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Up Against the Wall, Mama!

Portnoy’s Complaint

by Philip Roth
Random House, 274 pp., $6.95

Alex Portnoy of Newark, who is all complaint and therefore a very funny case, is the latest and most vivid example of the tendency among American Jews to reduce their experience to psychology. Of course many non-Jews in America do this, too: in a country so crammed and lively with jostling human styles, languages, traditions, races, it is most practical as well as sophisticated to recognize one’s role, to see on every hand how different a role can be. But to young American Jews, who in this most smashing of times and countries often feel that they have been born not to faith but to a neurosis, a “condition,” a burden, a complaint, the proximity of psychoanalysis often seems the only liberation from the monotony of Jew, Jew, Jewish. No Jew in his senses still believes that the Revolution will do anything for Jews as Jews (or even for Jews as anti-Jews, pace the ghosts of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stansky, etc., etc.). But psychoanalysis will not refuse Jew or Greek, is nevertheless clinical perspective and distance, and hints not only of a new consciousness to come, but of bridges to creativity. That is why the Jew as raucous vulgarian (Groucho), as parodist of the genteel culture (Perelman), as existentialist (Bellow), as martyr (Malamud), has been succeeded by so many Jews in show business who sound as if they had rewritten the third act in consultation with the analyst.

Psychoanalysis may leave indeterminate effects of renewal, but as one can see from so many analysts, the seeming control over one’s life stimulated by so much new consciousness leads to pressing feelings of creativity. And to what group can this be so stimulating as to young Jews who are swingers and skeptics, mod to the point of panic, born secularists in this most secularist of cultures? To them the Jewish “condition” is more and more meaningless, unwanted, embarrassing to their Negro friends, reactionary. But they are stuck with it, often enough have internalized all the woes and hysteria of four thousand years from their near-immigrant parents (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) and see no liberation in sight but through psychoanalysis and the inspiration it will surely bring to write as freely as Paul Goodman.

This is not exactly the case of Philip Roth only because Roth is vibrantly talented, an original, as marvelous a mimic and fantasist as has been produced by the most verbal group in human history, and therefore not given to the concessiveness that less interesting Jews fall into. But it is Roth’s case in the essential that he can write of Jews only as hysterics (and does not write of “Christians” half so well), that he writes without the aid of general ideas (Herzog suffered twice as much as Portnoy does, but Herzog also lived in history; Portnoy lives only through his mother). Roth is pitiless in reducing Jewish history to the Jewish voice. “Why do you suffer so much?” the Italian “assistant” jeeringly challenges the Jewish grocer in Bernard Malamud’s novel. To which the answer of course comes (with many an amen! from Jesus, Marx, Freud, and others too numerous to mention)—“I suffer for you!” “Why do I suffer so much?” Alex Portnoy has to ask himself in Newark, Rome, Jerusalem (Alex is lonely even in the most crowded bed). His answer, his only answer, the final answer, what an answer, is that to which many a misanthropic son of the covenant is now reduced in this mixed blessing of a country—“My mother! My.…. Jewish mother!”

This is still funny? In Portnoy’s Complaint it is extremely funny, and the reason that Roth makes it funny is that he believes this, he believes nothing else. He is not an easygoing “humorist” but a writer whose view of life is harsh, whose intellectual temper is fanatical, who likes his material to get defiant and wild, who works his narratives out to a point which in its hysterical sharpness is not unlike a real suffering Jewish mama’s. Portnoy is more sustained than I would have expected from reading advance sections, it is touching as well as hilariously lewd, because Roth projects and exaggerates his mimic’s gift to form a glamorously desperate monologue, a manic aria. Portnoy in heat is particularly funny. Even when he graduates from the nearest receptacle to other bodies, sex remains his favorite form of protest. In the wildest throes, his bitterness is more in evidence than his passion, and his life remains, as always, furiously mental.

In this book we are nowhere else, but for once we are wholly in the bottled-up (he thinks) Jewish son complaining of the classic Jewish parents. The flow of bitterness is great, and so is the sheer excess of everything against which it complains—the excess of protection, concern, identification, self-righteousness, and, most of all, the excess of speech to any and every worry that calls it forth. All this reaches its right voice and pitch and end (though there is no end) in the comic situation of Portnoy who at thirty-three, no matter where he goes and how many girls he can have at one time in his bed, is still a masturbator at heart, still rebelling against the undefeatable, still seething against MaMa. These notes from underground! (“I am a sick man, a spiteful man….”)

What else, I ask you, were all these prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed? Practice, darling, practice, practice, practice. Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know—takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hardworking attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being. Why else the two sets of dishes? Why else the kosher soap and salt? Why else, I ask you, but to remind us three times a day that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other, rules which either you obey without question, regardless of how idiotic they may appear (and thus remain, by obeying, in His good graces), or you transgress.…. only with the strong likelihood (my father assures me) that comes next Yom Kippur and the names are written in the big book where He writes the names of those who are going to get to live until the following September…. and lo, your own precious name ain’t among them…And it doesn’t make any difference either…how big or how small the rule is that you break: it’s the breaking alone that gets His goat—it’s the simple fact of waywardness, and that alone, that He absolutely cannot stand, and which He does not forget either, when He sits angrily down (fuming probably, and surely with a smashing miserable headache, like my father at the height of his constipation) and begins to leave the names out of that book.

This is the tone of the book, and it is remarkable that Roth has been able not only to keep this tone going with so much wit but also to indicate its bottom pathos; for where is Papa’s authority and why weren’t there more of these baseball games to which little Portnoy went out to find the men? The book is as good as Portnoy’s aria. But: who is speaking here? Who can believe, without more evidence, that Portnoy is this urgent and this clever, this fanatical and this sorrowful, all-in-one-tone? Who is Portnoy? A patient, a case. Who but the author could speak this much all-in-one-tone? That is the cost of being “liberated,” of letting oneself go: to substitute the author’s mind for a character’s is to substitute Roth’s redoubtable intellectual will for the give-and-take of life. And even (recall other Jewish heroes in the modern novel), for the complexity and moral depth of Jewish experience, which may look reducible to a mother, a son, a shriek, a cry—but if it were, would as a subject have been exhausted long ago.

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