Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Oh Freud, Do I Know!": Philip Roth, Freud, and Narrative Therapy

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Oh Freud, Do I Know!": Philip Roth, Freud, and Narrative Therapy

Article excerpt

In a 1974 essay, "In Response to Those Who Have Asked Me: 'How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?,'" Philip Roth details the circuitous path that eventually led to the writing of his breakthrough novel Portnoy's Complaint (1969). The novel famously portrays Alexander Portnoy's struggle to reconcile his rebellious, outlandish sexual urges with his repressive Jewish conscience. But, as the essay explains, Roth went through a struggle of his own between 1962 and 1967, writing drafts that were either overly fantastical (a tone well suited to the protagonists acting out) or overly realistic (which suited the stereotypically obedient childhood), failing to find a form that could simultaneously express the two poles of Portnoy's predicament. It was only when Roth took inspiration from a crucial element of his own 196Os experience-his psychoanalysis-that the correct presentation of the problem became clear to him: "The psychoanalytic monologue-a narrative technique whose rhetorical possibilities I'd been availing myself for years, only not on paper-was to furnish the means by which I thought I might convincingly draw together the fantastic element [. . .] and the realistic documentation" (Reading 36). This formulation, offering a conception of psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge with possibilities and techniques ripe for exploitation by the writer of fiction, provides great insight into Portnoy's Complaint, as well as a large part of the fiction that Roth would write over the ensuing sixteen years.

This essay will explore the many ways in which Roth has taken advantage of Freud's theories for his own ends in the books written from Portnoy's Complaint up until the conclusion of Zuckerman Bound (which brought together in one volume The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy). I hope to show that apart from being a commercial and creative breakthrough in unleashing Roth's comic talents into his fiction, Portnoy's Complaint-Asa signals the beginning of a period of Roth's career in which an understanding of psychoanalysis becomes almost essential to an understanding of the fiction. As evidenced mainly in Portnoy's Complaint, My Life as a Man, and The Anatomy Lesson, Freud seems to have served Roth's work in diree important ways. First, Roth has taken advantage of the narrative possibilities inherent in the psychoanalytic therapy session as a site of self-storytelling. This is most clearly apparent in Portnoys Complaint, for which the importance of the central conceit (a Jewish analysand's monologue) cannot be overestimated, but Peter Tarnopol's attempts to tell his self's story in My Life as a Man also demonstrate this strategy. second, most significantly in My Life as a Man, the first of Roth's many books to feature a novelist as a protagonist, Roth explores the idea that the particular introspection expected in psychoanalysis is comparable to, and perhaps a catalyst for, the act of writing fiction. Finally, the extensively defined, immutable self that Freud proposes provides an assumption that conflicts with Roth's characters, most notably in The Anatomy Lesson. Throughout this period, Freud's reality principle could be said to be the ultimate problem for each of Roth's protagonists, who characteristically move toward a resignation to the utter immutability of the self.

This constricting aspect of the Freudian conception of the self becomes more and more apparent in Roth's work as the Zuckerman saga moves toward its conclusion. Whereas at the beginning of this period Roth tends to focus on the possibilities for comedy (in Portnoys Complaint) or creativity (in My Life as a Man) that Freudian self-interpretation provides, by the time of The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy, it is the restrictions of a Freudian mindset that are most emphasized. As Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman outlandishly attempts to escape his identity as a writer chained to mining his own self, the reader can be forgiven for wondering if Roth himself is straining at the limits that a Freudian conception of the self imposes on his characters. …

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