Elegy (2008); The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth (2001)


The movie Elegy is poorly adapted from Philip Roth’s novel, The Dying Animal. The film is worth seeing as a drama of how Hollywood can drain important literature to the shallowness of current pop culture. It’s a schooling in self-defense. And the course lasts but approximately a couple of hours.

There’s a second drama here. The Dying Animal is an important modern morphing of the Courtly Love tradition–the drama of passionate romantic love–which has been at the heart of Western culture for centuries. The Dying Animal brings news.

The Dying Animal isn’t a canonical book about Eros like Dante’s The Divine Comedy,  Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Roth doesn’t dramatize Eros in a big perspective, within a large world that includes war, politics, moral codes, and the fall of grand old orders. And certainly he’s as far as he can be from big books that virtually ignore passionate love such as Moby-Dick and Go Down, Moses. Instead, The Dying Animal is what might be called a Midsize Code Book: a code of life, a secular religion, in this case the making of a religion out of passionate love as it used to be called and now, as Roth puts it, “lust.” Like Troubadour poetry, Chretein’s Lancelot, The Romance of the Rose, The Princess of Cleves, Dangerous Liaisons and that long tradition, The Dying Animal is a drama in which virtually the entire story world is about passionate love and only passionate love, the be-all and end-all. Operationally in these stories, including Roth’s, there’s little if anything else going on; everyone is romantically entangled and blown about in their passion as by hot winds (to use Dante’s infernal punishment of Francesca and Paolo in one of the upper circles of Hell, that damned Dante being such a realist spoil sport). The older version of the code, in which Roth’s characterization of “lust” would be held abhorrent, has been best summarized by a long-ago scholar, Alexander Denomy:

“(Courtly Love) is neither Christian caritas nor platonic love; it is neither mystical love nor lust, but a special type of love peculiar to the Troubadours…. The novelty of Courtly Love lies in three basic elements: first, in the ennobling force of love; second, in the elevation of the beloved to a place of superiority above the lover; third, in the conception of love as ever unsatiated, ever-increasing desire.”

In other words, Eros is a secular religion, imputed to be a virtuous way of life. For “grace” substitute “passion” or “lust.” Marriage is heresy. Women are idealized, made into goddesses. The male lover is ever frustrated and insecure and always in the service of his mistress (i.e., chasing after her). As Denomy says, we’re referring here to a kind of love “that is divorced from physical possession, based on the desire for it, practiced by people of worth and regarded as productive of every virtue and every good.”

In the movies, a prominent drama of this old-fashioned Eros is Dangerous Liaisons. This story is a little further along in time and liberation from Lancelot, to be sure! But basically the song is the same. Everyone is caught up in love intrigues. The setting, toward the end of the Ancien Regime, is a Versailles Heaven of love affairs. (Roth looks back on all this in his novel as “the French art of flirtation.”) Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont use sex realized and thwarted as a near-religious system of dark games of passion. The impending doom of the existing order, the Ancien Regime, is nowhere even hinted. Chaucer, in his great Troilus and Cressida, explicitly sets his story of passionate love in a Troy whose coming doom haunts the drama: the Greek threat–“sodeyn Diomede”– is ever prevalent despite the romance played out in the courtly gardens of Troy. Hence Chaucer’s is a much more realistic view of passionate love and its psychology.

The above rushes outrageously through centuries and a whole evolving tradition about Eros in a few paragraphs. A quick trip, to say the least!

What’s new in Roth and The Dying Animal?

In a word, and with great irony, Darwin. And, really (and much more to the point than Charles though Roth cherishes Charles’s sleuthing for Old Clues), the operational heritage in human behavior of primordial times themselves, the times Darwin figured out in goodly part. In that long view, The Dying Animal is finally a male’s book: The male Homo sapiens, sexual Darwinian version. For Roth’s desirous male, the world of the Marquise and the Viscomte is quaint: it is a little interlude referred to as belonging to the Old World (which really wasn’t very old, after all, there being the much older Darwinian worlds; an “Old World” now gone in the face of the scientific method and the materialistic world view [as opposed to the mysterian view] which now prevail to create what Roth thinks is our New World Spirit of Place). The “Old World” was one in which people said “passion” rather than “lust” and thought of women as idealized goddesses; in Roth’s Modern World with its glancing back at the Primordial World, women are seen as inscrutable but powerful animals very different from males and essentially wanting one thing from males (which, Roth says, isn’t sex or family [see below]). In The Dying Animal, the joke, the comedy, is that we are still living in the woods and the swamp lands, and that the hero of Roth’s novel, David Kepesh, art critic, professor, PBS culture commentator, guest of Charlie Rose, amateur classical pianist, etc., is in fact nothing but a refined predator wanting sex, sex without any entanglement. For Kepesh, Love’s “Doctryne” is first and foremost not to violate the principle of aesthetic distance: never see a sexual encounter as other than lust satisfied, after which you move on. To be married is to “live in a cage” (this nifty and consistent zoo “cage” just a tiny example out of multitudes in a wonderfully metaphorically consistent tour de force of a novel simply [and everywhere in its diction and texture] about Sexual Darwinism among animals in the ancient woods, period.) Kepesh’s course at New York College is “Practical Criticism.” You can see how funny Roth is with this title when Kepesh confesses (the entire novel is a confession) that his one aim in “Practical Criticism” is to attract female students, throw a party after the course is over (because by patiently following that vital rule he can’t be charged easily with sexual harassment) to winnow the less desirable females, and select his favorite for no-obligation sex. He’s 62. They’re usually in their mid-twenties.

Kepesh’s argument is: sex is irresistible and lust is constant; marriage is to enter a cage; there is no morality except in the tactics and stratagems of conquest; women are not to be idealized–indeed they are inimical in their great power over us; all male cultural power in the urban Think Culture is akin to the gorgeous plumage on strutting male birds; “the dying animal” is any human, male or female, losing that natural plumage or that alluring scent and needing to try to supplant it with the minor celebrity of a PBS talk show, i.e., Kepesh’s true fear that he’s getting too old and, despite that he has a framed letter Kafka once wrote for an office party and uses it to impress coeds, he will now lose in the sexual game to lustful young men.

What is it that women want from men, according to Kepesh’s modern update of Love’s “Doctryne”? For men to be their mirrors. For men to tell the women that the women are Aphrodite, Venus, Mona Lisa or even Madonna. Women, saith Roth, aren’t usually intellectual and usually don’t care about pedantic appreciations of Aphrodite. They’re not really interested in the framed letter of Kafka’s. But they want Kepesh to confer on them, instantly, his culture and knowledge. Instant refinement. Suddenly, Queen For A Day. (Yes, actually, this is Cinderella.) Casanova’s great secret? Call Bert Parks.

Just because it’s a simplification, as is the whole Courtly Love tradition albeit that tradition is true-to-life, doesn’t mean The Dying Animal isn’t funny or important. But perhaps the funniest part is the movie version, Elegy. Roth did not, would not, read the script. The movie came to be because the young actress, Penelope Cruz, was “struck” by the novel. She went on a crusade for several years to get the movie made. She finally talked Isabel Coixet, the Spanish director, into doing the film. Ben Kingsley plays Kepesh. Penelope plays Consuelo Castillo, a 24-year-old coed Kepesh sleeps with periodically over a couple of years. In the novel, Kepesh, feeling his age, becomes insecure about Consuelo in the sense of the loss of his plumage. I don’t want to say more, because I don’t want to be a spoiler. But Cruz and Coixet turn Roth’s sexual Darwinian comedy into a Dr. Phil episode. They get the novel entirely wrong. The two were on Charlie Rose recently–you can see the interview on YouTube–and it wouldn’t be funny save that they see the story as one in which an old man is afraid to be himself because of his age. Is that Roth still laughing?

Anyway, the novel takes an hour or two to read and the film about that time to view. You can experience them weeks apart, at your convenience. Entertaining, often funny, instructive and newsworthy.