Saturday, April 21, 2012

The theory of dilemmas

One of the many interesting revelations of Jonathan Lee's documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life is that Goodman saw The Empire City, his most ambitious (and in its weird way, most autobiographical) work, as a kind of Don Quixote in reverse, in which it is society that is delusional, and the Quixotic heroes are people who have determined to live with integrity, in a way that is not an affront to human dignity. He observed that the reversal wouldn't have made sense if only one character had chosen be be sane, for to be alone, to be without society, intrinsically led, in Goodman's way of thinking, to its own kind of derangement. As his articulated it in the somewhat cryptic "Theory of Dilemmas" he set forth in the novel (and how like Goodman it was to present a theory in a novel), "If we conformed to the mad society, we became mad; but if we did not conform to the only society that there is, we became mad."

Goodman will have been dead for forty years this August, and few people under fifty would be likely to know his name. Most of his books are out of print (The Empire City, however, is available), and the long-promised biography by Taylor Stoehr seems unlikely to appear soon, if ever. Jonathan Lee reports that when he approached Random House, which must have sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies of Goodman's books in the 1960s and '70s, about re-issuing some of them in conjunction with his film, the response he received from an editor was "Who's Paul Goodman?"

Is Goodman ripe for rediscovery? One would think that the generation that has produced Occupy Wall Street would find some food for thought in an anarchist and pacifist who advocated bottom-up, decentralized, community-based practical solutions and eschewed ideological loyalties and political allegiances, and who spoke out forcefully against the corruption he found to be pervasive in American politics, industry, commerce, urban planning, and education. The Dilemma of Political Action that Goodman articulated, that in the employment of the only political tools available one becomes part of the very system one opposes, remains relevant, and unresolved. But just as Goodman ultimately wore out his welcome with much of the New Left (not because he changed, but because they did), he would probably wind up as an awkward fit with today's protestors as well. In the end, Goodman was not an economic thinker at all, and only accidentally a political one; he was above all a moralist, one whose philosophy was grounded in the social ties which he saw as fundamentally arising from his tutelary deity, which was, of course, Eros.

Goodman opposed the Vietnam War and the nuclear weapons race because he found these things to be immoral, and for that he was adopted, for a while, as a father figure to draft resisters and others on the Left, but he had no patience with armed liberation movements or their sympathizers. Though no apologist for capitalism, he was never a Marxist (he may have had at most a brief fling with Trotskyism in his teens), nor did he ever become a neoconservative convert, as did many of his peers from the Commentary crowd of the 1950s and '60s. He instead became, or rather remained, what he called "a neolithic conservative," a traditionalist whose fundamental allegiance to human values (it wouldn't be amiss, in his case, to say "Western values") led him almost invariably to positions that were deemed "radical" by American society, whether those positions involved opposing the military-industrial complex, abolishing compulsory education as inimical to the free spirits of young people, or advocating the banning of automobile traffic from much of Manhattan.

He could be frustrating enough, as a writer and as a person, and with the possible exceptions of Growing Up Absurd and Communitas (the latter co-written with his brother Percival, a noted architect), his work seems ill-suited to the current directions of academic scholarship, even on the Left. His short fiction could be so stylized as to be virtually unreadable, he showed little interest in women's issues, and he was prone to ex cathedra statements that demonstrated a condescending assumption that he was the bearer of the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization and that everyone else needed to benefit from his insight. (To be sure, he was hardly alone in that regard; the New York intellectuals in general were not a modest crowd.) He was personally and politically disruptive, a scold, a prophet. And yet, as contrarian as his ideas could be, they were often prescient, and where they were not, in retrospect, what makes Goodman now seem dated is often simply an indication of how badly we have strayed away from a world in which his proposals just might have made sound good sense. The whole notion of "social criticism," that the ways in which society is organized, the "means of livelihood and ways of life" which Communitas addressed, should be open to inspection, debate, and reform, now seems sadly anachronistic, as the machine grinds on, inexorably, for its own sake.

As little as his poetry and fiction has in common with what has emerged as the contemporary canon over the last fifty years, much of his verse remains highly rewarding, and The Empire City, the sprawling novel he worked on, in fits and starts, for some twenty years, publishing it in sections, like The Dead of Spring above, is eccentric, messy, infuriating, arguably unfinished, but also often enlightening, invigorating, daring, witty, astonishingly beautiful, and certainly like little else published before or since. Is it his failing or ours that the book has hardly found an audience?

Goodman wrote little fiction in the last decade of his life, which brought him unexpected fame after decades of obscurity, but also a series of disappointments and personal tragedies before his death at 60 in 1972. One must thus return to the later sections of The Empire City, written during the Eisenhower years, to find a note of optimism that may have eluded him at the end of his life. Two brothers, Lefty and Droyt, who are part of the novel's second generation of main characters, leave New York for the West Coast. Some time later, Droyt resurfaces in Manhattan, bearing what seems -- to his jaded audience -- an inherently incredible tale: that Lefty has found a meaningful job and a place to live where he feels comfortable and among friends, that he has settled down with a woman whom he loves and who loves him, and that they have even produced a child who, rather than driving the couple apart, has only added to their joy. His listeners, long inured to the idea that society, and individual human beings themselves, will put up any number of roadblocks rather than permit simple happiness to flourish, are skeptical, raise any number of objections, but in the end they are convinced:
"You have come to us with a marvelous story. We find it hard to believe our ears. You speak of a free artist who has an immediate audience; of lovers who wish each other well; of a man who gets paid for a useful job that fits him; of the confidence that there will be some use for another human being in the world. All this is unlikely, yet you convince us that it is a fact. What does it mean? It means that all along the time a certain number of people are not committing an avoidable error."
Such happiness may have eluded Goodman, but to his credit he seems to have believed that the dilemmas were not, in the end, beyond all possibility of resolution.

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