Portnoy’s Complaint – Book Review

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth was the rise of the author to a mixture of fame and rejection from the society but immense respect of the literature nonetheless. It turned out to be the catalyst for a number of works by varies artists in different fields to express Portnoy’s Complaint in their own art form. The major reason for its rise to such height was the controversial nature of the book which is so candidly narrated by Alexander Portnoy to his Doctor with bouts of emotional and logical outbursts. It is a book out of frustration, it is a book calling for freedom, it is a book portraying the essential need of human beings to left to their devices and seek the animal instincts hidden deep within their confines. Portnoy’s Complaint was received with an outburst of anger and disassociation of the author from his community by the Jewish People at that time who did not fully grasp the meaning that his book help for generations to come. The Jewish Men in the 1960’s were in a sociological and psychological mess, with their newer generations trying to find ways to break the shackle but were nevertheless sensitive of anyone exposing their predicament to the masses. And not just Jewish Men but women as well were repressed and were drilled from their birth to suppress their desires. The Jewish population had come off their worst nightmare ever through the world wars and even though not as readily accepted in the American Society was finding their foothold to a strong establishment of intent. But finding the Christian Society in general more open than their own society, their younger generation started getting frustrated. For most of the older society their faith in their religion was something that had kept them going through the World War era even if they were not in the thick of it they felt as if they owed to their people who lost their lives defending their religion. The image of the Jewish boys are at that was a picture of a good boy, obedient and loving to their parents, dedicated to their future career and having a profitable outcome in everything they envision. Philip Roth took a huge risk in breaking this security of insecurity within the Jews in America at that time by depicting and exploring with his character Alex Portnoy of what might be happening inside the mind of a good Jewish boy frustrated by the confines of his society. And this is what angered the Jews more than anything, is the possibility of such a psychopath sex maniac living amongst their perfect culture harbouring thousands of years of sensibility and also the notion of a Jewish boy reclaiming to atheism rather than the perfect religion he was born in. They deemed it as a fiction without sense, and an idea that had no ground, such a happening within their midst, impossible and even to mention it was ridiculous. And to top all of their anger it was written by a Jew himself. But such a controversial book could have only been written by a Jew, someone who has lived in that society maybe not having experienced the full extent of the grunt but having known of it by observing around him. This is similar to what the homosexual community must be feeling like when they were so to say coming out of the closet, the feeling of relief that someone said what they had been feeling for centuries and the feeling around them of people around them of anger and sudden ignorance of the facts. Regardless along with Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint defined the Jewish Literature in the 1960’s. It is as Alexander Portnoy says in the book to his doctor,

“Doctor, doctor, what do you say, let’s put the id back in yid.” – Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

The Portnoy’s Complaint narrated by the notorious character of Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist breeds a lot of intriguing issues. The first obvious one is the beautiful irrational narration by the protagonist which stems from rational to heights of sexual insanity yet making a poignant sense in the middle of all of it. It plunges the reader into the psychology of the writer and the protagonist that he has so masterfully created. Forget about all the issues, they come second to what is on show at the very start, the thing that grabs the attention at first. The reader is instantly hooked on to the character of Alexander Portnoy not because of what he is saying, but how he chooses to say it, in a candid satirical manner he is narrating years of frustration yearning a little piece of freedom experienced by not just him but by generations and generations of men before him. You know Alex is intelligent, smart, educated and more than one ways articulate in his mannerism, although the actions narrated by him maybe outrageous and not likely linked with a person of his understanding but never the less he has a feeling of purpose about him. As if he has sat down with the Doctor not to seek help but to be admired and be rectified of his guilt, which is a major issue in itself. In these days we are likely to relate such eradicative behaviour with people of higher intent in life, now as a society we are coming to grips of the oddities that make up a genius but in those times such actions could only have been performed by a madman, by a man on the road to his destruction, utterly unaware of the world’s rationality, a man with no intellectual output. Now, the word genius I choose is of a very sensitive essence over here, genius might not only be one who might construe an exhibition for the world to admire, genius as is to be anyone who tries to change the norm in the pursuit of a deeper purpose. Alexander Portnoy a neurotic psychopath in that way is a complete and utter genius. And you can feel that as you listen to him, because his narration is so vivid you forget at times you are reading, that he is indeed a strange man but a genius nonetheless, squinting with disgust at times maybe at his admissions or letting out an uneasy smirk not sure whether to dismiss him or agree with him, you feel he has a sense of genius about him and he makes you think. And always be rest assured that a man who makes you think will never try to make you into his own image. This is something that people at that time failed to comprehend and condemned the writer for his art. Alexander Portnoy does not encourage you with his narration to do as he had done and be free of the shackles, he only wants you to think of being free and see for yourself how it feels, it is entirely up to you what you do with that said freedom.

The second thing that stems from this is the state of Alexander Portnoy’s mind at current, not while he was doing what he said he was doing, but right now at the current while he is narrating it. He has already recognized his problem, but he is unsure whether he wants to get it fixed or not, but one thing is for dead certain that he carries the guilt. And this is something very deep that Philip Roth over here is trying to explain to us, the guilt. In such an environment the guilt and self-resentment is imbedded in you as a child and you grow up with and no matter how much you try to fight against it, no matter even if you become free of the stigmas you are still riddled with guilt. And that is way of the religion and the society to bring you back to its norm. Guilt has made people come back to their original design more often than you would think, and guilt has made people do more outrageous things than you can fathom. When you have done all of those things, and you are sitting down high on guilt thinking of what you have done in your life, and you come to a decision that invariably you would never let your kids be the same as you and end up continuing the cycle of insufferable frustration. And then again one of your seed down the line might break out in similar fashion and due to guilt come back to continue the cycle and that is the power of guilt. In the book Portnoy’s guilt is depicted in the form of his parents, he never fails to mention them in any circumstances, but he is not sure of his love for them and so his guilt still remains.          

Issues like such are embodied more deeply into the context of the book than the obvious issues of the sexual nature. This is by far not a porn novel; this is a story of a man complicated by so many psychological issues that breaking free of one of them can only lead him falling unto another one. Now coming on to his sexual obsessions we can see that it arises with his mother in many ways than you would think, it is a cliché Freudian theory which Portnoy is trying to deny by not divulging into it further than he should, but uncomfortably so he does more than you would want him to. He loves and hates her mother, in ways that he loves and hates himself. He admires her tactics, her strategy but hates her for using it on him. From an early age he is sure that his mother have powers beyond anyone and that she always watches him. She is only one in his early age there to fill up his ego, and that makes him love her. She protects him takes care of him and nurtures him, but he questions in his mind her love to be more than it means but he doesn’t want to say it himself. He exuberates the beauty of his mother, indulging himself into that old adage of Greek perplexities but now and again he is held back by his conscious mind mainly blaming his mother for making him indulge so sinisterly into the unthinkable. These emotions stay with him even with the aid of his ‘Monkey’ they still stay with him and so in the early ages he finds recluse in releasing himself, masturbation is his answer. But Alexander in an unreliable narrator and so as you would have it he tries to find a reason for his masturbation. And you can see it whenever he is trying to dissuade you he uses very rational logic. And so he tells the doctor masturbation was the only way he could feel free, that he felt he was in control and not someone else of his life, but then you wonder was it the main reason, the frequency of it alone makes you wonder was it the only reason. Perhaps it might have been that his frustration stemmed from a sexual frustration towards his own mother, maybe an underlying topic inside a topic nonetheless. His sexual frustration stems from his mother, and he is all too aware of the fact, that is why he doesn’t linger on the topic of why he notices and appreciates every women’s breasts before he goes overly strongly on the vaginal region of theirs to avoid the Freudian trap.

“You can no more make someone tell the truth than you can force someone to love you.”

          Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Is that not his argument all along? Urging his doctor to take the truth out of him. Is that not why he fails to calm him sexual frustrations, the reason why he fails to find satisfaction in no matter what way? Unable to commit even to someone who was willing to fulfil all his sexual fantasies. Is that not also the reason of his to go against the religion?

His rejection of religion is a major topic in itself, and although it is interesting to think how it got to him so early in his age it is also very interesting to see how strongly he feels about it. In that era he claims Communism to be better than his or any other religion, for that time that is a very strong sentiment to put forward. His rejected of religion might as well have stemmed from his sexual frustration but they formed a very important part of his character but unknowingly drew a very dark picture for the atheists. People with strong religious sentiments might read and think, this is what atheists do, they leave the religion and see what happens to their lives, and they become a menace to the society without any sense of right and wrong. But they fail to see a very important message that it is in fact religion that made him into what he became and not atheism. If there was no religion to begin with and there were no social restrictions and stigmas to begin with he might have confronted his problems earlier on and resolved his issues but the frustration of control bred in him a different monster than he would have wanted. Atheism did not make him into a monster it saved him from becoming an even more heinous monster than he already became. It is a hard concept to grasp if you haven’t lived through the religious restrictions in your early age. I think what Jews were going through than is very similar to what Muslims are going through in this day and age. Every religion comes with an expiry age, and then it goes sour and only resides in the background. This which was applicable to Jews in masses 44 years ago is now very much the same for a lot of Muslims perhaps in a very similar frustrated and controlled society, with the only exception of the later victims to such stigmas being more aggressive of their emotions than their predecessors.

Every time you read the book you can come up with new theories, but all the more it did manage to bring about one major issue whether any of the underlying meaning came to light or not, that is no one likes being caged, no one likes being frustration and no one is without their little oddities whether they be little or blown out of proportion like Portnoy’s everyone has a monster in their closet that they are all too scared to reveal.  

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