Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint Almost Got Me Fired



I was sorry to hear of the death of Philip Roth this week.  I have been reading his work ever since his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus,  won the National Book Award in 1959 when I was a senior in high school. I have particularly enjoyed his creation of Nathan Zuckerman throughout the years. However, my favorite Roth book is Portnoy’s Complaint, a book that, indirectly, almost got me fired from my university teaching job. It was Portnoy’s Complaint that inspired me to create a course in the English Department years ago entitled Love and Sex in Literature.  In my course proposal, I argued that novels like Portnoy’s Complaint were works of art that had to be taken seriously, but that because readers were so unaccustomed to reading graphic descriptions of sexuality outside of pornography they lacked any historical/critical context for taking sex seriously in literature.  I wanted to create a course that would “teach” students how to read about sex intelligently.
After teaching the course for a year, one of my colleagues challenged the validity of the course and my authority to teach it—resulting in a charge of unprofessional conduct that lead to an “investigation” by administrators and fellow faculty.  However, by this time, I had made a respected name for myself as an expert in the study of sexual fantasy in literature and had delivered scholarly papers at a number of professional societies and had published several academic research articles on the subject.  My colleagues found the course to have academic validity and found me “qualified” to teach it. It was an interesting period in my career, and I thank Philip Roth for indirectly encouraging me to engage in it. Consequently, today, although it means a momentary departure from my usual discussions of the short story, I pay tribute to Philip Roth by making some comments about one of his most famous novels—Portnoy’s Complaint.  
Portnoy’s Complaint depicts one long quest in which Portnoy uses sexuality as a weapon to rebel against repression, even as he is victimized by sexuality itself.  Caught by what Freud calls "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life," Portnoy cannot unite the two currents of feeling--the affectionate with the sensuous.  Only when the sexual partner is degraded can he freely feel his sensual feelings--which explains his preoccupation with, and his ultimate rejection of gentile women.  When he meets Monkey, who seems the complete embodiment of his adolescent sexual fantasies, he ridicules and humiliates her until he drives her away, for he can neither accept her as a real woman nor be satisfied with her as a sexual fantasy.
Throughout the novel, Portnoy recounts his obsessive masturbation, his constant preoccupation with a pornographic fantasy object he calls Thereal McCoy, and his unsuccessful romantic and sexual experiences with various gentile women. However, he also spends equally as much of his confessional monologue to his complaints against the repressions placed on him by his parents and his Jewish culture in general--which primarily amounts to the constant message that "life is boundaries and restrictions if it's anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other." Finally, when he goes to Israel on a sort of pilgrimage to atone for his transgressions and to come to terms with his cultural roots,  he meets and tries to have sex with a Jewish woman, only to find he is impotent with her.  The novel ends with Portnoy's drawn-out howl at what he calls the disproportion of the guilt he feels, followed by a "punch line"--Dr. Spielvogel's only words in the novel--"Now vee may perhaps to begin Yes?"
In a sense, the entire novel is Portnoy's character, for he not only is its central and entirely dominating  figure, he is its only narrator as well.  Because of his Jewish childhood, particularly his desire to please his mother, Portnoy says at one point that his occupation is being "good." He wants to be a good little boy, but he cannot control the demands of his own physical body as a child, and thus suffers disproportionate guilt for his masturbation and for his adolescent sexual fantasies about every female he meets.
 Portnoy is the living embodiment of what Freud defines as "civilization and its discontents"--a walking personification of the Oedipus complex.  Moreover, he is representative of what many refer to as the "self-hating" Jew, which is what the Jewish woman Naomi calls him in the novel's final section.  He presents himself throughout as both the teller of and the butt of an extended Jewish joke.  He is intelligent enough to know himself well, to know who and what he is, but he is not strong enough to free himself from his dilemma of being torn between his desire to be "good" and his obsessive sexual desires.
Portnoy's mother and father, Sophie and Jack, are less real people than they are stereotypes of the Jewish mother and father in America, with Sophie complaining to her friends that she is "too good," and warning Portnoy about eating gentile junk food, and Jack complaining about his constant constipation, both literally and metaphorically. Portnoy sees them both as the greatest packagers of guilt in society.  Having read Freud, Portnoy sees the Jewish woman, Naomi, whom he unsuccessfully tries to have sex with, as a mother-substitute, and cries out to Doctor Spielvogel, "This then is the culmination of the Oedipal drama, Doctor?  More farce, my friend!  Too much to swallow, I'm afraid Oedipus Rex is a famous tragedy, schmuck, not another joke!" Although Portnoy wishes he could have nourished himself on his father's vulgarity instead of always searching for his mother's approval, even that vulgarity has become a source of shame--"every place I turn something else to be ashamed of."         
The Monkey also is less a real character than she is the embodiment of Portnoy's adolescent fantasy of the sexual woman, the "star of all those pornographic films" he produces in his own head. Uneducated hillbilly turned high-fashion model, she is an aggressively sexual creature instead of the reluctant puritan gentile women he has known before.  Although she has her own needs, Portnoy can focus on the needs of no one but himself. Kay Campbell (Pumpkin), Portnoy's girlfriend at Antioch College, represents his yearning for Protestant middle American values, while Sarah Abbott Maulsby (Pilgrim) embodies New England respectability.  However, as Portnoy himself recognizes, he does not want these women so much as he wants what they represent.
The most basic thematic interest in the novel centers on the Freudian tension between human desires for controlled civilized behavior and the discontent that results from having to give up  impulsive behavior to establish civilization. Portnoy is the extreme embodiment of modern man self-consciously caught in this war between necessary control and desired freedom. However, such a theme sounds much too academic for the means by which Roth's novel embodies it.  For the novel, serious as its theme is, is one of the great comic masterpieces of American literature. 
It is hard to take seriously the Portnoy voice agonizing about locking himself in the bathroom to engage in masturbation while his mother stands outside asking him not to flush so she can examine his stool. Portnoy describes his penis as his "battering ram to freedom," and cries out, "LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID. Liberate this nice Jewish boy's libido, will you please?" However, although Portnoy longs for the uninhibited sexual attitude of his boyhood classmate, Smolka, at the same time, he asks, "How would I like my underwear all gray and jumbled up in my drawer, as Smolka's always is?"
What Portnoy cannot tolerate is the fact that he cannot have both his toll house cookies and milk which his mother supplies, as well as the sexual experiences that Smolka enjoys. Since sexuality is the central taboo impulse which civilization seeks to control to assure its own stability, the nature of sexuality itself is a primary theme of the novel.  "What a mysterious business it is," says Portnoy, "with sex the human imagination runs to Z, and then beyond."  Because sexuality itself is so inextricably bound up with fantasy, the very style and tone of the book combines the realism of Portnoy's experience with the surrealism of his sexual fantasies.  
The fact that Portnoy is Jewish is less important in its own right than it is to embody the extreme insistence on "self-control, sobriety, sanctions" which society says is the "key to human life."  The non-Jewish society which Portnoy often yearns for is no less banal and crippled in its restrictions and recriminations than the values which his Jewish heritage attempts to instill. Thus, the primary themes of the book are both psychological and social, but the medium for both is the hilarious self-satirizing voice of Portnoy, which is alternately sophomoric in its humor and sharply critical of social absurdity.
Portnoy's Complaint is somewhat of a cultural milestone in fiction of the 1960's, for, although its obsessive focus on sexuality and its constant use of taboo words seemed to align it with many of the conventions associated with pornography, it was a serious novel with a serious theme.  Consequently, its publication forced many cultural critics to reevaluate their previous assumptions about sexually-explicit literature.  It was hailed by many reviewers, made the best-seller list, and became a topic of cocktail-party conversation in an era in which "pop porno" became acceptable. Not since the works of Henry Miller had autobiographical fiction and explicit sexuality been so forthright and engaging.
Although much of the criticism of the book has focused on its Jewishness, many have recognized it as typically American as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951)--as a comic masterpiece of the cultural and personal conflicts of growing up in American society. 

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