Friday, February 01, 2013

Portnoy’s complaining voice

The most striking thing about Portnoy’s Complaint is its voice. Time has not softened its jolt:

What is he doing to himself, this fool! this idiot! this furtive boy! This sex maniac! He simply cannot—will not—control the fires in his putz, the fevers in his brain, the desire continually burning within for the new, the wild, the unthought-of and, if you can imagine such a thing, the undreamt-of. Where cunt is concerned he lives in a condition that has neither diminished nor in any significant way been refined from what it was when he was fifteen years old and could not get up from his seat in the classroom without hiding a hard-on beneath his three-ring notebook. Every girl he sees turns out (hold your hats) to be carrying around between her legs—a real cunt. Amazing! Astonishing! Still can’t get over the fantastic idea that when you are looking at a girl, you are looking at somebody who is guaranteed to have on her—a cunt! They all have cunts! Right under their dresses! Cunts—for fucking![1]Portnoy was not the first in American fiction to use such language. Three-and-a-half decades earlier, Henry Miller had permitted Carl, a friend of the narrator, to go on like this:You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have any brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn’t put meat on their arms or juice between the legs.[2]The difference in tone is immediately apparent—Portnoy is feverish with astonishment, while Carl’s is the tired voice of habitual promiscuity—but not even Miller tried to write an entire book in such language. Portnoy’s voice, by contrast, is largely what Roth’s novel is for. It was an overt break, an intentional break, with what had come before—not only with Miller’s relative lack of daring, but also with what Roth would later call his own “literary conscience.” The young American Jewish writer Ilan Mochari, whose first novel Zinsky the Obscure owes an unrepayable debt to Roth’s fourth book, locates the break within Roth’s own career. He asks:Did the traditional, Jamesian traits of Letting Go and its follow-up, When She Was Good (1967), make it easier for critics to acclaim the raucous boundary-smashing of Portnoy? Which is to say: Did critics further appreciate Portnoy’s lack of old-school structure as a conscientious artistic choice because Roth had already proven he could write the formal stuff?Or did Roth, in writing his first three books, find that the refined voice of American literary realism, owing as much to Howells and even Sinclair Lewis as to James, was fundamentally incompatible with very coarseness of life, which the realists sought to admit into literature? The answers to these questions are likely to remain mysteries, even to Roth’s authorized biographer. What can be said with a little greater certainty is that no one like Alexander Portnoy had ever been heard before in American prose fiction. Portnoy’s Complaint represented a break, with literary tradition and conscience, in how it sounded.

The critics have never succeeded in describing the sound. Ross Posnock showers it with adjectives: “exorbitant, raw, regressive,” “Huck Finnish” (twice), “shrill,” “flamboyant,” “manically shameless,” “Dionysian (and literary),” “outrageous,” but “curiously inhibited” when compared to the later Sabbath’s Theater—oh, and don’t forget “immature.”[3] Bernard Avishai had the advantage of consulting Roth’s notes. “The background I was overthrowing was literary,” Roth scribbled: Portnoy does not give voice to “the dignified unacceptable thoughts” but to the “stinky unacceptable thoughts,” because he has a “grotesque conception of life.” Avishai, however, is unwilling to take Roth at his word:[Readers] could not assume Portnoy’s story was simply grotesque. They could not assume Portnoy’s voice was, first and foremost, self-satirizing. Portnoy remained adorable somehow, the consummate stand-up comic, his parents and lovers the justified targets of his petulance, the character through which Roth liberated his voice and spirit. It has been hard to see Roth’s protagonist as a mere literary device.[4]Love that mere. For a political economist and business professor, there is always something more important than literature. Perhaps not for a writer, though—especially for one like Roth, who devoted an entire life, solitary and childless, to the struggle with writing. What outsiders to literature do not seem to comprehend is that writing is a struggle, not just with sentences and paragraphs, but with other writers, other styles and voices and strategies for getting things said. Literature is a ceaseless conversation and sometimes even a debate with one’s predecessors and contemporaries and even with one’s younger writing self. To see Portnoy as a literary device is to see him as he draws himself up to full height.

Roth was pretty clear what he was up to. Portnoy’s Complaint, he said, is a novel in the form of a confession, not a confession in the form of a novel. It is not the thinly fictionalized revelation of personal and embarrassing facts about the author. “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend,” he said in his open letter to Wikipedia. The novel pretends to be one thing (in this case, a long-winded “talking cure” addressed to a psychoanalyst, Doctor Spielvogel, who is referred to now and again), but in reality it is an elaborate mechanism and disguise for making meanings that can be made in no other way. Let Portnoy explain:All I do is complain, the repugnance seems bottomless, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe enough isn’t enough. I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public. . . . Is this truth I’m delivering up, or is it just plain kvetching? Or is kvetching for people like me a form of truth? (p. 94)Portnoy never clarifies what sort of people are people like him. Jews who were born in 1933, raised in Newark, attended a good college (Antioch, say, or Bucknell), hold the correct liberal opinions? The phrase seems a throwaway until you begin to suspect that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for you. Portnoy’s kvetch is a form of truth for people like him—that is, like all of us moderns and postmoderns—who are suspended between two worlds, one that claims us, the other that beguiles us, neither of which we can acknowledge without resort to irony or derision.

Here is a good example of the bilateral condition I am trying to describe. “The Jews I despise,” Portnoy says,for their narrow-mindedness, their self-righteousness, the incredibly bizarre sense that these cave men who are my parents and relatives have somehow gotten of their superiority—but when it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim. (p. 168)To hell with the Jews and their airs of superiority! I’m better than that. I’m certainly better than the goyim! Portnoy’s voice is only intermittently “self-satirizing” (as Avishai calls it) or self-abusive (to mint an appropriate pun). Yes, Portnoy degrades himself. “Whom am I harming with my lusts?” he demands (p. 103). The answer is not “No one.” As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, he degrades Mary Jane Reed, his lover, whom he calls the Monkey (the very nickname is degrading). Portnoy’s is the psychological strategy of sado-masochism, which the Anglo-Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson suggests as the basis of most humor, especially Jewish humor (“I’m living in the middle of a Jewish joke!” Portnoy complains [p. 36]). “How to separate,” Jacobson asks, “damaging another from damaging oneself? Wherein lies the satisfaction for the fool—being seen to win a domestic argument or being seen to submit to pain?” Self-satire becomes satire of others. Or in Jacobson’s words: “The pratfall as a means to make a prat of someone else.”[5]

Anything to avoid the obvious. Namely: Portnoy is a literary device, a comic device, even to himself. All the self-satire and self-laceration and self-abuse are antics to pretend that there really is a self behind them, that these are not only satire and laceration and abuse. Portnoy is a refugee from any world to which he might belong and find acceptance, equally contemptuous of Jews and goyim. He dreams of “sitting at home listening to Jack Benny with my kids! Raising intelligent, loving, sturdy children! Protecting some good woman!” (p. 248). But he also hates the bourgeois conventions (his emphasis)—the “respectable conventions,” “those fucking conventions”—which are required to make his dream a reality (p. 124). Portnoy does not contradict himself, because he has no self to contradict.

As is his custom, he himself supplies the terms of the analysis. He tells Doctor Spielvogel that, in search of “the sentence, the phrase, the word that will liberate [him],” he has been reading Freud’s 1912 essay “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life,” which includesthat phrase, “currents of feeling.” For “a fully normal attitude in love” (deserving of semantic scrutiny, that “fully normal,” but to go on—) for a fully normal attitude in love, says he, it is necessary that two currents of feeling be united: the tender, affectionate feelings, and the sensuous feeling. 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)Portnoy’s Complaint is the effusive testimony of a thirty-year failure to unite any two currents of feeling in one healthy and normally functioning self. Suspended between two worlds—Jewish and non-Jewish (or “human,” as the unhappy Jew always likes to say), bourgeois and Bohemian, domestic and sexual, brilliant and bad—he dangles over a void. Portnoy’s voice is the voluble concealment of that fact, talking non-stop against the day on which he must finally admit his inner emptiness, his lack of belief in anything. Because when he finally admits it, all he will be able to do is scream inarticulately:
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!! (p. 274)
Only then he may perhaps to begin the reintegration of self.

[1] Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 101–02. Subsequent references will be inserted between parentheses.

[2] Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 114. Originally published in Paris in 1934.

[3] Ross Posnock, Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 166–168 and passim.

[4] Bernard Avishai, Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 8, 10–11, 13. Italics in the original.

[5] Howard Jacobson, Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (New York: Viking, 1997), pp. 143, 146.


George said...

I am reminded--irrelevantly--that Mad Magazine's takeoff of the movie "Goodbye, Columbus" was headed "The Gripes of Roth." More relevant, perhaps, was Norman Podhoretz's distinction (if it was his) between the 50s novel that was all about maturity and balance, and the 60s novel that let it all hang out. So perhaps after his Jamesian phase Roth had a 60s novel to get off his chest. Is the sex-crazed poet in The Professor of Desire speaking for Roth when he mocks the professorial cult of responsibility?

I admit that I haven't read Roth thoroughly--not all since Zuckerman Unbound, which I thought quite good.