Performance Anxiety

Katherine Harrison in The New York Times:

Roth But enough about you, Dear Reader, let’s talk about Philip Roth. Or Nathan Zuckerman or David Kepesh or Mickey Sabbath. Or any of the maddeningly, entertainingly and sometimes tediously self-involved heroes whose lives and loves mirror those of their author. A Roth by any other name would still suffer the affliction identified by O. Spielvogel, the fictional psychiatrist an excerpt of whose imagined article, “The Puzzled Penis,” introduced the reading world to “Portnoy’s Complaint.” A condition marked by “extreme sexual longings,” compulsive sexual behaviors and “overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration,” Portnoy’s complaint outgrew its eponymous novel and manifested itself in one Roth protagonist after another.

Alexander Portnoy sought relief in raw liver, most memorably the piece he “bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.” But the possibilities and permutations of onanism are limitless. “Into Thin Air,” Part 1 of “The Humbling,” introduces 65-year-old Simon Axler as he descends into a long wallow of doubt, despair and self-pity. “The last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” Axler has suddenly “lost his magic.” “His talent was dead.” Cast as Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, he fails so spectacularly at the double bill that he slides into a depression severe enough to frighten off his long-suffering wife.

More here.