It Does Not Pack the Wallop It Once Did

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

The brutally frank sexuality, negative portrayal of Jews, and the dislikable, womanizing main character in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth shocked and revolted the world when it was new.  Nobody but Roth scholars reads the book today, but I doubt it would shock like it did even if people did.

The controversy ignored parts of the book that were laugh-out-loud funny, like the time teen-age Portnoy goes to a strip show and masturbates into his baseball glove. Then he sees an older man masturbating into his hat. “Not in your hat, you shvantz! You have to put that on your head,” Portnoy says.

Another joke most people did not get had Portnoy masturbating in raw liver, to simulate a vagina. According to Russian-born Shlomo Katz, one of the few Jewish editors at the time to treat the book respectfully, without damning it and its author, “He masturbates in liver” was an old insult among teenage boys he grew up with.

A Jewish Boy From Newark

Like Roth himself, Alexander Portnoy was a Jewish boy from Newark, NJ, part of the generation that grew up during World War II, but was too young to serve.

Portnoy had become a success in New York City, and was doing everything he could to shed all traces of his Newark Jewish background, including his parents, whom he was ashamed of.

When he takes his parents to dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, and tells them they can order anything they want, he’s embarrassed when his father, who observes the Jewish dietary laws, tells the waiter to bring him a piece of fish, “and make sure it’s hot.”

Portnoy, who fancies himself a well-educated, cosmopolitan sophisticate, is afraid the waiter at the Waldorf might think he is as provincial and narrow-minded as his father. He does not consider the possibility that religious observance might have some validity and value to the believer.

An Anti-Semitic Jew?

Philip Roth in the 1970's

Roth was already famous for his short novel, Good-Bye, Columbus, another negative portrait of a Newark Jewish family that made money, moved to the suburbs, and put on an expensive tasteless wedding for its oldest son. The point-of-view character was a Newark Jew who had not moved out, who was working as a librarian in the Newark public library.

It took Roth many years to get his stories out of Newark, and away from negative Jewish stereotypes.

The two works together gave Roth the reputation among many Jews as a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew. He certain;ly showed no sympathy or understanding toward his Jewish characters from Newark. They were all pretty revolting.

Many Jews felt Roth was perpetuating and giving credibility to old anti-Semitic stereotypes. Goyim (non-Jews) would read these stories by an intellectually respectable Jewish writer, and what would they think of us, many Jews said.

Compulsive Masturbation and Fornication

As an adolescent, Portnoy used compulsive masturbation to substitute for the real thing. As an adult, he used compulsive fornicating to substitute for masturbation.  Portnoy describes himself in the book as “cunt crazy.”

This is not the only fictional work by Roth where masturbation is a major element.

Again, many people assumed that Roth was similar to his characters, obsessed with masturbation. That is not necessarily valid. I have no idea what Roth’s sex life or auto-erotic life is like, but fiction writers are not always the same as their fictional characters.

Bruno Bettelheim Role-Plays Portnoy’s Psychoanalyst

Bruno Bettelheim

One of the most intriguing things written about the book at the time was a review/essay by Bruno Bettelheim, one of the leading psychoanalysts of that era of psychoanalysis. It was published in 1970, in Shlomo Katz’s small Jewish monthly, Midstream Magazine.

Each chapter of the book is a stream of consciousness narrative by Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy begins psychoanalysis to gain insight into why he can’t maintain relationships with women, and why his sexual relationships with one woman after another leave him feeling so empty and dissatisfied.

The book ends with the doctor saying, “Perhaps now we can begin.”

In his essay, Bettelheim assumes the role of Portnoy’s analyst, and treats each chapter as an hour of therapy for six consecutive days, ending on a Saturday. The essay is Bettelheim’s therapy notes for each hour.

Bettelheim speculates on Portnoy’s foibles, neuroses, narcissism, and bad behavior — why he is such a self-centered user of people — as a psychoanalyst would in introductory sessions with a new patient.

Portnoy 40-Plus Years Later

Today, 40-plus years later, the dirty words and sexuality are far less shocking.  Portnoy, who uses, and dehumanizes, one woman after another, is still revolting and pathetic. The funny parts are still funny, and the book feels a lot less significant than it did at the time.

Portnoy was a few years younger than my father, and his parents were my grandparents’ age. I’m 63, and those people are all gone. At least, they are not the dominant cultural force they were 40 years ago.

Portnoy is an early work by Roth, who represents the generation after the important American Jewish writers who served in World War II: Herman Wouk, Norman Mailer, and Bernard Malamud.

Because he lived in less interesting times, his work is does not contain an interesting take on important history. In fact, there is little if any connection between his self-absorbed characters and any history at all.

I’m 20 years younger than Roth, and I see nothing of myself in most of his work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *