Thursday, March 30, 2006

Review: Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. Recommended.

Combination lengthy kvetch and documentation of a fictional psychiatric disorder, Portnoy's Complaint addresses the narrator's life as a first-generation American Jew and an oversexed male. As both, Alexander Portnoy is unable to reconcile his desire for the American dream with his desire for compliant shikses.

Portnoy is at war with his parents, his Jewish heritage, goy society, women, and, of course, himself. He claims to despise his parents' flair for the dramatic, yet his entire monologue is an exercise in self-centered comic hyperbole. As an atheist, he has no use for the Jewish faith, but he aspires to the camaraderie and sense of community experienced by the neighborhood Jewish men who play baseball on Sundays. The goyish middle class around him fascinates him with what he perceives to be the perfection of life that goes on behind their curtains and repels him with their religion and its imagery.

Portnoy refers to his girlfriends by nicknames such as The Monkey and The Pilgrim, which focus on what they represent to him rather than on who they are. When they are problematic, as The Monkey often is, they become individuals with greater mental issues than his own. When they are nearly perfect—upper middle-class shikses with centuries-long pedigrees, like The Pilgrim—they fail to satisfy Portnoy's cravings for all that is not the sexual equivalent of white bread. He finally encounters a Jewish woman—in Israel—but he is not up to the challenge on any level. Mostly, Portnoy claims to want one thing while actively seeking its opposite. He is not so different from anyone else.

Part of Portnoy's bemusement lies in how the world actually works. While he, a model student and citizen, lives a secret life that would indeed cause the headlines he fears if it were made public, he learns that two of his former schoolmates, unfettered by the type of parental attention that he finds so suffocating and free to pursue the degenerate lifestyle he desires, end up, not behind bars, but behind the curtained windows of American middle-class success, enjoying all that comes with it—including marriage. Portnoy is disturbed to discover that there is no guaranteed cause and effect. Anyone can achieve the American dream if they wish. His failure is another opportunity to blame his parents.

According to Roth, Portnoy has "strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses," but there is not much in Portnoy's character that is either ethical or altruistic. While his father sells life insurance to New Jersey's poor blacks and his mother furtively disinfects the dishes and silverware used by the black housekeeper, Portnoy is on his way to becoming the assistant commissioner of human opportunity for New York City. In this position, he shows little genuine compassion or empathy for the poor minorities who seek his support. He has no more interest in the people he represents, other than as symbols of his liberal socialism, than he has in Rosh Hashanah or the other defining aspects of Jewish heritage and experience. His only interest in his lover's threats of suicide are in the potential headlines—the possibility that his real persona will be exposed.

In a symbolic way, Portnoy resembles a man from his childhood whom he despised for his pretentious piety—Rabbi Warshaw, he of the "Pall Mall breath." With his position as protector of the minority underclass and his apparent social liberalism, Portnoy is pious, or at least self-righteous, on the outside, but perhaps inside he, like the rabbi and his foul breath, is not so sweet or idealistic as he appears.

Despite the 289 pages of uninterrupted monologue, the reader never really knows Portnoy. The pages and pages of hyperbole make him an unreliable narrator. Because it is a monologue, he chooses what he tells—and doesn't tell—the mysteriously silent and patient psychiatrist. The reader cannot know how much of this fiction is "true" within its context and how much is Portnoy putting into practice the flair for drama that so exasperates him in his parents—his father, whose bowels never move, and his mother, who believes that she nearly died from once tasting a prohibited delicacy and who can never let anyone forget it. Portnoy's Complaint reads like a long, drawn-out wet dream; a long, drawn-out comic monologue; or an odd combination of both. I can envision an abbreviated version of this novel as a one-man stage show.

While not for the prudish or the conventional (Portnoy seems to say out loud the types of things most people prefer to repress, even to themselves), Portnoy's Complaint is a funny, evocative, tactless look at the American experience. You do not have to be Jewish to appreciate Portnoy or his trials, trivial as they are. I suspect most male readers will recognize Alexander Portnoy in themselves, together with his confused and confusing desires for middle-class respectability and his need to push the bounds of sexual expression—although I cannot imagine that very many would admit it.

Thursday, 30 March 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What does it mean to be "mature"?

The Internet has made me wonder about this. Online, I am witness to 40-, 50-, even 60-year-old people acting in a way that I consider childish. Their morality admits no grays; friends, enemies, and allies are absolute but shifting, as you would expect to see on a playground; they take offense quickly and easily but nurse grudges like wounds that they do not want to heal; they engage in the type of name calling that children usually grow out of by middle to late adolescence; they treasure the notion that they are right about everything, even after they have been proven wrong; they abuse others and use language that is unacceptable in nearly any adult social setting; they mock, tease, and bully as though they were once again in second grade, as though they were 7 years old, not 37, 47, or 57. They attack the person, not the facts, not the argument. Fault is never admitted; apologies are never made; weakness is never allowed. Sometimes it's like watching kids in the back seat of a car during a long trip, unable to play cooperatively or to ignore one another, and finally unable not to hit one another compulsively.

Online, in many cases, there is no adult to say, "Enough is enough." Often, the spats never end, or they creep into every conversation, or they escalate, as though the ultimate purpose of communication is to hash and rehash the same disputes, the same personality clashes, as though no one is adult enough to say, "This is an insignificant argument, a waste of my time and energy, a pointless exercise. I am confident enough in myself and my perspective to let it go, to end it—the poking, prodding, name calling, teasing. I am sure enough of myself to end it without winning. By bowing out graciously, I have won, with my self respect intact. I am strong, not weak."

My father was 48 when I was born and probably 52 or so in my earliest memories. He had grown up on a family chicken farm during the Great Depression and served in the Army Air Force before and during World War II. He could not afford the luxury of being petty and childish; his life, circumstances, and times, and those of many of his peers, demanded maturity from an early age. The same was true of my mother, who had worked as a maid in a house where she was allowed to eat only after the dog was finished.

My parents and their families weren't perfect. There were disagreements, squabbles, resentments, and grudges, all natural human behaviors. These things, however, did not define their lives or their everyday actions, and they were rarely if ever publicly displayed.

I try to imagine either of my parents online at night, trading insults with some stranger in California, Colorado, or Kansas, taking offense at the most trivial comments, arguing about matters of no significance, eagerly signing on to see if a despised nemesis has challenged them—and I can't do it. I can see my dad puttering around in the yard or garden, shopping for groceries or hardware or birdseed and suet, driving me to the library or a friend's house, or watching a favorite television program like All in the Family. That is what he did in the evening; that was his life.

Life is different now in a way that he could not have imagined. Today, many men of his age then spend as much time online as he did watching television. People who want sports scores or race results are as likely to look for them on the Internet as to turn on the television.

In the summer, I would walk the neighborhood with my friend until 10:00 p.m., under the moon, under the stars, watching the traffic, observing the cheerful lights in the kitchens and living rooms of the trailers, sometimes hearing wisps of conversations and TV programs or even songs on the radio floating out of windows, gossiping about the cute boy with the sports car who was dating a teenage girl down the street, wondering if we would ever have our own cute boys with handsome cars, until my mother would insist I come in. "Just one more minute" or "Once more around," I would say, several times, until finally she lost patience, and I knew I had reached her limit. Today, were we still 14, we would probably spend the evening indoors, hoping to gain control of the computer (and our own access to cute boys). My mother might be online reading gossip sites, and my dad would not let us disturb her, if that is what she wanted.

No, I cannot imagine my dad, or any of his friends, going online and reverting to childish behavior and insults. Access to the Internet would not change who he was or how he behaved. The Internet provides an outlet for a group that traditionally has not had one, a group that had been unseen and unheard. They are the lonely, the alienated, the isolated, the disenfranchised, the frustrated, the angry. They were bullies as children, or bullied as children. They are bullies at work or at home, or they are bullied at work or at home. They need to be recognized, to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be real to someone who does not know who they actually are. They need a persona that impresses and intimidates.

And now they have computers with connections to an entire planet. How heady that must be to someone who is 47 going on 14.

Edit, January 18, 2008: "Maturity refers to the transformation of external norms and rules into internal principles and convictions. This process of assimilation should be conscious and free, as a person gradually learns to recognize and appreciate certain values." —Father Thomas Williams, LC

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reality TV

Tell me that I'm not the last person left in the United States who has not seen a so-called "reality" TV show.

Recently, I saw that one of the actors from The Jeffersons sitcom had died. This set me to thinking about television of the 1960s and 1970s. I don't remember much of the 1960s directly, but later I watched reruns of comedy programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and dramas such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the 1970s, TV programming ranged from the tacky and tasteless (game shows like The Gong Show, the safe yet funny (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda); the not quite edgy (M*A*S*H); the sweetly nostalgic for times-that-never-were (The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie); and the ubiquitous police/detective/doctor/hospital shows (Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Police Woman, Hooker, Barney Miller, Emergency) to the politically incorrect Lear oeuvre (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude). Most are dated, but some still have a following today.

I haven't watched much TV since the mid to late 1980s. Most shows seem claustrophobic, having been videotaped on tiny, over-lit sets that look like nothing I've ever seen in a home. Those series that included an outdoor setting are invariably set in Los Angeles, which is alien and uninteresting to me. Worst, most dramas (and many comedies) seem formulaic to me. While this could make them comforting, like other things that stay the same in a changing world, it could also make them boring and tedious., if there was nothing to set them apart.

I suppose it's the nature of episodic television; there's only so much time to produce so many episodes, which does not allow for creativity or originality, which the audience may not even desire. The main reason to keep watching would be if you liked a character or characters, or the actors who played them. How many people watched Happy Days because they liked Ron Howard's Richie Cunningham or Henry Winkler's The Fonz?

I liked the Star Trek series because the characters were interesting and well developed, and their growing relationships were well drawn and explored; the acting was generally good; and the plots were often thought provoking, such as "The Measure of a Man" and "The Drumhead." Occasionally, a bad main or subplot would sink an entire episode, but then loyal viewers could at least enjoy the performances. Babylon 5 had its own momentum, with its focus on a five-year plot line rather than on unrelated episodes.

Somewhere along the line, I gave up watching television. The new series never appealed to me, and the actors even less so. As I got older, there seemed to be less time and better ways to spend it. Part of it may have been a symptom of my unnoticed hearing loss; perhaps I subconsciously tuned out television because I could no longer hear it very well.

So now I don't watch TV except for an occasional BBC sitcom or an episode of a favorite old series like The Avengers. I don't listen to popular music, either. My disconnection from the people and the world around me seems nearly complete. Without popular entertainment to connect us, what is there to debate and to discuss? That seems to be the way of life now.

So I find myself in meetings with coworkers listening to what seems to me the unreality of reality TV. What is real about reality TV? The talk is nearly always about how badly, unbelievably the subject behaved. They were silly, boorish, greedy, whiny, defensive, shallow. In every way, the people watching deride the people performing. Reality TV gives them someone who is as two dimensional as any fictional character, someone upon whom they can look down, someone to whom they can feel superior, someone who is willing to be bullied remotely, from a distance. The new entertainment requires no plot, only drama and comedy without substance, without resolution, without depth, without meaning. For college-educated professionals across the country, there no issues to discuss, such as a program like Law and Order might raise; there is only, "She said that?" "He did what?" "Why'd she dump him?" "Why'd he pick her?" "It was so stupid."

It was so stupid, but millions of people plan their lives around reality TV and watch it and talk about it every week. Is this all there is to life—work and reality TV, TV that proves to us that we are not as silly, boorish, greedy, whiny, defensive, and shallow as the show's participants, participants who are liked or despised, depending on how the viewer's perception has been been manipulated, participants who are (supposedly) people just like us? Is this the best use we can make of our too-short lives?

A producer of some of the best-known of these shows will appear this year at an international communications conference, where he will speak and be honored by the communications profession. The conference's promotional material states that "reality television has revolutionized the entertainment industry and raised the bar for audience expectations and participation in television programming." Raised the bar? Or lowered it even further?

Reality TV is not new; it's been around since Candid Camera and This Is Your Life. And it is still a low, voyeuristic form of entertainment that appeals to our sense of superiority—the very sense that proves we are not as superior as we think.

I find myself wondering why it appeals to so many, so much so that an international organization of corporate communicators is bypassing surely more worthy candidates so that it can honor a reality TV producer. I find myself torn between a couple of old ideas—that the inmates have taken over the asylum (and the popularity of reality TV is proof), or, looking to the always dependable bard, that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." What is my role? Where is my script? And why am I so poor at playing this role of human being, of interacting with the other players? And is that why I am in the chorus, where I observe the performance of the principals, but feel very little stake in it?

I think I will go back to watching Star Trek. Reality TV as I wish it were.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Review: The Virgin Queen

The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert. Not recommended.

The adjective "Elizabethan" invokes a vision of an era of sumptuous dress, religious strife, European conflict, and the flourishing of the dramatic arts. The Virgin Queen is a study of the ruler for whom the time is named, and her rule, which lasted for an almost-unprecedented 45 years.

Hibbert takes a primarily episodic approach to Elizabeth's life, from her birth as the unwanted daughter of Henry VIII and his second, ill-fated wife, Ann Boleyn. When Henry finally produces a legitimate male heir, Elizabeth is reduced from "princess" to "lady." After her unpopular, Catholic half-sister Mary ascends to the throne and she is vaguely implicated in some plots against the new queen, Elizabeth is imprisoned despite her seeming subservience and her pleas of innocence, devotion, and loyalty.

Raised away from the court by hired nobility and taught by Cambridge scholars, Elizabeth appears to be both demure and autocratic. The important point is "appears," because, while Elizabeth in her correspondence is deferential and in her appearance demure, her peers invariably see her as withdrawn, haughty, and "proud and disdainful"—traits that "much blemished the handsomeness and beauty of her person" (Sir William Sidney). Mary, not unjustifiably paranoid, does not believe in Elizabeth's humility, honesty, or loyalty. Hibbert's portrayal of Elizabeth, who craves the adoration of peers, councilors, and subjects alike, seems to support Mary's assessment.

Elizabeth proves to be arrogant and autocratic, allowing no one to question either her or her rights as ruler. She is keenly aware of the importance of having the support of the populace, which she enjoys in contrast to the despised "Bloody Mary." She ignores the advice of privy council, however, when it suits her, occasionally to the detriment of her popularity.

Hibbert does not explain why or how Elizabeth, kept out of the way during the reigns of her half-brother and half-sister, became so popular. This points to one of the flaws of Hibbert's episodic approach; recounting Elizabeth's life in terms of "Subjects and Suitors" (although not all of them), "Papists and Puritans," "The Queen in her Privy Chamber," "Traitors and Rebels" (again, not all of them), and so forth, veils or distorts much of the historical context of Elizabeth's development and reign. Within one chapter, she may be young at one point and in late middle age at another. With England's changing allegiances and relationships with France and Spain, it is difficult to track what is happening at a given time and why. Elizabeth's most noted accomplishment, England's defeat of the Spanish armada, is covered briefly and superficially, almost as an aside, leaving the reader with the impression that it was happenstance that no one, including Elizabeth or the privy council, had much to do with; it just happened, with little explanation.

The tale of Elizabeth's suitors can be equally confusing. Hibbert describes her negotiations with Henry, Duke of Anjou (later Henry III of France), when he was 20 and, "in fact, twenty years younger than herself." A few pages later, Hibbert discusses her negotiations with his younger brother Francis when Francis is "not yet nineteen" and she is 39, yet it appears that the talks with the older brother occurred first, which would make sense. Even more confusing, the negotiations with younger brother Francis continued until she was 45 (they would be the last hopes of getting her married).

Elizabeth's treatment of religious conflict is glossed over. While Mary is noted for her brutal repression of Protestants, Elizabeth, at least in this biography, is a conservative Protestant who fears and loathes radicals of any kind, Protestant or Catholic. During her reign, repression is focused primarily on the rebellious poor; she is less interested in punishing the wealthy nobility than in grabbing their riches.

As portrayed by Hibbert, Elizabeth is a parsimonious, greedy, emotionally needy woman who wishes to rule absolutely but who cannot make a necessary, definitive decision, such as signing the death warrant for her conniving cousin, Mary Stuart. The privy council, led by Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, and others, devote much of their efforts to manipulating this indecisive autocrat into decisions they want and to making sure that she cannot renege on them—an ironic situation for the woman who says to Burghley's son, "Little man, little man, the word must is not to be used to princes."

There are several weaknesses in addition to the episodic structure. For example, the queen herself is not quoted often enough in key areas, yet Hibbert devotes one-third of a page to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem speculating about how she might have felt during her confinement in the Tower of London.

Most notably, however, the book's subtitle is never explained—neither why the era is "golden" nor why the queen was the "genius" of it. While the biography makes it clear that Elizabeth had a strong personality, as did her parents, the nation's successes seem to have been the work of the privy council under the leadership of Lord Burghley and of adventurers like Sir Walter Ralegh. Elizabeth is not shown even to have played a role in, for example, nurturing the famed playwrights of the time, such as Shakespeare, Marlow, and Beaumont. The subtitle implies that Elizabeth's brilliance inspired a benign, cultured age, while the text shows a woman so cold and petty that, when her best friend and seeming lover Leicester dies, she worries only about controlling his estates and monies, and so indecisive that her own privy councilors avoid working with her whenever possible. The age itself is brutal, with the crowd "disgusted by the spectacle" of a drawing and quartering performed, against tradition, while the victims are still alive.

At best, The Virgin Queen is a brief, superficial biography that leaves the reader hungry for more—more about Burghley, Leicester, Mary Stuart, and others, but not about Elizabeth herself, who somehow becomes a supporting player in her own biography.

Monday, 13 March 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Dream: Splendour in the grass

I was swimming in grass. It was my backyard at home, and there was a layer of water over the grass. It didn't appear deep, at least to the eye, but there were three or four of us swimming in it. I emerged by the tire flower bed near which my sunflower had once lived. I marveled at why the yard would become covered in water. When I looked again, from the steps at the back door, the yard looked as it always had, except perhaps without the tool shed. It must have happened only in my mind. It felt more real than today.