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A Partisan's Review | The Nation

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A Partisan's Review

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You may take sarza to open the liver; steel to open the spleen; flowers of sulphur for the lungs; castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart but a true friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.
(Francis Bacon)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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What men have given the name of friendship to is nothing but an alliance, a reciprocal accommodation of interests, an exchange of good offices; in fact, it is nothing but a system of traffic, in which self-love always proposes to itself some advantage.
(La Rochefoucauld)

Except for Mailer, all of the ex-friends we meet in P.'s new book are dead, than which no friend can be more emphatically ex. Whether any were ever really friends is at least debatable, and he knows it. Certainly not Ginsberg, a Columbia classmate and cohort Other (Bad Boy to Norman's Good). The Trillings were mentors--placing him at Commentary; seating him on the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. (Lionel, even now, is probably looking down on him, like Laskell in The Middle of the Journey: "He knew why they were angry at him. It was the anger of the masked will at the appearance of an idea in modulation.") And Hellman seems merely to have been, as it were, a Party animal. (On one page, P. allows that she was perhaps a lifelong undercover Communist; on the next, he suggests that her commitment was more out of loyalty to Hammett than to the Soviet Union.) And Arendt, who "certainly acted as though she liked me personally and thought well of my work," had all along been secretly disparaging him in letters to Mary McCarthy. (Maybe she was just buttering up Mary, "our leading bitch intellectual," who never forgave a negative article he had written about her in 1956.) Which leaves Mailer, on whom he had conferred intellectual respectability; about whom in Making It he was so shamelessly flattering; and whose Jesus novel he won't even read.

"Genuine friendship (or perhaps any kind of friendship at all) is impossible with a writer whose work one does not admire," he concedes. For Podhoretz, who began his career by not admiring Malamud's The Natural and Bellow's Augie March and concludes it by finding dishonor in everyone who didn't rejoice at Making It or Breaking Ranks, this is a recipe for loneliness. And, indeed, Ex-Friends hugs a latitude of loneliness--from beginning ("there is hardly a one of my old friends left among the living with whom I am today so much as on speaking terms") to end ("Conceivably, there are lively parties today to which I am not invited that are similar to the ones I used to go to and give.... But if similar parties are being held today, I think rumors of them would have reached me"). There is pathos here, among the bitters.

But we've also heard it all, twice before. These Norman Conquests--from Brownsville to Morningside Heights, from Columbia to Cambridge to Commentary, from Partisan Review to the Hudson Institute--were first rehearsed in Making It (1967), which also had shrewd things to say about the sticky tropics of highbrow, low-pay journalism. And were then repeated, word for word, with the same anecdotes and wisecracks, in Breaking Ranks (1979), to pad out a canned history of Holy Cold Warriorism. And are now trotted out yet again, between anathemas, with a bestselling eye on the more famous brand names. The not-quite-so-famous among his ex-friends, like Jason Epstein, are suddenly unmentionable.

Thrice-told, this Pilgrim's Progress from the mean streets, where his father was a milkman, to dinner parties at the White House, to the bunkers of the Olin and Bradley foundations, somehow coarsens. He was always a good boy, a teacher's pet, a square, middle-class respectable, smarter than anybody else and never tempted by bohemia. Except for boot camp, he never even got his hands dirty. And except for the first five years of the sixties, when he imagined himself a radical because he published Paul Goodman, H. Stuart Hughes and Staughton Lynd--although not, in 1962, an advance copy of the Port Huron Statement--he was also invariably right, while everybody else turned out to be, if not mistaken, then cowardly. No longer the Young Man from the Provinces, Julien Sorel, he is now an old man in a dry season, Gerontion, devoured by tigers. And after such knowledge, he is not about to forgive a mangy one of them.

What's been thrown overboard, of course, is what Alfred Kazin was referring to in the thirty-third anniversary issue of Dissent: "When the great Reagan counterrevolution is over, what I shall remember most is the way accommodating intellectuals tried to bring to an end whatever was left among Jewish intellectuals of their old bond with the oppressed, the proscribed, the everlasting victims piled up now in every street."

Rereading Making It, one wants to calm P. down with a lollipop. It's OK, Norman, all of it--wanting money, status, power, fame. But what makes you think it's so brave to say so out loud? And why do you insist that everybody else wants these things just as much, all the time and forever, and if they claim they don't, they must be lying? Haven't you ever met anyone who had second thoughts on the subject? I know you don't get out much, but even in the library a little Great Gatsby is a purgative for too much Ayn Rand. A young fogy just as Oedipal about the old Partisan Review crowd as you are once told a friend of mine, "You have a job; I have a career." Imagine that! The luminous thing! A pogo stick! I have been known, myself, to spend television funny-money on fancy vacations; and yet I find, in ritzy hotels like the Danieli in Venice or the Oriental in Bangkok or the Peninsula in Hong Kong, that I really don't belong there, because of my shoes or something--as if you can take the boy out of his class, but not the class out of the boy.

And this business of intellectuals suddenly getting paid to feel bad in the slicks is as interesting as P. says it is. Besides Norman, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt writing for The New Yorker, as Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling had before them, as well as all of them showing up to their own surprise in Vogue, Life, Playboy and the Saturday Evening Post, had P. not been so preoccupied with his own two years at Huntington Hartford's Show, he might have noticed Macdonald and John Kenneth Galbraith at Fortune, and James Agee and Irving Howe at Time, which also explains why they all stopped writing for the back-of-the-book at The Nation. (For that matter, did you know that Barbara Walters was a student of William Phillips at Sarah Lawrence?) While this might mean, as P. suggests, that they should no longer feel so alienated, it could also mean that they have been bought, just like everybody else, and are in danger of confusing and confounding their self-interest with their employer's, and will eventually discover that not all employers are as indulgent as the American Jewish Committee--after which it becomes clear that there are owners and there are pets, and that when the owners are done playing with them, the pets are put to sleep.

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