Creativity Straight from the Shrink’s Couch

Philip Roth used his own psychoanalysis for deeply comic art.

Posted May 09, 2014

Philip Roth’s bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint, the notoriously comic portrait of 1960s New York Jewish life with a guilt-inducing mother, made him famous. It’s based heavily on Roth’s own psychoanalysis.

That novel and many of Roth’s others are explored in Philip Roth: The Continuing Presence: New Essays on Psychological Themes, edited by Jane Statlander-Slote, with contributions from 10 academics in the fields of psychoanalytic/psychological and literary analysis.  Published by NorthEast Books & Publishing, it’s relatively brief: 132 pages plus foreword, index, biography, and a complete listing of Philip Roth’s and Philip Roth-related works.

As Statlander-Stote writes in her Introduction,

Of all fictional writers, Roth is the most informed and articulate about psychoanalytic theory, its methodology and practice. No other writer’s protagonists are psychoanalyzed than Roth’s. It is difficult to bring to mind a work by him that does not contain a psychoanalytic frame, setting, or undertone.

This collection of essays about Philip Roth and psychoanalysis looks deeply into the author’s fiction and connects it, whenever possible, to the parts of his life that gave rise to it.

For example, the essay by Andrew Gordon titled “The Resistant Patient in Philip Roth’s Novel My Life as a Man” explores the idea that at the stage in his career when Roth wrote it, “Roth began to favor uncertainty over definitive answers.” And then Gordon shares what Roth wrote about the period after the death of his estranged wife in an accident:

It would take years of hapless experimentation before I could decontaminate myself of my rage and discover how to expropriate the hatred of her as an objective object rather than be driven by it.

The new anecdotes revealed in an interview with Derek Parker Royal, a Roth expert, are fascinating. We learn that an uncle wanted to get Philip a bathing suit, and that when Philip went shopping with his mother, he wanted a jock strap with it. “The mother answered him by saying that his penis was too small and he didn’t need a jock strap.” We also learn that Philip was once locked out of the family apartment by his mother when he was very little, and that she pulled a knife on him to force him to eat his food.

Now, perhaps many of us have had painful or traumatic childhood incidents like Roth’s. Not everyone makes it a life’s work to fictionalize such events in a way that speaks to the rest of us. This volume takes such scenes seriously as the impetus for Roth’s fiction, and thus helps us as psychologically-attuned readers to understand Roth’s particular kind of creativity.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel