Up Against the Wall, Mama!

Portnoy's Complaint

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

Philip Roth
Philip Roth; drawing by David Levine

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…

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