Friday, March 09, 2012

The Professor of Desire (1977)

Title: The Professor Desire
Author: Philip Roth
Publisher: Library of America
LCC: PS3568.O855 A6 2006

Two major preoccupations have shaped Philip Roth's career. The first of these concerns the shifting contours of Jewish-American identity. The second of these focuses on the nature of sexual desire. Although both preoccupations can be found throughout his works, generally Roth's works can be broken down into either Jewish-books or sex-books. This may seem reductive, but as a method of classification it works out pretty well. For instance, the Zuckerman books are about Jewish identity and American politics. The major exception here is the latest in the Zuckerman books: Exit, Ghost. That book is about facing mortality, which for a more senior Roth, is the new sex. Sitting on the opposite side of the Jewish identity-sexual desire divide are the books that make up the Kepesh trilogy. Spotlighting Roth's other recurrent protagonist David Kepesh, these books focus on Kepesh's almost all-consuming need to gratify his sexual urges. Roth writes in the last of these books, The Dying Animal, "No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you're not superior to sex."


The Professor of Desire is the second book of Roth's Kepesh trilogy and marks a stylistic departure from The Breast. The earlier novel is a post-Playboy take on Kafka's Metamorphosis and depicts David Kepesh as he is transformed into an enormous breast. The Professor of Desire disregards the events of the previous book and is more committed to literary realism. Here, too Kafka reigns as a heavy influence, but Roth's allusions are no longer as surreal. Kepesh discusses his problems with a fellow literature professor when in Prague. While the Czech professor sees the bureaucratic indignities faced by Josef K. as an analogous situation to life under the Iron Curtain, Kepesh says he too feels like Kafka because he finds himself in the totalitarian grip of his libido. Later, Professor Kepesh will write a lecture to his introductory literature course that mimics Kafka's "Report to the Academy." In this case, it's not an ape who does the talking, but Kepesh feels just as brutish. Kepesh wants nothing more than to be the nice Jewish boy that his parents raised him to be, but cannot reconcile this desire with his more prurient interests.

I could write more about the plot and theme of this 34-year-old novel. I could go highbrow and talk about its largely Freudian orientation or I could go lowbrow and describe in more detail the more pornographic moments of the novel. However, in the first case, I think I might bore you and in the second case, I would probably embarrass myself. In the last month, this blog has had only 36 visitors, most of whom left soon after coming here. This post may get a few more hits. It does include the words "sex," "libido," and "pornographic" and the Internet was built for men not that much different than David Kepesh. Still, since I'm writing largely for myself at this point, I'll write about what really interests me.

What I always appreciate about Roth is how he fluidly moves from scene to scene. From a holistic perspective,  the three chapters that make up the novel might seem mechanical. Chapter one details Kepesh's youth, his dalliance with two Swedish coeds while on a Fulbright Scholarship in England, and his disastrous marriage to a trivial women. Chapter two traces the angry years after Kepesh's divorce and how a new relationship resuscitates him. In the final chapter, Kepesh is still in love, but his ravenous sexual libido has reawakened and he awaits the relationship to dissolve in spite of himself. However, what really makes the novel mesmerizing is what Roth does within those constraints. The first chapter alone moves seamlessly from the Borschtbelt comedy of Kepesh's youth to Russ Meyer-like scenes from his days as a college Lothario to the unhappy days as a married sexual acetic. Being able to weave in all these disparate scenes, each with its own unique resonance into an organic hole is, I would argue, the principle strength of Roth's novelistic technique. The only art form that I think comes close in its jauntiness, in its ability to mix moods, is the expertly made music mix tape. To be able to work in a host of divergent musical styles and moods takes skill and a careful ear.  While I'm often taken by how well Roth does rage in his writing, I think that particular talent is really a subset of his own ear for tone and his ability to integrate that rage into a larger, more melodious whole. And Roth makes all of this seem effortless.

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