Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Few Opening Thoughts On Rereading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It


I’m rereading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It.

I’m at the beginning.

Podhoretz says in it, written when he was 35, that he was basically unconscious, till he reflected back on it, of the distance he had traveled, as measured by the indicators of class, from his poor Jewish boy Brownsville, Brooklyn origins to his 35 year old’s arrival into the upper middle class of New York’s hothouse public, essentially Jewish, intellectual life. 

He makes that distance traveled integral to his theme: the contradiction or maybe rather tension in (then, 1965) American culture between ambitious upwards striving and the disdain for it. Upward ambitious striving, Podhoretz notes, was expected in the Brownsville, Brooklyn world he came from. Disdain for that striving, its apparent grubbiness, was the common attitude in the intellectual world he joined. 

Just a few preliminary notes for now: 

Podhoretz’s prose, while clear enough and accessible, tends to be stiff and laboured. He’s not a graceful writer. His phrasing is at times too formal, and, so, at those times awkwardly overwritten; and his sentence structure marked by his mounting subordinate  clause on subordinate clause in long processions interspersed with hyphenated asides requires some work at times to keep track of them and take them all in. 

Also I’m finding some disingenuousness in what Podhoretz says. The most glaring example I’ve so far read is this: the contradiction or maybe rather tension between his claim of a virtual unconscious arrival in the hothouse, his virtual unawareness of how far he traveled culturally and socially from where he began on one hand, and, on the other, both how self conscious he is as a literary intellectual and how utterly antipodal are the two different worlds, the one he left behind and the one he arrives at. To put it simply, I don’t believe his claim of social and cultural unawareness as he traveled along and up:

...ONE OF the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan. I have made that journey, but it is not from the experience of having made it that I know how very great the distance is, for I started on the road many years before I realized what I was doing, and by the time I did realize it I was for all practical purposes already there. At so imperceptible a pace did I travel, and with so little awareness, that I never felt footsore or out of breath or weary at the thought of how far I still had to go...

Finally for these preliminary thoughts, I remember well from my own experience as a graduate student in the late sixties and early seventies the disdain many of us felt for those, as Podhoretz notes, who strove for popular success, putting that over the supposed purity and meaningfulness, whether creative or intellectual, of what they were doing. But, Podhoretz unhelpfully complicates his theme to the point of near collapse  by saying in his own Preface:

...Success did not necessarily, or even primarily, mean money; just as often it might mean prestige or popularity. In any case, the concept always referred, as it was originally intended to do, to the possession of goods which had value in the eyes of others. These goods might also have had value in one’s own eyes, but that was a secondary consideration, if indeed it was ever considered at all. The main thing was to be esteemed, and one would no more have questioned the desirability of so pleasant an estate in life than one would have wondered about the relative merits of illness and good health...

The problem is that even on the simplest understanding of human nature we all, except maybe 113 ascetics, give or take 50 or 250, want deeply to be “esteemed.” That desire comprises no “dirty little secret” to use Podhoretz’s thematic phrase. He means in his book to expose the dirty little secret, so disdained by his community of New York intellectuals, the secret lust for “making it”:

...My second purpose in telling the story of my own career is to provide a concrete setting for a diagnosis of the curiously contradictory feelings our culture instills in us toward the ambition for success, and toward each of its various goals: money, power, fame, and social position. On the one hand, we are commanded to become successful—that is, to acquire more of these worldly goods than we began with, and to do so by our own exertions; on the other hand, it is impressed upon us by means both direct and devious that if we obey the commandment, we shall find ourselves falling victim to the radical corruption of spirit which, given the nature of what is nowadays called the “system,” the pursuit of success requires and which its attainment always bespeaks...

But what is he exposing: our desire for esteem, something, he says, that is more potent and wanted than money, goods, power, prestige, fame and social position? 

If he had excised esteem as the prime constituent of success, then his theme would have stood sturdily enough. But by subordinating the ambition for these worldly attainments to the quest for esteem, he emasculates his theme, I’d argue. 

But let’s see how it all will go as I reread on.

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