Interview with Norman Podhoretz ; part 2
BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:29:26
Norman Podhoertz discusses his book "Making It" his memoir about American intellectual life and academia. Discussing the parallels in the relationships between politics, money and education.
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Studs Terkel We have the young people who challenge the basic values of the side and romanticizing the person who was a failure and therefore sinful, therefore outside the establishment as a hero because they challenged these values.
Norman Podhoretz Right, but one of the points I'm trying to make in the book is that although there is one strand, a stream of American culture which sees failure as a sin, not making it as a sin, there is another strand, which is perhaps not as powerful but has been extremely powerful in its- in its influence especially on the young and the more sensitive young, which sees making it, being a member of the establishment, as a sin and as a sign of corruption. And I think that this particular attitude, which goes way back to the 1880s and which has received very powerful support in American literature, I think that this particular attitude is pretty well coming into its own today-
Norman Podhoretz Well, I'm on neither side, tell you the truth, though if the barricades were up I suppose I'd have to be on the side of the rebels, but the- my own view, which is possibly over-optimistic, is that this is a false conflict.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah-
Studs Terkel -throughout?]
Norman Podhoretz -I think we're all ambivalent about success in this culture, though if you read, you know, if you read almost any book about America or the American character you will be told that Americans aren't at all ambivalent, that all they care about is success, generally as measured by money. Now I don't think this is true. I think that a great deal of guilt is associated with success in this culture. I mean if you look at the behavior of large corporations today, for example, and the- and the compulsion they labor under, to act social or to seem to be socially responsible, to care about other things than, you know, than maximum profits, even if they're insincere or hypocritical which they generally are, the fact that they feel required to come on this way is itself a symptom of how powerful the opposing attitude is,
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, I- no, I think it's more than ritual 'cause I think this ambivalence is real. I think that- I think that most of us- most of us are torn in our- in our feeling as to what the proper goal of life is. And I think there's a kind of, if you like, secularized religious conflict going on here, you know, is a man supposed to be worldly and pursue only the worldly objects- objectives, the satisfactions of the flesh, or is he supposed to devote himself to higher things? Now as I say, I think this is a false conflict. I don't think there's any necessary- any necessary contradiction between the pursuit of worldly goods and the- and the pursuit of higher things. And by higher things in this context I mean- I mean intrinsic achievement, which is measured, of course, by other standards than worldly success.
Studs Terkel Hasn't the artist, though, the artist, the literary figure, the creative spirit always been considered someone who was anti-the-establishment no matter where he- no matter what the nature of the society?
Norman Podhoretz No, again not- no, not at all always. There have been, you know, there have been periods in history and depend- also depends on the country in which the artists and the writers were, you know, were regarded as pillars of what would today be called the establishment. I think this is even true in our society at the moment, I can't remember a time when- when artists and writers have been so influential in the general atmosphere, and obviously, they're not influential in trying to affect the course of Lyndon Johnson's policies. It's- this is a separate issue. But, you know, when Robert Lowell today refuses- a poet- refuses an invitation to a White House dinner, this becomes front-page news.
Studs Terkel Why? Here's the thing- why is it a separate issue here in America? Isn't it so in Europe, or do I romanticize? Literary figures have been always involved with politics. Why, that's on Malraux, of course, long before this. It's rare when a literary figure or a- a literate man enters politics here.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, it has been. Of course, this was not true throughout American history and certainly, the Founding Fathers were all what today we would call intellectuals. Something changed in the whole- in the whole nature of the political process after the Civil War when, partly as a result of the influx as I mentioned earlier, millions and millions of immigrants from- from Europe and- and partly as a result of the rapid industrial expansion of the country in that period, when political power shifted to another kind of type. Now there are signs, or there were signs after Kennedy came to power that this was about to change back again, at least to a certain extent. I've never myself been completely convinced that that was the case. A lot of people have said, you know, said it was. I think that since the accession of Johnson we've, you know, we've been moving back in the other direction. Nevertheless, you know, literary intellectuals, writers, and artists, so on, have- have been more active politically in the last few years than they have been at any time since the 1930s. I think this is true-
Studs Terkel This is all by way of- this is not peripheral to the book of Norman Podhoretz, Making It, his autobiography, it's all really part of it in a sense, 'cause you're talking now about power to some extent too, aren't you?-
Norman Podhoretz Sure-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Oh sure. And I think that- I think that intellectuals have a kind of social power and the power- and the power to shape the climate of opinion, the power to shape the general climate of opinion, which they have not had in this country for a very long time. As I say, this does not extend- does not extend to the White House these days. Obviously, most American intellectuals are violently against the Vietnam War, and have, you know, made this very clear. As far as we can tell this has had no effect whatever on administration policy-
Studs Terkel Well, haven't we come to something interesting here? I don't know, we find, for example, a great deal of hurt in American society. For example, the lower- use the phrase- lower-middle-class white feels himself the abandoned figure and thus open to many avenues, what seem, and the appeal to him- he's anti-intellectual, quite obvi-, he suspects the college man very much.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. This is- this again is nothing new. I mean, you find- you find the same sort of feelings operating in all the populist movements of the end of the 19th century. And in fact, most historians who've written about the Ku Klux Klan, you know, have- have analyzed the growth of the Klan, the second Klan, in the '20s in precisely these terms, these were the lower-class, lower-middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who felt that their country was being stolen away from them by the foreigners and the- and the eastern
Studs Terkel But isn't there also something else here that possibly the literary figures of the East of the family may not dig? I'm not sure, I'm asking you this [from the?] West, is that the very nature of our society, the empire builders were proud of their horny hands, were proud of the fact that they were not literate, you see. The very part of- aside from the fact that Jefferson and his colleagues were literate men, after Jackson, let's say, that came a whole- and this has been- isn't so much part of- to use a word that I guess the East would use, the ethos of America.
Studs Terkel Well, that's it, I'm wondering whether the power that you yourself look to, as everyone wants- every person loves the feeling of power, is not really impotent is the point I'm making, whether- whether that is not irrelevant to America today.
Norman Podhoretz Oh, I see what you mean. Well, there are various forms of power. And, you know, there is social power, there's political power, there's financial power, there's cultural power. There's no question in my mind that the intellectual class is virtually impotent politically at this moment, and certainly in '68 in the coming election, if it's going to be Johnson against Nixon, there's going to be a very-
Studs Terkel And I'm wondering even aside for now whether it hasn't been, this is a question. I don't know, I'm- that your book really is a fascinating one, 'cause in a sense, by the very nature of it, raises this question.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Studs Terkel Whether it always hasn't been so? Aside from the Founding Father days, and yet we know we were born out of genocide, whether the killing of Indian nations, and since slavery was also part of America's- so we had the word and the deed never quite matched- that is the word the intellectuals back in those days and the deed-
Norman Podhoretz Mmhmm.
Norman Podhoretz Well, it's- no, it varies from- from one country to another, I think. I don't think that the United States is- is unique in the crimes it has committed. And I certainly don't think that, you know, that is even unique in the- it's- it's not in the least bit unique in the discrepancy between the word and the deed, between the ideal and the institutional reality. Many, you know- it's become fashionable to think of America as one of the leading criminal nations of history. I don't think this is the case. I'm not myself as anti-American as- as it is fashionable among intellectuals to be these days.
Studs Terkel And yet, there's- isn't there a contradiction here? You speak of the anti-American as the intellectual, and yet you also speak of the intellectual as, in a sense, part of the- aside from this particular administration, part of the establishment,
Norman Podhoretz Well, that's a funny thing about America, you know? Most people who are thought of by other people as being members of the establishment rarely think of themselves as members of the establishment. It's also the case that one of the best ways to get into what is called the establishment these days is to be highly critical of the society, and this is, you know, you see this all over the place. I mean, a playwright like Leroy Jones, you know, the more he denounces his white audiences the more they applaud and-
Studs Terkel But it's not taken seriously, what's the point- isn't- isn't the point? It's not- remember Jules Feiffer's cartoon about the critic? Once he was crucified, once he was putting the Iron Maiden, once he was pilloried, now he's embraced.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, this is true. And this culture does seem to have an endless capacity for absorbing its critics, though I don't think it's a sinister process. I mean, you know, Jules Feiffer, for example, would not be happier, he's certainly a social critic and a prominent one. I doubt that Jules Feiffer would be happy if he- if they threw him into jail. You know, I don't- I don't think that the embrace need necessarily destroy the bite of the critic, it hasn't in Feiffer's case at all. It hasn't in- it hasn't in, you know, a large number of cases I can think of- Dwight Macdonald, for example, today is a more vehement rebel and critic of the society than he was when he was, you know, much poorer, less well known. You know, this is one of the paradoxes of American society.
Studs Terkel What does this lead into, and not a question of a prognosis here, but what- if the critic's bite, if suddenly his tooth that is sharp is filed off in a very gentle way, you know, and there are no teeth, and he's just gums. And well, oh, Billy Sunday said fighting the devil, if he has to lose his teeth he'll gum him to death.
Norman Podhoretz Well, I don't think that- that these teeth have been filed off. I mean, that is, I can't remember a period in my own experience when- when social criticism among intellectuals including very affluent intellectuals has been more-
Studs Terkel Popular.
Norman Podhoretz -powerful,-
Norman Podhoretz Well, no, it's not that it's irrelevant. It may- it may not be having the kind of effect it's intended to have it's certainly not irrelevant. Look, it's an old story about rebels and less people, individuals, are themselves rebelling- are rebelling against the condition in which they themselves are caught. For example, well, Negroes today in America who are what you might call self-interested rebels, that is, they are fighting for the betterment of their own condition in a way you might say that they are fighting for the chance to make it. Unless, you know, unless you are a self-interested rebel in that sense, all you can be is a fellow traveler of rebellion. Marx said this about the intellectuals, he said they were unreliable revolutionaries because they had no- they had- their self-interest did not push them in the direction of revolution. So they were, you know, he- he had great- he was himself an intellectual but he tended to despise intellectuals as- as revolutionists-
Norman Podhoretz Well, they talk out of both sides of their mouth. I mean, sometimes they say they want to be liberated from this society but sometimes they also are talking about black power, for example. What does black power mean? It means we want the slice of the pie to which our numbers and justice entitles us. I mean, which is- I myself believe that this is the main thrust of the- of the negro movement. Even though there are some black militants who would not- who would not, you know, who would not settle for this objective, the objective of making it. But the curious psychological thing is you see that- that most liberals and radicals in this country are willing to allow negroes to wish to make it because they are deprived. But the- but- but anyone else- anyone else at this moment who wants to make it or says he wants to make it is regarded as inferior and- and corrupt.
Studs Terkel I'm talking now about- [laughs] about a society, possibly the values, I think you and I might agree that perhaps some of the values are cockeyed, and perhaps the nature of power, power in the hands of all [people?], power they justly deserve, whether white or black, by the very nature of that coming, the very dynamic might alter the values of the society.
Norman Podhoretz Well, I think that I- I don't think there's any question that the values of the society are being altered by all the ferment today, of course in- in some instances they're being altered for the worse, from my point of view, I mean, I think that- I think that a lot of the ferment, if you like, on the left is one of the effects it's having is to strength the, you know, the backlash, not just against negroes, but the general right-wing- the general movement on the right. There's a concomitant strengthening of
Norman Podhoretz No, no, no, not because- no, of course not. No, because of conditions. I mean, I think if the frustrations- because of the war in Vietnam and because of the- because of the- the urban crisis and, you know, there- there is a left-wing response to these conditions and there is a right-wing, an answering right-wing response, you know, and we see- we're seeing a- we're seeing a more and more extreme polarization of opinion and sentiment in this country, which is very dangerous.
Norman Podhoretz Well, yeah, the book Making It is- is an attempt to cast some light on all these problems. I'm doing it through a rather narrow focus, a deliberately narrow focus. But certainly, it is relevant to- or at least I hope it's relevant to the whole nature of the society-
Studs Terkel Something else you touch on here, you speak of ambition, the dirty little secret of power, and of envy, the aspect of envy. You find this often the case, that is, you find that you being successful, relatively successful, and associating with successful people, find yourself being envied by those who had been your friends or acquaintances.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well, I think everybody has had this experience. I make a distinction in the book between jealousy and envy. Envy is- envy I define as- as- as an emotion which says, "I want to have what you have, and I don't want you to have it, also." That is to say, you don't deserve it and I deserve it, and I want to take it away from you. I think it's sort of cannibalistic envy. There's another covetous emotion, jealousy, which says, "I don't mind if you have it so long as I have it as well," in other words, I'd like to be as rich as Rockefeller without expropriating Rockefeller. These are- and envy is- envy is- is a kind of dangerous passion, it's an expropriating passion. I think that- I think that when people used to talk about the evil eye, they were talking about being objects of envy.
Norman Podhoretz Sure.
Studs Terkel Joy. This- joy. You have a sentence here that attracted me on page 24(5?), parties- talking about the parties that you went to, "parties were sometimes fun and sometimes not, but fun was beside the point. I mean, they always served as a barometer of the progress of my career."
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Well, the party is a very interesting social institution in New York, and I really don't know whether it serves the same function in other places, I suspect it does. The- yes, parties are very often fun but it's a kind of Proustian world, you know, in which- in which people whether they- whether they like it or not tend to rate themselves by- by the kind of parties to which they're invited and the kind of people they're able to get to come to their own parties. It's sort of ugly when you try to describe it and I think it's one of the- is one of the- one of the things that people are extremely hypocritical about. I mean, I've known people who desperately care whether or not they're invited to certain parties, but who would not admit on the rack that they care, yet they care very passionately because these- these are instruments of- instruments and cali- you know, the calibrations of status in this society very much resemble the whole- the whole Proustian scene, I think.
Norman Podhoretz Well, I must say, I feel less this way at the moment than I did when I wrote the book. I dunno, writing it seems to have liberated me from some of the feelings that I confessed to having. I certainly have felt that way in my- in my life, I felt that way very powerfully and- and I think that most- most people I know have felt the same way. I feel somewhat less powerfully that way [chuckles] now, (you see? I say?) sometimes when you write something you purge yourself of the-
Studs Terkel Yeah,-
Studs Terkel [Unintelligble]
Norman Podhoretz -one of the functions of confessional literature. Well, I'm a different person at this moment than I was before I wrote the book, certainly, yeah. I don't yet know how different, I know that I am somewhat different.
Norman Podhoretz Sure.
Norman Podhoretz Sometimes. It depended, I mean, if they were good parties, as I say, sometimes you did and sometimes you didn't. But, you know, I'll give you an illustration of what I mean. That Truman Capote had a very famous party a year or so ago. Now, there were people virtually contemplating suicide because they weren't invited to that party. There were people who were very happy about being invited. And I think the experience of either being invited or not being invited was, well, you know, was much more powerful than the party itself, which was a party. You know, it wasn't a bad party. I was invited to that party, I was delighted that I was and so was everybody else who was- not everybody, but most everybody else who was invited because, I say, I mean, you know, by the time you got there it was a pretty good party. Nothing very extraordinary, I've been to better ones [laughs], you
Studs Terkel Well, this is just a casual conversation with Norman Podhoretz, and his autobiography, Making It, come back to the title again, don't we. This is the operative phrase, you feel, not just for you but for our whole society, no matter whether he be an industrialist or a writer-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, I think it is the- I think it's the central preoccupation of virtually all Americans. And even if they rebel against it, you know? I mean, it's still- it is the issue, the determining issue in our lives. It would be, perhaps it would be better if it weren't. But I think that- I simply think that it is.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah, well one of the reasons- I admire Mailer for many reasons but one- one of them is that Mailer is one of the few people, in fact, virtually the only person I had ever run into up to that point, who was capable of being honest on the issue of success. Most other people are extremely hypocritical and continue to be. I was trying in this book to be honest about it from my own point of view, which is not exactly the same as Mailer's-
Norman Podhoretz Yeah.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Yeah, that- I said that I had been toying with the idea, and I wanted to write a book about the problem of success and for a few years I toyed with the idea of- of using Mailer as the focus of it and I then decided that it would- that it would be more- more- it have more impact and- if I did it about myself. And I think the book certainly has had impact. I mean, it's had a very bad impact on a lot of people but there's no question that- that it did have more impact [than this
Studs Terkel -Wanna talk about- we haven't talked about- we- I've deliberately avoided talking about names and [speaking of?] you have names mentioned in the book, bad impact on- you mean people who were mentioned in the book? Or not mentioned?
Norman Podhoretz Well, a little bit of both, I think. There have been extremely violent reactions to this book, on both sides. I mean, people tend to regard this book either as a total disaster or as a minor classic. Maybe it's both. Maybe it's a disastrous classic or a classical-
Norman Podhoretz -disaster, I don't know. But there have been very few moderate responses to the book. Some, but as I say, most people tend to react very violently, and I anticipated this. I don't think I anticipated the degree of violence but I certainly expected that the book would rub a great many raw nerves. And there's no question that it has.
Studs Terkel Well, the book is Making It, by Norman Podhoretz, my guest is the author of it, Random House, the publisher, it's very definitely available. Mr. Podhoretz is also the editor of the highly influential literary magazine, it's that, known for some very remarkable essays in it, Commentary. This is- a- still- this hasn't affected your status with Commentary in any way?
Studs Terkel [Laughs]
Norman Podhoretz -a lot of people who've been contributors to Commentary are mad at me and I'm mad at some of them. This may- this may have some effect on the magazine, it hasn't had any so far and I hope that it won't. It's complicated, my- my- a lot of my personal relations in the New York literary world, but-
Norman Podhoretz Well I'm- I've started work on a book on the 1930s. It's going to take me several years to write. Its- it will not contain a single use of the word "I," no personal pronoun in that book [laughs][coughs]. The- what I hope to do is to write a series of extensive biographical portraits of representative figures of the American '30s and I would hope that the whole thing will add up to- will add up to a portrait of that era, which seems to me, you know, more and more a kind of watershed in our lives. I don't think we can understand our own contemporary situation without- without looking back at the '30s, and this is really what's led me in to-
Studs Terkel In this conversation, even though we talk about it, projected work of note but I haven't talked about the two men, perhaps in some future occasion, two of the men most influenced his life, Professor Leavis in Cambridge and Lionel Trilling.
Norman Podhoretz Yeah. Well, they were- Lionel Trilling was my teacher at Columbia where I was an undergraduate and I studied under F.R. Leavis at Cambridge University in England. And they- yeah. They- each, I think, is a great critic and each has had a very powerful influence on me, neither of them likes this book. Well, I haven't heard from Leavis but I'm sure he would not like it. I have heard from Lionel Trilling who was among the people who thinks this book is a disaster, but of course he's wrong [laughs].