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Title: Jewish Self-Hatred in the Character of Alexander Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: Analysis of the Main Character’s Discourse
Authors: LEBBAL, Haoua
Issue Date: Jun-2019
Abstract: General Conclusion The idea of Jewish guilt is so entrenched within the Jewish community, that it is considered to be more of a genetic attribute than an arbitrary psychological syndrome. It is found that the most outspoken opponents against the Jewish ideals are Jews themselves. However, the definition of a self-hating Jew encompasses both who acknowledge their participation in the Jewish lifestyle, and the Jews who choose to disassociate themselves completely with anything Jewish. If any morality can be extracted from Theodor Lessing‘s journey of self-discovery, it is that the self-hating Jew always runs the risk of being the embodiment of the Jewishness that they hate. It is the irony that most self-hating Jews are rendered subjects of; the more they distance themselves from the prototypical image of the Jewish individual, the harder they are thrust back into their Jewish origins by the public. Philip Roth sustained allegations of Jewish self-hatred, despite never explicitly voicing an antagonistic stance against his Jewish heritage; yet, the issue with Philip Roth is proven to be much more complicated than that of other self-hating personalities. While previous authors of Jewish origins made their best attempts at capturing the chagrin of Jewish immigration to foreign lands, Roth is nonchalant about the tragic aspect of it. His characters are far off from the trope that appeased to Jewish sympathizers. They speak English as a first language, and belong to neither a synagogue nor any other Jewish convention in America. These characters are stranded in an oblivious affiliation; Jews in a gentile world, and gentiles in a Jewish world. Therefore, their opinions regarding Judeo conventions do not necessarily stem from the same selfhatred those previous Jewish generations had. For Roth and his characters, the Jewish experience and the American one are often one and the same, with enough interceptions Lebbal 73 that provide them with doubt about their identity and heritage, which eventually constitutes the bulk of their stories. There is an identity crisis at the heart of every story written by Philip Roth, and arguably Roth‘s story himself, yet none of the characters that he wrote over the course of nearly half a century represented that inner conflict with that much heart, thoughtfulness, and raunchiness as Alexander Portnoy. Alexander Portnoy is Philip Roth‘s most salient achievement in terms of depicting the role of ethnical lineage in developing psychological deviances. Portnoy reiterates back to his Jewish upbringing, and his unapologetically Jewish parents, in order to validate the reasoning behind many of his patterns of social conduct. The reader witnesses Alexander‘s candid accounts of a meddling, imposing mother, a subdued and debased father, and a plethora of caricatures of women whom he uses for nothing but to achieve self-fulfillment and spiritual release from the chains of shame. The sum of analytical passages throughout the third chapter agrees with the general consensus that Philip Roth, in Portnoy’s Complaint, crafted an insightful portrait of a self-hating Jew. However, based on Bernard Avishai‘s previous observation, Alexander Portnoy does not serve to represent the modern Jewish man, but rather the modern American Jew who is ambivalent about his true affiliation and identity. This revelation is enough to raise a conversation about which field of study should characters like Alexander Portnoy be discussed and analyzed within. Many of the psychological manifestations inhibited by American Jews resemble those of postcolonial people, as the formers are labeled as ―exiles‖ after all. Relations of shared subjugation, being regarded as the ―Other‖ within a largely Caucasian society, and feelings of displacement bind colonial subjects and Jewish exiles within the same field of studies. The more exiled Jews are perceived as such, the less likely there would be Lebbal 74 any need for terms such as ―the self-hating Jew‖. Accordingly, a self-hating Jew, much like Alexander Portnoy, is simply someone who perceives the Jewish values from the perspective of an outsider to that collective consciousness, therefore allowing for a much more critical stance of the traditions, customs and religious practices that Jews embrace. Alexander Portnoy and Philip Roth are two outlanders from a generation that stands witness to a heritage that they do not identify with; hence, they seethe, vilify and complain. In a review of Zuckerman Unbound, Harold Bloom states that ―Roth indeed is a Jewish writer in a sense that Saul Bellows and Bernard Malamud are not, and do not care to be… Roth seems prophetic in the biblical tradition‖ (Weinberger 1). Roth‘s vulgar assessment of Jews, as well as his crass language, can be regarded as innovation from his part, indicated by the notoriety and the intrigue that he quickly garnered. In The Ghost Writer, he quotes Kafka‘s saying that ―We should only read those books that bite and sting us‖. Alexander Portnoy bit and stung as many Jewish critics as possible; yet, he is perceived as an icon of Jews who see their Jewishness more of an annexed attribute, than a developed identity with its own history and story. However, a recurring theme that persisted even with this relatively new breed is the myth of Jewish guilt. American Jews are still characterized by a crippling sense of guilt that is more treated as a comedic punch than a field of investigation and inquiry, and it is arguably for their benefit. If readers can learn anything from Alexander Portnoy, it is that dwelling in selfhatred only leads to a fragmentation of morals, an irrevocably negative outlook on society, a bitterness that leaves its traces in every human relationship the self-hating individual attempts, and an inclination to complain, and complain some more, in spite of the futility of complaints in the face of a deeply troubled psyche.
Appears in Collections:Faculté des Lettres et des Langues FLL

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