Art Imitating Life
The Real Lessons Of Portnoy’s Complaint
Bernard Avishai on comparing the Philip Roth classic with Jewish politicians' sexual misconduct.
“Nearly half a century after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint,” Jodi Kantor writes in Sunday’s New York Times, “politics is finally catching up with fiction, as libidinous, self-sabotaging politicians are causing grimaces among fellow Jews and retiring outdated cultural assumptions—that Jewish men make solid husbands and that sex scandals belong to others.”
When reporters write that public events are “finally catching up with fiction,” it is usually the “finally” that is suspect. Ms. Kantor concedes that if the subject is iconic Jewish men blowing themselves up in erotic fuel we could have started with King David. But scandals persist, as do Philistines. Her real subject is vague Jewish shame over sexual wildness, that is, over Jewish men not being the “solid” husbands they were assumed to be. Thus, she tells us, we are catching up to Portnoy’s Complaint.Actually, Alex Portnoy wasn’t fascinating because he was bad. His “problem” was that he was good. All of that discipline and perfectly channeled ambition, all of those A’s in school and self-belittling comparisons to sacrificing parents, all of that determination to help the needy and advance human rights—all of that desire to be a man before coming to terms with manly desire—left Portnoy feeling, not libidinous, but empty, even thwarted.
Portnoy the younger had had no place to exercise sovereignty other than in guilty secrecy. The intense pleasure of masturbatory fantasy, triumph, carnality—of me—is the closest thing to the pursuit of happiness he can dare. Given his discipline, daring is happiness. “I am the Raskalnikov of jerking off,” he says. All of which set the stage for the older Portnoy, who, in his thirties, and very much a bachelor, is planking The Monkey (who gives a whole new meaning to the term consenting adult). But he gets no, as they say, satisfaction: he is lying on Dr. Spielvogel’s couch, screaming for Help, reporting both teenage memories and adult disturbances, self-mockingly, which is—but for fiction—nobody’s business.Portnoy, in other words, is not some creepy husband. He refuses to get married because he wants to plank a wilderness of Monkeys. If he were not likely to have been utterly bored by his roommates, he might well have been another character on “Friends.” And readers—and not just Jews, for God’s sake—breathed a sigh of relief overhearing Portnoy’s confessions. His not-so and yet oh-so civilized discontents seemed everywhere and in everyone.
Portnoy is certainly not roaming cyberspace, looking for partners to pleasure himself along with, his pregnant wife sleeping in the other room (another victimless crime if ever there was one, but pathetic in a way Kantor doesn’t see, and worth coming back to). Nor is he Bill Clinton, whose intern very likely read Erica Jong, an author now telling Kantor that she cannot forgive her father for going to massage parlors—words the reporter reports without apparent irony.
Why should Portnoy be raised in the context of Weiner (Spitzer, Filner, etc.)? For Kantor, the connection is obvious: what’s finally catching up with fiction is the presumption that Jewish men, after all, may not make exceptional husbands, hence, exceptional, let alone forgivable, leaders. She approaches this deduction with all the finesse of a synagogue sisterhood’s coffee-klatch. “Do the sages, or the voters, feel that the slate can ever truly be wiped clean?” (Cue: Jong.)
Kantor shows, but does not really grasp, that what ties current events to Portnoy’s Complaint—not to the book itself, but to its reception—is the cheap thrill of sexual censure. How delicious it is when when pulp-fiction, True Romance notions of “solid husband” come up against lived lives. How exciting to think that Jews of all people have sexual appetites, which they satisfy as clumsily as anybody else. How terrific for Jews to yell “shame” and participate in what Philip Roth called, in another context, America’s “persecuting spirit.”
Kantor wants to know if Jews are ashamed, and if not, why not. Younger, assimilated generations are more brazen about sex, she writes. Good Jews less so. “Rabbi Michael Berk of Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego’s largest synagogue,” she writes, “tore into [Filner] from the pulpit. ‘I’m sure I’m not the only Jew who is embarrassed,’ he said. In a later interview, he expressed relief that to his knowledge, Mr. Filner is not a member of a synagogue.” Imagine: a rabbi who is relieved that a sinner is not a member of his congregation. Has there ever been a better advertisement for Christianity?
Then again, the most obvious fiction to catch up with these days is not Portnoy’s Complaint but The Scarlet Letter, which Americans catch up with pretty much in every generation: an account of the flocking behavior displayed when it comes to condemning infidelities and sexual hunger. Americans just love to condemn threats to marriage, not so much because of any fear of sexual display—what happens in Vegas doesn’t really stay in Vegas, does it?—but because Americans are appalled by the loss of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession.
So Kantor might have suggested that we read novels like Portnoy’s Complaint—or Lolita, or Madame Bovary—to get a better grasp of what goes on behind closed doors; CNN, reality TV, and Dr. Phil’s interviews are really not enough. Instead, she falls back on the idea—ostensibly outdated, but if she really believed it were, would debunking it yield an article?—that Jews are supposed to be the gold standard for self-control; that unlike Sharks and Jets, say, Jewish soda fountain owners see how people should “get along.” Why? Because (as Portnoy himself laments) some combination of fear of persecution and kashrut makes Jews more careful; that all of those do’s and don’t’s train the senses, heighten shame—and send you to the bathroom.
The irony, you see, is that a sadder-but-wiser Portnoy would have a take on Weiner, Spitzer, etc., which is that how you are about sex is how you are about more; that ambivalence about asserting yourself as a sexual being is ambivalence about asserting yourself as a man. Nobody can presume to lecture Weiner about his wife, whose sexual hungers and powers are impossible to gauge. But Portnoy might well perceive that when a grown man feels he has to pleasure himself so secretly and obsessively, perhaps he isn’t grown quite enough.
Kantor, considering Portnoy, might have elided the question of whether Jewish men make solid husbands yet subtly have asked whether insecure men make solid leaders; whether men so skittish that they must make conquests virtually aren’t also drawn to political power and bravado because they feel the need to quell some vague uncertainty about themselves. She might have asked whether men talk big to cover up the fear of powerful others, women and men (viz: Weiner’s presumptuous criticism of Obama’s negotiating skills during the debt crisis); whether boys raised to be “good” aren’t, in crises, drawn to others who talk big, the way Kennedy was drawn to Allen Dulles during the Bay of Pigs, or Clinton to Dick Morris and his “triangulation.”
She might have asked these things because Weiner is, after all, running for Mayor of New York. If he never learned to stand-up for his pleasure can he be expected to stand-up to teacher’s unions or hedge-fund managers or senatorial mentors or AIPAC? As for whether his being Jewish should be a particular source of shame, Kantor can relax. As Roth scribbled in the margins of his lecture notes when he taught Portnoy’s Complaint at Bard in 1999, “Jews are members of the human race; worse than that I cannot say about them.”
Bernard Avishai’s, Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, is now out in paperback. You can hear his lecture about the novel at London’s Jewish Book Week here.