Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Impotence and the Futility of Liberation in Portnoy's Complaint

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Impotence and the Futility of Liberation in Portnoy's Complaint

Article excerpt

To many readers, Portnoy's Complaint (1969) is a story of exile, of Oedipal longings, or even of depravity, but as Sam Girgus points out, Roth "sees himself as a leader in the effort to gain [. . .] freedom" (57). Thus, much of the scholarship surrounding the novel has focused on Portnoy's liberation-from his domineering mother, his religious upbringing, and his own sexual cravings-a liberation through psychoanalysis that will ultimately curb those desires that are unnatural to the world in which he was born. An alternative reading of the text, however, would suggest that Alexander Portnoy sought liberation not from his "dirty little mind" (Portnoy 226), but rather through his sexual adventures.

Roth's novel was published in the midst of the sexual revolution, and it appears that its author intended to free Alex by imbuing him with a sexually experimental nature and by giving him voice and audience (Dr. Spielvogel) to share and solidify his break with his family's norms. Alex attempts to liberate not only himself but also those Jewish youths who share his oppressive childhood, as well as a society still shackled by swiftly decaying but pervasive ideas of appropriate thought and behavior. Yet Alex is deluded. He cannot liberate himself through sexual difference, no matter how depraved his actions may be by the cultural standards of the 1960s. He certainly cannot liberate himself by alternately praising and castigating himself on the analyst's couch, all the while reveling in his own audacity. Alex is constrained by multiple local centers of power that are part of an overall strategy: a Foucauldian deployment of sexuality-"a generalized oppression [tied] to [. . .] general mechanisms of domination and exploitation" (Introduction 131)-continuing and adapting to the sexual revolution. If control is an inherent part of institutions (for example, government, religion, family) and the culture in which they function, Portnoy can never be "outside" of power. This article offers a Foucauldian reading of Portnoy's Complaint that suggests a different order of "liberation": an extradiscursive embrace of pleasure.

Michel Foucault published his first volume of The History of Sexuality in 1978, but in Portnoy's Complaint, published nearly ten years earlier, Roth had already recognized some of the same phenomena as Foucault. Foucault explores the history of the deployment of sexuality, assuming that the deployment was complete by the 1960s. Roth, however, sees a continued deployment and a continual constraint in American culture. What Foucault calls the "historico-political critique of sexual repression" that occurred "between the two world wars" was another effect of an overall power strategy that "dedicated [culture] to speaking of [sex] ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret" (Introduction 35, 131; emphasis in original). Although Foucault's entire argument will not be revisited here, the deployment he recognizes over several centuries can be seen in microcosm in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Through the increase of discourse around and about sex and sexuality, the loci of power were diversified and brought sex-from youthful masturbation to adult ménage à trois-under closer scrutiny. Each center of power in Alex's life sees what he does and discusses his actions and the abnormality of his bodily activities: Alex is subject to, in the words of Foucault, "coerc[ion] by means of observation" (Discipline 170); each locus of power illuminates his actions for him and for others. This observation and discussion then create a constant pressure to overcome constraint by any means. As David Halperin claims, "[P]ower does not simply prohibit; it does not directly terrorize. It normalizes, 'responsibilizes,' and disciplines" (18).

Building from this Foucauldian base, this article will examine Alex's misconception of freedom and, on a larger scale, his misguided efforts to foment revolution through sex and sexuality. To these ends, the local centers of power that Alex is both rebelling against and subjecting himself to will be shown. …

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