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Eliot Spitzer As Alexander Portnoy

I've been racking my brain for a character profile that would shed light on what the hell happened with Eliot Spitzer, and the only thing I'm coming up with is ... Alexander Portnoy, the Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York (and anti-hero of Philip Roth's famous novel). Like Portnoy, maybe Spitzer felt simultaneously driven (by stultifying parents) to be a good Jewish boy and rebel against his good Jewish boy-ness, and so you get the weird spectacle of the most upright guy in the world acting out some pretty deviant urges.

This graf from the Times 1969 review of the novel kind of gets to the heart of the matter: 

As Portnoy matures--at least chronologically--he desperately wants to tear off his American-Jewish hair shirt, to let go, to live a life without mother and father, a sex life free and unfettered, without guilt, to be bad in other words ("Because to be bad, Mother," he apostrophizes, "that's the real struggle; to be bad--and enjoy it! That's what makes men of us boys, Mother. . .LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!"). But instead he finds--or his analyst does--that "neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratifications but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration."

This riff from the original Time review is also worth reading:

Although sex, psychoanalysis and Jewishness form the content of the novel, they are not its subject. The book is about absurdity—the absurdity of a man who knows all about the ethnic, sociological and Freudian hang-ups, yet is still racked by guilt because his ethical impulses conflict with the surge of his animal desires. In Alexander Portnoy's own words, he is "torn by desires that are repugnant to my conscience, and a conscience repugnant to my desires."

Strung out on Dr. Spielvogel's couch, Portnoy becomes the first of the lie-down comics. Raised in Newark and now holding the post of Assistant Human Opportunities Commissioner in New York City, he renders his past absurd in an attempt to lessen its painful grip on him. He keens the familiar tale of the strongwilled, overattentive mother and the castrated father. He tells how his mother fondled him during toilet training, how she eroticized the insides of his ears while removing the wax, and how she forced him to eat at knife point. Portnoy is continuingly being floored by the fact that she could be so unconscious of the unconscious.

With love and hate, he recalls his father, a shambling insurance salesman who proselytizes for the religion of security, yet suffers from chronic constipation because his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of "Worry, Fear & Frustration." In a life devoted to trying to please his parents, Portnoy confesses that his penis was all he could call his own. ...

As an adult, Portnoy makes his most strenuous escape attempt with the aid of the Monkey, a hypererotic fashion model from the impoverished hills of West Virginia who is the fulfillment of Portnoy's steamiest adolescent sex fantasies. The Monkey business ends in a frenzied bedroom burlesque in Rome, made the merrier by the participation of an Italian prostitute. Comments Portnoy: "I can best describe the state I sub sequently entered as one of unrelieved busy-ness." But instead of solving his problem, the Monkey is just another source of shame. She wants Alex's social respectability while he is interested only in satisfying his endless desires.

By using the psychoanalytic monologue as a literary device, Roth has achieved an individuality of tone and gesture and a retrieval of detail that transform his characters into super-stereotypes, well suited for this age of exaggeration. Sophie and Jack Portnoy are pop Jewish parents; the Monkey is the apotheosis of the contemporary Id Girl; and Portnoy embodies not only the tics of a man trying to disentangle himself from his background, but also the latent fear of the liberal humanist that he may find himself out. It is no small concern to the Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity, champion of the underprivileged, that the human opportunities he really cares about wear skirts.

Can we get Philip Roth on Larry King or something?

Update: I guess I should take a second to say what I think of the news itself... Tragic is about the only word that comes to mind. The guy had a ton of potential, and, in my mind, all this proves is that he's human. Unfortunately, I don't see how he survives. Too much of Spitzer's appeal was based on his reputation for integrity.

His only hope politically is that, as my colleague John Judis suggests, he turns out to have been the target of some sort of Republican witch hunt--maybe all those GOP contributors from New York demanded his scalp. (See this piece for the slightly dubious story of how the investigation came about.) But, even if that were true, turning this into a partisan fight would get ugly very quickly. I suspect there'd still be enormous pressure on him to resign.

Update II: A commenter points out that going to a prostitute is not exactly a "deviant urge," just one a lot of men repress. Fair enough. Though there is this weird subplot:

When she called Ms. Lewis, they discussed the client’s reputation as a “difficult” man who sometimes asked the prostitutes “to do things you might not think were safe,” Ms. Lewis said. But Kristen, according to court papers, was prepared: “I have a way of dealing with that,” she is quoted as having told Ms. Lewis.

And, with that, I'm going to try my hardest not to write about anything else potentially kinky...

--Noam Scheiber