A Feminist Reads Philip Roth
Thoughts about Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, as brought on by the season six episode of Girls, "American Bitch".
The Dying AnimalPublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Author: Philip Roth
Publication date: 2001-05
GirlsAirtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Lena Dunham, Matthew Rhys
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 3 - "American Bitch"
Air date: 2017-02-26
Oddly enough, even though I'm a third-year English major in college who's had to read so many Great American [white male] Authors, I was not properly introduced to Philip Roth until the third episode of Season 6 of Girls, "American Bitch". In it (some spoilers ahead), Hannah writes an exposé about writer Chuck Palmer's history of using his literary stature as a means of sexual coercion. After the passive-aggressive exchange of self-defensive remarks between the two in Palmer's lavish apartment, Palmer uses his meticulously practiced skills to wear down Hannah's feminist defense and compliment her on her writing. The two begin to engage in badinage before one of Palmer's decked bookshelves, and When She Was Good by Roth is strategically employed to be emblematic for the rest of the episode. “I know I'm not supposed to like [Roth] because he's a misogynist," Hannah says, yet she recounts her enchantment with the book. “Never let politics dictate what you read or who you fuck," Palmer replies -- a line that recurs in my mind in the later weeks.
This line recurred recently when I checked out The Dying Animal from the library. Donned with a Modigliani nude, I was curious to take this book home and uncover Roth's alleged misogyny. A quick Google search of Roth, however, will show his status among the “literary chauvinists" -- a common target of feminist thinkpieces, the Rebecca Solnit "banned books" list that all feminists should take with them to the library (which, to be fair, is a hyperbolic jest at a truly awful Esquire list of books men should read). But because I almost exclusively read from banned books lists, I have this current thing of reading books with misogynist narrators (whether the author themselves are misogynist is not important). Even though some feminists like Solnit want to deliberately avoid the contemporary white male canon because “some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty," I find this constrictive. After months of Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion, I must say this started out as just a need for a different kind of voice. So, as I've attentively flipped through the pages of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace and Women by Charles Bukowski, I figured The Dying Animal would fall somewhere in that canon.
Like Brief Interviews and Women, I was surprised by how much I, a young eager feminist, loved The Dying Animal. The story unfolds as a professor and TV personality David Kepesh -- who apparently ages like wine and charms like Casanova -- embarks on a hedonistic affair with the significantly younger Casuela Castillo. Though it's easy to classify this tale, given their age difference, as doomed from the start, the two never seek commitment, and instead, they embrace the casualness of their strictly-sexual relationship. The beauty of not only Roth's vivid, wide-eyed description of the affair but also David's self-deconstruction throughout it, is how Casuela's feminine beauty seems to render him weak . His fascination with her breasts consumes him, and even though he believes that sex is not meant to be an activity with equal power allotted to each partner, he finds himself becoming weaker and weaker the longer she and her pervasive sexual power stay in his life (hence, “the dying animal"). A man who has consistently been a roué now finds himself in his old age enslaved to the passion that once gave him such liberty. Everything about Consuela comes back to her breasts, and yet, we're only really introduced to Consuela through the eyes of David.
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Later on, when Casuela sends him a letter after he bailed on her grad party, we see that she felt used and betrayed by him -- an accusation that David doesn't take seriously. “You're always playing the wise old man who knows everything... Mr. Arrogant Intellectual Critic, the great authority on everything, teaching everyone what to think and setting everyone right! Me da asco!" (96). It is in these rare instances that the reader maybe, just maybe begins to see that Casuela is not this coy coquette, but rather a young, impressionable young woman who very much looks up to David and values what he adds to her life.
But Roth wouldn't want you to think that for too long.
Instead, we're meant to believe that Casuela seems to hold this elusive power over him in a way that only she could hold, which is why the end of their tryst traumatizes him so. “The casualness of something so powerful ending as it did is unbelievable to me," he says, as the reader gets the sense that it was more than her breasts that he valued -- it was her company and her consent, her agreement to embark on such a casual affair that was bereft of the idea of traditional commitment (94). It is simultaneously his dream and his demise: he arduously values what Casuela can give to him so much so that it crushes him later when she (but mostly her breasts) face death. All along, it is about her contribution to his life.
This sort of style of the male narrator mimics that of Brief Interviews and somewhat like Women -- the narrator relays the details of a relationship or two, all the while reflexively pointing back to himself -- about how he was right all along, he didn't fuck up, but it was she who did something to him. At this point, this is where the typical feminist article is supposed to launch into a critique about the sensation of this sort of male voice and how shitty it is to date guys like this and how men's ineptitude in relationships is normalized, yet contrarily, the feminist in me appreciates and accepts this voice. My current appreciation with misogynist books may not only be slightly about tapping into the elusive male gaze, but also an interest in hearing the voices coming from the top seats of the patriarchy.
I'm not about to turn this article into a I'm-A-Feminist-in-the-Trump-Era-So-This-Has-A-Special-Meaning, a resurrected The Handmaid's Tale kind of thing, but after years of consuming books and media with a Strong Female Lead, it very much grounds me to read something that depicts the reality of the romantic tensions between men and women. I get tired of this imaginary feminist ideal that is discussed without any concreteness. Activism that is launched void of any solid plan to enact change should be based on current, real circumstances. Today, we have a tendency to speak in a lot of “shoulds" not in a lot of “wills", In terms of literature, there is sharp divide between the stories we want to read and the stories that actually exist among real people, and I find that the democratic nature of the internet tends to make people more demanding of the kind of stories they want to see. Is this demand unilaterally unwarranted? Certainly not. There is a huge problem of misrepresentation in characters of the stories that come to be canonical, and that sort of demand is justified.
Rather, we simply can't come to demand that certain characters don't die or that they don't fuck a person they shouldn't. If stories are to do any justice to the human experience, they better be realistic. I'm a feminist who has consistently been coldly splashed in the face with the hardships of a male-dominated world, and that is the very reason why David Kepesh's book-long, self-absorbed fascination with Consuela feels authentic. It's clear in his tendency to claim she's not like other women, the obvious hypocrisy of double standards to which he subscribes, and it has to do with his obsession with her body and not her mind. All of these elements combine to depict the truth about the human condition in our own world. The reality is that male desire is, and always will be, a focal point of hetero relationships, and the value of these stories lies within the truth of these experiences. Avoiding the white male literary canon, as Solnit suggests, can cause one to disassociate oneself from the world in which they partake. When we consume a lot of books and media that portray the kind of world we want to live in, oftentimes, we displace ourselves from the cold, tile floor that is reality and exchange this verisimilitude with a cheap projection of what we want life to look like.
Matthew Rhys and Lena Dunham in Girls (2012) (IMDB)
This brings me back around to that Girls episode. Though When She Was Good served as a symbol for the sexual coercion that was to come later in the episode, the lesson remains that keeping one's idealistic feminist lens on too long can cloud the very-real antics of male desire. Is this to say that Hannah should have just accepted Palmer's advances willingly? No, not exactly . But her amazement at herself when she succumbed to his advances and her shock at how she's been tricked points to how detached she's become to the persuasion of male desire. Misogynist male narrators, in this sense, serve as surrogate reminders of the patriarchal world in which we live -- a reminder of the viewpoint of the dying animal.
Rachel Stroup is an English major attending Ohio State University. Her blog can be found at Medium.firstname.lastname@example.org.