01/10/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Desire in Philip Roth

When dealing with the theme of desire in the literary work of Philip Roth, it is necessary to start first with the meaning and therefore also the etymology of the word: in the Webster Dictionary desire is defined as "conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment"; on the other hand, regarding its etymology, the root suggests something, perhaps, unexpected: derived from the Latin "desiderium" it comes from de sideribus, meaning from the stars. Desire, therefore, means "the lack of stars, in the sky", and so is the longing borne from a sense of loss, from the impossibility of "grabbing" the stars. It is the opposite of the term "to consider", which means instead "to contemplate" the stars, to see them all together. Very illuminating in this regard is a page in "De Bello Gallico" in which Caesar defines "desiderantes", as soldiers who beneath the stars await those who have not yet returned following a battle. The verb to desire has its origin in this very gesture, in this very human condition: to remain beneath the stars and to wait. And to feel, beneath the light of the stars, the absence of a friend, a love, or someone or something that provides you with comfort, or that gives you in actual fact a sense of your very own existence.

If that is indeed the deep significance of the term, what is it that the characters of Philip Roth desire? And what does this extraordinary author desire through Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh, Coleman Silk and all the other great protagonists whom he has created over a long literary itinerary of over fifty years?

It is an unavoidable and fundamental question, in spite of an expressed desire at times made in an obsessive and tormented manner, none of his characters seem to be happy, serene, or even at least completely satisfied. And it is a question, to which I believe not even the author himself could respond with any certainty. Something that in any case is legitimate: one of the characteristics of the role of an artist is that of asking questions, not providing answers.

Beginning with "Goodbye Columbus", the book that placed him at the center of the literary scene, Roth's characters desire firstly to be fully integrated into society. It is not an economic integration - many of his characters are wealthy - but something that instead exorcises the ancestral and absurd complexes with which the characters live their Jewish backgrounds. Because of this background, all of the characters live in a contradictory manner: over a mixture of pride and shame, pleasure and self-hate, prevails the sense of an unavoidable destiny, from which it seems impossible to escape.

An example of this would be the tragic parable of Seymour Levov, the protagonist of "American Pastoral", whose alias is "the Swede" indicating an ideal, an assumed as well as an illusory affiliation to another nation. In the "Human Stain", one of his greatest and most surprising novels, Roth extends his artistic considerations to the theme of racial integration (Coleman Silk has always hidden the fact that he is black), going head to head with the problem of the damage generated by the obtuse application of a politically correct attitude.

Still, this apparent change in background doesn't alter, but actually reinforces his painful inner torment and transforms the primary desire into something universal.

It is evident that integration based on the incapacity of having a serene relationship with one's reality can never find true satisfaction, and these ephemeral foundations, which generate often grotesque situations, characterize even the second desire, which is absolutely carnal: Roth's male protagonists lust after women.

It is a desire characterized by the wish to possess and is constantly marked by passion, but almost never by a real, profound love upon which it is possible to build a project of life. It is a characteristic evident already in "Portnoy's Complaint", written when the author was 36, in which desire is played out in masturbation in a chapter entitled "Jerking Off". It is almost too clear that even this type of desire is neither serene nor inspired by empathy, and is derived once again from internal complexes or by the need to satisfy something unresolved.

It is useless to add that even this will be eventually revealed as an ephemeral reality. This is the motive why the themes which are treated with irony - even with much bitterness - in the books of his younger years, take on properties which become more and more disturbing with the passing of time, making way for novels which at times are authentic masterpieces such as "American Pastoral", but which still appear to become more and more bleak and disenchanted, if not desperate.

Roth is one of the great cantors of the degradation of flesh and the disintegration of our dreams and desires. Frozen in this sense as he recounts in the oppressive "Everyman", which has in epigraph the following verses of Keats: Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.

The book begins with the funeral of a nameless character, the same age as the author at the time in which the novel was written, and recounts the existential itinerary marked by an inescapable destiny of disillusion and desolation: Desire remains an obscure object, and Roth tells, with an honesty that does not exclude cruelty towards himself, the melancholic dismay experienced before this impossibility of a happy solution.

If at all possible, the existential journey of Morris "Mickey" Sabbath is even gloomier. Sabbath is the main character of "Sabbath Theater", one of the most tragic and inspired of his books, that perhaps better than the others zooms in on the relationship with his concept of desire. From the very first description "he was the forgotten puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, a short, heavyset, white-bearded man with unnerving green eyes and painfully arthritic fingers," Roth makes us understand that in the personality of his main character, as in his entire existence, there is something contemptible (3).

Mickey is an awkward man approaching old age, and seems to be incapable of loving. This doesn't mean that he doesn't desire nor has had many women: he has a relationship "that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness--and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret" with a Slavic woman named Drenka, but he betrays her on a regular basis, and each relationship leaves him with a profound sense of dissatisfaction (3). Mickey has founded a theater, which has brought him fierce antipathy and critique, and has made his sense of freedom - from sentimental, institutional ties, and from anything that could seem to be a tie - the objective of his very existence. However, he is intelligent enough to understand that freedom without the ability to share will result in something fleeting, and he can do no less than be a part of, being impotent, of an inevitable conclusion: even this desire ends by generating an agonizing dissatisfaction. We are talking about a man who manipulates with cruel perversion those around him and even masturbates on the tomb of his lover: in a striking passage Roth describes him as, "a realist, ferociously a realist, so that by sixty-four he had all but given up on making contact with the living, let alone discussing his problems with the dead" (16). .

With these words the writer reveals the tragedy of his character: the primordial impetus of his desire has nothing to do with the positive energy of life, and that for Mickey eros is inseparable from thanatos. This is the very reason why Roth considers Mickey's repulsive onanistic act as inevitable, and he somehow comes to understand it, if not to appreciate the sincerity of it: "the final kink is for the libertines to be faithful" (30).. A terrible and ambiguous phrase, in which there seems to be both perversion and virtue: It is impossible not to reflect on the fact that Roth knows perfectly well that emèt, a Hebrew term meaning fidelity, is the same as that which means truth.

To what is Mickey faithful? What is his truth? What Mickey deeply desires is death, with regard to which his corrupt, but earnest, humanity feels fear. When he is unsuccessful at suicide, Roth asks, "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated as here." (451).And it is in that very hate, and attraction, and repulsion verses death, is his last glimmer of humanity. This extreme character - amongst his most well developed and disquieting creations - is a man who is unable to die because perhaps he has never lived, and his greatest desperation is the inability to understand that the lover, whom he has betrayed, deceived, manipulated and forced to act out every perversion, had continued to love him until death.

Along the line of the great Jewish literary tradition, Roth knows very well that no tragedy exists in which an element of irony cannot be perceived, and "Sabbath Theater" can be read as a black comedy, or a comic tragedy in which it is necessary to keep in mind another, fundamental, element: Mickey had an idyllic, happy infancy, shattered by the traumatic death of his brother in war, and the resulting mental crisis of his mother.

His totally carnal reaction indicates that his desire goes in two directions: violent revenge, almost vindictive, with respect to a brutally shattered past which deep down in his heart he would like to resurrect. It is the yearning for a cosmic illumination, something that indicates the ultimate sense of existence and might elicit, if not happiness, at least cognition and relief.

Life is painful, Mickey's mother's ghost reminds him - omnipresent as affirmed in traditional Jewish literature, so much so that she appears even during sex - and the only moment of life when there is eros, so the character comes to define himself as "the Monk of Fucking. The Evangelist of Fornication" (60).

Yet, once again, desire is not at all pure, and the relationship between the two lovers, even though the language maintains the same dialect, no longer has that little bit of tenderness that Roth expressed in this dialog from "Goodbye Columbus", written thirty four years earlier.

"'Do you love me, Neil?'

I did not answer.

'I'll sleep with you whether you do or not, so tell me the truth...Do you?' she said.

'I want you to'" (45).

It is difficult to imagine in more recent books by Roth simple, direct and revealing lines like 'I want you to.'

What is missing in these novels is this very vital breath that characterizes the younger characters, and more and more prevails the relationship eros-thanatos in which desire reveals all of its fallacy. Illuminating for example is the evolution of the story narrated in "Dying Animal", with the main character David Kepesh, one of Roth's recurring characters, and alter ego.

Desire for the body of the gorgeous Consuelo must face suddenly the devastating reality of a tumor that assails the splendid breasts of the girl. This time the verses of Yeats are the guide along the fictional itinerary, as well as the vision of the world expressed by Roth: "Nor dread nor hope attend. A dying animal; ... Man has created death." This bleak vision shows that even fear generates regret, because it represents a moment of vitality.

At that point what can a person who doesn't believe in any form of transcendence desire? What is the relationship between desire and reality, and what is the moment in which the desire of carnal possession reveals one's fleeting essence? As well as that desire of integration, lived in such a frustrated and tormented manner?

No differently from Mickey Sabbath, Roth seems in more recent novels like a man who denies himself the intimate yearning of a cosmic illumination that might give sense to life, and with that even death. That, in the absence of faith, cannot mean anything more than the end of everything. Openly atheist, Roth is forced to compare his desire with the sense of the end and of death, which, using the words of Giuseppe Ungaretti, "La morte si sconta vivendo / One pays off death by living".

His is an ancient, and perhaps eternal, attitude, which he lives with torment and irony, rage and discontent, anguish and carnality. And, before the inescapability of physical decay, the perseverance of prejudice and insecurity, and of everything that no one is able to control, his attitude ends by being not very different from that of the "desiderantes".