Bernard Avishai: Promiscuous

I nitially banned in Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is Philip Roth’s early, bestselling, satirical tour de force. Alexander Portnoy addresses a long monologue to his analyst, Dr Spielvogel. Among other things, the monologue tackles Portnoy’s erotic and ethical shortcomings, lingering in particular over his father’s familial and economic emasculation, his mother’s overbearing cleanliness and affection, his fraught relationship to Jewishness, and a selection of doomed love interests. Portnoy’s Complaint is by turns comedic, tragic, confronting, illuminating, anguished, and jubilant. As with all of Roth’s best novels, it is imbued with a compelling vitality, and aggressively tackles wide-ranging concerns, not the least of which is the complex nature of ‘the human’ (contrasted with ‘types’). Portnoy – a dedicated human rights lawyer – is afflicted with apparently ‘animalistic’ sexual compulsions; his concern for impoverished people and minorities is matched only by his neurosis; he is socially productive, but his private self is obsessively masturbatory (‘I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off’); his relationships with women are coloured by an apparently misogynist streak; and his hostility toward aspects of Jewishness verges on anti-Semitism. These and other conflicts (‘Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred … or the love?’) doom Portnoy to sexual and emotional impotence.

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