Tuesday, April 29, 2008

THE PUZZLED PENIS

* * *

Portnoy’s Complaint (port’-noiz kəm-plānt’) n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: “Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s ‘morality,’ however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.” (Spielvogel, O., “The Puzzled Penis,” International Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalyse, Vol. XXIV, p. 909.) It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.

And so begins Philip Roth's 1969 masturbatory thriller, Portnoy's Complaint, with what is perhaps the single greatest prologue in the history of the written word.

This little introduction is not even on a numbered page in the edition that I purchased; it is not found on one of the pages marked with lower-case Roman numerals usually reserved for prefatory information (i, ii, and so forth).

It just appears, intrepid, indifferent, staring up at the unsuspecting reader on the unnumbered page opposite the copyright information and foretelling the coming of a very strange story.

Inquisitive and attentive readers will discover from information found opposite this preface that in 1956 Georgie Yeats renewed the copyright to Simon and Schuster's The Poems of William Butler Yeats: A New Edition, out of which was taken an excerpt of everyone's favorite bestiality poem, Leda and the Swan, for use by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint.


Standing in Blue Bicycle Books at 420 King Street in Charleston (where they buy books, sell them, and occasionally, when circumstances are just right, have been known to read them), with sand and ocean salt from Folly Beach comfortably between my toes, I picked up Portnoy's Complaint, opened it to the copyright page, and in an nanosecond without having to actually read the text, the words

penis

Yeats

Leda

Swan

perverse

sexual

auto-eroticism

coitus

castration

bypassed my cerebrum, briefly toured my cerebellum, and then hit that ancestral part of my brain responsible for base libido functions like a lawn dart covered in blowfish poison.

I'm not going to lie to you; this is my kind of literature: introspective erotica that simultaneously reminds you to feel guilty for even thinking about getting a hard-on; the kind of literature that any self-respecting mother who came of age before the sexual revolution would admire.

If you are not familiar with Philip Roth, he's an impressive and accomplished writer. He has won innumerable awards for his literature, including the coveted and elusive Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for American Pastoral, a book which I have been told that I need to read. I knew these things, and thus I was somewhat surprised (pleasantly, I'll concede) to find Portnoy's Complaint to be so openly salacious.

Philip Roth (1933 - )

In Portnoy's Complaint, the story's narrator and chief protagonist is Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish kid born in New Jersey to a chronically constipated father and an overbearing mother who informs Alex's entire life sexual experience in not a good way. The story can be summarized as Alex Portnoy's sexual pilgrimage to hell, and parts of it are fucking funny.

The second chapter of the book, which begins on page 17, is titled Whacking Off. It commences thusly:
Then came adolescence - half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out.
He goes on:
Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth - though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstacy, I got it all in the pompadour.
And this continues for several pages, including one hi-larious scene in which he orbits a load into the air and part of it sticks to the single naked light bulb illuminating the bathroom:
So galvanic is the effect of cotton panties against my mouth - so galvanic is the word panties - that the trajectory of my ejaculation reaches startling new heights: leaving my joint like a rocket it makes right for the light bulb overhead, where to my wonderment and horror, it hits and hangs.
After delicately cleaning the light bulb, Alex is terrified that he is going to leave some trace of his illicit activities behind for his mother to find. He says, I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off - the sticky evidence is everywhere! Tell me that's not funny.

Родион Романович Раскольников
(Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment makes a rare appearance in a book about jerking off)

Historically, the cleaning-up phase after masturbation is closely associated with the guilt phase, where if you are going to feel any sort of remorse for tethering the blimp, it will occur most acutely during clean-up rather than during the act itself. Your psychologist will explain to you that this has something to do with our fear of making a mess - an idea as anathema to the traditional American mother as molecular biology is to a Free-Will Baptist.

My favorite line in chapter two of the book is LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS (all caps in original; p. 21). You'll have to read the book to see what that is about. I almost changed the name of the blog to LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS, and I still might. We'll see.

Later, Alex gets his first hand-job from a girl named Bubbles Girardi who he describes as weighing a hundred and seventy pounds and growing a mustache. After the application of duress from one of Alex's friends, Bubbles reluctantly agrees to the task and before Alex can get his pants all the way down, suddenly she has hold of it, and it's as though my poor cock has got caught in some kind of machine. Vigorously, to put it mildly, the ordeal begins.

We've all been there.

As a college student and later as an adult who is superbly successful with his career as a lawyer fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, Alex has several different relationships with various women (The Pumpkin, The Monkey, The Pilgrim, &c.), all of which end in miserable failure.

In one case, Alex discovers that one of the girls, The Monkey - who is spectacularly hot - is functionally illiterate. He arrives at her apartment early one night while she is in the shower and finds a nearly illegible note on the coffee table and reads it. Has a child been here, I wonder, he says.

He is horrified to discover that the note was written to him by The Monkey. Despite the fact that The Monkey is two fathoms out of his league in terms of physical attractiveness, the fact that she cannot spell essentially ruins the relationship for him.

I had a similar situation with a girl from northern Minnesota that I dated for a while. English was like a second language to her, which would have been ok if there had been a first language.

She spoke and wrote a Scandinavian-English hybrid that to anyone familiar with either appeared to be an altogether unfamiliar third language invented by a set of deaf illiterate twins. A love note is just not quite the same with shit spelled wrong in it. It's just not.

Overall, Portnoy's Complaint has no discernible plot progression; it is fundamentally a stream-of-consciousness work in which the impossibly randy narrator describes simultaneously his indefatigable lust and the inescapable sense of shame that accompanies every gooey nut he blows.

There are no groundbreaking literary techniques in the book, and the writing style is fairly familiar if not overused. Roth's protagonist comes off sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield, a character who doubtless would have talked more about beating off if he had been invented in 1967 rather than in 1951.


Legend has it that J.D. Salinger got tired of saying,
"Zoo-ey. Franny and Zoo-ey."


The storyline does move around in time quite a bit, and that is probably the best aspect of the book. Roth flashes backward and forward and sideways, and I imagine it was difficult to put together a seamless story like Portnoy's Complaint with so much temporal manipulation.

The idea is that Alex is recounting his puzzling past to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, so the story necessarily jumps around a bit in the telling as different memories resurrect other associated memories out of the obscurity of the past. In this way, Alex is kind of like a brainy, Jewish Benjy Compson who, after realizing that Caddy doesn't smell like trees anymore, tries to fuck her in the ass.

Roth does not disclose to the reader right away that the book is in fact a one-sided dialogue between Alex and Dr. Spielvogel (the latter does not speak until the very last line of the book); however, this fact is enigmatically revealed fairly early in the book by Alex's offhanded and obscure references to the doctor, somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov's ladies and gentlemen of the jury asides in Lolita. (Picnic, lightning.)


Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) liked to invent chess puzzles.

While much of the book is quite funny in the same way that a good comedy routine is funny, there are two jokes in the book that Roth sets up expertly and makes the reader wait for the punchline long enough to make them really worthwhile. One has to do with why Alex's second girlfriend is given the nickname “The Monkey. I can't remember the other joke right now, but I'm pretty sure there was one.

The edition that I have is 274 pages long, and I doubt there is a red-blooded American male (or female) who would not relate to at least some part of the book. It is, at bottom, a grimly uncomfortable yet humorous commentary about our inability to become completely comfortable with our own sexuality. This fact has long baffled me.

Why? Because single-celled organisms first engaged in honest-to-god sexual (not asexual, but sexual) reproduction just short of a billion years ago. (For you Young Earth Creationists out there, the conversion ratio is 1/160,000. Please modify your texts accordingly.)

Going even further, somewhere around 100,000 and 200,000 generations of our ancestors have been the product of reproduction and have reproduced since the time of Australopithecus anamensis, one of Homo sapiens' earliest ancestors. That's - a lot - of the ol in-out in-out.

(An interesting aside is that it took that many generations before it ever occurred to anyone to Superman a ho, an obvious product of the enlightenment.)

Prior to the end of the last Ice Age, despite the fact that nearly every organism born as a result of sexual reproduction had a mother, I doubt it ever occurred to anyone that what they were doing was anything at all to be ashamed of. They probably didn't even know precisely which holes went with what, and if someone felt like rubbing one out, it is unlikely that they felt guilty for doing so.

Indeed, modern scientific literature indicates that sex and the birth of offspring were not even causally (not casually; causally) associated by our earthly predecessors until relatively recently in human evolution. Hell, there are still “modern humans alive today (the Trobriand Islanders) who have not yet grasped the connection between sex and childbirth, but somehow they manage to keep reproducing - which is not a mystery to anyone.

The point: you can thank our sexual proclivities for the fact that you are here today reading this blog. If our ancestors were not willing to indiscriminately mount anything with a nervous system, we would never have survived as a species.

Recall also that 40,000 years ago, the “Brazilian and the electric toothbrush had not yet been invented, and women were basically indistinguishable from trees.

It's not like there were hot chicks walking around. Imagine Hillary Clinton without soap, dental hygiene, or nail clippers. Say it with me: Wookie.

Yet still our ancestors, early and recent, reproduced with such extraordinary ferocity and determination that billions of us happened to survive into the present day while millions of other species did not.

So don't be so damn hard on yourselves if you feel a twinge of shame when, like Onan, you throw a load into a Kleenex and wonder when polymer chemistry will catch up to the disposable-tissue industry so that the damn things can be made not to adhere to your dick like Elmer's wood glue when you try to dry off. Sex is a fundamental part of who we are as a species. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Don't puzzle your penis. Just make sure to clean up the mess.

Brought to you by your friends at Kleenex®.

19 comments:

Nathan Zuckerman said...

Holy shit. This is hilarious - particularly the conversion ratio for Young Earth Creationists. I'm guessing, however, that you don't have too many of those folks reading this blog.

(Is this what your book reports looked like in high school?)

lovelace said...

I have no doubt your book reports did look something like this back in the day! (And I bet the subject matter of this piece of work resembles the descriptions of your extra-curricular activities included in your first resume.) You took us all back to comic relief with this one, and it was hilarious! I sure do hope your parents enjoy it too. They're always so proud of your work.

(Have you looked into national syndication for this blog??? What a novel idea!)

amante púrpura de panty said...

fab, E.K.! helping to make all the horny men of the world feel more wholesome and pure.

you're just jealous that your first wasn't named Bubbles. (what was your second grade teacher's name again?)

Dick Schtick said...

The Rusty Trumbone. The Abe Lincoln. The Alligator Fuckhouse.

We are a species completely obsessed with sex. We have pet names for our genitals. We have monikers for different positions. There are even lists outlining the most creative pornographic film titles (http://www.wikiporno.org/wiki/Best_Porn_Movie_Names)!

Face it: we listen to it, we watch it, we read about it. And, of course, we do it. And what’s wrong with that? If it feels good and no one gets hurt – who cares?

Well, according to the latest tabloid headlines, the lack of sex ed in our schools and evangelicals calling for chastity vows (yeah, it increases interest in anal sex) – apparently, we care!

But why? Why do we care what the boy next door is doing in his bathroom with the Victoria’s Secret catalog or if the Murphy’s like to play Little Bo Peep and Her Very Insubordinate Sheep? Who cares if Phillip is a glorified pickle kisser?

We weren’t born with this inherent judgement of or guilt about sex. But if a parent's response to a child's curiosity lays a foundation for healthy sexual attitudes, it’s a wonder any of us are even here at all:

“Don’t touch your naughty bits because it shouldn’t feel good.”

“Looking at that thing in the mirror is dirty.”

“Installing a sex swing in your guest room is wrong.”

As adults, we need to stop the cycle. Learn to accept that clashes between our secret (and very human) thoughts and what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, religious and political leaders (excluding Bill Clinton; he’s on our side) causes guilt. And the whole purpose of guilt is to stop behavior that they consider in violation of standards outlined by religion and society. And when we feel guilt, they’ve really got us by the balls.

And this goes far beyond just sex:

“You can’t love Lamar because he’s not Jewish.”

“You shouldn’t date Barbara because she’s black.”

“I won’t let you be gay.”

Stop letting other people define your standards! Such lofty and unreasonable expectations, coupled with conflicting feelings about sex, get you...well...Catholic clergy, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Jim McGreevey, Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer, my childhood friend’s parents (salacious wife swap with the neighbors - w00t!), and 50% of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third ending in divorce!

So, Alexander Portnoy rejected conventional morality, but it overwhelmed him with a guilt complex from which he could not escape. He wanted hot, sweaty monkey sex with his ideal woman. But, he was conditioned to believe that he should have a normal, loving family with a nice Jewish girl. And it ultimately left him impotent – completely unable to enjoy much of anything.

Regardless of what you think your parents want for you or what your religion dictates as God’s law, go find your fantasy. Grab onto him or her, and create your own definition of a normal, loving relationship. And while you’re at it, flick your own bean. Festoon your own May pole. Give your significant other a Cincinatti Bowtie or even a Birmingham Booty Call.

In fact, can I watch?

Ha! Just kidding! That made me leak a little bit of urine...

g. rose lee said...

Dick, insightful comments on an equally insightful post. I wholeheartedly agree with your "grab life by the balls" (quite literally) mantra.

I do believe that this U.S. society represses sexuality more so than any other country I've ever visited. Okay, that's only been three. Regardless, they were all sex-lovin' topless-beach-havin' places of erotica. I mean, from what I could gather peering at the ads in magazines at the airport.

Speaking of which, for a country of Puritans we sure do focus a lot on sex in order to make money. "Hey, Johnny, look at this sexy and salacious Sally stretched out on this salon chair, spread-eagle, lip-licked, hair-flicked... Uhn. Doesn't it make you want to buy our minty fresh aftershave? Johnny...? Johnny! Stop touching that! You eat your eggs with that hand?!"

Johnny... the proverbial lemming. Led along by the promise of sex only to find a right hand full of Man-gel's New & Improved Fresh Blast aftershave.

And we wonder why half of all marriages end in divorce. Of course, if the Rules of Marriage could just be revised, nay *tweaked* a wee bit, I think we could have more... interesting... and successful couplings. In all the ways you can think to couple.

E.K. Hornbeck said...

I hate it when the comments are more clever than the post.

I had to look up Alligator Fuckhouse and Cincinnati Bowtie. I was appalled. Do people really do these things?

Hidari Uma said...

Putting aside my natural impulse to place my hands over my ears and chant "na na na na na" over and over again, I would like to relate one brief anecdote your excellent and thought compelling blog brought to mind.

My sister-in-law has a nephew who just turned one. To protect his identity we'll call him "Jerry." The instant little Jerry finds himself without a diaper, his tiny right hand snakes south and clasps his penis like it is a door knob. And he holds onto it, without letting go, until he is re-dressed. (This story is even cuter if you are aware that Jerry has a birth defect in his right arm and hand -- one wonders if and at what age he might "switch hands" in order to work a little better magic on himself.)

Anyway, Jerry's instinct is profound and adorable. And his parents are just young and stupid enough to be doing the right thing without knowing it -- namely, leaving the poor kid alone. You wouldn't tell a kid not to touch his nose or his knee cap, would you? How absurd that we decided to brand one body part "bad" and "dirty." Especially absurd when you consider it is hands down the most fun part of the human body.

Also, I met Roth a number of times when he was teaching at UNCW -- I wish I had read this particular book before then; how much fun would it have been to quote from it when talking to him at parties and in the hall at school?

As always, EK, you've managed to make me laugh and cry. Keep up the good work. Not that work, dirty boy, the WRITING.

Mom said...

Good grief, Edward! What can I say? How do I feel? SHOCK & AWE! Good Grief!

Seriously - I feel compelled to respond to this. I have many thoughts buzzing. Shock and Awe. Oh I said that. OK. First of all, you are absolutely right on target. Why all this shame thing came, who knows. My mother certainly passed it on to me in full measure. I was 21, teaching school and still eating drumsticks in the school cafeteria because I could not request a BREAST to be placed on my tray. True, I could not utter the word!

I knew this couldn't be good and was determined not to raise my children with such hang-ups. Apparently I succeeded, at least in your case. Some would ask - Did I go to far? No, this you have done all by yourself and you have dragged the rest of us kicking, screaming and yes, laughing along with you.

You, along with help from your sisters, have stretched, pulled, pounded and reshaped me into the person I am today. Sometimes it scares the hell out of me, but it is called being honest and at peace with myself and that is a good thing.

I want to finish by saying I am very proud of your incredible talents as a thinker and a writer and I am just a little bit proud of myself for any contributions I may have made.

Mom

dick schtick said...

I love your mom!

Anonymous said...

There are three books that all American males must read in order to mature into full-fledged adults with an adequate understanding of one of the most important parts of the world around them. They are: "Lady Chatterley's Lover", "Catcher in the Rye", and "Portnoy's Complaint". There are those who find and ravage them early, like when they are 18 years old or so. Other males stumble upon them in a haphazard fashion over points of time scattered out over a number of years. Falling into the latter group is not justification for ridicule from those who had the pleasure of earlier discovery. Rather, they should wonder if their wanderings among the female beasts of the earth without the benefit of all the great adolescent literary pornography was deficient in any respect. For example, they should ask: Did I hesitate to nail, even once, a warm and willing partner because of religious or moral principles? If the answer is No, coming upon one, perhaps, even two of the fountains of lust somewhere in the vicinity of middle age is no cause for alarm. View it (or them) merely as battery chargers then conclude that being exposed to the trinity sooner would have made little, if any difference, in all that came before the final discovery. To those who have been able to limp along the path of promiscuity without the benefit of Lawrence, or Salinger, or the other guy, I say, they carry a gene deeply embedded like the one for gray eyes. If properly nourished, the gene will produce behavior not unlike that of the young men who highlight all the juicy passages and carry the paperbacks in their fanny pouches. There is one lesson taught by all three of the works. It is never written, of course, that would be injurious to the author's livelihood. Nonetheless, it is there, plain as the letters on every page. It goes something like this: 'Reading about sex is like kissing your sister...nice and friendly and conducive to family harmony...being a participant rather than a voyeur is the key to having your own pornography in your head rather than someone else's.

Dick Schtick said...

Anonymous,

Uh?

November 08 said...

Wow. I laughed. . . I cringed. . . especially when I saw the comment from your mom. YOUR MOM read this blog. Obviously she is quite forward thinking.

I have several small children of my own, and struggle with the (rather frequent) occasions when my carefully considered idea of modern, non-repressive child rearing clashes with lightning speed gut reactions that seem to be unavoidable. For example, we all know that it is normal for children to enjoy being naked as well as touch themselves in an exploratory fashion, and that it is not appropriate to punish, frighten, or otherwise chastise them for doing so. However, I would like to see any parent have the intestinal fortitude to smile warmly and say nothing when you realize that your 3-year-old has removed her underwear in the grocery store and is delighting in a gratuitous display of her rear end to innocent bystanders. (Obviously a discussion about the appropriate time and place for nudity ensued --but it is quite the balancing act to explain these issues without sounding like the Puritans). Just today my four-year-old asked me (again in the grocery store check-out line, where I apparently spend an inordinate amount of time), if girls can marry girls. I was actually gratified to hear that an older sibling had told her that yes, girls can marry girls. I am the last person on earth who would try to dictate to my child whom they could or could not marry -- however I must admit that I inwardly squirmed when the older lady in front of us turned to see how I would respond to this legitimate question. As parents, we are under a lot of pressure to impart values such as tolerance and self-love to our children while giving them a general idea of what society at large finds acceptable.

guapa said...

Your infinite wisdom never ceases to amaze me. No doubt.

E.K. Hornbeck said...

Guapa: No one has ever accused me of having infinite wisdom. Usually people tell me that I have finite wisdom, which I imagine is much less of a compliment. I think it has something to do with the set of real numbers, but I'm not sure.

November 08: thanks for bringing the always-exciting "voice of moderation" to this discussion.

My guess is that, the way things are going with those kids, you are likely to wind up with a couple of lesbian exhibitionists - which is, coincidentally, the precise name of one of the usenet groups I belong to.

I imagine it really must be difficult to know what to teach children in this era of conflicting values. Tolerance is a very good place to start. Sadly, there is very little of that going around these days.

Laura Hawkins said...

Well, I always seem to be exposed to something new when I read this and I have to say, "Alligator Fuckhouse" was pretty good. I am currently sun-burnt and sandy from a long day of revelry at Palmetto Bluff and brainstorming how to work "Alligator Fuckhouse" into my champagne brunch conversation tomorrow.

Finding myself smiling and shaking my head as I read through, I couldn't help but recall a favorite Mencken essay regarding artists--he felt that artists differ from the rest of us mainly because they react sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave everyone else unmoved or merely vaguely annoyed. As I have had numerous beers and have been sitting in the sun, I will borrow his compliment.

As always hilarious, scandalous and charming. This might very well make you the Ralph Waldo Emerson of masturbation musings.

Kendra Grant Malone said...

whoah, uhhh i really loved this

Karen said...

Hi, I love this post and the title! I'm just now reading this book and it is hilarious! I just want to ask, is it common for adolescent boys to use their mother's and sister's undergarments for sexual arousal? Also, kudos to your mom for being so open minded! I try to be the same way with my kids (sons). In fact, I’m urging them to read this book, although I hope it won’t turn them off too badly that I, their mother, recommended it.

Karen

E.K. Hornbeck said...

Karen: thank you for the kind comments. In regard to your question pertaining to whether such behavior (using a mother's or sister's undergarments for sexual arousal) is common in adolescent boys, I have to say I really do not know. Candidly, that would not be something that I would be even remotely interested in, nor was it a subject of interest to me as a boy. Indeed, the word "repulsive" leaps easily to mind. However, I can tell you that panties belonging to other women can, under the right circumstances, be remarkably titillating. Allow me to provide an example. Once, when I was 25, one of my girlfriend's friends stayed with me for a couple of weeks while she was in the process of relocating to the area. Suffice to say she was comfortably situated at the attractive end of the personal-beauty spectrum. One evening, I discovered (purely by accident) a pair of her (shockingly small) underwear in the washing machine. This was an electrifying experience, I can tell you. I remember holding them up and staring at them in wonder, like a priest who has chanced upon a lost and priceless artifact behind a hidden door in the sacristy. I seriously contemplated stealing them and telling her that they must have been eaten by a rat that had come up through the water line, but reason prevailed and I reluctantly returned them to the washer.

On another note, I am proud of you for what is apparently an enlightened approach to child-rearing, at least with respect to sex issues. The oppression of our natural, instinctual, congenital, human impulses nearly always has disastrous consequences. There are too many examples to name, as I am sure you know.

Karen said...

E.K., Thank you for your informative response. Your reaction to your chance encounter with your girlfriend's friend's panties is very intriguing. I will have to keep that one in mind for tantalizing my guy. ;-) It is very curious (and thankfully, very enjoyable) that such serendipitous erotic moments exist. And, yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the potentially disastrous consequences of repressing our humanness. I'll to have look at your other posts. Have a great day!