Sex And Identity In The Humbling

Philip Roth has been roundly condemned. The critics have been virulent. His 2009 novel “The Humbling” was panned for his apparently overly heterosexual and outdated take on lesbian characterisation.

“An old man’s sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature,” muttered William Skidelsky from the Guardian, wildly confusing Roth with his fiction. In The Humbling’s plot, the principal character, (an aging actor long past his prime), forms a sexual relationship with a young lesbian. This woman is young enough to be his daughter, the daughter of his friends in fact. Now whereas the French would be okay with that, the Anglos certainly are not. He is promptly accused of writing out the personal male fantasies of the misogynistic Coke generation. I must admit, Roth threw in a few toys here. Strap-ons, backdoor sex and a passing worship of the male member. None of this particularly bien-pensant with the fun police, who are unable to get past a nagging suspicion that this is Roth lurking in the garb of his fictional alter ego.

For generations, Roth has been the Chronicler of last century’s defining Culture – North American society and its psychological baggage. Novels such as ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, ‘I Married a Communist’, ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘The Great American Novel’ are visceral and defining records of Western literature. So why all the fuss over this one?

I can’t but feel that the critics here missed the wood for the trees. In this day of instant media judgement, it is easy to burn witches at the stake with little pause for dissent. Despite what we may or may not think about Philip Roth the literary star as a human being, he is what he is – a chronicler of our times. Philip Roth is not Simon Axler, the star actor past his used by date, searching for a role. This is fiction. It’s a story Roth made up, and no matter how close faction gets to fact, faction is fiction and must be strictly judged as such. I don’t need critics telling me how or what to think. I don’t want to judge people for who they are.

The critics asked whether the novel had any point – well yes, clearly it did. If we can focus momentarily on the novel and not the author, it all becomes quite clear. Roth brings some interesting themes to the table. Axler is a bi-product of his society, an actor playing roles and being rewarded or condemned for his abilities to play those roles. Life is no different from the stage. Whether he is riding the crest of a wave or wallowing in a trough, he survives through role play. We all do, says Roth.

The only role available to him was the role of playing a role.

Axler as an actor represents us all; he has played so many roles that little remains of himself. Now the show is over, and Axler struggles to rediscover himself as an individual. He once rose to dizzying heights but now wallows in an emotional puddle as he struggles to launch into a different role. Life itself is something of a theatre. To get on, we all need a good role to play. The people around him are also actors. His current partner, once happy as a lesbian, is now in another role with a heterosexual male; a woman who was cast adrift after years in a steady relationship with a woman who then decided to turn into a new identity as a man. To do this Pegeen’s former lover takes steroids to fulfill her role play. This leaves Pegeen with the opportunity to try a new identity for herself in a relationship with a man, a role she has never before undertaken but subsequently abandons in search of something new. Axler’s first wife was also a performer, a dancer. Once over divorced husbands and children, she finds herself unable to continue in her role with Axel and withdraws from the marriage.

In the story’s subplot – and this is a story set against a Shakespearian backdrop – Roth demonstrates the dangers of sticking to any one role for too long. Axler is in therapy and meets a woman who clings to him for emotional support. This woman suffered a breakdown after catching her second husband interfering with her child; she is unable to confront her husband over the issue. To do so would require an abandonment of her safe identity as a contented wife. She has already suffered the trauma of a breakup and feels paralysed to act. Her inability to confront reality brings on awful consequences.

It as a clever depiction of role playing at its most tragic.

There is a fundamental theme here – that the abandonment of our roles leads to a kind of suicide of identity. The story is permeated with a tragically Shakespearean view of the inevitability of our lives. Roth marks this by listing a long stream of plays where the main character commits suicide. The list is formidable. Axler refusing to continue acting is committing not only career suicide but generating the death of his only real purpose. He is an empty vessel because he emptied the vessel that made his acting so real.

In psychiatric hospital Axler unveils the story’s deeper message:

“Suicide is the role you write for yourself,” he told them. “You inhabit it, and you enact it. All carefully staged – where they will find you – but one performance only.”

Then Roth comments on the act of suicide and its relevance.

What was remarkable was the frequency with which suicide enters into drama, as though it were a formula fundamental to the drama…

Dropping the role play leads to a form of nakedness. Without a definite role to play, we are faced with a bare and honest individual. Axler mentions twice that the first time he met Pegeen was when she was suckling at the breast. Here he alludes to the bare essential truth of a person before the role playing commences. Later as Pegeen performs in bed with a strap-on, Roth writes,”it was as if she were wearing a mask for her genitals.” So here the naked being represents the essential character that emerges from a relationship – any adornment constitutes the role playing that we all must undertake in our relationships. When the two are naked, bare truths tend to pop out.

Roth is not preening over his imaginary conquests here. It is all imagination, but he is using gender ambiguities and sexual stances to illustrate his themes. Axler’s girlfriend Pegeen, who retains the strength and ability to refresh her role, comes out the only winner.

The Humbling is a short novella that explores our identities and roles as individuals. It is a frank glance at relationships and role play, on success and failure. It is a tragic take on the relentless trajectory of life and an interesting, if somewhat brief, entertainment.

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