Sanford Pinsker, in his book Schlemiel as Metaphor, points out that Phillip Roth – in one of his autobiographical accounts – thinks of himself in the tradition of Franz Kafka, who he calls a “sit down comic.” The book that placed him squarely in that tradition was Portnoy’s Complaint. But what is a “sit down” as opposed to a “stand up” comedian? What’s the difference?
As Pinsker correctly notes, this book is Roth’s debut as a sexual schlemiel. (The term “sexual schlemiel” comes from David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.) As far as being a man, Potrnoy, the main character, is a half-man. His only power is to be found in his vulgarity and wit. But, ultimately, his sexual obsessions and antics are all associated with impotence. And, strangely enough, he admits to this form of failure. He can’t “stand up.”
But Portnoy is a different kind of schlemiel and his “sit down” comedy is of a different variety. Unlike traditional schlemiels, Roth is obsessed with targeting his listeners, his mother, and women who reject him. And unlike Woody Allen, Roth’s sexual schlemiel is not charming. He is pathetic. And this makes him into a target of sorts. Nonetheless, he targeting of others overcompensates for this and he, so to speak, hits them when they are not looking. He doesn’t “stand up” to them, but when he does, toward the end of the novel, he is shamed.
Portnoy’s Complaint is structured as a discussion with a psychologist. Portnoy is telling his story – from youth to the present – to the psychologist. And this suggests that he wants to “work through” his past. What we find from the story is that he has many comic targets – his mother, sexuality, his father, and women – which he fires at so as to feel superior. However, he is a schlemiel insofar as this targeting does nothing to change his situation. And the more he does it, the more he himself becomes a target of the reader.
In relation to his mother, Portnoy says many angry things. One exemplary moment comes up when he recalls “Ronald Nimkin’s suicide note” which Nimkin’s mother found “pinned” to his “nice stiffly laundered sports shirt.” It is the “last note from Ronald to his momma.” The note is about how Mrs. Blumenthal called and won’t be able to play “Mah-Jong.” Commenting on this, Portnoy notes, in the most sarcastic way, that Ronald was a “nice Jewish boy” to the very end. He goes on to mock Ronald’s mother and all Jewish mothers:
Say thank you, darling. Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex. Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what? What have I done now? Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences. Refusing!…Oh..why did Ronald Nimkin give up his ghost…? BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHER’S ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! (120-21)
Sexual propriety is also targeted since he talks at length about masturbation. In fact, there is a whole section of the book entitled “Whacking off.” Let me cite a little:
Then came adolescence – half of 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 splay, up against the medicine-chest mirror….
I’ll stop there as the account becomes much more detailed and vulgar.
The biggest target of all is a Sabra named Naomi. He meets her in Israel. She sexually defeats him and, in the process calls him a schlemiel. Their dialogue is worth quoting at length since it touches directly on humor and targeting. Naomi’s great insight is that Portnoy doesn’t simply use humor to target others but to target himself:
The way you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that? It is of no value for a man to disapprove of his life the way that you do. You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own humor. I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life. Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’. All day long the same thing. In some way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. Self-deprecating?
In response, Portnoy says that the Sabra should appreciate what he is doing since playing the schlemiel is, historically, a staple of Jewish humor: “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.” In response, she notes that this is not Jewish humor but “ghetto humor.” As an Israeli, she is saying that she has gone beyond that kind of humor. In response to her identification of his humor as ghetto humor, Portnoy says he resembles her remark and mockingly identifies with the “Diaspora Jew” who is “frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned and corrupted by life in the gentile world”(265).
After hearing her discourse, he sarcastically says: “Wonderful. Now let’s fuck.” Disturbed by this reply, Naomi stands up to him and calls him several names: disgusting, a self-hating Jew, a coward, and last but not least, “schlemiel.” He also calls her names. But, after she calls him a schlemiel, she leaves him while he carries on. But at a certain point he tries to prove to her that he’s not a schlemiel but a “man”: “Only I leaped from behind, and with a flying tackle brought this red-headed…dish down with me onto the floor. I’ll show her who’s a schlemiel”(268). What ensues is a struggle that turns comic. When it comes to the moment of sex, he is impotent:
How has it come to this? “Im-po-tent in Is-real, dad a daah,” to the tune of “Lullaby in Birdland.” Another joke? She asked. And another. And another. Why disclaim my life.”
The final pleas of this “sit down” comic are pathetic. In laughing at him, we aim at a clear target. To be sure, he takes on the target and says, comically, that he is going home.
We target Portnoy “as” a sexual schlemiel but he doesn’t care. He sings the song “impotent in Israel” and calls the Sabra names so at to target her and to say that he has won a “verbal victory.” This victory, however, is ironic. We see him as a target of his own humor. Portnoy is blind to the fact that his ironic (and word-crafted) victory conceals his “real” impotence. This knowledge or insight exposes us to his blindness and to our being better or superior to him. He’s a schlemiel while we are not. However, this superiority is at the expense of his verbal victory. We knowingly exclude him by valuing masculine “normality” over comic abnormality. And in this we are complicit with Naomi. We target him and see that he targets himself as a schlemiel (of the negative variety). However, we are still blinded by this gesture as we are not exposed to our complicity or to our targeting.
The problem with a novel, as Levinas points out in his essay “Reality and its Shadow,” is that it requires an interpretation. Without interpretation, the character, he claims, will be stuck in endless repetition or what he calls “mythology.” The time of the character is what he calls “the meanwhile” or “the interval.” Instead of changing the character in the novel – here, the schlemiel – will not change (as time requires a movement or a form of becoming from one kind of being to another). This is consonant with Bergson, but with Levinas laughter alone is not sufficient to pull a story or a character out of the interval or mythology. Moreover, we, the readers, will also bewitched if we simply laugh at Portnoy. By laughing at the schlemiel, Levinas would say that we, too, are caught in the interval.
I would deepen this argument to include another element: targeting. What happens in Roth’s novel is that we are not exposed to our targeting and that is what maintains another kind of mythology; namely, the mythology of superiority and selfhood which makes the contrast between the half-man, schlemiel in the novel and the reader who is not a schlemiel. In this structure, which is the classical structure of comedy and comic theory, we have no sense complicit. We know we are “in on the joke,” but we aren’t exposed to this targeting.
I would argue that complicity is harder to read with “sit down” comedy that it is in “stand up” comedy because we can’t see the face of the other in a novel. (Although I would argue there are comic novels that do in fact expose us to targeting. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is not one of them. It serves, in this blog entry, to make an important point of contrast.) For this reason, it’s easier for us to target and judge Portnoy as an impotent failure. It’s easier for us to subscribe to traditional theories of humor when targeting and judging this sit down comic.
In the next blog entry, I will introduce the case of Andy Kaufman which provides us with the case of a “stand up” comic who exposes us to our targeting and our complicity. He provides us with an opportunity to bring a Levinasian reading to bear on comedy. In Roth’s comedy, we find that a Levinasian reading isn’t as prescient as a classical reading of comedy which targets the comic character – here, the schlemiel – as inferior.