Commentary Magazine


Author's Puzzlement

To the Editor:

Herbert N. Schneidau’s review of my book, The New Reformation [November 1970], was not unfriendly, and I raise the following point in sincere puzzlement: By actual (generous) count, about 60 pages of the book have a direct or indirect connection with the Youth Movement. This is much less than a third of the whole, and my preface has the same proportion. 1 thought 1 was writing about the history and ethics of technology, the nature of pedagogy and teaching language, the problem of legitimacy and popular sovereignty in modern conditions; and I tried to draw from these topics a kind of conservative manifesto.

The reviewer, however, writes as if the book were almost entirely about my wry relation to young dissenters, which is an interesting topic but not very interesting to me. I am really interested in hearing criticism of my views on the ethics of technology, the plight of democratic legitimacy, etc. How will I learn this is all I am told is that I “continue to think creatively and concretely”?

I am reminded of the reviews of Five Years. In that book, by actual (generous) count, less than one-seventh had any relation to sexual matters at all, yet every review concentrated almost entirely on some monstrous sexual revelations which occupied even much less space in the book. The book was primarily on Method.

I wrote a book called Growing Up Absurd—I have published 28 others, only one of which is on a youth theme. Is it honorable to treat a writer as a pawn in some game?

Will Herbert N. Schneidau tell me what gives with reviewers that they do this kind of thing?

Paul Goodman
New York City

_____________

 

Herbert N. Schneidau writes:

I’m not surprised that Paul Goodman wishes his relationship with young dissenters played down; as I said, his is a peculiarly uncomfortable position. But as a reviewer I must indicate why a book is significant in the first place, and here that relationship is of consuming interest. Speaking of overselectivity, Mr. Goodman writes as if my review were “almost entirely about [his] wry relation to young dissenters,” whereas I thought I spent my real energy supporting his insight about the analogy with the Reformation, which after all furnishes the title and therefore has some claim to being the organizing principle of the book.

The fact is, and this book makes it clear, that Mr. Goodman is much more worthy of regard as a cultural historian than as the Mr. Fixit of our problems that he sometimes takes himself to be. I don’t see how any intelligent reader can fail to be fascinated and instructed by his intermittent account of trying to bring the zeal of young activists into some useful relation with our culture. These passages form a significant slice of the cultural history of our time; they reveal more about youthcult than most other statements, Strawberry, or Port Huron, or what have you. And it is only in them that Mr. Goodman establishes his authority to speak, sometimes usefully, and sometimes merely sentimentally, on the cultural problems he poses.

The real question is not whether I, or COMMENTARY readers, will pay attention to his “conservative manifesto” but whether his young friends will. We can all learn something from Mr. Goodman, but they have by far the most to learn, and even Mr. Goodman’s most elementary observations would help them. But, as I indicated, the book itself teaches us that these young antinomians will see Mr. Goodman’s measures as Pelagian palliatives, and therefore a worldly “sell-out.” The anomalies of this situation—that of the prophet who cannot be heard by his own disciples—override in importance the content of any of Mr. Goodman’s proposals; this paradox may become fateful for all of us, as the greeners of America become more numerous. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

_____________

About the Author




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