Writing and the Powers That Be
Tell us first of all about your adolescence-its relationship with the type of American society you have represented in Goodbye, Columbus; your rapport with your family; and if and how you felt the weight of paternal power.
An interview conducted by the Italian critic Walter Mauro, for his collection of interviews with writers on the subject of power. (1974)
Far from being the classic period of explosion and tempestuous growth, my adolescence was more or less a period of suspended animation. After the victories of an exuberant and spirited childhood-lived out against the dramatic background of America's participation in World War II-I was to cool down considerably until I went off to college in 1950. There, in a respectable Christian atmosphere hardly less constraining than my own particular Jewish upbringing, but whose strictures I could ignore or oppose without feeling bedeviled by long-standing loyalties, I was able to reactivate a taste for inquiry and speculation that had been all but immobilized during my high school years. From age twelve, when I entered high school, to age sixteen, when I graduated, I was by and large a good, responsible, well-behaved boy, controlled (rather willingly) by the social regulations of the self-conscious and orderly lower-middle-class neighborhood where I had been raised, and mildly constrained still by the taboos that had filtered down to me, in attenuated form, from the religious orthodoxy of my immigrant grandparents. I was probably a "good" adolescent partly because I understood that in our Jewish section of Newark there was nothing much else to be, unless I wanted to steal cars or flunk courses, both of which proved to be beyond me. Rather than becoming a sullen malcontent or a screaming rebel-or flowering, as I had in the prelapsarian days at elementary school-I obediently served my time in what was, after all, only a minimum-security institution, and enjoyed the latitude and privileges awarded to the inmates who make no trouble for their guards.
The best of adolescence was the intense male friendships-not only because of the cozy feelings of camaraderie they afforded boys coming unstuck from their close-knit families, but because of the opportunity they provided for uncensored talk. These marathon conversations, characterized often by raucous discussions of hoped-for sexual adventure and by all sorts of anarchic joking, were typically conducted, however, in the confines of a parked car-two, three, four, or five of us in a single steel enclosure just about the size and shape of a prison cell, and similarly set apart from ordinary human society.
Still, the greatest freedom and pleasure I knew in those years may have derived from what we said to one another for hours on end in those automobiles. And how we said it. My closest adolescent companions-clever, respectful Jewish boys like myself, all four of whom have gone on to be successful doctors-may not look back in the same way on those bull sessions, but for my part I associate that amalgam of mimicry, reporting, kibbitzing, disputation, satire, and legendizing from which we drew so much sustenance with the work I now do, and I consider what we came up with to amuse one another in those cars to have been something like the folk narrative of a tribe passing from one stage of human development to the next. Also, those millions of words were the means by which we either took vengeance on or tried to hold at bay the cultural forces that were shaping us. Instead of stealing cars from strangers, we sat in the cars we had borrowed from our fathers and said the wildest things imaginable, at least in our neighborhood. Which is where we were parked.
"The weight of paternal power," in its traditional oppressive or restraining guises, was something I had hardly to contend with in adolescence. My father had little aside from peccadilloes to quarrel with me about, and if anything weighed upon me, it was not dogmatism, unswervingness, or the like, but his limitless pride in me. When I tried not to disappoint him, or my mother, it was never out of fear of the mailed fist or the punitive decree, but of the broken heart; even in post-adolescence, when I began to find reasons to oppose them, it never occurred to me that as a consequence I might lose their love.
What may have encouraged my cooling down in adolescence was the grave financial setback my father suffered at about the time I was entering high school. The struggle back to solvency was arduous, and the stubborn determination and reserves of strength that it called forth from him in his mid-forties made him all at once a figure of considerable pathos and heroism in my eyes, a cross of a kind between Captain Ahab and Willy Loman. Half-consciously I wondered if he might not collapse, carrying us under with him-instead he proved to be undiscourageable, if not something of a stone wall. But as the outcome was in doubt precisely during my early adolescence, it could be that my way in those years of being neither much more nor much less than "good" had to do with contributing what I could to family order and stability. To allow paternal power to weigh what it should, I would postpone until a later date the resumption of my career as classroom conquistador, and suppress for the duration all rebellious and heretical inclinations . . . This is largely a matter of psychological conjecture, of course, certainly so by this late date-but the fact remains that I did little in adolescence to upset whatever balance of power had enabled our family to come as far as it had and to work as well as it did.
Sex as an instrument of power and subjection. You develop this theme in Portnoy's Complaint and achieve a desecration of pornography, at the same time recognizing the obsessive character of sexual concerns and their enormous conditioning power. Tell us in what real experience this dramatic fable originated or from what adventure of the mind or the imagination.
Do I "achieve a desecration of pornography"? I never thought of it that way before, since generally pornography is itself considered a verbal desecration of the acts by which men and women are imagined to consecrate their profound attachment to one another. Actually I think of pornography more as the projection of an altogether human preoccupation with the genitalia in and of them-
selves-a preoccupation excluding all emotions other than those elemental feelings that the contemplation of genital functions arouses. Pornography is to the whole domain of sexual relations what a building manual is to hearth and home. Or so it would be, if carpentry were surrounded with the exciting aura of magic, mystery, and breachable taboo that adheres at this moment to the range of sex acts.
I don't think that I "desecrated" pornography but, rather, excised its central obsession with the body as an erotic contraption or plaything-with orifices, secretions, tumescence, friction, discharge, and all the abstruse intricacies of sex-tectonics-and then placed that obsession back into an utterly mundane family setting, where issues of power and subjection, among other things, can be seen in their broad everyday aspect rather than through the narrowing lens of pornography. Now, perhaps it is just in this sense that I could be charged with having desecrated, or profaned, what pornography, by its exclusiveness and obsessiveness, does actually elevate into a kind of sacred, all-encompassing religion, whose solemn rites it ritualistically enacts: the religion of Fuckism (or, in a movie like Deep Throat, Suckism). As in any religion these devotions are a matter of the utmost seriousness, and there is little more room for individual expressiveness or idiosyncrasy, for human error or mishap, than there is in the celebration of the Mass. In fact, the comedy of Portnoy's Complaint arises largely out of the mishaps, wholly expressive of the individual, that bedevil one would-be celebrant as he tries desperately to make his way to the altar and remove his clothes. All his attempts to enter naked into the sacred realm of pornography are repeatedly foiled because, by his own definition, Alexander Portnoy is a character in a Jewish joke-a genre which, unlike pornography, pictures a wholly deconsecrated world: demystified, deromanticized, utterly dedeluded. Fervent religionist that he would be, Portnoy still cannot help but profane with his every word and gesture what the orthodox Fuckist most reveres.
I cannot track down for you any single experience, whether of the mind or the body, from which Portnoy's Complaint originated. Perhaps what you want to know is whether I have firsthand knowledge of "sex as an instrument of power and subjection." The answer is, how could I not? I too have appetite, genitals, imagination, drive, inhibition, frailties, will, and conscience. Moreover, the massive, late-sixties assault upon sexual customs came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach and began fighting for a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy. I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark. "Daddy," the youngsters ask, "what did you do in the war?" I humbly submit they could do worse than read Portnoy's Complaint to find out.
The relationship in your work between reality and imagination. Have the forms of power we have mentioned (family, religion, politics) influenced your style, your mode of expression? Or has writing served increasingly to free you from these forms of power?
Inasmuch as subject might be considered an aspect of "style," the answer to the first question is yes: family and religion as coercive forces have been a recurrent subject in my fiction, particularly in the work up to and including Portnoy's Complaint; and the coercive appetites of the Nixon Administration were very much to the point of Our Gang. Of course the subjects themselves "influence" their treatment and my "mode of expression," but so does much else. Certainly, aside from the Nixon satire, I have never written anything determinedly and intentionally destructive. Polemical or blasphemous assault upon the powers that be has served me more as a theme than as an overriding purpose in my work.
"The Conversion of the Jews," for instance, a story I wrote when I was twenty-three, reveals at its most innocent stage of development a budding concern with the oppressiveness of family feeling and with the binding ideas of religious exclusiveness which I had experienced first-hand in ordinary American-Jewish life. A good boy named Freedman brings to his knees a bad rabbi named Binder (and various other overlords) and then takes wing from the synagogue into the vastness of space. Primitive as this story seems to me now-it might better be called a daydream-it nonetheless evolved out of the same preoccupations that led me, years later, to invent Alexander Portnoy, an older incarnation of claustrophobic little Freedman, who cannot cut loose from what binds and inhibits him quite so magically as the hero I imagined humbling his mother and his rabbi in "The Conversion of the Jews." Ironically, where the boy in the early story is subjugated by figures of real stature in his world, whose power he for the moment at least is able to subvert, Portnoy is less oppressed by these people-who have little real say in his life anyway-than he is imprisoned by the rage that persists against them. That his most powerful oppressor by far is himself is what makes for the farcical pathos of the book-and also what connects it with my preceding novel, When She Was Good, where again the focus is on a grown child's fury against long-standing authorities believed by her to have misused their power.
The question of whether I can ever free myself from these forms of power assumes that I experience family and religion as power and nothing else. It is much more complicated than that. I have never really tried, through my work or directly in my life, to sever all that binds me to the world I came out of. I am probably right now as devoted to my origins as I ever was in the days when I was indeed as powerless as little Freedman and, more or less, had no other sane choice. But this has come about only after subjecting these ties and connections to considerable scrutiny. In fact, the affinities that I continue to feel toward the forces that first shaped me, having withstood to the degree that they have the assault of imagination and the test of sustained psychoanalysis (with all the cold-bloodedness that entails), would seem by now to be here to stay. Of course I have greatly refashioned my attachments through the effort of testing them, and over the years have developed my strongest attachment to the test itself.
Our Gang is a desecration of President Nixon and it takes its theme from a statement on abortion. In what period of your life have you most strongly felt the weight of political power as a moral coercion and how did you react to it? Do you feel that the element of the grotesque, which you often use, is the only means by which one can rebel and fight against such power?
I suppose I most strongly felt political power as moral coercion while growing up in New Jersey during World War II. Little was asked of an American schoolchild, other than his belief in the "war effort," but that I gave with all my heart. I worried over the welfare of older cousins who were off in the war zone, and wrote them long "newsy" letters to keep up their morale; I sat by the radio with my parents listening to Gabriel Heatter every Sunday, hoping upon hope that he had good news that night; I followed the battle maps and front-line reports in the evening paper; and on weekends I participated in the neighborhood collection of paper and tin cans. I was twelve when the war ended, and during the next few years my first serious political allegiances began to take shape. My entire clan-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins-were devout New Deal Democrats. In part because they identified him with Roosevelt, and also because they were by and large lower-middle-class people sympathetic to labor and the underdog, many of them voted for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for President in 1948. I'm proud to say that Richard Nixon was known as a crook in our kitchen some twenty-odd years before this dawned on the majority of Americans as a real possibility. I was in college during Joe McCarthy's heyday-which is when I began to identify political power with immoral coercion. I reacted by campaigning for Adlai Stevenson and writing a long angry free-verse poem about McCarthyism for the college literary magazine.
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Copyright © 2001 by Philip Roth. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.