Bathsheva's Bag

Stuff I'm into or not...speculations and ascribed motives and more...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review Ex-Friends

Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz

First off, the only reason I picked up this book, was the fact, some blurb somewhere about this book, made mention of Allen Ginsberg. I came for Ginsberg and got so much more.

Ex-Friends offers us a look at a by-gone era, of a time when friends got together, attended parties and discussed meaningful things such as politics and literature. Norman Podhoretz recalls a time when he as a young man, smart, intellectual and perhaps more than a tad opportunistic, was adopted into The Family, a group of primarily New York Jewish intellectuals that included the likes of Hannah Arendt and Lionel Trilling. Interesting times.

The nice thing about rehashing old arguments with those of your dead friends or dead ex-friends as the case may be, is that the dead don’t rise to defend their views or their values. And so it is with Ginsberg, the Trillings—both Lionel and Diana, Hanna Arendt and Lillian Hellman. Podhoretz retells both points of view his and theirs, through his eyes. How generous!

The only exception to this safety net of dead silence is the story of his ex-friendship with Norman Mailer. I suspect this is due to the fact that nothing Mailer and Podhoretz argued over seems to be so insurmountable, that they couldn’t ostensibly see themselves back to each other. (At the time of Podhoretz's writing, Mailer is now deceased)

In retelling of his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, which wasn’t particularly close, and subsequent falling out, Podhoretz lays bare some real truths—as he sees them. He is disgusted with Ginsberg’s leaping into ‘lowbrow’dem. He feels that Ginsberg clearly has some talent and he is at a loss for why he would surround himself with the likes of Kerouac and the other junky hoodlum non-intellects he opts for. One can see his point, even sympathize to an extent. When I was younger, I would berate myself when, on the many times I picked up On The Road, only to a couple of chapters in—put it down, due to finding it unintelligent and unreadable. And boring! It was only as I got older that I realized I was right, regardless of the popular consensus. He clearly is offended by Ginsberg’s in your face homosexuality and his subsequent writing of it, Master, Master etal. He accuses Norman Mailer of trying to outlive his “nice Jewish boyness”, writing in that vein, and to his mind (Pohoretz’s) subsequently failing. And while I see his point, I am not personally particular to the graphicness of some of what Ginsberg shows in his poetry. But, to the multitudes of us who don’t and didn’t quite fit into that ‘nice’ Jewish or otherwise girlness or boyness, for one reason or another; aren’t we indebted to Ginsberg for making it okay?

Podhoretz doesn’t bore. He systematically lays out his arguments both literary and political. He delves deep regarding his falling out with the Trillings, as he does with his discussing his differing views with Hannah Arendt. He was surprised and put off regarding Arendt’s views on Israel. I’m inclined to agree with him 100% regarding the topic of Israel—on both his points. The first being, that Israel need not apologize or explain their rights and needs to be an autonomous individual, self-actualized Jewish State. Second that every Jew regardless of denomination, whether secular or not should make The State of Israel—a Jewish State—a priority.

The problem with Podhoretz’s thinking or at least his argument as put forth here, in Ex-Friends, is that he doesn’t extend his argument to offer a solution or an explanation and one is needed, whether he thinks so or not. The issue here is, and everyone should recognize this, is that it should never be an issue of a Jew having to dissect himself in order to grapple with Israel’s needs. And here is where Podhoretz fails. He doesn’t even offer up conjecture as to why America’s policies have to differ from Israel’s. The needs as well as the end game are very different. America was founded for very different reasons than was Israel. Needless to say, America was founded to maintain a way of life and Israel was founded to maintain a people. And while, Podhoretz, perhaps feels that the elite should be to America, what the Jews are to Israel, this just isn’t so. To simply  wish this so by advocating Reagan and his trickle-down economics and save for one sentence mentioning social policies doing more harm than good for the poor in the afterward of Ex-friends doesn’t cut it.

And it is here that we must judge Ex-friends for both its politics and its literary acumen. Regarding books, both political and literary, one cannot take one out of the context of the other, according to Podhoretz himself. For someone so versed in politics and the literary scene--and Mr. Podhoretz clearly is—he comes off not offering up more than the “policy wonks” he so clearly has no use for, nor for that matter, does he bother following the rules of literary etiquette. He decidedly never answers his own questions posed. This is death both politically and literarily.

Still, when all is said and done, Ex-friends offers a glimpse into another time- a snapshot if you will—of an old man reminiscing of a by-gone time. Do read.


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