Thursday, April 19, 2012

Outlier: Paul Goodman Changed My Life

2011 was an exceptional year for documentaries about outliers: Bill Cunningham New York, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Magic Trip (about Ken Kesey), Public Speaking (about Fran Leibowitz), The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. One of the most fascinating is Jonathan Lee’s Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a study of the prolific anarchist Paul Goodman. Goodman has now been largely forgotten but in the early and mid-sixties his 1959 Growing Up Absurd – one of Lee’s many interviewees, the Esalen Institute president Gordon Wheeler, assures us – could be found on the book shelf of every dorm room in every liberal arts college across the country. (By the time I attended one, in 1968, it had vanished: warmly embraced by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Goodman was démodé by the time campus protest turned uglier and more chaotic in the Nixon era.) Growing Up Absurd is part sociology, part philosophy and part politics. Its thesis is that young American men in the Eisenhower years were growing up cognizant of the corrupted state of their institutions – education, government, business, law – and in increasingly hopeless and desperate rebellion against them. It still makes compelling reading, and despite the selectivity of Goodman’s subject matter (he doesn’t address the condition of young women, writing as he does a decade and more before the women’s movement, and out of a peculiarly old-fashioned sensibility about gender politics), the bulk of his observations still seem relevant more than half a century later.

Goodman was a public intellectual and a philosopher of the New Left; he was also a gadfly and a man of letters, terms that belong to bygone epochs. In a radio interview Lee excerpts, Susan Sontag suggests that he was a rarity in the mid-twentieth century because his jack-of-all-trades approach to studying and representing the culture was really a nineteenth-century phenomenon. (She cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as a comparison.) He wrote novels, plays, poetry (some of it quite beautiful: the composer Ned Rorem, who set one of his pieces, “The Lordly Hudson,” to music, argues that his declarative, straightforward diction exerted a strong influence on Frank O’Hara). He was an educator (at Black Mountain College and the University of Chicago, in both of which places he ran afoul of the administration) and a lay psychoanalyst (with Fritz Perls and Ralph Hefferline, he co-authored Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, the official manual of Gestalt therapy and practiced without a license for ten years). He and his brother Percival co-authored Communitas, a book-length prospectus for a radically reimagined urban community. He advocated schools for twenty-five students, staffed with four teachers – one of many ideas that, as Taylor Stroehr, Goodman’s literary executor and perhaps Lee’s most eloquent (and most called-upon) interpreter of Goodman’s life, points out, he presented slyly as practical propositions when they were anything but. He also advocated the banning of traffic in Manhattan, a notion that seems more reasonable with every passing year.

Paul Goodman & wife Sally 
The portrait Lee gives us of Goodman is of a man profoundly ill at ease not only with convention but with any prevailing school of thought. He was an outsider in every conceivable way: politically (he was a pacifist during the Second World War), in background (he was a Jew) and sexually (he was bisexual). He wrote forthrightly about his homosexual life in his poems as early as the forties. Yet he remained securely married to his second wife, Sally, who raised his three children: Matthew Ready, from his brief first marriage, a Vietnam War draft resister who died in an accident in 1967, at the age of twenty, Susie (who became a psychologist) and Daisy. Both of his daughters are among Lee’s interviewees – Susan’s descriptions of life in her father’s vibrant social and intellectual circle are irresistible – as is Sally, a slender, stiff-necked, rigorously honest woman, elegant in a distinctly Yankee way, who mesmerizes the camera. Even so many years later (he died of his third heart attack in 1972) she resists every temptation to yield to a sentimentalized version of her years with Goodman; when Lee asks her how she felt about his refusal to consider the possibility that she might take lovers when he went cruising for male companionship every afternoon (before returning home unfailingly to eat her suppers), she answers curtly, “It made me mad.” You can see why they stayed together: like Goodman, who had an allergy to settling, she sees the simplification of an inherently problematic yet obviously deeply committed marriage a betrayal.

Lee’s research is exhaustive. He goes to family and friends (one of the most impassioned is the late Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theatre, which produced one of his plays), students, admirers, commentators; he digs up a radio interview with Studs Terkel, TV interviews with Pierre Berton and the reflexively self-parodying William Buckley, TV panels with Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg. They discuss his most audacious actions, like the speech he was (astonishingly) invited to give in 1967 in Washington, D.C. to representatives of the government and the military, whom he censured mercilessly over the war in Vietnam. (The speech was later published as “Causerie at the Military-Industrial Complex.”) Epi Bodhi, who was Matthew Goodman’s girl friend, tells a heartbreaking story about his difficult relationship with his father, but his friends attest that Matthew’s untimely death devastated Paul and spurred the decline of his health. One of the poems we hear a section from on the soundtrack is “North Percy,” his account of that death, and its straightforwardness and unembroidered emotionality shake you up. Goodman was one hell of a complicated man. Lee’s documentary does those complications justice.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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