A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg
In fiction and nonfiction, Ben gave his writers room to stretch, to divagate and take risks. It was for Ben that Christopher Hitchens reflected on his family and the discovery that his grandmother was Jewish; for Ben that Alexander Cockburn revealed his tenderer aspect in a touching memoir about visiting his old school, complete with digressions on fatherhood, Anglo-Irish attitudes and the ablative absolute. Such assignments could nudge careers from their accustomed tack. The philosopher Arthur Danto says that Ben definitively changed his life by inviting him to write for Grand Street and introducing him to Elizabeth Pochoda at The Nation: "I certainly would never have become an art critic but for him."
Through it all ran a distinct and powerful red thread. Beyond his affection for Adorno and Benjamin, beyond his distaste for and recoil from life in Gramercy Park ("I became a Socialist," he writes, "in objection to my father"), the source of Ben's political affinities remains somewhat obscure. His sensibility was too fine-grained for public concerns to drive it; political views are also a way of claiming or accounting for one's position in the world. In Lost Property he describes a recurring anxiety about his allegiances. As a young man he worried about whether he could be seen as a Serious Person:
My own notion of such a person came first from Silone and Sartre, then from Gramsci and Fanon; and I knew that I wasn't serious because (a) I wasn't wretched, poor or oppressed, (b) I couldn't work with a group, (c) I liked mischief and (d) I was drawn "fatally," as I put it, to women.
When Irene Papas asked him if he was "an Amerrican" and warned that she was a communist, Ben assured her that he was a communist, too: "But if she'd said she was a Royalist, I'd have said I was one of those."
It was in part Ben's love for Greece and Greeks (a central theme of our friendship) that gave his rebelliousness a local habitation. Papas and Volanakis engaged him in the struggle against the Colonels' dictatorship, supported by the CIA, in the late 1960s: "I felt more attached to that cause than to any in America. 'That Greece might still be free!'" That it had also been Byron's cause didn't hurt; nor did the way the Greeks went about such things, or the fact that it was, in America, a minority concern. (Ben loathed mass protest and the American student movement. His old friend Michael Train remembers him asking Bill Merwin with disgust, "Did you get anything out of the '60s?") But after the dictatorship ended, Ben kept serious faith with my beleaguered country. He regularly published essays on Greek writers and translations of their work (including James Merrill's versions of Cavafy's poems and prose), much of it previously unknown to English-speaking readers.
Later, partly because of his connection with The Nation, Ben was drawn into the circles of New York's intellectual left. Through Hitchens and Cockburn he met Edward Said, whom he loved fiercely and to whom he spoke on the telephone almost every day, about politics, about literature, about music, about tweeds. But his political sympathies were not the mere result of influence and chance. They were rooted, I think, in his immense capacity to delight in other people, his intolerance for bullshit, his sense that all received ideas are debased and therefore false, his bred-in-the-bone enthusiasm for making all kinds of trouble.
There was also, of course, his illness, which was both the first and the last thing one noticed about Ben. Struck by his immobility, one forgot it instantly. He rarely spoke or wrote about it (Dorothy did, in her memoir Strangers in the House, with the unsparing lightness that Ben so admired), but it colored his life more deeply than the temporarily well can even begin to imagine. "If a fly landed on his nose there was nothing he could do about it," Michael Train wrote to me. It should have been obvious, but it never occurred to me; nor did the million other things that slowly became impossible. When he could no longer turn pages, friends came to read to him. Richard Howard was one; they began with Byron's Don Juan, in its entirety, over a long series of Sunday afternoons. "Well, that was a real education," Ben said when they were done.
As time went on Ben seemed to have more and more sympathy with those of us who weren't famous, who remained irrevocably trammeled by the ordinary. He understood and was drawn to the qualities that hold people back: diffidence, doubt, an excess of negative capability. Ben, though, was extraordinary. To take his father's money and give it away, not hoard it as a secret source of self-esteem; to turn it to living use, not as philanthropy but in a way that implicated the deepest part of himself; to risk it for connection and mutual transformation; to break out of his father's house—all that would have taken rare courage, talent and recklessness even without the paralysis that was turning him to stone as he breathed life into the statues. At Grand Street's core was a profound and fruitful tension: it represented a revolt against good taste by true discernment and delight. As such it could not be didactic, or tendentious, or ingratiating. (What a strain it must have been for Ben, who wanted so much, I realize now, to be admired and loved, to be too proud to be ingratiating.) That was the source of its energy and its mysterious aloofness, its refusal to define itself and its originality. Like all great magazines, it was ephemeral; Ben knew when it was time to let it go.