When Podhoretz Met Ginsberg

Dan Oppenheimer has a new book on six individuals’ intellectual journeys from Left to Right:

In Exit Right, Daniel Oppenheimer tells the stories of six major political figures whose journeys away from the left reshaped the contours of American politics in the twentieth century. By going deep into the minds of six apostates—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—Oppenheimer offers an unusually intimate history of the American left, and the right’s reaction.

Tablet has an excerpt from the book’s chapter on Podhoretz, particularly the episode where Podhoretz has an awkward meeting with Allen Ginsberg in 1958:

[Podhoretz’s] piece, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” published in the spring issue of Partisan Review, had been brutal. Not only were Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the rest mostly bad writers, who’d written bad stories and books and poems, they were bad people, champions of dangerous impulses.

“The spirit of hipsterism and the Beat Generation strikes me,” he’d written, “as the same spirit which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amok in the last few years with their switchblades and zip guns. … Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac’s books can spill over easily into brutality, for there is a suppressed cry in those books: Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.”

Podhoretz reluctantly agrees to meet Ginsberg, at the latter’s urgency, and leaves the respectable harbors of his Upper West Side residence to visit Ginsberg in the seedy, artistic mecca of Greenwich Village.

From the moment Podhoretz got to the apartment, the two men went at each other. First they argued over whether Podhoretz would smoke pot with Ginsberg. Podhoretz had smoked it a few times before, but he wasn’t into it, and in any case he wanted his wits about him. So he refused. Then they got to the meat of the matter.

“All night long he hectored and harangued me for my stupid failure to recognize both Kerouac’s genius and his,” remembered Podhoretz, “and the more I fought back, the harder he tried to make me see how insensitive I was being. It was I, he kept railing, who was the know-nothing, not they.”

Among other subjects, the two tangled over the sociological implications of their projects:

The argument was also sociological. Podhoretz granted that the Beats had perceived, correctly, the torpor of 1950s America, but rather than rigorously applying their literary imaginations to the project of generating new sources of vitality, they had simply rejected it all, thrown in with “primitivism, instinct, energy, ‘blood.’”

At its worst, by Podhoretz’s lights, this was a kind of proto-fascism, the glorification of violence for the sake of its dynamism and clarifying force. At its least bad it was a celebration of the infantile and adolescent in American culture.

Ginsberg saw in Podhoretz just another defender of the bourgeois status quo, afraid of the liberatory id of the American psyche. He was also a herd-minded member of a literally intellectual establishment that had been too stodgy to give Ginsberg his due as a poet.

Podhoretz’s candid appraisal of the evening, and it what it symbolized, as well as what the future would hold in terms of cultural upheaval, is most interesting:

Ginsberg, though he was older by a few years, was spiritually at home on the far side of the radical cultural break that was coming. Podhoretz, it would turn out, was born both too late and too early. He heard the call of the sixties, but he would never be at home there. In his heart he was a child of the 1950s. At his most adventurous he would be a creature of the early sixties, whose vision of the good life was some kind of fusion of New York intellectual–style depth, moderate Left politics, and Rat Pack insouciance.

“Inevitably, then, and along with everything else, it was myself I was defending,” remembered Podhoretz. “… As against the law-abiding life I had chosen of a steady job and marriage and children, he conjured up a world of complete freedom from the limits imposed by such grim responsibilities. It was a world that promised endless erotic possibility together with the excitements of an expanded consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more sex, more intensity, more life. God knows that as a young man full of energy and curiosity, and not altogether averse to taking risks, I was tempted by all this. God knows too that there were moments of resentment at the burdens I had seen fit to shoulder, moments when I felt cheated and  when I dreamed of breaking out of limits I had imposed upon myself. Yet at the same time I was repelled by Ginsberg’s world.”

With the stakes so high, no quarter could be given, and on they went, past midnight, until they ran out of things to throw at each other. As Podhoretz left, Ginsberg threw out one last sally: “We’ll get you through your children!”

A decade later that threat would prove one of the fulcrums around which Podhoretz would execute his hard pivot to the right. At that moment, though, in the fall of 1958, Ginsberg just sounded grandiose to Podhoretz’s ears. The Beats, after all, weren’t the problem. They were an overreaction to it, a symptom of it. They didn’t want to just take a swim in the Plaza fountain at midnight (Podhoretz’s metaphor for the cultural loosening up his generation of conformists needed to explore). They were so consumed by emptiness they felt they had to have sex in the Plaza fountain, with other men, while high, in order to approximate the feeling of being alive.

The Beat movement would become The Sixties™, with its hippies, SDS activists, and war protesters.

American society would be forever altered.

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