affront, to “let the repellent in” (“fuck the laudable ideologies,” cries its hero), that, far from hindering the moral work it does, is central to that work. If the great moral question is how to live bearably with others, Sabbath’s Theater pursues an answer through the very things that make the novel’s protagonist morally repulsive—the very things that, by our current standards of what is acceptable in art, should place the novel beyond our regard. A moral education depends not on condemning or averting our gaze from filth, the novel suggests, but on diving wholeheartedly into it.

At the center of Roth’s novel, which chronicles three days in the breakdown of Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced, arthritic, sixty-four-year-old puppeteer, is Sabbath’s grief for the loss of Drenka Balich, the married Croatian innkeeper with whom he had a thirteen-year affair until her death, of a ferociously swift cancer, six months before the novel’s present action begins. If this present-day time­line pulls the novel forward, however, the bulk of the narrative is entirely unmoored in time, roaming over Sabbath’s past with special attention to his relationships with women: the prostitutes who provided his sexual initiation as an adolescent in the mer­chant marines; his first wife, whose disappearance haunts him; the undergraduate whose recording of their phone sex has made him a pariah; his current, despised wife, Roseanna, a recovering alcoholic who is bracing herself to separate from him. Expelled from his home, Sabbath returns to the landscapes of his past: New York City and, in the book’s astonishing final movement, the Jersey Shore, where his idyllic childhood, what he characterizes as an expe­rience of endlessness, was shattered by his beloved brother’s death in World War II. The novel is a fulfillment of currents already pres­ent in Roth’s work—Sabbath is a Portnoy without the complaint, all erotic id without any tortured compulsion to be good—and also it represents something entirely new. It has a formal freedom and linguistic virtuosity unmatched in his earlier books, and a profun­dity in grappling with the absolutes of existence—sex, love, need, the urge to make, the irrevocability of death and the inescapability of grief—I’m not sure Roth ever achieved again. It is also, maybe it doesn’t quite go without saying, very, very funny.

A source of both the humor and the profundity is how seriously the book takes obscenity and the desire that fuels it. Here’s a sen­tence from very early on:

Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenka’s uberous breasts—uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto’s painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit—suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan (as Juno herself may have once groaned), “I feel it deep down in my cunt,” he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother.

The audacity of the sentence lies in the huge tonal registers it crosses: from the high literary “uberous,” with the pedantic, schol­arly excursus into Latin, and the even higher reference to myth and Tintoretto, to the vertiginous drop to the carnal in “cunt,” to the truly shocking, wildly inappropriate exit from scene with the memory of his mother. The exit is given an amazing adjectival flourish with “late little mother,” swooping from Drenka’s por­nographic exclamation to an affect we conventionally take as the opposite of sexual: that of filial devotion. The “little” is wonderful: English doesn’t have ready access to diminutives, a temperature that many other languages can avail themselves of, like Spanish and Bulgarian and German and Yiddish, which is the immediate referent here; suddenly we are in the linguistic world of Sabbath’s childhood, hearing an echo of his father’s immigrant past.

Shock is a characteristic aesthetic maneuver in Sabbath’s Theater, but Roth avoids the deadening effect that usually accompanies repeated shocks by distributing their weight in unexpected ways. The sudden turn of this sentence—turn is too pale a word: the sud­den whipping of the sentence, the sudden lash—comes not with “cunt” but with the last three words: bizarrely, it is not “I feel it deep in my cunt” but “late little mother” that seems obscene. This feels electrically fresh to me. The effect is only strengthened with greater familiarity with the novel, in which “cunt” appears dozens of times, and so loses its sense of taboo. It’s a word Roth loves, both for its visceral force and also, I think, for its history. Roth isn’t often thought of as a writer who lingers over etymologies, but he should be—that’s another reason this sentence is instructive—and his use of “cunt” is redolent with the history of the word, a history that goes hand in hand with that of the word quaint, which was its synonym in Middle English. The word runs through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which Roth first encountered in high school and lines from which he could still recite late in life. “The Miller’s Tale” can read like a meditation on queynte, which means, as a noun, “cunt,” and also, as an adjective, “intricate,” “elegant,” “pleasant”; also “myste­rious,” “queer.” This history encapsulates something important in the relationship between Drenka and Sabbath, which is predicated on sex, the wilder the better—their shenanigans allow each of them to tolerate intolerable marriages—and also profoundly affirmative of whatever we might mean by an ethical relationship with another. It’s hard for me to imagine that Roth didn’t have the history of cunt/queynte in mind in this very beautiful passage, which Drenka delivers after a threesome Sabbath has arranged with Christa, a much younger woman:

I find the cunt actually quite beautiful. I never would have thought that looking in the mirror. You come with your shame to look at yourself and you look at your sexual organs and they are not acceptable from the aesthetic perspective. But in this setting, I can see the whole thing, and although it is a mystique that I am a part of, it’s a mystery to me, a total mystery.

I understand “mystery” here to mean something like “possessed of a significance, a value, that is bottomless, that can’t be measured.” Through sex, through her erotic life, Drenka transforms shame—a sense that the meaning of her body is known, fixed, finite—into mystery, a sense of a surplus of meaning, an uncountable worth. This is an extravagant claim to make for the work sex can do, in literature and in life; I think Roth means to make it. The proxim­ity of flesh and spirit is one of the animating paradoxes of sex; it seems plausible that orgasm, that tiny replicable shattering of self, is the source of all our metaphysics. Any writer attempting a sex scene has to manage the relationship between the horizontal axis of bodies in space—the logistics of sexual acts—and the vertical axis sex makes available, an intimation of something, spirit or soul, that exceeds the body. Roth is a remarkably unmetaphysical writer, and his treatment of sex is often marked by a resolute refusal to entertain the vertical axis; this too makes Sabbath’s Theater unique among his books. In the first passage quoted above, transcendence is all over the sentence: sex is written into myth; Drenka is made a goddess; she and Sabbath fuck among the stars. Five months after her agonizing death from cancer, months he has spent in night­time graveyard masturbation, Sabbath falls prostrate over Drenka’s grave and cries, “You filthy, wonderful Drenka cunt!” Both the filth and the wonder are real; the wonder proceeds from the filth. How else should we think of this, if not as a work of love?

sabbath’s theater is not a story of moral reform; from beginning to end Sabbath does very bad things. Some of these are played for laughs, as when he deliberately humiliates Drenka’s husband or spends an entire night and morning ransacking the bedroom of a friend’s college-age daughter, searching for evidence of her erotic life. Elsewhere Sabbath is less entertainingly repulsive. An extended sequence early in the novel’s second half concerns Kathy Goolsbee, an undergraduate in Sabbath’s puppetry workshop, who records (without his knowledge, as Sabbath also records it without hers) one of several phone sex sessions they have, a recording that, perhaps accidentally, perhaps by design, makes it to the college’s administration. (It is then appropriated by a feminist action group and played on a loop for anyone who calls in to a local phone num­ber, a bit of Rothian satire that raises harrowing questions about whose exploitation of Kathy is more destructive, and whether, in a context where everyone claims to be educating her, anyone is con­cerned for her well-being.) Sabbath has made dozens of tapes of conversations with the six students with whom, over the years, he’s had similar relationships, thinking of the recordings as testaments to a pedagogy of liberation and as works of art. Destroying those tapes, he thinks—they are, after all, evidence—would be “like defil­ing a Picasso. Because there was in these tapes a kind of art in the way that he was able to unshackle his girls from their habit of inno­cence.” As part of his indignant self-defense, he places his tapes in the lineage of literary filth, alongside Réage, Miller, Lawrence, Joyce, Cleland, and the Earl of Rochester.


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The episode with Kathy occurs five years before the primary action of Sabbath’s Theater, but it sets in motion crucial elements of the plot: Sabbath’s disgrace and increasing penury after he loses his teaching job; his wife Roseanna’s breakdown, subsequent recovery from alcoholism, and increasing independence. In the book’s sin­gle scene between Sabbath and Kathy, we see Sabbath at his worst, or close to it. Enraged at Kathy, whom he holds responsible for Roseanna’s breakdown and apparent suicide attempt, he intends—it’s not clear how seriously—to kill the student, who weepingly denies her guilt and begs to give Sabbath a blow job. Beneath this scene, in a twenty-one-page footnote, Roth provides a transcript of the call Kathy recorded, which is decidedly, cannily, not art on the order of Lawrence or Colette. One of the challenges of writing sex is to create, using the formal resources of the novelist, some approximation of the atmosphere of desire, in which acts and proc­lamations that, viewed dispassionately, might be merely ridiculous can be transfigured by passion. In presenting a transcript shorn of scene and verbal artfulness, banality (“Oh God. I’m going to come. / You’re going to come?”) remains simply banal, underscoring Sabbath’s delusion that these exchanges are either art or education. In the scene that runs above the transcript, Sabbath alternately sus­pects Kathy of entrapment and entertains the possibility of accept­ing her propositions, imagining the satisfaction of the act:

To peer down at her head cradled in your lap, your cock encir­cled by her foaming lips, and to watch her blowing you in tears, to patiently lather that undissipated face with that sticky con­fection of spit, semen, and tears, a delicate meringue icing her freckles—could life bestow any more wonderful last thing?

Sex as vengeance and humiliation: the discomfort of the moment is deepened by the fact that the passage is addressed (“Maestro, what would you do?”) to the memory of an old puppeteer Sabbath met while studying in Italy, who interrogated Sabbath about his lovers and their ages and then, in satisfaction, boasted that his own girlfriend was fifteen, though “Of course I’ve known her since she’s twelve.” (This becomes even more discomfiting in the light of Blake Bailey’s 2021 biography of Roth, which recounts an almost verbatim exchange Roth had with the Czech novelist Jiří Mucha, decades before Sabbath’s Theater was published.) It’s hard to recu­perate anything redemptive—anything even morally complex—from this vision of eros.

In his many quarrels with Roseanna, Sabbath mocks her devo­tion both to AA-speak and to what she calls “the story format”: “‘But what happens with the story format,’ she went on, oblivious not merely to his sarcasm but to the look in his eyes of someone who had taken too many sedative pills, ‘is that you can identify.’” The question of identification has a central role in our current debates about what art is worth our attention and the work that it should do. The role of literature, these conversations presume, is to show us a certain kind of image of ourselves, an image often character­ized as positive or affirming or empowering. I take the desire for representation seriously, and I take seriously the consequences of living in a culture that doesn’t provide bearable images of oneself. My concern is that we take too prescriptive a view of what consti­tutes affirmation. None of the books that gave me succor as a gay kid in the pre-internet American South—novels by Yukio Mishima, James Baldwin, Edmund White, André Gide—would pass muster if judged by today’s standards of positive representation. The moral seriousness of those books, it seems to me now, lies in their refusal of an image one might identify with in any frictionless, any merely self-comforting way. Roth’s novel does something similar, I think: Sabbath is magnetic, fascinating, irresistible; it is impossible to look away from him. But he is not, in the simplistic, flat sense often invoked in our discussions of literature, sympathetic. Roth’s novel stands distinct from much of recent American narrative practice in its model of narrative as disidentification, in the way Sabbath constantly rejects our sympathy, throwing up roadblocks to identi­fication, rubbing his repulsiveness in our face.

But the novel wouldn’t be so discomfiting if this were all it did. Sabbath can reject our sympathy only once the novel has tempted us into it; Roth invites us to condemn Sabbath only to push us past our condemnation. Roth’s manipulation of these responses—the way he shows Sabbath as alternately repulsive and pitiable, enter­taining and horrifying, destructive and grievously wounded—is key to the novel’s moral force. When he first arrives in New York, angling to be taken in by a friend, Sabbath finds himself weep­ing uncontrollably over his various losses, while also telling him­self he’s performing grief as an elaborate manipulation. “Sabbath didn’t believe a word he said and hadn’t for years.…True lives belonged to others, or so others believed.” And yet, as Sabbath breaks down repeatedly, even he begins to be convinced: “He was crying now the way anyone cries who has had it. There was passion in his crying—terror, great sadness, and defeat.” And then, after a paragraph break: “Or was there?” In the way the scene makes these turns again and again, dizzyingly convincing us of sincer­ity and professing insincerity, it is a microcosm of the entire novel. Finally, Sabbath is as unsure as we are of the moral status of his tears. Perhaps, he thinks, his weeping is less “to be chalked up to guile than to the fact that the inner reason for his being—whatever the hell that might be, perhaps guile itself—had ceased to exist.” The story Sabbath has told about himself, told to himself, proves inadequate; the meaning he had considered fixed gives way to mystery. If this is a novel of (partial, constantly backsliding) moral education, it begins and ends in bewilderment.

drenka is the fullest, richest realization of one of Roth’s female character types: the eager, indulgent lover. Roseanna, for the first half of the novel, seems like a strikingly thin embodiment of another: the long-suffering, long-suffered, shrewish wife. One of the marvels of the novel is how, over the book’s second half, both the reader’s and Sabbath’s vision of Roseanna is sharpened, deep­ened, as she emerges into a complexity the book’s first half denied her. The catalyst for this transformation—a transformation not of Roseanna, but of Sabbath’s understanding of her—is a peculiarly charged species of fiction: sexual fantasy. Sabbath is nominally a puppeteer, but the kind of artist he most resembles is a novel­ist—a novelist, it might be said, of a Rothian sort. Like any good writer he’s an alert perceiver, “ever vigilant to all stimuli”; he’s also equipped with a remarkable ability to use his observations to con­struct complex inner lives. Take for example Michelle Cowan, a rich and ambivalent minor character, electrically vivid though she appears in a single scene. Sabbath is dazzled by her; as her houseguest he watches her with an attention whetted by appetite but not, perhaps, reducible to it, observing her so intently that he times her hot flashes. He loves her laugh, a sound that he endows with a novelistically dense inner life:

The laugh said that she was sick of staying, sick of plotting leaving, sick of unsatisfied dreams, sick of satisfied dreams, sick of adapting, sick of not adapting, sick of just about everything except existing. Exulting in existing while being sick of every­thing—that’s what was in that laugh! A semidefeated, semi­amused, semiaggrieved, semiamazed, seminegative, hilarious big laugh.

The novel is exquisitely ambivalent on the question of whether Sabbath’s portrait of Michelle is right. He flirts with her throughout dinner, even playing footsie with her—he thinks—throughout the meal (the foot turns out to be her husband’s), and later, when she shows up at his door in a kimono (after Sabbath has gone on a rac­ist tirade against the Japanese, whom he holds accountable for his brother’s death), it’s not at all clear what she’s after. Sabbath propo­sitions her, and she puts him off, seeming to make a date for several days later. He grows increasingly manic until, in a very beautiful moment, anything at all seems possible between them: “‘Christ…’ she said and allowed her forehead to fall forward onto his. To rest there. It was a moment unlike any he’d had all day. Week. Month. Year. He calmed down.” But immediately after this, when Sabbath exposes himself, Roth says that Michelle recoils, a word that sug­gests not a willed but a reflexive action, though what it signifies is unclear. Shock? Alarm? Disgust? We can’t know, just as Sabbath can’t know whether the story he tells about her is correct.

But then we can never know whether such stories are correct; human life, human relation is precisely not knowing. Fiction is all we can have. In his next novel, American Pastoral (1997), Roth goes even further: “Getting people right is not what living is all about anyway,” he writes there. “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.” So maybe it doesn’t matter if Sabbath is right, or maybe what matters more is the richness with which he imagines the lives of others, the extent to which what he imagines is excessive is any simply self-serving fantasy. This is the case with Michelle, I think: he endows her with a complexity, a self-division (“semidefeated, semiamused, semi­aggrieved, semiamazed, seminegative”) that exceeds, that may in fact impede, any version of her that would merely serve his own interests. Maybe what matters, in our dealings with others, is not whether what we imagine is fiction or reality, but whether it is an easy or a demanding fiction, I mean whether it is easy on ourselves or hard, whether it serves self-flattery or demands self-correction.

For decades Sabbath has been telling himself a self-serving story about his wife. The reader’s sense of her begins to change in a long flashback of Sabbath visiting her in the hospital, where she is recovering from her breakdown. She has asked him to bring letters her father wrote to her when she was a child, in the year he commit­ted suicide. Against her stated wishes, Sabbath reads these letters, as well as a journal she has left unguarded in her room. The novel reproduces all of these texts, which are excruciating to read—the father’s letters especially, with their banality, their cruelty, their ter­rible need—and which fundamentally and durably revise our sense of Roseanna, of what she has been through and what resilience she has required. “She came by her pain honestly,” one of her fellow patients tells Sabbath. Opening her journals, Sabbath expects to read about himself; in the simplistic, flattening story he has told himself about her, he is the malignant defining feature of her life, the grand antagonist. Instead, he finds that he is never mentioned. “What a bother we are to one another,” he muses, “while actually nonexistent to one another, unreal specters compared to whoever originally sabotaged the sacred trust.”

Only at the very end of the novel does Sabbath fully realize how profoundly ignorant he is of his wife; from a story whose mean­ing he has long exhausted, she becomes an utter mystery. Having become custodian of a box of his brother’s things, each of them a banal, precious reminder of a world that seemed whole, Sabbath finds that he cannot kill himself, as he had imagined doing. Instead, he returns home and sits in his car at the bottom of his drive­way, entertaining the possibility of reconciling with his wife. His thoughts take the form of an elaborate fantasy, a meticulous imag­ining of Roseanna masturbating. The equation of marriage with erotic death is a recurring theme in the novel—marital intercourse is the one taboo he resists breaking—but now he imagines her in their bed, reading, and then distracted from her reading as she begins to play with herself. Sabbath’s fiction is precise, methodical, with the kind of exact logistical description we expect from Roth: “Circular movement of the fingers, and soon the pelvis in a circular movement, too. Middle finger on the button—not the tip of the finger, the ball of the finger.” But he doesn’t imagine merely as a voyeur; he enters into Roseanna’s experience, with intimacy and density of texture: “It changes what she feels when she introduces her finger into her cunt—on the button it’s very precise, but with the finger in her cunt the feeling is distributed, and that’s what she wants: the distribution of the feeling.” A virtuoso performance, Sabbath thinks; still in his car, still at the bottom of the driveway, he applauds and cheers. “His wife. He’d forgotten all about her. Twelve, fifteen years since she let me watch. What would it be like to fuck Roseanna?”

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This passage might give us pause. Surely there’s something objectionable here, an infringement on Roseanna’s privacy, even a violation—a reduction of her to a sexual object, an appropria­tion of her experience in a fantasy that must be essentially, if not quite literally, masturbatory for Sabbath. “What would it be like to fuck Roseanna?” is not exactly, a certain kind of argument might run, a sign of profound moral engagement with another person. But what if it is? It seems at least plausible to view it generously, and I find myself wanting to defend Sabbath, to argue that there’s something morally ample in imagining Roseanna in the fullness of her sexuality, and in an experience in which she exists for her­self, bringing about her own pleasure, an image of intrinsic, non-instrumental value. There’s something moving, I want to argue, in seeing Sabbath rediscover his spouse as an erotic being. But defending Sabbath isn’t the point; it may be as much a trap as con­demning him, since it presumes precisely the idea the experience of the novel contests: that Sabbath possesses a moral status we can fix. What’s more, Sabbath’s sympathetic or generous view of Roseanna is short-lived. In a characteristic move, his experience of plenitude—his reawakened interest in his wife, the prospect of a reconciliation with home—is brutally snatched away: in a baroque, Rothian fillip of a plot twist, he discovers that Roseanna is having playful, passionate, ecstatic sex with Christa, the young woman Sabbath and Drenka invited into their bed. Sabbath, after listening to them make love, turns monstrous, an embodiment of male jeal­ousy and rage. Roaring, he pounds on the bedroom window until it crashes in on the terrified lovers. So much for moral education.

in 1999, the romanian
novelist Norman Manea taught a course on Roth’s work at Bard College. Each week, after a day in which Manea discussed one of Roth’s novels with the students, Roth would join for questions and further discussion. According to Bailey’s biography, the final session, on I Married a Communist (1998), was rancorous, with the students objecting to the novel’s portrayal of women. Roth frequently found himself on the wrong side of righteousness, hectored early in his career as an anti-Semite, and criticized later for misogyny. The latter charge has stuck, and not without reason. I’ve argued that Drenka and Roseanna, while recognizable Rothian feminine types, have a richness and complex­ity that render them compellingly human. In certain of Roth’s other novels, female characters can collapse into stereotype, evacuated of the mystery and depth he frequently lavishes on his male pro­tagonists—though Roth himself mocked this kind of criticism as “puritanical feminism.” In I Married a Communist, the book under discussion in Manea’s class, Eve Frame is a particularly stark exam­ple of this flattening approach to female characters, a transparent caricature of Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom, whose memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996) he saw as a betrayal. Anticipating trouble, and perhaps prepared by the previous week’s discussion of Sabbath’s Theater, Roth arrived at the final session of Manea’s class armed with the book On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky and Daniel (1967), a collection of documents relating to the prosecution of two writers by the Soviet regime. Roth produced the book after a male student offered an “excruciatingly careful” comment in the class, using it to draw a comparison between what he called the “intimidating atmosphere” of the undergraduate seminar and the censorship and prosecution carried out by the Communist state.

The students weren’t having it: “We don’t want to arrest you and put you on trial,” one not unreasonably retorted. It’s striking how closely this exchange parallels debates we’re having twenty years later, in which intellectuals committed to the classical val­ues of liberalism, chief among them free speech, seem as alarmed by the left’s supposed cancel culture as by the right’s attacks on democratic institutions. How dismaying these debates are, not only because they serve to fracture possible coalitions among peo­ple who to a very great extent share a vision of a desirable world, but also because there is so much bad faith on all sides. Assertions that Twitter cancelation campaigns or undergraduate seminars are equivalent to totalitarian persecution are prima facie absurd; so are claims that cancel culture is a figment of the right’s imagination, that social media pillorying doesn’t have real, grievous, and often unjust consequences, or that the specter of those consequences has not had a chilling effect on cultural life. Every artist I know is conscious of a new and mounting pressure to police their work for potentially objectionable elements; many have abandoned proj­ects; nearly all have undergone what I think of as crises of rele­vance: a sense that the art they want to make will fail to speak to our moment in a way that can cut through the noise of incessant, hectoring, social-media-amplified topical debate. One longs for a lessening of that noise, for space to recognize the validity of com­peting values, the need to accommodate multiple claims.

What I want, really, is an escape from argument altogether. We need a way to think without the kind of untrammeled assertion that characterizes public discourse, especially on social media, which has, to the detriment of our institutions and ourselves, become pub­lic discourse. Much of the value of art for me lies in its ability to provide a space free of such argument. Turning from Twitter to Henry James, say—an early and enduring influence on Roth—I’m amazed by how much more spacious thinking feels in his sentences, not for their length exactly but for their avoidance of plain asser­tion, for their endless qualifications and corrections, their syntax of scruple. We have created a public discourse in which one’s ability to be heard depends on speaking with a certainty, a lack of nuance, a stridency utterly inadequate to reality. When I consider debates about the relationship between art and morality, what I long for is an apophatic theory of that relation—a theory that would allow us to explore the moral work of art without limiting or prescribing that work, as certain theologians attempt to develop ways to think about God without defining God in a manner that would violate God’s freedom. What I want is a kind of syntax, which is to say a kind of thinking, that appears more and more frequently in the final pages of Sabbath’s Theater, a syntax of paradox and negation, which gives Roth access to a kind of affirmation utterly unprec­edented in his work—an affirmation, uniquely for this resolutely secular writer, that I think can properly be called theological.

if i’m right
that Sabbath’s Theater gains access to a theological dimension, it’s Sabbath’s devotion to filth, his determination “to affront and affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaf­fronted,” that provides it. Religious allusion is everywhere in the novel, much of it of an ironic, Wildean, transvaluation-of-values kind, at least at first glance. “You must devote yourself to fuck­ing the way a monk devotes himself to God,” Sabbath muses early on. The appeal of statements like this is a comedy of transgres­sion, a blasphemous thrill. But blasphemy is unstable; the circuit it establishes between apparently incompatible terms can sacralize as easily at it desecrates. Roth’s novel treats sex as a kind of limit-experience, an ultimate thing; as religious allusions pile up, the comic, ironic application of religious concepts comes to seem less ironic. Or maybe it’s truer to say that the irony seems less totalizing, it leaves open the possibility of earnestness. “If anything served Sabbath as an argument for the existence of God,” the book tells us, musing on the clitoris, “it was the thousands upon thousands of orgasms dancing on the head of that pin.” Is this an instance of sex undermining religion, or of religion illuminating sex? As Sabbath listens to Roseanna and Christa making love, he reaches again for a religious amplitude: “They had taken unto themselves the task of divinity and were laying bare the rapture with their tongues.” The tone of this isn’t earnest, exactly: the exaltation (“taken unto themselves”) offers the cover of irony. But neither is it dismissive; the sacred does seem the proper frame of reference for what these women are doing. And then there is Sabbath himself: the name, of course, but also the odd ways in which he comes to seem a holy figure, with his Old-Testament-prophet beard, his truth-telling (when he isn’t telling lies), his destitution. Sabbath’s transvalua­tion of values can be comic and Wildean; it can also be beatitudi­nal. This is especially clear in his sense of the moral authority of abjection, which is the only moral authority he claims. “You have kindhearted liberal comprehension,” Sabbath says to a friend who has attempted to rescue him, “but I am flowing swiftly along the curbs of life, I am merely debris, in possession of nothing to inter­fere with an objective reading of the shit.” Here is something like a formula for sainthood, wherein abjection and utter powerless­ness confer privileged knowledge. Sabbath, with his fondness for prostitutes, his preference for the homeless and destitute over the affluent and comfortable, his utter rejection of the secular logic of the world—what is all of this if not saintly, even Christ-like? I don’t think the novel lets us feel settled about how seriously we should take this, and Sabbath himself seems unsure: “Can it be that there is something religious about me?” he wonders. “Has what I’ve done—i.e., failed to do—been saintly?”

The odd hitch in that sentence, the revision or correction, the flip into negation—“what I’ve done, i.e., failed to do”—is a feature that appears more and more frequently in the book’s final pages. Faced with the irresolvable dilemma of his life, Sabbath finds him­self increasingly turning to negative formulations: “There was no bottom to what he did not have to say about the meaning of his life.” The tactic of using negation to seek a way through insolu­ble dilemma has a long tradition, one that, by the end of Sabbath’s Theater, it seems clear Roth is drawing from. At the heart of this apophatic tradition, the tradition of mystic thought, is the hope that the relentless pursuit of negativity will somehow arrive at an experience of affirmation. I’ve never read a better account of how that process might work than this passage from Roth’s novel, about oral sex with Roseanna:

The swampy scent Roseanna exuded in her twenties, most unique, not at all fishy but vegetative, rooty, in the muck with the rot. Loved it. Took you right to the edge of gagging, and then, in its depths something so sinister that, boom-o, beyond repugnance into the promised land, to where all one’s being resides in one’s nose, where existence amounts to nothing more or less than the feral, foaming cunt, where the thing that matters most in the world—is the world—is the frenzy that’s in your face.

“Boom-o”: sex is the key that unlocks the mystic’s logic, releasing some mechanism of grace that flips the values of the workaday world on their head and delivers one, inexplicably, to an experience of plenitude and bliss. In the novel’s final scene Sabbath returns to Drenka’s gravesite, where he has spent so many nights weeping and masturbating, and the book’s engagement with the negative syntax and paradoxical image repertoire of mysticism reaches its peak. “Imagine a stone carrying itself,” Roth instructs his reader as he describes Sabbath climbing the hill to Drenka’s grave. And then, once he reaches the final resting place of the woman he loved—in many ways the entire book has been a cry of grief for her—he pro­ceeds to piss on it.

“It’s not hard not to be terrible” is a sentiment I see floating down my social media feeds with alarming regularity. But I am a novelist because I think it is hard not to be terrible.

It’s worth pausing to note that Sabbath is a remarkably liquid man, constantly spouting fluids: his ejaculations and tears, his three-times-nightly trips to piss, not to mention the words that come, endless, fluent, from an apparently limitless source. And yet now, as he tries to piss over Drenka, he finds himself dry: “He was fearful at first that he was asking of himself the impossible and that there was, in him, nothing left of him.” His watering of Drenka’s grave, which he imagines as an “anointing,” recalls an earlier scene in which Drenka, on her deathbed, relives with Sabbath an afternoon when they pissed over each other. Roth considered this scene one of the two greatest he wrote in his career; it’s the most extraordinary sex scene I know. In remembering, re-narrating, re-experiencing this scene, a memory of kinky erotic experience—of transgression, of generosity to each other (“Why not?” Drenka responds to Sabbath’s request, “Life is so crazy anyway.”)—allows them to mourn together Drenka’s imminent death, and also gen­erates an expansiveness that transcends their current situation and its limits. “It was like we were forever united in that,” Drenka says to him. “We were. We are,” Sabbath replies, turning piss-play into a sacrament—a kind of marriage—that affirms a scale of temporal­ity not typically available in Roth’s novels: everlastingness. Hoping to commemorate this moment, Sabbath finds himself unable to piss, literally out of juice. “Perfect metaphor,” he thinks, “empty vessel.” I’m not sure how to understand this emptiness except as an example of kenosis, the self-emptying necessary before the aspi­rant can be filled up in divine union. “There was, in him, nothing left of him.” And, as is the mystic’s hope, emptiness is followed by plenitude; Sabbath begins not just to piss but to gush, to over­flow, in something that seems like a violation of the natural order of things—that seems, I mean to say, miraculous. “Sabbath was peeing with a power that surprised even him, the way strangers to grief can be astounded by the unstoppable copiousness of their river of tears.” He finds he can’t stop; in another mystically charged image—Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich both figure Christ as a nursing mother—he becomes “to urine what a wet nurse is to milk.” He imagines his urine drilling a hole to Drenka’s lips, reviv­ing her, bringing her miraculously to life—but here the book closes the door on the transcendence it has courted: “he could never again reach her in any way…nobody dead can live again.” Again and again in the novel, Roth gives only to take away; he opens a door and then slams it shut. And yet the very restlessness of the book calls all finality into question, even the finality of finality itself. Maybe the door isn’t shut forever.

sabbath isn’t alone
at Drenka’s grave, as it turns out: his mirac­ulous flow of urine finally stops when he is accosted—swung around by his prophet’s beard—by Matthew, Drenka’s grieving and aggrieved policeman son. To Matthew, locked out of the cir­cuit of desire and devotion that transforms what looks like an act of degradation into a sacrament, Sabbath can only be what he seems: an old adulterer pissing on his mother’s grave. “What are you?” Michael asks when Sabbath refuses to be penitent, refuses even to put his dribbling cock back in his pants. “This is a religious act,” Sabbath insists, a claim he only somewhat revises a few pages later: “I do not say correct or savory. I do not say seemly or even natural. I say serious.” But Matthew has his own grief and his own devotion; his tears, his forbearance as Sabbath baits him, wanting to make him his final puppet, the instrument of his suicide, carry a moral force that make his reading of Sabbath’s act undismissable. The power of this final scene lies in its presentation of radically incommensurable interpretive frames, and in the novel’s refusal to reconcile them. We feel the force of both meanings: Sabbath piss­ing on Drenka’s grave is a sacred act and an act of desecration, an act of love for Drenka on the part of her grieving, beloved lover and an act of cruelty against her grieving, beloved son. In a world of conflicting authoritative interpretive frames there is no final judg­ment we can pass. Whatever calculus might make the competing claims of Sabbath and Matthew commensurate, and so allow us to weigh one against the other, is unavailable to us, in the novel as in life. The novel forces us to experience both meanings, to live in the dilemma of their conflict.

Confronting us with that dilemma is crucial to the moral edu­cation art can offer. How should one judge Sabbath, who has done so many things that are, by any reasonable standard, unforgivable? The wonder of Sabbath’s Theater, the measure of its achievement, is that after 450 pages with this intolerable man I don’t want to turn my back on him. I can’t, because I’ve come to cherish him. This posture, of finding another intolerable and at the same time cher­ishing their existence, is deeply uncomfortable and urgently neces­sary. Because, at least in part: what’s the alternative? What do we do with people who refuse to act in accordance with our standards, our sense of decency, who have no interest in being reformed? Lock them all up? Exterminate them? (People who commit sexual crimes should be locked up forever, some of my friends believe, who also believe that prisons should be abolished.) I am a decided atheist, as was Roth, and I also, as perhaps Roth did, feel nostal­gia for certain theological concepts. Chief among these is the idea of the Imago Dei—that no matter what someone might do, they are still possessed of an inalienable dignity, an infinite value that derives from the divine image in which they are made. Roth said that Sabbath was his most autobiographical character, which one can see both as a puckish provocation—Sabbath is 5'5", fat, desti­tute, a failed artist, a much less obvious surrogate than Portnoy or Zuckerman or Kepesh—and also as not entirely untrue. Roth also said that were Sabbath sitting on the couch next to him, he would kick him out of his house. In life, we bear what we can bear and risk what we can risk, and make our necessary accommodations. But in art we don’t have to make those accommodations: we can bear things in art we can’t bear in real life, and so art can offer us a crucial moral training, placing us in the impossible position, which is also the only morally defensible position, of cherishing the existence of others we cannot bear. By repeatedly tempting us to pass judgment on Sabbath and then inviting us past that judgment, Roth’s novel reminds us how much more a person is than their worst acts. Had I turned my back on Sabbath at his first indefensible act, had I canceled him or blocked him or deplatformed him, had I cast aside the book as terminally problematic, I would have missed much that has felt useful to me, in the not-quite-articulable way art is useful: the sense of life, of manic energy, the texture of existence and the terror of the abyss. Our current obsession with purity, our sense that we cannot associate with others who do not share our politi­cal and social values, our intolerance of disagreement are not just corrosive of civil society and democratic discourse. They are also impoverishing of ourselves. I feel the appeal of that intolerance. Sabbath’s Theater helps me to resist it.

The ability of art to do this moral work, the work I think it is uniquely equipped to do, depends on our acknowledging the power of a frame as a kind of magic circle separating the world of art from the actual world. I don’t mean to suggest that art is cut off from politics or history, or that this separation is absolute. I mean that representation has a fundamentally different moral and existential status from that of reality. This is a point that needs defending. The moral and political demands currently placed on art, the charge that art has responsibilities and consequences as grave as actions in the world beyond the frame, the conflation of art and activism, don’t just mistake the nature of art and art mak­ing. They make it impossible for art to do the moral work proper to it. I can’t imagine a book like Sabbath’s Theater being published today, certainly not by anyone save a writer of Roth’s stature—and, since Toni Morrison’s passing, it’s not clear to me that there are any writers of Roth’s stature. The idea that art should address the monstrous, that much of the moral office of art might lie in mak­ing us identify with the monstrous—identification not as consola­tion but as indictment—is entirely foreign to our current thinking. Terence’s famous line, humani nihil a me alienum puto, nothing human is alien to me, which Hardy’s Jude echoes when he says, “I have the germs of every human infirmity in me”—well, that seems nearly unsayable now, nearly unthinkable. These days we’re des­perate to claim the opposite: “It’s not hard not to be terrible” is a sentiment I see floating down my social media feeds with alarming regularity. But I am a novelist because I think it is hard not to be terrible. I think it’s the work of a life, and most of us fail at it almost all the time. Certainly I do. The greatness of Sabbath’s Theater lies in its assertion that the human is ample and impure beyond all codes of conduct, and in its challenge not to reject or unmake that humanity, but instead to acknowledge it ours.

Garth Greenwell is the author of two books of fiction, Cleanness and What Belongs to You. A new novel, Small Rain, is forthcoming in fall 2024. His nonfiction has appeared widely, including in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and he writes regularly about music, film, and literature for the newsletter To a Green Thought. He is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at NYU.
Originally published:
March 20, 2023


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