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  • The Pleasure of Textual/Sexual Wrestling:Pornography and Heresy in Roger's Version
  • John N. Duvall (bio)

It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

The text of pleasure is not necessarily the text that recounts pleasures; the text of bliss is never the text that recounts the kind of bliss afforded literally by an ejaculation. The pleasure of representation [End Page 81] is not attached to its object: pornography is not sure. In zoological terms, one could say that the site of textual pleasure is not the relation of mimic and model (imitative relation) but solely that of dupe and mimic (relation of desire, of production).

—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

Roger Lambert's Relation to Dale Kohler in Roger's Version reproduces in particular ways Roger Chillingworth's relation to Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, a fact lost on neither contemporary reviewers of John Updike's novel nor recent academic critics.1 The novel's title and characters' names (not to mention Updike's previous fictive excursion into Hawthorne's subject matter in A Month of Sundays) all signal the modernist strategy of textual layering—what Eliot called the mythological method—that operates in Roger's Version. Although Updike is no post-modernist, the novel takes a self-reflexive turn, engaging the erotics of reading and writing—what Roland Barthes calls the pleasure of the text.2 Both Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text and Updike's review of it invite one to attend closely to the kinds of text in which Roger Lambert takes pleasure. Doing so enables a clearer articulation of the nature of Roger's homoerotic desire for Dale, a desire only hinted at in the Dimmesdale-Chillingworth relationship of The Scarlet Letter. At the same time, one becomes aware how Roger's Version simultaneously depends upon and questions two versions of the opposition between deviance and normality.3 Specifically, the play of difference in the theological (heresy/orthodoxy) maps the realm of desire (pornography/erotica). And although Updike may wish his reader to make such a connection, his novel's blurring of [End Page 82] distinctions in the realms of theology and desire pushes one in a direction Updike might prefer not to go. In order to collapse distinctions, Roger's Version suggests a limitation of modernist poetics by dislodging the privilege of the author over the reader.

As a divinity professor at a university in Boston, Roger Lambert specializes in Church history, particularly the history of heretics. Into Roger's routine life enters Dale Kohler, a graduate student in computer science, intent on proving the existence of God through that ultimate extension of human logic, the computer. When Dale, seeking a grant from the divinity school, visits Roger's office, the older man feels an immediate antipathy toward the younger man: "He was, I saw as he came in the door, the type of young man I like least: tall, much taller than I, and pale with an indoors passion" (Roger's Version 1-2). Roger's obsession with Dale's physical appearance continues throughout their first meeting. As Dale begins to articulate his theory on God's emergence in the findings of modern science, Roger notes that "even at this pitch of eloquence, which had reddened his unhealthy cheeks . . . and which made his acne flare, his eyes somehow floated above his passionate facts. There was a happiness to their pallor but also a coolness, a withdrawal. It would take more of an attack than I could mount to shake him" (14). Despite repeated assertions that he is repulsed by Dale, Roger's detailed physical descriptions of the younger man work against his claim. Even in this initial encounter, Roger places their relation in hierarchical and adversarial terms. Indeed, this relationship plays out...


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