PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT. Is it terminal?

My Kind Reader may have noticed a diminution of Ericle output over the last couple of months. I have never wanted to feel that I am a slave to my organ but, even by past standards, the last couple of months have been a particularly dry period. However putting Portnoy aside (Did you really write that? – Ed), or rather not putting him aside I’ve been spending a lot of time with Philip Roth recently, as my book group has been reading American Pastoral. As part of that I also again picked up Roth’s novel that so outraged the world in the late-1960s. I also revisited the 2-hour interview Roth gave to Alan Yentob in 2014.  I was not surprised, given his scholarship and intensity, how disciplined a writer Roth was. He had a lengthy daily routine, leaving his desk rarely. And during his greatest period of writing from the early 1990’s until his retirement he hardly took a day off. Moving on …

It has been my wont, and my pleasure, to take to the keyboard when something has prompted me to believe that I have something pertinent to say. And, as those who know me will attest, I rarely have nothing to say on most subjects. This notwithstanding, I try to write without causing offence; something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do. And this is where Portnoys Complaint does come into it. When Roth penned Portnoy, he was going out on a limb, (Now, I’ve already warned you once about sexual innuendos – -Ed). He knew it was going to outrage – in fact, at that stage of his career this was likely to be a great motivator – and it did, big time. Was he brave? Indeed, he was but I believe there was a fundamental difference in the world of those times and that there has been a paradigm shift in society in the way against-the-grain opinions & behaviour are perceived and received. Roth’s greatness as a writer is his emotional honesty; his willingness to bare his soul and, of course, his ability to encapsulate these ideas in accessible novel form. Though there has been an ongoing accusation of misogynisism in Roth’s writing – though serious critics such as Edna O’Brien do not feel this to be the case – it was generally agreed that his body of work rightfully stakes a claim to be among the greatest of his time. That is until 2021 when, in response to a misread biography and the purported character of the biographer, the allegation of Roth being a misogynist is deemed by many, on that basis alone, to have the sufficiency to  ‘cancel’ Roth as an author worthy of readership. No context, just a rubber stamp; “Philip Roth is A MISOGYNIST, that’s it. No need to read him, he has nothing to say and if he has a statue, it needs to be – in fact, must be – pulled down immediately”.

Roth, with Kafka in background in Life, 1969

I don’t want to put myself at the centre of The Cancel Culture; and the significant point is that The Ericle, quite definitely, is not. But even little ol’ septuagenarian me has never felt so constrained and hesitant about expressing opinions in speech and in writing. And fully accepting that I have a contrary side to my nature, never in my lifetime have I felt that I couldn’t and shouldn’t express myself. The truth is that currently I find myself tippy toeing round just in case somebody might take huge objection to what I am saying. The irony in all this that, though I’ve never felt so uncomfortable stating opinions, I am bursting with indignation at much that is happening in our world. Is it me? Have I simply aged into a person, for whom the world has turned and who cannot accept change? Possibly. Probably. But what I do not accept is ownership of the lack of tolerance for contrary opinions that is about in these times and the menace of withering social approbation for having such ideas. Where is our capacity for nuanced consideration? Has everything got to be so black-and white? 

There is, of course, nothing new in such situations. the world has known many totalitarian societies where individual acquiescence was/is demanded by dint of threat and social operant behaviour. But here, in the UK & Western Europe, and now? There must be something in play here that is not simply ‘fin de siècle’ or a linear evolution. Many would have us believe that the root cause of this lies with Big Tech’s ascendancy to being an omnipresence with our personal and global existences. The phenomena of the out-of-control algorithm, that supports and inflames our own values and opinions, is well documented. As we increasingly move our lives into virtual spaces, and as technology firms seek to maximise the monetisation of their assets, we find ourselves in some pretty dark places. In a world where nation states were already finding it difficult to control multinational corporations, the problem has become exponential and political institutions, both governments and international, are battling to achieve a measure of control and are palpably failing. 

When I was a Mad Man, I often found myself defending the advertising/marketing profession from the accusation: “So you are one of those fellows who makes me buy things I don’t want”.  My answer was always along the line: “Advertising can inform and influence but if, for a moment, one does not accept agency as the decision maker in one’s life, we are all lost”. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, as part of his early identification of a world that was becoming a ‘global village’, coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. By this he was highlighting that while a message may be easily grasped, the character of the medium itself is another message which can easily be overlooked. 60+ years later McLuhan’s health warning needs to be read, and written, even larger. Though The Algorithm may be pushing us into opinion echo chambers, whereby things tend to be presented in black-and-white, we still retain the responsibility for our own decisions and the basis on which they are made. Choose wisely.

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