Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist. But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel. Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity. Is Portnoy a Jew or an American? Neither? Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?
In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American. Something is getting in the way. And this something makes him angry:
And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees? Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself. And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.? I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).
Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.” Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.” Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America. He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.
Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:
But I am something more, or so they tell me. A Jew. No! No! An atheist, I cry. I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me! Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)
Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish. And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!” His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth. To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do. He had no will of his own. His whole education had a purpose. Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”
In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man. He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present. In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous. As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.” He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother. This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy. This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany. In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character. As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel. His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.
Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.
Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt. And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’. Here, it is different. Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is. And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel. It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.
As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother. She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”
BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!
Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt. He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own. In other words, he wants to give birth to himself. His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule. By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous. For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.
But this is not enough. He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free. However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department. His failure is measured by a skill. To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation. His words ejaculate on the page. Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above. Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.
Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs. “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster. “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)
He believes that he must masturbate. He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra. This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.
Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on? Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra. But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win. But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably. As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli. And this is his final complaint.
But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel. Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.
He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew. He’s somewhere inbetween.
But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation. But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American. In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator. Through masturbation, he can become an American. He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.
From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy. The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant. What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant. But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America. A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.
Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero. In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew. It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.
Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American. And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel. But the game has changed. The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political. The test is democracy not masculinity. And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.