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Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint

4,552 words

Philip Roth
Portnoy’s Complaint
New York: Random House, 1969

Six years ago, I decided that I should finally get around to reading a classic great American novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. So I delved into the book without knowing anything about it. I had no preconceptions other than that it was rated an excellent literary work. Was I ever in for a surprise!

Preliminary observations

Like Philip Roth’s other books, this contains many semi-autobiographical elements. It’s a matter of debate as to just how “semi” the autobiography is. It’s true that the author and his protagonist have several things in common. This is rather like how Mark Twain put much of his boyhood personality into Tom Sawyer.

The book is a long narrative from a neurotic patient to his therapist as the framing story. Indeed, it was written at a time when psychoanalysis was almost a religion, and Sigmund Freud was the seal of the prophets. Psychiatrists had a priestly confessor role, and sometimes were regarded more cynically as witch doctors of the mind, thus the term “headshrinkers.” The basic methodology is that the shrinks mainly take notes and occasionally ask nonjudgmental questions, while the patients ramble on about their problems. Somewhere along the way — as the theory goes — the patients will realize the error of their ways, call themselves out on their own bullshit, and screw their heads back on straight. It’s a slow and very costly process, and whether this type of psychoanalysis really accomplishes much remains a matter of debate. The proletarian equivalent — talking the bartender’s ear off — might be just as effective, and certainly is cheaper even with exorbitantly marked-up booze prices.

What troubles the narrator’s soul? The book’s brief preface begins defining “Portnoy’s Complaint” as if it’s a psychological condition. This manifests in terms of cognitive dissonance:

A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: ‘Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s “morality,” however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.’

The preface implies a few things. First of all, Dr. Spielvogel (“play bird”) wrote him up as a case study for a new syndrome. It’s rather like how Freud used Oedipus Rex of ancient Greek lore as the index case for Oedipus Complex. To do so, Portnoy himself would have to give approval for lending his name to the condition and discussing the particulars of his case, so apparently, he didn’t mind airing out his own dirty laundry to the world. That might imply an instance of this exhibitionism writ large, but it’s possible I’m reading too much into it. Either way, his case is remarkable enough to name after him as a prime example, yet common enough to designate as a syndrome.

More importantly, the preface informs us right out of the starting gate that the narrator throughout this ordeal of a novel is certainly an upstanding human being. It says that he possesses these “strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses.” For him, these characteristics amount to the phony righteousness that today is called being “woke.” The problem for this wonderful man is that his lust keeps getting in the way. It’s a common affliction of male feminists [1] too, like Harvey Weinstein [2].

What the above definition implies is that the id and superego are at odds. Essentially, it’s that old mind-body dichotomy thing. Nietzsche had a few words to say on that subject:

To the despisers of the body I speak my word. I wish them neither to learn afresh, nor teach anew, but only to bid farewell to their own bodies — and thus become silent.

Many have pondered that one, but didn’t get the full impact. To rephrase this witty barb colloquially, “If the struggle between spirit and flesh troubles you so much, then solve your problem by taking a long walk off of a short pier, so you’ll shut up forever.” However, silence certainly isn’t in the cards with this book.

It’s a very long kvetch-fest, as the title implies, and it’s remarkably wordy. This isn’t like Victorian verbosity, such as George Eliot or Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which the heavily ornamented language was for stylistic effect. Portnoy’s Complaint is something else entirely. It’s as if the wangst had been packed in with a pile driver. Philip Roth’s verbal barrage is a little much even for a story about a neurotic complaining nonstop from a psychiatrist’s couch.


The book opens with Alexander Portnoy as a young and promising kindergartener. We’re soon introduced to the rest of his family. Hannah is his older sister, a fairly minor character. His mother is the overbearing type, who at first seems omnipresent to him. He grows up with a mother complex that he never is able to shake. (Needless to say, there’s a lot of Freud in the story.) Still, despite the narrator’s very strange attitudes about her, there’s nothing in the book indicating that she’s abusive. Reading between the lines, she’s simply a nice lady — whatever her quirks might be — who wants the best for her kids.

Alexander’s father is the book’s most sympathetic and relatable major character, probably unintentionally. He’s actually a pretty decent fellow, but gets little appreciation. Working for a WASP company, he sells life insurance to low-income customers, particularly blacks. It’s a difficult racket, and the sense of humiliation is palpable. It’s obvious that he played by the rules, did everything society told him to do [3], and life gave him no glory in return and barely a crumb of recognition. His family certainly should appreciate him, but apparently showing respect to the man who puts food on the table and keeps a roof over their heads is too much to ask.

The father suffers from constipation, a topic first covered early on in a long and grotesque paragraph covering laxatives and suppositories. It concludes:

I remember that when they announced over the radio the explosion of the first atom bomb, he said aloud, “Maybe that would do the job.” But all catharses were in vain for that man: his kishkas [intestines] were gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration.

The counterpart to this is when Alex becomes an adolescent and his mother takes a keen interest in his loose stools, attributing his condition to hamburgers and French fries. So the father’s constipation and the son’s diarrhea make for a physical manifestation of the anal-retentive and anal-expulsive complexes. Did I mention that there’s quite a bit of Freud in this book?


The chapter covering Portnoy at thirteen is called “Whacking Off,” which proves to be quite apt. The masturbation plot was central to the story, since it was the oldest part Roth had written, and the rest of the book grew around it. Also, it tends to be the most memorable. It must be seen to believed, and the opening is a fairly representative sample:

Then came adolescence-half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out. Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth-though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstasy, I got it all in the pompadour, like a blast of Wildroot Cream Oil.

Indeed, to call Portnoy a wanker would be like calling Pablo Escobar a pharmacist. The rest of the chapter’s momentous first paragraph describes his performances with a candy wrapper, a cored apple, a milk bottle, and a piece of liver. (Much later in the book, we find out that after his second encounter with a piece of liver, it ends up as supper a couple of hours later.) Still, that isn’t yet the full extent of his onanistic creativity. There’s much more to come, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Then there’s an extended sequence in which he leaves the supper table for a trip to the bathroom. As he strokes himself, with his other hand, he rubs his sister’s panties on his face. He’s excited enough to shoot DNA evidence onto a light bulb over the sink. (Is that about coming to enlightenment, or is that reading the symbolism too far?) After supper, he goes back to produce an encore into his sister’s bra. When questioned about the return trip to the bathroom, he pretends he’s having diarrhea. That causes a family uproar; the scene drags on ad nauseam.

The chapter ends with a rant about being expected to stay in touch with his parents, then about conforming to his cultural rules. The chapter concludes:

. . . 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? Oh, my secrets, my shame, my palpitations, my flushes, my sweats! The way I respond to the simple vicissitudes of human life! 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! Enough!

Pity poor Portnoy! What a tortured soul! Anyway, it’s a good lead-in to the next chapter, “The Jewish Blues.” It begins with a flashback about a medical condition concerning his testicles, of no great importance to the rest of the story. After that, it describes a father-son chat about ecumenicalism:

They worship a Jew, do you know that, Alex? Their whole big-deal religion is based on worshiping someone who was an established Jew at that time. Now how do you like that for stupidity? How do you like that for pulling the wool over the eyes of the public?

That’s always seemed rather like saying that Martin Luther was a good Catholic for all his life. However, the subject matters little to me. After more of the same, it finishes:

I assure you, Alex, you are never going to hear such a mishegoss [craziness] of mixed-up crap and disgusting nonsense as the Christian religion in your entire life. And that’s what these big shots, so-called, believe!

Suddenly the subject changes from religion and cuts away to a discussion of his father’s private parts. (He seems rather awed.) Then there’s a much longer section about his mother’s menstrual periods and other TMI matters. Later, it discusses a trip to the sauna, another opportunity to talk about his father’s anatomy. Actually, it’s quite understandable why he ends up consulting the services of an old-school Freudian shrink.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [4]

Then it’s back to religion. Despite instruction in his youth, he professes atheism, causing a major quarrel at home. Then he professes egalitarianism. It’s not too hard to see how it becomes a substitute religion for him. Indeed, this sort of thing was — and still is — a major problem in the real world [5]. Now that we’re getting all Freudian, his progressive ideology increasingly becomes a defense mechanism to prop up his ego, whereby he can reassure himself that he’s a wonderful person despite his reptilian personality.

“Quondam Crazy”

The next chapter, with an unprintably dirty title — “quondam” is the closest I’m going to that — returns to the condition of Portnoy’s teenage libido. Apparently, he’s one of the guys who gave New York public transit a bad name. While on a bus trip heading back to New Jersey, he masturbates next to a sleeping girl. (Remember to be awed when reading that; this is Serious Literature!) She’s a gentile, which gives him an extra thrill.

Also on the subject of forbidden meat, shortly before, he had his first lobster. That leads to a long digression on kosher rules. A brief excerpt:

Let the goyim sink their teeth into whatever lowly creature crawls and grunts across the face of the dirty earth, we will not contaminate our humanity thus. Let them (if you know who I mean) gorge themselves upon anything and everything that moves, no matter how odious and abject the animal, no matter how grotesque or shmutzig [dirty] or dumb the creature in question happens to be. Let them eat eels and frogs and pigs and crabs and lobsters; let them eat vulture, let them eat ape-meat and skunk if they like — a diet of abominable creatures well befits a breed of mankind so hopelessly shallow and empty-headed as to drink, to divorce, and to fight with their fists.

Eventually, that rolls into an even more cringe-worthy rant about hunting. The tone is similar to that of non-vegetarian liberals who seem to assume their meat sort of materializes on the supermarket shelf.

He digresses further, with very flimsy evidence, into wondering if his father cheated on his mother with a gentile. Somehow this is wrapped together with his memory of an uproar caused by stealing his sister’s chocolate pudding. (There’s a Freudian connection between these things, but I’m at a loss to describe it coherently.) Then the subject returns to lobster. Needless to say, this chapter makes for tiresome reading, and there’s much more to follow.

Then it digresses at length about an older boy in the building who committed suicide. Then, flashing forward to the present, he discusses the expectations of his parents that he’ll find a nice Jewish lady and start a family. (Objectively, that’s hardly unreasonable.) He’s just not interested; he wants to chase gentiles instead. The chapter’s chiasmus starts wrapping back, and so there’s more about the suicide, tying up the threads of this tedious digression. The point is that Portnoy, despite all his rebelliousness and other flaws, didn’t turn out that way:

For had I kept it all inside me, believe me, you too might have arrived home to find a pimply adolescent corpse swinging over the bathtub by his father’s belt.

Then he digresses back to when he masturbated on the bus. He reminisces also about getting hot and heavy with his baseball mitt while attending a burlesque show. All of that stretches on for several long paragraphs. The next digression is about his toilet training. Then he jumps far forward into a vacation with his girlfriend, who he calls “The Monkey.” In Italy, he rents a hooker for a threesome, which turns out to be a disaster. Before going further into that relationship, for several pages, he reminisces back to his adolescence and waxes eloquently about shikses [female gentiles]. He laments that he can’t pretend to be Anglo-Saxon because his nose is too big.

The narration has become quite non-linear, so I’ll proceed thematically until the end. Portnoy suffers from a troubled relationship with his culture of origin. It’s not that he’s experienced any persecution; he grows up in a Jewish neighborhood, and only 5% of his high school’s students are gentiles. He develops a love/hate relationship with his Jewish background, and an envy/hate relationship with gentile society. He could be happy that he’s part of a very ancient tradition, but it doesn’t work out that way.

He disposes of one girlfriend after another, moving onto the next quickly. One needn’t be Sigmund Freud to see that his pursuit of shikses is a desire to become an Anglo-Saxon. Needless to say, Portnoy is the poster boy for maladaptive assimilation, though the book doesn’t explain it that way. (The Italians of Jersey Shore are a breath of fresh air compared to this guy. They’re Ellis Island Americans too, but don’t have a constellation of weird complexes.) Other than that, the more that Portnoy reveals about his love life — if one can call it that — the clearer it becomes that he’s hardly changed since he was a thirteen-year-old wanker.

Chronological adulthood

Young Portnoy, not too long out of college, makes a name for himself during the 1950s quiz show scandals.

I was on the staff of the House subcommittee investigating the television quiz scandals. Perfect for a closet socialist like myself: commercial deceit on a national scale, exploitation of the innocent public, elaborate corporate chicanery — in short, good old capitalist greed. And then of course that extra bonus. Charlatan Van Doren. Such character, such brains and breeding, that candor and schoolboyish charm — the ur-WASP, wouldn’t you say? And turns out he’s a fake. Well, what do you know about that. Gentile America? Supergoy, a gonif! [thief] Steals money. Covets money. Wants money, will do anything for it. Goodness gracious me, almost as bad as Jews — you sanctimonious WASPs!

Apparently, he held profound righteous indignation on the hunt for the Lying Dutchman. Game shows were phony! Imagine that; what a blow to the MSM’s sterling credibility. Still, would he have been as enthusiastic about helping Congress bust Wall Street crooks? (Every era has its Milkens, Boeskys, and Madoffs; compared to vulture capitalists, Charles Van Doren was small fry.) Moreover, how would the young closet socialist have felt about going after pro-Soviet collaborators and spies [6]? That certainly was a hot topic for Congress during the early 1950s, before they eschewed “McCarthyism” and aimed their investigatory firepower at the menace of rigged quiz shows.

This is around the same time he starts getting successful with the shikses. He explains his motives:

What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds — as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America — maybe that’s more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington — now Portnoy.

Well, how romantic! Shortly after this:

You can buy Greg Hood’s Waking Up From the American Dream here. [7]

I know all the words to “The Marine Hymn,” and to “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” — and to “The Song of the Army Air Corps.” I know the song of the Navy Air Corps: “Sky anchors aweigh / We’re sailors of the air / We’re sailing everywhere–” I can even sing you the song of the Seabees. Go ahead, name your branch of service, Spielvogel, I’ll sing you your song!

Now he’s trying too hard.

Following the quiz show adventure, for five years Portnoy worked for his fellow closet socialists at the ACLU. Eventually, he cashed in on the street cred when New York’s mayor appointed him the Assistant Commissioner at the Commission on Human Opportunity. Surely being a high-ranking “civil rights” pencil pusher is a lucrative racket that had a veneer of respectability in some circles.

Still, he has an IQ of 158 and serves the interests of people with barely half that score. He doesn’t realize that it’s a waste of his natural talents that would be better put to doing something constructive, like being a doctor or an engineer. He believes that becoming a bureaucrat with the right political opinions was a noble calling, but the truth is that he’s a drain on society whose job involves enabling hordes of moochers. The book doesn’t have a trace of irony about that, so it’s fair to say that the irony escaped the author too.

The conclusion

After his girlfriend has a suicide crisis, he ditches The Monkey in Greece. Way to go, Champ! His next stop is in Israel. He’s as happy as a clam. Better yet, he meets someone his parents would approve of:

In the afternoon I befriend a young woman with green eyes and tawny skin who is a lieutenant in the Jewish Army. The Lieutenant takes me at night to a bar in the harbor area. The customers, she says, are mostly longshoremen. Jewish longshoremen? Yes. I laugh, and she asks me what’s so funny.

Things seem quite promising, until he blows it by declaring that he might’ve caught a venereal disease. Then he meets another Israeli lady. She’s warm, attractive, sincere, and overall very nice. He considers her like a younger and perfected version of his mother — needless to say, before she became a scolding matron. (It’s Freud until the bitter end here.) After they’ve gotten acquainted a bit, she drops a political argument on him. This part especially rings true, and I could hardly say it better:

You are not the enemy of the system. You are not even a challenge to the system, as you seem to think. You are only one of its policemen, a paid employee, an accomplice. Pardon me, but I must speak the truth: you think you serve justice, but you are only a lackey of the bourgeoisie.

Then she launches into a brief riff on socialism, and he declares his love. She does not take it well. His terrible game had worked suitably up to this point — after all, this was the 1960s — but now it was failing badly. He tries to get grabby, and she pops him in the jaw. I’d been waiting for this book to get good for a long time, and finally, the payoff arrives at the end. It’s about time he got a beating.

“Do you know,” she said, and without a trace of charity, “there is something very wrong with you.”

Given how this book has been going, it’s almost an understatement. If you might’ve suspected that Portnoy has a deep instinct to defile, the following begins a rather long and increasingly surreal passage:

With a flying tackle [I] brought this big red-headed didactic dish down with me onto the floor. I’ll show her who’s a shlemiel! [fool] And baby! And if I have VD? Fine! Terrific! All the better! Let her carry it secretly back in her bloodstream to the mountains! Let it spread forth from her unto all those brave and virtuous Jewish boys and girls! A dose of clap will do them all good! This is what it’s like in the Diaspora, you saintly kiddies, this is what it’s like in the exile! Temptation and disgrace! Corruption and self-mockery! Self-deprecation — and self-defecation too! Whining, hysteria, compromise, confusion, disease! Yes, Naomi, I am soiled, oh, I am impure — and also pretty fucking tired, my dear, of never being quite good enough for The Chosen People!

She fights him off, he only manages to land a couple of sloppy kisses, and he’s discouraged when he can’t get an erection. He still tries to ingratiate himself, but gets kicked for his efforts.

After the holy “civil rights” bureaucrat deservedly gets beaten up by a girl, his monologue concludes with declarations of self-pity and self-righteousness (a common theme in the book) and finally a long scream. At last, the psychiatrist gets in a word edgewise:

So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?

Actually, that one-liner is a great finish!

Who promoted this crap?

How did the book get to be so popular with such an unlikable protagonist, among other artistic defects? In its time, it had mixed reviews. A few thought Roth spoke too candidly about tribal matters. To that, I’ll say that discussing bad behavior isn’t the problem, and it doesn’t matter who is doing the discussing; the bad behavior itself is the problem. Bad behavior causes bad relations. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect. Stop doing that.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [4]

Some reviews stated that the book was irredeemably filthy. Imagine that — as late as 1969, there still were some professional literary reviewers willing to tell it like it is, and their opinions actually got past the editorial desk! Apparently these holdouts are long gone, since the controversy has died down by now.

On the other hand, many reviews have been paeans to Roth’s brilliance. This is the consensus opinion of the literary establishment, and the fact that others disagreed is increasingly fading from memory. Here is a selection of the many who sang his praise:

Roth is the bravest writer in the United States. He’s morally brave, he’s politically brave. And Portnoy is part of that bravery.
— Cynthia Ozick, Newsday

Touching as well as hilariously lewd. . . Roth is vibrantly talented…as marvelous a mimic and fantasist as has been produced by the most verbal group in human history.
— Alfred Kazin, New York Review of Books

It’s a marvelously entertaining book, and one that mines a narrow but central vein more deeply than it has ever been done before.
— Theodore Solotaroff

Deliciously funny. . . absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious. . . a brilliantly vivid reading experience.
New York Times Book Review

Simply one of the two or three funniest works in American fiction.
Chicago Sun-Times

The hype is how I got suckered into reading it. (Perhaps my review can spare someone the agony.) The book has quite an enduring legacy, ranking in Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels [8] as well as Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels [9] list. Sweet!

What’s the matter with the talking heads who praised this detritus to the skies? Is it just because people took a lot of drugs in the 1960s? The Adventures of Tom Sawyer became popular because the titular character was relatable. He still remains the archetypal all-American kid, even over a century after publication. On the other hand, what kind of reviewers were identifying so viscerally with the highly neurotic Portnoy and his dysfunctional life? More to the point, why are they in the racket of telling us what books to read? Res ipse loquitur.

In any event, they proclaimed Philip Roth’s semi-autobiographical character kvetching lengthily from the psychiatrist’s couch to be a great American novel. This promotional boost, along with the publisher that decided to print this turkey in the first place, helped make the author rich. Still, how many other aspiring writers were overlooked? They could’ve made a positive contribution to literature, but apparently, they didn’t have the right connections.

Moreover, trash like Portnoy’s Complaint was in fashion. The degeneracy was hardly unprecedented. Jerry Rubin and Allen Ginsberg already had been famous for that during those times. Long before, the Weimar Republic was the dress rehearsal for the 1960s. Contributing to the zeitgeist was Willi Münzenberg’s edict in 1922 from the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow:

We must organize the intellectuals and use them to make Western civilization stink. Only then, after they have corrupted all its values and made life impossible, can we impose the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Long after degeneracy came into vogue, with relatively few aware of what purpose it was to serve, Portnoy’s Complaint was merely one small contribution toward the wrecking job being carried out in our cultural landscape. With the residual hype inflating its importance, it remains something like a bird dropping — one among countless others — befouling a magnificent basilica. To further the analogy, this will continue until the majestic and almost forgotten beauty of the carved marble is restored, when the crap is washed away by a long-awaited cleansing storm.

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