Commentary Magazine


On Paul Goodman

I have only once had the privilege of meeting Paul Goodman. I stress “privilege.” There is no one whose encounter flatters in a more exacting way. He has no small talk, only an immediacy of intense purpose. His chosen art is discourse—in the old sense of dialogue ferreting truth by bound and rebound, by unembarrassed exchange of intimate vehemence. To use that fine twist of phrase in Coriolanus: he does not “coy a man.” The hands are notable: they contour thought and the living, fluid shape of argument as if it were pottery. The forward hunch, the literal pressing home of an idea, suggest an artisan involved in the recoil or yielding of a tangible medium. We spoke till two in the morning, in the apartment of mutual acquaintances in the Village. The floor pulsed at regular intervals as the laundromat downstairs started up; the note of haste and cleansing was exactly right. I have known many such nights at the University of Chicago, in its former days, and in Eastern Europe, when the edge of a word or thought prickles the skin. They are not as frequent in America as they might be.

That, of course, is Goodman’s point. He is trying to restore to a society gone violent or indifferent (and the violence is bred of the uncaring) a sense of live, exploring debate. Between the closing walls of technological determinism and political cliché, he is trying to hack out elbow room for the imagination. The novels, the poems, the polemics, the tough-minded reveries of the Utopian, spring from an axiom of hope: from the assertion that the imperatives of our social and political condition are only apparent, that they do not enshrine the only possibility. “People are so bemused by the way business and politics are carried on at present, with all their intricate relationships, that they have ceased to be able to imagine alternatives. We seem to have lost our genius for inventing changes to satisfy crying needs. . . . And when one cannot think of anything to do, soon one ceases to think at all.” Against the unexamined crassness of habitual politics, against the cynicism which grows from impotence, Goodman declares the shaping power of individual contrivance.

The fantastic thing is that Goliath has noticed. Roughly, Goodman’s career falls into three periods: a stage of intellectually brilliant, but not unconventional radicalism in the 1930’s, culminating in his novel, The Empire City (1942); a fairly long eclipse, during which his work was known to a small circle of passionate admirers, and legend had it that forty manuscripts lay unpublished in a trunk; and the breakthrough, after Growing Up Absurd in 1960, and the re-issue of Communitas (written in collaboration with his brother Percival). The years out of the light seem to have stored in Goodman an explosive impetus and sense of urgency. Since Growing Up Absurd, he has produced, in rapid sequence, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (at least one of which dates back to 1950), The Community of Scholars, Drawing the Line (an updated version of a war-time pamphlet), and The Society I Live in is Mine (a collection of his letters to newspapers and magazines). A new novel is imminent. Today, Goodman matters.

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First, to those he is attacking, to those who represent the indiscriminate economic weight and power-hypocrisies of our society. When Goodman paraded in front of Random House in support of a general peace strike, Bennett Cerf sent out a cup of hot coffee. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has taken time off from his Goncourt journal of the Kennedy era to announce that Paul Goodman is a kind of licensed court jester to the true, sane liberalism of the administration. They do read him up there. But it is to the young that he is really important. In the past three years, Goodman has lectured at fifty colleges and universities. There is hardly a week when he is not speaking somewhere, to a student audience, to a parents’ association, to a gathering of social workers or teachers stupefied by the waste and absurdities of the system.

The Socratic gesture was limited to a small city, to a polis in which a man’s voice could span the market place. Goodman has shown that a single person, backed by the pressure of vision and immune to embarrassment, can still initiate and sustain dialogue amid the chaotic loudness of a mass society. That alone is a formidable achievement, and an argument to show that democracy by free contention makes sense. One recalls Hazlitt’s tribute to Cobbett: “He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist, ‘lays waste’ a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country.”

Abroad also. Though it was savaged by English reviewers, Growing Up Absurd has had its impact. Goodman’s is about the only American voice that young English pacifists and nuclear disarmers find convincing. Part of the reason I was approached to be senior member of the Cambridge anarchists was the rumor that I had met Goodman. The polish of some of the members and their recruitment from the most regal of Cambridge colleges struck me as odd. But that was bad history; for the source of modern anarchist doctrine is a prince.

Kropotkin’s Memoirs remains the best gloss on philosophic anarchism, on the reflexes of anger and hope which inspire Goodman. Each anarchist makes for himself the discovery reported by Kropotkin after his voyage to Siberia:

I had ample opportunities to watch the ways and habits of the peasants in their daily life, and still more opportunities to appreciate how little the state administration could give to them, even if it was animated by the very best intentions. My extensive journeys . . . taught me how little man really needs as soon as he comes out of the enchanted circle of conventional civilization. With a few pounds of bread and a few ounces of tea in a leather bag, a kettle and a hatchet hanging at the side of the saddle, and under the saddle a blanket . . . a man feels wonderfully independent.

He is ready for what Goodman would call “the primary experiences” of sensuous autonomy and personal encounter. In the ratmaze of urban technology, life is as stale as the fumes we breathe; our very emotions, the words we babble in the privacy of lust or fear, tend to be secondhand.

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To the legacy of Thoreau, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy, the balance of nuclear terror has added a new relevance. The facts of 20th-century history (in which some 70 million people were wiped out in Europe and Russia by war, deportation, or famine) suggest that the link between war and the nation-state is not accidental. The traditional anarchist critique was directed against the waste and oppressions of centralized government. The new anarchism focuses on the catastrophic failure of sovereign states to co-exist in peace, to grant their citizens a full span or expectation of survival. In the modern nation, armed to the teeth, citizenship has become a compact with Mars.

Goodman has seized on the cardinal error in Marxist prophecy—Marx’s failure to anticipate the tremendous, blind force of modern nationalism. In defining the young as a class which transcends national barriers, in trying to marshal in the young a common dread of war, a common revulsion against the power slogans and strategic frivolities of the old, the anarchists and peace movements are attempting to correct and redefine the Marxist image of international proletarian solidarity. Youth of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your lives.

In Goodman’s perspective, there is not much to choose between Russia and America. The sheer dimension of the military establishment and the calculated political investment in fear, create comparable distortions and restrictions of the human possibility:

The very futility of the States . . . commits them rigidly to the Cold War. Without it, it is doubtful if the great sovereignties could survive with anything like their present personnel, vested interests, motivations and ideology. Their one function seems to be to continue a clinch and hinder the evolution of the world community. And, of course, domestic and economic policy are swallowed up by the Cold War. Twenty per cent of the gross national product is devoted more or less directly to armament, and we are drifting rapidly forward into a fascism-by-consent. The case is not different in Russia, except that Russia can afford it less.

If I understand Goodman rightly, he believes that a nuclear war is, in fact, very probable, that the equal hypocrisy displayed by both sides in the disarmament talks and the dissemination of nuclear weapons in NATO (with German participation) mark a point of no return. Why, then, should a man labor to mend the injustice or ugliness of his community? How does the expectation of political disaster relate to Goodman’s untiring call for practical, local reform?

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This is the decisive and original point in his anarchist faith. First there is an aesthetic of personal gesture: “to make positive decisions for one’s community, rather than being regimented by others’ decisions, is one of the noble acts of man.” Unlike Tolstoy and the quietist wing of anarchism, Goodman is prepared to work with the available mechanism of social action, even where it is corrupt or sordid. He does not abdicate, but seeks to subvert creatively. He is, principally, a builder, and the ruling metaphor is always one of construction (edify means both to build and to educate).

But more urgently: the one chance there is of averting nuclear catastrophe lies in restoring to peace the dynamics of feeling, the imaginative scope, and sacrificial impulse which nation-states are able to summon in war. The logic of war—the obscure but radical spasm of psychological elation when the horror comes—springs directly from the frustrations, ungoverned complexities, and boredom of life in the technological warren. The central assertion is made in Communitas: “The future is gloomy, and we offer you a book about the bright face of the future! It is because we have a stubborn faith in the following proposition: the chief, the underlying reason that people wage war is that they do not wage peace. How to wage peace?”

Goodman’s present work—on a New York school board, in the study of delinquency and urban renewal, in the University Seminar on Problems of Interpretation at Columbia, in group therapy—is an attempt to spell out the answer. His genius as a publicist (“I am a man of letters in the old sense, one who thinks that the literary process itself, the criticism of life, adds a new and indispensable element”) has made the major lines of his argument familiar:

The multiplication of commodities and the false standard of living, on the one hand, the complication of the economic and technical structure in which one can work at a job, on the other hand, and the lack of direct relationship between these two have by now made a great part of external life morally meaningless.

If we are to survive, we must devise and articulate the pattern of a world so meaningful to human impulse and creativity that men will want to live in it; that they will find in it demand and use for those energies previously frustrated or released in the explosive ruin of battle. We must, in Lenin’s phrase, be taught “to dream forward.” Nationalism, economic greed, and the recoil of the individual mind from the fantastic difficulty of the issues posed—the profound, tired instinct to leave it to them to decide—have made the modern world a place formidably well equipped to die in. Goodman asks: can it be made a place to live in?

There is so little room left for maneuver, the line of nuclear terror is so fine-drawn, that the original anarchist vision of large-scale upheaval is no longer possible. Bakunin is obsolete. Hence Goodman’s insistence on the “small step,” on the local device: “a tendency to look always for large-scale solutions to our multifarious problems . . . is the very attitude that, in my opinion, causes our troubles. It is the way of liberals to try to solve a problem by pasting it on the wall and throwing a lot of money at it. But very many stubborn and terrible problems can be solved only by particular and tailor-made application to themselves. Every settlement house knows this; the attempt to centralize such houses . . . is ruinous. It leads to dilution and irrelevance.”

Goodman then puts his finger on the flagrant myth of “large-scale, massive support” as an efficient means in research or the life of art. Every academic is familiar with the paradox that it is easier to raise half a million dollars toward a bogus research project (often dreamed up primarily because there are funds to be drawn in) than to find ten thousand toward the translation of a vitally needed text or half a year off for a scholar working alone. Large sums indiscriminately bestowed do not necessarily spur; they can choke. Example: an eastern university not long ago received $35 million to foster the study of international relations (whether such study, in fact, exists in any serious intellectual or scholastic sense is by no means obvious). The more thoughtful members of the university soon realized that such an amount was an indigestible absurdity; but refusal, or a request that it be drastically reduced, is hardly conceivable in the present mores of academic prestige. What can one do with that kind of money? Move old buildings and design new ones. (A few blocks from the campus, Negroes live in a semi-slum where rat-bite is not infrequent.) And far more is involved here than a matter of fiscal technique. As Goodman points out, there are grave problems which can only be treated by exact, modest means, by the scrupulous generosity of the imagination when it is dealing with a single human person or local fabric. Large figures blur their own intent; art and love deal in the singular.

In his sense of due measure, Goodman is deeply Aristotelian (as were Hegel and the young Marx). His touchstone is “the human scale,” the application of the measure of man to our needs and surroundings. Technologies must be selected according to criteria of utility, comprehensibility, repair-ability, flexibility of use, amenity and modesty of design. Goodman proposes to ban cars from the streets of Manhattan, not only to purge the fouled air and restore fluidity of human motion, but to goad the imagination out of acquiescence, to make it aware of “ideal solutions, human values, and new ways to do basic things.” To walk from one place on a map to another—not as a cold war show of national virility—but in sheer utility or pleasure, mends something of the ancient, vital links broken between man and the place of his dwelling.

He urges that we create small colleges in which the process of intellectual exchange would be freed from all but a minimum of administrative or extra-curricular demands. That architects commissioned to build schools be allowed to confer with the teachers who will be using the building (in Manhattan and the Bronx, at least, the Goodman brothers appear to have won on this seemingly obvious point). That we turn to leisure rather than to drugs for our tranquillity. That our places of work be within natural, pertinent reach of our homes (it does not make sense for a man to spend three hours of his day commuting in dirty trains in order to keep his family out of a city to which he is contributing his life’s work). That parks and open spaces are not an end in themselves, but must be kept safe and made accessible to those who need them. That schoolteachers should not be burdened with pseudo-sociological controls over the manner and substance of their teaching, or dismissed for refusing to participate in four civil-defense drills a week.

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Precise hurts; detailed, concrete remedies. A picture of man at home in the world, rather than as a harassed guest. Above all, a plea for the logic of sensuous needs. (Goodman’s nightmares have a way of becoming the real thing: there is a new office building in New York with no windows whatever; the human beings who work in it presumably receive news of the weather between gusts of Muzak.) And time is running out. If we rebel at Goodman’s prodding, at the impatient arrogance of his compassion, he directs us to the evidence: to the statistics on alcoholism, drug-addiction, and mental illness in our cities; to Michael Harrington’s careful estimate that nearly a third of the population lives in substandard conditions; to the ubiquity of violence and boredom; to the nearness of major racial conflict or international crisis. Goodman is an angry man:

We spend our money for follies, our leisure does not revive us, our conditions of work are unmanly and our beautiful American classlessness is degenerating into a static bureaucracy; our mass arts are beneath contempt; our prosperity breeds insecurity; our system of distribution has become huckstering and our system of production discourages enterprise and sabotages invention.

But anger is not despair; and suddenly we hear the buoyant, Jeffersonian note: “if ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country.”

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* * *

This is, I believe, a fair statement of Goodman’s positive regional anarchism. It is the redoubt from which he organizes his forays. Against censorship, whether it be the hounding of Pasternak in Russia, of O’Casey in Dublin, or merely the habit of the New York Times not to print letters that are genuinely controversial or radical in tone. Against the window-dressing culture staged in the Kennedy White House (“His musicale has been praised by Paul Henry Lang who was so brutal to Ike”). From this Jeffersonian anarchism derive the pragmatic blueprints and repair-jobs (the manual bias of Goodman’s intelligence, his sly carpenter’s wit, show beautifully in the paper on “Seating Arrangements” in Utopian Essays).

But a major component is missing, without which his position is inaccurately presented. He regards the health of society as indivisible from the mental state and psychopathology of the individual. In his writings, metaphors of neurosis, transfer, repression, and Gestalt inevitably relate the domain of psychiatric therapy to that of political action. He has linked doctrines of anarchism, non-violence, and decentralization derived from Kropotkin, Gandhi, and Jefferson, to the heritage of Freud and, more specifically, of Wilhelm Reich. It is from Reich that he adapts the concept of a “sexual revolution” and the implicit analogy (probably it is more than that) between social liberation and erotic release.

Goodman refers himself to Milton, “the last Englishman, the last who insisted on keeping all the parts together, freedom and power, sexuality and adulthood, poetry and citizenship.” But whereas the mythology of Milton is doctrinal, that of Goodman is essentially psychoanalytic. “We must forthrightly carry through the sexual revolution, encourage the sexuality of children and adolescents, get rid of the sex laws and other moral laws.” But not, as Milton or Tolstoy would have it, in order to blunt the edge of sexual need and malaise in our lives, but to give the libido larger, freer compass. How is this to be achieved in a society afflicted simultaneously by a Puritan hang-over and a blatant commercial use of erotic suggestions?

One gets the impression that Goodman would wish to extend the benefits of individual analysis or group psychotherapy to a large part of the population. “I want to transform the physical training and play periods in the public schools to the principles of character analysis and eurhythmies.” Adult conflicts and social neuroses would be acted out and explored in sessions of Gestalt therapy (with plenty of fresh air and handicrafts in the interval). The image is that of a Platonic state with the psychiatrist as Guardian. Indeed, there are hints in Goodman’s work and personal pronouncements that those who have not undergone analysis are somehow diminished or suspect.

I am not qualified to judge the technical aspects of the argument, and it may well be that Goodman envisages a transitional period of wide-scale social therapy before the new Communitas can be realized (this would correspond to the Marxist pattern of coercion and mixed social modes before the classless state). But it is here that the parochial, limiting nature of his involvement with certain specific segments of American experience, and particularly New York-Jewish experience, tells. In Europe, where social modes are more stable, and personal lives have been long exposed to public, political tragedy, psychotherapy and communal interest in private neurosis play a far smaller role. Psychoanalysis has been recognized for what it often is: the pathos of the leisured. Goodman reflects a milieu in which the conventions and jargon of the analytic situation are commonplace. In projecting this atmosphere to the general human possibility, he seems naive and self-defeating. For it is difficult to see how some of the virtues he sets highest—the habit of private, solitary adventure, the eccentricity and complication of the single person, the restoration of concreteness and immediacy to our speech—will survive the erosive clichés of psychotherapy. Being himself brilliantly articulate and unembarrassed, Goodman shows little awareness of the healing energies of self-irony and silence (that, perhaps, is why his poems and his book on Kafka are so weak).

Because it is no more than a functional shorthand, the psychoanalytic mythology of consciousness and behavior grossly oversimplifies. And this oversimplification often penetrates Goodman’s thought. Though calling for modest, exact perception of the individual case, he will drift, nearly unaware, into massive generalization. He has implied that racial conflicts and deep-rooted historical prejudice are simply neuroses, calling for therapeutic treatment (compared with the work done on mass-hatreds and social hysteria by Hermann Broch and Ganetti, Goodman’s analysis is impatient journalism). He will often assume that dilemmas are complicated or cruel only because no one has tried a common-sense solution, that they—the men in power—are simply knaves and fools. Commenting on the Meredith case, Goodman writes: “Kennedy did not use his moral authority; he did not go to Oxford, take Meredith by the hand, and into the school. If he had then been hit by a bottle—he might well have—there would have been a great change in the southern liberals. The sane would have ceased cowering.” The wobbly syntax (who is he, Meredith or the President?) alerts to the general simplification. Would there have been a great change or a yawp of derision? And note the automatic equation between “sane” and “liberal.” To regard all segregationists as insane may make one feel better; it renders their vile conviction more tolerable to the liberal imagination. But is it a useful or responsible basis for political action?

When Goodman’s prose works, it has the helpful impatience of a good machinist’s manual. But often it is careless and woolly (again one thinks of Hazlitt on Cobbett: “One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen”). The point is not trivial. When they are set down grossly, with little attention to the resources and complexities of the medium, ideas emerge as simpler—and that often means as less exciting and less true—than they are. Unlike Ruskin, who worked along similar lines of criticism and Utopia, Goodman has not given his proposals the untimeliness of beauty.

He is too honest not to know that. He reports of himself that he aimed to be a playwright, novelist, and poet. But the hour is late and too many urgent jobs need doing: “I must write, freely, the kind of poems and stories that belong to a person who dutifully takes on these other responsibilities of citizenship. Yet the task is too much for me.” Both the moral choice and the statement of defeat are deeply Jewish. But as one looks at the prodigious amount of work done, there is no sense of failure; only the exhilarating sight of a man fighting windmills which have, in fact, turned out to be Philistine giants. Mr. Goodman is a mensch. The species is getting rare.

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