Review of Norman Podhoretz. Ex-Friends. Free Press. 1999.

Jami Duvall.  M. A. By Jami Duvall. M. A., 8th Oct 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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Review of Norman Podhoretz. Ex-Friends. Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. Norman Podhoretz has written a Memoir of his involvement with a number of famous people.

Ex-Friends. Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.

This is a very interesting book. Probably the most significant chapter is the narrative of his friendship with Allen Ginsberg, the poet. Ginsberg is most famous for his poem "Howl". His poetry is generally neglected today, but it was considered avant garde at the time he began writing, particularly for its obsenity and general advocating of mayhem in socity. He promised a world of endless excitement and expanded consciousness. Instead that degenerated into drugs and sexual perversion. Podhoretz thought he had a lyric gift, and showed promise, but he also felt that it was not realized. He claimed to be the leader of a literary movement, such as Kerouac and a few others, but according to our author, he was the only one of the school who had any particular ability. He thought of himself as the Ezra Pound of a new generation, however, as Podhoretz points out:

"The difference was that Pound had W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and James Joycde to push and promote (not to mention a host of lesser but still very important figures) whereas all poor Ginsberg had to work with were the likes of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And while many of the writers Pound sponsored were greatert than he was . . . Ginsberg was the best of his gang — such as he was and such as they were." Ex-Friends. 41.

Podhoretz speaks of Ginsberg's flight from women, and a vision in which he expressed "my fear to be and to die — to bear life." He feels that Ginsberg's radical attack on America (or Amerika, as Ginsberg liked to call it) and our social institutions had hurt many young people. In fact one of the threats that he would make in an argument they had in 1958 (the year I was born) was: "We'll get you through your children." Ex-Friends. 48. And it is true this philosophy was responsible for the ruin of many lives, and its influence still continues in this direction, though by descendants who know little more of Ginsburg than most people do of their great-great grandfathers.

The Trillings were his best friends for the longest period. Lionel Trilling was the first Jew to teach Literature at Columbia University. There had only been one or two others admitted to the faculty before him. He was a truly learned man in many ways, but he was extremely liberal in his politics. This was the cause of the break Podhoretz had with nearly all of his friends. Most of them had been Communists, and then Socialists. Podhoretz had been under these influences himself, but began moving further Right, putting strain on these relationships. He never completely broke with Lionel Trilling, but most of the other relationships could not be salvaged.

His friend Lillian Hellman, a screen writer, was a Communist, and it is doubtful she ever broke with the party. She lived in opulent style, which would seem to contradict her partisanship of the "Workers of the World", but Communists are never very consistent in this respect. She was a staunch supporter of Josef Stalin, even after he had been completely discredited by his own party. The discussion of her is well-written, and he has to deal with the fact that many remarks in her published letters show she was saying things about him — often bad things — to other people quite the opposite to what she was saying to him. He does a good job in dealing with this situation as fairly as he can.

Hannah Arendt is an interesting case all in herself. I read many years ago the biography of her Podhoretz cites by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl "For Love of the World." I read in that biography that the only thing she brought with her from Germany was a bound volume of her thesis, which was a study, written in Latin, of the meaning of the word "Caritas" in the works of St. Augustine. She was a good writer and a fair political philosopher. One is not encouraged to find she was one of the many student lovers of Martin Heidegger, who fell in later with the Nazis. She also lived with Karl Jaspers and his wife after they emigrated to America, but whether she was his lover or not does not appear. Her truly great work was "The Origins of Totalitarianism", this is the work that drew Podhoretz to her, and it is a truly interesting and informative book. She was never a Communist. She shows in her book that Communism and Nazism are both totalitarian, and it makes little difference which ideology you are killed for. Her two husbands had both been Communists, and many of her friends were Left-leaning. Podhoretz details how during the last ten years of her life she moved steadily further left, and at some point they had nothing more to do with each other.

Arendt was probably the most intelligent thinker in the group Podhoretz describes, but he shows how her brilliance worked against her in various cases. He moved from admiring sheer brilliance, even when enlisted in a wrong cause, to a more wary assessment of its potential. He himself shows considerable brilliance in his presentation (it was a prerequisite to be a member of that group), and he tells us a number of things that nuance our evaluation of Arendt. He does not take away from her stature as a thinker and writer, and I agree with him that Totalitarianism is an important book. "The Human Condition" is also significant.

His discussion of Norman Mailer is worth reading even for people like me who have never read Norman Mailer. He remarks:
"I knew that Mailer was not connected either personally or in his literary style and manner with writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and yet in their "beatniks" and his hipsters I saw the same pernicious cultural and political implications, and I spelled them out in my attack on the Beats in 'The Know-Nothing Bohemians'." Ex-Friends. 186.

The book is a detailing of some of the reasons he fell out with "The Family" this group of influential New York intellectuals who were a kind of literary Brahims in the second quarter of the past century. The final falling out for many of them came with various responses to the Vietnam war. Podhoretz remarks: "Unable to overcome its ancestral antipathy to capitalism, the Family helped keep the false promises of socialism alive, and out of this, as I eventually came to see, emerged many of the social programs that did more harm to the poor (and to the country as a whole) than good." Ex-Friends. 229.

Norman Podhoretz moved fairly steadily to the Right because he had a streak of honesty that would not permit him to delude himself in these matters. Eventually he came to support Ronald Reagan. How far right he came is evident from his defence of Sarah Palin and the Teaparty in 2010. At the end of a long editorial: "I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama." Norman Podhoretz. "In Defense of Sarah Palin," Wall Street Journal. 2010. This is indeed a move to the Right, and shows that instead of supporting fashionable friends among the self-appointed élites, he is more concerned about the country and its future. He feels that everyone of the people he discusses in the book, though they may have come to consider themselves his enemies, contributed to his own thought. and their creativity and intellectual abilities contributed to his growth.

What seems most apparent to me is that the group closed its ranks and refused eventually to hear anything with which it disagreed. It is obvious that this sheltered enclave within Academia was not in a position to be well-informed about the rest of the country. Any group that forfeits reality for ideology will suffer a similar fate. This does not mean that their work is of no value. It can still be of value, like the work on Totalitarianism, or it may be an example of a blind alley explored in a certain direction, and we don't need to go there again. Ex-Friends shows us many of the blind alleys explored in the 1940s and 1950s of the last century. That will be helpful in dealing with some of the problems caused by those attempts.


Politics, Review

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author avatar Jami Duvall. M. A.
Independent Researcher and Archive Consultant. History. Philosophy. Religion. Politics. All the stuff people get mad about, but shouldn't, because they are so important.

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