Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth I
Bill Long 11/29/08
Jewish Obsession/Sexual Obsession/Literary Obsession
A few years ago, at my Italian teacher's home, I noted a row of hard-covered books neatly held together by bookends above her bookcase. I asked her about those books and she simply said, "They are all from Philip." Seeing that they were all of Philip Roth's books, I inquired, "Do you know him?" Casually, she said, "Of course. My (late) husband and he were grad. students together in the writing program at the University of Chicago 50 years ago, and we all got to know each other well." Indeed, as I checked out a few of the volumes, I noted that each had a signature and endearingly brief note from Philip Roth to my teacher. For the rest of the morning, I had trouble concentrating on mangiare and the subjunctive of Italian verbs; I was much more interested on probing what she knew about "Philip."
I am not going to repeat here what she told me then, but one of my ways in honoring Philip Rother, whom I consider to be one of America's best living authors, is to write about his work. So, I decided to pick up Portnoy's Complaint, his 1969 classic which unleashed so many things in our culture: (1) explicit writing about sex in "major" novels; (2) a powerful new way to speak of the "Jewish experience" (from the psychoanalyst's couch; I wonder if the director of the Sopranos came upon the briliant device of the "shrink" in that series from a reading of Portnoy's Complaint); and (3) a kind of rolling and roiling humor that hadn't been seen in American literature since J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951).
I, who am mostly a stolid and critical reader, found myself almost tumbling out of the chair in laughter as Alexander Portnoy relates to his shrink his dual obsessions--preoccupation with his Jewish family and with his sexual proclivities. If I can get away with saying that the autistic boy is, by and large, an "extreme" male, and the African-American athlete is, by and large, the "acme" of athletes, then the Jewish obsession with guilt and shame is the "extreme" version of it in our culture. It exceeds the amount of guilt felt by the most brow-beaten, whipped, exploited Irish or Polish Catholic child. I might also say in passing, that Jewish obsession with "success" surpasses even the most ambitious longing for success of my Puritan forebears, Cotton Mather.
One can't do much in two essays, but in the rest of this and the next I will briefly touch on all three obsessions noted in the subtitle.
Jewish Obsession--Perfection and Avoiding Shame
The Jewish obsession as presented by Roth in all of its humor and sadness, is of never being quite good enough or accomplished enough to earn the recognition of those who probably don't even care much about whether or not you exist. Something always will lack in your presentation; either your smell will offend, your nose will be too long, your manner will be off-putting, your accent will be offensive or some other (unknown and unchangeable) trait will shortcircuit your road to recognition. Thus, you redouble your effort to achieve perfection, to try to force those unfeeling, unseeing goyim (mostly Protestants, I suppose) to recognize you. In a conversation between Alexander and a Sabra (a Jew born in Israel), when she makes him feel guilty for being an American Jew, he finally bursts:
"This is what it's like in the Diaspora, you saintly kiddies, this is what it's like in the exile! Temptation and disgrace! Corruption and self-mockery! Self-deprecation--and self-defecation too! Whining, hysteria, compromise, confusion, disease!" (p. 266).
The inclination toward self-hatred, which is where all of this tends, is even exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, in the family. Parents come to visit Alexander in his apartment near NYC. Instead of praising him because he is the Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York, in which position he has fought corruption, opened up job opportunities for countless hopeless souls, etc., Alex's parents complain about his apartment and mention that someone else's son, a great physician, already is going around the world giving lectures at other people's expense. The anatomy of "not being good enough" is, perhaps surprisingly, seen clearly in this homey conversation:
"They come for a visit. 'Where did you get a rug like this?' my father asks, making a face. 'Did you get this thing in a junk shop or did somebody give it to you?'"
"I like this rug."
"What are you talking," my father says, "it's a worn-out rug."
Light-hearted. "It's worn, but not out. Okay? Enough?"
"Alex, please,' my mother says, 'It is a very worn rug."
"You'll trip on that thing," my father says, "and throw your knee out of whack, and then you'll really be in trouble."
"And with your knee," says my mother meaningfully, 'that wouldn't be a picnic" (p. 108).
This miserable little conversation then escalates, as the mother thinks back on his earlier injuries, and how he recovered very poorly from them. His father chimes in on how he worried his son would be a cripple forever aftetr an earlier injury. Then, after Alex protests that it is just a rug, the parents close the debate with the final trump card:
"You'll see. Someday you'll be a parent, and you'll know what it's like. And then maybe you won't sneer at your family any more" (p. 109).
Of course, this then provides the context and the fodder for examination of "sneering" and for the point that Alex is still single, has not seen fit to try to provide grandchildren for the aging parents and is thus worrying the parents to death because of his lack in that area.
You see where all of this is going. Each conversation with the parents, each interaction with another family member, touches on such tender and deeply-felt feelings of inadequacy, that the child simply is torn in two. On the one hand, he desires just to tell the parents to "FUCK OFF!" and never again speak to him as long as they live. On the other hand, he realizes that they ARE his parents and that he does have a responsibility to them. The despair of being Jewish, according to Roth's depiction, however, is that nothing you ever do will be enough to satisfy those who are dearest and closest to you. Even if you were a Supreme Court Justice by age 35, with an impressive brood of four children, an obedient wife, and were a concert pianist by night, the family could STILL find tons of ways that you are absolutely disappointing your parents, defiling your religion, destroying your pedigree, dishonoring your family, degrading your people and generally, showing yourself unfit to be a human being who should draw breath on this earth.
This, then, is what Alexander Portnoy has had to deal with over the years, and this is why he is on the psychoanalyst's couch, a device which he wryly points out was invented by European Jews. Many more examples of the psychological weight produced by this behavior can be given; I think you get the point.
The next essay looks at the only source of his liberation--by tugging on his .....