As I’ve been doing regularly during the Respect crisis, today I took a look at the latest Socialist Worker to see what the comrades have to say for themselves. All we get, though, is a dull article from Commander Begbie about how the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Respect conference is going ahead swimmingly despite attempts (attempts?!) to foment a split, plus a couple of morale-boosting puff pieces from Tower Hamlets, Preston and elsewhere to show the troops that there is something still there.
But while scanning the paper, I noticed none other than my old friend Prof Callinicos putting in his two cents on Norman Mailer. I am glad that Alex shares the same broadly positive opinion of Norm that I have, but I was struck by his little compare-and-contrast at the end with Philip Roth. Alex writes that “In the 1960s, at the height of Mailer’s notoriety, Philip Roth was most famous, not for political engagement, but for the comic epic of masturbation Portnoy’s Complaint.” However, Roth has redeemed himself in recent years by writing explicitly political novels that take aim at the Bush regime.
Well, now. I hope that Alex isn’t attacking the humble pleasures of the J Arthur, which as Woody Allen quipped is at least sex with someone you love. My view is that, while Roth’s more recent work is generally excellent, it’s not a break with his early material so much as a return to form after a long fallow period.
I’ll admit that Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t my favourite Roth novel – that would be The Professor of Desire – but it does have an irresistible nervous energy that makes it a classic of its period. And, more to the point, it simply isn’t true to say that Roth wasn’t interested in politics. There is plenty there for the social critic who looks a little below the surface, as Roth’s exploration of the neuroses of Alex Portnoy touches on aspects of masculinity, Jewishness, class and the changing face of 1960s America.
Really, Alex, you can do better than this slice of neo-Lukácsian social-realist philistine boilerplate. If you want to write about masturbation from a Marxist perspective, first you should read the section on Apostrophe(‘) in Ben Watson’s The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Ask Martin if you don’t get the musical references.