Commentary Magazine

Portnoy & His Creator

Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus, was accused by many of ignoring the Jewish tradition, of lacking ruth for the six million, and of displaying Jewish self-hatred. About five years ago, Roth answered these charges in an essay called “Writing About Jews,”1 in which—like his character Alexander Portnoy who, when his sister reminds him what his fate would have been if he had been born in Europe, shouts: “I suppose the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house!”—Roth insisted on his freedom as an artist to say anything he thought true about the Jews. Having written critically about them again Roth not surprisingly has been attacked once again. This time, however, he has announced that he is tired of the controversy and he refers those still concerned with it back to his article.

The angry letters and sermons about his early stories were mistaken, Roth believed, because they were “ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defense.” Their fear that he was “informing” on the Jews, wrote Roth in a characteristically accurate exposure of a Jewish anxiety, boiled down to the notorious question: “What will the goyim think?” This betrayed a hope that safety for Jews somehow lay in keeping quiet about their faults. But “the solution is not to convince people to like Jews so as not to want to kill them; it is to let them know that they cannot kill them even if they despise them.”

In other words, Roth accepted his critics’ assumption that the way Jewish characters are portrayed in fiction does matter. Where he differed with them was in his surprising assertion that it actually is better to highlight Jewish traits that might be regarded as ugly than to hide or gloss over them.

“Literary investigation,” as he explained it,

may even be a way to redeem the facts [about the way Jews really are], to give them the weight and value that they should have in the world, rather than the disproportionate significance they probably have for some misguided or vicious people.

Here was the rationale for those disturbing Jewish stereotypes in Roth’s stories: his intention, he claimed, was to do something good for the Jews. Now, in Portnoy’s Complaint,2 Roth goes even further than before in this paradoxical effort to help the Jews by reviling them.



Alexander Portnoy—a Jewish boy who masturbates beyond anything that has ever been described in fiction, and who later engages compulsively in sexual practices still outlawed in several states and still generally taboo, at least to talk about, even in the permissive 60’s—is telling his story to a psychoanalyst. “His “complaint” is that all this sex is unsatisfying, and he takes it that the cause goes back to “the mother-child relationship”: if he suffers from wildly exaggerated sexual symptoms it is because he suffered from a wildly exaggerated Jewish mother (who, indeed, is presented in the novel as a caricature of the caricature Jewish mother of the jokes).

His youth, Portnoy says, was one unending endurance of warnings against germs in food, swimming pools, and the very air (polio), alternated with impossible praise for his brilliance. His parents, he tells the doctor, “are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!”



The Guilts and fears instilled in Portnoy are identified as peculiarly Jewish, and he sees his own sexual excesses as a means of freeing himself from being Jewish. For Portnoy’s theory is that in repressing his natural instincts his mother was in effect acting as an agent of the Jewish tradition. All the don’ts of his childhood had the same purpose as the Jewish prohibition against eating certain foods: to teach that renunciation, self-control, and repression are all. In fury over this imposition Portnoy turns on Jewishness itself:

Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass—I happen also to be a human being!

And he turns with equal ferocity on the actual Jews around him: “Mother, Rabbi Warshaw is a fat, pompous, impatient fraud . . . a character out of Dickens.” As for “those Roses and Sophies and Goldies and Pearls” like his mother (whose name is Sophie), he says to himself, “think of them as cows . . . maybe that’s the solution.”

But wait a minute. What kind of “literary investigation” is this? A sustained cry of loathing for things Jewish in terms that perpetuate the most familiar stereotypes—how is this literary? Demanding an answer to a similar question about Goodbye Columbus, one of Roth’s correspondents wrote: “Clichés like ‘this being art’ will not be acceptable. A reply will be appreciated.” Where Portnoy’s Complaint is concerned, the “sophisticated” reply, of course, is that Portnoy is disturbed, has a “complaint,” is on the psychiatrist’s couch as he speaks. But does this answer hold up?

Roth evidently received some pretty discouragingly low-level attacks on Goodbye Columbus in the mail, and his article is pretty funny in exposing their absurdities, just as he is funny in Portnoy’s Complaint with the easy targets of Jewish mothers, Miami Beach, American tourists in Israel, and so on. But, like Portnoy, he fails in being anything more than funny out of a failure of curiosity toward the objects of his ridicule. He endorses Portnoy’s demand to be treated as a human being but gives no indication of being aware that Portnoy consistently denies the humanity of everyone else. “I am the son in the Jewish joke—only it ain’t no joke !” pleads Portnoy, but he never doubts the same joke’s adequacy for understanding his mother. Indeed, it is Portnoy himself who generalizes his own case, repeatedly claiming that he stands for all Jewish men: “Please, who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and hysterical and weak?” It does not, then, seem so crude after all to ask how great a distance Roth’s art places between his own attitudes and those of his hero.

The answer, I think, is hardly any at all, and for two reasons. First, Roth is writing in what is by now a long modern tradition of crippled heroes—one which runs from Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew, through Dostoevski’s underground man, to the Jewish schlemiels of the last twenty years. In these books the reader is often asked to distinguish between the suffering character’s low moral stature and his cogent social criticism. So too with Portnoy: the fact that he is presented as a disturbed man in no way serves as a qualifying or discrediting comment on his violent anti-Jewishness.

The second reason has to do with Portnoy’s role as narrator. Now the use of a narrator who cannot be trusted to tell the truth is also a modern practice with a long and respectable tradition. Characteristically, the unreliable narrator is exposed either when he refers twice to an incident with suspiciously differing emphases, or when, in explaining another character, he contradicts the evidence in his own description of that character’s behavior. The trick is that we can trust his report of what happened but not his interpretation of what it means. In Portnoy, however, the reader is never given an objective view of events from which to measure the narrator’s version.

When, in an important incident, for example, Sophie Portnoy threatens her son with a knife if he will not eat, the scene is filtered through the analysand’s psychoanalytically-sogged memory: “So my mother sits down beside me with a long bread knife in her hand. It is made of stainless steel, and has little sawlike teeth.” Portnoy remembers this as one would remember a dream, with the knife standing out sheerly as a symbolic castration threat. Understandably, he believes his own version, but there is no way for the reader to determine whether it says anything real about Sophie Portnoy or Jewish mothers in general. There is only Portnoy’s word to go by, and Portnoy just has too much in common with the Philip Roth of Goodbye Columbus to be trusted as a social critic. Like Roth, for Portnoy to perceive anyone as a type is to dispense with the need to recognize his humanity, as when he calls the Rabbi a character out of Dickens in order utterly to dismiss him. Nothing, of course, could be further from the spirit of Dickens, with whom caricature was the beginning, not the end, of his delineation of character.



Ironically enough, given the self-congratulating spirit in which he ridicules the views of his parents, Portnoy’s mind and spirit turn out to be nothing but educated versions of his parents’ putative narrow-mindedness, “stupidity,” and vulgarity—the last of which qualities, indeed, constitutes his own chief claim to originality and intellectual daring. Thus, though he pities his “uncomprehending” father for his views—“Alex, you are never going to hear such a mishegoss of mixed-up crap and disgusting nonsense as the Christian religion in your entire life”—Portnoy himself never says anything more enlightening about the Christians than that they “swallow all that hideous Catholic bullshit.” And when, in the final analysis, Portnoy’s complaint about the Jews reduces itself to the charge that they are “stupid,” he has done no more than to transform his parents’ worship of intelligence into a weapon for his own intolerance. The very college education that is the only apparent excuse for Portnoy to think himself superior to his parents leaves him without an excuse for his own much more certainly demonstrated shallowness.



But more important than Roth’s failure to step back from the puerility of Portnoy’s ideas is the way he misleadingly suggests, by the design of the novel, that Portnoy’s progress is toward freedom and understanding. As with Paul Morel in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers—who also has sexual problems arising out of an extreme attachment to a powerful mother—each of Portnoy’s women represents a stage in his step-by-step attempt to slough off his Jewish repression and to escape from mother (“Because to be bad, Mother, that is the real struggle: to be bad—and to enjoy it!”). The two key women in Lawrence’s novel are opposite types, the one dark and demanding, the other blond and giving. In Roth’s book, the opposition is framed in terms of contrasting social backgrounds. The “Monkey” is poor white from West Virginia, and with her Portnoy does everything. Sarah Abbot Maulsby comes from an old New England family, and he cannot get her satisfactorily to perform fellatio. As Portnoy explains it in the characteristic language of the book: “I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds.” Sarah Abbot Maulsby cannot do to Portnoy what he can do to her for social reasons: he is of a lower class than she is. And, in the final scene, in which Portnoy finds himself impotent with an Israeli girl, the cause is a complex of social and cultural hang-ups over her paradoxically frontier Jewishness.

If both Portnoy’s and Sarah Maulsby’s sexual failures are products of their upbringings, however, what is so special about the Jewishness of Portnoy’s background? Apparently, a puritan-Protestant home can produce the equivalent of a Jewish-repressive one (as can, one might add, an entirely permissive atmosphere). Portnoy’s theory of a special Jewish problem would seem to be disproved. The striking fact about Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is that it does not disprove Portnoy’s theory.



Which brings US back to Roth’s essay. “Grossbart,” writes Roth in explaining the pushy Jewish character in his story “Defender of the Faith,” “is presented not as the stereotype of The Jew, but as a Jew who acts like the stereotype, offering back to his enemies their vision of him, answering the punishment with the crime.” Yet if one rereads this story in which a soldier tries to extract favors from his Sergeant on the basis of their being fellow Jews, one realizes that Roth is ascribing his own intentions to Grossbart. For it is Roth, not the character, who offers back the stereotype to his enemies: Grossbart acts the Jew only when he is with other Jews; otherwise he carefully blends in with the non-Jewish soldiers.

As in Roth’s stories, there is a fanaticism in the hatred of things Jewish in Portnoy’s Complaint that one feels constantly to derive from a need that lies outside the story itself. It is as if Roth were operating under the compulsion of his “Eli the Fanatic” to expose himself to his townsmen as a Jew of the sort most calculated to offend them. And this fanaticism extends even to the sex in Portnoy, as what at first seems like liberation eventually turns into an ideological program. Sexual freedom is defined as the ability to perform cunnilingus and fellatio, while at the same time ordinary sex is denigrated very much in the way that heterosexual love is held in contempt in homosexual novels.

Roth’s Jewish characters are an illustration of his theory that for the Jews to deal with their enemies, “it is necessary to unlearn certain responses to them.” The “new response,” presumably, must be comically to exaggerate the anti-Semitic stereotype in order to dissolve it in laughter. This is extremely clever, of course—except that it is hopeless; for this comic defender of the faith has not understood the nature of anti-Semitism. He believes that if somehow he can just devise the right “response” he will be able to make it go away. Yet since anti-Semitism is itself only apparently a response to actual Jewish behavior, no alteration in behavior—not separatism, assimilation, accommodation, nor defiance, as the “un-Jewish” Israelis have learned—has ever been able to affect it significantly. Not even art can eliminate it.

In claiming to be striking a blow against anti-Semitism, Roth is like Portnoy explaining that his vituperations and his being “bad” should really please his mother because they keep him from being the kind of obedient Jewish boy who ends up as a homosexual. Roth cannot rest content with badmouthing the Jews, but must insist that he be recognized as a good Jewish boy when he does it.



In any case, Roth’s insistence that he is a friend to the Jews can only theoretically be squared with the loathing for them that he displays in his work. He tells us that when Sergeant Marx, in “Defender of the Faith,” finally rejects Grossbart by transferring him to fight in the Pacific, the Sergeant has “committed what he has hoped to do all along: an act he can believe to be honorable.” But though the words may well apply to Roth’s own motivation in writing the story, they do not accurately describe the act. Like Portnoy, Marx was resentful at the imposition of being Jewish, and so lashed out at a distastefully obvious Jew. It is significant that Roth never chooses his protagonists for the job of offering back the stereotype to the gentiles. Instead, both Alexander Portnoy and Sergeant Marx are regular guys who just happen to be Jewish and because of this are victimized by other Jews to whom they are invariably superior.

The real message here, or rather the real aspiration, is not to sweep away anti-Semitism, but to transcend being Jewish. If only you try hard enough, Roth’s books tell us, it can be done. This is a message that will not do the Jews any more damage than other specious advice they have received from time to time, so that one has to agree with Roth that his books are not harmful as charged. But if he has not been bad for the Jews, he has decidedly been bad to them—and at the expense of his art. For Portnoy’s Complaint, in descending to caricature to get its effects, fails at the very point of imagination which raises a novel above a tract. Roth has been a positive enemy to his own work, while for the Jews he has been a friend of the proverbial sort that makes enemies unnecessary.


1 COMMENTARY, December 1963.

2 Random House, 274 pp., $6.95.

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