Alex(ander) Comfort Essay - Critical Essays

Comfort, Alex(ander)

Comfort, Alex(ander) 1920–2000

Comfort is a Renaissance man—a poet, dramatist, novelist, critic, essayist, physician, researcher, lecturer, and an advocate of pacifism and freedom in sexual love. He is an authority on the biology of aging, a fact which may account for the often-present confrontation with death in his poetry. His concerns are many, however, and he is able to range from a novel expressing the need for peaceful protest to a manual—The Joy of Sex. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[No Such Liberty] is a good novel as novels go at this moment, but the motive for writing it was not what Trollope or Balzac, or even Tolstoy, would have recognised as a novelist's impulse. It was written in order to put forward the "message" of pacifism, and it was to fit that "message" that the main incidents in it were devised. I think I am also justified in assuming that it is autobiographical, not in the sense that the events described in it have actually happened, but in the sense that the author identifies himself with the hero, thinks him worthy of sympathy and agrees with the sentiments that he expresses. (pp. 165-66)

The argument which is implied all the way through, and sometimes explicitly stated, that there is next to no difference between Britain and Germany, political persecution is as bad in one as in the other, those who fight against the Nazis always go Nazi themselves, would be more convincing if it came from a German. (p. 168)

George Orwell, "No, Not One" (originally published in Adelphi, October, 1941), in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II (copyright © 1968 by Sonia Brownell Orwell), Secker & Warburg, 1968, pp. 165-75.

Although Alex Comfort has achieved a considerable reputation as poet, novelist, and critic, his work as scientist and social thinker has not yet received the consideration it deserves. An M.D., and a medical researcher, he has combined scientific knowledge with artistic insight and understanding to produce some of the most vital social-political studies of recent years—the most comprehensive being The Pattern of the Future, Comfort's summary presentation of a new Scientific Humanism based on science and a modernized version of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience."

I mention Thoreau in order to identify the libertarian tradition Comfort has chosen to follow. But I must emphasize that Comfort himself is not in any sense wild or irresponsible. Insofar as he departs from previous humanistic thinkers he does so in an effort to develop a new humanistic philosophy adequate to our new situation. The greatest threat to basic humanistic values, he believes, lies in our acceptance of outmoded institutions and ways of thought. Our first problem, therefore, is to free ourselves from the outmoded and deadly; then to develop a new and viable Humanism. And the way to accomplish both our negative and positive aims is to go still farther and faster along the path Humanism has always followed, continuing to ground our philosophy on scientific understanding, but making fuller use than heretofore of the insights and hypotheses of advance-guard thinkers in all fields, with special emphasis on the arts and psychoanalysis—and to do all this without falling victim to authoritarianism, mysticism, or the general anxiety of our times.

If we are willing to accept this approach as generally sound, then Comfort is a thinker who can give us invaluable aid. For there is nothing of the authoritarian or mystic about him; moreover, on the positive side, he has the courage to continue from the point where Sartre and the Existentialists (with whom he has much in common) have ended up in confusion and despair. (pp. 269-70)

Basically, there is nothing very new in the way Comfort establishes his theoretical foundations, which are those of all Naturalistic Humanists. Where he begins to differ is in developing a more human understanding of what science is, and what it can do, applied to the human problem. To Comfort, the scientific study of behavior is not limited to the hole and corner testing that occupies so many of our psychologists and sociologists (as, for instance, that of the sociologists who recently conducted an elaborate research program to discover that most burglaries are committed between the hours of two and four in the morning). To Comfort, the scientific study of man takes in all areas of human life, not just those we can tabulate within prevailing patterns of belief. In his own work, he makes the fullest use of scientific knowledge, drawing most heavily upon the discoveries of advanced psychiatrists and anthropologists. Finally, and perhaps most important in this connection, he realizes that science is not opposed to art, that, rather, the two modes of knowledge complement one another. (pp. 270-71)

Wayne Burns, "The Scientific Humanism of Alex Comfort," in The Humanist (copyright 1951 by the American Humanist Association; reprinted by permission), November/December, 1951, pp. 269-74.

[On This Side Nothing] is so close to Kafka's story [In The Penal Colony] in certain of its aspects, so far removed in others, that comparison literally forces recognition. So that, by analyzing key points of likeness and difference, it is possible to establish the true quality and meaning of Comfort's art: to show that the novel embodies significant philosophical ideas in a significant form of pictorial realism, finally to show that it is a valid realistic counterpart of In The Penal Colony and therefore a novel-of-ideas equal to all but the masterpieces in this genre. (p. 102)

The main difference is that Kafka offers no clear-cut answer, if he offers any answer at all; whereas Comfort not only gives a complete answer, he makes nearly every line of On This Side Nothing a direct or indirect expression of it. (p. 104)

Kafka's explorer is throughout most of the story an impartial scientific observer, a personification of John Dewey's liberal intelligence. He is therefore not a three-dimensional character, but a kind of disembodied mind, and his function is to observe and comment upon what he finds in "the penal colony." So much is generally agreed upon. And while Comfort's protagonist is not so easily placed, he is intended to be first and foremost an explorer, a poet-philosopher who will, from his "anarcho-humanistic" standpoint, do for the North African ghetto what Kafka's disembodied intelligence does for the "penal colony."

The prime difference between the two protagonists (as explorers) derives from the fact that Comfort, in keeping with his thematic intention, is forced to enlarge Shmul's capacities and functions by making him a young Jewish intellectual who combines the eye of a poet with the mind of a philosopher. By this strategy of characterization (for which he has all kinds of precedent, from the philosophes of the eighteenth-century contes-philosophique to those of Turgenev and Camus) he solves his most difficult structural problem: that of securing a narrator fully equal to seeing as well as analyzing the subtlest implications of life in the ghetto; in other words, a narrator who can serve as poetic camera-eye (in Isherwood's phrase: "a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, not thinking") and at the same time as philosophic spokesman—all this within a fictional structure almost as limited and demanding as that of In The Penal Colony.

For the most part,… Comfort succeeds in this rather difficult feat of characterization. Where he falters, and incidentally where he breaks completely with Kafka, is in his effort to expand Shmul still further by trying to make him the three-dimensional "hero" of a realistic dramatic action. (pp. 105-06)

In his role as philosophic mind, if one can overlook Comfort's efforts to make him something more, Shmul is entirely adequate…. He becomes a being apart, an "outsider." He can serve as the agent of assassins, and discuss the ethical implications of his role; more than that, he can look upon his own slim chance for survival as an abstract sociological problem. In short, he is Kafka's "explorer," turned anarchistic philosopher, on a professional visit to the real world of the nineteen-forties—and therefore a fictional counterpart of Comfort himself, capable of speaking Comfort's own mind in Comfort's own words. (pp. 106-07)

The most we can ask of any novelist, at the ideological-structural level, is what Comfort himself asks in The Novel And Our Time: that he "be capable of presenting the entire canvas he has chosen in a framework of coherent vision which is very nearly explanatory." And Comfort's practice is equal to his theory. Granted his thematic intention, he has (via Shmul as philosopher) placed the entire North African canvas within a framework of coherent and responsible vision—a framework which is an extended realistic variant of Kafka's, designed to express directly and purposefully what Kafka expresses indirectly and tentatively. (p. 108)

That Comfort's realism … resembles Kafka's is therefore not a matter of imitation or literary carpentry. It is, as I shall now try to show, a matter of Comfort's having expressed his vision with such intensity as to lay bare the Kafkaesque sub-reality that now underlies our accepted way of life. (p. 112)

[It] is the cinematic realism which … transforms Comfort's rhetoric into fictional art comparable to Kafka's In The Penal Colony. I say comparable rather than equal because Comfort has erred and faltered, particularly in his efforts to humanize Shmul, to make him the three-dimensional hero of a realistic dramatic action. Yet the resultant weaknesses do not seriously affect the pictorial center of the novel, mainly because Shmul's vision is expressed, not as hero or even as philosopher, but as poet, that is, as poetic camera-eye. The truth of his vision is therefore in no sense dependent on his convincingness or his demonstrated sanity. As readers, we do not have to accept him or his philosophical point of view any more than we have to accept Kafka's explorer or his philosophical point of view; we need only understand Shmul's point of view and look at his picture of the ghetto as we look at the explorer's picture of the penal colony. Like Kafka, Comfort has subjected his ideas, his rhetoric, to the test of pictorial expression—and they have met the test. We know they have met the test because Comfort's picture of the ghetto expresses his idea of the ghetto in valid artistic form—a form that achieves essentially the same quality and meaning as Kafka's picture of the penal colony.

And Comfort achieves this form without resorting to imitative techniques. In fact his poetic is in many ways antipodal to Kafka's. Comfort's camera-techniques cut through accepted and official reality from the surface down, from the outside in; whereas Kafka's techniques work in the opposite direction. By way of analogy: if Kafka had wanted to depict the meaning of, say a professional fight, he would have done so by removing the action to his world, perhaps with two sub-real creatures slugging away at one another … as if under water. Comfort, on the other hand, would give a direct photographic reproduction of Madison Square Garden on a fight-night, and by using the camera to define the significance of the action (from the blue haze, to Gladys Gooding's playing of the National Anthem, to the oneness of the crowd, to the aloneness of the two fighters) he would, or at least could, achieve a markedly similar effect and meaning.

Save for clarification, however, there is no need to speak hypothetically, for On This Side Nothing has proved itself to be an authentic realistic counterpart of Kafka's story—a rewriting of In The Penal Colony for our time. Comfort's picture of the ghetto shows that the thin crust of humanistic civilization—still existent for Kafka—has finally been broken; that the pieces are now being used to camouflage the workings of the machine, "to make this fort assume / the furniture of home"; that the forces of Kafka's sub-reality now walk the earth disguised as ordinary human beings. In plainer words: On This Side Nothing reveals that modern life is not what it seems to the best-intentioned citizens, not even what it seems to a liberal and constructive Zionist like the Dr. Havas of the novel. It is Kafka's nightmare become reality. What Kafka revealed as the latent content and meaning of life has now become the manifest content and meaning. Our everyday world is a penal colony, and if we are citizens of it, we are the executioners and the executed. (pp. 119-20)

Wayne Burns, "Kafka and Alex Comfort: 'The Penal Colony' Revisited," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1952 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1952, pp. 101-20.

Although the first part of Alex Comfort's novel, The Power House, is better than anything in The Song of Lazarus, he is potentially and in diffusion a fairly interesting poet. Unfortunately, neither organization nor economy is natural to him, and the extensive, rather clumsy energy of his prose is tenuous in his verse. (p. 140)

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and The Age (copyright © 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953.

Alex Comfort is a remarkable English writer in whom the "two cultures" have come together in a sturdy, companionable, and fertile marriage. A biologist who publishes good fiction and poetry, a specialist in the problems of aging as well as of the erotic literature of India, a planner of a new "technology of the emotions," and an anarchist who writes lyrics for Pete Seeger, Comfort is a genuine man of parts: a C. P. Snow raised to the next power. (p. 222)

Theodore Solotaroff, "A Primer for Survival" (originally published in New Republic, October 14, 1967), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on Writing in the Sixties (copyright © 1967, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 222-28.

The only self-help book ever worth a dang was Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex, which was also one of the few huge best-sellers that deserved to be so. Indeed, Dr. Comfort is to sex what Dr. Spock is to child-rearing. Now he's followed his blockbuster with More Joy…. The text fills in some gaps and goes into such issues as the essence of maleness and femaleness, problems of the elderly and disabled, behavior therapy, encounter groups, and the distinctive methods employed in sexual therapy. I'd give it an X rating and say "go." (pp. 22-3)

William Cole, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 9, 1974.

To have read Come Out to Play is like having witnessed an apple fall on Sir Isaac Newton's head: a ho-hum incident at the time but noteworthy in hindsight. As a sex book without a single sex scene, it is a tame reminder of how things have changed since 1961. And as the story of a sex clinic conceived before the advent of Masters and Johnson, it is a fine instance of low-grade art that life so often shamelessly imitates.

Time has been considerably kinder to Comfort's ideas than to Come Out to Play. Its fey style and potty names (Fossil-Fundament, Sir Frank Pus) seem as ephemeral as fruit flies. Worse, Goggins' description of monogamous marriage as the act of buying "meat in unopened cans" is enough to make celibate vegetarianism seem downright appealing. (pp. 76, K12)

Paul Gray, "Less Joy," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 19, 1975, pp. 76, K12.