Commentary Magazine

The Issue

“On the Death of a Friend” was spoken by Lionel Trilling at the funeral services held for Elliot Cohen on May 31, 1959, and we are publishing it here in its original form. Everyone knows that Elliot Cohen created COMMENTARY and edited it for fourteen years, but I doubt that anyone except the people who in one capacity or another were close to the actual workings of the magazine ever appreciated the extent to which COMMENTARY was Elliot Cohen. All good editors have a style, and it was the essence of Elliot Cohen’s style that the magazine he produced should appear to be self-generated: no editor ever hid from his readers more insistently than he, and no “journal of opinion” ever came before the world with so chaste a presentation, chaste even in format and typography—the stately Fairfield columns, the severe rectangular proportions. When you looked at the cover of an issue of COMMENTARY, you saw a quiet pattern of type that suggested homage to the classic virtues—order, harmony, balance, the whole taking precedence over the individual parts. No single article was ever featured, and the subject of each piece was always stressed above the name of its author.


But the fact is that the impersonality of COMMENTARY—as any of its contributors can testify—derived from a very powerful exertion of personality. At least half of the articles Elliot Cohen published were written only because he forced them into being. He was gifted with an uncanny sensitivity to what may be called the representative issues—that is, the problems preying on the minds of a great many people at any given moment, sometimes a touch below the level of awareness—and therefore he invariably knew where the relevant areas of discussion lay and by which writers they might be illuminated. Some editors (like the late Robert Warshow, who served on the staff of COMMENTARY for nearly nine years) are distinguished for an extraordinary understanding of the peculiar talents of others, and they operate by helping a writer to realize his own intentions more perfectly. Elliot Cohen, on the other hand, was the kind of editor who worked largely by feeding ideas to writers and by encouraging them to push harder and aim higher than they might otherwise have done. He was more concerned with broadening their intentions than with bringing the ideas they already had into full flower, and often he opened new worlds for them to explore, worlds of whose existence they had scarcely been conscious before. Given the energy and the skill with which he exercised this impulse to teach and guide and influence, virtually no article ever appeared in COMMENTARY without some trace of his hand; and no article ever bore the trace of his hand without being deepened or heightened or refined.

COMMENTARY reflected the personality of Elliot Cohen in many other ways too. The remarkable variety of subjects that the magazine covered was not simply the mark of his limitless curiosity; it was—as Lionel Trilling puts it—a direct consequence of his refusal of intellectual “purity,” a refusal to define himself by his exclusions and snobberies rather than by his passions and enthusiasms. To be sure, there was an ideological side to this refusal that several critics of COMMENTARY found repugnant These critics maintained that the widespread disillusionment with socialism among intellectuals had not, after all, changed the fact that American society was in its nature antagonistic to the values of a truly humane civilization, and they charged—unjustly, I think—that the more “positive” relation to the culture implied by Elliot Cohen’s stance was a species of “conformity.” But the ideological issue mattered far less to the kind of magazine COMMENTARY was than its critics (and perhaps even its Editor) may have realized. What did matter was the exhilaration, the tone of high seriousness, and the good writing that followed upon Elliot Cohen’s eagerness to encourage the application of intelligence, sensibility, and style to subjects that had rarely felt the touch of these qualities before. I am thinking particularly here of the many brilliant pieces he published on American popular culture—pieces in which a group of gifted young writers made a first attempt to take their own involvement in popular culture seriously enough to generate a wealth of new insight into the question of taste and discrimination. Then there was the “Study of Man” department, which gave voice to the efforts of those few social scientists who were actively resisting the barbarization of their disciplines by jargon and naive scientism. So too with the political essays regularly published in the magazine; they exhibited a unique combination of hard-headedness, moral fervor, and good prose. And of course there was the continuing and many-sided analysis of the deep changes taking place in the American Jewish community as a result of the move to the suburbs and the resurgence of Jewish identification among the indifferent—an analysis no less remarkable for its honesty than for its superiority to apologetics or sectarian bias. That COMMENTARY occasionally went too far in some directions and not far enough in others is a trivial point; the main thing to say is that it went somewhere, that it never stopped moving, that it was alive and responsive and alert. Elliot Cohen’s achievement consisted not (as some incorrigibly reductive readers thought) in the propagation of a new system of attitudes, but in the creation of a magazine daring in conception and responsible in execution; a magazine that found a way of being both Jewish and non-parochial; that could at once satisfy the requirements of the specialist and the needs of the literate reading public; that took its stand against the decay of standards without falling victim to academicism, preciosity, or the spirit of coterie.



Such a magazine cannot be described simply in terms of the period in which it flourished, for it is a product of the will, the imagination, and the labor of individuals in what is perhaps the one genuinely collaborative enterprise that also deserves to be called creative. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that a magazine has the most intimate connections with the present and the immediate and the occasional; and a serious magazine may be recognized by this: that it knows itself to be located in history and therefore continually tries to deal with the present from the perspective both of the past (which fosters soundness) and of the future (which invites risk). Bearing these qualifications in mind, we can say that COMMENTARY was very much a magazine of the 50′s. For one thing, it partook, and to some extent led, in the discovery of a new “general” public which proved receptive to stronger intellectual fare than its predecessors of the 20′s and 30′s—roughly the same public which, a little mysteriously, has formed the audience for the quality paperbacks and has forced several popular magazines to undergo a radical change of character.

There is, however, a profounder sense in which COMMENTARY was of the 50′s. Throughout the 20′s and 30′s, the belief became common among intellectuals both in America and Europe that the Protestant-liberal-bourgeois synthesis which had formed the basis of Western civilization since the early 17th century was disintegrating at a very rapid rate. The inspiration for this belief came not only from Marxism but from a host of social critics on the right (like Ortega and Eliot), as well as from most of the poets and novelists of the modern movement—not to mention observation of life itself. “Things fall apart,” said W. B. Yeats in accents reminiscent of John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World,” an anguished poem written by a man of the 17th century to whom the break-up of the medieval synthesis seemed equivalent to the destruction of the whole order or the cosmos—and Yeats goes on:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,. . . .
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Thinking of Copernicus, Donne said in 1611 that the “new philosophy calls all in doubt,” and Yeats in 1919—thinking of Darwin, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Einstein—might easily have said the same, and he would have been echoed by a large proportion of the educated and the literate all over the Western world. It was only in the 50′s that the echoes would have grown faint, for it was only in the 50′s that this belief began to be challenged with any energy. The causes are much too complex to set forth here, and I will simply say that the diagnosis of the modern prophets was called into doubt when their predictions either failed of fulfillment or were indeed fulfilled, but in shapes unexpectedly horrible. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of Christianity and the consequent birth of a new and more glorious race of creatures on earth; then came the Nazis. Marx asserted that capitalism would perish of its own inner contradictions and that the bourgeoisie would be displaced by a vigorous new class rising on the tide of history. But capitalism did not perish in the depression (whether because of the war or not we shall never know) and the Soviet Union turned out to represent not a new and more humane force struggling into being but an old and monstrous tyranny; not the “wave of the future,” but a ghost from the caverns of our own barbarous past—a Christian heresy, as Toynbee called Communism, whose animating drive seemed to be the creation of a culture identical to our own in everything except political freedom and a regard for the sanctity of human life. (The recent Soviet exhibition in New York proudly featured an automobile styled along the lines of the Cadillac, but it went the Cadillac—and America—one better by having a gold-colored grille instead of a silver.)

Under these circumstances a revulsion set in against the idea that the West was “finished,” and indeed against the historicist philosophies of the 19th century in general, which had supplied the metaphysical basis for thinking of civilizations as organisms with a pseudo-biological lifespan. This revulsion expressed itself very strongly among the younger philosophers, historians, and sociologists of the postwar period, many of whom found COMMENTARY hospitable to the kinder conception they were developing of the traditions, character, and role of the American middle class. The 50′s, in short, undertook to demonstrate that the Protestant-liberal-bourgeois synthesis had not broken down—that, in fact, our civilization was proving itself capable of adapting to new circumstances without losing form or identity. In this undertaking, COMMENTARY was an important participant.



But in the past few years, the suspicion has begun to force itself into the minds of more and more people that the prosperity of the Eisenhower Age is a deceptive sign of vigor and health. It is not merely a question of our inability to keep up with the Russians in the arms race—though this certainly shows lack of resolution even among those groups who might be expected to believe that a hydrogen war is preferable to a world dominated by the Communists. The boredom one senses on all sides, the torpor, the anxiety, the listlessness, somehow seem a deeper cause for alarm. What is there about the life we lead and the conditions surrounding us that accounts for the rise in the consumption of narcotics (including legal drugs like tranquilizers and sleeping pills); the fantastic divorce rate; the phenomenal number of breakdowns; and the spread of senseless juvenile violence and crime even into the comfortable middle class?

In the current issue we are publishing the first of three essays by Paul Goodman on what it is like to grow up in America today. These essays are important because taken together they constitute the first analysis that solidly relates delinquency to the prevailing patterns of respectability, showing how the juvenile criminal and the Organization Man, the rebel and the conformist, are equally symptomatic of the same deep disturbance in American culture. In defining the nature of the disturbance (if I may anticipate the conclusion to his series), Mr. Goodman develops a fresh and very valuable notion that seems to me a way of honestly recognizing the truth about our society without forcing a return to the defeatist idea that the West is finished. Most of our trouble, he says, stems from the fact that we are the inheritors of a number of “incomplete revolutions” (he specifies more than twenty) which have succeeded far enough to disrupt the traditional mores and yet not far enough to replace them with a coherent new pattern. “Some revolutions fail to occur; most half-occur or are compromised, attaining some of their objectives and resulting in significant social changes, but giving up on others, resulting in ambiguous values in the social whole that would not occur if the change had been more thoroughgoing.” For example, although industrial workers have won the struggle for unions, better wages, and decent conditions, their failure to push forward to the goal of “production for use” (a key term in syndicalist and socialist thought alike) has meant that the worker continues to be “alienated” from his labor and therefore to be cut off from a prime source of dignity and pride. The economy, moreover, scorning the ideal of use, has dedicated itself to the production of frippery, and this in turn has bred a huge class of promoters and salesmen whose job is to stimulate artificial needs in a consumer already badgered beyond endurance, and whose advertising methods have contributed immeasurably to the debasement of language and the wild growth of a general public cynicism. To take another example of the same condition in the area of morals, there is the widely publicized “sexual revolution,” which everyone says has been in progress for the past thirty or forty years. According to Mr. Goodman—and here, whatever one’s point of view, it is impossible to disagree—the fact that repression and inhibition have been relaxed without the correlative destruction of “inherited prejudices, fears, and jealousies” has meant that the young (and not they alone) “are trapped by inconsistent rules, suffer because of excessive stimulation and inadequate discharge, and become preoccupied with sexual thoughts as if these were the whole of life.”

Mr. Goodman’s analysis is the best single description I have seen of the social situation today, and the more one reflects on it, the more widely applicable it comes to appear. As a perspective on what has happened to American youth in the postwar period, it seems to me richer than any of the standard sociological approaches and more concrete than the usual psychoanalytic view. But I think it throws light even on an apparently unrelated phenomenon like the weakness of American foreign policy, which can be interpreted as a symptom of confusion about the historical role of our civilization analogous to the bewilderment of the young over the official values of their world. We are the heirs of a tradition (going back to the philosophers of the Enlightenment) which commits us, whether we like it or not, to acting out the great adventure of modernity to the limit. But the pressures of the cold war have gradually transformed us into a society devoting all its energies to holding a defensive line not only against the very real threat of Soviet power but against the promise of our own future potentialities. To work toward the realization of those potentialities would involve a struggle to complete some of the incomplete revolutions of which Mr. Goodman speaks. And since what the newspapers call “imaginative leadership” is simply the blessing heaven bestows on a people willing to pursue the destiny to which their history compels them as though it were a personal psychic need of every individual member, such a struggle might also mean the discovery of alternatives to our present policy of depending exclusively on the “balance of terror” to ward off a hydrogen war. In any event, a good way to begin the work of completion is to encourage a reawakening of the kind of social criticism exemplified by Mr. Goodman’s essays—criticism animated by a “utopian” vision of human possibility that commands assent precisely because it is so much more sensible than the constricted ideas of people who are pleased to think of themselves as realists. And a good way for COMMENTARY to begin a new period of its own history is for it to participate in an effort of will and consciousness that may, if we are lucky, preoccupy the best minds and talents of the coming decade.

Norman Podhoretz



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