Eros, Thanatos and Oceanic Oneness in Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep

In Chapter IX of Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, David achieves a rudimentary understanding of the intrinsic connection between sexuality and death. He is confronted with the reality of death for the first time in his short life when he sees a row of funeral hearses in the street. This experience causes David a great deal of anxiety, which his mother is unable to alleviate; but when he glances through the kitchen window, the snowflakes trigger a sudden realization within him: “Snow it was… Confetti… They threw it down on those two who were going to be married… Confetti. Carriages. Carriages! The same!… He saw it clearly. Everything belonged to the same dark.” (70). David intuitively perceives a link between death and marriage, which for him unconsciously symbolizes sexuality. David does not comprehend the intellectual implications of his realization, but through the boy’s limited intuition Roth points the adult reader towards the Freudian theory of the sex drive (Eros) and the death drive (Thanatos). Sigmund Freud claims that these drives originate in the human subject’s need “to restore an earlier state of things” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 57). Freud calls this earlier state “oceanic oneness” and defines it as “an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole… in which… the boundary between ego and object threaten to melt away” (Civilization and its Discontents, 12-13). Hence, Freud claims that Thanatos and Eros are two sides of the same human desire to efface the ego in order to return to a womb-tomb-like state, in which the subject is no longer alienated and separate from the world. This Freudian conceptualization of the interconnectedness of sexuality and death is a major theme in Call it Sleep, and I will henceforth trace its development in the chapters following Chapter IX.The theme is invoked again two chapters later, when David is convinced that he has accidentally killed a boy by knocking him down to the ground head first, and yet he does not run home because he believes that his mother is there committing adultery with Luter. At this stage, David is still incapable of confronting manifestations of death and sexuality, and he therefore flees from the allegedly dead boy and the ostensibly fornicating mother, losing himself within the streets of New York City. Since David only seeks escape from them, the Thanatos and Eros in this scene do not lead him to a feeling of oceanic oneness, but rather the opposite, they infuse him with a sense of isolation: “his voice trailed off in anguished abandonment” (97). The theme is further developed when David helps Leo seduce Esther. This scene marks a change in David’s approach to sexuality: he has deep misgivings on the sexual relations between Leo and Esther, but he nevertheless becomes the catalyst for their sexual activities, and therefore it is clear that sexuality is not as terrifying to him as it once was. The Thanatos aspect of the scene is more veiled, but it looms in the background, most predominately in the setting of the storage bin in the cellar, which resembles a coffin in a sepulcher, and in David’s frantic search for “the round light” (354), which is described in hyperbolic language that creates the transitory illusion that David is dying: “he sought the depths, strangling. Then darkness, swirling and savage… engulfed him in a brawling welter… and he plunged down a fathomless shaft. A streak of flame-and screaming nothingness.” (354). This third encounter with Eros and Thanatos once again concludes with David’s escape into the streets of New York. Yet unlike the former encounters, in the aftermath of this encounter David progresses towards a feeling of oceanic oneness, experiencing a new sense of intimacy with the other children upon reaching the cheder: “His heart sprang out to them… He had always been one of them.” (359). David’s fourth encounter with sexuality and death takes place towards the end of the novel, when his parents reveal their secret sins to each other. Their confessions elevate his mother’s picture of corn and his father’s bull horns to the status of emblems of Eros and Thanatos: the picture is a symbol of sexual sin, whereas the bull horns are a symbol of parricide. David is thus confronted by his own parents’ drives for sex and death. This is the final stage before he can take advantage of the city in a new way, not as a refuge into which he flees from Eros and Thanatos, but as a site where he can finally come to terms with them. Call it Sleep culminates with David’s overtly sexual thrust of his father’s milk ladle into the “dark, grinning lips” (413) of the crack in the train tracks. He thereby satisfies both his Eros and his Thanatos, since while he electrocutes himself to a degree that the crowd gathering around him believes him dead, he also experiences a sensation akin to an orgasm: “Power!… A blast… rending, quaking, fusing his brain and blood to a fountain of flame, vast rockets in a searing spray!” (419). Consequently, in accordance with the Freudian vision, he undergoes dissolution of self and finally experiences oceanic oneness: “Each step he took, he shrank… At each step shed the husks of being… And now the seed of nothing… all eternity’s caress were fused and granted in one instant. Silence” (429-30). This experience remains with him after he reawakens, and evidently the David who returns home in an ambulance is not the same David who ran away with a milk ladle. For the first time in the novel, he feels pity for his father, rather than fear or hatred, and refrains from either clinging to or escaping from his mother. He is lulled to sleep by the images, sounds and sensations that had manifested themselves in his mind in his moment of oceanic oneness. Thus, the realization of the Freudian vision marks the “strangest triumph” (441) of a little Jewish immigrant boy in the Big Apple. Works CitedFreud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.Roth, Henry. Call it Sleep. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.