Jews tend to put more value on success than other groups do. It’s not enough in much of Jewish life to just do your best. You have to succeed to be a real Jew. This pressure leads some people to take shortcuts to success. They don’t care what crap they have to pull to get ahead. It’s ugly and it creates resentment. The truly smart Jews, on the other hand, probably feel less need to cheat.
“Benjamin Balint has a Norman Podhoretz problem. He appears not to have been able to decide if Podhoretz is a good or bad hombre.” Such was the verdict of longtime Commentary contributor Joseph Epstein, in an incisive 5,000-word review of my book, Running Commentary (2010). “What Balint cannot quite make up his mind about is whether Podhoretz is a main-chancer looking to promote himself through his magazine or, instead, a man of high principle devoted to his country, to fellow Jews, and to staving off barbarians who, often during the years of his editorship of Commentary between 1960 and 1995, seemed not at but well inside the gates.” Mr. Epstein had long since made up his mind in favor of the latter view.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Making It’s publication, the New York Review Books has just reissued the first of Podhoretz’s four memoirs—the sequels being Breaking Ranks (1979); Ex-Friends (1999); and My Love Affair with America (2000). The occasion not only compels a reassessment of the book and its author, now 87 years old, but also presents me with a chance to offer Mr. Epstein a reply.
Equal parts memoir and polemic, Making It is not a success story tranquilly recollected, but, according to its author, “a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package.” It is a study in careerism, in the unabashed pursuit of ambition and esteem, and in the contradictions inherent in that pursuit. Podhoretz writes:
On the one hand, our culture teaches us to shape our lives in accordance with the hunger for worldly things; on the other hand, it spitefully contrives to make us ashamed of the presence of those hungers in ourselves and to deprive us as far as possible of any pleasure in their satisfaction. Nothing, I believe, defines the spiritual character of American life more saliently than this contradiction…. I may perhaps lay claim to a particularly good vantage point from which to report on how the two warring American attitudes toward the pursuit of success are likely to reveal themselves concretely in the details of an individual career.
Podhoretz focuses on those elites who frown on brash ambitiousness as something tasteless and tawdry: “People capable of the most brutal honesty in other areas would at the mention of the word success suddenly lift their eyes up to the heavens and begin chanting the most horrendous pieties imaginable.” In response to their hypocrisy, he recounts his appetite for fame and money, for power and position, for “the perquisites of rank,” as he says—the chief aims and rewards of worldly ambition.
Podhoretz opens his account in Brownsville, Brooklyn. As a son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants (a “filthy little slum child”), but also “a boy of literary bent” driven by “the vulgar desire to rise above the class into which I was born,” he was preoccupied with gaining approval and embraced the role of teacher’s pet. Winning a Columbia College (class of 1950) scholarship, he sat at the feet of Lionel Trilling, the first Jew in the English department. Here the young man discovered the “life of the mind,” and what Trilling called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” As a Fulbright Scholar and a Kellett Fellow, he attended Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied with the combative British literary critic F.R. Leavis, founding editor of Scrutiny. “Studied” is perhaps too neutral a word: the disciple learned “how to respond in terms of [Leavis’s] temperament, to think in terms of his categories, to judge in terms of his values.”
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army—“a world built to all my weaknesses and not a single one of my strengths”—Podhoretz gained entree to the New Yorker and the Partisan Review, the highbrow journal founded in 1934 that married Marxism to literary modernism.
Partisan Review was the arbiter and embodiment of intellectual sophistication, and the New Yorker was the arbiter and embodiment of worldly sophistication. I was therefore presumed, even by people who had never read a word I had written, to be uniquely endowed with both—and the more so as I had with such rapidity and apparent ease moved into the pages of both magazines.
In early 1960, aged thirty, the “young man from the provinces” (Trilling’s phrase )—or in this case from the outer boroughs—took over Commentary’s editorship. Recalling this experience gives rise to some of the memoir’s best passages:
“It was as though I had been editing manuscripts all my life in the Commentary way; it was as though the peculiar pleasure of getting inside someone else’s mind, and yet managing to keep a firm enough hold on one’s critical sense to prevent oneself from being swallowed up by that other mind once inside, had been a lifetime craving of my soul which had at long last found its object and been satisfied.”
And yet even in his thirties, a self-confessed “childish desire for everyone to love me” never quite left him. “I could not bear the idea of not being great,” he admits. Podhoretz craved invitations to parties for Partisan Review, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and Random House; to Hannah Arendt’s New Year’s Eve soirees; to Mary McCarthy’s Upper East Side gatherings; to Park Avenue salons. These parties, where literary celebrities mixed with “beautifully begowned women,” he says, “served as a barometer of the progress of my career.”
Elsewhere in the book, Podhoretz shifts metaphors:
“Every morning, a stock-market report on reputation comes out in New York. It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it. Did so-and-so have dinner at Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment last night? Up five points. Was so-and-so not invited by the Lowells to meet the latest visiting Russian poet? Down one-eighth. Did so-and-so’s book get nominated for the National Book Award? Up two and five-eighths. Did Partisan Review neglect to ask so-and-so to participate in a symposium? Down two.”
Podhoretz published his first book Doings and Undoings in 1964, a collection of appraisals of the Beat Generation, covering “the Negro problem,” Saul Bellow (“perhaps the greatest virtuoso of language the novel has seen since Joyce”), Hannah Arendt, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and others. Doings and Undoings was his attempt “to be a critic of the contemporary rather than a browser among masterpieces or a reverent.” In Making It, he reports on the high hopes he had set on this collection of essays: “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America.’”
The qualities that Norman Podhoretz embodies are quite different from the Anglo-Saxon ideal (the major Jewish cultural contribution to America has been the overthrow of Anglo-Saxon rule). They are quite different from the norms of Orthodox Judaism. They are quite different from the norms of any religion or spiritual path of which I am aware. Perhaps it is Norman’s nihilism that accounts for the overall uselessness of his work (with exceptions such as his essay “My Negro Problem – And Ours“).
Incidentally, statistically speaking, Jews are less nihilistic than the gentiles around them.
All minority groups are likely to hold a burn against the majority, particularly if there is a religious dispute. Social identity theory holds that the more we identify with our group, the more likely we are to have hostile feelings towards out-groups. That means that as long as Jews or Muslims maintain their identity in the West, they are likely to have negative feelings towards the majority. They may well speak the language of the majority, learn his history and culture, and use his modes of dress, but they won’t forget that inside they are different and superior. Every group thinks it is the center of the universe and looks at the world in ways in which their own superiority is constantly confirmed. If the minority group has a higher average IQ and cohesion than the majority, they will in certain times and ways, become the master of the majority group.
Martin Heidegger wrote: “To appropriate ‘culture’ as a means of power and thus to assert oneself and affect a superiority is at bottom Jewish behavior. What follows from this for cultural politics as such?”
The great thing about being an Orthodox Jew is that you know who you are. You have your own culture. You don’t need the goyim’s. You’re not a Norman Podhoretz. You have a specific identity and are consequently not as dependent on your wider social status to give you meaning in life. Your status as an Orthodox Jew comes from your place within the Orthodox community.
Tom Wolfe’s 1975 book, The Painted Word, examined art criticism.
Wolfe’s thesis in The Painted Word was that by the 1970s, modern art had moved away from being a visual experience, and more often was an illustration of art critics’ theories. Wolfe criticized avant-garde art, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. The main target of Wolfe’s book, however, was not so much the artists, as the critics. In particular, Wolfe criticized three prominent art critics whom he dubbed the kings of “Cultureburg”: Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg. Wolfe argued that these three men were dominating the world of art with their theories and that, unlike the world of literature in which anyone can buy a book, the art world was controlled by an insular circle of rich collectors, museums and critics with outsized influence.
Wolfe provides his own history of what he sees as the devolution of modern art. He summarized that history: “In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs”. After providing examples of other techniques and the schools that abandoned them, Wolfe concluded with Conceptual Art: “…there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representation objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes. …Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!… Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision… late twentieth-century Modern Art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple”.
Wolfe argues that parvenu Jews have destroyed modern art.
Heidegger attributes to Judaism the “principle of destruction.” I think he is correct. Judaism came into being denying the false gods of the ancient world and Jews to the present continue to degrade and deny what the goyim worship. Sometimes Jews offer worthy alternatives to the deities of the goyim, sometimes they don’t.
Douglas Rushkoff, author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, says: “The thing that makes Judaism dangerous to everybody, to every race, to every nation, to every idea, is that we smash things that aren’t true. We don’t believe in the boundaries of nation states, we don’t believe in these ideas of individual gods that protect individual people, these are all artificial constructions and Judaism really teaches us how to see that. In a sense, our detractors have us right in that we are a corrosive force, we’re breaking down the false gods of all nations and all people because they’re not real and that’s very upsetting to people.”