'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing Nearly 40 years ago, funny, smart, neurotic Alexander Portnoy burst onto the public stage. Philip Roth's fictional hero was racked by guilt — promoted by an over-protective, self-sacrificing mother and by an obsession with, er, loving himself too much.
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'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing

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'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing

'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nearly 40 years ago, a character burst into the public arena. He was smart and funny and over-the-top neurotic. His name was Alexander Portnoy, a creation of the writer Philip Roth. The novel "Portnoy's Complaint" unfolds in one long psychotherapy session. It shocked some readers and delighted others.

In this installment of our series In Character, NPR's Eric Weiner puts Portnoy back on the couch.

ERIC WEINER: Okay. Let's deal with this uncomfortable, yet unavoidable fact right off the bat. Alexander Portnoy - nice Jewish boy, brilliant honor student, New York City's assistant commissioner for human opportunity - has a problem. He loves himself, one part in particular, a little too much. Aiding young Portnoy in these furtive sessions of self-love are a variety of props: an empty milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt and, famously, a piece of liver, as depicted in the 1972 film.

(Soundbite of movie "Portnoy's Complaint")

Mr. RICHARD BENJAMIN (Actor): (As Alexander Portnoy) It wasn't my first piece, either. My first piece, I found in our refrigerator one afternoon when I came home from school, and had in the privacy of the bathroom at 3:30, and then had again on the end of a fork at 6 o'clock that evening along with the other members of my poor, innocent family. So, now you know the worst thing I've ever done, I (bleep) my own family's dinner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: So numerous and colorful are depictions like these, it's tempting to conclude that this is a book about masturbation.

Tempting, says, Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor at the Jewish newspaper The Forward, but incorrect.

Ms. ALANA NEWHOUSE (Arts and Culture Editor, The Forward): This is the great misunderstanding about Portnoy is that in - people think it's a book about masturbation. It's actually a book about enmeshment and one's relationship with one's parents.

WEINER: And what parents does Alex Portnoy have? A father who suffers - suffers from both a dead-end job and a chronic case of constipation. But it is Portnoy's mother, Sophie, who shapes young Alex into her own neurotic image.

(Soundbite of movie "Portnoy's Complaint")

Ms. LEE GRANT (Actress): (As Sophie Portnoy) Alex, to pick up a phone is such a simple thing. Alex, how much longer will we be around to bother you anyway?

WEINER: Portnoy's mother is, as Alex puts it, the patron saint of self-sacrifice, one of the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time. She is, in other words, a Jewish mother. In fact, "Portnoy's Complaint" did for the Jewish mother what "Jaws" did for the shark - took an already frightening creature and made it even scarier. But is that a fair depiction?

Ms. CAROL WEINER (Eric Weiner's Mother): My reaction was that it was offensive. That it was exaggerated.

WEINER: Carol Weiner is a Jewish mother. Well, actually she's my Jewish mother. I called her recently, something I don't do often enough - I know, I know - to see how she felt about Sophie Portnoy.

Ms. WEINER: It's a stereotype. Why are you trading in stereotypes? It's beneath you, Eric. Well, I really hope you don't write this story. I think I expect better from you. OK.

WEINER: All right. Love you. Bye.

Ms. WEINER: What was that?

WEINER: I love you.

Ms. WEINER: I love you too.


Ms. WEINER: Don't forget to call.

WEINER: Okay. Bye-bye.

Ms. WEINER: Bye-bye.

WEINER: The good news for Jewish mothers - here it is, Mom - is that some 40 years after the publication of "Portnoy's Complaint," they have had the last word. These days, says Alana Newhouse, all mothers are Jewish mothers.

Ms. NEWHOUSE: That's the way you're supposed to mother. You're supposed to be warm and inviting and caressing. All of the things that were caricatured as bad 30 years ago came back around, and now they're considered to be a great alternative to what some people view as the cold working mother of today. There are children out there who wish they had Jewish mothers.

WEINER: Not Alex Portnoy, though. He was desperate to escape his Jewish mother, to flee his suffocating New Jersey home and indulge his libido. After all, it was 1969. The sexual revolution was in full bloom. Yet, while most Americans were engaging in sex without guilt, Alex Portnoy engaged in guilt without sex. Until finally, he meets a woman willing to fulfill his every fantasy: Mary Jane Reid, a.k.a. The Monkey.

(Soundbite of "Portnoy's Complaint")

Ms. KAREN BLACK (Actress): (As Mary Jane Reid) All I want is to please you, darling. I want you to be so (bleep) happy with me that you burst. I'll do anything to make you happy. Anything you want.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Alexander Portnoy) Like another woman in our bed?

WEINER: But alas, Alex Portnoy is not happy, despite or possibly because of his high I.Q., for Portnoy possesses just enough self-awareness to recognize his pathology, yet not enough to free himself of it. So, he suffers.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Alexander Portnoy) Well, why dammit can't I have some fun? Why is every little thing I do for pleasure in this life immediately illicit while the rest of the world rolls laughing in the mud? It makes me want to scream.

Mr. MARK OPPENHEIMER (Editor, New Haven Review; Author, "Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America"): He's a sad character. He's someone for whom there seems to be no love in sex at all.

WEINER: Mark Oppenheimer teaches English at Yale and is editor of the New Haven Review.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: All of his neurosis got localized into the sex act. Starting when he was very young, but it's normal when you're 13, right? However, when he's still looking to conquer women as a way of conquering his issues with his mom - and he is in his 20s and he's in his 30s, then it becomes sad.

WEINER: So, in the end, are we to take pity on Alex Portnoy? Not at all, says Alana Newhouse.

Ms. NEWHOUSE: I loved him. I found Portnoy to be funny and angry and compassionate, and most of all searching. This is a character who is in deep conflict because he wants to change.

WEINER: Do you see Alexander Portnoys in New York City in your life there? People who remind you of him or is it - you know, have we, in a way, at least in the Jewish community, moved past Portnoy?

Ms. NEWHOUSE: Well, I think it's safe to say I've dated a few Alexander Portnoy's. So, yeah, they're alive and well. I also know a few female Alexandra Portnoy's, so to speak, who similarly struggle with the enmeshment with their parents.

WEINER: In other words, says Newhouse, there's a little bit of Alexander Portnoy in all of us. Who knew?

Eric Weiner, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can find more character profiles and write to us about your favorites at npr.org/incharacter. Your essay could end up on the air.

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