Public & Private
by Paul Goodman.
Brussel & Brussel. 288 pp. $5.00.
Paul Goodman has gotten around a good deal during the past decade. As a teacher, journalist, and lecturer, a sort of Johnny Apple-seed of unconventional thought, he has found ways to share his ideas with tens of thousands of Americans. His effect, both as a speaker and as a writer, has been greatest upon the young. Wooed by the patient, folksy style he adopts on the platform, the intimate practicality of his ideas on subjects like city planning and economics—subjects which they tend to find specialized and removed—Goodman’s college audiences have come to regard him as a sort of professor-prophet: one of the few elders who can transmit complex, traditional ideas in something resembling the modern language. Indeed, for all the momentary controversies he may inspire, Goodman’s popularity keeps increasing. Americans from Maine to Oregon have come to regard him as their own Prince Kropotkin, nourished on native soil: angry sometimes, cranky always, but tame and friendly nevertheless.
Yet there is a disconcerting contradiction between Goodman the social critic and Goodman the man, and it is nowhere more apparent than in the latest, most directly personal of his works, Five Years. The book is composed of extracts from diaries he kept during the period of time he considers his most fallow, 1955-1960. They were written, Goodman tells us now, by an aging man, starved for love, dying to be used. Toward the end of the period covered by the book, Goodman’s career finally turned, and he enjoyed the first of the successes that would soon make his name nearly as familiar to the readers of Playboy as to the editors of Liberation.
The first thing we learn from Five Years is that Goodman very rarely talks or writes directly to us, his contemporaries, no matter how much his work may seem to describe the world that we inhabit with him. He is, on the contrary, far more involved with the dead: with friends he has lost and writers he has loved. Ideas he absorbed a long time ago seem still to occupy his mind and form its patterns; while observations from the contemporary world are only data, tesserae that fit easily into the private mosaic of his belief. “. . . It was the first conversation in a long time from which I had learned anything,” he writes of a panel discussion at Yale in which he participated, “—the terms hard and soft money.”
The remark is not hyperbolic. Nowhere in the book does Goodman, in discussion with friends, seem to learn anything more profound than this rather elementary piece of economic theory. “I don’t know whether it is common fate,” he reflects, “but I usually have no conversation with my intellectual peers.” Nor does this prophet of dialogue in education, of communalism in society, seem especially interested in developing his thoughts in conjunction with those of the people around him.
But his mind, however isolated, has an unusually rich life, and because Five Years exposes us to its daily processes it is a book worth reading. Here we see the other side of Paul Goodman, the dropout’s friend, the guerrilla fighter whose lonely attacks on the proud fortress of contemporary education leave its sentries, truant officers, and lower school teachers trembling with anger and concern. The Goodman of Five Years is a man whose governing passion is a love for the mind’s achievements, a man who cannot bear to see the tradition he loves mutilated by the unworthy teachers who are paid to transmit it to the luckless young.
In Goodman’s earlier, more formal writings this passion revealed itself mainly through arguments directed against contemporary education. While he has described the failures of America’s schools and colleges in considerable narrative detail, he has usually communicated the alternative system he has in mind only by assertion or historical analogy. As a consequence, his ideas, and even his specific practical suggestions, have been misunderstood and sometimes misused. His adult critics have written him off as a utopian whose every scheme is totally impractical, while many of his student followers have used his attacks on contemporary instruction to justify their own rebellion against thought.
But the entries in Five Years that contain discussions of the books Goodman has read or the music he has heard enrich his earlier, formal arguments about education. For they show his own love of ideas in an active, dramatic form. He is a man totally at home with the great thinkers and writers that most of this generation’s students have been taught to revere, to regard as unapproachable. No matter what the field of discourse, he displays an almost tactile pleasure in analyzing its intricacies and mastering its technical terms. If he can derive so much enjoyment from his education, Goodman seems to say, then so can any man. To him the issue is one of educational systems rather than human capacities. In his writing he tries desperately to create a systematic means of instilling in the young the same spontaneous interest in great thinkers and their worlds as he himself possesses. “The University is lousy,” he writes at one point, “but it is all we have and it does go back to Paris. So I try to undermine it and proclaim Vivit Academia.” But Goodman is a gentle saboteur. He remains firmly convinced that his mission is to awaken students to the human value of disciplined thought. “. . . Probably my chief use is that I carefully preserve the conventional structure for the young and prove that one can maintain some vitality and honor within it,” he notes in 1960, the year that his reputation began to grow. “This gives them a possibility of having a past.”
Goodman’s personal relations with the young, however, are not quite so controlled as these sentiments would suggest. He is, as we see him in Five Years, a good deal more concerned about the intellectual structure he wants to uphold than he is about the people who will do the actual upholding. And the disjunction, moreover, between Goodman’s abstract hopes for a humane educational system and his emotional reaction when he sees a living, breathing male student is so sharp as to seem a bit gross when one tries to describe it. If he sees the school-aged generation collectively as a group whose minds are being wasted and miseducated, he sees them individually as bodies to be desired. “When my peers and I meet at a party,” he concludes his reflection on the shortage of interesting conversation, “they are distracted by whatever distracts them . . . while I am looking for an attractive boy or am gloomy because there isn’t one.”
There is no question in Five Years about Goodman’s obsession with sex. Whenever he’s not thinking, he’s cruising. His search for willing young men, however, resembles that of a nearsighted man groping for a pair of mislaid glasses: he has no sense of the texture of the world that surrounds the object of his pursuit. He alone, in the passages that describe his activities, has shape or dimension. Past him we see the outlines of a wife he considers shrewish (Maggie to his bookish Jiggs), of two bothersome kids, of male bodies that tempt him. Everything else is a blur.
One effect of this myopia is to make the sex passages in Five Years more comic than enticing or disturbing. While the book’s publicity suggests that it possesses a confessional quality worthy of Genet or Gide, the actual text seems closer to a Charlie Chaplin movie like Modern Times. Goodman’s actions arise out of private ideas and images that he stubbornly continues to impose on whatever reality he happens to find. The incongruity that results is frequently bizarre:
Crossing Alabama the conductor orders me out of the Negro car where I am just getting friendly with the pleasant sailor I am sitting with. “You don’t know your place” (white). Because of my illicit sexual intentions I protest only feebly and go into the other car, and then I feel like a dog for having let him down on an issue that seemed important to him. (If we had gotten along further, I guess, I should have put up more of a fight and gotten thrown off the train.) At least in New York I am humiliated and thrown out of a bar for what is important to me. But it’s all of a piece.
At first one wonders whether the passage is a joke—but no, it is too similar to the episodes that surround it. What made Goodman enter the Negro car in the first place (the year is 1956)? The same view of sex that sends white college students out after Negro girls? Could he possibly have been so unconscious of the customs he was violating as to reckon that he could seduce the sailor without causing trouble? Or so unconscious of the way black men are treated in Alabama—this social critic who spends much of his time among the editors of Liberation magazine—as to have preceived race as an issue only after the episode ended?
It is clear from passages like this one that the Paul Goodman who lives in the world is not the best spokesman for the Paul Goodman who dwells in the great tradition. He does not, as we see him in Five Years, embody the ideals which he espouses. Yet the fact that he published the book at all, allowing us to see him at his worst, is a reminder of the honesty that underlies the best of his work. “The sacrament of public gesture!” he writes after being told that “my public acting-out has led to my dismal hardships.” The fact that Goodman sees the people who surround him as a public rather than as a variety of individuals probably makes it easier for him than for most of us to play his life as if it were a role on stage. But however annoying it may sometimes be, Goodman’s performance is still of great value. He has learned his part well, thought it through with care, and is always trying to fuse it with the present which he perceives in order to create scenes and stories that will engross and instruct his audience.