Promis­cu­ous: Portnoy’s Com­plaint and Our Doomed Pur­suit of Happiness

Bernard Avishai
  • Review
By – April 26, 2012
In 2013 Philip Roth will be eighty and The Library of Amer­i­ca will com­plete, on acid-free paper, its re-pub­li­ca­tion of his oeu­vre. Per­ma­nence invites reassess­ment, so the crit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty has begun assess­ing, for pos­ter­i­ty, the thir­ty-one books they praised or protest­ed dur­ing Roth’s six-decade career. His piv­otal work, which shaped and was shaped by America’s piv­otal decade, is Portnoy’s Com­plaint (1969). And as Bernard Avishai implies in the title to his pars­ing of Port­noy, while Roth’s read­er­ship took promis­cu­ity (lit­er­al­ly, the pro-mix­ing of dis­parate ele­ments) for promise, Roth’s answer to Spielvogel’s Now vee may per­haps to begin. Yes?” was No!” Roth steps on his punch line” to show that our pur­suit of hap­pi­ness” is doomed.” Roth’s nov­el in the form of a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic con­fes­sion induced a gen­er­a­tion to sus­pect, Ham­let-like, all attempts to pluck out the heart of … [our]… mys­tery.”

In the 1960s mod­ernism was break­ing down because its ratio­nal­ist tra­di­tion answered only pal­pa­ble ques­tions. Yet even Ein­stein had dimin­ished his own author­i­ty by show­ing that physics was ulti­mate­ly unknow­able because the world has no begin­ning place. For Avishai, every ratio­nal­ist has his irra­tional side. Ben Franklin pub­licly offered the moral­i­ty of Poor Richard, but his let­ters pri­vate­ly licked the pri­vates of women and declared them all inter­change­able. Roth was ana­lyzed by a Ger­man refugee psy­chi­a­trist who, see­ing all prob­lems from his own Freudi­an per­spec­tive, induced patients to win his approval by describ­ing their dom­i­neer­ing moth­ers and wimpy fathers. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Roth con­sid­ered his own father a tow­er of strength and his moth­er a lov­ing sup­port. The upshot is that Port­noy con­fess­es what Spielvo­gel wants to hear, but joins his author in send­ing up the fail­ings of ana­lyst and analysand — that is, the whole mys­tique of the talk­ing cure.

Avishai draws on exist­ing schol­ar­ship to recount the wild blue shock­er” that made Portnoy’s Com­plaint the talk of its time, but from Roth’s note­books and Roth’s friend­ship he adds insight to what keeps Port­noy out­selling Gats­by and God­fa­ther to this day. It makes this read­er long for at least one more post-LoA nov­el from the author who can best pro-mix those elu­sive para­dox­es we sense to be truth.
Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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