Friday, May 25, 2018

The Impacted Aggressions of Sexuality

Philip Roth has died, which has gotten me started on a post I've been dithering over for a couple of years now.

It all started when I stumbled on Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (Yale, 2012), by Bernard Avishai.  Avishai was born in Canada and is now a professor of business at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  He was a personal friend of Roth's, and had access to some of the latter's view of his work, including Portnoy's Complaint (Random House, 1969), which is probably Roth's most famous, and certainly his most notorious work.

Avishai's eulogy for Roth can be read here.  It's a lovely personal bit of writing, and I found myself identifying with Roth to a degree.  He wasn't good at romantic relationships and had no children, but he had many friends and enjoyed being a mentor.  His failures as a husband might be different from mine; Claire Bloom's 1996 memoir of her marriage to him indicates that he was even harder to live with than I am, which is always a relief to know.  (I could have been worse!)

But it's Roth's work, not his life, that I'm interested in here, though the work is also problematic to put it mildly.  Avishai is very defensive about it, and indulges in some typical straight-male-supremacist mansplaining in response to feminist accusations of misogyny in Roth's writing.  It's reminiscent of Tina Fey's recent confrontation with David Letterman about sexism in TV comedy.  I've written about this before, wondering if at least some women recognized themselves in Portnoy's wild sexual frustration; of course some did.  Talia Lavin has an essay in the current Village Voice in which she describes how reassuring, if not liberating, her adolescent identification with Alexander Portnoy was.
Nonetheless his prose echoed something I had already begun to feel: the subaltern griminess of my desires, the urgency of my flesh, made me dirty; I was a dirty Jew, in direct contrast to the holy Jews that surrounded me, let alone the unimaginable goyim I saw primarily on TV. I was (I am) small, plump, simian-faced, pursued by a halo of ungovernable frizz; I felt I took up too much space. I looked into the faces of those I desired and imagined what I saw in them to be disgust. Portnoy’s Complaint was disgusting: Alexander Portnoy fucked raw liver. Alexander Portnoy masturbated on a bus. Alexander Portnoy was perpetually at the point of ejaculation. Alexander Portnoy was a dirty Jew. Like me. Portnoy’s Complaint with its beat-up yellow cover was soon added to the small pile of books that felt incontrovertibly mine. “Doctor, doctor,” I recited to myself, in Portnoy’s voice, as I slipped my hand under the waistband of my modest long black skirt and dreamed of familiar figures transmogrified by my lust, “it’s time to put the id back in yid.”
But she recognizes that the identification wouldn't have gone both ways:
In allowing myself to be seduced by the author, to inhabit his viewpoint, I adopted this myopia; to be thrilled by great art, I had to abnegate my own gender. This is, of course, a laughably common experience: to be anyone but a white man and consume the canon, one must thrust one’s own experience willfully back, to see a man in the full and indulgent complexity with which he would never, ever see you. He would not deign to; he did not need to; now, he never will.
That some women identified with Portnoy, or any of Roth's other male characters, is not proof that his work isn't sexist or even misogynist, any more than the fact that some of Roth's best friends were women proves the same about the man.  That Avishai falls into that cliche doesn't speak well for him.

As a gay goy boy I also recognized myself, or thought I did, in young Alexander Portnoy, though his predictable use of mom-obsessed gay men on Fire Island as bogeymen was not helpful.  On the other hand, it inspired me to write a short play during my senior year of high school, which had a gay character.  (A hairdresser, duh.)  The play was also influenced by Albee's The American Dream, dosed with Theater of the Absurd.  This must have been in 1969, so what I'd read of Portnoy at the time would have been the excerpts published in New American Review before the book was published.  I'd also read The Essential Lenny Bruce and Bruce's autobiography, which had a voice very similar to Portnoy's.  I'm amazed that I composed such a thing at that age, and I wish I could read it now, but I lent the only copy to my high school drama teacher (what was I thinking? well, I could hardly have shown it to my mom), who never returned it.

Avishai does a pretty good job in Promiscuous of distinguishing between Portnoy and Roth.  (As Gore Vidal once remarked, even though people fantasize about sex far more than they engage with its reality, they tend to believe that no writer about sex ever makes anything up, but regurgitates straight autobiography onto the page.)  But one thing struck me very forcefully as I read and reread Promiscuous (it's very readable, and not very long) that has less to do with Portnoy or Roth himself than with certain stresses and faults in the culture that produced him.

In teaching notes he prepared for a college class he was going to address on his work, Roth wrote: "Masturbation, which seems to have made the book famous, was the least of it.  It was the aggressive rage, the ingratitude, the hatred that was the most shameful secret" (page 8 of the Kindle edition).  Exactly, and on some level I recognized that as a teenager on my first reading.  But for me as for so many readers (including, as you can see, Talia Levin), Portnoy made an impression as adolescent rebellion against repression, especially sexual/erotic repression.  Another motif, intimately intertwined with the erotic, was rebellion against the pressure to be a Good Little Boy or Girl, which was a common theme in mid-century American literature.  The villain, of course, especially in those days, was Mom, always trying to mold you into a submissive good citizen.

Though I didn't see it that way at the time, as a young homosexual I was at least as repressed.  I couldn't have challenged adults about it then, because almost no one thought that gay kids (or adults) had a right to sexual expression or love.  Which didn't keep me from daydreaming about it, but I couldn't really imagine it either.

Then it suddenly occurred to me to quote again the remarks of another Jewish writer, Joanna Russ, about the scapegoating of mothers:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.*
But what, I began to ask myself as I read Promiscuous, would be better for kids?  Alexander Portnoy's daydreams of sexual expression are as stunted as mine were, maybe more so: he can only imagine a fantasy girl he calls Thereal McCoy, an insatiable minx who begs him, "Give it to me, Big Boy! Give it all you've got!" as he pulls his pud.  If mom's repression was magically removed and Alex were free to do what he wanted sexually, what would have satisfied him?  The trouble wasn't that masturbation is unsatisfying; so is copulation with a partner -- you have to, or get to, do it over and over again.  He was a teenager right after World War II, though we know that people, including adolescents, were sexually active in those days far more than they were supposed to be.  Their activity led often enough to unwanted pregnancies and shame.  Imagine an erotic utopia; I've been trying to do so, and it's not as easy as I thought.  Nowadays, when kids can get access to accurate sexual information and often to contraception, it's still difficult for many of them, because they don't necessarily know what they want, or they want what (or whom) they can't have.  Eroticism, like other human emotions, isn't rational.  It's messy.  A lot of what people say about it is mistaken, confused, self-defeating.

A start can be made, I think, with accurate sexual information.  Because I learned how bodies worked erotically long before I got any experience with them beyond the self-inflicted, I had little anxiety about how sex was done.  It took me a long time to realize that not only did many adults not want kids to know about sex, many kids didn't want to know either.  Many clung to shame, mainly so they could try to inflict it on others.  Maybe this is a more or less inevitable consequence of puberty, where what seems gross to pre-adolescents (kissing, my lips touched boy lips -- eeuuuw) abruptly becomes desirable -- while still, often, remaining gross.  No wonder many people are comfortable doing it, but resist talking about it. It might have been easier for young Alex Portnoy if he could have talked honestly about his desires with someone who wouldn't have been freaked out by them, but maybe not.  After all, even as an adult, free (he thought) of religion, free of his parents' strictures, in a comparatively open time and place, he still didn't know what he wanted.  That's the point of the book.

To borrow another metaphor, there can't be a Grand Unified Theory of love and sex that works for everybody, because everybody doesn't want the same thing.  What one person wants is the opposite of what the next person wants, but the same person will harbor contradictory wishes and fears.  Edmund White has said that when he was having sex with hundreds of men a year, he still felt that other guys were getting more than he was, and he wasn't getting enough.  I never had as many partners as that, but I still have had more than any decent person is supposed to have; sometimes I felt frustration, because you can never have everybody you want, and of course some people you don't want will want you.  Nevertheless, as I got older, I found that I was amazed at how lucky I've been sexually speaking, how much good experience I've had with people I really wanted.  How many partners is a decent person, or even an indecent one, supposed to have?  What is the proper place of sex in a person's life?  There's no agreement about that at all.  (There is, however, a widespread and tenacious conviction that a person should have at most one partner, and ideally not even one.)  It was a common belief among the scientifically minded in the early twentieth century that once religion and its associated ignorance and hangups were removed, sex would become unproblematic and rational.  But human beings aren't rational.  Not everybody welcomes openness and honesty; even if you get rid of existing misconceptions and superstitions, people will just invent new ones.  That's how we got them in the first place. 

* From Russ's review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool Press, 2007), page 162