The Anatomy Lesson

by Philip Roth
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The Anatomy Lesson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949

Since The Anatomy Lesson is Philip Roth’s third novel in which Nathan Zuckerman is the central character, a few words of background may be helpful to place Zuckerman’s current fictional dilemma in perspective. Zuckerman was first introduced in My Life as a Man (1974) as the fictional creation of Roth’s fictional creation, Peter Tarnopol, in two stories by Tarnopol entitled “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster.” In 1979, Zuckerman emerged as the central figure in his own right of Roth’s short novel The Ghost Writer (1979). In that first-person narrative, Zuckerman recounts his visit as a promising young writer of twenty-three to the country home of E. I. Lonoff, an older writer whom he greatly admires. Witness to Lonoff’s Jamesian disengagement for the sake of his art, Zuckerman ends the novel fairly clear about the kind of books he wants to write but less clear about the kind of life he wants to lead.

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Roth’s 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound picks up its title character at the age of thirty-six, following the publication of Zuckerman’s best-selling novel, Carnovsky (clearly the equivalent of Portnoy’s Complaint—which, like the fictitious Carnovsky, was published in 1969). Here, Zuckerman must cope with fame and fortune and ponder his brother’s accusation that he caused the death of his father with his autobiographical and anti-Jewish novel. At the end of Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is left feeling that he has lost his father, his wife, his brother, and his heritage. One would think that with all of these ghosts exorcised, Nathan would finally be free—or at least that Roth would be free of Zuckerman. As this new Roth novel makes clear, however, such is emphatically not the case.

What began in My Life as a Man as an interesting experiment with the problematical relationship between fiction and reality becomes in The Anatomy Lesson forced and tedious. The basic trope that Roth uses to unify this new Zuckerman misadventure is a mysterious and undiagnosable back ailment which renders Zuckerman immobile, reduced to lying on his back on a child’s play mat—an ailment that, although Zuckerman denies it, seems clearly a psychosomatic illness brought on by the guilt he feels for Carnovsky. The further and most obvious irony is that the ailment represents the generalized Jewish guilt which Zuckerman both writes about and denies in his infamous novel itself; as Roth says of his persona, “He hadn’t spent 20 years writing about irrational guilt to wind up irrationally guilty.” The key to the central trope of physical pain is given in a prefatory quotation from a textbook of orthopedic medicine: “The chief obstacle to correct diagnosis in painful conditions is the fact that the symptom is often felt at a distance from its source.”

Much of the first chapter of the book presents extensive excruciating detail about the pain itself, for if the novelist cannot analyze the cause of the pain (which, after all, is the job for the critic), he can at least graphically describe its symptoms. Lying on his play mat, unable to move his neck and looking at the world around him through grotesque prism glasses, Nathan welcomes both the companionship and the sexual favors of the four women who visit him and play the roles of lost mother and lost wives. Although Nathan denies the diagnosis a psychoanalyst offers him—that he is “the ineradicable infant, the atoning penitent, the guilty pariah”—it seems clear that the book depends on the reader’s perceiving Nathan in just this way. To interpret his pain in any other way is to see it as the unmotivated and thematically uninteresting cause of his loss of his subject, to see it as a mere contingency of fate that makes him unable, either physically or morally, to find a posture for his writing. On the other hand, however, to see the pain as the objectification of Nathan’s guilt is likewise to see it as the thematically motivated creation of Roth and thus to see it as stereotypical and banal.

Although the previous Zuckerman novels deprive Nathan of his father, his brother, and his birthplace, The Anatomy Lesson must take away still more and thus begins with the loss of his mother, his health, his hair, and—most important, according to the fictitious critic Milton Appel—his talent. It is indeed this final father figure (at least the reader can hope that Appel is the final one) who must be dealt with before Nathan can finally be free to live his life and Roth can be free to write of something else besides his own ghosts. Appel, who in 1959 had called Zuckerman a “wunderkind” for his early stories (an appellation lavished on Roth himself after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus in 1959), reconsiders “The Case of Nathan Zuckerman” in a harsh criticism of what he calls Zuckerman’s anti-Jewishness after the publication of Carnovsky. Appel charges that Zuckerman feels as Carnovsky does—that the “Jews can stick their historical suffering up their ass.” It is a criticism that rankles Zuckerman to the point of obsession.

When Diana, one of Zuckerman’s female confidantes, tells him, “You cannot make yourself a life of misery out of a book that just happened to have been a roaring success,” the reader begins to wonder if Roth is determined to persist in using Zuckerman as expiation for the roaring success of Portnoy’s Complaint. Throughout Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, Nathan insists on the separation between reality and fiction, personal life and created life, and he even attacks Appel in a virulent telephone call for confusing the two, yet it seems clear that the interest of the Zuckerman novels resides in the parallels that compel one to read the trilogy as a commentary on Roth’s career.

Whether Roth in fact feels guilty for betraying both his immediate family and his larger cultural family in Portnoy’s Complaint is not the point; he certainly has attempted in his last three novels to encourage the reader to believe that he has. Thus, Roth covertly refers to one of his best-known early short stories when Zuckerman mocks Appel as a self-styled “Defender of the Faith.” It is a cute little in-joke but perhaps, like much of The Anatomy Lesson, a bit too cute. Such self-referential devices allow Roth to justify his previous work while at the same time seeming to accept his responsibility for it. After three volumes of this, the reader begins to feel that Zuckerman indeed protests too much.

At any rate, in The Anatomy Lesson, one finds Zuckerman finally insisting that he wants a second life; that he is tired of being chained to self-consciousness, introspection, and his own “dwarf drama” until he dies; that he wants to hear stories not his own, stories from patients with a clear and practical purpose: “Cure me.” The Anatomy Lesson itself may be understood as a means by which Roth/Zuckerman attempts to cure himself, for it is an intellectual analysis of his own novelist’s nature in terms of physical pain, just as Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an intellectual analysis of society in terms of the central conception of the humors. The “lesson” Zuckerman both teaches and learns here relates not to his physical body but to the body of his work.

The second half of the book narrates Nathan’s return to Chicago, where he had earlier begun his intellectual life in an attempt to enter medical school. Doped up on Percodan, marijuana, and vodka, Zuckerman takes his self-indulgent and self-satisfied revenge on Milton Appel by pretending to be a professional pornographer of that name, publisher of a sleazy magazine named Lickety Split. Indeed, a great deal of the last half of the novel offers Nathan-as-pornographer-Appel justifying his life and his work, first to a fellow airplane passenger and then to Ricky, the female limousine chauffeur he has hired. In long monologues, Zuckerman justifies the essential fantasy nature of pornography and in so doing presents himself-as-Appel as the most unregenerate and notorious pornographer in the United States. Such a role-playing projection allows Zuckerman to create an image he feels has been imposed upon him and give it back in spades to the one who he feels has imposed it on him in the first place. It also allows him to play the role of Carnovsky as the reader might imagine him, yet the only justification for such an interpretation—Zuckerman’s novel existing only as a title—is the reader’s prior knowledge of Portnoy’s Complaint: Zuckerman’s apologia for a hedonistic search for sexual pleasure sounds very much like the justification of Alexander Portnoy. The rambling monologues constitute the release of a long pent-up need for self-expression—made possible, ironically, by Zuckerman’s role-playing reversal of his enemy.

In the final chapter, entitled “The Corpus”—a not-too-subtle pun suggesting both the physical body and the body of a writer’s work—the dope, the vodka, and the Percodan, not to mention the obsessive nature of the role he has been playing, finally prove too much for Zuckerman. In a cemetery scene, he attacks his friend Bobby’s elderly father for talking about the “sacred genes” of the Jews, then falls and lacerates his face on the tombstone of the old man’s brother. Ricky, the strong and independent female chauffeur (very much like the powerful female Jewish freedom fighter at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint), plays both forbidding and succoring mother to Zuckerman at the moment of his collapse.

Still, Roth is not finished with Zuckerman. In the last pages of the book, with his mouth clamped shut, silenced at last, Zuckerman allows his tongue to explore the “Heart of Darkness” of his mouth, as he ponders in another much-too-cute allusion: “I am the Marlow of my mouth.” During his recuperation, he considers his experience and the clever jokes that fate plays but thinks to himself, “Just don’t make me write about it after.” Realizing that not everything has to be a book, he further knows that “everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.” He goes the rounds with the doctors, introduced as “Dr. Zuckerman . . . resident humanist,” confronting reality at last, as he believes: “This is life. With real teeth in it.” Roth leaves Zuckerman making his rounds, however, with a final ironic observation that he acts as if he “still believed that he could unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his.”

One fears that such an ending is no ending at all and that Zuckerman at forty still has yet to become Roth at fifty in his next book. Roth has said that what readers often take as “veiled autobiography” is only a “useful fiction,” a kind of “idealized architect’s drawing for what one may have constructed—or is yet to construct—out of the materials actuality makes available.” The Anatomy Lesson suggests that the previously “useful fiction” of Nathan Zuckerman has perhaps outlived its usefulness. Nathan may not be able to escape his body, but surely Roth has now fully exorcised his own demons and can now at least escape the cannibalizing of the body of his own work. Although in Reading Myself and Others (1975), Roth said he was involved in the writer’s “seemingly interminable task of self-justification”—a job that he felt may not be within his power or his best interest ever to complete—one can hope that, in his next, inevitable novel, he will find a less obvious and less tediously self-indulgent means to pursue this interminable task.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

Sources for Further Study

America. CL, March 10, 1984, p. 179.

Commentary. LXXVII, January, 1984, p. 63.

Hudson Review. XXVII, Spring, 1984, p. 152.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 13, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 30, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, October 7, 1983, p. 89.

Saturday Review. IX, December, 1983, p. 57.

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