Novelist Philip Roth passed away May 22 at the age of 85. Roth is certainly in the pantheon of famous and accomplished 20th century American authors. During the 1990s, he won a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for literature for three different novels.
Roth had a number of early successes with a collection of stories (Goodbye, Columbusin 1959) and a pair of novels (Letting Go and When She Was Good in the early ‘60s), but he burst into the national consciousness in 1969 with his most famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. It made the New York Public Library’s “Books of the Century” and was listed among its “Landmarks of Modern Literature.”
Like Roth’s other literary offerings, the protagonist was a Jew (Alexander Portnoy) and it is essentially the story of how the middle aged man tells tales of sexual woe to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel. In brief, it’s the story of a man who was a chronic masturbator in his adolescence and early adulthood and who – I would argue consequently – could never find a satisfactory relationship with a woman later in life despite numerous attempts to find the right person with which to settle down.
There are endless stories, relayed in famously graphic detail, of Portnoy’s masturbation: into a bottle, onto a sock, with a piece of liver (that the protagonist returns to the refrigerator). Indeed, there is no more famous book about masturbation. And yet, I’m not convinced that the lesson Roth provides is the one he intended.
I’m convinced that the facts of life are conservative, as the saying goes, and it is difficult to get away from the truth in true art (as opposed to propaganda). It was certainly never Roth’s intention to suggest masturbation was self-destructive, to tease out the consequences of obsessive sexual self-pleasuring. Like most of of his other stories, Roth wants Portnoy’s Complaintto expose the stultifying effects of family, religion, and tradition. Roth obviously views society’s hang-ups about men being sexual omnivores as the root of Portnoy’s lack of satisfaction in life, particularly in the romantic encounters he attempts as an adult desperately looking for companionship (albeit to merely satisfy his voracious sexual appetite). Guilt imposed by his Jewish mother – there’s that triumvirate of family, religion, and tradition wrapped in the personification of this woman he despises – is the culprit in Portnoy’s unhappiness.
Roth employed the same trope in his debut stories, which included the tale of a New Jersey couple in their 20s who have a difficult time establishing a healthy relationship because it was discovered by one of the parents that they are sexually active. It is fairly clear that Roth finds the moral strictures and expectations of the mother to be corrosive to the larger family dynamics. Traditional mores are something to be overcome, not lived by.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth unintentionally got to the truth that masturbation corrupts the soul and perverts sexual appetites by placing pleasure above all else in any sexual encounter. Masturbation is not loving, not giving, and not procreative. It is not only sinful, it is literally a sterile and selfish imitation of sex. A lifetime of indulging such behaviour inhibits the ability to properly enjoy the gift of sexuality as it was designed to be used (procreatively) in an act of selfless giving of oneself to a lifelong partner in marriage. To borrow from the world of architecture, form doesn’t follow function. That, in a nutshell, is why Portnoy needs a shrink.
There is simply no way Roth intended that to be the message, but as I said, it is difficult to get away from certain moral truths in art.
Writing in the New York Post after the author’s passing, John Podhoretz says that the sexual libertine ways of the protagonists in Roth’s post-Portnoy fiction does not result in “liberation” as the “world of freer sex isn’t freeing for any of them.” In a career that included more than 30 works, Podhoretz reports, only once does a male character find contentment, let alone happiness, in marriage and family life. What a dismal world Roth has created. It raises disturbing questions about the potentially autographical nature of Roth’s fiction, and it is probably no coincidence that Roth was twice married and divorced, and that he later was brutal about his ex-wives in how he depicted them in later novels.
Many of Roth’s later fiction featured men who were sexually impotent or otherwise unable to perform sexually. It is the epitome of frustration for these protagonists, and while making the physically unable to perform portion of one’s life is certainly troubling for many men, it does not, in fact, make a man less of a human being. But for Roth, it is a fate worse than death, which is not surprising for an author who views sexual pleasure as the greatest good mankind can achieve.
Roth was a talented writer, although the literary critic Joseph Epstein wrote that he did not pass the test of great literature, namely to reward rereading. Stylistically, Roth was exemplary. As a storyteller, he had an eye for the details of his Jewish culture. But his topics were not very edifying and it seems that he may have wanted to write outrageously for the sake of being outrageous. One cannot escape the feeling that Roth relished making bourgeois readers squirm a little (recall that Portnoy masturbated using a beef liver). Other than his accidentally telling the truth about the consequences of masturbation, there is no moral progress in Roth’s novels, and therefore there is not much point to reading Roth’s fiction. Indeed, Roth’s puerile interest in endless sexual pleasure-seeking lost whatever literary force it had after Portnoyas the Sexual Revolution “won” shortly after its publication. As Epstein wrote in the 1980s in an essay examining Roth’s career as a writer, “the war between ethical and social yearnings and sexual appetite is long over.” Whatever tension between desire and morality existed in Roth’s earlier writing was eviscerated by events in the 1960s and ‘70s, and yet Roth continued writing as if nothing changed. Worse that Roth’s stories becoming tiresome, they were pointless.
Roth’s novels provide fairly standard left-liberal politics (sexual freedom, an anti-Nixon screed, a condemnation of Clinton-era McCarthyite sexual oppression) which is mostly representative of a particular New York view of America and which appeals to the arbiters of culture at the New York Review of Booksand New Yorkermagazines. It is unclear if he had much resonance beyond those who wanted to seem properly cultured. So much talent and so little point is itself a tragic combination; it was all a waste.