Portnoy’s Jewish complaint

Book assesses Philip Roth’s portrayal of American Jewish life on 1960s American Jews.

Portnoys cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Portnoys cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
It is hard to find a page of Portnoy’s Complaint in which the Jewish family, and the larger Jewish world it is stewing in, are not on Portnoy’s mind.
Even after Portnoy is all but exhausted by doubts and affection, even after he is done with parents and The Monkey and shikses and advancing civil rights, he finds himself in Israel, of all places, where his confidence collapses and his sexual desire fizzles. Yet his rage is never quelled and Jews remain in his sights.
He picks up a lovely young soldier and tries taking her to bed. He finds himself impotent, apparently, for the first time. So he doubles down, unleashing residual hysterical energy against Israel’s historical force. After fumbling around the country a little more, he meets the formidable Naomi, a Zionist dish who had come from America (and who, conveniently for Spielvogel, reminds him vaguely of his mother), whom Portnoy finally gets to his room. He fantasizes about forcing himself on her, or forcing himself into marriage with her, while she tries to instruct him in the ways of the world:
The way [so says Naomi] you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that? It is of no value for a man to disapprove of his life the way that you do. You seem to take some special pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor. I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.

Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘ funny.’ All day long the same thing.

In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating...”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.”

“Not Jewish humor! No! Ghetto humor.”

Not much love in that remark, I’ll tell you. By dawn I had been made to understand that I was the epitome of what was most shameful in “the culture of the Diaspora.” Those centuries and centuries of homelessness had produced just such disagreeable men as myself – frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned and corrupted by life in the gentile world...

When she finished I said, “Wonderful.

Now let’s fuck...”

“Mr. Portnoy,” she said, raising her knapsack from the floor, “you are nothing but a self-hating Jew.”

“Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.”
Passages like this were bound to offend Jews, and especially Jews no longer charmed by the self-deprecating humor of Yiddishkeit.
So consider the context and some offending passages more broadly: Here are early midlife confessions of an eloquent, caustic, self-described neurotic; a self-obsessed Jew, convinced his torments are instructive, pouring out his life to a psychoanalytic ear. There is, on his landscape, a compelling figure: a strong, invasive, anxiety-plagued, supposedly self-sacrificing, but actually self-aggrandizing, mother. He once adored her which is why he now hates her – let’s say she has a problem with boundaries. On the other hand, there is his feckless, indulgent, relentless, responsible, business-whipped father, physically weak, unlucky, blocked – home but not quite around. Thoughts of Mommy and Daddy are of a piece with febrile sexual fantasies, which mature (if that’s the word for it) into a fierce pursuit of Gentile women, whose attributed unselfconsciousness, apparent (but deceptive) air of freedom, complete a kind of sexual loop. Women start out irresistible, then turn human, then needy, then frantic – Helena licks your neck, only to become an albatross around it.
Eventually, our hero determines he must be a man. He moves from Mommy to action.
He gives himself to “enlightenment,” to becoming worthy of the goy. Then he dreams a superseding dream, that of finding salvation of sorts among Zionist pioneers or a Hebrew fuck, a dream that yields to yet another sad discovery: that he can never surrender to Jewish “claustrophilia.” Indeed, he discovers that Hebrews, the stolid residents of the land of Israel, have lost touch with the Jews instinctive self-criticism. The sideshow brings us that other character, the nice Jewish girl – filled with compassion for the forsaken people, their good works, with good-hearted defenses against the Jews’ enemies – a woman who projects the kind of love in which recklessness has been banished and desire feels vaguely incestuous. In fact, all Jewish women come to seem this way:
Their flesh had lost its innocence from birth... [S]ome acrid spice of their intellect permeated the very pores of their bodies... knowingness expanded over the nervous surface of their skin, destroyed their capacity for self-forgetfulness.

They were saturated with the long experience of the race which lingered in their eyes and on their skin like the heat of the former occupant in a chair.
Actually, this last passage is not the forlorn Portnoy speaking to Spielvogel about, say, his soldierette with whom he flamed out. The narrator is Joseph, the hero of Arthur Koestler’s 1946 novel, Thieves in the Night, explaining why he found himself so lonely in the kibbutzim of pre-state Palestine.
Furthermore, the memories here were Koestler’s – mother, father, “Helena” – addressed to readers whose sensibilities were, he supposed, like those of a “nimble-witted psychoanalyst.” They were published in Koestler’s best-selling memoir, Arrow in the Blue, in 1952. Oh, and “claustrophilia” was Koestler’s word, too, which he coined in his 1949 report from Israel, Promise and Fulfillment, after a discussion with national orthodox politicians.
All of which raises a question. If Koestler’s self-advertised neurosis regarding mothers, sex – hence, he thought, Jews – was in the public realm fully seventeen years before Portnoy’s Complaint, why did Roth’s book prompt such grievances in 1969, while Koestler’s works, published serially over much of the previous generation, caused hardly a stir? Koestler was no shrinking violet. When he wrote his memoirs he was arguably the most famous writer in the world. By 1947, his great novel Darkness at Noon had sold more copies in Europe than any novel in history: some say the publication of its French edition, Le Zero et l’infini, was single-handedly responsible for preventing the Communists from winning the election of 1946.
The timing and nature of Portnoy’s rhetoric suggested a powerful satire of bourgeois constraints: Roth – so the best of his Jewish critics thought – turned his arsenal on Jewish sexuality to mock the middle class, that is, just when Jews had finally joined it, and its foibles seemed grounds for a “generation gap.” So it was hard to see that Roth was actually mocking Portnoy most of all. Few really took seriously what Roth told Plimpton from the start, that Portnoy’s exaggerations, resentments, obscenities, and desires were hardly there to be emulated – that the greatest enticement of Portnoy’s Complaint was seeing how much Portnoy flies in the face of his own normalizing passion and becomes an object of his own spite.
Maturity Koestler’s readers, unlike Roth’s, presumably, had been left with no doubt that Koestler’s repressed-and-salacious-Jew confessions were meant to be those of a young man who had finally come to maturity. Okay, Koestler had his Jewish critics, especially when it came to his skeptical view of the Diaspora, his impatience with Judaism, a prejudice he had reinforced working for his erstwhile hero, the Revisionist Zionist leader Jabotinsky. But in his sexual life – anyway, before later accusations of rape surfaced – Koestler was thought simply to be exhibiting youthful insecurities, like those that had brought him to Marxist method. One could not be sure that the hero of Portnoy’s Complaint regrets anything.
Koestler once said that the Cold War was the confrontation between the Big Lie and a half-truth. If the Lie in American life during Roth’s childhood had been that Jews were vulgar, tribal, and sly, or, in his young adulthood, that they were the embodiment of bourgeois goodness, then Portnoy’s halftruth was that they were Alex and Sophie and Rabbi Warshaw and Naomi. Koestler yearned for Helena. But goddesses failed him clearly because of his own neurosis, not theirs. It is not so clear with Portnoy. He fantasizes explaining his name to Thereal Mc- Coy at the skating rink (“Portnoy, yes, it’s an old French name, a corruption of porte-noire, meaning black door or gate...”), and he seems justifiably ashamed of his schnoz and manners, determined to win the girl with
her plum pudding (whatever that may be), and her one-family house with a banister and a staircase, and parents who are tranquil and patient and dignified, and also a big brother Billy who knows how to take motors apart and says “Much obliged,” and isn’t afraid of anything physical, and oh the way she’ll cuddle next to me on the sofa in her Angora sweater with her legs pulled back up beneath her tartan skirt, and the way she’ll turn at the doorway and say to me, “And thank you ever so much for such a wonderful wonderful evening,” and then this amazing creature – to whom no one has ever said “Shah!” or “I only hope your children will do the same to you someday!” – this perfect, perfect-stranger, who is as smooth and shiny and cool as custard, will kiss me – raising up one shapely calf behind her – and my nose and my name will have become as nothing.
Roth, unlike Koestler, finally, sailed into a perfect storm of Jewish literary power. Nineteen sixty-nine was the heyday of Jewish intellectuals centered in New York. It corresponded, coincidentally, with the heyday of Jewish military power, the heady aftermath of the Six Day War. The writer Nicholas Lemann has described the New York Jewish intellectuals of the time as “the American Bloomsbury” – Columbia, CUNY, the magazines, the publishing houses, the “media.” And they were mostly Jews: Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Shapiro, Sidney Hook, the Trillings, the Bells, Bellow, Malamud, Kazin, Kristol, Podhoretz, Howe, the Epsteins, Susan Sontag, Robert Silvers – need I continue? There was, especially after the 1967 war, a growing interest in American Jewish identity, and Portnoy seemed almost calculated to force very articulate people into camps.
Isaac Bashevis Singer had told the Paris Review in the fall of 1968, just before Portnoy’s Complaint was published: “To me there are only Yiddish writers, Hebrew writers, English writers, Spanish writers. The whole idea of a Jewish writer, or a Catholic writer, is kind of far-fetched to me.” Young Roth no doubt concurred (though he once asked me if “far-fetched” was not itself Yiddish). And a novel expressing a tortured Jewish sensibility of Portnoy’s sort might well have been the ideal fiction for the New York intellectuals, people like Kazin – Americans for whom Jewishness was more conundrum than identity.
Valiant By the end of the sixties, however, there was a kind of turmoil, a changing of the guard, in the Jewish intelligentsia. Community leaders began insisting on the “centrality” of Israel for Jewish life. They pointed to a valiant Israeli democracy and shrugged off the occupation of the West Bank, which they assumed would be temporary. The preeminent Jewish organizations, local philanthropic federations, began to devote as much as half of their funds to Israel (which is still more or less true). They rallied to support Israeli diplomacy during exchanges of fire on the Suez Canal, terrorist attacks, and, most horribly, the 1973 war. Jewish intellectuals, mostly on the academic left, did not exactly let themselves be led by such organizations, but they often spoke in synagogues, raised money from philanthropists, and made common cause with Jewish big-shots in Democratic Party politics.
On the erstwhile left, Commentary magazine was already showing signs of the neoconservatism that would colonize it more completely over the next decade. The Six Day War in 1967 was a watershed; Jews everywhere were swept up by the victory, and faith in the justice of Jewish armed power helped, subtly, to shape Jewish attitudes toward American politics and foreign policy.
In the back of more and more American Jewish minds was the need to reverse the U.S. State Department’s traditional tilt toward the Arab oil regimes, beginning with the otherwise idolized George Marshall and George Kennan. Many Jews were drawn to political allies of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who argued, flatly, that Israel was to be promoted as America’s key regional ally against the Soviets. Israeli self-defense seemed an inspiration to ethnic realpolitik in America: should not Jews confront the violence against them in U.S. cities, like the confrontation in 1968 between Jewish teachers and black parents demanding community control of schools in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville? The seeds for an agonistic view of American Jewish power were evident as early as 1964 – the year Jews voted 9 to 1 for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. The previous year, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz had written his notorious article “My Negro Problem – and Ours.” Podhoretz acknowledged how the civil rights movement was cardinal for Jews, but that was precisely his “problem.” He implied that Jews were soft but had made it; that their support for the economic empowerment of black toughs (“who act as though they have nothing to lose”) was if not self-destructive then at least disingenuous.
Why, his magazine asked, should Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans? The fact that certain black militants came to rationalize anti-Semitism as a form of rage against ghetto storekeepers and landlords seemed to make his point.
For the Jewish right, there was a universal Jewish vulnerability that required a universal Jewish toughness. It was as if there was an on going referendum on the virtue of Jewish power, whose implicit foils were Great Society initiatives at home and United Nations resolutions abroad. This was not going to be a sensibility that could digest either Portnoy’s versions of his family or, worse, his schlemiel version of himself.
Even on the recalcitrant left, the crowd’s wisdom was inclined to receive the book skeptically. As the anti-war movement grew into “radical” politics, Jewish intellectuals such as Howe, Bell, and Nathan Glazer, people who as young men had prided themselves on resisting Soviet Communism while holding to Marxian insights, now positioned themselves by the degrees to which their “socialism” had been shaken off or clung to. (Howe would write, ironizing religious speech: “Socialism is the name of our desire.”) Lines, and identities, hardened as the New Left grabbed much of the airspace. Veteran socialists like Howe and other founders of Dissent magazine – Stanley Plastrik, Lewis Coser – suddenly found themselves on the defensive. When a New Left student leader named Cohen asked by what right Howe still called himself a radical, Howe responded, incensed, “Cohen, you know what you’re going to end up as – a dentist! And I’ll be a radical after you start pulling teeth.” (Actually, Cohen did become a dentist.) The bone of contention was whether “self-realization” was best understood in political, economic or psychological ways – in a nutshell, whether revolutions are incubated in the workplace or in bed, which is not so obvious when you think about it.
As Mark Schechner put it, people of the left both reflected and resisted the movement from the “politics of social redemption” to the “politics of self-renewal,” “Socialism to Therapy.” For older radicals, to embrace Freud’s questions seemed a kind of abandonment of Marx, who of course should have been abandoned, but not like that. Howe summed up his reservations about the New Left in A Margin of Hope: “We bore marks of ‘corrosion and distrust’... they looked forward to clusterings of fraternity...
We had pulled ourselves out of an immigrant working class, an experience not likely to induce romantic views about the poor; they, children of warm liberals and cooled radicals, were hoping to find a way into the lives and wisdom of the oppressed.”