Books — From the August 1969 issue
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J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself[*] is the simplest, most directly personal report of what it is like to be a homosexual that, to my knowledge, has yet been published. This in itself makes it sufficiently noteworthy. But it also appears in the same year as Philip Roth’s spectacularly popular Portnoy’s Complaint, a collocation which, although fortuitous; adds enormously to its interest. I am not suggesting that the two books, or their authors, have much in common. On the contrary. Mr. Roth is American, Ackerley is English. Mr. Roth’s book is fiction, a work of the imagination; Ackerley’s is half-memoir, half a reconstruction of his father’s life. Mr. Roth is a young man, from whom we can expect other books; Ackerley is dead — he was born in 1896 and died in 1967; until this posthumous publication his reputation rested on four books, in particular on two small volumes regarded in his own country as minor classics but little known in America: Hindoo Holiday, first published in 1932, a journal of his visit to India as secretary-companion to a Maharajah, and My Dog Tulip, published in 1956, a remarkable account of his relations with a beloved Alsatian.
[*] Coward-McCann, $5.00.
The two books are also located worlds apart: Portnoy’s Complaint deals with lower middle-class Jewish-American life whereas My Father and Myself is about life in the English middle middle class. This makes for very different social idioms. Mr. Roth’s protagonist is the son of a hard-working but unsuccessful insurance salesman. Anxious, inept, his spirit the slave of his recalcitrant bowels, the senior Portnoy is the familiar Jewish father-failure — we made his acquaintance a long time ago in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing. It also happens that constipation is a worry in the Ackerley family, but with this coincidence all resemblance between the two households ends. Ackerley’s father is neither anxious nor inept nor a failure. By his own efforts he has become a wealthy fruit importer, enough established to send his son to a public school and Cambridge. On the surface he appears to have always led the conventional life of his class: it is only when the son comes to maturity that he discovers that his father was an active homosexual as a young man and, later, so urgent a heterosexual that he was not content to produce a single family, the one into which the writer was born, but simultaneously and secretly fathered a second of equal size. As to the two mothers, the difference is even more striking. Whereas Mrs. Portnoy is one of those Jewish mothers so dear to the mythic imagining of their sons, a woman of wild humors and pulverizing energies, all of them preternaturally concentrated on molding her male offspring to her image of a proper Jewish-American boy and man, Ackerley’s mother was once an aspiring actress who steadily retreats into isolated eccentricity; she is offstage throughout most of her son’s story.
But there are books that should be brought together exactly because of the divergence in their approach to a common subject matter. Both Mr. Roth’s book and Ackerley’s are sexual “confessions.” In both, sexual honesty is a first premise: presumably, if we are honest about our sexual selves, we cannot be false to any man or woman, and we are on the way to saying something useful about the general life of feeling, perhaps even about the general life of humankind. It turns out, however, that strangely different enterprises can proceed from the same premise. Portnoy, full of complaint because of his sexual fate, is bent on tracking down the source of his grievances. He needs a culprit and he finds it, or them. The “myself” of My Father and Myself has no complaint against anyone or anything. He is innocent of all impulse to place blame for his sexual situation — unlike Portnoy, who thinks his parents took the id out of Yid, it never occurs to Ackerley to accuse his parents of putting the oy in Goy. And following his example, neither finally does it occur to us, even though the force of contemporary culture presses us toward Mr. Roth’s “position.”
And a “position” the author of Portnoy’s Complaint is indeed fortifying: his book is farce with a thesis. The burden of Portnoy’s fiercely funny self-revelation is that all his sexual difficulties derive from the guilt imposed on him in his upbringing. It is guilt that made Portnoy the athletic and ingenious masturbator that Mr. Roth shows him to have been in his boyhood, and it is guilt that makes him impotent with all except Gentile girls when he comes to manhood — after various amorous misadventures among the Wasps, his author leads Portnoy to ritual slaughter in Israel. The prime purveyor of this guilt is, we see, his Jewish mother, who has ladled out injunction and precept, sometimes at the point of a knife, with every mouthful of nourishment she inflicts on her defenseless child — Portnoy’s father is indictable chiefly as an example of male capitulation to the Jewish female principle. The clue to Portnoy’s rage at the pass to which he has been brought lies in the word “imposed.” Just as we have no choice in the selection of our parents, just so, according to Mr. Roth, we have no choice but to receive the guiltiness they inculcate in us. Portnoy has no responsibility for being the person he is. He has simply, inevitably, incorporated all the inhibiting lessons taught him in his early years. How, as the product of this death-dealing instruction, Mr. Roth’s protagonist has achieved his sexual freedom at least with Gentile girls — and it is considerable: there are Gentile readers who might envy him — Mr. Roth doesn’t tell us. He also doesn’t explain where, other than from his training in guilt, Portnoy learned the contempt for his own sexual behavior which makes the basis for his condemnation of his parents.
Portnoy has brought his complaint to the psychoanalyst’s couch, and this would seem to imply that he and his author acknowledge the Freudian unconscious, hidden from the conscious intelligence and beyond its control. But no: it turns out that nothing, really, is hidden from Portnoy. His unconscious is not only wholly visible, it is also peculiarly sponge-like, rejecting nothing in the parental teachings. Too, Portnoy has himself apparently contributed nothing to his unconscious life in terms of interpretation or distortion of parental doctrine. His parents’ victim, he is also their total creation on all levels of his psychic being — except, of course, the level on which he assesses and protests his victimization. We do have this one immunity to the process of personal determinism: we have the freedom to be angry at what has been done to us.
In the view of Mr. Roth, guilt is only and always an alien substance in the human composition, introduced for the destruction of our joy and the perpetuation of old sorrows. And because guilt intervenes so grossly between us and our full individual humanity, it necessarily incapacitates us in our relations with other people, especially the relation between the sexes. And this is of course why the Jewish condition, so supremely guilt-laden, is now thought to offer literature its best material for describing the whole modern human condition — the alienated Jew is our most cogent instance of alienated modern man. From a view such as this, it is logical that Mr. Roth doesn’t permit Portnoy’s doctor to speak throughout Portnoy’s analytical sessions until the last sentence of the book when he says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin.” A conclusion like this can be read as a comic gag, compliments of Nichols and May, or, more generously, as preparation for the doctor’s assault on Portnoy’s self-deceptions. But the story is finished at this point. Since no version of Portnoy’s grievance other than his own will be put on the record, it is fair to understand the last words of Mr. Roth’s novel as the QED to the book’s hypothesis. If guilt is what makes us inhuman and there are no guilts hidden from Portnoy’s consciousness; if, too, Jews are so guilty a people, what else is there for Portnoy’s physician to say except that for Jews their beginnings lie in their end? By extension we can take Mr. Roth to be telling us that for all of us, Jew or Gentile, social creatures all and the victims of the grotesque idealisms and ambitions imposed upon us from one generation to the next, our beginnings lie in the end of society as it has established itself and its proscriptions, perhaps especially those that masquerade as benevolences.
In other words, Mr. Roth’s funny book is the latest offensive in our escalating literary-political war upon society. And intuitively it has been welcomed as such by most of its reviewers — the popular success of a work often depends as much on its latent as on its overt content. In fact, it is not too difficult to trace the connection between Portnoy’s Complaint and Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death of a few years ago, the investigation into Freudian theory which made our present culture’s most scholarly attack upon civilization as we know it in the Western tradition and as Freud gave it his tragic acceptance. It is a nice irony, however, that while Mr. Brown’s book ensues in a call to the Eden of the polymorphous perversity of infancy, Mr. Roth’s book, after a colorful tour of the perversities, ensues in what is actually a call to Mental Health: “mature” genital heterosexuality-cum-love. No one could have a more hierarchical, more socially sanctified system of sexual values than Portnoy. He knows just what kind of sex is wholesome and life-enhancing and what kind is debasing — there is the moment in his story when he wonders how, with his upbringing, he sank only to the low status of a compulsive masturbator and of someone able to perform only, alas, with Gentile girls and never took the next step downward, that of becoming a homosexual. But Mr. Brown is of course not Jewish and Mr. Roth is. Perhaps the unconscious — the Jewish unconscious, at any rate — is more pertinaciously puritan and more hidden from us than the author of Portnoy’s Complaint realizes.
Diana Trilling ’s critical essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of magazines, among them The Nation, Partisan Review, Commentary, and, though not for many years, Harper’s. A volume of her writings, Clermont Papers, was brought out by Harcourt, Brace in 1964, and she has also edited a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s letters.
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