A Model Of Restraint

Sep 1 2012 @ 9:41am

Bernard Avishai revisits Philip Roth's classic Bildungsroman of sexual neuroses, Portnoy's Complaint. He finds a lesson about how easily we fall prey to human desires:

Jews presumed to control themselves so well—partly because they had been a scorned minority and had learned to ingratiate themselves—but also because they had a religious culture that could seem an endless restraining order. Portnoy knew better. He had seemed to come around to something like D.H. Lawrence’s rebellion against the confinements latent in this curiously Ben Franklinish culture:

What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed? Practice, darling, practice, practice, practice … Why else the two sets of dishes? Why else the kosher soap and salt? Why else, I ask you, but to remind us three times a day that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other …

Thus, the American embodiment of self-restraint cannot restrain himself, at least not in private, where lovers and analysts learn the truth. And if a Jew can’t hold it all together, then surely Everyman can’t.