Page 24 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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J
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B
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concepts, love, has become debased:
. . The word love has only
to be whispered in our house for all eyes immediately to begin
to overflow.” The Yiddish words that Portnoy uses—bonditt, goy,
kishkas, shkotzim, pishachs, dreck, chazerai—and the context in
which he uses them, reflect an excremental vision. “And once,”
Portnoy tells his psychiatrist, “I saw her menstrual blood . . .
shining darkly up at me. . . .” The image is of someone looking
downward in fascination, while from the earth itself emanates
a mysterious force that binds him to that which is below. Roth
uses American Jewish life as a metaphor for the general emptiness
of modern life. There are many who feel that Roth’s novel is
anti-Jewish and self-hating but I think it is not so much anti-
Jewish as a reflection of the spiritual poverty of our secular society.
Portnoy’s dreams of bliss, the most lyrical passages in the novel,
are enclosed within the secular society—dreams of playing “twenty-
one innings of softball” before going home “to Sunday dinner”;
“to be a center fielder, a center fielder—and nothing more.”
Roth draws Jewish liberalism out to its logical conclusion. Re-
jecting revelation and transcendence, Portnoy turns away from
Jewish history and Jewish suffering and institutional Judaism,
all of which interfere with his desire to enjoy the pagan pleasures
of the flesh: “Renunciation is all, cries the koshered and bloodless
piece of steak my family and I sit down to eat at dinner time.
Self-control, sobriety, sanctions—this is the key to a human life,
saith all those endless dietary laws.”
Saul Bellow had tested some of the possibilities of pagan joys
in the Mexican episode in
The Adventures of Augie March
and
in
Henderson the Rain King.
In the sixties he began to turn in
new (perhaps they were really old) directions. If the constant
factor in Bellow’s novels has been the stubborn refusal to accept
the sham, the posing, and what Holden Caulfield called the phoni-
ness of modern life, the developmental factor has been a move-
ment away from dionysian exuberance toward cautious acceptance
of muted love and restrained joy, not as ends in themselves but
as bridges toward something else; although it is not yet quite clear
what that something is, Bellow’s thought seems to incline more and
more toward something transcendent. In his most recent novel,
Mr.
Sammler’s Planet,
Mr. Sammler meditates momentarily on
man’s newly found ability to reach the moon: “This is not the way
to get out of spatial-temporal prison. Distant is still finite. Finite
is still feeling through the veil, examining the naked inner reality
with a gloved hand.”
Bellow’s great sense of the comic still abounds in Mr.
Sammler’s
Planet,
but the comedy is no longer boisterous. It, like the style
in general, is muted and Sammler is the embodiment of this muted-
ness. Just as Roth, so to speak, turns Malamud against himself