The Great American Novel

Who Is Philip Roth’s Portnoy Satirizing?

Philip Roth’s Alex Portnoy is the satirist par excellence. He’s awfully clever, making us laugh out loud. But who is Portnoy mocking exactly? The bourgeois family? Psychoanalysis? Himself? Bernard Avishai, author of Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, talks to Roth himself to come up with the real object of Portnoy’s critique of America.

Bob Peterson, Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Garrison Keillor once called Philip Roth the author of America’s greatest satire. Back when Portnoy’s Complaint was published, in 1969, I knew students who sat around in coffee shops, student unions, and Hillel houses reading the entire book out loud to one another, a kind of spontaneous, burlesque Bloomsday. We—and I don’t just mean American Jews—began to refer to its characters, or should I say its targets, as if using a kind of shorthand: Sophie (especially Sophie), The Monkey, “my father,” Rabbi Warshaw, Cousin Heshie, Dr. Spielvogel. These became instant archetypes, which younger readers particularly gained a feel for, or had an opinion about, or thought they should have; characters personifying new (or newly admitted) emotions, standards, disturbances. We laughed and mocked and blushed.

But if you are Alex Portnoy, what’s so funny?

Who in the history of the world has been least able to deal with a woman’s tears? My father. I am second. He says to me, “You heard your mother. Don’t eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school.”

“Or ever,” she pleads.

“Or ever,” my father says.

“Or hamburgers out,” she pleads.

“Or hamburgers out,” he says.

Hamburgers,” she says bitterly, just as she might say Hitler, “where they can put anything in the world in that they want—and he eats them. Jack, make him promise, before he gives himself a terrible tsura, and it’s too late.

“I promise!” I scream. “I promise!” and race from the kitchen—to where? Where else.

I tear off my pants, furiously I grab that battered battering ram to freedom, my adolescent cock, even as my mother begins to call from the other side of the bathroom door. “Now this time don’t flush. Do you hear me, Alex? I have to see what’s in that bowl!”

Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had that I could call my own . . .

We thus remember Portnoy, impaling with pitiless thrusts invasive mothers, plugged-up fathers, dizzying shikses in heat. We remember, with sympathetic relief, Portnoy’s letting go with an utter version of himself, the way we could only imagine someone erupting on the analyst’s couch, as if when the book was published we could really imagine, let alone afford, the analyst’s couch. Let’s get this out of the way: you still can get intelligent, graying people to laugh out loud simply by coupling “Alex” with “liver.”

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And Portnoy took on—or, more accurately, refused to let off—his American Jewish family. This was immediately assumed to mean Jews in general, which in 1969 seemed especially brazen. It was only 27 years after 1942 and 21 years after 1948. American Jews thought they had earned a kind of moral intermission that Portnoy seemed not to be respecting. It was also just two years after the 1967 war, which had made Diaspora Jews and organized American Zionists inarguably (now, unimaginably) cool. Portnoy’s tribal wordplay suggested, prophetically, that if Jews had power and bodies, this only meant they’d be struggling with the world-historical sinfulness they had customarily projected onto Gentiles. You put the id back in Yid, Portnoy instructed, and you come to understand the “oy” in goy.

So Portnoy—or so it seemed—was the satirist par excellence, particularly of the American Jewish comedy. I mean, he had such a mouth on him—so textured, so open, so often on the money. Young readers especially could hardly avoid identifying with him. Roth’s great book gave Portnoy scope to rail against what was comic, even grotesque, in families—Jewish families, and by contrast, WASP families, immigrant families.

In his early stories, collected in Goodbye, Columbus, Roth had proven the menace of his wit. Didn’t the narrating Portnoy, under the cover of the psychoanalytic couch, simply take the author’s own views to a new level of astringency and allow him to say things with no ordinary constraint?

No, it did not: a novel in the form of a confession is, for God’s sake, not a confession in the form of a novel.

There is more going on in Portnoy’s Complaint than this, and it brings us, not coincidentally, to an appreciation of comedy in the fuller and more challenging sense that we need; comedy in the sense of freedom to invent and reinvent yourself, comedy as tragedy softened by time.

Start with the surface layer of the novel. Yes, Portnoy is awfully clever and he’s made us laugh out loud. But if Portnoy is himself our satirist, he is merely shocking the bourgeoisie in rather conventional ways. The writer James Carroll, a newly minted Paulist priest in the late 1960s, told me he read Portnoy’s Complaint as a revelation: “Here I was, a celibate Catholic male, for whom sex was forbidden, surrounded, I felt, by sexual license in the imaginations of fervent young Jews. Portnoy’s Complaint was absolutely rooting to me. The political claim of it, the unabashed idea that sexuality was central to human experience.”

But the object of Alex Portnoy’s satire is not sexual desire per se. It is the falling away of restraint. Our shock is not from indecency, but from the absence of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession. After reading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, could Americans ever again discuss why we go to war without thinking of Henry Fleming’s eagerness? Well, who after reading Portnoy’s Complaint could speak the word “love” without thinking of Portnoy’s determination to plank a wilderness of Monkeys?

And it’s in this context, mostly, that Portnoy’s skewering of the Jews makes so much sense. Roth’s point, which he writes about in his wonderful 1974 essay “Imagining Jews,” is that even a Jew could not mount a successful fight against “non-negotiable demands of crude anti-social appetite and vulgar aggressive fantasy.” Even a Jew, because American Jews had become something like the poster children for the kind of restraint and public decorum that the word “bourgeois” conveyed.

Hollywood in post-war America had served up images of Jewish lawyers and doctors and agents who kept their heads while others didn’t: Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr. went down into crisis and came up converted. It was naturally a Jewish soda-fountain owner who lamented the violence afflicting the Sharks and the Jets. Who else but a bearded rabbi marched with Dr. King?

Portnoy had enough of this, that’s for sure. Jews presumed to control themselves so well—partly because they had been a scorned minority and had learned to ingratiate themselves—but also because they had a religious culture that could seem an endless restraining order. Portnoy knew better. He had seemed to come around to something like D.H. Lawrence’s rebellion against the confinements latent in this curiously Ben Franklinish culture:

What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed? Practice, darling, practice, practice, practice ... Why else the two sets of dishes? Why else the kosher soap and salt? Why else, I ask you, but to remind us three times a day that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other ...

Thus, the American embodiment of self-restraint cannot restrain himself, at least not in private, where lovers and analysts learn the truth. And if a Jew can’t hold it all together, then surely Everyman can’t. “Jews are members of the human race,” Roth once wrote, “worse than that I cannot say about them.”

And yet, almost from the opening lines Portnoy suggests skepticism mostly about Portnoy, and thus a seriousness of purpose in his creator, that one might not have initially supposed. In fact, Roth taught the book himself at a class at Bard and shared his lecture notes with me. There he writes: “Lets the grotesque into the satiric conception of a Jewish family, the son included. The greatest object of the satire is the narrating Portnoy!”

Portnoy’s lewdness, rage, ingratitude, et cetera, are just a small part of what was wrong with him, Roth’s notes go on. With Portnoy, Eros flies away and he is left with panic, then cover-up, then ironic distance from crime and punishment, then despair over his sense of alienation. Portnoy’s Complaint, in other words, gave readers a satirist who cannot mock without mocking himself, and with mastery and erudition. (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off,” Portnoy laments.)

Which means that Roth gave us an enigma that has been lodged in the back of our minds along with the caricature of the bourgeois family. It’s something enduring because it was so disorienting. I mean the sound of a psychoanalytic room, in which nothing is held back, but which leaves us no way to judge or sympathize with what we were hearing—no vantage point, no moral pivot, nothing but an eavesdropping on analysand and analyst, both of whom seemed verging on parody.

And here is the book’s virtuoso achievement: stylized as the narrator is, any analysand would immediately sense the way his associations constitute a kind of imaginative network, each woven crossing entailing the other. Thoughts of the father, for example, lead to thoughts of supersession, culminating in memories of emancipation at college, of Wordsworth and ambition. But this leads to new guilty rushes—can I go to college and leave my parents behind?—and then nearly metaphysical thoughts of being so hedged in by Jewish law, so in pursuit of “the mean,” that Maimonides would be positively kvelling. The laws of kashrut are yanked from the world of celebration of the divine and plunked into the world of adolescent taboo:

The hysteria and the superstition! The watch-its and the be-carefuls! You mustn’t do this, you can’t do that—hold it! don’t! you’re breaking an important law! ... It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, “Momma, do we believe in winter?”

You start with the grievance, then move to the fantasy of retribution, then to guilt, and then to an original childhood fear. You dwell on the fear and then, in a tribute to the safety of the couch, move to sadness. As you search for the sources of sadness, you uncover memory, which provokes feelings of poignancy, of loving connection, then hunger, then erotic charges, then loss, and then new—or putatively new—grievance. You start with pain, burrow into dirt, get to memory, and end with motive.

There is nothing really free about the associations here. One thing leads to another because, at least in psychoanalytic terms, each thought follows from the other. Roth presumed an audience familiar with the rhythms of the psychoanalytic project, or half-mischievously, half-presumed it. So he let things rip. The thing is, the analysand ripped mainly at himself.

Portnoy’s Complaint is funny, you see, because it’s so determined by what “growth” means to Freudians. (“Stop saying ‘poopie’ to me—I’m in high school!”) But for alert readers it is doubly funny because in Portnoy’s family totem and taboo are stood on their heads. There was supposed to be the nurturing mother and the sexualized little boy; there was supposed to be an imposing father whose appropriation of the mother’s body-and-desire turned said boy into a bundle of repressed rages ultimately shaping—dare I say it?—identity.

What if there is castration anxiety, and in this topsy-turvy family, it comes as Mommy’s kitchen knife? Imagine that the superego comes as a low-voltage father who cannot stop struggling with his bowels. And what if the family and community collude in this inversion? The Jewish home was just the right place to find such a neurotic case, a place where the superego anyways had a 5,000-year head start.

Some readers therefore concluded that the forbearing Dr. Spielvogel must be the hero of the novel. Certainly, it was hard to hear all the kvetching and not sense what Spielvogel must have been thinking, that freedom was not (or not only) complaint, that narcissism could become what Christopher Lasch would call “a culture.”

Alas, the enigma of Portnoy’s Complaint is bigger yet. For the novel leaves us with the lingering suspicion that the analyst, too, was a little too prone to extreme inventions; that he represented an orthodoxy that thought it had an explanation for everything, from pleasure to process—that psychoanalysis took liberties for Spielvogel, too.

Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Indeed, Portnoy’s stories raise questions about how seriously we are supposed to take Spielvogel’s authority; questions about whether some orthodox psychoanalytic template is not an object of satire, too. By the end, Portnoy seems so eager to please his analyst by telling him a story that fits the theory. He treats his insecurities almost entirely with a combination of self-sarcasm and bravado. You find yourself reading, impressed, entertained, identifying, yet vaguely repulsed and apprehensive for him. If you read between the lines—and how can you not?—the über-objects of Roth’s satire are these very orthodox psychoanalytic expectations, which Portnoy implicitly pays homage to by gushing out this particular story.

Not coincidently, Roth told me he had just finished an analysis with a psychoanalyst quite like Spielvogel, who tried to persuade Roth that his narcissism was the source of his art, and his domineering mother and weak father were the source of his narcissism. “It frustrated me terribly,” Roth told me. “But he gave me a good idea. It was a better family to use than my family. It was the poor father ... I said: ‘OK, you want this Jewish family? I’ll give it to you!’”

“Once you take the categories of illness and health seriously,” Roth told me, “then you are leaving the atmosphere of this book—then you are beginning to impose another vocabulary—and a foreign and alien vocabulary—on this book.” In fact, of all the orthodoxies undermined in Portnoy’s Complaint, psychoanalytic orthodoxy may be the most insidious because it is the most hidden. Spielvogel is also a weaver of fictions. But to write fiction well, Roth implies, you first have to acknowledge that you are doing it at all.

Though I know I shall be pitied for saying this—I consider Portnoy’s Complaint the culmination of a decade advancing civil rights, our awakening to liberalism’s full implications. We were supposed to be judged, said Dr. King, not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. The trailing insight of Portnoy’s Complaint was that judging character was not going to be as easy as it sounded. Character is made of enmeshment and described by fictions. Portnoy’s Complaint proved liberalism’s most precious moral claim, that precisely because all perception is relative, the principle of tolerance must be absolute.