Page 23 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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ew ish
ew ish
uffer ing
The forbidden woman has become one with the forbidden flesh
that she alone can purify.
But there is, after all, a precedent for this grotesquely exag-
gerated situation, a precedent much more fearful than the situa-
tion depicted by Portnoy. I am thinking, of course, of the testing
of Abraham. In that moving narrative, Abraham is required to
demonstrate his faith by offering as a sacrifice that which is most
dear to him. And he does what is required without question or
In Portnoy’s imagination—and perhaps in modern life—a dis-
placement has occurred. It is not the father who proves his faith
by offering his only son whom he loves, but the mother, the impure
woman, even that mother who purifies the flesh by removing the
blood from it, it is that mother who threatens to offer Portnoy up
as a sacrifice—to let
blood because he refuses to eat.
But what is most striking about the Biblical echoes is their hoi-
lowness. Abraham becomes the Knight of Faith, not only for Jews,
but for Christians; Portnoy’s father becomes an object of contempt
and ridicule. In the Biblical narratives, even in the seemingly
endless lists of commandments and ordinances of Leviticus, the
everyday and the commonplace are elevated to the level of the
sublime. We see man firmly planted in the dust that nurtured
him, but his vision is directed toward heaven. Even the most
sordid human activities have the capacity to glow with the Divine
radiance. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed this condition in these
words: “What would be base, or even obscene, to the obscene,
becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connection of thought. The
piety of the Hebrew prophets purges their grossness. The circum-
cision is an example of the power of poetry to raise the low and
Portnoy’s Complaint,
Emerson’s words may be applied in
reverse. If we can say of the prophets that their piety purges their
.grossness, what we would want to say of Portnoy’s world is that
an absence of piety makes even the purest of things gross. If
Biblical man stands rooted in the dust with his eyes straining
heavenward, the people of Portnoy’s world stand gazing at their
genitals. The key lies in Portnoy’s language. Emerson’s assertion,
“The circumcision is an example of the power of poetry to raise
the low and offensive,” means that even circumcision, a physical
act no less involved with blood and sex than menstruation, is
beautiful when it is used as a symbol of spirit, or of man’s spiritual
Roth’s characters cannot employ such symbols. Spirit is a dimen-
sion that does not enter their lives. They are hopelessly earth-
bound and earth-centered, so that even the most spiritual of human