'Ageing male psyche and the Jewish penis' — By Lynne Segal


In the social sciences the research on men and experiences of ageing is sparse. In literature, however, we are spoilt for choice. For many reasons I take as my key witness to one form of ageing masculinity the perennially controversial writer and recent winner of the International Booker prize for literature, the man who has often been called America’s greatest living novelist, the now septuagenarian Philip Roth. Through the voices of his reappearing protagonists, who age over the decades along with their creator, Roth is a writer who rarely strays far or for too long from his depictions of the vulnerabilities shadowing the phallic fears and yearnings that trouble and endanger men such as himself as they journey onwards from youth into middle and then old age. Roth’s conceit is that he is speaking on behalf of all his fellow men, or at least of those who live with the choices that have opened up in the contemporary Western metropolis. Moreover, many of his male fellow writers and reviewers have tended to accept his view, as here in the words of one of our own leading literary commentators, Tim Adams: ‘For a decade now, we have lived with the glory of late Philip Roth ... Roth has developed a periodic habit of making a sharp inward turn, an unblinking memento mori, as if to stir in himself the urgency for another major assault on his times’. Tim Adams is reviewing Everyman (2006) here, published when Roth was 72.

In this, his twenty-seventh book, Roth sets out once more to tell the story of the ageing male psyche. It is one in which the often painful, inappropriate and rash desires of youth last the whole life through, but become increasingly unrealizable. In Roth’s view, the precise aim or object of such desire changes very little, if at all, as men age. This remains the case even when, as he depicts in abject or hubristic detail in every recent book, the men who continue to be importuned by lust for young women possess no more than a useless ‘spigot of wrinkled flesh’ between their legs. That spigot, emblematic of masculinity, marker of sexual difference, and hence the thing valued above all else, Roth sees as always on men’s minds. Its presence is felt, even when entirely out of action, ‘like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve the extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down’.

It is easy, just a little too easy, perhaps, to apply Freud to Roth’s unflinching examination of masculinity and the degradations of male ageing. The young boy’s early ‘castration anxiety’ is once again intensified in Roth’s depictions of the life of the ageing man. Here, it is the anchoring of masculinity in sexual performance, real and fantasized, that underlies the unraveling of men’s ageing identities. In turning to Freud, however, we need to realize that Roth has already got there before us. His novels read, knowingly, like Freudian case studies, and analysts feature prominently in many of his books, beginning with his early runaway success, Portnoy’s Complaint. In all of them, manhood must be affirmed in ‘sexual conquest’, which somewhere before the end must lead every man into perpetual mourning for the loss of a former imagined phallic prowess: ‘Nothing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs … nothing except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning. My God he thought, the man I once was! … The force that was mine! … Once upon a time I was a full human being. [1]

Roth’s men have little choice but to die as they have lived, as lecherous mavericks. Or rather, since we are discussing Roth’s depictions of phallic bravado, which is inevitably, and as he admits, fundamentally illusory, Roth is determined to portray men who will die as they would like us to believe they have lived, as sexual predators, if only in fantasy. Nor is Roth, at least in old age, unaware of the price he pays for what he summed up in one interview as ‘the circus of being a man … [where] the ring leader is the phallus’.[2] It is the doubling of the two, old age and powerlessness, which has fuelled so much of the tumult and terror in Roth’s wild and wicked tales of the troubled voyages of the Jewish penis: for you can be sure that whoever flaunts – or fails to flaunt – it, the penis in Roth’s imagination is almost always, and in my view not insignificantly, a Jewish penis. It is also these perilous penile manoeuvres that trigger Roth’s reflections on the meaning of life. This is the salient issue when his fictive creations ask themselves the big question:  ‘Have I lived life to the full?’ Living life to the full, in Rothland, is only possible when there is a sexually active male body, indeed, one that refuses to mature, ever, in the sense of abandoning the reckless passions of youth.

Entwined with Roth’s phallic pre-occupations and his belief in the body’s rights to full erotic expression as it faces the inevitable depredations of ageing, impotence and death, there is always another strand to Roth’s writing. This is his passionately engaged yet ambivalent relationship to Jewishness. Roth writes to celebrate the emergence of what he has referred to in interviews as ‘my kind of Jew’, that is, the contemporary American secular Jew, who wants decisively to shed the Yiddish heritage of guilt, fear, shame, suffering, violence and discrimination, that had been experienced as their birthright at least up until the last half century in the world of the goyim. In particular, he wants to move on and distance himself from his friend and mentor, Bernard Malumud, with his tales of ‘lonely Jews and their peculiarly immigrant, Jewish forms of failure’, from ‘those Malamudian men “who never stopped hurting”’, while also drawing upon their colourful, witty, derisive humour (Roth, 1986). In this Roth was surely not alone, but representative of exactly what so many other American Jewish men coming to prominence in the 1960s were doing – attempting to bury for ever the long held European view of Jews as unmanly.

Thus Roth, in the footsteps of Saul Bellow, played a leading role in defining the vanguard of irreverent, irresponsible, hyper-assertive and successful cultural figures, all of whom both reflected and helped create the ironic spirit of what many came rightly to regard as the ‘Jewish Sixties’. What Roth seemed able to depict so well was the tension between expressing any historical identity and the reinvention of that identity. The most notorious recital of his ‘Jewish blues’ occurs in the bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). And for all his professed determination to jettison them, to ‘put the id back in Yid’ (p.139), the howls of injured masculinity, the castration anxiety, the sexual satyriasis, he lays before the silent analyst in that early text will reverberate one way or another throughout the whole Roth oeuvre, barely skipping a beat as he ages: ‘Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? … Doctor I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole!’ (p.37). From first to last, Roth deplores the once idealized image of the allegedly humble, family-oriented, loyal and dutiful European Jew and his patriarchal rabbinical manhood, offering instead a vibrant and virile Jewish American masculinity.

The vigour with which Roth, together with the abundance of other emblematic Jewish Sixties radicals and cultural figures – most egregiously perhaps, Norman Mailer – either created or embodied, both created and embodied, men who trumpeted their sexual prowess and manly ways is surely connected to the desire to strangle once and for all the image of the ‘effeminate’ Jew. The fear of turning into a woman, Freud’s classic castration anxiety, is another nightmare evident in Roth’s writing from first to last: ‘What if breasts begin to grow on me … Was I being turned into a woman?’, Portnoy panics as a child, when one of his testicles has failed to descend (p.39); ‘In that moment of terror, as they lowered the gas mask over his face … he could have sworn that the surgeon, whoever he was, had whispered “Now I’m going to turn you into a girl”’, his ‘Everyman’ imagines he hears, some four decades later, as he faces the end of his life (p.29); in between, in his Kafkaesque parable (Roth, 1995), David Krepesh simply wakes up to find himself metamorphosed into a six-foot female breast. As the historian George Mosse (1996), among others, comprehensively documented in his book, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, it was the diasporic Jew, as the exemplar of ugliness, discord, and above all, effeminacy, who had served for so long in Christendom as the foil for the strong, fearless and muscular ideal of modern Western manhood. This is the heritage Roth so knowingly combats, commenting in one of his books, for instance, that the appeal of Zionism for Jews everywhere was and remains partly ‘a highly conscious desire to be divested of virtually everything that had come to seem, to the Zionists as much as to the Christian Europeans, distinctively Jewish behavior – to reverse the very form of Jewish existence’ (Roth, 2005, p151). It should come as no surprise that the entanglements between ethnicity and masculinity will impact upon the dilemmas of ageing.

Yet if there is a Jewish twist in Roth’s depictions of what it means to be an acknowledged cocksman of a certain type of masculinity, the phallic longings that loom so stubbornly in Roth’s depictions of the lives of men, whatever their age, echo sentiments that have also been fiercely communicated by other ageing men with the gifts to depict their own dreams, fears and frustrations, not least in the words of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, who mourned, at 61, that he lived with the soul of a man ‘sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal’. [3]Roth borrowed Yeats’ words for the title of a novel in 2001, about the lust of an ageing professor for his young student, around four decades younger than him, though here it is she who is dying, his phallic prowess apparently still intact. I do not actually accept that Roth is Everyman, although I think he does capture something about the distinctive fears of many men. Not least because very similar imagery can be found in Roth’s most admired and popular fellow male writers.

In the UK, Martin Amis, described by one male reviewer as ‘his generation's most astute documentarist of ageing’, delivers the same message. [4] Like Roth and Updike, Amis is early on achingly troubled by the passage of time. Indeed, few people have expressed a more visceral and consistent horror of ageing than Amis, or offended more people in the process. Like Roth too, Amis not only sees masculinity as his special subject, but also writes to encompass what he understands as the universal male predicament. As Joseph Brooker notes, his books survey what happens when ‘the swaggering lad’ all too quickly morphs into ‘the crumpled bloke’. [5] The theme of imperiled masculinity is centre stage in the book Amis wrote in his mid-40s, The Information, which depicts the trauma of men, just like him at the time, reaching middle-age: ‘the whole thing is a crisis’. [6] Here, his main protagonist is a blocked, unsuccessful novelist, weighed down by envy, humiliation and a sense of failure, leaving him chronically depressed, self-destructive and, of course, impotent.

Like Roth, Amis also courts publicity through provocation. Yet once again, in his terror of ageing, and chagrin about mortality, Amis does seem to capture something about fears other men have expressed. In Experience (2002), the memoir in which he returns once more to his own crisis on reaching 40, he writes: ‘Youth has finally evaporated, and with it all sense of your own impregnability’. [7] Of course, however powerful the fantasy, men have never possessed any authentic inviolability any more than women have. Nevertheless, in their youth it is perhaps easier for some of them to imagine themselves invulnerable, or at the very least, it is easier for them to perform in the world as though this were the case. It is this performance that is likely to falter as men age, hence the devastation. Amis sees no way to recover from the shock. In the opening pages of another of his highly autobiographically resonant recent books, The Pregnant Widow (2009), published as its author turned sixty, old age is likened to ‘starring in a horror film’. He returns to this metaphor in its closing pages, with the narrator, the 56-year-old Keith Nearing, suggesting ‘the horror film, was set to become a snuff movie, but long before that he would be its trailer. He would be an ad for death’. [8]

It is instructive to compare these authors with a recent work of the ageing American gay writer, Edmund White, offering his own witty account of the disruptions and continuities of male ageing. At 66, writing another of his prolific texts, which are almost always at least semi-autobiographical, White evokes his doppelgänger protagonist, Jack, a gay writer of identical age, inclinations and attributes as his creator. He describes him slowing down, dozing off, forgetting names, and mourning that ‘his [own] name was now more celebrated than his books, his blurbs more solicited than his stories’. Yet this Jack, though HIV positive for over 20 years, and fearing that ‘maybe his wits were slowing down in the same way as his vision was dimming and his hearing becoming less acute’, also reflects that one thing had never changed: ‘His sex ambitions were still the same – to have sex with every man in the world. He would have been a perfect whore, since he found every man do-able’.[9] Unlike the straight men I have mentioned, however, it seems he can find ways of actually ‘doing’ them, or perhaps, to the sheer terror of men fashioned in the normative mould of Freud, Yeats, Roth, Updike or Amis, being ‘done by them’. Oh no: ‘Just like a woman’!

One thing that no male writer ever seems to suggest, however, is that men lose their longing for sexual encounters as they age, even as their erectile capacities falter. Quite the opposite! This information is in agreement with all the empirical studies of sex in old age, in which older men are twice as likely as women to say that they are still extremely interested in sex. Although, as the British health reporter, Jeremy Laurance, suggests: ‘It is hard to be sure whether the gender imbalance shows the resilience of male interest in sex or the resilience of their propensity to boast about it’. [10] Either way, disappointment shadows putative phallic vigour.

Lynne Segal is the author of Out of Time: the Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing, now available in paperback.

End notes:

[1] Philip Roth, Everyman, London, Jonathan Cape, 2006, p.130.

[2] "Philip Roth,” documentary for French television series Writers of the Century, 1997, quoted in Debra Shostak, ‘Roth and Gender’ in Timothy Parrish, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.11

[3] William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium 

[4] Andrew Anthony, ‘Martin Amis: The wunderkind comes of age’, The Observer, Sunday 10 January 2010

[5] Joe Brooker, ‘The middle years of Martin Amis’, in Mengham, Rod and Tew, Philip (eds.) British Fiction Today. London, UK; New York, Continuum, pp.3-14
[6] Martin Amis, The Information, London, Harper Collins, 1996, p.62
[7] Martin Amis, Experience, London, Vintage,2001, p.64

[8] Martin Amis The Pregnant Widow, London, Vintage,2009, p.3; p.462
[9] Edmund White, Chaos, New York, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, p.19; p.20; p.21
[10] Jeremy Laurance, Four in 10 men over 75 say they are still having sex (but only two in 10 women), The Independent,10 March, 2010, p.17; Stacy Tessler Lindau, et. al., ‘A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States’, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2009, pp.357-762

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