Samuel Roth and the Erotic Revolution in Literature

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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A Demon in Galicia, Its Exorcism, and What Happened After

By Jay A. Gertzman

The event took place on as hot and still an afternoon as that during which Romeo and Juliet's plans were ruined by a malevolent fate in the form of transgressive youths and angry parents. The place was not medieval Italy but a tiny sthetl in Galicia, now western Ukraine, about fifty miles southeast of Lemberg (Lwow). It was 1902, in month of Tammuz (June or July in our calendar), when legend states Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise. "By noon," the very hour Adam and Eve embraced the Evil Inclination, the sun "had swallowed every cloud in sight and was burning fiercely in an empty sky." The narrator is Mishillim ben Yussif Roth, an American writer and publisher whose memoir, still in typescript, was composed and revised from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Mishillim was drawing water at the town spring when he saw Feige, his first crush and the daughter of Lippe Goy, an irreligious swineherd and previously his father's business rival, sleeping by the water's edge. The thunderbolt. It was unacceptable for a respectable family to allow their son to show interest in the daughter of such a man, quite apart from the suspicion that Lippe had several years ago burned down Mishillim's father's inn. When Feige visited Mishillim in his sickbed a bit later, she told him she would never go to his house again, because "your mama thinks our family's too common to associate with." Feige's status probably increased Mishillim's desire. If myth and folklore are a guide, as they were to Sholem Asch in God of Vengeance and Leivick, Singer, and Ozick in their their Golem stories, that is one way in which sexual attraction works.

Trembling uncontrollably, and moved from deep within him, Mishillim crept ever nearer, almost close enough to grab hold of one delicate foot. At that moment the universe changed. As if the sun had been eclipsed, a strange half-light suffused the spring, and what seemed to be a large, "darkly palmed" hand "caressed" his eyelids. Mishillim experienced the waters parting, and then, "quite suddenly..."

    ... a beast, large and rectangular, head like an ox and belly livid as a stormcloud, surfaced from the spring and began to swim toward him. Mishillim's trembling grew more violent, his subconscious purpose weakened, and he withdrew the threatening hand. He struggled to his feet, hastily picking up the pitcher, and hurried up the darkening slope . . . . Among the grass and rocks on his way, and in the upper fields too, as he ran, Mishillim thought he saw a shapeless black creature [the one who was caressing his eyelids] so thin that it might have been no more than a shadow writhing close to the ground, and in its pursuit of him extending now an arm and now a leg piteously in the air, until it finally fell out of his vision. For one moment before the end he thought he caught a glimpse of an animal face: a red, fleshy face overgrown with hair that cleared over two clean, bright, widely parted lips, an impression that faded with the creature's disappearance. Mishillim saw it turn back until it reached the edge of the slope and rolled soundlessly down the decline.

A map, drawn in the 1950s by Mahlon Blaine, of the sthetl where Mishillim was born. The stream where the boy saw the demon runs from the upper right corner to the center of the drawing. The location where the vision happened is near the stone bridge.

Mishillim collapses when he reaches his doorstep, and is temporarily unable to speak until as his mother bends over him, Freudian implications advance from nuance to jarring prominence. "Her hair, her black, warm, chaotic hair–fell down his face and flooded the whole of his sensory nature, returning him in almost his entirety to the first event in his life. 'I love you, mother,' he whispered into her warm, open mouth . . . ."

Mishillim tells us, implausibly, that his sthetl was home to a retired doctor, Herr Sustock, who, at the request of Mishillim's parents, examined him. That they would have asked an available physician to do so is not so implausible. They would have felt a prodigious need to keep their son free from disease, to which an immoral use of the body--sexual activity--would, it was believed, inevitably lead. The doctor discounts the reality of the monster, opting instead for an explanation in keeping with a "great doctor" who "is curing people in Vienna." After several interviews, and Feige's sick bed visit, the doctor notices semen on Mishillim's bedclothes. That morning, when his mother came to wake him, he was so completely under the covers that if he had not obviously been thrashing around, she would have assumed he had died. Herr Sustock tells the boy an erection is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. (It is a bit unusual, but not aberrant, for a boy of nine to masturbate.)

Yussiff, Mishillim's father, approved of the doctor's approach, but his next move shows that although he acknowledged the importance of a scientific specialist, he relied in the end on the town's venerable spiritual authority, Rabbi Zorakh. Citing the mystic text Zohar, the Rabbi asserts that what Mishillim saw was a dangerous demon, a Khayyi Rui. It had to be exorcized immediately. The phrase signified a "dirty," or "scornful" spirit, incapable of spirituality. It enters a victim through his eyes, fills his soul with a secret "distillation," and spreads its poison to the victim's loved ones. The urgency was increased because the victim was a "man-child." This demon's power, as well as its appearance, suggests that its hold over the human body is sexual. That love enters through the eyes is a medieval poetic conceit, and the poisonous distillation suggests semen. The spread of infection to other family members suggests incest, and shows how restraint of the sex impulse is essential to the coherence of the nuclear family. Hasidic belief in demons is one way not only of frightening devout Jews; it also makes them aware of a personal God. "Why does He put him [a dybbuk, or evil spirit installed in a human form] in and take him out? That gives people fear of God and love of God and belief in God–that it should be easier for a person to believe in God."

For the bed ridden Mishillim to watch the Rabbi, his father, and enough adult males to make up a minyin entering his room on a rainy night–carrying a torah from the synagogue, yet–must have been frightening. But it was also an act of communal as well as filial love. As Zorakh swing the sacred scrolls over the boy, clutched the Torah to his bosom, and addressed himself to the invaded body, this is what Mishillim heard:

    'It is written in our holy books, Khayyi Rui, that it is your cruel whim to enter the souls of people, settle your lusts at the root of their lives, until they wither and become uninhabitable–even to you. If we had no means of deterring you, you would utterly destroy them, for you are the most successful of the accomplices of the Evil One . . . .'

The boy kissed the Torah. Thunder deafened, and lightening blinded, those gathered, as Mishillim sensed a "tremendous resentment . . . In the world outside the rained-on window. . ." It was as if the clouds themselves were foot soldiers and warrior cavalry waging battle. Could this "resentment" be an earth-spirit's grief at the human animal's rejection of its own bodily impulses? Could it even be a kind of Frankenstein's very human monster, some part of Mishillim's own nature, resenting the Rabbi and the father for shaming and confining him? This Khayyi Rui was brought into existence because of a young male's attempt to access life and vigor, and was immediately rejected by experienced and generous parents and teacher as a repulsive, intolerable danger to everyone. Yet deep in Mishillim's heart a resentment lingered, soon to make itself known to his parents and rabbi.

The Minyin held its breath. Perhaps the storm was an omen that the demon had won. But the Rabbi smiled at the thunder. The exorcism, and the Rabbi's statement that Mishillim was "clean" and would stay so if he obeyed the Law, made his parents feel very much better than Dr. Sustock's advice had. A charismatic healer easily displaced a scientific one. Mishillim was restored to the community. The next morning he left his sickbed. His mother told him "the whole world is waiting for you."

Mishillim writes not only of his pre-adolescent sexuality, but of his inability to discipline it. Soon after his exorcism, his parents became aware that the boy had continued masturbating. He describes how, still bed ridden, he relished in his imagination his stealthy approach to the sleeping Feige. Simultaneously he released his penis from the tangle of bed-clothes and -sheets. "I saw as well as felt the sweetening of my secret flesh, followed slowly, overwhelmingly by a delicious languor, in which it became an inert body drifting lazily on a warm sea." Consequently, he was forced to sleep in the same bed as his father. And worse was to come. Almost immediately after Mishillim returned to school, he began occasionally playing hooky, dreaming of Feige. One afternoon, the Rabbi upbraided the boy for not knowing his lessons. Mishillim sensed his classmates secretly rejoicing that this teacher's pet, who because of his brilliance–about which he was not humble--had never been beaten before his fellow students, was about to get his comeuppance. Mishillim's injured pride triumphed over all sense of decorum. He threw a heavy prayer book at Reb Zorakh, breaking his glasses, and bolted. That evening ("the moon stared like a woman half seen through a grey veil"), he went straight to see Feige, telling her he was running away from home. They embraced, only to be yanked apart, not by a demon, but by a livid Lippe Goy, who would have hit Mishillim if his wife had not stopped him. Instead, he knocked down his wife. Mishillim got a ride to the neighboring town with a kindly peasant. On the way, they met his father, who was taking the recovering, and forgiving, Rabbi back home. But Mishillim had indeed exhibited demonic character traits: stormy scoffer, with lust at the root.

But he never lost the sense of divinely ordained mission which his father and melamed had instilled in him. "No one in our world is so completely lost, that there is not someone looking for him," he wrote late in life. For a Rabbi to bless and restore him seemed a key moment for him. So it would be for anyone in his sthetl, imbued with the pre-modern belief system which constructed a universe of binary opposites defining sin and loving kindness, body and soul. Wonder rabbis chanted remedies to keep Lilith's spawn from murdering babies, families meticulously observed Sabbath rituals to insure God's protection against hunger and disease, bridegrooms restrained any lustful thoughts until the wedding night so that eighteen years good luck would not be replaced by years of bad luck. Resisting sensual desires, and thus struggling to put obligation above self, meant keeping them private--something Herr Sustock, as an emissary from the world of scepticism and science, would have prevented as leading to neurosis and hysteria. Rabbis attributed these dysfunctions to the power of demons and dybbuks. They saw their work as destroying these creatures and thus not suppressing a Jew's guilt, but cleansing his soul.

As a nineteenth century Hassidic interpreted the universe, the thin, "piteous," and shapeless demon pursued the panicked boy by crawling because it was a kind of Golem, without a soul and so earth-bound. This, as does its hairiness and weirdly sensuous lips, suggests the infectious virulence of sex, unsanctioned by rabbis, parents, or marriage. That the other chimera had horns, an underside red and stormy, and feral strength suggests the same. The thinness of the first connotes the belief in masturbation as weakening the body, making procreation impossible, unhinging the mind, spewing out the offender from the community as a nonentity. That the demons appeared near a body of water, and that their features were as ugly as their intentions were weird, reflect the kind of Jewish legends that would send a shiver down a Galician boy's spine. Springs can make people lewd. Lewdness, "the evil impulse," through which Adam fell, is sexual desire (the purpose of the covenant of circumcision is to reign in lust). There was a Well of Lewdness in Sodom; when Israelites fetched water from it, it made them lewd. Demons—and the legends presume an almost infinite number--are often assigned pools of water, where they waylay distracted, and thus heedless, souls. At least some are born from drops of semen spilled during masturbation. Some, including Eve's doppelganger, Lilith, have been on earth since the sixth day.

One version of Mishillim's story of Feige, the demon, and the exorcism he entitled "White Streams." The protagonist is not named Mishillim but David Zorn (the surname means "wrath" in German). In this version, when his mother told him that his father had told the Rabbi about the monster,

    David's heart cried out in wrath. Yesterday he would have told the story of the beast to anyone without a quaver of shame. Suddenly the matter had become personal to him–how he did not yet understand. He grated his teeth. There was a choking in his throat.

And so begun his masturbating, and his disobedience to authorities at home and in school. He could not bring himself to believe the white streams coming out of his penis were the result of an evil inclination, or a demon. And once such an organic feature in the structure of devout Jewish maleness is denied its place, the edifice has to be radically reconstructed, or modernized. Mishillim's adulthood, if lived in a sthetl, would have been tortured by his secret resentment and helpless alienation. But the Eastern European Jewish communities were decaying while Mishillim was a child, not only the wooden buildings, market squares, and muddy lanes but the financial system, the relation of the Jewish contractor and the Polish Manor Lord, and the subservience of the citizens to an authoritarian religious orthodoxy. Escape was possible, and, due to Galicia's poverty and the possibility of secular education and the promise of Zionist nationhood, necessary.

Mishillim and his family immigrated to the Lower East Side in 1903. The Golden Land stealthily replaced the sthetl Jew's binary universe of loving kindness vs. demonic possession with an array of moral and worldly potentials. Instead of the Rabbis and one's family, it was the enticements of the entertainment industry, under the control of state authorities, that provided the conditions under which sexual arousal was legitimized. As a teenager, Mishillim's imagination was fired by Clinton Street's storefront movie nickelodeons. He compared the patrons to "worshipers in a temple where deities demand the most fleshly obeisance." He developed a crush on a starlet, compulsively attending all her films, even in uptown movie palaces. There was no resisting the need to feast his eyes on her expensive dresses and long, crossed legs. They became a fetish connoting "complete abandonment and the promise of infinite delight." Mishillim was becoming a spectator, which is a common manifestation of the kind of freedom an American city and the entertainment industry offer.

But he remained a Jewish moralist with strong desire to help bring social justice to his hungry, squalid, embittered neighbors. His best friend was a wunderkind labor organizer who won the admiration of Emma Goldman. He developed affection, not simply desire, for the prostitutes on his own street, stopping his pals from catcalling after them as they passed. Getting to know them, he understood their toughness masked both self-hatred and hatred for the parents who, while liberating them from being married off against their will, had brought them in near-poverty to a predatory city where they had the choice of slaving in a sweat shop or selling themselves. America, Mishillim learned, was a land of both freedom and suffering, not either/or of blessed piety or the evil inclination. There was wild opportunity, but the moral compass had gone haywire. No one cared if male movie-goers sat apart from other patrons with their hats held rigidly in their laps, spilling their seed on the floor, as long as they paid for admission.

Mishillim's American name was Samuel Roth. At nineteen, Sam married the girl next door. He proved an unfaithful husband, yet his wife loved him, and partnered with him in his business, which was essentially erotica distribution: the "forbidden fruit" business. His son and daughter loved him unreservedly although he used them for office work even while it was under FBI surveillance. In his twenties, Roth became a magazine publisher, printing excerpts from Joyce's banned Ulysses for the first time in America. He did so probably without permission, making himself both an infamous pirate and a pioneer: even Ezra Pound had to admit Sam was "giving his public a number of interesting items that they would not otherwise get."

In the 1930s, Roth took to publishing titillating sex pulps. But two of them were a subversive depiction of interracial marriage and a novel about the way a flamboyant homosexual camped "her" way to sexual fulfillment as a "scarlet pansy." In the 1950s, he was the leading mail order publisher of borderline erotica in America. His most fascinating publication of this period was entitled My Sister and I, purportedly a secret account by Friedrich Nietzsche of an incestuous relationship. It was so convincing that scholars over fifty years later debate its authenticity. Roth, despite all the titillating schlock that made him a lot of money, well understood the revolutionary exploration of personal consciousness that found expression in Modernism. But business is business. The same circulars that advertised My Sister and I, Joyce's Dubliners, and Masefield's narrative poetry offered 3-foot high rubber "living dolls" that came either dressed or undressed: "A sweetie for your bedside."

His name is deeply inscribed in the history of The Sexual Revolution in America. Gay Talese made that clear by giving him a whole chapter in Thy Neighbor's Wife. The minority opinion in Roth v. United States (1957), in which Roth appealed a conviction for obscene literature, redefined the Constitutional test for determining what constitutes expression that, however sexually explicit, deserves First Amendment protection. Roth went to jail, but two years later, Americans could freely purchase books such as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Naked Lunch. He was more businessman than reformer, more sensualist than moralist, but in America it is not either/or, but both/and. Sam Roth was both a pioneer of sexual explicitness and a purveyor of schmutz, spending a total of nine years in municipal and federal prisons. Roth is a both strange and potent example of American zeal to reinvent, and to use that skill to discover new frontiers beyond which to explore one's own consciousness--and to make money. It's an American success tragedy. Or is it your typical American tragic-comedy of success? Either way, "life," as Philip Roth's persona Nathan Zuckerman reflected, is "and."

Jay Gertzman is the author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940, and am now writing a biography of Samuel Roth, the publisher and poet whose early life is the subject of this essay.

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from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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