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The 50th Anniversary of Portnoy’s Complaint

Bernard Avishai—

Irving Howe famously said that the cruelest thing one could do with Portnoy’s Complaint was “read it twice.” But why reread it when the first time was unforgettable? Back when the book was published, exactly 50 years ago, I knew people who sat around in coffee shops, student unions, and Hillel houses reading the entire book out loud to one another. Its characters became instant archetypes. Sophie (especially Sophie), The Monkey, “my father,” Cousin Heshie, Rabbi Warshaw, Dr. Spielvogel. We laughed and teased and blushed.

Only Portnoy wasn’t laughing:

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 Portnoy erupting on the analyst’s couch the way we might, as if 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 the words “Alex” with “liver.”

What most bothered Irving Howe was Portnoy’s mockery of his bourgeois Jewish family. This was immediately assumed to mean Jews in general, which in 1969 seemed especially brazen, chutzpadick. It was only twenty-seven years after 1942 and twenty-one years after 1948. American Jews thought they had earned a kind of moral intermission—one 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 sexual angst suggested that Jews were anything but cool. You put the Id back in Yid, Portnoy instructed, and you come to understand the “oy” in goy.

So Roth, through Portnoy, seemed the satirist par excellence, particularly of the American Jewish community. I mean, Portnoy had such a mouth on him—so subtle, so shmutzig. Worse, he seemed so smart. He gave Western literature possibly its greatest alliteration. “Publicly pleasing my parents, while privately pulling my putz.”In Roth’s early stories, collected in Goodbye, Columbus, he had proven the menace of his wit. Then, Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman, who later became President of Bar Ilan University, wrote that if Roth wanted to point out problems with the Jewish community, he ought to have published in a Jewish periodical—or better, published in Hebrew. “What is being done to silence this man?” Rackman wrote the Anti-Defamation League. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” So Roth had reasons to retaliate. When I first met Roth in 1974, he said that rabbinic bullies like Rackman had, in a way, liberated him to write Portnoy’s Complaint. “Ok, I thought, you wanna fight? Let’s fight!”

It all seemed clear. Didn’t the narrating Portnoy, under the cover of the psychoanalytic couch, make public, and intensify, Roth’s own sexual lusts and views of Jews? Wasn’t Portnoy Roth?  

No, it did not, no he was not: a novel in the form of a confession is, for God’s sake, not a confession in the form of a novel.  For Roth, the laugh is on Portnoy, too—especially on Portnoy—on the rhetoric of a frantic, sexually tortured young man, trying to make sense of his origins in the partial, mocking way children do about parents and relatives. A man tormented because he’s stopped liking the people he loves. Yes, our hero sees what’s grotesque, what’s repressive, and it drives him crazy. But that’s precisely because he feels sexually pathetic and his affection for his family is so strong. Roth taught the book at Bard College and shared his lecture notes with me. “The greatest object of the satire,” he writes, “is the narrating Portnoy!”

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! … Oh, and the milchiks and flaishiks besides, all those meshuggeneh rules and regulations on top of their own private craziness! 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?”

The pathos is delicious. And, when you think about it, the indecency Portnoy feels is not really about sex. It is about the loss of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession. Roth’s point, which he wrote about in his wonderful 1974 essay “Imagining Jews,” is that Jews, no more than other humans, could fight successfully against the “non-negotiable demands of crude anti-social appetite and vulgar aggressive fantasy.” Portnoy’s honesty seemed indecent because American Jews had become something like the poster children for the kind of restraint and public decorum that the word “bourgeois” conveyed.

In post-war America, Hollywood served up images of Jewish lawyers and doctors—bigshots—who kept their heads while others didn’t. Who else might show the way? Who, if not, a white-bearded rabbi marched with Dr. King? Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr. went down into crisis and came up converted. It was a Jewy soda-fountain owner who lamented the violence afflicting the Sharks and the Jets. “Why can’t you kids just get along!”  Jews controlled themselves so well—partly because they had been a scorned minority and had learned to ingratiate themselves. But also, as little Alex had insisted, because Jews had a religious culture that could seem a divine restraining order.  

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.

Needless to say, a great many critics—not just Howe and Gershom Scholem—didn’t really get it—I mean that the joke was meant to be especially on Portnoy, because Portnoy was no more than a young man; Moreover,  Portnoy’s honesty about his brazen, guilty, frustrated sexual hungers would not only not provoke anti-Semitism, but was a kind of announcement that American Jews had arrived. Curiously, Portnoy’s Complaint’s very aggression seemed to drain resentments that had pooled around the pretentions of our Anti-Defamation League. No, we were not all Bernard Malamud’s saints. For us, too, sexual junk was lurking under moral righteousness. Portnoy, in Tel Aviv, whines to his Zionist dish, Naomi, who accuses him of being a self-hating Jew. “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” You could almost hear our non-Jewish friends sigh with relief. 

None of this would have worked had the psychoanalytic room not been convincingly enigmatic, leaving readers no vantage point, no moral pivot, nothing but an eavesdropping on analysand and analyst, both of whom seemed verging on parody. This is the book’s virtuoso achievement. This is not just any stream-of-consciousness. This is stream-of-consciousness that costs you a couple of hundred bucks an hour, four days a week, and you inevitably become rather practiced at.

In the chapter Roth calls “Whacking-off,” for example, Portnoy begins his speech telling us the ways in which he found himself “wholly incapable of keeping my paws from my dong,” which leads to the famous butcher shop, leads to a discovery of a little dot on his penis, which was certainly cancer—the only fit punishment for the crime of violating his family’s dinner. But now a mature, ironic erudition intrudes. “I am the Raskalnikoff of jerking off.”  My God, Portnoy asks, what is freedom and what merely shaking the bars? And so forth. Then, suddenly, with Dr. Spielvogel attending, Portnoy’s consciousness is invaded by the primal Mommy, which leads to guilty thoughts of disloyalty to his father, and so forth.

You start with the grievance, you see, 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. So he let things rip. He also presumed you knew psychoanalytic theory. And therefore how Portnoy’s Jewish family made things all topsy-turvy. Oedipus complex? My God, the knife is in Mommy’s hand. The superego comes as a low-voltage father who cannot stop struggling with his bowels. The angst persists well beyond infancy because the son is preferred over the father. The only thing worse than Oedipal tension is Oedipal victory.  And community only colludes in this inversion.  In a Jewish home, the superego had a five-thousand-year head start.

Some readers concluded that, therefore, the forbearing Dr. Spielvogel, must be the only vindicated character in the novel; that Roth was valorizing an old-style secular Jew, skeptical, like Freud, of the culture of Judaism. Alas, the enigma of Portnoy’s complaining is bigger yet. For the novel leaves us with the lingering suspicion that Spielvogel, too, represents an orthodoxy; leaves us wondering if Spielvogel thinks he has an explanation for everything, from pleasure to process; that there is hubris in Spielvogel’s authority.

Roth shows, without quite showing his hand, that the psychoanalytic vernacular can itself be satirized. Remember Spielvogel’s definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” at the front of the book? “A disorder in which strongly felt and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” In this context, with Portnoy squirming so truthfully, could anything be more condescending than the word “perverse”?

Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Poor Portnoy: now trying to please his doctor the way he had tried to please his mother and father. Portnoy keeps wanting to be “healthy” in the classical way a well-analyzed man is expected to be. That he wishes he had had a strong, preempting father, a guilt-free memory of mother’s love, so that he could—according to the theory—stop lusting for a wilderness of Monkeys. “You see I just can’t stop. Or tie myself to any one!”  Portnoy is relentlessly hoping for the very cure that the tut-tutting Spielvogel seems poised to supply.  But the rhetoric of Portnoy’s monologue, and the construction he puts on his family, both seem to be supplied by Spielvogel, too. 

Not coincidently, Roth told me he had just finished an analysis with a psychoanalyst quite like Spielvogel, who tried to persuade Roth that 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, “because his characterization of my mother and father was so false. But he gave me a good idea. This was a better family to use than my family. And that’s around the time I went to Iowa, to teach writing, where I had a disproportionately high number of Jewish students. And, again, they’d write about this folkloric Jewish family. Tough mother, weak father. Their stories may have been true in their detail, but never mind: the stories were organized around this folklore. I said: ‘Fine, you want this Jewish family? I’ll give it to you!’”

Portnoy’s Complaint, at its deepest, is thus meant to explode the idea of the psychiatric “perverse.” The psychiatric “normal.”  Roth told me, “Once you take the categories of illness and health seriously, 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.”  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.

Portnoy’s Complaint left us laughing and queasy and talking. Can you really say this? Is this also me? Was the doctor really right? The joke was on everybody—parents, lovers, Jews, patients, analysts—which is another way of saying it was on the act of reading itself. Readers get things wrong just like characters do.  Der mench tracht, un Gott lacht. Men strive, God laughs.

And so—though I know I shall be pitied for saying this—I consider Portnoy’s Complaint something like the culmination of the 1960s in America, a decade of advancing civil rights, a decade of 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, like the Jewish family, and is described by fictions, like psychoanalysis. Portnoy’s Complaint aimed to prove liberalism’s largest, most precious moral claim, that all orthodoxy is suspect, inherently wrong; that precisely because language and experience are relative, the principle of tolerance must be absolute.

In trying to penetrate another’s character, we gain insight mainly into our limitations. No text is sacred, just the right to interpret texts is. At the end of his life Roth insisted that he himself could not reread Portnoy’s Complaint. But he was being too hard on his younger self.  The book was the first great milestone in a life’s work. That work would show us, ironically, how little a “work” our lives are.


Bernard Avishai is a professor of political economy at Dartmouth, and author of four books, most recently, Promiscuous: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, and dozens of articles for The New YorkerNew York Review of BooksHarper’sHarvard Business Review, and other publications.


This post is based on a lecture presented in Stockholm in honor of Philip Roth on December 10, 2018. The lecture in its entirety:


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