The Freudian century began in Vienna but found its eventual home in America. There it was that most psychoanalysts wound up and entered the blood stream of the culture so that Freudian speech and American speech — or at least a certain kind of American speech: broad, aspiring, complaining, witty, frenzied, guilt-ridden — ran together.
At its height, mid-century, American psychoanalysis testified to the presence of unconscious sexual or violent wishes that were geared towards producing trouble. Ego psychology assumed that something explosive (the id) needed controlling and turning to good use. Freud lived at a time of social upheaval and genuine revolutionary fervour, in which the masses, like the unconscious, were breaking free from centuries-long repression. It was also the start of a period of Jewish emancipation that shared these same characteristics. The Jews of the West had burst out of their ghettoes like water breaching a dam, and, despite their continuing exclusion and the continued growth of anti-Semitism (or maybe because of it), their immense, pent-up energy was visible everywhere. Freud’s own work depended on this moment of Jewish freedom which existed in complex relation to the ubiquitous anti-Semitism.
Freud and the early analysts (almost all of whom were Jewish) enabled psychoanalysis to flower as a marginal discipline offering a critical perspective on its host society. It thrived particularly because of the acuity with which it named sexuality as the core disturbance in European culture; in a society dominated by extreme sexual repression and hypocrisy, Freud named names. Sex was at the heart of everything. Sexual drives are people’s key motivational impulse (opposed by ‘ego preservative drives’), and Freud’s general picture of mental activity was based on a sexual metaphor. The ‘pleasure principle’, understood as a kind of orgasmic release of psychic tension, was the major principle of psychological functioning. Libidinal energy, held at bay and repressed, is always seeking freedom; if it cannot have it directly, it comes through as symptoms of disease, jokes and dreams.
The relevance of Jewish identity and tradition to Freud has been discussed at length. In relation to sex, there have been attempts to show Freud as working specifically in a ‘Jewish’ tradition, accepting sex as legitimate and enjoyable, recognising feminine sexuality while also denigrating women. Whether or not this is supportable, there is no doubt about the degree to which Freud’s Jewish identity influenced his thinking and his writing — in addition to his book of Jewish jokes there are freqeunt references to Jews and anti-Semitism in The Interpretation of Dreams as well as his direct comments on being Jewish. Freud claimed that its importance could be seen in his capacity for persevering in the face of opposition, in particular remaining ‘free of many prejudices which restrict others in the use of the intellect’. Jewishness gave him the strength not to look away when presented with the demons beneath the acceptable face of society. He saw that what drove this society, and what created its suffering, was in large measure its sexual life, and this confirmed the importance of greater sexual freedom and honesty for everyone.
Memoirs of the time show that the Freudian lesson was well learned: the reduction of sexual hypocrisy that came about in Europe in the first half of the twentieth-century was highly significant for political and moral thought, raising the possibility of a more free society in which libidinal impulses could be channelled into creative and joyful experiences. The emergence of the Nazi regime brought this to an abrupt end. Labelling psychoanalysis as a ‘Jewish’ science, degenerate and corrupting in its insistence on sexuality, the Nazis largely succeeded in stamping out Freudian practice and replacing it with an ‘aryan’ psychotherapy charged with mobilising the unconscious in the task of building the new state. After the war, for understandable reasons, much of European psychoanalysis became focused on destructiveness rather than sexuality. In America, meanwhile, the psychoanalysts (many of whom had fled occupied Europe), plied their trade, warding off the demons of explosive sex, and Jews kept shouting with joy at being liberated. America had always traded on its relative freedom from restraint though, as has often been pointed out in relation to psychoanalysis, this could be a cover for ‘normalising’ potentially subversive doctrines. Conformity, professional sobriety and a theory making adaptation to the surrounding society the measure of mental health, characterised American psychoanalysis immediately after the Second World War. At the same time, the rhythms and uncertainties of immigrant life, the speech patterns of Jewish ex-Europeans and the abrasive argumentativeness of their culture made an increasingly loud mark on America. The onrush of the 1960s allowed psychoanalysis to find expression in a more vigorous and exuberant version of what had happened in Europe fifty years before. Sex was once again central to this; indeed at times it seemed as if political freedom from the damage wrought by the previous generation could be reduced to the joy of sex.
Unfortunately for Jews, this joy was always mixed with guilt, as if the unconscious could not be allowed out without betrayal. Did this mean escaping the past always had to involve renouncing it completely, so that the values of one generation were constantly being traduced? More fully, was it the internalisation of Jewish suffering, fear and constraint that meant that as each new Jew leapt about apparently unfettered, the chains were already tightening within? Was it the sheer manic exuberance of the escape, which had to bring in its wake a depressive — or at least anxiety-ridden — undertow? Or was it guilt produced by paranoia, a terrible fear of breaking away, as if clinging together had ever been the route to security? In America, this paradox of full freedom and the inability to enjoy it without being punished seems to have reached its apogee — it made the Jews paragons for the culture as a whole. Bursting with life, they grasped hold of the world to make it absolutely their own, and just as they did so their nightmares emerged and plagued the day. For many Americans, these nightmares took the form of violence, racial tension, assassinations, betrayal of hope. For the Jews, these things occurred as well, but so too did the ever-enfeebling sense that something fraudulent was taking place, that the joy of being free was actually a manic cover for the despair of loss.
Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, when it appeared in 1969, was explosive. For one thing, it had a remarkable voice, that of the American English of the Jews, yiddishised, inverted, plaintive, comic and confessional. ‘For mistakes she checked my sums; for holes, my socks; for dirt, my nails, my neck, every seam and crease of my body.’ The book is a long speech, on the psychoanalyst’s couch, not interrupted by anything (all good Freudians being silent), and it is in the movement of this speech that sex, guilt, lust, desire and depravity are created. The question is, what does this speech say of Jews, Freudianly, and what now, on the fortieth anniversary of its publication, seems to remain?
This is not a book about sex, although sex is its vehicle. The formal definition of ‘Portnoy’s complaint’ given by his analyst in the book’s epigraph makes this clear: ‘neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.’ As a particularly prescient (though theologically slightly wayward) New York Times reviewer wrote at the time — linking Freud, Jews, America and Portnoy — it is much more a novel about guilt: ‘Guilt-edged insecurity is far more important when it comes to the making — and unmaking — of an American Jew than, say, chicken soup or chopped liver. For guilt is as traditionally American as Thanksgiving Day pumpkin pie and, at the same time, on native grounds, as far as Jews are concerned: it was the Jews who originated that mother lode of guilt, the theological concept of original sin; it was a Jew who developed psychoanalysis, that clinical faith based on a belief in the transferability and negotiability of long-term debts and credits in guilt.’ Portnoy both relishes his guilt and laments it, simultaneously baffled by his mother’s power to generate it and his father’s ability to stand by and watch her. He accepts utterly the Freudian notion that guilt and hostility go together, driven on by the fear of castration. What other mother threatens her son with a knife when he refuses to eat? His mother is ‘so deeply imbedded in my consciousness,’ the book begins, ‘that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.’ Her magical power of knowing everything (‘And this is before radar!’) is the least of her capacities: her main one, accompanied by her husband, is to detonate torpedoes of guilt. ‘Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!’ And this is when Alex has grown up; it is what remains from his childhood.
In the Freudian scheme, guilt originates from the father. The boy’s Oedipal wishes towards his mother rouse the ire of the mighty father, and it is he who threatens the boy with castration. What with this and the boy’s own antagonism towards his father, backed up with only paltry force, combat becomes pointless and instead the boy represses his desire, identifies with the father’s aggression (taking as recompense the promise that later on he will be the father too) and internalises the prohibition on incest that will make everything safe. The superego appears, ‘a garrison in a conquered city’, and transforms the internalised threat of punishment into guilt. From that moment on, the child’s every thought and action is judged with the same sadistic vigilance with which the external world judges crimes. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, reverses this scheme: the father is weak and constipated, exploited by his employers and sidelined by his wife. The mother is, by contrast, the Oedipal victor: inescapable, irrepressible, continually seductive and the root of Alex’s castration fears. She is also the source of his impotence: she threatens him with a knife when he will not eat; as her own special brand of toilet-training she tickles his penis; even as an adult, she carries on playing the game. ‘My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from my adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: “Well, how is my lover?” Her lover, she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he, the schmegeggy she lives with?’ Although familiar from the Jewish mother jokes of the time (‘Dr Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke — only it ain’t no joke!’), this actually marks a reversal. In Culture of Narcissism Christopher Lasch argues that the failure of the paternal function pushes the child into an overwhelming, narcissistic relationship with the mother and prevents him from confronting ‘reality’. For Lasch, narcissism was a diagnosis of a whole society, riven with anxiety and insecurity, unable to invoke or deal with authority, lost in a fantasy of absorption in a mother who would make everything safe and whole. The result: a society too fragile to tolerate intimacy, thought or psychic depth.
Roth’s Jewish version of this is different: the problem of the absent patriarch is that it leaves the field open for the castrating mother, not the softly engulfing one. This is not so much narcissism (though this is one response to it) as paranoia. Tribal, cultic, belligerent, manipulative, loving, enticing (such cooking!), hysterical and psychosomatic — these mothers invade their sons so completely that there is no space for movement away from them; they are carried wherever the boy goes. One effect of this, shared by Lasch and Roth, is to invoke a kind of reactionary nostalgia for a lost (fantasy) world in which men were men (baseball their creed) and could get rid of their mothers, a world in which the knife would be turned the other way. This is, perhaps, one motivation for Portnoy’s obsession with those shikses who break his mother’s heart and, of course, for his refusal to give her grandchildren. Is this the Jewish version of the culture of narcissism? If one takes Portnoy’s symptom as an inability to form authentic relationships — illustrated in his flight from women, even his belovedly perverse Monkey, who want something sustainable from him — then he is indeed narcissistic. Sex is an escape from intimacy, not an expression of it. Freud might have been drawing on Jewish sentiments in making sex acceptable as a force in people’s lives. The polymorphous perversity of Portnoy, however, is not only a slap in the face for conventional sexuality, Jewish or otherwise; it is specifically anti-Freudian because of its driven quality, its dissatisfaction. Portnoy’s sex is angry, dismissive and rebellious, embodying the narcissism of its time.
There is still, nevertheless, something disturbingly joyous about Portnoy’s Complaint. The impotence that brings him to psychoanalysis is the trigger for his reminiscences, but the exuberant stories of his sexual experiences in their mind-boggling virtuosity are, themselves, compelling. Can anyone really live like this? Can it get any better? Or any worse? And what is one to make of the disgraceful misogyny and mother-blaming that pervade the book, the main markers of its ageing? The sour taste of misogyny, mitigated only slightly by Portnoy’s awareness of the link between his woman-hating and fear (he is relaxed in the Turkish bath with his father, because ‘there are no women here. No women and no goyim. Can it be? There is nothing to worry about!’), has accelerated over the years to make the book fairly intolerable as a sexist rant. Indeed, Portnoy’s sexual antics, so vibrant and funny, are all of a piece with his misogyny, an agonisingly accurate portrayal of compulsive masculine sexuality. One feels that the retribution visited on Portnoy towards the end of the book — understood by him, in part, as punishment for his treatment of women — might augur the well-deserved gender retaliation that continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s as well as signalling some of the contestable elements of Roth’s great late-period works. But even the bitter taste of woman-hating that lurks so close to the surface is insufficient to dampen the ebullience of the book.
In Roth’s version of American Jewry, there is no mystery at all — everything is on the surface. ‘No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned,’ laments Portnoy, ‘they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!’ The problem here is a mixture of an old-fashioned hysteria and a new melancholia, which are brought together in an extraordinarily combustible way. Everything is too much, too grandly portrayed; the drama is unbearable (‘The hysteria and the superstition!’). But at its heart, too, is something tragic.
In the midst of all his excoriating of Jewish life, of its insularity (‘Momma, do we believe in winter?’), inhibition and goyim-hating fearfulness, Portnoy has some sense of the sadness of it all, of his father’s basic goodness that is done down by those who dump on him, of his mother’s neediness and anxiety. The idea that the Holocaust is responsible for Jewish neurosis gets short shrift in Portnoy’s Complaint, despite being put in the mouth of Alex’s honoured sister Hannah; his response to this particular guilt-tripping is: ‘I suppose the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house!’ ‘Oh I don’t know,’ she says, crying. What is clearer, however, is that Portnoy’s Complaint laments the loss of what-could-have-been. Grasping life with both hands, living out sexual fantasies that others only dream about (‘With a life like mine, Doctor, who needs dreams?’), it pulsates with energy and not only with narcissistic waste. Portnoy, after all, does good in his working life; he represents the innocent against the exploiters, and he does this with considerable pride. But somehow none of this stacks up against the huge weight of inhibition, the internal and acted-out punishment that his Oedipally corrupted superego metes out to him. The bad guys are really bad, but they don’t care; he only transgresses as a way of breaking out of his chains, yet his punishment is immediate and graphic, the inner police always get him. The howl that ends the book and starts the analysis proper, that eruption of utterly infantile, even animal, agony that finally puts an end to all this talk, all his ‘kvetching’ (‘a form of truth’, for people like Portnoy), is just the culmination of the howl that is the whole book. It is a howl of pain, frustration and indignation, for sure, but also of loss. ‘Let’s put the id back in yid!’ may be Portnoy’s manifesto, seeking the imaginary pure enjoyment that is enacted without any consequences — the liberated dream of the sixties, perhaps — but what seems to hold the yids back is not just maternal oppression, not just hysteria, not even fear and guilt; it’s that something has been promised that has also been taken away. American Jewry’s great period of creativity seems to have gone. Its remnants and reminders take the form of these laments, these howls, always nostalgic and also coruscating, desperate to break free, but laments nonetheless. Something is lost as the Jews become normal, as America catches up with them, something that they never knew they had.
Stephen Frosh is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychosocial Studies and Pro-Vice-Master at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book Hate and the Jewish Science is published by Palgrave.