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A Partisan's Review | The Nation

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A Partisan's Review

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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:

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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Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

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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."

On the third hand, Lillian Hellman alone stood up for him when the rest of the world hated Making It. Even Jackie K. jumped off that Jolly Rogered ship.

Nor have I even mentioned the best Pod party of them all, in the fall of 1962, at a soiree sponsored by Show magazine on Paradise Island, a wholly owned subsidiary of Huntington Hartford off the Caribbean coast of Nassau:

This was what Success looked like...and the look of it made me drunker than all the gallons of rum I consumed that week. This was what it meant to be rich: to sleep in a huge bright room with a terrace overlooking an incredibly translucent green sea, to stretch one's arms out idly by the side of a swimming pool and have two white-coated servants vie for the privilege of depositing a Bloody Mary into one's hand.... All around me, too, was the evidence of what it meant to be famous (for the North American delegation was mostly composed of people whose fame far outweighed my own meager measure of it): it meant that a serene self-assurance had been injected into the spirit to combat the uncertainties and anxieties which, to be sure, remained, but no longer had the field to themselves.

Paradise Island was for the author of Making It what that famous blaze of "indescribably white light" had been for Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous--either the sight of God or a "hot flash" of toxic psychosis, but definitely a conversion experience: "I loved everyone, and everyone loved me. I did not blame them; I even loved myself." Here, at last, he traded in the Cherokees, SAC red satin of his Brownsville tough-guy boyhood for a svelte suede jacket and an extension cord for his telephone. Norman no longer needed William Phillips, nor any other Elder of the Tribe. He had learned to swim with the sharks.

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)

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.

Rereading Breaking Ranks, one becomes indignant. It's not just the grandiose framing device--a letter to his son, John, as Whittaker Chambers in Witness petitioned his children--nor the monochroming of gaudy decades, nor the wholesale character assassination of entire categories of wrong-headed people and opinions (Panthers! Feminists! Gay Pride! Radical Chic! Ozone Layabouts!), nor the contempt for popular culture (how dare Susan Sontag enjoy the Supremes, or Richard Poirier the Beatles, or Leslie Fiedler comic books?), nor the promiscuous analogizing of bad reviews of Norman with Stalinism in the thirties, nor the pernicious reiterations of "party line" and "terror" (always in quotes, like a condom) to explain why anybody disagreed with Norman--as if, like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his real business were obedience training; as if he came with a built-in balcony, from which to bark our marching orders.

No, one becomes indignant because almost everything he has to say about the sixties and the counterculture is at best innocent of nuance and at worst meretricious. Having served my time at Pacifica Radio, at civil rights protests, in the War on Poverty, among migrant workers and in the antiwar movement, before hopping onto the pogo stick of a New York career, I know for a fact that there were white liberals who felt some personal responsibility for the plight of black people even though the Pod insists that "I have rarely met a single one [sic] who really did experience a sense of guilt over this issue." I know for another fact that what torpedoed the War on Poverty was that all those young lawyers, VISTA volunteers and organizers of communities, tenants' unions and welfare recipients began to upset local and state buddy-system power structures. I also know that the antiwar movement consisted of a whole lot more than Vietcong flags and "scions of...the First Families of American Stalinism"--and what's more, opposition to the war was created by the war itself, not by highbrows in whatever periodical or tank, who had less to do with changing public opinion than network television did.

For that matter, far from being what P. calls "very flimsy," the evidence that Adlai Stevenson in 1960 was "sympathetic to the cause of disarmament" was concrete and obvious to the rest of us--during the 1956 presidential campaign, Adlai had actually proposed a nuclear test-ban treaty, for which he was reviled by Richard Nixon.

One is also indignant at the homophobia that speaks of a "plague" that "rages" "among the kind of women who do not wish to be women and among those men who do not wish to be men.... There can be no more radical refusal of self-acceptance than the repudiation of one's own biological nature; and there can be no abdication of responsibility more fundamental than the refusal of a man to become, and to be, a father, or the refusal of a woman to become, and be, a mother." And there can be no more authoritarian an intellectual than the one who ordains that everybody else in the democratic motley look and behave exactly like him.

Maybe it started at Columbia, where he resented "homosexuals with their supercilious disdain of my lower-class style of dress and my brash and impudent manner," and was "repelled" by Ginsberg's "sexual perversity." In Ex-Friends, he not only doubts that homosexuality is "inborn" but even suspects Ginsberg of "having become a homosexual not out of erotic compulsion but by an act of will and as another way of expressing his contempt for normal life." This is almost as hilarious as the snit that seizes him when the Air Force Academy stages a conference in 1986 to celebrate Joseph Heller's Catch-22--"a book viciously defaming the branch of the very service in which the academy was preparing its students to serve." P. is scrupulous enough to remind us that he praised Catch-22 when he first reviewed it in Show, but that, of course, was before Heller savaged him in Good as Gold.

But by the time we get to Ex-Friends, so much indignation has made us as tired as Lionel Trilling. I don't even want to talk about Hannah Arendt. I met her once myself, in the early seventies, at a dinner party for Nathalie Sarraute to which I had been invited not because of my personality or my prose style but because I was the new editor of the Times Book Review. From where she sat, next to Mary McCarthy, she fixed on me a basilisk eye, and what she said was this: "Young man, we are watching you." Well. This was a lot scarier than Trilling's wondering how anybody serious could even watch television, much less write about it, because at least I got Trilling to admit to an enthusiasm for Kojak. Ginsberg I met for the first time in North Beach in 1956, the summer of Howl, and again in 1968 at the Democratic convention, and he didn't care who any of us were: Om. Everybody went to Hellman's parties, so long as she thought they could do her some good. And I think Mailer was nicer to Making It than, in fact, such an advertisement for splendid self deserved. And none of these luminaries, however condescending they may have been to the latest Young Man from the Provinces, had the least idea of a whole history of Left Coast progressivism picked up on the docks instead of Alcove 1 or Alcove 2 at the City College cafeteria.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that when Podhoretz goes on about the article Arendt wrote in 1957 on school desegregation, an article whose rejection by Commentary caused him to quit his junior-editorial job there, an article subsequently published in Irving Howe's Dissent, he might have mentioned that what was most controversial about that article was its recommendation of miscegenation as the only solution to America's race-relations problem. Since P. does go on about how much trouble he got into later on, with his essay "My Negro Problem--and Ours," which ended with the same recommendation, to omit any note of the resemblance is, shall we say, disingenuous. But P. has decided, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, that Hannah's "brilliance" was perverse, like Ginsberg's sexuality. And, in these pages, only Hellman is disingenuous. As for the rest of them, it's bad faith, false consciousness, failure of nerve and cowardice. Not only does it never occur to Podhoretz that his ex-friends might have been right; it never even occurs to him that they might have been sincere. No wonder he's lonely.

If I die, I forgive you; if I recover, we shall see.
   (Spanish proverb)

It's an old story, and even my own, so let's be brief. Once upon a time you were a Wunderkind, and now, oh so suddenly, you're an old fart. And it turns out that a lot of people you thought were your friends really just wanted you to write something for them, or publish something they had written, or get them a foundation grant, and now they've gone to some other party for Susan Sontag. This is unfair, but no excuse for a Lear-like rage, a howling on the blasted heath. Nor need you, in your failed hopes of a grander finish, have been so quick to junk the whole idea of a better world, of kinder people than the Partisan Reviewers, maybe organizing themselves as they please into co-ops, communes, collectives or jazz bands, someplace where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all--resolute solidarity and riotous individuality!--and where even the intellectuals know enough to think against their own surprising privilege, on behalf of the powerless and inarticulate.

Marx said somewhere that when the locomotive of history turns a corner, all the thinkers fall off. The Partisan Reviewers, although they could stay up all night drinking Scotch and disputing whether John Dewey had been an agent of the Japanese Mikado or Jay Lovestone was really a Lovestoneite, were never as important as they thought they were. Nobody could be, and intellectuals never are--in a pillbox like a Waco, in Culture Wars of seething sects, full of grudge and doctrine, firing essays instead of bullets, throwing tantrums instead of bombs, killing reputations and also time. What they were, these elders of a vanished tribe (and this is the saddest sidebar to Norman's sob story), were patriarchs who didn't want any children.

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