A History of the World Part 1, bildungsroman, body humor, Catch-22, Clerks II, Freud, Humor, Jewish men, Jewish mother, Judaism, Literature, masculinity, Masturbation, Mel Brooks, Northern Exposure, Oedipus Complex, Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, Raskalnikov, Running with Scissors, self-hating jew, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, subversive literature, The World According to Garp
My initial introduction to Jewish humor was really Mel Brooks, and I owe my father for that gift. The first real conception that Judaism was a system of morality and culture that also worked simultaneously as a self-aggrandizing/self-mocking institution came about when he let me watch the Inquisition song from A History of the World Part I, which for the record still remains one of the greatest big band classic songs of all time. Shame Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole never got around to cover it. But my purpose here isn’t to discuss a Mel Brooks film, though I really should get around to that at some point, my real concern is a literary classic that involves a young man masturbating into a slab of liver.
“I am the Raskalnikov of jerking off”(20) is only one of the numerous lines spoken by Alexander Portnoy that possesses its own poetic charm, while also being the sentence made me positive that I had to read this book all the way through this time. I had begun Portnoy’s Complaint twice before, but for whatever reason I could never make it past the first thirty pages. There was simply too much for me to process and this is coming from a man who’s watched Clerks II at least twelve times by now. I found a copy of the book, iconic with its simple pink and black color scheme, with the name Philip Roth (the author) breaking in with solid white, and not long after abandoning hope on this book I decided to try other books and come back to it later. I didn’t, but I told myself I would. I had only picked it up because it had been on some list on the internet of funniest books in literature, or was it a list about most sexual works, I can’t remember. I just remember finding the book again and thinking to myself that I owed Portnoy one more chance.
It was in the chapter section entitled “Whacking Off” that I found that little gem I quoted before, and I believe my reader is owed a proper understanding of the passage that precedes it:
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 Is 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 in frequently, in my blindness and ecstasy, I got it all in the pompadour, like a blast of Wildroot Cream Oil. Through a world of matted Handkerchiefs and crumpled Kleenex and stained pajamas, I moved my raw and swollen penis, perpetually in dread that my loathsomeness would be discovered by someone stealing upon me just as I was in the frenzy of dropping my load. (17-8).
If you’re shocked imagine how I was when I first read the damn passage. Never in my life have I actually read an accurate account of the pain/paranoia/pleasure/and panic that is the experience of being a teenage boy masturbating and yet Philip Roth is able in this early section to convey the troubled state I’m sure many young men like myself had to deal with. I sometimes wonder if women have this problem and then I remember what my congressman tells me: “Everyone knows women can’t masturbate,” for the record I’m voting for a Democrat next time, he at least only wears a chicken suit while hurling hash at pigeons.
This passage captures the absurd and, work with me here, charming nature of youth which is inexperience and the developing confidence of the self…which would be fine if Roth’s book were simply a bildungsroman (fancy-pants literary term for “coming-of-age” novel), but Portnoy’s Complaint is in fact one long monologue taking place in a therapy session. Portnoy is explaining his life to a Dr. Speilvogel who is addressed several times during the long rant, and in fact Portnoy’s onanistic behavior is further elaborated:
I burrow through the week’s laundry until I uncover one of my sister’s soiled brassieres. I string one shoulder strap over the knob of the bathroom door and the other on the knob of the linen closet: a scarecrow to bring on more dreams. “Oh beat it, Big Boy, beat it to a red hot pulp—“ so I am being urged by the little cups of Hannah’s brassiere, when a rolled up newspaper smacks at the door. And sends me and my handful an inch off the toilet seat. “—Come on, give somebody else a crack at that bowl, will you?” my father says. “I haven’t moved my bowels in a week.” (20-1).
Masturbation will ultimately lead to dissatisfaction in life, and I’m not just quoting my therapist. Portnoy’s excessive masturbation, or adequate masturbation, he is a teenage boy after all, becomes…detestable is the wrong word, perhaps fucked up is more appropriate. While many readers may reject the novel once they encounter a passage of a boy using his sister’s bra to masturbate, they may also object to later passages when Portnoy shoots one of his “loads” into his own eye after servicing a hooker, having a three way with his black girlfriend (who he refers to as Monkey) and a prostitute in Rome, genuinely harassing a young woman in Israel who finds him crude (go figure) and disgusting (also go figure),and later breaking up with a sweet Jewish girl because she gags when she blows him. The sexual experiences abound and Portnoy himself eventually comes to some kind of conclusion about it:
What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds—as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America—maybe that’s more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington—now Portnoy. As though my Manifest Destiny is to seduce a girl from each of the forty-eight states. As for Alaskan and Hawaiian women, I really have no feelings either way, no scores to settle, no coupons to cash in, no dreams to put to rest—who are they to me, a bunch of Eskimos and Orientals? (235).
Taking all of this in it may be easy to dismiss Portnoy’s Complaint as simply the rambling of a gross pervert who drives himself crazy over women and experiences that are either out of his league, or not worth his time and he’s missing the entire point of therapy. I can understand where the reader may gain that impression, especially since I’ve provided all the instances from the text to support that view, but there’s another level to this text that underscores this rampant sexuality. In the beginning of the book, before the novel even begins there’s a single term followed by a definition.
In case you don’t know what an Oedipus Complex is I’ll explain. Oedipus was a character in Greek Mythology and then eventually a play by Sophocles in which the man discovers he has brought about a plague upon the people of Thebes when he unknowingly killed his father and wedded his mother. Freud would later appropriate this myth to explain the attachment men have with their mothers. The most basic explanation of the theory is when men are just boys they find an intense emotional attachment to their mothers that borders on some kind of eroticism, however at some point boys begin to recognize their father as a “competitor” for their mother’s emotions. Boys then have two options, they fear castration from the father and shift their attention elsewhere, or else they win out in the end and dominate their mother’s attention effectively becoming her partner. Men who suffer from “Momma’s boy” syndrome are in effect suffering from an Oedipus complex. It could be argued that Portnoy is suffering from just that, especially when you read the first line of the book:
She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. (3).
I do believe there is something to Portnoy’s relationship with his mother when looking at this book, and the cultural cliché of a Jewish man being overly attached to his mother is, like all clichés, a cliché for a reason, but looking at this book Roth’s intent seems a little more concerned with another aspect of identity. Later Portnoy complains/whines/laments to Dr. Speilvogel:
Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke—only it ain’t no joke! Please, who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and hysterical and weak? Why, why are they screaming still, “Watch out! Don’t do it! Alex—no!” and why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat? Doctor what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over two thousand lovely years?(37).
Roth’s book assumes a pressing matter in this small passage, and one worth exploring. The “Self-Hating Jew” and the “self-mocking” attitude has become a cultural trope, to the point that if a character is Jewish in a television show/film/novel/etc. they must at some point demonstrate either an aspect of self-loathing, hypochondria, oedipal angst, or else intense moroseness. In short, the Jewish male (I’ll focus on men since the novel is told from the point of view of a Jewish man) presented in most American media is one of dysfunction rather than confidence or a strong sense of masculinity. But before my reader believes I will delve too far into this I have to admit I myself am left incapable of really digging into the psychology of this matter. I am not Jewish in any way, and growing up my experience with Judaism was largely through Mel Brooks and Woody Allen films, a few references and humor in the television series Northern Exposure, and maybe the Hanukah episode of Rugrats if anybody remembers that. I grew up in East Texas where there are no Jews and apparently there never have been any, which is strange because at the Private school I went to there was at least one Jewish family. The daughter was in my class and the little brother was in my sister’s. Apart from that I’ve almost never encountered someone who was legitimately Jewish. Still, I have a working knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith (I’m not a big fan of the mandatory circumcision but I’m against circumcision period so that was in the cards).
The Jewish male identity that often appears is that of a neurotic or world-weary soul and one that recognizes the larger collection of humanity despises him. This history I can explain a little. One of the reasons for Anti-Semitism, particularly the idea that all Jews do is make money, can be traced back to the days of the early Catholic Church. Technically speaking banks did exist however they were forbidden from applying interest to loans because that is “usury” which the church deemed a sin. Because of this doctrine many Christian bankers and merchants would often lose profit rather than make it. Judaism does not forbid usury and so many of the early banking systems were owned by Jews, and because they began to make money, more money than their Christian counterparts (goyim) the early seeds of “the money-grubbing Jew” were sown. But I don’t believe that all of Portnoy’s maladies can be traced back to issues of money.
Throughout the novel Portnoy’s excessive fucking and masturbation is used to gain some kind of personal territory or position of self. It’s through the physical act of intimacy that he is attempting to work through some kind of collective guilt or self-loathing, and, true to the malady that he spawned, none of it ever alleviates his real problem: he doesn’t like himself very much. In this way Roth’s novel really gave voice to a generation of young Jewish men, and continues to this day (Jon Stewart called the novel the Jewish Bible, and, I mean, its Jon Stewart after all). There’s a passage later in the novel in which Portnoy describes his parent’s talk of other young men he should aspire to:
Pianist! Oh that’s one of the words they love, almost as much as doctor, Doctor. And residency. And best of all, his own office. He opened his own office in Livingston. “Do you remember Seymour Shmuck, Alex?” she asks me, or Aaron Putz or Howard Shlong, or some yo-yo I am supposed to have known in grade school twenty-five years ago, and of whom I have no recollection whatsoever. (99)
He goes on,
And you, the implication is, when are you going to get married already?
In Newark and the surrounding suburbs this apparently is the question on everybody’s lips: WHEN IS ALEXANDER PORTNOY GOING TO STOP BEING SELFISH AND GIVE HIS PARENTS WHO ARE SUCH WONDERFUL PEOPLE, GRAND CHILDREN? (100)
Being a disappointment to your parents is not necessarily a definitively Jewish trait, for certainly many people fall within that category, but the parents voices echo a hollowness in Portnoy that he never seems to be able to fill. He goes about his life trying to fuck away the pain and fill up the crevices and cracks of almost every women he meets finding little satisfaction and all the while only further perpetuating his despicable self-image. Portnoy’s tragedy is that of an altered Sisyphus, however unlike the titan who was cursed to push the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down once he’d reached the top every day of his life, Portnoy is cursed to forever fuck and masturbate hoping to find some kind of satisfaction and then never actually attain it. He’s denied a closure.
There are many books written that are said to be the most hilarious novels in American literature, but apart from Catch-22 I have yet to find another book besides Portnoy’s Complaint that genuinely makes me laugh. Novels like The World According to Garp, memoirs like Running With Scissors, and re-imaginings like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer or Pride and Predjudice with Zombies are absurd and ridiculous, but none of them actually produce a moment where I must stop reading to actually laugh until I can’t remember how to breath. Poor Portnoy is driven mad by his culture, his mother, his tradition, his religion, and finally is driven to one conclusion:
My wang was all I really had that I could call my own. (33)
This sentence is a powerful artistic statement and I am not being facetious when I write that.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a novel much in the vein of Larry Kramer’s Faggots, in which a generation of men were looked at from the inside by one of their own and hyperbolically, though sometimes realistically, in order to demonstrate that a collected fault was in play. Roth’s novel launched his stardom because of the potshots he made against his own faith and culture, but only so that he could help understand what was, for many, not an overblown display but a functional reality. Many Jewish men continue to live out lives plagued by an endless sense of guilt or burden because of the cultural mistrust. In this way Roth’s novel is surely some kind of cultural catharsis, or else the longest lead in to a punchline you’ll ever read in your life.
Though it did give me another excuse not to eat liver.