Book Diary: The Dying Animal (Philip Roth)

A good thing about having friends who are 24 years older than you is that they know more stuff, about stuff.  My friend Antonio is constantly educating me in art, in films, or in where to find the best bars (and pimientos de padrón) in Madrid.

One of his recent offerings was, Death In Venice.  We watched it one Sunday night and the final scene haunted me for days afterwards: Gustav von Aschenbach collapsed in his deck chair with his foolish, painted face melting and running down his real face, gaze fixed on an object of pure beauty, until his dying breath.  I couldn’t get that image out of my head, I just kept thinking: Desire is ugly, and it makes you ridiculous (to which I later conceded an additional, “unrequited”).

Antonio didn’t see it that way, however, he thought that the film explored the idea of perfect beauty in Art as unachievable, and was not related to sexual desire.  Hence, the image of Aschenbach reaching toward the idea of perfection (the boy Thaddeus, who in turn is reaching toward he sun) in his dying moments.  However, he did add – and the film clearly explores this also – that desire gone bad (ie. obsession, or “ill desire” (as he called it)) causes us to suffer greatly.  Thus, the pursuit of beauty will always lead to ruin, as – although it sounds like a contradiction – passion for perfection, will eventually eliminate passion, and cause all manner of wretchedness along the way.

These comments came back to me when I picked up – just a few days later, and by total coincidence – Philip Roth’s, The Dying Animal.  The title taken from Yeats’, Sailing to Byzantium:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The novel is about University Professor, David Kepesh and his sexual obsession with a female student 30-odd years younger than him, and in particular with her body, and even more particularly with her breasts, which he considers to be perfect.  Although the two breed a relationship of sorts, in the end it only leads to heartbreak and depression.

Perhaps as a result of having recently watched Death In Venice, what I read into this book was that – as with humans, as in Art – desire always going to be irreconcilable.  That there is a balance between the desired and the desire-e that is forever changing and shifting, but never harmonising.  An idea that, in the novel, was also linked to Art.  Kepesh’s friend says to him after the relationship is over:

…Look,” he told me, “see it as a critic, see it from a professional point of view.  You violated the law of aesthetic distance.  You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl – you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment.”

I then got to thinking about Lolita.  Both Death in Venice and The Dying Animal contained shades of Lolita, another mediation on beauty, desire and obsession (all three works involve objects of desire that are very much younger that the ones doing the desiring; the juxtaposition of youth and vitality with the depreciating letch making the space between beauty and non-beauty all the more gaping).  However, after reading Lolita, I didn’t feel despairing, as I did after reading The Dying Animal and seeing Death in Venice, both of which made me look at the relationships around me in a new (and not very flattering) light and made me question why sexual relationships are so endlessly difficult and often humiliating.  The only reason I can think of for this is because to me Lolita is the most beautiful book I have ever read, so perhaps in the end Antonio was right in another of his comments on the film: when something is so beautiful as to reach near perfection, it elevates us and moves us on, as long as as the balance doesn’t tip from light, to shade.  However, how you stop that from happening, I do not know.  Maybe somewhere out there Art has the answer.  If it does, I’m sure Antonio will lead me to it.

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