Jack’s Naughty Bits: Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Devotion is a beautiful thing. Loyalty to country, community, alma mater and boss are all good. Sustained dedication to parents, children and loved ones are among the purest forms of human nobility. Yes, waiting outside your ex’s place of employ and clipping words out of a magazine to spell out your latest compromise might perhaps be a bit much, but most everyday forms of devotion, however quirky, reveal the better part of our impressionable, obsessive little hearts.


I have had the good fortune a few times in my life to be in love, and that was when my devotional energies really hit their stride. At such moments, it’s nicer being a writer, carpenter or flower arranger than a corporate attorney or an entomologist — you have professional skills that help make your devotion visible. One woman who was to fell me challenged me early on to a swap of limericks (not the usual form of devotional verse). Most of our velveteen projectiles have faded from my memory, but I do remember crafting her this:

    Your ass like the Venus de Milo’s,

    To me from the land of the silos,

    Proves Cupid not blind

    For I suddenly find

    Love’s arrows through both of my eyeholes.


What pleased me about the situation was actually being able to make my inner feelings visible in the outer world. I’m convinced that we are all much more loving we’re seen to be, and that if even half of the truth of our inner selves could be seen and acted on, the world would be much less sorrowful. But language, neurosis, insecurity, time, fear, vanity, myopia and greed all manage to interfere with the goodness of our (or at least my) intentions, making us appear, not in the full splendor of ourselves, but as blurry, black-and-white daguerreotypes. Alas.


Devotion can be a counter to this grim reality, and we must find it where we can. As a case in point, I want to excerpt from Philip Roth’s staggeringly wonderful novel Sabbath’s Theater, a book that centers entirely around the title character’s continuing devotion to his deceased longtime lover. In the scene below, Sabbath has gone to Drenka’s grave to pay his respects (which he does in a most visceral way). But soon thereafter, it seems that someone else has come to do likewise. What follows is a scene of emblematic devotion of a truly Rothian kind.


From Sabbath’s Theater
by Philip Roth

When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place a bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she’s mine! She belongs to me!


What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forth and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly and from his shorts extracted the erection whose outlined drawing Sabbath had retained in his files, he now remembered, under “Misc.” He was a long time rocking back and forth, rocking and moaning, until at last he turned his face upward to the starry sky and a full, fervent basso profundo echoed across the hills. “Suck it, Drenka, suck me dry!”


Though it was not phosphorescent, enabling Sabbath visually to chart its course, though it was not sufficiently clotted or dense for him to hear it splatter to the ground even in that mountaintop silence, simply from the fact of Lewis’s silhouette and from the fact that his breathing was audible thirty feet away, Sabbath knew that the tall lover had just commingled his wad with [Sabbath’s]. In the next moment, Lewis had fallen to his knees and, before her grave, in a low tearful voice he was lovingly reciting, “Tits . . . tits . . . tits . . . tits . . . ”