Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The First Sentence Project, No.1: Philip Roth's SABBATH'S THEATER

This post inaugurates a new feature on Mindful Pleasures. The First Sentence Project will be a series of occasional close readings of opening sentences that I find brilliant, remarkable, or merely unusual. We begin, out of sheer joyous, Dionysian dirtymindedness, with the first sentence of Philip Roth's fierce and filthily funny 1995 novel Sabbath's Theater.

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

That's it: nine words, none of more than two syllables, comprising a sentence that can only in the most technical sense be called 'complex.' And not only is this Sabbath's Theater's first sentence; it is the entirety of its first paragraph. Let's pause over these seemingly superficial details to appreciate the Rothian irony. This novel that is in many ways--linguistically, stylistically, sexually, philosophically--Roth's most extreme work, a novel of excess and transgression written in a prose that ranges from Hemingway-Carver minimalism to Joycean complexity and the comic heights of mock-Euphuism, begins with a spare string of straightforward mono- and disyllabics. The novel that is arguably Roth's most unrestrained performance begins in ironic restraint.

Let's examine the line word by word:

Either. That's no way to begin a novel, certainly not a novel starring that Dionysian antihero, that paragon of polymorphous perversion, that personification of the irrational id, that self-ordained "monk of fucking," Mickey Sabbath. Does any other major, canonical novel begin with the word either? I can't think of one. It's a word that fits more comfortably in a computer programming language: Either do this, computer; or do that... It's a signal of bald, logical statement, a signifier of rational discourse. And therein lies its irony in this context. For Sabbath is not a Kierkegaardian either-or kind of dude; he's a both-and man. He wants it all, both the nasty and the tender, both King Lear and crack, both James Joyce and piss-drinking, both pussy and asshole, both life and death. He is to logic and reason what R. Crumb's Mr. Natural is to Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty.

forswear. An interesting archaism--and again, not a word one is likely to find in the first or any other sentence of most contemporary novels. In good Sabbathian fashion, forswear both elevates the line's diction to a near-Shakespearean height (thus setting up the next word's precarious fall) and sounds the first subterranean note of the novel's Hamlet theme (part two titled "To Be or Not To Be," Nikki as the lost Ophelia, Sabbath as the suicidal Jersey Jewish Hamlet haunted, of course, by the ghost of his mother--that little substitution is worthy of Woody Allen) by containing the demand of "the fellow in the cellarage," the underground ghost of King Hamlet: "Swear!" If Roth checked his dictionary before deciding on 'forswear' (most writers would probably have chosen 'forgo'), he would've found that the word means both "to renounce something under oath" and "to swear falsely," the latter being the only way Sabbath could have sworn this particular oath.

fucking. Another fine old English word, but hardly an archaism, fucking nosedives the sentence's diction down to obscenity, where Sabbath lives. As James Wood has shown in my favorite passage of his How Fiction Works, this kind of breakneck register-shifting is a stylistic hallmark of Roth's novel, so it's entirely appropriate that it first occurs in the first sentence. That said, the usage is, I believe, unique in the Roth oeuvre. There's fucking aplenty in Philip Roth's novels (although fewer 'sex scenes' than most people seem to think), but I think this is the sole time he dropped the F-bomb in a first line, a choice entirely appropriate to his most extreme book.

others. There are always others. The other is Sabbath's necessity and his curse. While Sabbath's Theater depicts, on its surface, a compulsive penetrator of others, much of the pathos of the novel lies in its depiction of a Sabbath multiply penetrated by others. A porous subject, he's being figuratively fucked in every orifice by the ghosts of his dead. Drenka, Yetta, Nikki, Morty--these are the most important players in his private theater, the puppets his unconscious controls.

or. The mate of either. Just a conjunction, folks... Nothing to see here. I'm not going to push this close reading into absurdity by noting the or/ore pun and suggesting that Roth here constructs a hidden metaphor (metaph-ore) for the mining of Sabbath's consciousness that is the primary action of the novel... No, I'm not going to mention that.

the. This definite article is easily passed over, but there's a subtle oddness deserving of mention. If Sabbath is fucking so many others--which, to add another turn to Roth's ironic screw, he actually isn't--why is the relationship with Drenka the affair, a singular thing? Perhaps because Drenka, the ostensible 'speaker' here, understands that this relationship has crossed into the region of what, for Sabbath, might be the ultimate taboo: love.

affair. In the tradition in which Roth writes, nothing is more novelistic than an affair. From Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina to Rabbit, Run and Fear of Flying--hell, from the Provencal troubadours to Sarah Treem--adultery has been close to the heart of Western fictionalizing. In addition to immediately placing his novel in this tradition, Roth's word choice also efficiently sets up the initial conflict--while simultaneously misdirecting us to expect a novel of adultery instead of the existential crisis narrative Sabbath's Theater very soon (thanks to the death of the affair's partner) becomes.

is. The simplest verb, is is the sharpest possible contrast with the first half of the sentence's forswear and another example of Roth's uncharacteristic restraint.

over. and out. Every ending stinks of death, and the ending of this sentence is no exception. Like most of middle and late period Roth, Sabbath's Theater is death-haunted. (Early Roth, by contrast, is haunted by the possibility of life (sex) in a repressed Fifties America.) The trajectory of the entire novel, like that of this sentence, moves from fucking to death--when everything, the whole affair of life, is over.

[you]. But unlike Roth's sentence, my reading is not quite over yet. No reading of this sentence should end without a nod toward its absent presence, the mangy dog that does not bark, the subject to whom it is directed. Between either and forswear, Roth suppresses the word you, subject of the sentence, signifying the sound and fury of Sabbath. That Roth's least repressed central character is suppressed in the first sentence of his novel, made to haunt it like the ghosts that haunt him, may be the subtlest irony hidden inside these nine (ten) words.

As in the history of cubist painting, after analysis comes synthesis, so let's put this sentence back together and listen to its music:

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

Listen to those rhyming long e's at the beginning of each clause (either, the) and how they're complimented by the slant-rhymed o's at the ends (others, over) and how this sonic orchestration is further held together by the alliterating f's of the first half that are picked up by the double f in affair. Listen to forswear beautifully rhyme with affair (a rhyme worthy of a fine poet). Or look at the repeated o's strung across the line like Christmas lights (forswear, others, or, over). Listen... The late great William H. Gass, whose style of criticism I'm imitating now, might've loved this fucking sentence.

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