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February 23, 1969 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 1969-02-23

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Sunday, February 23, 1969

THE MICHIGAN DAILY

'I

Page Five

arrell 's Poetry:
Literary an time
By ELIZABETH WISSMAN
The Complete Poems, Randall Jarrell. Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, $10.
Randall Jarrell's Complete Poems represents a species of literary
un-time; the unmarked terrain of expression after the alleged death
of Modernism. Jarrell's success in his attempt to project a quality
upon his time in terms of his experience will eventually. be measur-
able, but for now his is a consciousness only vaguely differentiated
from the welter of the contemporary. A voice less rhetorical than
Berryman,. less opulent than Dickey, less stately than Lowell, less
gruel than Merwin.
Such nonce standards of value do help to illustrate at least one
central aspect of Jarrell's consciousness: his compassion. His criti-
cism, too, reflects the density of /observation which is only possible
in a generous mind. Poetry and the Age examines a poet, like Frost,
with an admiration that in no way diminishes the possibility of other
forms, other visions.
Jarrell seems to reject, in fact, the hierarchical frame by which
we mold art into art history. Thus it is not surprising that the highly
allusive texture of his poetry still impresses us as immediate and
graphic. There is no irony in Jarrell which separates present being
from an epic past, as in Eliot; there is only "the short dark distance
of the years."
The Complete Poems reflects another of Jarrell's productive
facets, his children's stories. Indeed, a glance at the catalogue of his
titles: Dream Work, Once Upon a Time, The Graves in the Forest;
indicates the Romantic exploration, of vision, legend and innocent
imagination of his early volumes. But Jarrell's "innocence" is an
epiatemic choice; to the poet, there is something functional in the
perspective of a child. The immediacy of observation, the primacy of
object over abstraction is one consequence of Jarrell's choice. He
makes a deliberate thrust at positivism: "The world divides into-
believe me-facts. (I see the devil can quote Wittgenstein. He's
blacker than he's painted.)"
Jarrell's is an especial intimacy with the image, a close-up
technique which allows no peripheral vision. He uses the freedoms
of "dream literature" to effect a more immediate combination of
self with objects torn from the confinement of ordinary time and
space. But even this is not a "great leap" beyond the selective con-
centration of other, earlier, American poets such as Dickinson or
Frost. Indeed, the transparent sensuous detail of his most acclaimed
volume, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960) is directly related
to Rilke, nine of whose poems are translated in that volume.
If we must find a contemporary thrust in Jarrell, its locus is
probably in the moral implications of "perception." The ability to
focus upon the individual, as object or as being, is an innocence
denied to mass society.
Unlike his romatic predecessors, Jarrell does not identify in-
dividualism with the "devil's company," nor does imagination breed
the Fleurs du Mal. In the poersi written near his death, Jarrell de-
picts the poetic vision in the act of "gleaning" over the already har-
vested fields.
It is a sanctified act, associated with the Biblical story of Ruth.
And it is an emblem for our age, our art, which must discover sin-
gularity without isolation; which must realize its fragments of artistic
Value on a field already exhausted by superficial communication.

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Roth
By DANIEL OKRENT

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Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth. Random
House, $6.95.
Its really very disturbing, this fuss they're making
about Philip Roth. You know, the cover of Saturday
Review, a thirteen page story in Life, a record-breaking
150,000-copy first printing, and who knows what else
in the next few weeks.
I mean, these people don't have the right to Philip
Roth and Portnoy's Complaint. This book should belong
solely to those of us who had copies of the New Ameri-
can Review and Partisan Review last summer, and pass-
ed them around as cherished art objects, as sublime rari-
ties. To an early believer, a sudden sense of protective
rage is the first reaction to the Rape of Philip Roth as
Performed by the American Reading Public Under the
Direction of the National Media.
Portnoy's Complaint doesn't belong to Them, it be-
longs to Us. But realities must be recognized, and this
new Holy Grail will be shared, and will be best-sellered
and paperbacked and movied and adopted into Bank of
the American Culture. It deserves it, so let, it be.
And since Roth has really created Portnoy out of
a part of him we didn't know existed, we cultists will
gladly sit by and let him reap full credit as, finally, a
Big Shot. For from the even, cool-toned precision of his
National Book Award-winning Goodbye, Columbus, and
from the narrative impassion of all his books, he has
produced a novel that will not only revolutionize the
commercial aspect of the publishing industry, but the
literary aspect as well.
Portnoy's Complaint speaks as nuch to the Sixties
as Goodbye, Columbus, did to the Fifties. For Columbus'
measured evocation of Eisenhowerian morality a n d
complacency, Portnoy has substituted a passionate,
frenzied ethic that is as representative of the New
American Male and his new frankness with his old
hang-ups as would be any transcript of the repressed
Mr. Success holding forth to his psychiatrist.
Which is exactly the format Roth has chosen. The
entire book is a pointedly and correctly logorrheic tour
on the couch of Alexander Portnoy's analyst, Dr. Spiel-
vogel. Where Goodbye, Columbus was tempered and
calm, Portnoy's Complaint (the title comes from the,
syndrome his doctor finds in the protagonist) is writ-
ten in passionate white-heat. Alex Portnoy, 34-year-old
boy genius, mad lecher, and Assistant Commissioner
for Human Opportunity for the City of New York, re-
gurgitates a violent stream of agonizing life-history, a
history which condenses all of man's repressions and de-
posits them in the person of a Nice Jewish Boy from
Newark. The section of the book which appeared in the
third issue of New American Review was titled, "Civili-
zation and Its Discontents," and the phrase is appro-
priate, not just a crib from Freud; if there can be found
a Xerox-copy of a man's fermenting guts, it appears
here in words.
There isn't enough that can be said for Roth's

~omes a
writing. In fact, it is an insult to refer to it as mere
"writing." Rather, it is hysterical screaming, as one
would only hear from a man in agony as he attempts
to clutch at the acidic memories of his life. Speaking
to Dr. Spielvogel for the entire length of the book, Roth
delivers a real-to-life incantation of growing up with
Jewish in Newark, of fighting a never-ending battle
with both his libido and social restraint, of recognizing
and reconciling the fragmentary impulses emanating
from his genitils and putting them right with those
coming forth from his mind - a mind shaped and
formed by the stereotypical Jewish mother who isn't

uW l '

at all to a pork chop, or a hambone, or, most dis-
gusting of all, a sausage (ucchh!) . . . But why
then can't we eat a lobster, too, disguised as some-
thing else? Allow my mother a logical explanation.
The syllogism, Doctor, as used by Sophie Portnoy.
Ready? Why we can't eat lobster. "Because it can
kill you! Because I ate it once, and I nearly died!'"

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Sho

It is the facility with which Roth can move from
the comic sadness of the Jewish home as portrayed
above to a wildly frenetic fear of syphillis he (as Port-
noy) has retained from boyhood that marks his start-
ling ability. From shellfish to veneral disease, he traces
the roots to Mama, and the anguished voice and per-
fect sense of his personal history are simultaneously
hilarious and terrifying.
Clearly, to Roth and then to the reader, the sexual
aspect of the book is the most telling. And here, too,
Roth has innovated. He has moved from the relatively
genteel, eroticized intercourse and would-be intercourse
of most American "sex novels," and has stepped boldly
into onanism, lesbianism, bisexualism, cunnilingus and
fellation, and has moved beyond these to perversions
left on the side margins of pages, left as implicit come-
ons - and terrors - for the reader to pick up and use
at his option. That all the sexual description takes the
form of unabashed lust, and crazed frankness, is in-
dicative of the "Pomplaint,"
It brings to mind the time last year when John
Updike's Couples was unveiled, and its lurid sexology
created a massive stir. A number of reviewers, however,
stood their ground and did not bend to the winds of
controversy precipitated by Updike's treasurers - like
descriptions. Instead, they stood detached and blase,
yawning a call for "a new vocabulary of sex." Updike,
they said, had presented such a quintessent model of
American sex-in-fiction that there was nowhere else
to go but out. These critics thus claimed American fic-
tion needed a new sex vocabulary, one that could again
titillate, excite - and, well, appeal tq our prurient in-
terests. Updike had reached the pinnacle; there were
no more clothes to take off.
But if the new vocabulary was necessary, Roth has
rendered the question irrelevant. The fluidity and force
of his sexual revelations - delivered in the form of a
spirit-driven monologue - sweeps the reader- into an
intense and intimate involvement with his protago-
nist's mind. The Alexander Portnoy experience becomes
revelation for both character and reader; the character
purges himself through catharsis, the reader through
total submersion and submission. Portnoy's cacophon-
ous outpouring of the soul and of the prostate gland
has the power that mere narrative cannot supply. Tit-
illation is irrelevant; awe becomes the new standard.
And it is, finally, "awe" that must be the denomi-
nator applied to Portnoy's Complaint. From the in-
credible publicity hoopla to Roth's kishka-emptying
narrative which bounces madly from blasphemy to con-
fessional, the work is fully awesome. And if I haven't
given enough of an indication yet, I might even say
that it is great. Period.

really a stereotype at all, but a living scourge on the
life of every Jewish male.
On why the Portnoy family can eat pork in a dis-
guised form at a Chinese restaurant, but not at home,
narrator Alex says:
"Yes, the only people in the world whom it
seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the
Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English
makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two,
the insides of their heads are only so much fried
rice anyway; and three, to them we are, not Jews
but white - and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imag-
ine! No wonder the waiters can't intimidate us. To
them we're just some big-nosed variety of WASP!
Boy, do we eat! Suddenly even the pig is no threat
-- though, to be sure, it comes to us so chopped and
shredded, and is then set afloat on our plates in
such oceans of soy sauce, as to bear no resemblance

A nd
By BILL BARR

the ewish Renaissance

burbles on%

The Seance, Isaac Bashevis
Singer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
$5.95.
The Jewish Renaissance rolls,
burbles, and moans on, despite
ineffectual counter-reformation
from Waspish writers like Up-
dike. The Seance is the fourth
collection of Singer's short stor-
ies, and throws a different light
on, Jewish cultural trends. It is
a mixed bag. The sixteen stories
range in date of composition
from 1943 to 1967; in geography
from eastern Poland and Heav-
en to Montreal and New York;
in point of view from madmen
through a yente-rooster to Sat-
an; and in value, I think, from
very good to downright bad.
The title story introduces sev-
eral of the book's major themes.
Zoltan Kalisher, who escaped
the Holocaust and is alone, ail-
ing, and old in New York, is be-
friended by a fuzzy-minded
mystic widow, Lotte Kopitzky.
Kalisher has rejected rational-
ism in favor of "a kind of ex-
treme hedonism which saw in
eroticism the Ding an Sich," but
js contemptuous of Mrs. Kopit-
zky's seances, since he knows
that the summoned apparition
of his former mistress-a Nazi
victim-is only another woman
hired for the occasion.
He falls ill after seeing the
woman changing clothes, and
Mrs. Kopitzky puts him to bed,
assuming responsibiilty for him
and revealing that "There is no
death, there isn't any. We live
forever, and we love forever.
This is the pure truth." The 4-
same Idea is taken up in "The
Parrot," in which an animal
lover murders his common-law
wife after she causes the death
of his pet. In prison, he tells
the inmates that the bird's soul
visits him, and when they tell
him that "the dead are dead.
Men as well as animals," he re-
torts, "I know the truth."
Singer explores another prob-
lem in "The Slaughterer," in
which a town's ritual slaughter-
er (a kind of super-kosher
butcher) goes insane. Unable to
resolve the paradox that death

is necessary for life, he con-
cludes that he is more compas-
sionate than God, and commits
suicide after dreaming "all his
animal victims chant, "Every-
one may kill, and every killing
is permitted."
But 'Cockadoodledoo," told
by a garrulous rooster, myster-
iously resolves the dilemma
through the ambiguous title. 'It
seems that Singer's emerging
mysticism demands a Heaven
to help resolve this problem.
"The Warehouse" depicts the
foul-ups of the celestial bureau-
cracy, in which not only poetic
justice is involved in reincar-
nation, and where skepticism
abounds -"When you've hung
around here some 689,000 years
and been continually told about
a boss who never shows up, you
begin to have your doubts"-
but also where management is
incredibly inefficient. However,
this tale is among the worst,
technically, for although the
idea that Heaven mirrors earth
is attractive, it is ruined by
constant whimsy and occasional
pretentiousness.
Again, if there's a Heaven,
there should be a Hell; we hear
of it often, and the Devil nar-
rates the earliest story, "Two
Corpses Go Dancing." Here, two
temporarily - resurrected bodies
worry the living, meet, marry,
and eventually realize the truth
a b o u t themselves. Somewhat
heavy - handedly, Satan warns
the reader, "The world is full
of dead ones in sable capes and
fur coats who carouse among
the living . . . Maybe you your-
self .

"Getzel" is, one of several
stories ("Henne Fire," "The
Needle") actually told. Never is
the narrator more than peri-
pherally connected with the
main character and events, and
this allows at once distance
from and intimacy with both
story and reader. Often slight-
ly obtuse, the narrator disagrees
at will, interjects comments, and
generally misses the point of the
tale. The technique, although in-
trinsically interesting, is prob-
lematical. These stories should
be heard, not read. Singer is
much better when the story's
point of view is almost but not
quite identical with that of the
protagonist, as in "The Plag-
iarist."
If point of view shifts from
story to story, there are several
constants, such as punishment
following sin. The most impor-
tant, however, is the passive-
active duality: the woman al-
ways has the head for business,
the man frequently spends his
life studying the Torah or Tal-

mud. The female, then, is con-
cerned with existence on earth,
the man almost exclusively with
the hereafter.
The last, longest, and I think
the best story takes the major
themes one step further. Gom-
biner works in New York for,
"a Hebrew publishing house
called Zion" which folds, leav-
ing the protagonist alone except
for his letters. A passive fatal-
ist ("Oh, well! What could he,
Herman Gombiner, do in the
face of all this?"), he writes to
selected amateur clairvoyants
around the country. Gombiner is
something of a clairvoyant mys-
tic, too. His premonitions come
true, he communes with a
mouse, and believes that even
inanimate objects have life.
When he contracts pneumonia,
a vision of the occurrence gal-
vanizes one of his correspond-
ents, the gentile Mrs. Beech-
man, to travel to New York
where she nurses and resurrects
him. The emotional and religi-
ous overtones of "Zion" are as
important as the ironic conclu-

sion. The messiah will no longer
emerge from Zion, but instead
has arrived from Louisville, a
woman, and not Jewish.
The Judaeo-Christian conclu-
sion may be true for the Gom-
biners who are still alive. But
the American Jew whom Singer
sees as replacing the displaced
East European immigrant is ,
rather unpleasant: "It was
rumored that (Korver's) could
hardly wait for the old man to
die so they could liquidate the,
business." The old institution is
dying, if not already dead, and
what form the new one will
have is ambiguous.
The book is difficult to judge.
Although it does not present
any real barrier to the non-
Jewish reader, some of its irony,
on one level, will perhaps pass

unnoticed. A reference to th
legendary citizens of Chelm, or
the absurdity of a Galician den-
igrating a Litvak, may become
meaningless. Probably the more
one knows of Jewish cultural
traditions and especially of life
in 19th-century Eastern Euro-
pean towns, the more he will
enjoy The Seance. Overall, al-
though Singer's handling of
point of view, detail, seemingly
casual yet immensely revealing
remarks, and folkloric elements
is generally very skillful, the
world he depicts, a "vale of
tears," is irritatingly narrow,
contricted, circumscribed, stifl-
ing, alien, with very little beau-
ty, and ultimately dead. I sus-
pect Singer needs more room to
-breathe and stretch, to give
freedom to his abiilties.

Today' s writers..
DANIEL OKRENT recently
stepped down from his post as
Feature Editor of The Daily in
order to give some younger,
better-looking kids a chance.
LIZ WISSMAN, another for-
mer Daily Feature Editor, is
now a pretty teaching fellow
in the English Dept.

BILL BAR
lish teachin
as pretty as

RR is also an Eng-
g fellow. He is not
Miss Wissman.

r

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bmdwmm rm

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If

TENANTS:
THE STRIKE IS ON !
REMEMBER -
To be protected by the T.UJ. legal

(ENTER FOR CHINESE STUDIES
PRESENTS
PROF. JEROME COHEN
of Harvard Law School
SPEAKING ON
CHINA & INTERNATIONAL LAW
Tues., Feb. 25, 1969 4:00 P.M.
Angell Hall Aud B
Prof. Cohen is author of "The Criminal Process in the People's
Republic of China 1949-1963."

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