June 23, 2004,
It is difficult to find the terms with which to describe all the excellences of this . . . well, what is it? It is autobiography, to be sure, but also important political and cultural history, an intense account of battles about ideas, of Norman Podhoretz's arguments with himself as well as with a set of vivid figures whom he portrays with the skill that could have made him a novelist. And like a good novelist, he succeeds in creating a world, yet one that really existed. Beyond its central subject the epic conflict of his century between decent freedoms and totalitarianism, a collision worthy of Thucydides this is also a book of high gossip and great anecdotal humor.
At the entrance to this display stands Allen Ginsberg. Podhoretz knew him when they were students at Columbia, and from then on had a peculiar adversarial relationship with him that stretched over decades-peculiar because Ginsberg, in print and gossip, was obsessed with Podhoretz.
I think Ginsberg, whom I knew in his later years, felt Podhoretz was on to him. That is, regarding Ginsberg, Podhoretz correctly estimated that the only thing worth talking about was his doctrine, to which his negligible poetic skills added nothing. This doctrine amounted to the teaching that insanity is sanity, drugs are sacred, crime is justice, and homosexual promiscuity is the road to sainthood. Ginsberg knew that Podhoretz knew this and that he despised the teaching. So he kept trying to get Podhoretz to, I don't know exactly what, somehow accept him. Against Ginsberg, Podhoretz stands with Orwell, who taught the opposite. Wrote Orwell, "The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive."
But Ginsberg, never truly a friend, cannot really be one of the "ex-friends" of this book's title. He was at no point a member of the group of intellectuals and writers attached in various ways to Partisan Review and to respectable circles at Columbia. This group became known, affectionately and with a nod to the Mafia, as the Family. The Family lived by ideas, among them its conceptions of politics. With Lionel and Diana Trilling, with Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Podhoretz was indeed close, but broke painfully on the basis of ideas.
It was all enormously intense, at Columbia as well as at Partisan Review, as I can personally attest. Podhoretz came to Columbia from near poverty in Brooklyn; I came there via Stuyvesant High School, from the suburbs in Queens. The only Communist I knew before Stuyvesant was an out-of-work architect like my father, whom my father would invite of a Saturday so as to be able to "share the wealth," meaning cocktails. At Stuyvesant and around Union Square there were plenty of fascinating Communists, who engaged in doctrinal disputes as complex as any in the Talmud. The Communists at Stuyvesant had never met an intelligent gentile and regarded me affectionately as a sort of unicorn. At Columbia, though we both experienced the intellectual power of the Family, I remained rather outside the intensities that roiled it. At the end of this book, looking back, Podhoretz writes with a sense of poignant loss, despite the personal agons, and I can certainly understand what he feels.
At Columbia we met Lionel Trilling, who is beyond all others the book's central figure, and tantalizingly enigmatic. Both Lionel and Diana, briefly fellow-travelers during the Thirties, soon turned against the muralistic simplicities of the "progressive" mind. Trilling's early literary criticism is energized by his rejection of these simplifications in the name of "complexity" and the fully human. Both Trillings were liberal anti-Communists. As a student and young critic, Podhoretz embraced this position.
But as the still-young editor of Commentary during the Sixties, he veered left both politically and culturally (e.g., anti-nuke, C. P. Snow, Paul Goodman, Mailer). The Trillings strongly disapproved.
When for political, cultural, and moral reasons, however, their erstwhile student moved to the right during the Seventies, they disapproved much more strenuously. Lionel, very uncharacteristically, was moved to shout at Podhoretz that he was "going too far." Amazingly, the usually reserved Lionel actually employed a Yiddish word: By consorting with Republicans, Podhoretz had "beschmutzed" himself.
What did Trilling mean by this? Podhoretz doesn't speculate, but I think I know. Despite their cultural sophistication, both Lionel and the Family were exceptionally provincial. In the Family, Republicanism was outlandish, unthinkable. Republican? What would Meyer Shapiro think? That Lionel was great in many ways there can be no doubt, but he was also smaller than we, his students, thought.
One gives thanks that he never really ended up an ex-friend. Podhoretz writes:
When I visited him in the hospital [where he was ill with cancer] for what turned out to be our very last meeting, I mentioned that I had been rereading Thomas Mann, that I had been especially bowled over by Doctor Faustus, and that I had come to the conclusion that Mann might well be the greatest novelist of the 20th century. . . . From his bed of excruciating pain Lionel smiled a sweet smile and said (as best as I can remember his words), "How very interesting. You know we always found it hard to forgive him for becoming something of a Stalinist in the Forties, and probably we underrated him because of it. But what you say about him now is so intriguing that I would love to take another look at him myself."
Compared with Lionel Trilling, the other intellectuals described here are pretty small change. For all their "brilliant" talk about politics, as well as about everything else, the Family really did not grapple with actual politics much at all. To borrow William Barrett's phrase, they were truants from reality. Podhoretz broke with Lillian Hellman (news: she was good company and an exquisite cook) over her hatred of America, her duplicity, and her Communism. He broke with Arendt over her deep hostility to Israel and her weird lack of sympathy for the murdered Jews of Europe. He broke with Mailer, of whom he had hoped for much as a novelist, over his anti-Americanism and his wacky admiration for "existential" criminality.
Serious politics has to do with actual and almost always imperfect choices. When Podhoretz and other former Democrats (Kristol, Kirkpatrick, Perle, Abrams, Bennett, Nisbet, Berns, et al.) moved toward the Republicans and became "neoconservatives," they made a choice that the Family could not abide. For their choice they were rewarded with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire, to which results they had made serious contributions.
Podhoretz, breaking on principle with former friends, had put away childish things. Now, as time moves on, the Family grows still smaller in its historical importance. Who reads Philip Rahv anymore? Delmore Schwartz was supposed to be The Poet, but turned out to be decidedly less than that. To anyone who can distinguish between ambition and achievement, Mailer has come to nothing as a novelist. Mary McCarthy's fiction was always arid and unreadable. Dwight Macdonald? Nice prose, but otherwise give us a break. Clement Greenberg wrote astutely about art, but over a very narrow range. "See, they depart, and we go with them."
In the final reckoning, the Family fun while it lasted may have generated within itself only two works of lasting interest: Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Norman Podhoretz's Ex-Friends (1999).