The poet and novelist Garth Greenwell, author, most recently, of Cleanness, has been known to write explicit sex scenes that are crucial to the understanding of his characters. For our Best Sex I Ever Read column, he selects a passage toward the end of Philip Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater, a scene that has been vilified as vulgar but one that he finds beautiful. In it, a dying woman recalls with her lover how wonderful it was to experiment sexually with him. To Greenwell, this is one of the most romantic scenes in literature.
The passage, from Sabbath’s Theater:
It came down, and as it came upon me, I realized that it was warm. Do I dare taste it? And I started with my tongue to lick around my lips. And there was this piss. And the whole idea that you were standing above me, and at first you strained to get it out, and then suddenly came this enormous piss, and it just came into my face and it was warm and it was just fantastic; it was exciting and everywhere and it was like a whirlwind, what I was feeling, the emotions. I don’t know how to describe it more than that. I tasted it, and it tasted sweet, like beer. It had that kind of taste to it, and just something that made it so wonderful. That I could be allowed to do this that was so forbidden. And I could drink it and I wanted more as I was lying there and I wanted more, and I wanted it on my eyes and I wanted it in my face, I wanted lots of it in my face, I wanted to be showered by it in my face, and I wanted to drink it, and then, I wanted it all the way then, once I allowed myself to let go. And so I wanted everything of it, I wanted it on my tits. I remember you were standing over me, and you did it on my cunt also. And I started playing with myself as you were doing it, and you made me come, you know; I was coming while you were just squirting it over my cunt. It was very warm, it was so warm, I just felt totally… I don’t know–taken by it. Then I come home afterward and I was sitting in the kitchen, remembering it, because I had to sort it through–did I like it or not–and I realized that yes, it was like we had a pact; we had a secret pact that tied us together. I’d never done that before. I didn’t expect to do it with anyone else, and today I was thinking I never will. But it really made me have a pact with you. It was like we were forever united in that.
“We were. We are.”
Both crying now.
This scene requires a bit of context because it’s near the very end of Sabbath’s Theater. Sabbath’s Theater is the story of a 60-something man, a former puppeteer who can no longer do his work because of devastating arthritis. He is a miserable man in a miserable marriage, and his primary motivation in life is to cause other people discomfort, which is a fascinating thing to meditate on as an artist, especially an artist like Philip Roth. He was clearly a writer who was interested in provoking and who enjoyed the discomfort provided by provocative art. Mickey Sabbath is all of that times one thousand. The book follows a few days in which Sabbath blows up his life — the reason he’s doing so is that his longtime lover, a Croatian woman named Drenka, has died of cancer and he’s overwhelmed with grief. They had a decades-long affair.
The primary action of the novel is just a few days, but sifted into the action of those days is Sabbath’s whole life and the entirety of his relationship with Drenka. In the last of these recollections at the end of the book, we see Mickey at Drenka’s bedside. She’s in the hospital with terminal cancer. They know she’s dying, and Mickey has been sneaking into the hospital with the nurse’s blessing after visiting hours when Drenka’s family has gone home. They spend hours together. She’s on morphine, so sometimes he’s just holding her hand and sometimes they’re talking. And in their last scene together, they remember an erotic moment from their past.
This is a sex scene that’s very mediated because it’s being retold. There’s a sense that the great grace in his very cursed life was that Mickey had met this woman whose perversity equaled his own. Their sex life contains these incredible escapades — experimentation and play. It’s an experience of sex that is joyful and full of love. They’re in a situation where they cannot have sex and so they talk about sex, and that’s what gives them access to this physical intimacy that has been the basis of their relationship. It’s also unclear how far in the past it is — I was trying to figure it out. But it’s clear that it’s deep in their relationship and they have a lot of trust.
When I think about sex scenes, which I write a lot and teach a lot, there aren’t very many that contain mature or aging bodies. There’s very little that I know of in the way of sex scenes involving disabled or infirm bodies. The present-tense intimacy they’re creating by talking about their past also involves very sick bodies. It’s also fascinating because it’s a scene of kink. Rereading Sabbath’s Theater, I was shocked by how shameless it is and by how wide-ranging the versions of sex Roth thinks about are.
This is a scene in which they’re remembering a day when they pissed on each other. First he pisses on her and then she pisses on him. It goes into great detail about the experience: They’re outside, they’re lying in a stream. Each of them is resistant at first — they’re both doing it to please the other. But then Drenka especially finds real rapture in this. She loves it when he pisses on her, and she loves drinking it. I love the fact that Roth is not demure about it. He writes it in full explicitness, full sense-data glory. What’s amazing about it is the emotional work it does in the moment they’re remembering as they go from resistance and shyness to achieving a real kind of rapture, and it’s astonishing to me the emotional work it does in the present moment of the novel. They are re-experiencing the tenderness and the intimacy that this moment created between them.
Drenka says this wonderful thing — she says it was an experience of commingling. It was a more intense intimacy than she had ever experienced before. The section ends with a return to the real present day, where Mickey is grieving her. Her last words to him are “I give my heart, I give myself in my fucking.” And he says to her, “You do indeed.” The last words of that section are “To co-mingle with you, Drenka. To co-mingle with you now.” It’s just devastating. What so many other writers might use just for shock value, Roth uses in a way that encapsulates these two people’s love for each other and the grief he feels when she’s gone.
I became obsessed with Roth long before I ever thought of writing fiction myself. I read every single book of his when I was an undergraduate, just for fun. I wasn’t studying them, I wasn’t thinking that I was going to write a novel like Roth. I read them early and I loved them. It’s very different from my own writing. I could never write like him! But this scene is such a good example of the amount of work that sex can do in a novel. The mainstream American reader might find the act outrageous or shocking, and Roth knows that. Part of his craft is to play with that.
He also knows when he puts this scene in that a lot of people are just going to be disgusted. There is a much less involved moment of pissing in a larger sex scene in my book, Cleanness, and I remember the first group of people who read it — I workshopped it at the Iowa Writers Workshop, which was terrifying — said they couldn’t get past the peeing. I’d lost them there. So Roth knows he’s playing with that. But then he brings in these warmer affects. If people think about pissing as an erotic act, they often think of it in terms of BDSM where the point is sexual pleasure through degradation. There is nothing degrading about this scene. It is not a BDSM scene. So Roth has to carry the outrageousness and the disgust and then bring readers around to a place where they can understand that this is a scene of comfort and intimacy. It’s one of the most tender moments in all of literature, and it’s a gold standard for what a sex scene can do.