Shaking History

Sometimes a novel can have a therapeutic quality. The reader gets to travel to distant time and place spending a few hours on the sunny heaths of pastoral England, or hurtling through outer space for human race-saving heroics. There’s value in escape. Summoning the imagination allows you to take a timeout from the difficulty of living in the “real” world, having responsibilities, feeling pain and trying to navigate life without the aid of an omniscient point-of-view.

Phillip Roth doesn’t write those kind of novels—not unless your idea of escaping your neuroses is confronting them head on.

The reader's the shrink: Portnoy begs for help to escape the demons of his history.

The reader’s the shrink: Portnoy begs for help to escape the demons of his history.


In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Alexander Portnoy, a 33-year old Newark, New Jersey Jew tries to reconcile his identity by exposing the deep-seeded root of his lifelong terror and obsession with sexuality. He is faced with constant reminders that he is inescapably Jewish and inescapably American and these two defining elements are in constant contradiction.

What ingredients go into the recipe of adulthood? Does the “individual” comprise a unique heuristic of personal experience or are we confined by destiny to the expectations and limitations of class, race and gender?
Portnoy subscribes to the more Freudian point of view. He blames Judaism for creating in him an isolating sense of superiority. He blames his overbearing mother for his twisted relationship with women. He blames his own resentment of engrained tradition for his unwillingness to start a family, to attend temple, to join a community and perpetuate generations and generation of Semitic pride in the face of oppression and diaspora.

In all of this is shame and self-hatred, and the unspoken wish that he could just be ok with the same life as his ancestors.

Self-actualization requires an impromptu pilgrimage to Jerusalem following a romantic European vacation with his shikse girlfriend, gone awry. Having abandoned her in Rome, he is spellbound by the motherland’s material beauty and the experience of Judaism as the norm. Portnoy accepts his heritage and finds himself in a hotel room with a Jewish woman (a six-foot army lieutenant), but he is unable to perform. Portnoy’s libido has been developed out of a craving for the other. If he is not isolated, different and superior, he is not a man.

Shame comes full circle when he meets another woman fresh off the kibbutz. She rails against the bloated, amoral American machine, tapping into Pornoy’s deep self-loathing. He is smitten and professes his love, but she rejects him and he can only manage to humiliate himself when he tries to be force himself her.

Portnoy fails at shaking history; though laments being born into a label of Judaism, but what impairs him the most is not his religion, but his hatred of himself and his own past.

Are these the same thing?

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