The Harpy

Goodbye, Colossus: Remembering Philip Roth

‘Roth’s horniness was intertwined with his Judaism in ways I loved, even if I didn’t fully understand them’

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The thing about being a wildly horny Jewish teenager and reading Portnoy’s Complaint is that I felt understood. Finally. And in a way no one else had even approached. Growing up in northern New Jersey in the comparatively rigid environs of an Orthodox family, an Orthodox school, and a synagogue-studded Orthodox suburb, acknowledgment that we teens were creatures consumed and animated by lust was sparse. Officially, the community’s policy was shomer negiah, “guardianship of touch,” an absolute prohibition on premarital physical contact of any kind between the sexes. (This is because we girls existed in a perpetual state of menstrual impurity.) In practice, ad hoc defiance consisted of kisses and groping in borrowed sensible family cars, in parks, in basements on the Sabbath, behind lush oaks. I knew what it was to be gripped with intense desire, to be unable to sit comfortably because of a surge of lust under my knee-length denim skirt, to lock my bedroom door and engage in desperate self-relief. I had simply never seen the overwhelming need that crimsoned my days written about, until I did.

When I learned of Philip Roth’s death last night, at age 85, I recalled, in particular, one high school Sabbath day, early in my encounters with the author. I had smuggled Portnoy’s Complaint into synagogue, hidden in my prayer book, in the stifling walled garden of the women’s section, where I was prone to sulk in lieu of prayer. Roth’s horniness was intertwined with his Judaism in ways I loved, even if I didn’t fully understand them — crises of the feminine and crises of masculinity don’t look all that similar.  Nonetheless his prose echoed something I had already begun to feel: the subaltern griminess of my desires, the urgency of my flesh, made me dirty; I was a dirty Jew, in direct contrast to the holy Jews that surrounded me, let alone the unimaginable goyim I saw primarily on TV. I was (I am) small, plump, simian-faced, pursued by a halo of ungovernable frizz; I felt I took up too much space. I looked into the faces of those I desired and imagined what I saw in them to be disgust. Portnoy’s Complaint was disgusting: Alexander Portnoy fucked raw liver. Alexander Portnoy masturbated on a bus. Alexander Portnoy was perpetually at the point of ejaculation. Alexander Portnoy was a dirty Jew. Like me. Portnoy’s Complaint with its beat-up yellow cover was soon added to the small pile of books that felt incontrovertibly mine. “Doctor, doctor,” I recited to myself, in Portnoy’s voice, as I slipped my hand under the waistband of my modest long black skirt and dreamed of familiar figures transmogrified by my lust, “it’s time to put the id back in yid.”

There was, too, the specter — with which I empathized tremendously — of community disapprobation. Goodbye, Columbus, his 1959 debut, sparked heavy Jewish backlash, especially the title story, with its frank talk of diaphragms, its scathing depiction of middle-class Jewish morality. The other pieces in the collection are more primal grapplings with faith: “The Conversion of the Jews” dives headfirst into blasphemy; “Defender of the Faith” depicts sneaky Jews, clever Jews, Jews trying to get ahead, to cut corners, to do whatever had to be done. “Eli, the Fanatic,” laid bare the split between assimilated Jews and their Orthodox brethren. Roth was perceived by his fellow Jews as a shonda fur di goyim, an embarrassment in the eyes of Gentiles, whose transgressive honesty might provoke a pogrom, or at least confirm to the WASPs who read the New Yorker that Semites were just as filthy, as tricky as they had always known. The notion that Jews police their own was never foreign to me; Orthodoxy sustains itself by whispers, by glares, by the quiet chastening of visible transgression. By the age of sixteen, I had already begun to experiment with uncovered shoulders, with shorts that exposed my thighs, and, once, a miniskirt; I had begun to draw nude portraits in art class, to write poems in pen on Friday nights, shattering the Sabbath; I blasted German rock, ignoring my mother’s Holocaust-inflected sensibilities, and skipped prayers to hide in the library. I had already seen my first penis, although, to be frank, it terrified me. The world seemed ripe for me to transgress in, however, and I wanted to follow the path of Roth, the wayward son.

Roth always played in the dirt, his lust threaded into the fabric of his lush, delicious prose; soon after I read Sabbath’s Theater, and I was struck by a mix of disgust and pity and transgressive exhilaration when I read the scene, in chapter two, in which the main character masturbates on his late mistress’ grave, a gloopy libation in her honor. Roth was lecherous and brilliant and tremendously self-indulgent. One book, The Anatomy Lesson, is entirely about his doppelgänger’s experience with paralyzing neck pain. He wrote about women lowering themselves onto him, taking care of his seized-up neck muscles, to worship his priapic urge. It was a regular parade. There were narratives less cramped in the confines of his lust: American Pastoral was a sprawling, burning account of the Sixties; The Counterlife was his maddeningly literary — yet vivid, always vivid — account of the vigorous Israeli identity juxtaposed with attenuated Diaspora manhood. “They hate the Jewish id,” he wrote in that book, in a surreal monologue said on a hijacked airplane by a cigar-chomping Mossad agent. But his id persisted for decades, and changed the literary landscape, eroding it with the sheer force of what he had erected.

Returning to Roth now that my lust — if not conquered — is tamer, I recognize what I didn’t as a teenager desperate to be understood. Roth’s women are enigmas, forgettable; granted, most ancillary characters pale in comparison to his procession of authorial proxies, the monumental potency of his literary solipsism. But his women are ghosts, fixtures of lust and nothing more — scarcely speaking, sprawling nude across pages like painted courtesans. His Brendas and Olinas and Gladyses exist as adjuncts and objects for the centers of gravity in his books: Zuckerman, Coleman Silk, Swede Levov, Kepesh, “Philip,” “Roth.” In allowing myself to be seduced by the author, to inhabit his viewpoint, I adopted this myopia; to be thrilled by great art, I had to abnegate my own gender. This is, of course, a laughably common experience: to be anyone but a white man and consume the canon, one must thrust one’s own experience willfully back, to see a man in the full and indulgent complexity with which he would never, ever see you. He would not deign to; he did not need to; now, he never will.

For years, Roth battled accusations of misogyny, even going so far as to depict himself in an imaginary trial, in the novel Deception, for his crimes against womankind. (This is, of course, the kind of self-pitying indulgence routinely granted to the male genius, although few list Deception as one of his greatest works.) For years, in an effort to subdue my own alienation from his work — and perhaps to reclaim his lechery for my own high-breasted and ovary-having self — I dreamed of being “the Philip Roth of the clit.” At work now on my first novel, which is profane and Jewish in a way I hope tends the flame he lit, I think of him, I think of myself rifling through those yellowed Portnoy’s pages against the rigid spine, adorned with Hebrew, of my prayer book. I am grateful to him, that black-eyed bard of the id, for seeing me then; I see him now, an idol given over to oblivion, and I let tears join all the other fluids he spilled across the page.

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