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We Remember MOMA

1. The Permanent Point of View
By Kim Levin

When MOMA shut down entirely some months ago, it was hard not to read sym­bolic meaning into its absence, which seemed to confirm years of rumblings about modernism’s demise. While MOMA was preoccupied with matters of survival, the notion of being postmodern escalated to the level of cliché. But since renovation began four years ago, several varieties of newly traditional and neomo­dern art have emerged. It’s tempting to say that the new MOMA, purer and cleaner and twice its former size, proves that modernism didn’t die — it’s alive and well in MOMA heaven.

Yes, the new escalators are spectacular, though not as spectacular as the Beau­bourg’s, nor as radical architecturally. No playful exoskeletal ducts for architect Cesar Pelli. Simply the sleekest, most antiseptic, glacial, and elegantly under­stated Late Modern functional space — as befits its position as lodestar for early, high, and late modernist art. For museum practicality, it’s planned very well. If the big subject of conversation in the inter­national art world last week was who had an invitation to which of the various special previews, lunches, dinners, and black-tie affairs — a comically complex caste system — the question of who’s in and who’s out was paralleled in the exhi­bitions themselves, not just the big International Survey of Contemporary Paint­ing and Sculpture but in the permanent carpeted galleries too, and even more in the wooden-floored galleries of art from the ’60s and ’70s.

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The real question, though, isn’t who’s included and who isn’t but why. If any­one momentarily wondered whether the reinstallations would present a revisionist view of modernism, the answer is a re­sounding no. Even the one semifigurative late Guston is in the limbo of a hall, as are the Mexican social realists. MOMA is as traditionally modernist and as inflexible as ever. However, the permanent col­lection is installed much more intelligent­ly and sensitively, and there are some realignments. The early 20th century gal­leries not only hint at a relation between Seurat and the Douanier Rousseau (even in the absence of a major Seurat), but make a telling connection between Gau­guin’s exotic primitivism and Rousseau’s, with Rousseau now seeming the more radically modern. In the gem of a Cubist room, a 1914 Picasso painting with Rus­sian lettering is brilliantly paired with a 1913 Russian Constructivist sculpture (made of painted wood, cardboard, and eggshells) by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine. Picasso’s musicians lead inexorably to Léger and Brancusi, both of whom now speak eloquently (and naively) about automation and the utopian assembly-line dreams of modern times. I’m not cra­zy about the oval platform the Brancusis are on, but the Picasso room, the Matisse room, the Mondrian room, the De Chirico room (classic early modern ones with empty urban vistas and bottle green skies, of course) are all exquisite.

The sensibility that orchestrated all this — Bill Rubin’s — is a cerebral formal­ist one. The linear installation invokes orderly evolution and progress, from Eu­rope up a flight to America, from Ab­stract Expressionism — the abstract expressionist galleries are gorgeous and spacious — to the dubious glories of color field, with blatant signposts (Rothko, pre-black Reinhardt, Motherwell, an al­most all-white Al Held) along the way. The sculpture is mixed in just right, mak­ing sly but obvious points. It’s all been embalmed so fastidiously that it actually seems to live and breathe again. But even the Surrealists are made to look like solid formalists here, with Masson anticipating Pollock, Balthus hooked up with Ma­gritte and the fixity of both tracking back to Léger and Rousseau. That’s the glory of the installation, though: it wordlessly sets off trains of thought as you go. Line­ages and linkages that were never so ap­parent before line themselves up subtly, sometimes with stunning obviousness. And it’s witty: John Graham, odd man out, is in an anteroom by himself, the megalomaniacal Dali has a tiny fragile painted glass proscenium scene set into a wall.

The painting and sculpture galleries, telling a story, may stray slightly into the postmodern terrain of narrative. But there’s no room in these heavenly spaces at Neo-MOMA for a multilayered Pica­bia from the late 1920s (not to mention a pseudo-philistine one), or for one of De Chirico’s postmetaphysical antimodern paintings, such as the grandiose theatri­cal Capriccio Veneziana alla Maniera de Veronese now being shown just a few blocks away. Or for the unmodern non­structural aspects of Surrealist art that have something in common with very re­cent art. Or even — heaven forbid — for the casual leisure-time modernity of Raoul Dufy. Or for Miró’s unexpectedly great recent sculpture which is more var­ied and inventive and contemporarily rel­evant than I’d ever guessed. No monkey wrenches are allowed to disrupt Rubin’s neat historical progression. But for some of these problematic aspects of modern­ism that MOMA omits, current gallery shows are taking up the slack: late De Chiricos can be seen at their baroque and preposterous best and at their most questionable antioriginal worst in two differ­ent shows right now. There’s an exhibi­tion of Surrealist drawings, a lot of them and a lot of intriguing ones, on 57th Street, and also a big exhibition of Miró’s fertile and varied late sculpture. And fur­ther uptown the waters are being tested for Dufy.

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Back at MOMA, on the wooden-­floored spaces of the recent past, there’s nationalistic muscle flexing and a delib­erate misreading of the ’60s and ’70s that overemphasizes the sleek formal aspects. Lichtenstein’s Entablature, Oldenburg’s black ray gun, Yves Klein’s monochrome blue, and Arman’s ball bearings are cho­sen for spurious resemblances to former formalisms. There’s a dialogue in white­ness that extends from Malevich to Johns and Olitski. Robert Morris’s hanging felt makes you think back to Morris Louis’s brown veil. Richard Serra’s balanced lead and Joseph Beuys’s tubes of felt look more purely formal than they are, and Beuys’s accompanying sausages are tucked discreetly behind a wall.

And whatever became of Conceptual­ism? No evidence of it. Painting and sculpture, indeed. Not a nod to the fact that the artists who made these sleek objects were thinking about other things, or that the last thing on many artists’ minds in the ’60s and ’70s was painting or sculpture. No inkling that anything like Earthworks or Photo Realism ever exist­ed. Even the black and white Chuck Close is included for its gridding, not its imagery, as is made clear by its proximity to a LeWitt and one of Agnes Martin’s early white grids. Rubin’s installations emphasize the solidity of modernist art. But there are other aspects of which his installations give little clue. Modern art began with a crisis of the represented object (which Impressionists dissolved in light, Cezanne dissolved in anxiety, Expressionists engulfed in emotionality, Cubists shattered, and “non-objective” artists banished entirely). It seemed to end, more or less, with the crisis of the art object around 1970. Since then, art­ists have been moving beyond traditional notions of formalist modernism, seeking ways for all kinds of forbidden imagery to wriggle back in — dealing with bigger questions beyond the art object and a crisis of the image. It looks as if MOMA is not yet prepared to acknowledge that early, high, and even late modernism may now be a period style. Or maybe, by stiff­ening its back to the onslaughts against modernist orthodoxy and by continuing the illusion of normalcy, that’s exactly what the museum is doing. In any case, it’s a thrill to have this prime repository available again, and perhaps by its die­hard stance it will help us clarify newer positions. ❖

2. Temporary Misgivings
By Roberta Smith

If the renewed museum and restored collection have turned out better than expected, “An International Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” the inaugurating temporary exhibition, is somewhat disappointing, although its generous ecumenical spread seems in keeping with the celebratory tone of the museum’s reopening. This exhibition is both the New World’s first retort to the major international shows which have frequented Europe recently and MOMA’s first large-scale survey of contem­porary art activity since its 1971 “Infor­mation,” an extensive look at Conceptualism also organized by curator Kynaston McShine. As such it has had a mission nearly impossible from the out­set: in one fell swoop, to bring the muse­um assertively into the ’80s and to offer a viable alternative to the European ten­dency to feature the 30 or 40 greatest living white male artists.

To accomplish this, McShine has backed up a bit, starting with the second half of the ’70s and working to the pres­ent in rather random fashion, sticking close to painting and sculpture, the tradi­tional tools of modernism. There are examples of New Image and Pattern and Decoration intermingling with a couple of generations of international figuration (separated in the press release into expressionism, allegory, and metaphor, nar­rative and humor), plus a smattering of abstraction and sculpture.

The result is Whitney Biennial Inter­national Style — undeniable evidence of MOMA’s own role in spreading the word of modernism worldwide — or at least to the industrialized West. (Its 165 partici­pants herald from 17 countries, mostly the U.S., Germany, and the rest of Eu­rope, plus Australia.) And what dominates is an argument between ’70s plu­ralism and ’80s Neo-Expressionism’s national strains which rarely transcends its good, but complicated, intentions.

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Compared to recent European shows like “Zeitgeist,” this is an admirable attempt at an unbiased survey of the international scene without favor to any one style or nation. There has clearly been an attempt to include more women artists. (In fact, women are so astutely fea­tured — a big Elizabeth Murray next to a big Anselm Kiefer and similar juxtaposi­tionings — there seems to be more of them than usual; there are in fact only 14, or less than 10 per cent.) Also, unlike the European habit, this show is largely un­sanctioned by elder statesmen such as Beuys, Warhol, Twombly, or Stella: over half of these artists are under 40, many under 30. Thus the museum’s faith in the present and future is imbued with an American egalitarian look which proba­bly drives Europeans and would-be art stars up the wall. Many people will blame the one-work-per-artist/broad-overview formula as the culprit. But actually, even with its current framework, this exhibi­tion could have been much better. The possible corrections run the gamut from being entirely within McShine’s control, to being endemic to the museum.

First of all, this is an exhibition which, in attempting to please many different points of view, seems simply to have lost its sense of direction. There are easily 30 or 40 artists who could be eliminated from its rolls and never be missed. As it is, there are almost as many who will probably be overlooked due to the ex­treme crowding.

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Also, regardless of possible disagree­ments with the selection of individual works and artists, one has come to expect from McShine a kind of argument via installation which, after three viewings, seems to be missing here. He has inter­mittently matched things up but mostly studiously avoided the temptation (which in a less diverse show would prob­ably be commendable) — as if he wants us to see everything in isolation, for its own inherent value. It is revealing to see Oli­ver Jackson and Roberto Juarez grouped with Zakanitch and MacConnell; what seems to be the “humor” gallery of Mark Tansey, Steve Gianakos, General Idea, Italo Scanga, and Komar and Melamid is a bit obvious (and nonvisual, actually), but more of these kinds of juxtapositions are needed. It would have been instructive to see the Dutch expressionist Armando next to Susan Rothenberg, or Toon Verhoef next to Howard Hodgkin, or Ed Paschke next to Jack Goldstein.

Mostly the discrepancy in ceiling heights between the two floors of the ex­hibition seems to have been one of the primary placement determinants, result­ing in an unfortunate hierarchy of size — smaller works too often crowded together upstairs, larger ones more spaciously in­stalled below. Walking into the lower lev­el galleries it is clear how working in large size is (a) the best defense against curato­rial whim and (b) too often the only thing that Neo-Expressionism has going for it.

There are very few surprises — a beauti­ful Gerhard Richter, a startling Ger van Elk, a suite of Blinky Palermo’s small abstractions, but seldom do we encounter first-rate works under first-rate circum­stances. The grouping of paintings by Murray, Kiefer, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Francesco Clemente, and Sigmar Polke at the front of the lower gallery is the one exception, the show’s only exhilarating vista. Some of McShine’s new dis­coveries from abroad seem worthwhile: the English sculptor Richard Deacon, the Austrian Christian Ludwig Attersee, the Swiss team of Fischli and Weiss. But, although this show is overloaded with artists from the U.S., few Americans in the just-emerging range seem to have received comparable scrutiny. One can think of several auspicious debuts from the past few years in both one-person and group shows — Ira Richer, Carroll Dun­ham, Nancy Mitchnick, Nancy Dwyer, Barry Ledoux, Jeff Koons among them­ — unfortunately overlooked.

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In general, the show is on firm footing where consensus is bowed to, but it often falters on less predictable terrain. Other problems afflict its all-over impact as well, a major one being that artists are not always represented by outstanding efforts. (The barely average 1981 paint­ing by David Salle, in view of his recent triumphs, seems particularly unfortu­nate.) And Tony Shafrazi’s sin against Guernica seems to have made his artists untouchable. While one can sympathize wholeheartedly with the museum’s desire for revenge of some sort — this probably does the show more harm than good. A few raunchy graffiti artists would have been preferable to the quasi-graffiti cor­ner of Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Bruce McLean, and miles ahead of the truly pernicious academic mannerism of Carlo Maria Mariani — a mode of behavior the museum should no more endorse than Shafrazi’s.

In any event, to leave Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf out of what is clearly acknowledged as a survey of disparate current styles is inaccurate. This is not a show so much about standards as data; as a friend said, it should probably have been called “More Information.” (Along this line of thought, the low number of women is even more offensive: once more, men are shown to have a greater right to be just average and representative than women.)

Despite the diversity of this show, its most lasting impression is that Neo-Expressionism is easily the most interna­tional, easily disseminated style since Conceptualism — only more so due to its greater marketability. The older Germans have spawned younger ones who make them look good; and the effects of the Italians, especially Chia, can be seen from Spain to Australia. The way Neo-­Expressionism hooks into a widespread figurative mediocrity which has hovered beyond the fringe ever since the Mod­ern’s own “New Images of Man” exhibi­tion in the late ’50s only speeds up the process.

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Comparing “Information” to this cur­rent survey is a lesson in how profoundly the times have changed since the early ’70s, but the difference need not have been so great. McShine would have been truer to the present and recent past to include more of Conceptualism’s descen­dants — artists who, starting out in the late ’70s, insinuated both its criticality and its use of photography back into ob­ject making, back into visual experience.

The limitation of this exhibition to painting and sculpture is not strictly ad­hered to — there are actually a fair amount of large drawings and small in­stallations here and there. But the exclu­sion of established and promising artists currently extending the role of photography and the media in the arts — Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Le­vine, Richard Prince, and James Case­bere, among others — is undoubtedly the show’s biggest problem. It is more or less completely out of Kynaston McShine’s hands, for it stems from the museum’s traditional compartmentalization of me­diums, a compartmentalization which, with the new expansion, is only reinforced. This, more than any other short­coming of a handsome, wide-ranging show, gives hints of the problems the museum may have in housing the art of the late 20th century under its new roof. ❖

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Martin Scorsese, King of the Outsiders

Martin Scorsese Rages On: King of the Outsiders
February 15, 1983

It’s late in the final day of shooting on King of Comedy, and the press has been invited to a studio so far west it’s practically in New Jersey to watch Martin Scorsese film inserts. Technicians have begun dismantling the set, tables are being pushed together for a modest champagne celebration, members of the crew are gravitating toward the refreshments. The star, Jerry Lewis, has long since returned to Las Vegas, but Scorsese is still working — he’s perched on a ladder hav­ing close-up after close-up taken of Robert De Niro handing him a business card.

On most sets, this routine chore would be a matter of stand-ins and second-unit crew. Scorsese, however, is doing double duty, di­recting the scene while wearing Lewis’s sports jacket. In France, where Scorsese is an auteur and Lewis a superstar — America per­sonified — their teaming is regarded as a cul­tural event. (King of Comedy has already been chosen to open the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.) Here, where the picture opens on February 18, it’s considered a tough sell and distributor 20th Century-Fox is nervous. “They know Lewis fans will hate the movie,” one industry savant explains. “And they’re afraid all the people who hate Lewis won’t go near it.”

As talk-show host Jerry Langford, Lewis has given Scorsese his first dra­matic performance. Actually, Lewis is not so much De Niro’s co-star as his straight man; it is De Niro who plays the self­-appointed “king of comedy.” Dressed in garish polyester, he’s grown a pencil-thin mustache and slicked his hair into a razor­-sharp pompadour for the role of aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin, a 34-year-old mes­senger and autograph hound, still living in his mother’s Union City basement, who constructs an obsessional fantasy around Jerry Langford. “I find comedians fasci­nating,” says Scorsese. “There’s so much pain and fear that goes into the trade.”

***

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Pain and fear — and the convulsive de­sire for public recognition — are Martin Scorsese’s meat. Not even Woody Allen has chosen to dramatize his neuroses more flagrantly. Unlike Allen, however, Scorsese offers no apologies. Racism, mi­sogyny, selfishness, paranoid fury are right up front. More than any studio di­rector, he resembles an avant-garde film­maker like Yvonne Rainer, who unpacks her mind and fissures her persona with each feature, then figures it out later. Except, of course, Scorsese’s subject is macho.

With De Niro as his alter ego, Scorsese has created a memorable gallery of jittery, psyched-up loners: Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jimmy Doyle, Jake La Motta. As embodied by De Niro, homo scorsesian is a frustrated outsider fueled by a highly combustible combination of guilt, jealousy, and delusions of grandeur. Ellen Burstyn plays a female, suburban vari­ation of the type in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but Scorseseville is mainly a man’s world. Women are un­knowable Others, children the promise of destruction. The family is at once a sacred value and something to flee like the plague.

The bruisingly kinetic, starkly lyrical Raging Bull — Scorsese’s masterpiece and the one possibly great Hollywood movie of the past five years — goes so far into pro­fessional aggression and sexual anxiety that it becomes a critique, a lament for stone age maleness in which blood drips from the boxing ring ropes like tears down the cheeks of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Rupert Pupkin may be less violent than Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, but he’s no less possessed. Although he has never performed for an audience, Pupkin demands the TV show watched by half of America each night as the launching pad for his career. “To have drive is what counts!” Scorsese exclaimed in an early interview. “Anything to meet people to generate events towards your goal.” Pupkin personifies precisely this crazed pragmatism: rejected by Langford’s aides and thrown out of Langford’s weekend house, he ultimately gets himself on The Jerry Langford Show by kidnapping its star.

King of Comedy is a film about the desperate need to exist publicly which is so American,” says Paul Zimmerman, the 44-year-old former Newsweek critic who wrote the screenplay. “It’s the ultimate outgrowth of the question ‘What do you do?’ ” Hirsute, talkative, and the author of unproduced scripts for Sidney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Milos Foreman, and Stanley Donen (“I’m unproduced at the highest levels”), Zimmerman explains Pupkin’s complaint. “The problem Rupert faces is, will he ever count? And for him, it’s a matter of life or death.”

Zimmerman labored over the King of Comedy script for the better part of a decade before Scorsese even became in­volved with the project, but the screen­writer sees the finished movie as essen­tially Scorsese’s. “There is much more conflict in King of Comedy than what I wrote. The film is darker than the script. Marty takes everything and makes it his own,” reports Zimmerman, unperturbed. During production, he recalls asking Scorsese what the director thought their film was about. “Marty looked at me, smiled, and said ‘me.’ For me, King of Comedy is a fable. For Marty, it’s true.…”

The interpolated home movies in Mean Streets and Raging Bull, the mem­orabilia Scorsese characters fondle in New York, New York are scarcely the only evidence of the director’s emotional in­vestment in his work. Like Samuel Fuller, Scorsese fills his movies with personal talismans; like Werner Herzog, he riddles them with documentary subtexts. The single chair in Rupert Pupkin’s basement, for example, is the actual chair of one of the authentic autograph hounds Scorsese and De Niro interviewed for the film. A key scene in King of Comedy is played entirely with nonactors. Scorsese used a real FBI agent, a real TV producer, a real lawyer, and a real agent (his own). “And they really fought,” he remembers. “When I yelled cut, they kept on going.”

Scorsese rounds out his casts with nonactor buddies, regularly gives himself cameos, even provides bit parts for his parents in each of his films. (A scholarly paper — if not a case study — could be writ­ten on the roles Charles and Catherine Scorsese have played in their son’s oeuvre.) The only character Scorsese in­troduced into Zimmerman’s script was Rupert’s mother — heard, but never seen, and played by Mrs. Scorsese. “Each film is like a family,” Scorsese says; for Sicilians, he explains, “family” is a value more transcendent than religion.

In fact, Scorsese’s associates are highly protective, resembling nothing so much as an extended family indulging the tyranny of an adored, precocious child. No less impressive than the director’s actual films is his ability to create this situation in the world.

***

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On the set, Scorsese doesn’t seem to direct so much as conduct, communicat­ing with co-workers in private asides and precise gestures. He doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the Hollywood artiste — Josef von Sternberg directing in boots, jodhpurs, and carrying a riding crop — but it’s an autocratic scene, full of its own subtle codes. When some minor mishap occurs, Scorsese barks good-naturedly for Tylenol the way a less highstrung maestro might call for tempo.

Short, bearded, and mercurial, Scor­sese could have been animated by Bill Tytla, the Disney artist who designed Pinocchio’s nemesis Stromboli and half the Seven Dwarfs. At 40, the director is said to have mellowed. There are no re­cent reports of telephones sent hurtling around hotel rooms, but Scorsese remains a tightly wound spring — courteous, con­trolled, and wary as a fox.

“Marty used anything he could to get where he is, and once he got there he calmed down,” says editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who won an Oscar for Rag­ing Bull and labored for 11 months cut­ting King of Comedy. Schoonmaker has known Scorsese since both were students at NYU film school, 17 years ago, and she mainly remembers “Marty’s incredible ambition.… He was manipulative too,” she adds, “but I admired that.” Scorsese’s apparent modesty is as deceptive as it is disarming. Critic Roger Ebert saw an early version of Scorsese’s grad-school opus Who’s That Knocking on My Door? at the Chicago Film Festival in 1965 and ventured a guess that in 10 years its direc­tor could be “the American Fellini.” “ ‘Gee,’ ” he remembers Scorsese saying, “ ‘do you think it will take that long?’ ”

Schoonmaker is not the only Scorsese associate who goes back to the ’60s. In­deed, much of the director’s success de­rives from his capacity to form ex­traordinarily close bonds with his col­laborators; his professional relationships are virtually the most stable in his life. Publicist Marion Billings has handled ev­ery Scorsese film since Who’s That Knocking? (“This fat little NYU professor came to me in 1967 and said he wanted the same kind of coverage I got for The Shop on Main Street. I looked at Who’s That Knocking? and thought, ‘He’s so talented he’ll never work again.’ ”) Harry Ufland has been the director’s agent since he first saw Scorsese’s student films in 1965. Harvey Keitel starred in Who’s That Knocking? and has appeared in three Scorsese films since. Mardik Martin, an­other NYU graduate, has worked on the scripts of five Scorsese films, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull; Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, worked on Raging Bull, and has just completed an adapta­tion of Nikos Kazantzakis’s — the capper to their trilogy — which Scorsese plans to film in the fall.

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Meanwhile, the Scorsese–De Niro col­laboration has been one of the richest director-actor alliances in Hollywood his­tory, comparable in its mingled identities to the teaming of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. It was De Niro who brought Zimmerman’s script to Scorsese’s attention (as he had La Motta’s autobiog­raphy) after Michael Cimino, originally tapped to direct, got bogged down with Heaven’s Gate.

De Niro is notoriously press shy, and Scorsese shares his working habits. “If there are too many people on the set I don’t like it,” he has said. “I like to be out of the limelight as much as possible when directing so that nobody knows, nobody can see what I’m doing.” Scorsese de­scribes the direction of New York, New York, his most logistically complex film, as though it were a business deal in The Godfather: “All the actual directing was done in whispers and in the dressing rooms, and nobody would see.” Rehearsing actors individually, Scor­sese shapes and refines their improvisations on the script. The situation calls for considerable mutual trust. “I essentially wrote 50 per cent of my part,” says Sandra Bernhardt, who gives a chilling, comic performance as Rupert’s accomplice and Langford’s most ardent fan. Scorsese doesn’t deny her claim. “That’s why we take so long with casting,” he says.

Associates assert that it’s painful for the director to audition performers, yet Scorsese estimates that some 500 ac­tresses read for the part before Bernhardt, a 27-year-old Los Angeles–based stand-up comedienne with limited screen experi­ence and an act Scorsese describes as based on “sexual menace,” got the role. For Bernhardt, the part provided her with something akin to psychodrama. “If any­one can understand needing and wanting the attention of famous people, it’s me,” she grins. “I was a manicurist for seven years in Beverly Hills.”

Originally, Scorsese wanted Johnny Carson for the role of Jerry Langford. When Carson demurred he approached Jerry Lewis. “Jerry has done nearly every­thing in show business. He had a lot to draw on and he was eager to play the part,” the director recalls. Lewis’s career was then at low ebb and his personal life was strained by severe financial and mari­tal woes. “I had two meetings with Jerry over the course of a year and a half,” Scorsese says. “I could see the man was ripe for it.”

Scorsese once called Raging Bull “a documentary with actors,” and he has used Lewis as a kind of found object, pure celebrity: “The less Jerry does, the better he is.” According to Scorsese, Lewis is “almost playing himself. He’s wearing his clothes, his glasses. That’s his dog in the apartment.” Scorsese maintains that Lewis improvised a sustained invocation of the burdens of success — delivered by a desperate Langford to his captors — while the cameras were rolling. Others recall Scorsese inducing the hostage Langford’s barely controlled fury through endless re­takes of a scene which begins with the star bound like a mummy with adhesive tape.

“Directing is lousy. It’s not an enviable position,” Scorsese complains without much conviction. “You have to be tough. It’s like a screwdriver going through your stomach,” he elaborates with morose intensity. “Especially if you like the per­son.” Scorsese himself is immediately likable — quick, funny, and unpreten­tious — but his closest associates regard him with more than a touch of fear. No one denies the director can be demanding and compulsive, restless and paranoid. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do when it comes to making the film,” says Bernhardt. “He’s everywhere he doesn’t need to be. He’s a fanatic, a perfectionist.”

Scorsese’s projects habitually run over schedule because of his painstaking atten­tion to detail. It took a grueling 16 weeks to finish the 40-track sound mix for Rag­ing Bull. Schoonmaker says it was as­sembled “inch by inch.” When he’s on, Scorsese drives himself to the point of exhaustion — at one juncture in 1977 he was editing New York, New York, The Last Waltz, and the documentary, An American Boy, simultaneously — and he expects his colleagues to do the same. When he’s off, suffering nerves or from the asthma that has afflicted him since childhood, a project may stall. “A noise in the corridor can distract him,” says Schoonmaker. “I’m glad I don’t have to live with Marty, although when we’re working, I practically do.”

His needs are top priority — and he has a lot of them,” another associate says. To hear Scorsese describe it, each film takes on the nature of an ordeal, a psy­chodrama, a working through. Not that it necessarily resolves anything. “When the film is finished you go into a mourning period,” Scorsese says gloomily. “Then you realize, my God, it isn’t enough just to put it on screen. To put something on film doesn’t mean you’re rid of it.” “I was crazier when I finished Taxi Driver than when I began,” he told Paul Schrader in a conversation published by Cahiers du Cinema last spring. Scorsese acknowl­edged his shrink in the credits for Mean Streets and has recently reentered psychoanalysis. (“It helped me the first time,” he says hopefully.)

***

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Scorsese’s sense of himself is rooted in a childhood formed by illness, fantasy, and the Catholic church. The second son of first-generation Sicilian garment-work­ers, Scorsese was set apart from other children when he developed asthma at age four following a traumatic tonsillectomy. He was eight when his family moved from a house shared with relatives in Corona, Queens, back to their old neighborhood on the crumbling Lower East Side. Small and sickly, Scorsese did not fit easily into the tough Little Italy street life he would am­bivalently celebrate in Who’s That Knocking? and Mean Streets.

“I couldn’t mix in,” the director says with pained diffidence. “I mean, I did mix in, but for comic relief. If you weren’t able to give a beating, you had to take one.” Scorsese may have felt powerless but he wasn’t passive: “He was always the littlest guy, the weakest, but he fought,” one schoolmate has remembered. “He would work himself into a frenzy.”

Unable or unwilling to participate in athletics — “I developed this great hatred of sports when I was a boy, a hatred I have to this day” — Scorsese applied himself to Catholic school and found himself at the movies. “My father used to take me to see all sorts of films. From three, four, five years old, I was watching film after film, a complete range.” Scorsese was a child of unusual devotion. Even now, he readily holds forth on the B-westerns and biblical spectacles that impressed him as a child, conjuring up specific scenes as though they were epiphanies. With ingenuous to­tal recall, he cites the movie theaters­ — tawdry roads to Damascus — where he wit­nessed each vision, taking care to acknowledge the disciples who accompanied him. “Even as a kid I couldn’t give up movies for Lent,” Scorsese remembers. “I’m still guilty about that.”

Not content merely to consume, the young Scorsese was inspired — or com­pelled — to reexperience and master each film. From the age of eight on, he drew elaborate pencil versions of the films he’d seen, sketching shot-by-shot breakdowns in the manner of the Classic comic books his father bought him. (Precociously, the future director invented the storyboard, a standard tool for cinematic exposition, years before he would attend film school and learn that such things existed.) Scorsese meticulously reproduced each film’s standard or Cinemascope frame ra­tio; when Hollywood flirted with 3-D in the early ’50s, he followed suit with cutout paper constructions.

These early attempts to articulate his fantasies were not unconflicted. Scorsese showed his projects only to a chosen few, and after his parents discovered his “3-D movies,” he destroyed his handiwork. “They must have thought I was cutting out paper dolls or something,” he later explained. “My mother went along, but I don’t think my father liked it. Not that he didn’t like it; he just didn’t know what I was doing. I felt embarrassed, so I threw them away.”

In effect, Scorsese spent much of his childhood giving himself a second educa­tion, supplementing the Catholic school­ing supplied by the Old St. Patrick’s School on Mulberry Street with an in­tensive course in American mass culture, its glories and its detritus. Devouring movies, TV shows, and comic books, the strong-willed, often bedridden boy recy­cled them in his own terms and according to his own interests: “Jealousy was a big theme even then.” Scorsese’s taste for widescreen epics of the ancient world­ — Quo Vadis, The Silver Chalice, Samson and Delilah, Land of the Pharaohs­ — complemented his fascination with Cath­olic ritual, and, encouraged by his parents, in his early teens he gave up on becoming an artist and spent an unhappy year at­tending a junior seminary in preparation for the priesthood.

In her 1980 monograph on Scorsese, former nun Mary Pat Kelly compares the filmmaker’s abortive religious vocation to that of James Joyce and calls his films quests for “redemption in a fallen world where evil is real and violence can erupt at any moment.” Asked if he still considers himself a Catholic, the director laughs ruefully, “I’m afraid so.” It has been many years since he went to confession or took communion, but Scorsese acknowledges the sexual guilt with which his upbringing left him and which torments many of his characters. “If I could resolve it, it might be resolved for them.” Since leaving the church in his early twenties, Scorsese has been married and divorced three times, most recently from model Isabella Rossel­lini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini. Their three-year-old marriage broke up during the shooting of King of Comedy. “I think it is very hard to be with a person who is completely dedicated to his work,” Isabella told Peo­ple magazine. “When the horrible stuff was about to start — neurosis and in­security — we just split.” “It’s impossible for me to talk about,” Scorsese says tersely. “You find all sorts of ways to punish yourself.”

Observance fades, wives come and go, but the love of movies is eternal. Scorsese’s lower Manhattan triplex — a 10-minute jog from the mean streets of his youth — is not unlike an affluent version of Rupert Pupkin’s fetish-crammed, shrinelike basement. The loft will never make The New York Times Magazine, but it offers eloquent testimony to the totality of its inhabitant’s obsession.

Shelves are crammed to the ceiling with dog-eared film books and leather­-bound scripts. Copies of Video Review and TV Guide litter the coffee tables. At least one of Scorsese’s numerous TV sets is always on. An entire floor is given over to editing consoles. Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker labored over King of Com­edy here, working mainly at night. Om­nivorous in his consumption of electronic images, Scorsese habitually projects mov­ies silently on a huge Advent screen while editing. Along with a list of the movies he’s seen since childhood, he has hundreds of videotapes of his favorite films catalogued in cardboard boxes and an impressive col­lection of vintage movie posters; his staff includes a full-time archivist. In 1980, Scorsese-organized a petition intended to pressure Eastman Kodak to recognize its “responsibility to the people it services ” and develop longer-lasting color film stock. (The crusade appears to have fizzled and Scorsese dismisses it: “I was rash to lash out at Kodak,” he now says, disingenuously adding, “The problem is not so much with film stock as care of original negatives.”) Still, his psychic in­vestment in the preservation of filmed ephemera is beyond question. Cinema totems surround him, and each has as­sociations all its own.

An enlarged still from Duel in the Sun — Gregory Peck facing down Jennifer Jones in the shadows of the old corral ­— dominates one wall: “My mother took me to see it even though it was condemned from the pulpit.… To this day I love the picture.” A triptych composed of the cred­its from The Searchers is framed by the window: “Made by old men, but seeing it is like going to the Fountain of Youth.” A garish French poster for George Steven’s Giant hangs across the room: “An inspir­ing film. I don’t mean morally, but visually. It’s all visual.”

***

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Redolent as it is of squandered afternoons and adolescent daydreams — and darker satisfactions than those — the pas­sion for movies lacks the cachet of more elevated aesthetics concerns: Film Com­ment, the most self-consciously literate of American movie magazines, regularly asks directors or critics to reveal their “guilty pleasures,” the unredeemable movies they unaccountably love. Most restrict their choices to 10 or a dozen. When Scorsese published his confessions he could barely stop — describing 28 movies and listing another 103 “random pleas­ures ” from The Agony and the Ecstasy and Al Capone to The Vampire Circus and Where’s Poppa? One suspects that for a child of the Church and the Loews Commodore, all movies are guilty pleas­ures. “Yeah,” laughs Scorsese, “and Schrader would consider the ‘guilty’ re­dundant.”

Scorsese has directed a glossy Liza Minnelli musical, a nostalgic rock-doc, the prototype for a long-running sitcom, and even a public TV documentary portrait of his parents, but he’s typecast as a purveyor of cinematic mayhem. Taxi Driver, his greatest success, only avoided an X-rating for violence after the director agreed to tone down the gore of its climac­tic massacre. The 10th highest grossing Hollywood release of 1976, the film made headlines five years later when John Hinckley Jr. claimed it as the source of his obsession with teenage actress Jodie Foster and the inspiration for his at­tempted assassination of veteran person­ality Ronald Reagan. (According to one of the mental health experts who testified in Hinckley’s defense, the would-be assassin “felt like he was acting in a movie.”)

In 1980, months before the Hinckley shooting, Scorsese had already been sin­gled out by The Saturday Review as the “exemplar” of a new school of Hollywood “brutalists,” including Brian De Palma, Walter Hill, and Paul Schrader. “At the very least,” wrote Robert F. Moss, “brutalist films are glorifying and en­couraging the immense potential for savagery that already exists in America, attracting groups who seek any match that will ignite their seething ag­gressions.”

Scorsese keeps a stock answer for this sort of charge: “Taxi Driver is about a man racked by dark feelings. I think ev­erybody has them. It’s unfortunate that some people act them out.” Anyway, King of Comedy was already in preproduction when the ultimate fan opened fire. Still, nobody will deny that Rupert Pupkin bears an uncanny generic resemblance to John Hinckley. Zimmerman traces his script’s genesis to a 1970 David Susskind Show on autograph hunters: “I realized that autograph hounds are just like assassins except that one carries a pen in­stead of a gun.”

Not surprisingly, Scorsese is loath to describe the guilty pleasure he may have felt when he discovered that the president of the United States had only narrowly escaped death at the hands of a man who reportedly saw Taxi Driver 15 times, fell pathetically in love with one of the film’s stars, and told Newsweek, “I bought so many handguns because Travis bought so many handguns. Ask him, not me.”

Scorsese refused to comment on the case for more than six months. “For a while I didn’t feel like making any more films,” he says, although production on King of Comedy was not delayed. Last May, when Hinckley went on trial, Taxi Driver actually became the cornerstone of his defense. Three psychiatrists and a psychologist testified that Hinckley iden­tified so strongly with the film that he sometimes “almost thought he was Travis Bickle” and suffered the delusion that he had to commit a violent act to effect a “magical union” with Jodie Foster. Dr. Thomas C. Goldman testified that when Hinckley first saw the film in 1976, “he felt as if this was the story of his life.… He identified with Travis Bickle’s sense of loneliness and isolation.” The defense rested its case by screening Taxi Driver for the jury. Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity.

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“It’s like a purging,” Scorsese once said of his filmmaking. “It’s got to be done, and you just have to be honest with yourself.” Although he evinces only casual interest in the remarkable fact that one of his films has been judged capable of driving a man mad, an even more disturbing suggestion is that Hinckley might be his distorted doppelgänger. “The dividing line between Life and Art can be invisible,” the would­-be assassin wrote from prison while await­ing trial. “After seeing enough hypnotiz­ing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops, which can be harmless or quite dangerous.”

Hinckley’s obsession doesn’t even strike Scorsese as particularly bizarre. “I don’t mean to seem glib,” he says prescriptively, “but you must have a var­ied viewing pattern. You can’t see Taxi Driver and Mean Streets together on a double bill. You must see Taxi Driver and… His Girl Friday.” Pressed further on his feelings about the Hinckley case, Scorsese grows agitated, then serious. “What should we do?” he wants to know. “Should we ban the film?”

I attended one screening of King of Comedy with a cadre of editors from The New York Times; after the film the big question was, would this new Scorsese vision inspire some lunatic to abduct Johnny Carson? “The thought has crossed my mind,” Scorsese allows, his staccato delivery picking up speed. “But I don’t see how that can happen. I mean, guys on that level have already dealt with this sort of thing. Show business person­alities can handle themselves. They have to.” Pausing, he adds, “At first I thought you were asking if I thought someone might try to kidnap me. Or Bob.…”

Scorsese has had other cause to ponder the effect of “hypnotizing movies.” Last March, while he and Schoonmaker were editing King of Comedy, Theresa Sal­dana, a 27-year-old actress who had a bit part in Raging Bull, as well as roles in other films, was stabbed four times in front of her West Hollywood apartment by a British-born drifter, Arthur Richard Jackson. Evidently Jackson only knew Saldana from her films; police found a diary in which he invoked her name more than 50 times. Scorsese doesn’t seem sur­prised that such an attack occurred; after all, evil is real and violence can happen at any moment. But, “I was totally shocked because she was just starting,” he says. “I immediately got very protective about the people around me. I’m just now starting to go out again.”

There is a sense in which Rupert Pupkin’s pathology hyperbolizes the pro­foundly ambivalent relationship Ameri­cans have with the aristocracy of winners who, presented on TV or paraded through the pages of People magazine, live their lives as public drama. Among other things, the mild gossip purveyed by the news and entertainment media promotes the socially cohesive illusion of an in­timate America where everyone knows (and even cares) about each other. Part of Rupert’s motivation is a simple hunger for intimacy with Langford, the celebrity he idolizes, impinges upon, violates, and ul­timately supplants.

King of Comedy is about people fall­ing in love with idealized images of each other and how misleading and selfish that can be,” says Scorsese. Rupert imagines he “knows” Langford personally just from years of watching him on television and nights spent waiting for his autograph. Moreover, he comes to feel that Langford actually owes him something for this “un­selfish” loyalty.

In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett suggests it is “the complete re­pression of audience response by the elec­tronic media” that produces “a magnified interest in persons or personalities who are not similarly denied.” King of Comedy takes the rage and wounded narcissism implicit in such denial as the fulcrum for an Oedipal drama. Splitting its sympa­thies between the “have” Langford and the “have-not” Pupkin, the film offers a both-sides-now dialectic of American cel­ebrity.

***

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“Marty’s not an intellectual,” says Schrader at the end of an evening spent talking mainly about himself. “When he finally realizes something, he also feels it.” Scorsese has called King of Comedy “a reappraisal of my first 15 years of making films, what it’s been like.” “Rupert be­comes a star,” he says, “but for what?”

Scorsese also speaks of his identifica­tion with Langford. “Jerry walks into his empty apartment, and he does exactly what I do, he turns on the TV.” Scorsese ponders the loneliness of his alter egos: “I’ve lost a lot.” The director maintains that he identifies with both protagonists in King of Comedy. Which one more? “At this point, I think it’s Jerry,” he says without hesitation, adding, “There are kids who will do anything, anything, to get into movies.”

King of Comedy is Scorsese’s view of celebrity — a situation he experiences as almost more perilous than the absence of celebrity. “King of Comedy is a very funny film,” he cautions, “but it’s not a comedy. The end is full of despair.” Is it dangerous? Scorsese hems and haws, then answers like a filmmaker: “How can you be afraid to show something that already exists?” ■

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Nick Tosches’s Great Book of Fire

Great Book of Fire
July 6, 1982

As the world’s biggest rock criticism fan, I have no doubt that rock and roll inspires lots of good writing, but as an English major who married a novelist I have to acknowledge that it hasn’t pro­duced much good literature, by which I simply mean good books. Admittedly, this is only fitting: I love rock and roll because, unlike literature, it’s not caught in the cerebral, self-referential, and ultimately defeatist cul-de-sac of highbrow modern­ism. Physical and popular, it points the way out of (or at least waves at) a cultural dilemma in which only prodigious feats of deep feeling can achieve the political and economic equality the world depends on. And though it’s much narrower than film, which is also physical and popular, its spe­cial connections to Africa and to evangel­ical (i.e., democratic) religion provide an­gles of attack that movies just don’t com­mand. Yet the good books about movies far outnumber those about rock and roll, or even American music in general.

Admittedly, this too, may only be fit­ting: movies are more like literature than rock and roll is. But that doesn’t satisfy me. Just because I don’t regard the book as the definitive cultural form doesn’t mean I buy any hokum about electronic villages. We need prodigious feats of literacy, too — ­of extended analysis and narrative com­mitment — and I see no reason why rock and roll shouldn’t be where some of them start. Yet if you’ll pardon the litany, only Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (dissenting criticism far more authoritative and for­mally original then, say, Parker Tyler’s), and Geoffrey Stokes’s Star-Making Ma­chinery (a less cynical version of Lillian Ross’s Picture) and maybe Simon Frith’s Sound Effects (more far-reaching ideas than Andrew Sarris’s more dauntingly ex­pressed) qualify. No highbrow modernist myself, I’m not above seeking out gems among drugstore cheapies and trade paperback pictorials. But as an apologist for pop culture I’m chagrined to admit that pickings are even slimmer and more pre­dictable in trashy contexts. And since no rockbooks disappoint more consistently than rockstar bios, I’m especially pleased to add one to the genre’s tiny pantheon: Nick Tosches’s Hellfire.

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I can’t claim to be a real expert on rockstar bios, and I pity anyone who can. Not that there are no handy homilies, es­pecially regarding the rewards of fame itself, to be garnered from the experiences of celebrities. But rock stars rarely inspire good literature, good self-help, or even good trash, because rock biographers are rarely good hacks, much less good writers or (heaven forfend) good critics. Given a dearth of as-told-tos and ghosted or genu­ine memoirs, all juicier forms, semi-pros whose main interest is the rest of their advance glut the racks with official and unofficial life stories. A certain quantum of candid revelation is de rigueur, but the emphasis is always on sex and drugs rather than love and money — that is, on epiphenomena. Deep thinkers need not apply.

Nevertheless, in this individualistic cul­ture (and this existential world) we’re in the forgivable habit of criticizing art via artists, and so rockstar bios constitute the largest subclass of rockbooks. As such, they’ve engendered critical hierarchies of their own. In my view, it’s mainly the abysmal competition that accounts for the inside reputations of John Goldrosen’s authoritative but staid The Buddy Holly Story, David Henderson’s inspired but wildly uneven Jimi Hendrix, Dave Marsh’s comradely but adulatory and rather sloppy Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, and Lester Bangs’s eloquent but wrongheaded Blondie. At least these authors cared enough for their subjects to try and write good books about them, and except for Goldrosen all had something to say about the art as well as the artist. The results in each case are admirable and useful. But while the music involved is most certainly up to the stan­dard of The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad or Some Like It Hot, not one of the books is within two leagues of John Lahr’s portrait of his father Bert or Rich­ard Schickel’s analysis of Douglas Fair­banks or even Norman Mailer’s rumina­tions on Marilyn. And neither are such profitable tomes as Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (which claims Jim Morrison as a god and then describes him as a jerk) or Albert Goldman’s Elvis (the hepster calling the bopcat square), though both are more solid than Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus would have you believe. In fact, it’s not im­possible to understand why Myra Friedman’s priggish, condescending Buried Alive is regarded by the ignorant as the best biography in the field — in terms of sheer craft, it is. Or rather, it was.

Blame money first: most rock bio­graphies, and indeed most rockbooks, are written fast because they’re written cheap — big-advance subjects like Janis and Jimi are rare. But they’re also written fast because they’re sold fast — editors who assume all rock stars are headed for in­stant oblivion press for instant copy. So Marsh and Bangs executed variations on the quickie, turning out their 40,000 or so words (cut from 85,000 in Bangs’s case) with the alacrity of craftsmen confident of their right to a decent hourly wage. And thus they managed to get cherished ideas about rock and roll into Books in Print if not between hard covers, while most of the best rock writing remains buried in yester­day’s papers. Their quickies were also la­bors of love — Marsh’s love of Springsteen, Bangs’s love of spouting off. They were rockstar bios as exemplary/expedient rockbooks.

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Both Tosches and Robert Palmer, au­thor of another current Jerry Lee Lewis bio, have taken a different route to the rockbook in the past: the pop text. Not surprisingly, neither elected to cover rock and roll per se — unless you count Sound Effects. Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Begin­ning, a history published more than half the music’s lifetime ago, remains the only honorable attempt at that sisyphean undertaking ever essayed by an individual acting alone. Tosches’s 1977 Country: The Biggest Music in America is pure gonzo scholarship, so outrageous that I felt let down when jacket copy that began “If you’re looking for a cogent, comprehensive history of America’s most popular music…” didn’t continue “…then steal Bill C. Malone from the library, sucker.” Alter­nating garish anecdotes, many apocryphal and several completely made up, with the kind of catalogue-number fanaticism only record collectors can read without artificial stimulants, Country attempts to prove that America’s most conservative popular music is in fact its most radical. Where Marxist George Lipsitz makes a similar case by doggedly documenting the music’s class origins and consciousness, Tosches’s book is all fucking and fighting and getting high. As history, it’s partial and absurdly distorted. But as vision, it’s hilarious and instructive, a perfect rockbook combo; it’s not the key to country music, but it breaks down some doors.

Palmer’s Deep Blues, published in 1981 and just out in paper from Penguin, is something else entirely — the best book available on a subject that’s always in­spired passionate erudition. Although I’m not enough of a blues scholar to attest unequivocally to its originality or ac­curacy, I guarantee its scope, coherence, and grace. Tracing the blues back to Will Dockery’s plantation in northwestern Mis­sissippi, where in the 1890s guitarist Henry Sloane (teacher of Charley Patton, student of ??????) was heard to play something damn similar, Palmer follows the tradition to its international present with an admirable sense of proportion (except when he overplays his good source Robert Junior Lockwood). Because Delta blues is his sub­ject, he barely touches on the East Texas strain, but that’s regrettable only because he would have made such a good job of it. He completes his self-appointed task su­perbly, especially the stopover in Chicago with Muddy Waters and his numerous nephews. This is a pop text, yes, but it’s also where to start exploring the source of all rock and roll. A rockbook and then some.

Palmer’s critical virtues have always been on the ethnomusicological side — he appreciates madness, style, and sleaze, but he’s never shown any inclination to in­corporate them into his writing. So for the same reason that the star lecturer isn’t always the life of the faculty party, it’s no surprise that Palmer brings off a history with more pizzazz than a quickie. His Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! began its life in 1980 as a memorable Rolling Stone profile, but stretched out for the rockstar bio people at Delilah, it’s little more than the usual excuse for photographs (many of which are wonderful). Sure the facts are here, as well as a lot of historical back­ground and a few authorial reminiscences that Bangs always made a specialty­ — Palmer grew up in Little Rock and had his life changed, he says, by “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” But he doesn’t seem to put a whole lot of thought, or heart, into his thesis that “maybe rock and roll can save souls as well as destroy them.” And while in Deep Blues he applies his musical expertise to one of the key enterprises of all rock criticism — establishing the techni­cal brilliance of inspired primitives — he never does the same for Jerry Lee’s pump­ing piano, surely one of the great instrumental signatures. Too bad — I would have liked him to parse those boogie rolls.

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Hellfire feels like it was written fast, too — but not ground out like a quickie, really written, in what I envision as a month or two of icy lyric fury. Even at the end, when what begins as heroic narrative breaks down into a string of clipped little items that might just as well have been lifted whole from the trades, the police blotter, and the secret diary of Oral Rob­erts Jr., the book has the kind of trancelike coherence that has overtaken every writer at the dawn of a specially blessed all­-nighter. Basically the tale of the archetypal Southern backslider, it’s been described as Biblical and Faulknerian, and it should be. But Tosches, who has lots of just-the-facts hack in him, sustains a page­-turning pace that intensifies its of-a-piece­ness. And his tone partakes of the grand, inexorable distance of a genuine epic as well.

Such things cannot be, of course — the epic is of the past. All the oral tradition south of the Mason-Dixon line can’t bring it back unspoiled, and anybody who thinks different is ignorant, pretentious, or both. So Hellfire can only succeed as some kind of mock epic, the chronicle of a would-be hero in an antiheroic age. And indeed, Tosches does cut King James’s English with journalese; he does mix straight re­porting and bent faction with the stuff of legend; he does disfigure his story with the mean details of Lewis’s vanity, cruelty, and crazed sense of humor. But Hellfire isn’t mock anything. Without hewing foolishly to the usages of a dead form or trying to write like someone he isn’t, and without presenting Lewis’s excesses as merely cool, colorful, or demidivine, Tosches limns the life of a doomed hero as if that hero deserved our respect, and his. As a dedicated classicist who is also a former snake hunter and a contributing editor to Penthouse, he rejects the notion that there’s something debased or devalued about the mongrel rhetoric he exploits. It’s just there, with all it’s peculiar virtues and drawbacks, and it’s Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother tongue.

Not that this avowed Pindar fan doesn’t respect the past — not even that he doesn’t believe there-were-giants-in-those-days. Like most rock critics with a specialty in roots music, he disdains most of today’s pop, and his Jerry Lee is driven by his heritage as “the final wild son” (Tosches’s phrase) of a family with “a big history” (Lewis’s). Nor is Hellfire at all solemn — in fact, it’s very funny indeed. Lewis’s excesses aren’t merely cool or colorful, but they’re at least that — this wild son has done a lot of exorbitant things in his life, and he’s some interview: “ ‘I mean Elvis this, Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn’t git ahold of? That’s very discouraging, anybody that had that much power to git ahold of that much dope.’ ” Furthermore, Tosches does play his story for laughs, often finding punch lines in the grand rhythms of his rhetoric itself: “She caressed Jerry Lee and soon told him that she was pregnant. He told her that it was no seed of his that had rendered her so. They lifted their hands in anger anew.” Nevertheless, Tosches never makes fun. There is a humor not of derision of of delight.

I’m making big claims for Tosches’s complexity of tone, and I’m sure not everyone will read him that way. His elevated periods can be dismissed as rodomontade, his jokes a sarcasm, his compact narrative and penchant for interior monologue as proof that he didn’t do his homework. Then again, you can also dismiss Jerry Lee Lewis as one more unholy roller, or pigeonhole his achievement as a couple of classic rock and roll songs, a piano insignia, and a fling as a country star. But I would argue — having listened long and hard, I would swear — that there’s a lot more there. Lewis’s offhand arrogance, candid insincerity, and unshakable sense of des­tiny are not qualities commonly found in any artist. He’s very much a modern, set apart not so much by the elementary truth and transcendent power of his singing and playing as by his self-consciousness itself. His distance from his own show of fervor can seem positively eerie upon reflection, yet it in no way diminishes that fervor — if anything, the distance helps the fervor penetrate and endure. Tosches has absorbed this sensibility if he didn’t share it all along. In Country, he avers (pace Bird and JB) that Jerry Lee Lewis’s mastery of 20th century rhythm is rivaled only by Faulkner’s, but what author has learned from subject hardly stops there, and where it ends is with that same synthesis of distance and fervor. This is why Albert Goldman’s half-truths about rock’s attitudinal roots in “the put-on and the take-off” are so irrelevant — it’s radically unlike “Mad or the routines of Sid Caesar” because its formal roots are in the ecstatic, vernacular music of the American South, just as Tosches, who is touched with the spirit, is radically unlike Goldman, who has all the largesse of an unemployed gagwriter.

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Lewis believes that the source of his fervor is beyond question. “I got the Devil in me,” he told Sam Phillips just before cutting “Great Balls of Fire.” “If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian.” And while he’s hardly the first Southerner possessed by such a notion, no one else has ever had the genius to dramatize Christ’s defeat so graphically. Not only is Jerry Lee a sinner, he’s a proud sinner, and not only is he a proud sinner, he’s a bored sinner; he’s al­ways interpreted the breakup songs, for instance, as if no suffering would ever bring him around. You win again, he seemed to say — and you’ll win again after that. And what does it matter? I’m still the Killer. Grrrrrr.

What Tosches believes is harder to know. I suspect, however, that the source of his own fervor isn’t second-hand — isn’t just his passion for Jerry Lee Lewis. Tosches’s account of Pentecostal fundamentalism maintains an objective if not skeptical tone. But like everything else in this terse, intense book, it never gets theoretical, never socializes, and though nothing else would be formally appropriate I’m left wondering. Not only does it seem that Tosches envies Lewis the simplicity of his Manichaeism, which is bad enough, but it also seems that in a less literal way he counts himself in thrall to the same dichotomies. Tosches makes no bones about the wages of this belief, always linked so intimately with romantic agony in extremis — he leaves Lewis unloved and without male issue, his career and his IRS account in tatters. His judgement, however, is muted. If Lewis has traded an eternity in hellfire for some great music, you can’t help but feel that Tosches has gotten a fairly great book at similar cost.

As a skeptic in the matter of eternity, I don’t really believe that myself, of course, and Hellfire is fairly great indeed — the finest rockstar bio ever and up with Mystery Train among all rockbooks. But as such it raises philosophical questions, for it reminds us that even the much more reflective Mystery Train is rooted in — and perhaps limited by — the Puritan tradition and/or the Great Awakening, which between them sometimes seem to ground all American culture. Because Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, and Jerry Lee Lewis each takes this heritage seriously, each creates worth that isn’t mock anything, that connects us with an epic, heroic, deeply felt past. But in escaping modernism’s cul-de-sac they don’t escape modernity, which is why it’s worth remembering that in the end both Hellfire and Mystery Train aren’t epic at all. They’re tragedies of damnation. I’m not lodging a complaint — these aren’t just fine rockbooks, they’re fine books, a lot finer and more durable than most of what passes for literature and criticism these days. But one reason for that is that neither of them is content with such achievements. To the either-or — and beyond!

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John Reed and the Greenwich Village Revolutionaries

To Russia With Love
February 1982

1. High spirits — that is what stands out from the Greenwich Village renaissance. Reds captures some of this by showing bohemian leftists yapping energetically at the lunch table and dancing to victrolas in dingy apartments. These scenes get the idea across, but I wish Warren Beatty had also shown the Paterson Pageant of 1913, which he could have recreated for a mere $10 million extra. The Paterson Pageant was a pep rally and benefit for the silk workers of Paterson, New Jersey, who were waging a magnificent strike led by the IWW. John Reed and a committee of radicals rented Madison Square Garden and got 1200 silk workers and an IWW brass band to dramatize the events of this strike. First the 1200 performers marched up the aisle through the audience to demonstrate how they went to work. Next they disappeared behind a huge set of life­-sized silk mills and shouted “Strike!” Then they showed how the police killed a picketer, and what the funeral was like. Big Bill Haywood and the IWW leaders orated in favor of the eight-hour day. And all the while everyone belted out militant labor songs to the conducting of John Reed, who knew how to conduct from his days as chief cheerleader at Harvard; among the songs he got the workers to sing was “Harvard, Old Harvard,” with IWW lyrics. The whole performance was so thrilling that the audience of 15,000 stood up for most of the evening, the better to sing along.

As things turned out, the pageant lost money and damaged unity in the strike, since some workers resented being left out of the show. Ultimately the strike went down to calamitous defeat. But the pageant certainly was spirited.

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The most spirited Village institution of all, to modern eyes, was The Masses magazine, where Reed, the magazine’s editor Max Eastman, and a list of other lively writers filled the news and literary columns, and John Sloan and the rest of the Ash Can School did the covers and illustrations. The Masses made a great contribution to American hu­mor: it perfected the art of the cartoon with a one-line caption. (“My dear, I’ll be econom­ically independent if I have to borrow every cent!”) Of course it wasn’t really a humor magazine but, like the Paterson Pageant, an organ of serious social protest, championing the cause of radical labor and the working class. Whether the magazine did this cause any more practical good than the pageant was a matter for debate. As some overly cynical person once wrote:

They draw fat women for The Masses,
Denuded, fat, ungainly lasses —
How does that help the working classes?

But hell, Village radicalism wasn’t a worker’s movement, anyway, not really. It was a bohe­mian movement with working-class sympathies. The Masses propounded Marxism, syndicalism, and other proletarian philosophies, but in truth it had its own ideology, a species of radical bohemianism that ought to be called, after its finest ex­positor, John Reedism.

John Reedism had three great ideas, which you can see almost leaping from his early book, Insurgent Mexico (1914). Idea Number One was an appreciation that intellectuals could be morally serious, personally re­bellious, and wildly adventurous at the same time. That was more or less what Reed had been at Madison Square Garden. In Insurgent Mexico he followed the Jack London example of rebel writer on the road, and pursued adventure to an extreme. The book was about a trip with notebook and camera to the front lines of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexicans were nervous about American intervention, and the front lines were no place for a gringo. Everywhere Reed went, his presence sparked a discussion about Ameri­can spies and whether the one at hand ought to be shot. A drunken officer stormed up to his hotel room determined to pull the trigger but was too maudlin and confused to go through with it. On another occasion Reed risked getting shot for making contacts with generals in the revolutionary Constitu­tionalist army. And those were merely the dangers that preceded battle. Having estab­lished himself with the Constitutionalists, he accompanied an advance troop into a ghastly massacre and escaped death only by shed­ding his coat, throwing away the camera, and heading for the hills. Warren Beatty liked this scene so much he stuck what looks like a piece of it at the beginning of Reds.

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Idea Number Two was about the pro­letariat. Walter Lippmann once remarked that in the view of Reed and The Masses, the working class isn’t “composed of miners, plumbers, and working men generally, but is a fine statuesque giant who stands on a high hill facing the sun.” That was a witty descrip­tion of Masses propaganda, but beneath the propaganda were other images of the working class, one of which was quite exotic. These bohemians had a cult of the primitive. They were appalled by sophistication, by the hy­pocrisy of the middle class and all those constructs of civilization that obscure the realities of life and death. They wanted to dig down to the profundities of existence, they wanted to touch the natural, and they thought the oppressed toilers had a head start in that direction.

Reed saw the peons of Mexico in this light. He kept an eye out for barbarism. Going around the Constitutionalist army asking sol­diers why they were fighting, he found one who told him, “Why, it is good, fighting. You don’t have to work in the mines,” and who was disturbed to learn there was no war going on in the United States. “No war at all? How do you pass the time, then?” These soldiers were plenty violent, too. They could hardly have a dance or party without fingering their guns and edging up to the brink of a shootout.

And all this was enthralling. Watching the ritualized flirtations of boys and girls in the villages, Reed felt sure their sexuality was spontaneous and open. Attending a medieval miracle play in a poor Durango town, he found an example of art and drama fully integrated into proletarian existence. He was moved above all by the stark simplicity of the peons’ revolutionary ideals. They wanted to get rid of feudal estates, the Church, and the army, and establish Libertad. It seemed so much simpler and better than the ideals of his own countrymen.

Reed asked a soldier:

“ ‘What do you mean by Libertad?’

“ ‘Libertad is when I can do what I want!’ the soldier replied.

“ ‘But suppose it hurts somebody else?’

“He shot back at me Benito Juarez’s great sentence:

“ ‘Peace is the respect for the rights of others!’

“I wasn’t prepared for that. It startled me, this barefooted meztizo’s conception of Liberty. I submit that it is the only correct definition of Liberty — to do what I want to! Americans quote it to me triumphantly as an instance of Mexican irresponsibility. But I think it is a better definition than ours — Liberty is the right to do what the Courts want.”

He loved the peon leaders. Back in Green­wich Village the radical bohemians stood in awe of anyone who could stir the masses. Their own local revolutionary hero was Big Bill Haywood, the one-eyed Western miner who led the Paterson strike and who was once described as Greenwich Village’s football star. But in Mexico Reed found a revolu­tionary leader who made Big Bill look like white bread: Pancho Villa, the ferocious ban­dit, whom Reed once saw wandering along the front of a major battle encouraging his men, cigar in one hand, bomb in the other, ready to light the fuse and let go.

Incredibly, Reed managed to befriend Villa, who called Reed “pug-nose” and gave him free run of the revolutionary army. Reed pictured Villa as a kind of perfect primitive king: abysmally, even comically, ignorant, de­pendent on the suggestions of his educated followers, but able to weigh and choose among these suggestions with the trueness of his emotions and the simplicity of his moral sense. A man with two wives, just and reasonable in his deeds, undeserving of his reputation for wanton murder and rape. A man of physical courage, barely literate, yet a mili­tary genius on the scale of a Napoleon.

The portrait laid it on so thick that Reed’s coolness and judgment were called into ques­tion. He did seem to have been flamboozled by the brutal bandit leader. Yet the portrait suggested a powerful idea. At the center of revolutionary events, Reed seemed to be say­ing, stands a heroic figure — in this case a primitive himself and spokesman for a primitive class, a man of will, no bohemian dilettante or trade union piecard corrupted by ties to the middle class, but a violent doer, a bandit, by God, a man so strong he could put his shoulder to history and butt it forward few feet. This was an immensely satisfying image. It was Idea Number Three — bloody-minded hero worship, the complement to left-wing romantic adventure ­and the cult of the primitive.

— 2 —

All right — maybe John Reedism was less than a brilliant doctrine, maybe it occupied no great place in the history of politics and political thought. But there was so much color and feeling in the doctrine, so much pep, moral passion, rebelliousness — you could write with these ideas, you could paint and draw. Dos Passos said of Reed, “Pancho Villa taught him to write.” The place Reed’s doctrine occupied was in the history of liter­ature — to be specific, right after Stephen Crane and Jack London, right before Lawrence and Hemingway.

And yet five years later, in Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed produced a book that does indeed occupy a place in the history of politics, America’s one great contribution to the classics of international Communism. How was he able to do this? The question was first asked by N.K. Krupskaya, the Bolshevik leader who also happened to be Lenin’s wife, in her preface to the first Russian edition in 1923. The Russians themselves don’t write this way about the October Revolution, she observed. Reed was a foreigner who hardly knew the customs of Russia, could barely speak the language. And yet he had grasped the meaning of the revolution and had writ­ten an “epochal” book. He did this, she ex­plained, by being a revolutionary in spirit, a true Communist.

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The structure of Ten Days suggests that Reed had changed considerably since In­surgent Mexico. He had grown up some (he was 32 when he wrote Ten Days) and no longer doted quite so boyishly on swashbuckles. He had always had a sense of economy in drawing scenes, but now speeded up to the pace of a teletype machine. By no means did he give up on self-conscious literary techniques; he still threw in Whitmanesque flourishes about the “terrible dawn gray-rising over Russia” or the “world, red-tide,” some of which were, in combina­tion with the teletype pace, very effective. But Insurgent Mexico was organized around these techniques, and the new book wasn’t. Stephen Crane lay behind him. Instead he filled Ten Days with facts, dozens of documents, speeches, placards, debates, some­ times reproduced in full. He included copies of leaflets, Cyrillic letters staring up from the page. The mass of material is confusing, fatiguing, almost too breathless to get through. Reading it is like deciphering one of those walls covered with a thousand posters. Then again, it has extraordinary energy, and a sense of extraordinary fidelity. Insurgent Mexico read like a novel. Ten Days That Shook the World was a report from the front.

Underneath these appearances, though, how different was Ten Days from the earlier book? Wasn’t it just John Reedism in heightened form, the Three Great Ideas raised to the level of what Hegel would call the world-historical? Maybe there was no mystery to Reed’s achievement at all­ — maybe it was the same old Village sensibility applied to spectacular new circumstances.

Again there was the tale of the author’s own adventures, less prominently boasted about this time, but more remarkable. He arrived in Petrograd with his wife, Louise Bryant, also a journalist, in the summer of 1917, after the Tsar had been overthrown but while the Provisional Government still hung on. He interviewed Kerensky, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik leaders, who welcomed him as the correspondent for The Masses and the New York socialist paper, The Call. He watched while the Bolsheviks began their October seizure of power. He and Bryant and a party of three other Americans more or less helped capture the Winter Palace: “Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into the right hand entrance.…” Inside they were seized by illiterate Red Guards who studied their passes upside-down and might well have shot them as bourgeois agents, except that a literate officer came by and looked at the passes right-side up. Reed went through the streets of Petrograd in a truck distributing a leaflet he hadn’t even read, which turned out to be Lenin’s proclamation that the Provisional Government was over­thrown. He witnessed the famous speeches by Lenin and Trotsky, though of course it was largely Reed who made famous the par­ticulars of these speeches.

Ten Days indulged no fantasies of free love among the Petrograd workers, and left un­discussed his concern with art and the proletariat. But in other respects Reed looked at the Russian working class with the same eye that he had looked at the Mexican peons. He was not interested in seeing how sophisti­cated the Petrograd proletariat was, how capably it organized factory production with­out the bourgeois managers, for instance. He paid no great attention to the remarkable democratic know-how of the workers, their ability to throw together grass-roots institu­tions of democratic self-government like the revolutionary factory committees and soviets (workers’ councils). He was not interested in what was advanced about the Petrograd workers. He was interested in their glorious simplicity, their almost primitive zeal, the gruffness of their class consciousness.

He contrasted this gruff simplicity to the convoluted knowledge of the educated class, and found that gruff simplicity was the greater wisdom. Indeed gruff simplicity was the stick that beat history forward, that drove the revolution into the streets and brought the Bolsheviks to power. His de­scription of this was mythic: “The Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was con­sidering the question of insurrection. All night long the 23rd they met. There were present all the party intellectuals, the lead­ers — and delegates of the Petrograd workers and garrison. Alone of the intellectuals Lenin and Trotsky stood for insurrection. Even the military men opposed it. A vote was taken. Insurrection was defeated!

“Then arose a rough workman, his face convulsed with rage. ‘I speak for the Petrograd proletariat,’ ” he cried, harshly. “We are in favor of insurrection. Have it your own way, but I tell you now that if you allow the Soviets to be destroyed, we’re through with you!’ Some soldiers joined him.… And after that they voted again — insurrection won.”

This scene turns out to have been mythic in both senses of the word. It is true that the Petrograd workers were spoiling for an uprising, and that the party was hesitant. But the Bolsheviks slid into their decision. There was no single meeting where the crucial vote was reversed, no rough workman who stood up and swayed the Central Committee. There was only Lenin, waging a protracted one-man campaign for insurrection. Reed made his story up out of excess enthusiasm, or maybe failed to look closely into some rumor he heard. It was bad journalism, but first-rate John Reedism.

Only in the portraits of Lenin and Trotsky did Ten Days depart from Reed’s earlier ideas, and even here the departure was not obvious. Lenin and Trotsky stand at the cen­ter of Ten Days just as Villa stood at the center of Insurgent Mexico. Like Villa, they radiate fierceness and strength. Within the party they are relentless against conciliators like Kamenev and Riazanov, who oppose the insurrection. After the insurrection they are just as relentless. The conciliators propose a coalition government of all the popular left­wing parties, instead of a one-party Bolshevik dictatorship. Lenin is outraged: “Shame upon those who are of little faith, who doubt, who allow themselves to be frightened by the bourgeoisie, or who suc­cumb before the cries of that latter’s direct or indirect accomplices!” Lenin is not Mr. Civil Liberties. The question of freedom of the press arises, and several of the Bolsheviks favor a policy of tolerance. Lenin: “To toler­ate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist.”

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But the difference between Villa and the Bolsheviks is that the Bolsheviks don’t lug bombs to the front, they lug a theory of history, and at each little step in the Petro­grad struggle detonate a new assertion about how history is moving along. The Bolsheviks can hardly open their mouths without saying something momentous. Thus Trotsky, in his interview with Reed (during which Reed discovered that it was not necessary to ask ques­tions — Trotsky just talked), announces: “It is the lutte finale.” Proclaiming the Bolshevik victory from the podium of the soviet, he says: “We the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to try an experiment unique in history.” Denouncing those who walk out of the hall in protest against the Bolshevik action, he asserts: “They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!”

Lenin is the same. Addressing his famous first words to the Soviet after the insurrec­tion, he says: “We shall now proceed to con­struct the Socialist order!” — words which, incidentally, Reed was the only person to record, since the official recording secretary of the Soviet was a Menshevik who had just joined the garbage-heap of history by walking out.

Statements like these meant that John Reedism was at an end. Big Bill Haywood had never talked like this. Pancho Villa never said anything this eloquent. The greatest thing Villa ever said in Reed’s hearing was, “The tortillas of the poor are better than the bread of the rich.” These Bolsheviks were intellectuals, more intellectual even than Reed and the bohemian writers. There was nothing romantic about them in Reed’s old sense. He described Lenin as physically “un­impressive,” “colorless,” “without pic­turesque idiosyncrasies.” But this Lenin had fashioned an altogether new notion of what intellectuals could do. He and the Bolsheviks had shouldered aside the natural leaders of the working class and put themselves at the head of the proletariat, and in doing so they had made the revolution. This was not the same as having wild adventures, Reed-style, or being a writer for The Masses and hoping vaguely that one’s literary labors would help the proletariat. The Bolshevik example was far more serious, far grander, and there was no room in it for the old bohemian gaiety.

— 3 —

Some on the left saw that Bolshevism was going to be a disaster — or rather, some rushed into sympathy for Bolshevism, and rushed right out again. Reds portrays this by showing Emma Goldman’s quarrel with Reed over how Russia was doing in 1920. The only thing wrong with Maureen Stapleton’s per­formance in these scenes was the character­less accent she used. The real-life Emma Goldman was an immigrant and had to teach herself English; but she taught herself right. She acquired an upper-class accent. She sounded like George Plimpton. Maybe a cultured accent would have bothered film au­diences: we like our immigrants to sound humble. But the decision to show Goldman’s quarrel with Reed was a good one, his­torically as well as dramatically. Goldman was the first distinguished radical in Reed’s world to condemn the Bolsheviks, which is interesting, and it is especially interesting that she made this condemnation on the basis of values she, too, had brought with her from old bohemian days in New York.

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Goldman’s bohemia, however, was not ex­actly the same as Reed’s. She published her own magazine, Mother Earth, in competition with The Masses, and her magazine was duller, more rigid, and more radical. The comrades in her neck of the woods, which was the Lower East Side and East Harlem, tended to be poorer, angrier, more desperate, more violent. Not all of them were pro­fessional intellectuals. She herself started out with a sewing machine in the shirtwaist industry; her comrade Alexander Berkman started out as a factory hand. And the ten­dency in her circle was to know something about the insides of jail. Goldman at 24 did a year in Blackwell’s Island for having ad­vocated a hunger riot at a rally in Union Square. Berkman did 14 years for shooting and stabbing Henry Clay Frick, the anti-labor steel baron.

The ideas held by this Anarchist bohemia tended to be different, too. In cultural mat­ters, Goldman and her circle were more sophisticated than The Masses group. They were Europeans themselves, and more in touch with the European avant-garde. Eugene O’Neill learned about Ibsen and Strindberg from Goldman and Mother Earth, not from his pals at The Masses. Naturally, she and her circle also had different views of the working class. They had started out back in the 1890s with a Narodnik-like worship of the mystic People, but by the 1910s they had grown heartily sick of working-class ignoramuses and were less inclined to romanticize the primitive. They were champions of the class struggle; needless to say, they took the hardest line possible. But they tended to sneer, good Nietzscheans that they were, at proletarian backwardness. Nor did they fawn quite so easily over revolutionary leaders. Perhaps that was because in their own view they themselves were hot-shot revolutionary leaders. In any case, the ideas in Insurgent Mexico were not really theirs.

Politically these Anarchists were rigid to the point of immobility. They could not con­ceive of government doing anything on behalf of the workers, and therefore did their best not to acknowledge government’s existence. They would never vote, not even for Social­ists, not even in emergencies. Radical bomb­ings and attentats they could abide, and abided them even when innocent people were accidentally killed; but voting was anathema.

Yet they had their insights, lots of them, and in the case of Russia, insights of great clarity and originality precisely because of these doctrinaire ideas. No surprise in this: Anarchism was largely a Russian invention to begin with, courtesy of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and if it had any value at all it would surely yield truths about Russia. Gold­man was deported from the United States at the end of 1919, along with Berkman, and lasted two years in Russia before fleeing to Western Europe. She yielded her truths in My Disillusionment in Russia (1923). This volume had the honor of being the first book-­length denunciation of the Bolsheviks by a revolutionary of international renown. Later she reworked most of what she had written into her autobiography, Living My Life. This snooty, contentious, energetic, splendid two-volume fanfare for herself is the great classic of New York’s Anarchist underworld, a story of proletarian radicalism, the artistic avant­-garde, and the free womanhood for which Goldman so stalwartly stood. The account of her despair at Bolshevism in Living My Life is doubly interesting because of how natu­rally it flows from the values she had campaigned for in the United States. But Gold­man’s was not the only New York Anarchist portrait of revolutionary Russia — perhaps not even the best or the most convincing. There was also Berkman’s Russian diary of 1920–21, which was published as The Bolshevik Myth.

Berkman grew up in Petrograd and at age 11 saw his schoolroom windows shattered by the force of the Narodnik bomb that killed Tsar Alexander. Berkman’s uncle Nathanson became a revolutionary peasant leader and was instrumental in swinging the peasants behind the October Revolution in 1917; Un­cle Nathanson makes a cameo appearance in Ten Days, though Reed seems not to have known of his relation to Berkman. Berkman himself never shed his Narodnik-terrorist roots, even after he emigrated to the United States. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist shows that in preparing to assassinate Frick, his mind was full of Russian revolutionary deeds, even Russian literature. His heart beat at the word Nihilist. Nor did he ever fully change his way of thinking. When he got out of prison he announced that terrorism was behind him, that attentats were an inappro­priate means of class struggle in the United States. But he may not have believed this, at least not in moments of intense emotion. Paul Avrich has recently discovered that Berkman was probably leader of a benighted 1914 bomb plot against Rockefeller.

Berkman managed to play a role in the 1917 Petrograd uprising even while still in the United States. He had been accused of participating in a San Francisco bombing and was in considerable danger of extradition from New York and possible execution. Word of this reached the Petrograd proletariat­ — via an urgent telegram in code from Emma Goldman — and the Petrograd workers added Berkman’s defense to the thousand other global issues they were campaigning for. The Kronstadt sailors and workers held a monster rally for Berkman, among other American political prisoners, and on one occasion a group of revolutionary sailors threatened the life of the American ambassador on Berkman’s behalf. The ambassador cabled Washington; Woodrow Wilson got concerned over the international ramifications; and the case against Berkman was dropped. Mean­while he had become celebrated all over Rus­sia as a heroic victim of political persecution in the United States.

His book on the Russian Revolution began with a genuine instance of that persecution. In December 1919, following two years in the Georgia State Prison for antiwar agitation, he was jailed again at Ellis Island and then smuggled out to the U.S. Transport Buford for deportation, along with Goldman and 247 other immigrant radicals, mostly Russian Anarchists. The Buford steamed for Russia under a guard of U.S. soldiers. Almost imme­diately Berkman’s personality asserted itself. He became a kind of militant labor leader of the deportees, who backed him up in tough negotiations about shipboard conditions with the official in charge. Then the soldiers and sailors began to fall under his sway. When they reached Europe a group of them offered to turn the ship over to him, if he was interested. But he didn’t want a ship.

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Berkman kissed the Russian ground when he arrived and declared it to be the “most sublime” day of his life He was still thrilled by the progress of events in Russia and thought the Bolsheviks were splendid. The fact that the Bolsheviks had established a new government with Lenin as head of state, Trotsky (whom he knew from New York) as foreign minister, etc. etc. was an embarrass­ment to Anarchist ideology. But in his esti­mation the Bolsheviks were merely presiding over the “real” revolution — the seizure of the land by the peasants, the factories by the workers, and the creation of peasant and worker cooperatives as the basis for the new socialist society.

Gradually he learned that he was wrong. The “real” revolution had certainly taken place, and the workers and peasants had seized control over their own affairs for the first time in history. But the Bolsheviks were not presiding over this; they were dismantling it. They were actively suppressing peasant and worker control in favor of cen­tralizing all affairs in the hands of the state. From the Anarchist perspective, this was a disaster — a disaster for the social ideals of the Revolution, also a disaster for the economy, since the Anarchists were convinced that only a decentralized self-managed sys­tem of production could be efficient.

Berkman traveled around Russia with Goldman, collecting information for the new Museum of the Revolution, and everywhere he went left-wing oppositionists told him of political persecutions by the secret police, the Cheka. The harshest suppressions were of the Ukrainian Anarchists, who had been crucial in liberating that region from the counter-­revolutionary Whites, and briefly there was the chance that the Ukraine might be allowed to develop along Anarchist lines. But Trotsky put an end to this. In Moscow, the Anarchist club was machine-gunned. Anarchists, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries found themselves in jail. Executions began. Berkman increasingly got the impression of a police state.

Meanwhile his own standing with the Bolsheviks began to decline. At first he was welcomed as a hero. Lenin sent a car to bring him to the Kremlin for a chat. Zinoviev was friendly and stood next to him on a May Day reviewing stand. Then Radek called with an urgent request. Lenin had just written Left-­Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, and needed Berkman to translate it into Eng­lish. Berkman explained that he was too busy. Radek said, working for Lenin takes precedence over everything else. So Berkman examined the pamphlet and announced that he would be happy to translate it, but only if he could add a preface explaining why Lenin was wrong. “This is no joking matter, Berkman,” Radek said. After that the Bolsheviks took a dimmer view of him.

The climax was the Kronstadt uprising, when the revolutionary sailors demanded the right of free elections to the Soviet and free­dom of speech for non-Bolshevik leftists. Berkman and Goldman offered to mediate the dispute: they still hoped some sort of reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and the more democratic and libertarian tenden­cies on the left could be worked out. Instead Trotsky sent the Red Army.

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Berkman was a Dostoevskian figure, swept by gusts of depression and outrage, his whole life spent teetering on the line between fanat­ical idealism and suicide (ultimately he did commit suicide, in 1936). He hated op­pression with a physical passion; he was the kind of man whose muscles stiffen at the sight of the police. It might be said that his extreme emotionalism was a psychological problem, peculiar to him, except that he belonged to a movement that itself teetered constantly between vast dreams and bitter calamities. Better to say he was an old-style Romantic, a man with the heightened emo­tions of 19th century revolutionism. Fortunately he was also possessed of literary talent and could get these emotions down on the page. His finest work was Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, every page of which is drenched with his mixture of idealism and torment. But he was also able to capture his feelings in The Bolshevik Myth, a book that recorded what was, after all, a far huger tragedy than his own failed attentat and long imprisonment.

“Gray are the passing days,” he wrote at the end of The Bolshevik Myth. “One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in Octo­ber. The slogans of the Revolution are fore­sworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people.” He concluded: “The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed.” That was in 1921.

Berkman didn’t even dent that myth. His book was published in 1925 by Boni and Liveright, the firm which had brought out Ten Days That Shook the World six years earlier. But in Berkman’s book Boni and Liveright did not have another big seller. American radicalism was not going in Berkman’s direction. It was going in Reed’s, toward Communism.

— 4 —

Was Reed himself going in Reed’s direc­tion at the time of his death? Or was he coming to agree with Berkman and Gold­man — not with their Anarchist philosophy, but with their left-wing condemnation of the Bolsheviks? This became an urgent question 10 or 15 years after his death.

Certainly Reed’s last years were devoted to Bolshevism. He organized a Bolshevik fac­tion in the United States, the Communist Labor Party. He edited an agitational paper, The Communist. Then he returned to Russia and became intimate with Lenin, who would have him over for late-night talks and pull up his chair so close their knees touched. He was appointed a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Interna­tional — but some time in the summer of 1920 he resigned the position. Possibly he was upset at the Executive Committee’s labor stance. Possibly it was because the commit­tee refused to dump his political rival, Louis Fraina, from leadership. Either way, he soon withdrew the resignation — only to fall out with Zinoviev in August at a conference of “Toiling Peoples of the East” at Baku.

Soon afterwards, he died of typhus. Berkman and Goldman happened to be in Moscow and were the only friends of Louise Bryant’s to attend the funeral. And in a talk with Bryant, Goldman got the first wind that Reed’s upset at the Bolsheviks may have been substantial, indeed may have begun to resemble her own. There was not a great deal of evidence for this — only a few ambiguous words from Bryant, whose reliability could be questioned. At the funeral she was hysterical. When the coffin was lowered, she clutched at it, threw herself on the rain-covered ground, and stayed there through six speeches by Communist worthies, until Berkman picked her up and took her to the car. The hysteria was no passing thing, either, but may well have been the beginning of her long decline, which ended with her death many years later as an alcoholic in Paris. She certainly wasn’t held in high regard by Goldman, who wrote to Berkman:

“The last time I saw her was at the Sélect when two drunken Corsican soldiers carried her out of the café. What a horrible end. More and more I come to think it is criminal for young middle-class American or English girls to enter radical ranks. They go to pieces. And even when they do not reach the gutter, as Louise did, their lives are empty.… Of course Lincoln Steffens was right when he said about Louise [that] she was never a communist, she only slept with a communist.”

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Nevertheless Goldman felt confident enough of what Bryant had told her about Reed’s questioning of the Bolsheviks to write it up. Over the years Bryant talked to a number of people about the final state of Reed’s soul, and they all felt confident about what she said — but each person seemed to get a different story: that Reed was beginning to be disappointed in the Bolsheviks; that he was indignant and through with them; that he was a stalwart Communist to the end; that he was a United States agent (this last no one has taken seriously). These various remarks of Bryant’s, plus some chatter from other people who remembered Reed in Russia, provided the only basis for the debate that arose over Reed’s final position. It wasn’t a very good debate — not enough hard facts. But then, this debate wasn’t really about facts. It was about something bigger — myths.

The John Reed myth began while he was still alive. Reed’s death made him seem more mythic still. In the 1930s, when the debate began in earnest, the John Reed myth took on yet another aspect. The ’30s was the “Red Decade”; yet even then it was obvious that the golden age of radicalism in America was the 1910s, certainly for the bohemian left — a great age because of its gaiety, romance, hu­mor, above all because of the optimism that allowed these things to clasp hands with the cause of socialism and the working class.

Reed was the symbol of this. He repre­sented the grand bohemian possibility, the possibility that art and revolution might come together, that the adventurousness of the individual rebel and the cause of social progress might cohere, that the work of The Masses might help the working classes after all. The debate over his last days, then, was a debate over who was the true heir of the 1910s bohemian left.

Naturally the Communists nominated themselves. They bedecked themselves with signs of their legitimacy. They called their magazine New Masses, indicating direct de­scent. They called their literary organizations in the early ’30s the John Reed Clubs. And they had grounds for their claim. A Com­munist writer like Mike Gold could hardly have existed without the example of Reed before him. Gold wrote articles in New Masses with such titles as “John Reed: He Loved the People,” proving what a true he­roic Communist Reed was, and surely felt no worry about distorting Reed’s legacy. For Gold had Reed in his bones; he himself was Reed’s legacy; and he knew from his own emotions that he had the right to claim Reed for the Communist Party. So of course Gold and the Communists argued that Reed had never wavered, not even during his typhoid delirium.

The anti-Stalinist left claimed Reed and the bohemian legacy just as vehemently, and no one felt this more strongly than Max Eastman, the old Masses editor. The charac­ter of Max Eastman, incidentally, is another place where historical accuracy in Reds falls short. The real-life Eastman was not merely an attractive fellow, as in the movie, but stupendously beautiful. And not only that, a nudist. The real-life John Reed, on the other hand, had a face like a potato, according to Eastman. Even Pancho Villa, it will be recalled, was not impressed by Reed’s good looks. I hate to make this objection since by and large the historical sense in Reds is magnificent, down to the tiniest details, and ought to prompt Hollywood to give Beatty and his researchers an Academy Award for scholarship. And I’m sure that if Beatty had only received accurate information on Reed’s looks, he would have happily gotten himself up like a potato.

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Eastman’s claim to the legacy of Reed was based on their years of work together. The two men hadn’t always agreed, but they respected, even loved, each other’s idealism. Reed wrote a poem about Max’s nobility of soul and used it to dedicate a volume of poetry. (“A vision of new splendor in the human scheme— /A god-like dream—”). Eastman wrote a novel called Venture, based in part on Reed and the Paterson strike. Eastman threw himself into Bolshevism just as Reed did, only while Reed turned into an agitator and politico, Eastman remained an editor and publisher. The Masses was sup­pressed by the government in 1917, but East­man founded a new magazine, The Liberator. Lenin’s “Letter to the American Workers” was smuggled from Scandinavia by Carl Sandburg and appeared in the magazine. It was in the pages of Eastman’s magazine that Antonio Gramsci, in Italy, first read the writ­ings of Lenin. And like Reed, Eastman also took the bold step of going to Russia.

Eastman’s two-and-a-half-year experience in Russia, however, was not encouraging. He attached himself to Trotsky, no doubt as Reed would have done after Lenin died, and began to work with Trotsky on an authorized biography. And from this vantage point he watched Stalin’s consolidation of power — in fact, tried to stop the dreadful event from occurring. It was Eastman who published the sensational Testament, in which Lenin stated that he didn’t like Stalin and wanted Trotsky to become head of state. Then Stalin completed his victory and Eastman was plunged into utter political isolation.

Eastman’s position in the American Left in the 1930s was not a happy one. To the bulk of the left and a good many liberals, he looked like a man who had lost his bearings — he had nothing but accusations against the Soviet Union, he seemed to have lent himself to the capitalist campaign of anti-Communist vil­ification. But this was not how it seemed to Eastman. Like the Anarchists before him, he did not feel that his objections to the Russian Revolution were made on the basis of picayune political purism. He knew for a fact that things were horrendous over there. All his old acquaintances were executed. He knew that thousands, and more than thousands, were going off to the terrible prison labor camps.

Imagine, then, how he felt seeing John Reed’s name waving as a banner over the Stalinist enterprise in America. It was gall­ing. It was galling enough to see New Masses claim to be the heir of the old Masses. So Eastman issued his own counterclaims about Reed. Reed at his death had turned against communism, he announced. Louise Bryant had more or less told him so! Reed would never have become a Stalinist. He would have been a left-wing anti-Stalinist — just like Max Eastman. And Eastman knew this, just as Gold knew his own interpretation, in his bones.

The tragedy of Max Eastman is that he drifted further and further from the values of his brilliant youth. The personal situation he faced as a result of his denunciations of Stalin was too difficult. It was hard to call oneself a revolutionary leftist, and find that all one’s energy went into denouncing the rest of the revolutionary leftists, who in turn denounced him in the vilest language. Eventually his strength for this sort of thing gave out, and he defected to the extreme right — militarism, capitalism, nationalism, the whole bit, minus religion, which he still couldn’t abide. He wasn’t even a first-rate right-winger: he had nothing to say in his capacity as conservative dinosaur. Fortunately he found a magazine that specialized in this — the Reader’s Digest. That was where the editor of The Masses wound up.

Would Reed, if he had lived, have followed Eastman to an equally dreary end? Would he have followed Mike Gold into the dead end of American Stalinism, finishing his days writ­ing ridiculous copy for The Daily Worker? Would he have found a better alternative?

Foolish questions. Reed died at age 32. The terrible course of the modern era had only begun. He had neither lost his ideals nor bent them into some depressing shape. We re­member him for that. ■
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What Empire? ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Reviewed

What Empire?
May 26, 1980

The movie begins: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas, the most benevolent and least gurulike of the new California moguls, is officially telling­ the faithful that the beloved Star Wars was merely Episode IV in an evolving triple trilogy. The most popular movie ever, made for $10 million and released in 1977, introduced a rebel skirmish in a far-­off galaxy. The 1980 sequel, made for $20 million, continues the fight between hero Luke Skywalker and villain Darth Vader. And Lucasfilm Ltd., the most pragmatic and least mystic of the new ministudios, has announced that Episode VI, due in 1983, will conclude the duel to the death. Has anyone in this Force-fed organization figured out that at the present rate of progression Star Wars IX will come in at over $2.5 billion in the year 2001?

Meanwhile in Episode V, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are back as the most likable gauche trio since Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Frank Shannon blasted off in Flash Gordon. The severe limitations of the Star Wars juve­niles, however, make no difference to the master plan.

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Empire has recruited a top-notch dra­matic filmmaker in Irvin Kershner as its titular director, but he is not permitted the luxury of reintroducing many existing characters. In a script that calls for an adolescent romance between Princess Leia (Fisher) and Han Solo (Ford) on the Hen­ry Aldrich level of affirmation through insult, Kershner’s hands are haplessly tied and the relationship stays safely within kiddie bounds. But Kershner does get in his licks. He has the chance to introduce into the series Billy Dee Williams as a dashing rogue adventurer, and while a new set of doe eyes is a bit much, the smooth assimilation of a black hero who is just as democratically callow as his fellow actors should lay to rest some of the silly accusations of racism and reverse racism aimed at the original. Kershner is probably re­sponsible also for a jarring shift in tone between the films. Star Wars, with its cool, stylized comic-book action, was sweetly and innocently a G-spirited film, but a more adult rating was requested for respectability’s sake. Empire is tartly and calculatedly, especially in its revving up of Dolby stereo into a weapon of subliminal edginess, a PG hard-action movie.

Otherwise, Lucas’s midway opus — and let it be stated once and for all that Lucas, like Disney and Selznick, is a true auteur from conception to final cut — is startlingly candid about its structure as a serial interruptus. The original’s leisurely introduc­tions, the sense of airy exploration of new worlds, and the pageant-like story with beginning, middle, and end are all gone. Empire careens willy-nilly from peril to battle to cliff-hanger. The accelerated pace is almost tiring so that the new movie, only three minutes longer, seems to unravel more slowly. Within an hour, it’s clear that nothing finally will be resolved in Empire, that neither good nor evil will triumph, and that the characters’ fates will be left dangling in various outposts of the galaxy. Empire is the first motion picture of its cost without a monster to leave its audience on hold.

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Shades of Mongo! Empire couldn’t be closer to the experience of walking into the middle five chapters of Flash Gordon Con­quers the Universe. There are five new locations, hence five sequences, very neat, very economical: There’s the ice planet of Hoth, the swamp of Dagobah, an asteroid belt, the Empire’s command battleship, and the floating city of Bespin. On Hoth, the animated sequences of riding snow beasts are crude and amateurish. The craft is far below Ray Harryhausen’s ex­pertise. It doesn’t matter. The film keeps moving. The snow beasts are quickly for­gotten in the swift choreography of an aerial dogfight against attacking mechanical behemoths, a speeding movement that later, through exquisite special effects, will climax in a race among dancing asteroids.

The Star Wars modus operandi is settl­ing down to a patchwork of scenes shot with actors in England on vast sets and those shot in miniature in Lucasfilm’s California factory. The split causes a defi­nite loss. The steering is so much in the hands of the special-effects men that one no longer gets a sense of the characters showing off their driving skills. The one set carried over from Star Wars, the battered smuggler’s ship Millennium Falcon, has been reduced to a running gag: it never gets in shape for a leap to hyperdrive, and there’s no real sense of Han Solo and Chewbacca manning the controls.

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There are other slippages, none of which favorably reflect on Lucas as the preserver of the Star Wars mythos. What I liked most about the original was the way it overlapped (or robbed from) my favorite sci-fi pulp: the straight-arrow militarism of E.E. Doc Smith, the fatalism and extrasensory gobbledygook of Frank Herbert, and the rover-boy adventurism of Larry Niven, one of whose favorite charac­ters is the Kzinti, a 15-foot, intelligent, fighting tomcat. Chewbacca, the wookie, was also once comically fearsome. In Em­pire, he’s a shaggy pussycat and a victim of sentimental domesticizing. Let us also mourn Alec Guinness’s Ben Kenobi, now relegated to a spectral holograph bringing infusions of the Force, making his first appearance to a near-frozen Luke like a Saint Bernard in the snow. C-3PO and R2-D2 are back, but here they seem awkward adjuncts, not central messengers of grace.

In many ways, Star Wars IV and V get away with murder. As Lucas has said of its hero: “Luke is a pawn in an adventure that has been going on for longer than his span of years.” Yeah, and for longer than the audience’s span of attention. What empire are we faced with? What emperor? (We finally get a one-minute hologram of His Badness in the new film.) What re­bels? What Force be with you? Lucas has trained a knot-hole eye on a science-fiction adventure; he has not drawn an epic can­vas, but has pasted together a slick, clean, noninterlocking collage of derivative bits and pieces. So let’s have no more Time talk of Lucas/Homer and Lucas/Bunyan. Empire is simply a minor entertainment, but I admire the moxie of betting $20 million on one-ninth of a matinee serial to be continued into the next century.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, from a story by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz, A Lucasfilm Ltd. pro­duction released by 20th Century-Fox. 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

American Civilization: Dead, or Playing Possum?

“Knowledge Is Good? Intellectuals Bomb Out of Town”
May 5, 1980

Saratoga Springs, April 10. Lining the streets of North Broadway are the sort of threatening-looking trees that pelted Dorothy and Toto with apples on their way to Oz. After hanging a left, the visitor finds himself in the bosom of Skidmore College, where squirrels carelessly frolic and “Knowledge Is Good.” Before long, however, the true cheery horror of campus life comes flooding back: Frisbees! beer busts! student elections! (Pinned to a bulletin board in the student lounge was a sign that read “Simon Sez: Vote for Garfunkle.”) What could possibly lure an unsuspecting soul into this godforsaken wilderness? 

The back cover of the literary quarterly Salmagundi’s winter issue announces the following: 

SALMAGUNDI 

15th Anniversary Conference

AMERICAN CIVILIZATION: FAILURE IN THE NEW WORLD? 

Participants: 

George Steiner
Christopher Lasch
Stanley Kauffmann
John Lukacs
Bharati Mukherjee
Roben Garis
Dwight Macdonald
Susan Sontag
Leslie Fiedler
Ronald Paulson
Gerald Graff
John Gagnon
Ben Belur
Robert Boyers
& others 

This intellectual Killer Elite would participate in nine sessions concerning the current state of American culture — “the civilizational perspective/the novel/poetry/the idea of history in america/dance/theater/film/character types in american social science/painting”… When I read the announcement chapel bells pealed in the distance and a host of doves fluttered against the windowpane: omens beckoning me to Saratoga Springs. So off to Skidmore I scooted, keen on seeing whether or not American civilization would be given a send-in-the-lions thumbs-down. 

***

Inside Filene Hall, murmurs, gossip. At stage right, a man fiddled with knobs behind a portable console, taping the weekend’s proceed­ings for National Public Radio; near him stood a lectern, and left of the lectern a fold-up table with microphones taped to its top. Except for clusters of Skidmore coeds (strawberry-haired pretties in jeans and sneaks), the audience was infested with the sort of young academics who haunt the classified pages of The New York Review of Books: A Witty, Erudite Sybarite snuggled up to a Warm, Appealing Scorpio; behind them, a Woody Allen Admirer in a patched-elbow corduroy jacket scanned the room for Sensitive Wasps (no fatties please)…

Suddenly a door flipped open and out trooped the Salmagundi all-stars: and a grimmer group of gangsters I’ve seldom seen. LESLIE A. FIEDLER went to his seat with the defiant waddle perfected by Norman Mailer in Maidstone; STANLEY KAUFFMANN looked as if he had just emerged from a Marguerite Duras double feature; and on the panelists’ table converged CYNTHIA OZICK, CHARLES MOLESWORTH, JOHN LUKACS, and HENRY PACHTER. Hold­ing forth at the lectern was host and moderator ROBERT BOYERS. And who, squeaks a voice from the back of the room, is ROBERT BOYERS? 

ROBERT BOYERS is a bearded young academic with a peculiar fondness for salmon-pink ties. Sleeplessly industrious, BOYERS as­sembles lit-crit anthologies, teaches English at Skidmore, contributes to London’s Times Literary Supplement, and edits not only Salmagundi (a deep-think quarterly modeled on Partisan Review) but The Bennington Review (a large, handsome, graphics-oriented slick). He has also composed book-length appreciations of critical mentors R.P. Black­mur, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling. The Trilling study is a jawbreakingly titled Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, and there are those of us who feel Trilling might have been wiser had he accepted more and avoided less. Shabbier mortals might smoke in the balcony or root in the bleachers; Trilling apparently spent every evening brooding on the cliffs of Dover Beach. (Mused Harold Rosenberg, “When I first encountered the gravity of Lionel Trilling, I did not get the joke; it took some time to realize there wasn’t any.”) In March 1974, BOYERS convened a two-day sym­posium at Skidmore to discuss Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, a gray occasion lightened only by Trilling’s brief rumination on the nude­-running craze — “We won’t go into the sincerity or authenticity of streaking, which is a very ambiguous thing,” he observed. Lionel Trilling could find ambiguity in the damndest places. 

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Even with Trilling hovering like the Holy Ghost above its pages, Salmagundi manages issue after issue to be one of the few quarterlies worth a serious skim. It isn’t as lively as the Hudson Review — which has a bullpen full of hard-throwing critics (Marvin Mudrick, William Pritchard, Roger Sale) — but it has far more juice and rigor than the now-moribund Partisan Review. Ironically, Salmagundi represents a chaste retreat from the flirtation with pop culture indulged in by Partisan Review contributors in the late ’60s, a flirtation which provoked culturally conservative power-brokers like Philip Rahv to make grousing remarks about nihilistic “swingers.” Instead of medita­tions on camp, the Beatles, and the significance of Muhammed Ali, Salmagundi entices its academic audience with articles like “The Extraterritoriality of Siegfried Kracauer,” “Johan Huizinga— The His­torian as Magister Ludi,” “ ‘Shipwreck, Autochthony, and Nostos’: An Approach to the Poetry of John Peck,” and (a real pearl, this) “Performance as Transformation: Richard Schechner’s Theory of the Play/Social Process Knot.” 

After welcoming us to Skidmore, BOYERS announced that the keynote speaker — GEORGE STEINER — was too ill to attend (he has a frail ticker), and that he would read STEINER’s paper on the parched emptiness of American culture — “Archives of Eden.” A thankless task, though BOYERS made things easier on himself by slicing STEINER’s speech from two hours to one. “Failure in the New World.” STEINER sent word through BOYERS that the “awkward” and “vulnerable” paper we would hear was his presence — a lightly sounded note of mock-humility. In Clive James’s comic epic about the London literary world, “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage,” GEORGE STEINER appears as “Doc Stein,” a pompous polymathic whiz whose vocabulary consists of “words a cockroach uses to its mother/And Barthes and Levi-Strauss use to each other.” Early on, STEINER lived up to his reputation as “Doc Stein” by sprinkling his paper with phrases like “relevant antinomies” and “quotidian awareness” and “Puritan theodicy.” He also indulged in his notorious flair for name-dropping, unbuckling the velvet rope that separates the gum-chewing rabble from the great to usher in Nietzsche, Kafka, Heidegger, Sartre, Goethe, Mann. “…I take it that American culture has no extraterritoriality to time… densities of obtuseness… howl with the wolves of the so- called counter-culture… from Thoreau to Trilling… make excel­lence fully accessible to the vulgate.…” Imagine a village in which, one by one, the lights are going out — that’s what happened to the audience as “Archives of Eden” snuffed the flame from their minds. Coughs began to echo like yodels across Alpine crags. 

The paper was, in short, a Pseud Masterpiece. STEINER’S argu­ment: America has not created a rich, loamy culture, but serves as the custodian of European art and thought. Our museums display the sculpture and paintings of Euro-masters, our libraries house their manuscripts; America itself, however, has created little of lasting value in art or literature or mathematics or metaphysics. According to STEINER, this country was founded by immigrants with pinched minds who “opted out” of history to create a New Eden. Instead, they created a gluttonous empire teeming with goopy, provincial Babbitts­ — “In the New Eden,” he intoned, “God’s creatures move in herds.” As damning proof of America’s philistinism, he sourly observed that the country has a Hall of Fame for baseball players but no classic editions of American writers. In Europe, he told us, a good student carries Gramsci in one pocket, another carries Bonhoeffer; and the best will carry both. He concluded: “It is the book in the pocket that matters.” Which made me a touch sheepish, since the book in my pocket was a P.G. Wodehouse entertainment in which Bertie Wooster fretted about spending a weekend with Sir Roderick Glossop, a loony-bin doctor who sits on his patients’ heads. Sir Roderick might have cocked an inquisitive eyebrow had he heard STEINER’s speech, which was filled with references to schizophrenia, sclerosis, contagion, infection, can­cer, and leprosy. Perhaps (thinks Glossop, stroking his chin thoughtfully) it’s not Western Civilization but STEINER’s fragile health which makes him think everything has turned to rot and ennui. 

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After this soul-sick lamentation came a panel discussion, and it was something of a shock to hear panelist CYNTHIA OZICK proclaim S.’s speech a “thrillingly stupendous” voyage that carried her along on waves edged with “a snowy plenitude of flakes.” Gifted as she is, OZICK is something of a flake herself. In D.A. Pennebaker’s film Town Bloody Hall, she draws a big laugh when she confronts Norman Mailer with a quote he made about writing with his balls — Norman, she wanted to know, exactly what color ink do you dip your precious testicles into? When not being mischievously cute, OZICK enjoys playing the pixie-victim; she told the Skidmore audience that she suspects her apartment is the target of vandalism because she’s the only one in her working-class neighborhood who frequents the library and has a kid who doesn’t use double negatives. Though OZICK coyly poor-mouthed herself as a “philistine scribbler,” she launched an analysis of STEINER that was as tortuously academic as an article in, well, Salmagundi. Quarreling with Steiner’s concept of the artist as a Romantic Sufferer, OZICK climbed a spiral staircase in her mind, step by creaky step, arriving at the top only to flick on a small dim switch marked “Irony.” Had the Skidmore audience been in a rebellious mood, OZICK might have been bonked on the beezer with a well­-aimed avocado, but she read from her notes for a half-hour without a single missile whistling through the air. After she concluded her incomprehensible rebuttal, several couples grabbed their coats and bolted for freedom. 

CHARLES MOLESWORTH, a professor of English at Queens College who has a too-high regard for the later poetry of Robert Lowell, wisely kept his comments brief, noting only that STEINER’s attack ignored the contributions of Duke Ellington and IBM. Just as the goggle-eyed audience began to resemble a netful of contaminated fish, JOHN LUKACS slapped some life into the evening. LUKACS, a Hungarian emigre whose books include Historical Consciousness and the Last European War, didn’t needle STEINER with irony, as OZICK had done; he demolished him with a scorn that can only be called Nabokovian. After a funny discourse on the Puritan heritage and that “medieval Levittown” known as Massachusetts, LUKACS ridiculed the notion that the mass of European immigrants “opted out” of history, or that the emigre intellectuals so admired by STEINER nourished America with their greatness. Einstein, with his baggy trousers and “astral hair,” played the role of genius long after his genius had been tapped; George Lukacs (my namesake, LUKACS ruefully noted) was “a Weimar Age fossil” dug up by fatuous lefties; and Paul Tillich — well, Tillich devoted his sacred days to pornography and other unsavory pursuits (Hannah Tillich, in From Time to Time: “One of the nudes came to our table, where we placed a silver coin. She turned around and took it with her sphincter muscle”). LUKACS unsettled some people with a contemptuous aside about “the vomitorium of Brecht,” but his attack on universities that have turned the Holocaust into a “cultural industry” had heads nodding with vigorous approval. After praising American pop composers like Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin, LUKACS cited a passage in STEINER’s speech in which he lamented that a Washington museum houses a roomful of Stradivariuses. To STEINER, this roomful of unplayed violins is damning proof that America is a custodian and not a creator of fine culture; to LUKACS, it proves that the country isn’t bound to a desiccated classicism. “The violins may be mute,” he concluded, “but the fiddler is still on the roof.” 

When LUKACS was finished, STEINER’s thesis lay in a smoking, bone-hacked heap, a burnt offering to the Homeric gods. Unfor­tunately, the evening was not yet done. HENRY PACHTER, an author and historian who reminds one less of Nabokov than of one of his bewildered academics (Pnin, perhaps), dawdled for 10, 15, 20 minutes, dropping pellets of scorn on STEINER’s loftier conceits. Fingers began to twitch with fear and boredom, for PACHTER is one of those speakers who never reaches a full stop but keeps connecting clause to clause to clause, his sentences forming a string of boxcars stretching endlessly into the night. Finally, mercifully, the caboose whistled off, and the audience began to volley forth comments. Two seats away from me, a Passionate, Caring Young Intellectual complained about the absence of a Marxist perspective on the panel, saying that the dialogue lacked a “dialectical dimension.” When PACHTER said that “dialectical” was one of those intellectual buzzwords that ought to be retired, the Passionate, Caring Young Marxist Pseud snapped, “Excuse me, sir, but I didn’t interrupt you while you were speaking, so please don’t interrupt me.” Before I could reach over and smack the twerp over the head with my clipboard, BOYERS diplomatically cooled things down by saying that the PCMP’s comments were “well taken” (whatever that means). Before the session adjourned, there was an odd exchange between OZICK and FIEDLER. FIEDLER, sitting in the front row, cheerfully re­marked that GEORGE STEINER “aspires to snobbery” but lacks the confidence to be a true snob. (He’s wrong, I think: STEINER has a snootful of confidence.) “Are you a snob?” asked OZICK. “Yeah,” answered FIEDLER with a Mailerish growl, adding, “I live in a working-class neighborhood and feel at home.” 

The next afternoon, the two of them would again lock antlers. 

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***

As Friday spread its colors with the glory of a Ronald Firbank epiphany (“The turquoise tenderness of the sky drew from her heart a happy coo”), American civilization seemed secure: The opening address had been trampled beneath a stampede of ridicule, and the Holiday Inn stood undisturbed, a symbol of everything STEINER and the steinettes despise in our materialistic wasteland. Legging it out of the Inn, I arrived at Skidmore shortly before LESLIE FIEDLER’s well-rehearsed attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the American novel. 

When the spotlight is on, FIEDLER doesn’t waddle or slomp. Riding his stomach like a chariot, he rolls past mere worldlings like a Jewish Sun God. His untidy locks and bulging brow may remind one of the bust on Linus’s piano, but the manner is Steps of the Pentagon 1967, jovial, combative, ironically grandiloquent. Like Mailer, FIEDLER enjoys teasing the audience by suggesting that the air is alive with existential possibilities — that his talk may swerve around unanticipated corners. The title of his address: “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel.” He began by saying that he wasn’t sure what he was going to say until a few minutes before he arrived. Which seemed a trifle disingenuous, since he contributed a paper to John Halperin’s 1976 anthology, The Theory of the Novel: New Essays titled “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel,” and has been fanning the flame of the phoenix since Cross the Border — Close the Gap. “The novel,” FIEDLER announced, “is dead as a final form; as an end itself.” And from that RIP he wandered down familiar paths, tracing the novel from its humble beginnings as Bourgeois Entertainment to its ascendance into its various subgenres (Jewish-Feminist, Neocolonial, Sci-Fi, etc.). Echoing Gore Vidal, FIEDLER noted the proliferation of University Novels: novels which exist only to be taught, explicated, embalmed. And, again echoing Vidal (V.’s essay on the best-seller list in Matter of Fact and Fiction), FIEDLER observed that most novels these days have their roots not in Parnassus or Grub Street but in Hollywood, as future movie projects. Stale as most of this news was, FIEDLER was never less than engaging: He embroidered his talk with comic anec­dotes and odd bits of fact about Saul Bellow, Samuel Clemens, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Resistance, however, began to percolate on the panel. 

OZICK declared, “The sociology of the novel is of no interest to me,” explaining that what did interest her were paragraphs, punc­tuation. “The colon is dead,” she lamented, to much applause. (OZICK’s concern for colons later became the subject of indecent mirth.) GERALD GRAFF, a humorless scold whose new book, Literature Against Itself, tries to fend off the semiotic police, tugged on his mustache and did some earnest huffing about “values” and “content.” When he reminded the audience that Shakespeare’s work has “a humanistic dimension,” a hundred pair of eyes rolled heavenward in exasperation. Watching his rivals commit harakiri, FIEDLER buoyantly lit up a long thick cigar, a foul-smelling number that had the panelists turning darker shades of green. 

It took SUSAN SONTAG (who was sitting in the front row wearing baby-blue cowboy boots) to say what sorely needed saying, that Fiedler’s categories have not only lost their usefulness but now clutter his (and our) vision. At one time, his heady love of myth and genre and archetype allowed him to detect patterns in American literature that had eluded less foolhardy critics. FIEDLER’s unashamed love of pop — sci-fi, comic books, Russ Meyer flicks — was also liberating at a time when academic critics tended to be ponderously Olympian (Lionel Trilling), hyper-aesthetically gnomic (I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur), or sneeringly severe (F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny spear carriers). In recent years, however, FIEDLER’s love of pop has turned into a love of a love of pop. He extravagantly admires his appetite for trash; it’s his way of proving that he isn’t a prissy academic prig — that he’s one of the kids. Similarly, FIEDLER’s schlock-Freudian methodology is now used onanistically — his allegiance is not to the artist but to his own technique. An artist who doesn’t fit FIEDLER’s archetypes has his limbs lopped off. 

In FIEDLER’s new book, The Inadvertent Epic, a study of race melodramas from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots, he unleashes a squadron of archetypes — Good Good Nigger, Good Bad Nigger, Black Rapist, Wicked Slavedriver, Old Testament Mother. When a black artist like Ishmael Reed criticizes such stereotypes or tries to subvert them in his own fiction, FIEDLER dismisses him as the darling of “elitist critics,” adding that Reed’s reservations “are clearly cued by the fact that [Roots] not merely outsold but obliterated his own book [Flight to Canada]. For FIEDLER, success is the only thing that matters — the roar of the masses imbues even the shoddiest work with mythopoeic power, leaving losers, like Ishmael Reed, to chew up their spite. The Inadvertent Epic concludes with FIEDLER’s by-now familiar celebration of the privileged insanity and “dionysiac, demonic” ecstasies released by such books. “But it doesn’t occur to him” [writes Marvin Mudrick of another would-be Dionysian] “that nothing in life or literature is more exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Sophocles’ Antigone, Pushkin’s Ta­tyana, Trollope’s Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence’s Tom Brangwen… when someone takes me to the zoo, I want to see the swans.”

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SONTAG didn’t toss crumbs to the swans or snip roses from the hedges of Mansfield Park, but she did come to the defense of OZICK, who became teary-eyed after FIEDLER made sport of her endangered colons. She said OZICK was one of the few good writers in America; an unclassifiably good writer. (Had SONTAG known I was in the audience, she would of course have lobbed my name into the conver­sation.) With the smell of FIEDLER’s stogie polluting the room, the session broke up, Skidmore students dashing to the exits for gulps of fresh air. 

After a brief breather, a panel on film and theater convened, hosted by Salmagundi‘s film critic, ALAN SPIEGEL, an eager young blister who dresses in a manner FIEDLER would doubtless describe as Academic Funky (earth-colored corduroys, rolled-up shirt sleeves, scuffed Hush Puppies). At his side were STANLEY KAUFFMANN of the New Republic, dance critic ROBERT GARIS, and that legendary dreadnought, DWIGHT MACDONALD. Speaking first was KAUFF­MANN, a movie critic who has an unhealthy respect for alienation, whether it’s packaged as American lower-depths naturalism (Wanda) or European art-house asceticism (The Left-Handed Woman). A connoisseur of anomie and artful fatigue, KAUFFMANN isn’t a writer who surfs on the crest of giddy passion; his sentences drip and dribble, forming stagnant pools of commonplace opinion. Like Trilling’s grav­ity, KAUFFMANN’s “gentlemanly” tact is taken as the refusal of a fine mind to lose its moorings. In other words, Inertia equals Integrity. Happily, the energy missing in his writing is spurtingly present in his public appearances. Here, he talked about how America gave film to the world and, during a discussion of the impact of movies on private lives, fondly reminisced about receiving his first kiss from a lass named Rosie Schultz — “As she kissed me, she turned into Joan Crawford.” 

After KAUFFMANN came MACDONALD, once described by Norman Mailer as conceivably the world’s worst public speaker: “It was true. Macdonald’s authority left him at the entrance to the aura of the podium. In that light he gesticulated awkwardly, squinted at his text, laughed at his own jokes, looked like a giant stork, whinnied, shrilled, and was often inaudible. When he spoke extempore, he was sometimes better, often worse.” Friday was one of MACDONALD’s better days. After saying that he wasn’t used to being at events where words like “antinomian” were bandied about so freely, he declared that STEINER’s speech and OZICK’s da capo recapitulation “turned me off culture — and I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.” Admitting that only a few films had pleased him in recent years — Amarcord, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, Coppola’s two Godfathers — MACDONALD wondered if he had really missed anything by hanging up his spikes as Esquire‘s movie critic in 1966. Suddenly the session (weirdly, com­ically) turned into a discussion of what MACDONALD should have done with his career, the panelists serving as guidance counselors. Well, Dwight, maybe you should have hung in there until Fassbinder squeezed into his first leather jacket…

As the afternoon waned, KAUFFMANN played the Soul of Liberal Reason, MACDONALD the Curmudgeonly Crank. After KAUFFMANN said that he didn’t wish to speak slightingly of “the popcorn crowd,” MACDONALD backed, “Aw, go ahead.” KAUFFMANN: “No, no; Ingmar Bergman has remarked that those who go to see a Doris Day film — forgive me, is she still alive? — may go to see one of his films the following week. Often in the same theater.” MACDONALD: “They shouldn’t be allowed to.” 

The afternoon’s climax came when a woman in the audience complained that in this session on American film and theater, the-ah-­tur had gone totally undiscussed. (“Fine with me,” someone muttered, and several heads nodded in agreement.) “Well,” said KAUFFMANN, “American playwriting is in a sorry state; there are, however, interesting productions around.” And he launched into an aria over Elizabeth Swados’s “Passover Cantata,” The Haggadah. As KAUFF­MANN explained that the show’s Moses is played by a half-black, half-­Chinese nine-year-old named Craig Chang, MACDONALD began shaking his storky head in disbelief. Then, spreading his arms wide, KAUFFMANN said that the work possessed “a beautiful efflores­cence” — which was too much for MACDONALD. “Stop! Stop,” he sputteringly pleaded, teasing KAUFFMANN with the word (“efflores­cence… efflorescence?”) as K. tried vainly to defend Swados. 

KAUFFMANN explained to the audience that MACDONALD comes from the H.L. Mencken generation, which believes that a resounding No is always more convincing than a Yes. “Deliquescence, maybe,” chuckled MACDONALD amiably, “but efflorescence…” 

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***

Saturday, April 12. I sauntered in near the end of the session on social sciences starring CHRISTOPHER “Anything-for-a-laugh” LASCH. From the microphone, a voice tonelessly droned, and slumped in their chairs were people trying to pass themselves off as corpses. Clearly the Freudian heritage wasn’t something that made the corpuscles dance. After a short break, the symposium’s grand finale commenced: an audience participation session featuring FIEDLER, KAUFFMANN, GRAFF, MACDONALD, SONTAG, and CHRIS­TOPHER “Stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one” LASCH. In this press-­conference setup, the audience could sharply probe the panelists’ minds and feelings on the current drift of American culture. 

It was a Luis Buñuel nightmare, invisible hands gripping us to the chairs as swallows chirped in Esperanto — a subcommittee meeting at the United Nations couldn’t have been more soul-stifling. It wasn’t all boredom: SONTAG, after needlessly fluffing her feathers to inform us that she had slaved “five years on the six essays” in On Photography, spoke at some length about the Americanness of American photography; FIEDLER, ebullient as Falstaff in an alehouse, claimed that a male sexist conspiracy was responsible for Harriet Beecher Stowe being denied her great due (sighs, groans); and GRAFF stirred the audience to hisses when he told them they didn’t ask good questions. As if to prove his point, a Vietnam veteran who had asked a question the previous day complained that his query hadn’t been satisfyingly answered. KAUFFMANN said, “Excuse me, I thought I had answered your question”; “No,” said SONTAG, “I don’t believe you did, Stanley.” “Well, why don’t you ask your question again?” said KAUFFMANN, the Soul of Liberal Reason. And, dropping a needle into a groove, the man said, “I’m a Vietnam veteran…” and re-asked his question word for tiresome word. Later, a man in the last row who assured us all that he was a friend of Michael Herr said that a lot of young Americans had the time of their lives in Vietnam. “I don’t think the Vietnamese had as much fun as the Americans,” SONTAG dryly remarked. And from a conversation about the political emptiness of Vietnam films (“Wasn’t there a film called The Deer Hunter?” wondered MACDONALD), the discussion detoured into the cultural impact of feminism. By this time, the panelists were leaning on the table with such bad posture that they all looked like a truss advertise­ment, their spines bending under all the weight and wisdom and guilt of Western Culture. And then SONTAG said something startling: Re­sponding to a comment from one of the feminists in the peanut gallery about her being the only woman on the panel, she half-ruefully confessed, “I’ve spent all my life being the only woman on the panel.” 

My God, I thought, this woman shouldn’t be allowed out without a note from Sir Roderick Glossop! What compels an intelligent soul to drag one’s pride from powwow to powwow, leaning into squawky microphones as whiffleball questions flutter feebly from the back row? Money, sure; lecturing is easier and more lucrative than bending over the typewriter. And, writing being the lonesome vocation that it is, symposia offer one the opportunity to mingle and gossip and toss off casually brilliant pensees. Still, to trod through this vale of tears as the Only Woman on the Panel… it’s almost Brechtian. Mother Courage pulling a wagonload of Salmagundis from campus to campus. 

As a question from the audience tediously unraveled, the Only Woman on the Panel slipped her arms into her coat sleeves, signaling that the glorious occasion was about to end. After FIEDLER suggested that from now on serious drinking should be done before the symposium, panelists and acolytes trudged like a defeated army over to the Surrey Inn, a dark, cozy cove across the street from the Skidmore campus. Conviviality reigned: ALAN SPIEGEL made “cheese” smiles for James Hamilton’s camera; CHRISTOPHER LASCH curled his fingers to form shadow-graphs on the wall (“…this is a duck, and this is a bunny”). Somewhere across the Atlantic, however, an embittered GEORGE STEINER was lining antinomies up like toy soldiers, contemplating a fresh assault upon the New World. 

Evil never sleeps.