Blowing It

Ian Hamilton

  • Breaking Ranks by Norman Podhoretz
    Weidenfeld, 385 pp, £7.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 297 77733 5

The scene: a New York literary dinner some nine months ago. The topic: who I’d seen or hadn’t seen since my arrival, who I planned to see, etc. Me: ‘Well, I’ve seen X’ (‘Oh yes, how is X?’) ‘and tomorrow i’ll be seeing Y’ (‘Oh good, give my regards to Y’). ‘And on Friday, I’m having lunch with Norman Podhoretz.’ At this, the table froze. ‘You’re doing what? I repeated it, gently but with resolution, and the freeze froze even deeper. ‘But, but’ – and this with genuinely aghast reproach – ‘but, Ian, really, why?

This little scene, or something very like it, was played out on at least three other occasions during my short visit. For me, the ‘why’ was clear enough. I knew Podhoretz somewhat, he was the editor of a literary/intellectual magazine (Commentary) that I’d read on and off for years, he had some time ago asked me to write for him, and one of the reasons I was in New York was to drum up a bit of work. Why shouldn’t I have lunch with him? That question was never answered, and if I pressed I would be treated to mysterious sighs and headshakings, as if my not knowing why put me hopelessly beyond the reach of explanation.

In London, I would have deduced from all this that Norman had committed some reverberant sexual folly: but, greenhorn though I was, I did know enough about New York (and indeed about Podhoretz) to rule out any such spicy exegesis. It had to be to do with something serious, like fame or power or money. Or politics? Well, maybe. I knew that Podhoretz had long ago drifted away from his old Partisan Review chums, that in the late Sixties he had been hostile to many of the standard ‘radical’ postures, that he was a contemptuous opponent of popular culture, somewhat shaky on the ‘Negro problem’ – he once proposed widescale miscegenation as the only real answer to inbred black/white hostilities – and I knew too that he was lately taking some pride in fostering a new, virulently anti-Soviet ‘politics of interest’ – or, some would say, self-interest. I’d also heard that he was becoming very fierce about gays, dykes and nukes – indeed, any new or fashionable grouping that got in the way of the immediate and pressing task of rebuilding American morale. It was easy to see, then, that he was not going to be popular in the leftish-liberal circles he used to half-belong to. And one would expect his ex-colleagues to speak of him satirically or sternly. What I couldn’t fathom, though, was why he had become near-leprous in his unacceptability.

The obvious explanation, and the one which Podhoretz himself would wish us to accept, is that radicals reserve a special loathing for ex-radicals. The real trouble, he contends, is fear: the Partisan Review/New York Review crowd are locked into positions left over from the Sixties, positions which in their hearts they know to be invalid. These positions were adopted in the first place because they were fashionable, they appealed to the young, they fitted certain ritual notions of ‘dissent’, ‘alienation’ and the like which were congenial, if not habitual, to leftish literary figures. Confronted now with Podhoretz, an intellectual from their own stable but different from them in being courageous and honest enough to confess his disenchantments, it is obvious that they will panic and close ranks. The dreaded name will be struck from invitation lists, rumours will be circulated that poor Norman’s round the bend, distinguished English visitors will be dissuaded from having lunch with him, and so on. Whatever happens, he must be shunted out of sight before he blows the whistle on ‘the racket’.

This is the Podhoretz version, and it is repetitively peddled throughout Breaking Ranks, but it’s a version I find hard to swallow whole. After all,on the evidence of the earlier Making It and of this whistle-blowing new memoir of his life and times, it would seem that Podhoretz has shifted ground so often that he can hardly be said to have ever formed the loyalties which he now boasts of having broken. In Making It, he admitted that he had originally gravitated towards the Partisan View circle not out of any real interest in its ‘radicalism’ or in the remains of its long-running internal squabbles of the Forties: he’d wanted, (and this was the ‘dirty little secret’ of which Making It made a clean breast) to be a famous literary critic. Similarly, he confesses in Breaking Ranks that there was something opportunistic and effortful in his quest for a new and zestful philosophy to replace the stock liberalism of the Fifties: an important new thinker needed to have a few important new thoughts. Even as he describes his tremulous excitement as he first pores over the work of Paul Goodman or Norman O. Brown, we suspect that the excitement has as much to do with these thinkers’ viability in the intellectual marketplace as with the blinding rightness of their insights. There was invariably some strategic, career-planning element in his early attempts to fit himself out with a philosophy that would be vividly novel and yet square with the left/liberal disposition of the literary powers-that-be.

Significantly, Podhoretz tended to go for panaceas that were airy and spiritual rather than practical and scientific, thus managing to postpone any career-endangering decision on what his real politics might eventually turn out to be. It is difficult to believe that (even before the confessions of Making It) anyone on the Left would seriously have believed Podhoretz to be of the Left. Perhaps they did, but surely not enough to feel betrayed and appalled when his conservatism started to show through.

Indeed, if any one was appalled, it was Podhoretz himself – appalled, or so he says, by the company he used to keep. And this is where the bile begins, and where presumably the explanation lies for his pariah status in New York. Having flirted for years with notions that were unreal to him, he now finds it impossible to believe that they were ever real to anyone else. Purged of cynicism and self-delusion, he sees only cynicism and self-delusion in those he left behind. (It is interesting that the one intellectual type to whom Podhoretz is willing to concede some measure of integrity is the bohemian/mystical/irrationalist type: in other words, a bit nuts and no threat.) The portrait he promotes of the intellectual world is peopled with time-servers, charlatans, traitors, moral thugs: if members of this world say they have a belief, our task as sceptical onlookers is to work out why they say they have it – there will always be a reason, and it will always have something to do with their lust for self-advancement, with some modish new bandwagon, some power bloc that needs to be flattered or appeased. There is no question of their having said they believed whatever it was because they, well, believed it.

It cannot be denied that our Leavis-trained commentator does now and then have a shrewd eye for the treasonable clerk (he is particularly sharp on middle-aged professors sucking up to the illiterate revolutionary young), but unfortunately Breaking Ranks is no Dunciad: it’s more like a Mafia hit-list – though not quite so cold-eyed, because Norman evidently still cares about his victims, he still ‘takes it personal’. Remembered grievances abound, old scores are systematically dredged up, no antique snub or slight is allowed to go uncensured. Much of all this comes across in the form of oblique anecdotal sneers, or reproachful innuendo. After a few chapters, one begins simply to marvel that he should think any of this really matters – to us, I mean, since clearly nothing will stop it mattering to him. By the end, it’s like having been forced to eavesdrop on some deadly, but also deadly boring, family row. Except, of course, that it’s all for publication – and there are quite a few tales (albeit fairly trivial ones) told by Podhoretz in this book which could only have been got from, as it were, within the family – or Family, as he once dubbed his New York foes.

All this will have made Podhoretz, and his book, seem less attractive than they sometimes are. Merciless in his contempt for other people’s changes of mind, failures of nerve, Podhoretz is none the less almost touchingly anxious to solicit our benevolence when we come to consider his own youthful ‘errors of judgment’; he is also keen that we should know him, how he was brought up, how he felt when he got this or that job, the kind of daily life he leads, the odd things that can happen to a chap’s psyche when he’s caught off guard:

Suddenly and with no advance warning the french doors opened and Kennedy emerged with a grin on his face as clear and brilliant as the day itself. The sight had an amazing and altogether unexpected effect on me. Staring at him while he circulated among us shaking hands, I felt a nearly ungovernable awe.

   It was a humiliating experience. Here, after all, was a man I did not admire.

One wants to say: don’t worry about it, Norman – after all, you’re only human. On the other hand, one knows all too well how he would have exploited this passage if it had been some wavering liberal describing his first glimpse of Castro. Podhoretz’s unwillingness to indulge others in the ways he himself so badly wants to be indulged is nowhere more offputting than in his resentment of the aged Lionel Trilling’s lack of vigour in opposition to the racial quota scheme for colleges. Trilling pleaded ‘fatigue’. Podhoretz leaves no doubt that he considers this a quite inadequate excuse – and Trilling had for years been a mentor of his, and a close friend.

On a personal level, such double standards run throughout the book, and they can hardly be decribed as ‘strategic’ – which is no doubt how podhoretz would explain why this chronicle of American public events over the last two decades carries only three passing references to Watergate, six to the CIA, none to Cambodia or Chile. To dwell on isolated American shortcomings is to undermine the overall objective: restoring the country’s strength and pride, getting it back into trim for the coming showdown. The critics and backbiters, the eroders from within: these are the true enemy today. At its most vehement and simple-minded, this rhetoric gets perilously close to the ends-above-means line that should be all too familiar to Podhoretz from his study of those very early Partisan Reviews. Podhoertz is fond of calling himself a professional intellectual: on the evidence of some of the more blindly flag-waving stretches of this book, he should beware of letting his estrangement from what he sees as the dominant intellectual temper push him into a retaliatory alliance with the forces of complacency.