Breaking up is (sorta) hard to do

Breaking up is (sorta) hard to do

Pinsker, Sanford



Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt and Norman Mailer. By Norman Podhoretz. Free Press. $25.00.

Norman Podhoretz’s latest effort at blending memoir and cultural commentary reminds us of just bow long and protracted his leave-takings have been. Hence, the rather shameless spin I’ve put on the rock ‘n roll tune that gives this piece its title. For Podhoretz, parting company with all manner of people and ideas has always been difficult, but in an ambivalent, “sorta” way. But what else might one expect from a critic who early on developed a knack for placing himself at the contentious crossroads where 20th century literature and politics meet, and who made no bones about wanting to become a cultural player whose judgments would be talked about and taken seriously?

As children of the Depression and then as young Marxist intellectuals who rallied around Trotsky rather than Stalin, the older generation of New York intellectuals naturally assumed that to be on the side of the Utopian angels meant being a member in good standing of the adversarial culture. Small wonder that they regarded anything that smacked of the mainstream with deep suspicion (this, despite the fact that their postures of alienation were often so much posturing) or that they took a certain amount of satisfaction in blending a commitment to radical politics with a celebration of radical art. In this hothouse (some would say, “parochial”) world, an intellectual was defined as somebody who subscribed to Partisan Review-or even better, who wrote for its pages.

By contrast, Norman Podhoretz belongs to a generation that came into its own during the 1950’s, a time when certain postwar realities forever changed the intellectual landscape. For one thing, World War 11 turned out not to be the capitalist misadventure that Socialists claimed it would be, but, rather, a clear instance of democratic values standing up to Fascist bullies. Furthermore, the affluence that followed our victories in Europe and the Pacific had a way of trickling down even to intellectuals who had long regarded Bohemian poverty as a badge of independence and of honor. By insisting that success (rather than sex) was the “dirty little secret” of his time, Podhoretz’s Making It (1967) made a striking, and controversial, point. What he-and, in truth, many others of his generation-wanted was marriage, family, and at least a share of the materialistic goodies that presumably came with the territory. But who (other than Podhoretz) was willing to say this in print? Small wonder that many older readers bristled when they read his account of this cultural sea change-not only because it shamelessly chronicled Podhoretz’s rise from Wunderkind to editor of Commentary magazine (this, at the tender age of 30), but also because he had more than a few kind words to say on behalf of responsibility, respectability, and bourgeois values in general.

Many wrote him off as a “young fogey,” but as his subsequent books made clear, they hadn’t seen nothing yet. As the countercultural 1960’s so muddied the political waters that even a man with solid credentials on the Old Left such as Irving Howe found himself being shouted down by New Leftists with short memories and little feel for the nuances of social history, Podhoretz was slowly preparing himself to jump political ship. The public announcement came in Breaking Ranks (1979), but evidences of his change of heart were clear to anybody who had eyes and used them to chart Commentary’s movement from a position on the liberal left to one on the neoconservative right. Nonetheless, seeing Podhoretz lay out his disaffections between hard covers was something of a shocker- only because of his candor or even because (as always) he wrote brilliantly, but (gulp!) because his cultural analysis often made good sense.

After more than 30 years at Commentary’s helm one would think that Podhoretz had long ago consigned his former life as a man on the left to the memory bin, but this is hardly the case. Indeed, he keeps finding new ways to sing the words of the old Jimmy Durante tune, “Ever have the feeling that you wanted to go/Still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?” That’s why Ex-Friends is such a sad and revealing book. In the concluding pages of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the novel’s bewildered protagonist makes this bittersweet observation: “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about…. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everyone.” Granted, Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s hypersensitive (anti-) hero, suffers from an acute case of adolescent malaise and, as such, hardly seems worth mentioning in the same breath with Norman Podhoretz, an aging New York intellectual who finds himself “missing” old friends even as he is out to settle their hash. With the notable exception of Norman Mailer, all his targets are now safely dead, and thus unable to present their side of the story. The result is an insider account of intellectual life among the New York intellectuals, one that cuts no deals and takes no prisoners.

Nonetheless, one hears more than faint echoes of Holden’s plaint in Podhoretz’s concluding pages: “I regret the loss of the literaryintellectual world in which I used to live … [And SO] In spite of everything that I have said against my ex-friends here, I believe that the absence today of a community like the Family constitutes a great loss for our culture.” Thus is Ex-Friends wrapped in several contradictory mantles-at once a valentine of self-congratulation and a chronicle of regret. Even readers unfamiliar with the names that drop easily onto his pages (e.g. Lionel and Diana Trilling, or Hannah Arendt) need not worry because they appear as case studies that, taken together, are meant to show how long-standing Podhoretz’s neoconservative instincts in fact were, and how right he was, and is, about American culture.

Take, for example, his complicated relationship with poet Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbia student and ersatz mentor. That Ginsberg had accepted a long Podhoretz poem for the undergraduate literary journal he [Ginsberg] then edited was a coup of the first water-even if many of his original lines ended up on the editorial room floor. And no doubt Ginsberg’s chaotic, outlaw life once exercised a certain romantic attraction; but over the years Podhoretz found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the unhealthy direction that his popular image had taken, especially when its baleful influence on the young became alarmingly clear:

Now, in the mid-1960’s, as before, the major difference between us had to do with our wildly contrasting ideas about America. Ginsberg’s anti-Americanism of the 1950s had been bad enough, but the form it took in the 1960s as it exfoliated (or perhaps metastasized would be a better word) was even worse. His disciples and friends now extended way beyond the relatively narrow circle of the Beats to encompass the entire world of the counterculture-from rock musicians like Bob Dylan to hippies and yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to a variety of “gurus” peddling one form or another of Oriental mysticism. What they all had in common was a fierce hatred of America, which they saw as “Amerika,” a country morally and spiritually equivalent to Nazi German. America’s political system was based on oppression; and its culture was based on repression, to which the only answer was to opt out of middle-class life and liberate the squelched and smothered self through drugs and sexual promiscuity.

Even at his most radical, Podhoretz had always loved America, and that unapologetic patriotism only deepened when, in 1960, he became editor of Commentary and turned its direction toward the neoconservative Right. Celebrating America was an important item of the new agenda, as was making an intellectual case for the economics of the free market that, for better of worse, would be the Reagan administration’s legacy. About these matters (and many more) Podhoretz not only numbered Allen Ginsberg among the “know nothing bohemians” (as his famous put-down of the Beats would have it), but also came to feel that his ex-friend’s 1958 boast/prophecy that “We’ll get you through your children!” had, only a decade later, come nightmarishly true. For this, Podhoretz cannot, even now, forgive, despite the fact that an older, mellower Ginsberg was willing to forgive him: “But it was because of them [the “children” Ginsberg helped to corrupt, and sometimes to kill, with drugs and sexual promiscuity], as well as all the others waiting in the wings, that I could not bring myself to forgive him, not even now that he was dead.”

By contrast, Podhoretz’s realization that even brilliant social commentary might, in the long run, be worse leads him to a chapter-length rumination about why the social philosopher Hannah Arendt took a terribly wrong direction in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), and why their friendship cooled considerably after Arendt’s study of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust was published. For Arendt to cast blame on the helpless victims of Nazism, and then go on to argue that Eichmann represents the “banality of evil” rather than Evil incarnate was more than Podhoretz (and many other Jewish intellectuals, for that matter) could bear.

Much the same beat goes on in Ex-Friends as one debunking profile blends almost seamlessly with another. Thus we learn how difficult it was for Podhoretz to remain on friendly terms with his Columbia mentor, the magisterial literary critic Lionel Trillingespecially as Lionel’s left-leaning wife, Diana, poisoned the atmosphere between them-or how he had no choice when his journal was among the first to air the truth about the systematic lies Hellman had told in such nonfiction books as Pentimento (1973) or Scoundrel Time (1976). Podhoretz readily admits that, in Hellman’s case, he still feels a certain nostalgic tug as he remembers the lavish meals and parties she regularly served up, but politics is, well, politics-and Hellman was always on the wrong side of the aisle: “The plain truth is that I remain proud of the part I went on to take in the fight against the political ideas and attitudes in whose service she corrupted her work and brought, as I now see it, lasting dishonor to her name.”

In the final analysis, however, Ex-Friends is about people who, in Nathan Glazer’s famous definition of the public intellectual, live “for, by, and off ideas.” True enough, the usual aspects of friendship can also play a part, but they will, perforce, always be secondary. What matters-and matters passionately-are ideas and their public consequences. The Family, as Podhoretz described his circle in Making It (1967), was at once a roll call of the very bright and extremely talented, as well as a recipe for personal disaster. No doubt oversized egos account for part of the friction Ex-Friends describes, but acts of ideological betrayal were far more serious, and much more damaging.

Breaking Ranks (1979), Podhoretz’s effort to explain why he abandoned the left liberalism of his youth, had repercussions that even its author did not fully imagine at the time. True enough, the neoconservative Commentary crowd he assembled bad more than its fair share of luminaries such as Irving Kristol, but things, as they say, were never the same-either for those who rallied around Podhoretz’s vision of a better, more conservatively inclined American politics or those who continued the good fight for such liberal causes as welfare or affirmative action. Indeed, everything seemed different from the mid-60’s onward: socializing wasn’t as exciting or as good as the hard-drinking, free-wheeling parties of the 1950’s were. A meaner spirit, fueled by heavy doses of political correctness, gradually replaced the intellectual world in which Podhoretz had once scrambled (some would say shamelessly) to make a place for himself.

At this point I can imagine some readers muttering that what Podhoretz really misses is his youth. Perhaps, but as with most generalizations (and labels) affixed to the New York intellectuals, this commonsensical view is, at best, a partial truth-for what Ex-Friends finally comes to is cultural history as it filters itself through Podhoretz’s consciousness. No doubt others will provide their own perspectives as to why he kept “falling out” with former friends, but even they should find Ex-Friends fascinating. More important, general readers will get a taste for the way that certain ideas, ones that brought intellectuals together, and then pulled them apart, have trickled down to the public square. Like many others, I have my quarrels with much that Podhoretz now stands for, but that did not diminish my admiration a whit. Ex-Friends is that readable, that good, and most of all, that important.

Copyright University of Virginia Winter 2000

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