Just what was Portnoy’s Complaint?


Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts.  Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution.  I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers.  Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception.  In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law.  As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar.  Of course that was in 1969.  Today it is considered an American classic.

I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior.  I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex.  Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict.  Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo.  Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that.  If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture.  It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion.  In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing.  But then, that’s what makes it so very American.

Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt.  He was an expert at guilt.  In fact, he was a slave to it.  He lived with it day in and day out.  And where did he get it?  He tells us that it came from his parents.  After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39)  Did they do it on purpose?  Are they to blame?  Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer.  “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion.  He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.

At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents.  He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt.  It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture.  In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage.  In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84)  But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.

Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man.  It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal.  Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years.  In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country.  According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly.  Do you see my point?  If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner.  It is a characteristically American problem.

Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith.  In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion.  It is also his cultural heritage.  He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith.  As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents.  Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.

That was the wrong answer.  Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it.  Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament.  Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude.  To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise.  “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285)  In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.

Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life.  He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read.  Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt.  I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends.  If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical.  Guilt is a universal part of the human condition.  It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs.  In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did.  He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book.  If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.

To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued.  If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up?  If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years?  Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man.  He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure.  If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt.  In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage.  It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family.  It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal.  Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.

“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me.  How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114)  That’s pretty shallow.  People do get old.  Bodies change.  Yet they stay married.  Why?  Because they are comfortable and happy together.  It’s not all about sex.  Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together.  It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another.  “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father?  I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)

No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts.  People get married because they love each other.  They get married for love.  And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you.  But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)

No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love.  You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring.  Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient.  Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith.  One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime.  I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage.  He does not want to be married.  He does not want to be faithful to one woman.  He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element.  Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.

He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful.  He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road.  He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him.  He does not want to get married and probably never will.  He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex.  Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage.  You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom.  You idiot!  You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck!  Grow up!

Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life.  Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome.  Get a clue from your religion.  Talk to your rabbis again.  Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt.  You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know.  And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way.  But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?

Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969

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