Podhoretz's 'Ex-Friends': A rare ideological odyssey

February 07, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

In the American world of ideas, Norman Podhoretz is a monumental figure, a man known both for the originality of his mind and the prickliness of his personality. Editor of the intellectual dreadnought Commentary for 35 years until 1995, at 69 he is still a dauntless warrior. Today a major conservative force, his voice and influence have been powerful for almost 50 years, moving though a wide but never capricious spectrum that included a long period on the radical left.

Now he has produced, in a very personal memoir, a sort of intellectual history of America in the second half of the 20th century. It will delight many people and enrage others. But every reader, I believe, will be moved and enlightened.

The book is "Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer" (Free Press, 244 pages, $25).

It is a meticulous, richly detailed tracing of shifts and evolutions, influences and intellectual dilemmas, among American thought-leaders from the early 1950s till today. His intimacies with the friends named in the title and others were cultivated and eventually destroyed by philosophical values.

Podhoretz's own work, in the early decades, appeared almost everywhere that serious minds were ranging. Not only in Commentary but in Partisan Review and the New Republic, Esquire, the New Yorker, the New Leader, dozens of other journals, magazines, newspapers. He has written six previous books. He has been on every battlefield of America's culture conflicts.

He defines today's culture war as between people who want to be left alone and people who feel that it is their duty and the duty of society and government to see to it people are never left alone.

The beginning point of Podhoretz's 50-year-long tale of ideas is "to put it simply but not inaccurately, a mass conversion to leftist radicalism by the formally liberal intellectual establishment and a commensurate seizure of enormous power by radical ideas and attitudes over the institutions controlled by intellectuals" -- universities, news media, entertainment, mainstream churches.

Where did that grow from? From the passionate affection for Marxism among many intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s.

How many Americans alive today are aware that substantial numbers of American intellectuals opposed U.S. intervention in World War II, on the ground that it was a welcomed battle between equally evil forms of capitalism which would cancel each other out, leaving the world free for the Communist revolution?

After his own evolution rightward, by the 1970s, Podhoretz defines his role as having "shouldered the burden of challenging the regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe, and to do so with all my heart and all my soul and all my might."

A lot of the book is gossip. It is, after all, a memoir. But it is gossip about passions and feelings and slights and barbs and personal pettiness and expressiveness that have to do with profound questions of the meaning of civilization. With the reason human beings have brains.

Whether you agree with Podhoretz's positions or not, his memoir tells a rich story about the importance of the written word. Tale after tale of the development of articles in relatively small publications dramatizes the seriousness of their writing, editing and publication.

For years, for example, Norman Mailer, a friend who yearned for "high-brow" acceptance, avoided Commentary. When finally he asked to write for Podhoretz, it was about intricate matters of Judaism. Podhoretz's description of the entanglements, debates and then -- after publication of several columns -- the petering out of the idea covers months of negotiation, and delicious pages of this book.

More, that recounting dramatizes the importance of such well-considered documents: making careers, changing important minds, shifting directions of institutions -- universities, corporations, departments of government.

The most engaging section of this altogether captivating book is Podhoretz's report on his relationship with Hannah Arendt -- coming to a climax with her now famous book about the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" in 1963.

Podhoretz's relationship with Arendt, as with many others, was intellectual and intricately ideological -- though never romantic.

In today's tendency to accept her description of the Holocaust as hideously ordinary rather than as exquisitely evil, it is easy to forget the anger with which her conclusions were greeted at the time.

In this debate and virtually all others, Podhoretz takes himself very seriously. Rightly so, for he is a serious man with a serious mind, and entitled. But a stuffiness does intrude here and there. From time to time, Podhoretz suggests that humor plays an important role in his work. Nothing in the book made me laugh.

Finally, by and large these illustrious friends became ex-friends over politics or ideology. Podhoretz moved increasingly through the radical left into conservative ranks, with accelerating intensity. Many of the friends remained wedded to the politics or values of the old left. But those relationships, and their distintegration, were seldom that simple. And as personal as this memoir is, the man himself often seems to be behind a translucent screen.

I have never met him, and I had rather hoped to make friends with him in reading this book. At the end, I found I had learned a great deal. But Podhoretz, the person -- and the emotional increment of his loss of such friends -- remained as elusive as his intellectual evolution was fascinating.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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