The second college edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (1982) defines follies as “an elaborate theatrical revue consisting of a series of musical or dance skits.” Lionel Abel, an intellectual and dramatist, writes with considerable humor and wit about his involvement in many of the prominent artistic and political movements of his time. His time, in the memoir, is primarily the late 1920’s through the 1950’s. The 1960’s and 1970’s appear almost as a kind of afterword near the back of his book. Abel does not essay a whole history of his intellectual development but rather explores the episodes that seem to tell the most about the character of his participation in politics, painting, the theater, philosophy, and city life in New York and Paris. He calls his life a “literary venture,” but it seems something more than that because of his keen interest in so many different areas of human expression, in music, on the one hand, in the way women now walk down the street in New York City, on the other. It is a pleasure to read fluent depictions of Jean-Paul Sartre as a personality, a physical presence, while one is attending closely to Abel’s dissection of the philosopher-artist’s ideas and individual works. Abel rarely speaks in strictly personal terms about himself, but it is clear from his remembrance of his Trotskyist days that he, too, was deeply engaged in the follies of his age, taking his place in the coterie of New York intellectuals, a more or less coherent group whose decidedly leftist sympathies dominated American thinking on politics and art until, in Abel’s view, the late 1950’s.
The beginning and end of Abel’s memoir make clear that he has always regarded New York as the focal point of American culture. More than any other American city, it has been the matrix for intellectuals of all sorts—many of them, like Abel, coming from a Jewish background and avid for an identity that was far more worldly than their ethnic origins. For Abel, at least, there is nothing problematic in choosing not to identify closely with the Jews. By the age of nineteen, he was in Greenwich Village launching himself into the fervent intellectual pursuits of a lifetime. Later in life, especially after the Holocaust, he closely reexamined his feelings about the Jews through his responses to the writings of Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt. Abel’s conclusion is that the United States, among other things, has offered Jews the right to be more or less Jewish as they like, and that no other country has offered a comparable opportunity. As Abel asserts, “an Italian Groucho Marx is just inconceivable.” This example is particularly apt, both because Marx’s humor was so urban and so eccentrically urbane and because his brother Chico affected an Italian identity, which in itself was a comically liberating manifestation of the fluidity of a society that, in Abel’s words, was not “completely formulated” or “fixed.” At the end of his memoir, the author writes to his son, imploring him to leave Santa Monica, California, and return to the vitality of New York City, which, however messed up, still contains a “handful of people who cannot be duplicated in any other of the nation’s cities.”
Is New York really so special? Abel makes it so in his evocation of it. When he describes the Cedar Bar, which many of the postwar abstract Expressionists frequented, the reader gets a solid sense of a rowdy, dynamic society of painters convinced that they were making history by breaking all the artistic rules, by refusing to behave in decorous fashion, by converting the world “into a ruin of lines and colors, beautifully painted, to be sure.” These artists, Abel contends, were a microcosm of early 1950’s America, of its energy and destructiveness. One of the finest contributions of his memoir is to align the personal feelings of these painters with the powerfully disturbing quality of their canvases, so that the reader has a context, a milieu, which makes these artists and their work so much more than museum pieces.
Certain aesthetic questions fascinate Abel. How long can one look at a painting, and how does one’s inclination to gaze at a canvas for five seconds or for fifteen minutes help one to see what is and is not possible to perform in other arts—such as drama, which must hold an audience for a...