In most if not all of his novels, Philip Roth has concerned himself with the description of male sexuality in what must be nearly all of its heterosexual manifestations. One might go further and specify Roth’s concern as Jewish male sexuality as it is impinged upon by the specifically Jewish family unit, since, with his description of Portnoy’s complaint, he has helped in a major way to define the American cultural stereotype of the Jewish mother and her sexually oppressed offspring. In The Professor of Desire, Roth examines this theme once again, by creating in David Kepesh a specifically Jewish manifestation of one of the stock sexual situations in American humor and folklore. Clergy and college professors, especially those who have problems with controlling the expression, of their sexual feelings, have a central place in more than their share of jokes and tall tales. Kepesh is of the latter sort, a professor of comparative literature who finds that his study is more often than not orgasm instead of Chekhov.
The Professor of Desire, however, suggests that Roth’s inquiry may be taking something of a different turn, for it is not so much the mother in Kepesh’s case who is the disruptive figure, but Abe, the father. One central problem in Kepesh’s sexual life is the issue of permanence in male-female relationships; he finds such relationships difficult to establish, and, once established, difficult to sustain. In contrast, it is the father who can see a woman once, decide instantly that she is the woman for him, and live with her in seemingly happy marriage for years until her death from cancer. David’s mother plays a relatively minor role in this novel. She is an image of the one a father could fall instantly in love with, the one who loves order and yet is driven to distraction each year by the realities of keeping up a summer resort, the one who in the calm of winter teaches David to type, and thus opens to him the world of self-expression. Later she is the parent who dies and disappears from David’s life. David’s father, however, is the parent figure who intrudes over and over to break up his dreams, to wonder why medical school is out and the theater is now so important, to question David’s marriage to a non-Jewish woman, to make him feel uncomfortable in his chosen profession and lifestyle. Finally, it is David’s father whose enthusiastic, almost desperately energetic, delight in his son’s relationship with Claire Ovington contributes to David’s awareness that he cannot sustain the relationship, no matter how much happiness it has brought him.
Freud suggests that a basic struggle in everyone’s psychological development is with the father, who must be fought with or fled from. In these terms, a major theme of the novel is flight, flight from the male parent manifested in a great number of minor flights. The first is from the discovery of sexual potential, which David discovers while living with two Swedish girls in London. Elisabeth shows him the power of sexual attraction; she attempts suicide at one point from fear of losing him. Birgitta, on the other hand, helps David discover the power of sexual exploration. Willing to try almost anything, she is drawn to occasional visits to a quack doctor who enjoys masturbating her, as well as to experiments with varieties of sexual expression more usually linked with the name of the Marquis de...
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