Friday, September 25, 2009

The form of modern degradation

A mere ten years after the United States government tried for the last time to censor obscene literature, Philip Roth published a novel that blew the doors off charges of obscenity. Portnoy’s Complaint set out to épater community standards, which the Supreme Court had held, in creating the ironically named Roth test, constituted the yardstick for judging obscenity. The community was obligingly épatés. “I’m not impressed by his writing,” sniffed Roth’s French teacher at Weequahic High School in Newark. “Why does he beat this one, narrow, little vein of human experience?”[1] Indeed, Jacqueline Susann notoriously told Johnny Carson that she would not shake the hand that beat that vein. “In my writing lifetime,” Roth replied, “the use of obscenity has by and large been governed by one’s literary taste and tact and not by the mores of the audience.”[2]

Taste and tact are not the first words that crowd into the mind upon reaching the novel’s second chapter:

Then came adolescence—half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out. Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth—though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstasy, I got it all in the pompadour, like a blast of Wildroot Cream Oil.[3]Top that, Updike! Published the year before, Couples had dynamited the prohibition on sex chatter. “Let me make you come,” he begs. “With my mouth.” “No,” she demurs. “I’m all wet down there.” “But it’s me,” he protests, “it’s my wetness.” Although he self-defensively cited Updike as a forerunner in the “deliberate” and “artistic” use of obscenity, Roth was after something bigger in Portnoy’s Complaint. He wanted to smash the taboo on the sexual degradation of another human being.

Since the novel takes the form of a Freudian psychoanalysis, it is only fitting that Freud should be Alexander Portnoy’s source for the concept of erotic degradation. Explaining to his analyst that he is “under the influence at the moment of an essay entitled ‘The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life’ ”—also the title of the novel’s fifth chapter—Portnoy exposits the concept:In the “Degradation” essay there is that phrase, “currents of feeling.” For a “fully normal attitude in love” (deserving of semantic scrutiny, that “fully normal,” but go on— ) for a fully normal attitude toward love, says [Freud], it is necessary that two currents of feeling be united: the tender, affectionate feelings, and the sensuous feelings. And in many instances this just doesn’t happen, sad to say. “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.” (pp. 185–86)The characterization suits Portnoy. It accounts for his refusal to “enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of [his] days” (p. 104). People don’t marry out of the love that “the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about,” he insists. They marry out of “convenience and apathy and guilt,” out of “fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple. . .” (p. 105). What are they so afraid of? The answer: sexual freedom—the great bugaboo of the bourgeoisie, to whom it rather threatnest, than dost promise aught. “Why should I bend to the bourgeoisie?” Portnoy asks. “Do I ask them to bend to me? Maybe I’ve been touched by the tarbush of Bohemia a little—is that so awful?” (p. 103).

Perhaps it is. Wouldn’t that be a shocker? Although he declares that “to be bad—and to enjoy it”—is the “real struggle,” Portnoy cannot bring himself to plunge into badness. He does not smoke, does not take drugs, does not gamble nor borrow money. “Sure, I say fuck a lot,” he admits, “but I assure you, that’s about the sum of my success with transgressing.” His soul is tormented by his inability to smash the taboos. “Why must the least deviation from respectable conventions cause me inner hell?” he moans. “When I hate those fucking conventions!” (p. 124).

All that changes when he meets Mary Jane Reed. Portnoy calls her the Monkey, because of an incident from her earlier life that she tells him about. One evening a couple of swingers picked her up and asked her to watch while they copulated in front of her. While she watched, she grabbed a banana and started eating (p. 159). The nickname is degrading, of course, and so is the incident: not perhaps in her telling, because the Monkey seems to want only to titillate Portnoy. But in his retelling: for him it is the baptismal image of her degradation.

And so he proceeds to degrade her in his turn. On a weekend trip to Vermont, he unexpectedly finds his sensuous feelings for her beginning to unite with tender, affectionate feelings. But on their return to New York, where Portnoy serves as assistant commissioner for human opportunity under Mayor John V. Lindsay, his usual feelings for her, never far from contempt, begin to resurface. She is a miner’s daughter from rural West Virginia; she can barely spell; she goes to a reception at Gracie Mansion looking like a stripper; she once accepted money from a one-night lover in Las Vegas. Besides, there is his dignity to consider. Precisely because she is the incarnation of all his erotic dreams (a “fantasy begging you to make it real!”), precisely because she is beautiful and wanton (a “wild piece of ass”), anyone who sees them together will divine the reason why: “Take her fully for my own, you see, and the whole neighborhood will know at last the truth about my dirty little mind” (p. 201).

He does bend to the bourgeoisie, then, after all? Unable to accept the thought of marrying someone for whom the whole world knows he has sensuous feelings, he forces her, on successive nights, into a menage à trois with a streetwalker in Rome. Although he thinks No! No! No! he goes ahead with it: “Into whose hole, into what sort of hole, I deposited my final load is entirely a matter for conjecture.” And then he vomits into the toilet bowl. The Monkey is even more distraught; she cries that Portnoy has “delivered her into evil” (p. 138). She is convinced that he will leave her, since he has got what he wanted: “To you I’m just another her, anyway! You, will all your big words and big shit holy ideals and all I am in your eyes is just a cunt—and a lesbian!—and a whore!” (p. 141). Portnoy takes her to Athens, but she is unpropitiated. She wants a husband, a home, and a child. “I am not a lesbian!” she shrieks. “I am not a whore!” She climbs on the hotel balcony and threatens to jump unless Portnoy marries her. He leaves her instead.

Although he remarks that “the worst thing” he has ever done was to masturbate into the beef liver that his mother served the family later the same night, Portnoy knows that the Monkey is right when she says that his degradation and abandonment of her is evil. He flees to Israel, but he fails “to convert [himself] from the bewildered runaway into a man again” (p. 252). He meets a young Israeli from a kibbutz near the Lebanon border, a “red-headed, freckled, ideological hunk of a girl,” who successfully wards off his advances and informs him that he is the most unhappy person she has ever known:     “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-depreciating. Self-depreciating?”
     “Self-deprecating. Self-mocking.”
     “Exactly! And you are a highly intelligent man—that is what makes it even more disagreeable. The contribution you could make! Such stupid self-deprecation. How disagreeable!”
     “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.”
     “Not Jewish humor! No! Ghetto humor.” (pp. 264–65)
And she is right too. The late Irving Kristol pointed out that Jewish humor, taking as its “frame of reference the complex structure of ghetto society, ghetto life, and Jewish tradition,” was born out of a “God-forsaken religiosity.” It became possible only when the Jewish people were thrust into modernity, and began to lose their faith. Like the Israelis, who “prefer not to think of the ghetto,” Kristol wondered if Jewish humor had really survived the Holocaust: “For just as humor cannot mature in a life of utter religious faith, so it cannot survive a life of sheer nihilism.”

Portnoy is scornful of what he calls the Nazi excuse. The source of his life’s nihilism lies elsewhere. He finally admits that his life is empty:[I]nstead of tucking in my children and lying down beside a loyal wife (to whom I am loyal too), I have, on two different evenings, taken to bed with me—coinstanteously, as they say in the whorehouses—a fat little Italian whore and an illiterate, unbalanced American mannequin. And that isn’t even my idea of a good time, damn it. What is? I told you! And I meant it—sitting at home listening to Jack Benny with my kids! Raising intelligent, loving, sturdy children! Protecting some good woman! Dignity! Health! Love! Industry! Intelligence! Trust! Decency! High Spirits! Compassion! What the hell do I care about sensational sex? (p.248)But if he does not care about sensational sex, what has Portnoy’s Complaint been about? Up to this point, after all, it has consisted of practically nothing but sensational sex.

What Portnoy learns is that discarding the respectable conventions of the bourgeoisie and taking up the tarbrush of Bohemia makes it impossible ever to have the life that he yearns for most deeply. Hard work in an idealistic profession, faithful marriage, children to raise, family forgiveness, love depend for their existence upon the very taboos that he makes it his business to smash. Portnoy is the victim of his own cultural aspirations, his own advanced thinking, his own “big shit holy ideals.”

In commenting on Roth, Eric of Beyond Assumptions worried that “you need to be Jewish to fully appreciate his work.” Here is why I don’t think so. Although Portnoy’s Complaint is packed with Yiddish, despite the narrator’s warning that he only knows twenty-five words of the language, and though its setting is the hothouse of a second-generation lower middle-class Jewish family, the novel established Philip Roth as the diagnostician of the modern predicament. Jew or Gentile, believer or not, you and I are in exactly the same position as Alexander Portnoy. We yearn for the happiness of bourgeois respectability, and we are irritated by its arbitrary fucking conventions, even when we abide by them. Our fragmentation, our inner turmoil, is the most prevalent form of our modern degradation. No literary form embodies this cultural contradiction more fully than the novel, and no novelist has faced up to it more relentlessly than Roth. The result is farce, not tragedy, but the ending is unhappy all the same.

[1] Quoted in Arnold H. Lubasch, “Philip Roth Shakes Weequahic High,” New York Times (Feb. 28, 1969): 28.

[2] George Plimpton, “Roth’s Exact Intent,” New York Times Book Review (Feb. 23, 1969): 2.

[3] Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 17–18. Subsequent references in parentheses.


Guy Pursey said...

This is a superb piece and not the first I've had the pleasure of reading on this blog. I've only read five of Roth's novels to date (The Counterlife, the Kepesh trilogy, and Portnoy's Complaint) and Portnoy's Complaint was the one I least enjoyed. However, your reading of it as presented here has made me want to revisit the book so that perhaps, with your observations and a few more years' life experience behind me, I can appreciate it more fully. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving us readers such intelligent pieces. I have loved reading this article -and have even posted the link to it in my Facebook page. Ana. x