In A Partisan View, one of the many memoirs in which score-settling refugees from the glory days of the anti-Stalinist, pro-Modernist quarterly bite each other on their kneecaps and their pineal glands, William Phillips remembers his co-editor, Philip Rahv, like so:
He could not throw or catch a ball, ride a bike, play any game, or swim. He did not even seem to know that you can drown if you go in over your head. One summer when we had a house in Peekskill, Rahv came to visit and we went to swim at a nearby pool. Rahv flopped in, came up, gurgled, and went down again. He would have drowned if I had not jumped in and pulled him out. Fortunately, I had worked my way through school as a swimming counselor and lifeguard.
You’ll recognize in this passage at least four of the seven types of ambiguity identified by William Empson for the Kenyon Review, which was Partisan Review‘s principal highbrow competition after the war. I love it. It reminds me of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, when Donald Barthelme saved Robert Kennedy from drowning. One imagines Lionel Trilling, unable to make up his mind if Rahv deserves saving–or if getting wet is authentic or sincere. And Mary McCarthy on a diving board, in her birthday suit because she’s boycotting silk since Japan invaded Manchuria, deciding that she’d really rather dogpaddle with Bunny Wilson instead. And Lionel Abel and Harold Rosenberg at the other end of the Olympic swimming hole, pushing Hannah Arendt’s head under water. And Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe starting their own alternative aquariums–one socialist, the other anarchist. While Meyer Schapiro explains to R.P. Blackmur, “Mr. Blackmur, when you use your water wings, you don’t use them up!” Meanwhile, in the cabana, over and over like Punch and Judy, the alpenstock comes down again on Trotsky.
To this party, because he wrote a couple of books accusing these people of sand-eating dune-buggery, Norman Podhoretz hasn’t been invited. So he will piss in their pool.
Not that Norman hasn’t had his share of parties. We learn, in Ex-Friends, that at Lillian Hellman’s on Martha’s Vineyard he met Lenny Bernstein and Bill Styron. That at Truman Capote’s Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel, hunkered down with Lillian and McGeorge Bundy, he had to dissuade Norman Mailer from duking it out with LBJ’s National Security Adviser. That this same Mailer, who would subsequently stab Podhoretz in the back as he stabbed his wife, Adele, in the upper abdomen, sought on several occasions to unlimber him at orgies. (“But I was simply not up to it,” P. tells us.) That, in fact, the editor of Commentary had been at the stabbing party, although he left early because Allen Ginsberg yelled at him.
On the other hand, Podhoretz invited Styron instead of Mailer to have dinner with Jackie Kennedy, which is one reason Mailer panned Making Itin Partisan Review–another reason being that, fearful of losing his newfound late-sixties popularity, like “an old Bolshevik fearful of being denounced as a traitor by his own Stalinist comrades,” Mailer “had been cowed into submission” by the regnant “terror” of a Pod-hating “radical culture”; he was “not perhaps so brave as he thought he was.” Hadn’t Mailer, after all, told the Pod in private that he admired his book, before attacking it in public? Unlike the way Podhoretz praised Hellman’s memoirs to her face (because she was so “mischievous, bitchy, earthy, and always up for a laugh”) while secretly despising “the political ideas and attitudes in whose service she corrupted her work and brought…lasting dishonor upon her name,” without ever, of course, saying anything nice in print, which would have meant “corrupting my own writing or betraying these standards that were everything to me as a literary critic.”