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


In defending the possibility of being “a normal decent person” against both Marxists/New Leftists (for whom “Amerika” was hopelessly corrupt) and the nihilistic aesthetes (for whom American life was utterly repressive, repressed, and vapid), Podhoretz broke with the political and cultural Lefts (often represented by the same persons) and found himself, like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, avowing religious intuitions, values, and traditions. He also found himself defending the possibilities of life in a republican, democratic, constitutional polity that had achieved unique, extraordinarily high levels of relative peace, freedom, order, and prosperity — even considering the Depression and discrimination against blacks, Jews, and various groups of immigrants — in a century whose other major ideologies and states had signally failed to do so.

Initially ambivalent about his friendship with Norman Mailer, Podhoretz increasingly came to see him as “one of the founding fathers of the radical culture of the sixties,” and, writing in 2000, long after their breach, he said of himself that he had “spent the last thirty years and more trying to make up for and undo the damage I did in cooperation with Mailer” and people like him.

In his own movement back to a religious Judaism, Podhoretz became increasingly appreciative of writers such as William F. Buckley Jr., Richard John Neuhaus, and other Christians and moderates who had retained a global sense of the evils of Communism and the opposite local dangers of a radical, immoralist, egotistical libertinism, especially “the antinomian propaganda Ginsberg had done as much as anyone else to spread.” Partly made repentant, like so many French leftists and aesthetes in the late ’70s, by the noble life and work of Solzhenitsyn, Podhoretz increasingly saw Mailer as pathological: his “hip” existentialist nihilism an excuse for gross hedonism, promiscuity, infidelity, violence (especially toward women), and ludicrous, feckless, histrionic posturing. Though he helped keep Mailer out of jail and a mental hospital after he had stabbed and dangerously wounded one of his six wives, he found Mailer’s transgressive behavior and writing — especially his “wild promiscuity, both in and between marriages,” and his lyrical, sadistic, macho praise of anal rape — increasingly revolting and destructive. Yet “the more outrageously Mailer behaved, the more admiration he brought upon himself from the spreading radical culture of the 1960s.” 

And Podhoretz realized that Ginsberg and Mailer, with the active commercial collusion of Sixth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the radicalized academy, were making good on Ginsberg’s 1958 threat to get at normal people “through [their] children.” The acids of the increasingly vulgar “rock” culture, with massive audio-visual means, eroded family and religious, scholastic, and patriotic affiliations and traditions. The intelligibility, credibility, and value of the American republic of Hamilton (himself a poor immigrant), Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, and millions of immigrants were increasingly opaque and unavailable for transmission or imitation. The new, funky aesthetic of outrageous self-assertion had overshadowed, while assaulting and mocking, the old folk aesthetic that valued and depicted normal distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, worth and nihilism. The antinomian Brahmin Emerson had decisively triumphed over the ethically orthodox Hawthorne; the “barbaric yawp” of the bombastic braggart Whitman over the poetics and poetry of Emily Dickinson and Longfellow; slick, telegenic, amoral politicians over the sturdy Truman and Eisenhower. And Ginsberg and Mailer and their epigones were triumphing over the traditional high literature of the English language that had been so reverently valued by Trilling and Leavis at Columbia and Cambridge, along with what John Erskine, and Trilling following him, called “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”

A great culture even in its desuetude retains the capacity for self-renewal from its “saving remnant,” as Matthew Arnold wisely put it, adapting an ancient Hebraic concept. Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, the Mandelstams, and the other great dissident writers led such a renewal for Russia; Bernanos, Claudel, Mauriac, and Malraux in literature, Maritain, Gilson, and Raymond Aron in philosophy, and de Gaulle in politics for France; Silone in literature, Salvemini in history, and Sturzo and de Gasperi in politics for Italy; Czeslaw Milosz and Karol Wojtyla for Poland. In this kind of noble and enviable company Norman Podhoretz, like his contemporaries Saul Bellow and William F. Buckley Jr., has a well-deserved place.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His essay on Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, The Big Empty and a Silver Voice,” appeared in National Review, April 7, 2008. Ignatius Press recently published his new edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.