|Not to be forgotten: a liberating leftist
intellectual of the Fifties and Sixties
It's the argument of this new documentary that the world needs Paul Goodman, the leading leftist utopian social philosopher of the Sixties who seems forgotten now. Why is that unfortunate? Because there was nobody quite like him and still isn't. Goodman was part of the generation of New York Jewish intellectuals who grew up in the Thirties -- many of whom, including his fellow Commentary contributors, Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, and Irving Howe, et al., shifted far to the right later. He didn't. He was not like them. He was gay, a seducer of young men, though also a devoted family man, and therefore and in that sense bisexual. He was an anarchist. He wrote beautiful, devastatingly honest, partly Whitmanesque poems, some of which are read in this film (Garrison Keillor reads one called "I Planned to Have a Border of Lavender," about plants that overgrew, which ends, "I liken my silly indefatigable/lusting to the lavender which has grown over/all my garden, banks and borders, up/ into the gray rocks.")
In a book of his youth, penned with his architect brother Percival, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, Goodman imagined an ideal city and proposed banning unnecessary cars from New York, an idea still very relevant fifty years later. Communitas is from around the time when Goodman was teaching at that long-vanished hotbed of creativity, Black Mountain College.
He also wrote fiction. And he was one of three founders of gestalt therapy and practiced as a therapist for ten years. His book about disaffected youth, Growing Up Absurd, was practically a household word. (A basic thesis of the book was that alienated youth was quite right to be so in our crazy society. Is that any less true now? Boys -- they are, unfortunately, all he was writing about, not girls -- are still growing up absurd.) According to Noam Chomsky, who isn't in the film but was interviewed for it, Goodman's ideas were ubiquitous. They were also liberating, because Goodman was so independent. We also learn that in person Goodman was witty and brilliant, not always easy to get along with, not always easy with himself, but inspiring. Like Chomsky, Goodman was a leading leftist public intellectual who, among other things, opposed the Vietnam War. The specific quote the filmmakers got from Chomsky is, “I suspect heʼs forgotten as a person, but his influence is all around us.”
The beauty of Goodman is that he was all over the place, but also fiercely independent and outspoken. This film gives a pretty thorough picture of Paul Goodman's personal and family life, but it could do more in the way of elucidating and critiquing his ideas. As the New York Times review says, early on the presentation seems like hagiography, or a funeral eulogy. Things become less glowing later. Goodman's son's widow tells about a time when she and her husband went to meet Goodman coming off an airplane but he was far too busy seducing a "beautiful young man" to be interested in seeing them. A poem by Goodman is read, "I Planned To Have a Border of Lavender" that likens the lavender's "tireless squandering" to his own "silly lusting." But his being a morally brave and admirable man and at the same time open about his gayness was a liberating role model for young gay intellectuals. More than that, though, he was a true humanist and man of the liberal arts such as we don't see today, if indeed we did then.
The film suggests Goodman's model would come in handy today in an era of mechanical squabbling about education, and it goes into a little detail about some of his radical but simple educational proposals. It's also noted that Goodman made his radical idealistic suggestions seductive by casting them in such a way as to make them sound more practical and achievable than they really were. His friend and literary executor Taylor Stoehr claims that Goodman's genius shows in how he could present complicated ideas in simple terms, and that his ease in writing increased as he grew older: manuscripts show the sentences flowed out in finished form, Stoehr says. Unfortunately, the premature death of that son, whom he dearly loved despite slighting him for the "beautiful young man" he'd met on the plane, was devastating to Goodman and he became unproductive and pessimistic and, after a third heart attack, died too young, in 1972, at sixty. This is the inevitable sad part of a life that here is generally cheering and inspiring, even though you probably wouldn't want to be this man because it would be too hard.
Notable contributors: Ned Rorem, who admired his poetry and set it to music; Judith Malina of the Living Theater, whom he analyzed and who uncritically admires him; the short story writer and activist Grace Paley, sho is sharp and funny about him; the publishing pioneer Jason Epstein, who says Goodman :was both Rousseau and Burke at the same time, in the same body"; the writer and gay spokesperson Edmund White, who says Goodman "was both a utopian and a very practical person." In a tribute written in Paris for the New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag wrote of her grief at the death of Paul Goodman, of how much his books had long meant to her and how much she had learned from him, despite the fact that each time she had met him he had rebuffed her. Her praise of his wonderfully pure and authentic voice isn't in the film, but it's moving and exciting once again to reread her essay. She recognizes in his obituaries how little he was appreciated and how he was meanly dismissed for "spreading himself too thin" when he was, in fact, a renaissance man.
For me personally, Paul Goodman was not quite so great an inspiration as for Susan Sontag. How could he be? I lacked the extraordinary intellectual gifts of that literary lady, who was more sophisticated -- and constructed more perfect paragraphs -- than any American essayist of our time. To me perhaps some of Goodman's ideas seemed a little too quickly and casually improvised. I was probably just not ready for him. But it was nonetheless wonderful coming out of the Fifties and early Sixties to have as a living, contemporary point of reference a writer who was so bold and free-spirited and brilliant. And a leftist Jewish intellectual who wrote in the mornings and cruised rough trade in the afternoons is still, and probably always will be, unique. His books are still available, and it's time for young people to read and be inspired and excited by them again.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life went into limited US release October 19, 2011. It was screened for this review on November 1, 2011 at Film Forum, NYC, where it premiered. The film's website gives a screenings map view and calendar.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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