Monday, January 21, 2013

Mickey Sabbath and Seymour 'Swede' Levov - Two Rothian Characters

A couple of days ago Philip Roth had mentioned 'American Pastoral' and 'Sabbath's  Theater' has his best written books.( As it happens these books happen to be my favorite of Roth's works too. (the silly pleasure that one gets when his likes/dislikes match that of the writer he follows closely can't be explained easily). Roth had mentioned  I think it's got a lot of freedom in it," he said of Sabbath's Theater. This got me thinking of the principal protagonists of the 2 novels, Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath's Theater and ' Seymour "Swede" Levov' of American pastoral, who are alter-ego's of each other. Even the title of the novels indicate this. 'Theater' implies something larger than life, the canvas of absurdity, whereas 'Pastoral', references the American dream, a peaceful environment where everything is orderly.

Sabbath is the apotheosis of the testosterone fueled male characters of Roth's works. He is libidinous, lecherous, doesn't care a hoot for society and lives by his own code of conduct and morals (probably the only rule that Sabbath would follow is the one that says 'there are no rules'). More on Sabbath and the novel here. Seymour on the other hand is the complete antithesis of Sabbath and the galaxy of such Rothian characters. He is conscientiousness, never goes against his father when young, is himself a loving (if paranoiac)  father to his teenage daughter and a caring husband. Seymour is the splitting image of the 'Father' characters in Roth's novels, one who is already under some anxiety for the well being of his family.The difference here is that the 'Father' characters are generally secondary in Roth's works, whereas in 'American Pastoral', Seymour is the central one.  

If Sabbath cuts even the thinnest of threads that may bind his freedom, Seymour seems to want to put chains binding him, seems to even embrace the feeling of being constrained. Even though their characters are so dissimilar, their lives are not so much different in the way they turn out. Life craps on both of them. Sabbath's life, as can be expected by his activities, is a train wreck, rather it is a series of train wrecks from which Sabbath's manages to come out unscathed (or less scarred) so that he can continue with his depraved ways. What's more interesting is how Seymour's life pans out. His daughter goes off in a tangent with teenage radical beliefs, his wife betrays him and he sees the crumbling/devastation of the pastoral that he lovingly built and tended to. But Sabbath at least has his share (or rather more than his share) of fun before things crumble, but Seymour what has he done to deserve how his life turns out? It's like Roth is saying that since the future is anyway going to be crappy and people are going to hurt you no matter what, the best thing would be to have fun in the present until the future arrives.

Going out on a limb, in an Indian context I see these 2 characters as similar to Rama (Seymour) and Krishna (Sabbath). The former too was bound by societal conventions and tried to be an ideal man. And what did he get for that? He got exiled for 14 years, his wife got kidnapped and finally all these were solved, he banished his wife just because some idiot made a passing comment. Krishna on the other hand had clear views on what he wanted and achieved it by any means. Sure, ultimately his clan fought each other and self-destructed, Dwaraka too submerged and he himself had a less than flattering end. But he had fun while it lasted like Sabbath.

If one is honest with oneself all of us would want to be Sabbath/Krishna, but wouldn't have the guts to do so. It takes a lot of courage to go against societal norms and live life on one's own terms. Instead of doing that we would rather bind ourselves with conventions and suffer, taking a masochist pleasure in the pain which will not be alleviated in any way by the societal praise that may come for being such a willing supplicant.

So which one are you, Mickey Sabbath or Seymour 'Swede' Levov?

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