Sunday, January 31, 2010

Auto-Castration in Portnoy's Complaint and "Play it Again, Sam"

This week, we begin an examination of the “Oedipal Allen”; that is, I will be considering Allen’s films and influences through a Freudian lens. For this week, I’ve been reading Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and viewed Woody Allen’s 1972 film “Play It Again, Sam”.

As anyone who has passed a high school psychology class, or any class on critical literary theories, can tell you, one of the big bad pillars of Freudian analysis is the Oedipus Complex: Boy is born, Boy and Mom “meet cute,” Mom puts Boy on a pedestal. Boy desires Mom (whether you choose to take this in the literal, pervy sexual sense is entirely between you and your personal god). Boy becomes aware of Dad and envies Dad his unrestricted social and sexual access to Mom. Boy comes to fear Dad, and suffers a niggling fear that Dad will castrate Boy if Dad discovers Boy’s “love” of Mom. Ah, castration anxiety. Boy comes to identify with Dad as both a competitor and gender role model. In order to become a “healthy” and functioning, moral member of society, Boy must address and suppress his attraction to Mom and his drive to kill, or at least replace, Dad. Naturally, this suppression can lead to problems, but it is important to remember that without this suppression, man would never develop a social consciousness, and it would therefore be impossible to cultivate civilization.

But how do we deal with the stress generated by this suppression? Well, at least according to Freud, this is one of the major functions of jokes. “The joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible” and give voice to the part of us which "rebels against the demands of morality" (123, 131). Essentially, jokes serve as a release valve for suppressed socially unacceptable urges, and easily can take the form of any or all of Freud's defense/coping mechanisms.

So, how does this concept play out in film and literature, particularly in the work and influences of Woody Allen? Well, the easiest, most obvious answer is that Freud, and his theories, have become as much, if not more, of a cultural phenomenon as a school of psychological or psychoanalytic thought. Freud and the “Freudian” have entered the vernacular, and may be considered a kind of figurehead of contemporary Jewish culture and self-examination within a cultural context.

Let’s consider the case of Alex Portnoy, the protagonist of Phillip Roth’s classic novel Portnoy’s Complaint. The Oedipal overtones of the story are crystal clear, and for the purposes of this blog it is important to note both that Alex is Jewish, in the thrall of a larger than life Jewish Mother (a major stereotypic player in popular culture), and that his narrative style is comic and self-deprecating, much like Woody Allen’s own introspective and self-mocking presentation.

In an interesting twist on Freud’s oedipal model, in Alex’s case his father either refuses to, or is incapable of, threatening Alex’s bond and free access to mom, let alone his masculinity. Alex is clearly aware of this failing of his father to fulfill the paternal role in Alex’s development, and wonders “what preference does Father really have? If there in the living room their grown-up little boy were to tumble all at once onto the rug with his mommy, what would daddy do? Pour a bucket of boiling water on the raging, maddened couple? Would he draw his knife---or would he go off to the other room and watch television until they were finished?” (46). Alex’s father is unable to function as a threat, and most importantly unable to function as a castrating agent. In order to resolve his Oedipal urges, therefore, Portnoy must turn to auto-castration, both semi-literal and figurative.

Most simple among Alex’s castrating methods is his fixation with his father’s “impressive” genitalia. Although Alex’s father and mother are too inconsistent in their modeling of gender roles (both elevate and idolize Alex, and as already discussed, dad does nothing to curb Alex’s sexuality and access to mom), at least in this Alex’s dad is spectacularly male. In fixating on his father’s member, and, more importantly, on his own inferiority to it, Alex is diminishing his own masculinity. It is also worth noting that, theoretically, “penis envy” is an exclusively female phenomenon, and so Alex’s envy of dad’s tackle box feminizes Alex.

By far the most substantial of Alex’s acts of auto-castration is his chronic masturbation. Alex is not only seeking transitory sexual gratification, but also, in his manic excess, a kind of impotence, literally attempting to masturbate until he may “begin to come blood,” to the point at which Alex may no longer be capable of erection or ejaculation (22). Alex continues beyond the point of pain because he is pursuing sexual annihilation, impotency, figurative castration, rather than simple sexual release. Failing this, Alex escalates to masturbating on public transit, subconsciously chasing the shame, guilt and ridicule of being caught in hopes of using it to tamp down his own sexuality. In the absence of a potent external castrating aggressor, Alex takes on the role for and against himself.

This is similar in some ways to Allen’s own act of auto-castration in “Play it Again, Sam,” although it manifests quite differently in the film. In the movie, as Allen prepares for a date, he conjures up Humphrey Bogart as an idol of male sexual potency, an idol against which Allen comes up painfully short. By creating Bogie as a castrating agent, Allen is self-sabotaging. Reminding himself of his own perceived staggering inadequacies in comparison to this ideal, Allen robs himself of sexual agency, and essentially cock blocks himself, if not with his actual mother, at least with a maternal analog. (If we entertain the theory that because man’s desire for mom must be suppressed and rerouted he naturally pursues women like mother in order to achieve a socially sanctioned union with a mother figure, then Allen’s date can be safely categorized a maternal analog.)

Now, this all sounds very serious, and at this point you may be asking yourself just what any of this manly self-hatred and sabotage has to do with jokes. Remember, it was suggested earlier that humor serves as a kind of release valve for inappropriate urges, as well as for the frustration the suppression of these urges engenders. In Portnoy’s and Allen’s cases, their self-deprecating tone allows them to vent their oedipal urges as well as allowing a further avenue for figurative auto-castration. Jokes are thinly veiled acts of aggression against their subject, and as Alex’s and Allen’s subjects are themselves, their jokes are, therefore, acts of aggression against themselves.


  1. "so Alex’s envy of dad’s tackle box feminizes Alex."

    Tackle box. Ha. I giggle.

  2. re: tackle box

    Well, it is a useful and descriptive term, I've always felt. ;P