Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Dare I even admit that I’ve read this book? It is a grown man’s tirade to his psychiatrist… approximately eight hours non-stop of perverse mental diarrhea. As the “forward” says: Portnoy’s complaint is about “acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus” which result in shame and dread. And he’s Jewish. A good portion of his angst is caused by hating his religion, hating his weak father, hating his overbearing mother, hating Christians, and hating himself…. his hairy body, his long beak of a nose, his upbringing and his accent. The only thing that matters to Portnoy – from the age of four until he finally consults the psychiatrist at age thirty-three – is his own physical pleasure, and no amount of debauchery is ever enough.
Had Roth been an artist, he might have smeared a canvas with feces, framed it in an ornate gilded frame, and titled it “My Great Jewish Masterpiece”. Would the public then have gazed at it and pondered, “Isn’t that profound!”
It reminds me of a quote from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (Pg 461) “The person who loves everybody and feels at home everywhere is the true hater of mankind. He expects nothing of men, so no form of depravity can outrage him.” I expected better of Roth, and I am outraged.
In fact, Philip Roth reminds me of a character from The Fountainhead – a disciple of Ellsworth Toohey, the influential evil arts critic, who runs the Council of American Writers. Ellsworth’s primary goal is to have dominance over people so he can destroy greatness and watch the human race sink to the lowest level. Thus he promotes writers (like Philip Roth) and encourages mediocrity (like Portnoy’s Complaint) and gets great enjoyment out of watching the public follow like blind sheep in praising the drivel as fine literature.
Yes, there are a few funny lines, one or two comical scenes, and a smattering of artistic chutzpah. If you have the perseverance to shovel through all the dirt you may see that underneath it all, Roth may have been a talented writer… which makes Portnoy’s Complaint even more disappointing.
And I don’t understand all the literary comparisons to Seinfeld, and Larry David… they both exploited a little of the Jewish guilt in their TV shows, and the self-depreciating whiny characters they portrayed were vaguely similar to the self-pitying tirades of Portnoy, and they too are proclaimed atheists, but Seinfeld and David are saints compared to Portnoy. Portnoy was angry at the world, and deranged – pursuing his obsessive physical pleasure like a rabid dog – described in the book in painful detail – over and over and over.
I believe good literature is supposed to add value to your personal knowledge and your life. I don’t see the need (or have the desire) to know how many ways a young man can masturbate, perform contemptuous sex acts, and spew demoralizing crude, filthy hatred for everyone and everything in his life, especially his sexual partners… after he has finished exploiting them.
I suspect Philip Roth had his own psychological issues, but that is no excuse. Portnoy’s Complaint is pure smut. How it ended up as number 52 on the Modern Library list of greatest novels is a pure mystery. Is it possible there is a real Elsworth Toohey on the Modern Library board? Have they no shame? And is Portnoy’s Complaint (as are some of his other novels) semi-autobiographical? Has Philip Roth no pride? Or are many of America’s readers Portnoys themselves?
Rated 1 Star