Podhoretz v. the Nihilists
He understood the “bohemian know-nothings” very early.


As New York City — and college campuses everywhere — from the late ’60s on turned into what the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called a “Coney Island of the Mind,” the New Yorker Podhoretz — a son, a husband, a father to a growing family, a man with a “bourgeois” job and career — experienced deepening revulsion at the radical sexual, social, political, and literary extremism of the “know-nothing bohemians.” Their aesthetic/ethical style of “upward psychopathic mobility” was a demotic, demonic mix of the nativist narcissism of Walt Whitman (the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself”) and the exotic literary/behavioral immoralism of the French “flowers of evil” — the criminal-as-hero, atheistic/existentialist lineage from Sade through Stendhal and Flaubert to the “accursed ones” (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), to the rich rentier-pervert André Gide, to the Dadaists and Surrealists, to Sartre and the criminal-pimp-homosexual “Saint,” Jean Genet. A close student of modern literature since the French Revolution, the residually Jewish Podhoretz was the beneficiary and bearer of the earnest moralism of Trilling and Leavis, and of a high academic humanist education in the tradition of the great Matthew Arnold (1822–1888): a privileged education that was also a kind of trust.

Experience on the streets of Brooklyn and in the U.S. Army in postwar Germany, plus a six-week visit to Israel in 1951, had acquainted him with, or reminded him of, the tragedy of 20th-century life and history, from which one could not opt out in a “yellow submarine” of adolescent or aesthetic self-indulgence or simplistic political rage. As Podhoretz’s Chicago Jewish contemporary Saul Bellow, also the child of Eastern European immigrants and brought up during the Depression, was to put it in his novel Herzog (1964): “A merely aesthetic critique of modern history? After the wars and mass killings? You are too intelligent for this! You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.”

In The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (1971), the literary critic Quentin Anderson was to trace the American genealogy of the antinomian bacillus of radical aesthetic “self-expression” and immoralist nihilism to Emerson, Thoreau, and the relentless, bombastic self-promoter Walt Whitman, a prophet of the sexual-social “liberation” resurrected and intensified by Ginsberg, the Beats, and Mailer. Podhoretz reluctantly met with Ginsberg and Kerouac in Greenwich Village at Ginsberg’s request in 1958 after the publication of “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Podhoretz recorded this meeting, and the history of his previous and subsequent relations with Ginsberg, in “At War with Allen Ginsberg,” printed as the first chapter of his superb memoir Ex-Friends (2000). Also containing a chapter entitled “A Foul-Weather Friend to Norman Mailer,” Ex-Friends is a document of significant cultural and literary importance for anyone who would really understand our modern American — and now world-wide — “culture wars.” After several unpleasant hours of intense argument in the Greenwich Village meeting, the angry libertine Ginsberg shouted at the departing and unconverted Podhoretz, “We’ll get you through your children!”

Podhoretz saw the sexual-libertarian Pied Piper Ginsberg, then and for the rest of their lives, as the personification and promoter of an anti-cultural, immoral rage, narcissism, primitivism, and toxic, pan-sexual promiscuity that were lethal not only to the American republic but to the very ideal, and limited reality, of civilization itself: an ideal based on self-restraint, discipline, hard work, maturity, reciprocity, decency, and personal fidelity. Influenced by the Arnoldians Trilling and Leavis, Podhoretz came to appreciate a formulation of the mature George Orwell — himself initially a left-winger who saw value in the writing of the barbaric sexual predator Henry Miller. Podhoretz quoted the painfully earned Natural Law wisdom and uncommon common sense about “common decency” of the mature Orwell against both the aesthetes and the Marxists of the ’30s: “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.”

But it was the alleged insincerity and inauthenticity of “the normal decent person” in America that Ginsberg, the other Beats, and Norman Mailer (most prominently and influentially among many other “advanced” intellectuals, writers, and artists) vehemently asserted and assaulted. They made hatred of such an ideal central to their behavioral, literary, and artistic styles and methods. Saul Bellow’s protagonist in his great novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) observes the same hatred of civilization, of moderation, of dignity, of decency, all around him in the swinging, radical New York City of the ’60s: “there is no ethical life and everything is poured . . . barbarously and recklessly into personal gesture.” Traditional “ideas of conduct” — Orwell’s “common decency” — “seemed discredited.” In an exchange with the aged, battered, but civilized Jewish immigrant Sammler, his “liberated” niece says, “I thought everybody was born human.” Sammler replies: “It’s not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.”