THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE by Philip Roth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Pp. 263. $8.95, hb.
The profile under which we read and understand our writers largely determines how we evaluate them, and the profile under which we have habitually read the fiction of Philip Roth - as confessional or psychological, as an exploration of the self - has lately required us to see less and less progress in the development of his career. As though it were the progress of a therapy or a cure we had in mind, we have for years expected Roth's tortured heroes to break through to some new ground of freedom, and because Roth's newest narrator, David Kepesh, has still not done so in The Professor of Desire, we shall either have to revise our estimate of Roth's importance or reconsider the very nature of his project all over again.
Ever since Neil's self-examination at the close of "Goodbye, Columbus," Roth's narrators have looked forward to the possibility of redemption and release from frustrations wide and universal enough to bespeak our customary sense of modern life as a confinement. With Portnoy's Complaint, of course, the nature of the confinement was apparently pinned down and defined. It was sexual in nature, as neat and clear as the dictionary definition at the start of the book seemed to indicate. Like his constipated father, Portnoy's innards were dammed up, condemned to repression until Spielvogel helped Alex to express himself. But with what result? An endless cycle of confession, with Spielvogel's celebrated words, "Now vee may perhaps to begin?" starting the novel all over again each time it was finished. The retelling was required not because Alex had failed to plumb the real depths of his desires (after all, what else was there left to say?), but because no revelation, however profound, was really capable of producing the insight or the relief it was supposed to.
Portnoy's great explosion led not to resolution but to a plethora of self-interpretations resembling nothing so much as the Talmudic mazes and Kafkaesque castles of Roth's Jewish precursors. By disclosing no absolute self in these dark corners of the soul, the novel turned its own categories inside out, exposing therapeutic abreaction as a myth, and, by implication, a whole modernist mythology of privileged moments, immediacy, personal testimony, subjective truth. Like his alphabetical lovers ("with sex," says Portnoy, "the human imagination runs to Z"), Portnoy's desires could be voiced or sounded according to any series of possible combinations or registers. How to find the true voicing? The key, alas, was missing.
Why this was so, however, was left to The Great American Novel to explain. Although critical response was unsympathetic, Word Smith's punning interpretation of American life and literature gave reasons for Portnoy's failure to find relief by revealing the constitutive - rather than the expressive - role played by language in Roth's very conception of reality. Like literature, life itself was made out of languages and myths like the "Rules and Regulations" that once governed the Patriot League; the erasure of the League from the annals of history meant that the world was itself a product of such systems or languages, without which there could be no reality at all. No wonder, then, that Portnoy had been unable to find what he was looking for deep within himself - the only reality he could discover there was the play of the "Rules and Regulations" - of the psychological categories - that had created his depths in the first place.
Nonetheless, The Great American Novel was not perceived in the line of Portnoy, nor was it read as evidence that Roth had recovered from what seemed to be the digressions of both Our Gang and The Breast. No, The Great American Novel only showed how much Roth had lost his redeeming moral seriousness (now he looked oddly like Coover or Pynchon with this new logic of systems), including the therapeutic trajectory that had given weight and meaning to the earlier phase of his career.
With My Life as Man, however, the human consequences of Roth's new vision became more than apparent. Here he demolished the difference between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, text and world by making Tarnopol's autobiography an even denser and more polyvalent text than the short stories it was supposed to illuminate. Without a standard for truth, Roth's characters were left gasping, particularly Tarnopol's suicidal wife Maureen, who masturbates with a can-opener in an attempt to make the psychological "Rules and Regulations" real by acting them out to the letter - as though orgasms like Portnoy's could literally open her up.
If Roth's overt moral seriousness returned with a vengeance in My Life as a Man, it returns in a much sweeter and more controlled fashion in The Professor of Desire, Roth's most skillful and buoyant handling of the monologue form since Portnoy itself. Once again an autobiography unfolds, this time Professor Kepesh's, and the more the details of his life pile up - childhood at his parents' Catskill resort; youthful sexual adventures in London; marriage and subsequent divorce; doomed domesticity with a new lover at the novel's close - the more difficult it becomes to sort out the range of meanings his experience may be said to articulate. As a literary critic, Kepesh, of course, is aware of the degree to which even his desire is a discourse subject to any number of possible understandings, all of them plausible but none of them effective in providing relief or satisfaction. Roth satirizes psychological revelation with Kepesh's visits to Klinger, his smug psychiatrist; he lampoons biographical interpretation in literature with Kepesh's visit to Kafka's tomb in Prague; above all, he burlesques intimacy itself by deidealizing the brutal honesty of Kepesh's cocksmanship in London.
These parodies of self-discovery, however, do not interfere with the urgency or the pain involved in Kepesh's attempt to understand himself. For Roth, the tension lies not in Kepesh's weakness as an interpreter but in his permanent inability to locate the self that his psychological questions have promised him is really there. Trapped we may be, says Roth, but trapped by our myths rather than by the facts they pretend to disclose. To continue to search for genuine selfhood within such a framework is to valorize our present conceptual equipment - our own "Rules and Regulations" - without bearing in mind their purely fictive status. To take them too seriously, like Maureen, is to risk keen disappointment and the desire for death.
The search for self, however, is the only story we know, although to retell it by monitoring and correcting the terms by which it is normally undertaken is what makes Roth's work morally more exacting and intellectually more conscientious than the work of most of his contemporaries. If such a cautionary project carries with it a contempt for all those characters, men and women alike, who continue to believe in authenticity and redemption, that is the price of Roth's almost solitary courage in resisting the modern theologies that foreclose any understanding of the real "Rules and Regulations" by which life is governed in our culture.
Originally published in The Ontario Review, Spring-Summer 1978