Paul Goodman Essay - Critical Essays


“I have only one subject,” wrote Paul Goodman, “the human beings I know in their man-made environments.” All of Goodman’s novels explore human beings in relation to the institutions that both reflect and shape their values. In Goodman’s view, rather than abetting human development, institutions thwart aptitude and foster stupidity. From this base, Goodman argues passionately for a more humane society—one that would offer worthwhile goals, meaningful work, honest public speech, and patriotism and at the same time encourage healthy animal desire. Goodman indicts American culture for being unequal to all these aspirations.

In Goodman’s works, society’s failure leads individuals to attempt to create their own community—one that is scaled down and decentralized. The author is absorbed with the individual’s wresting from the larger social order a more workable and personalized one—a community. In this endeavor, Goodman is not alone: In fact, he is engaged in a quintessentially American occupation, that of creating “a city upon a hill,” however different from John Winthrop’s ideal. Indeed, Nathaniel Hawthorne manifested a similar interest when he participated in the Brook Farm experiment. In fiction, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn flees the larger society to find communion with Jim on the Mississippi. Both Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver among F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters create a community but are ultimately defeated by corrosive contact with the worst aspects of American materialism and illusion. A similar concern for community informs Goodman’s writing, though his novels are typically urban; the sole exception, Parents’ Day, is set in upstate New York. In all of his novels, theprotagonist and his friends strive to establish a workable, nourishing community but find themselves in constant danger of engulfment by the debased larger society.

As evidenced by the diversity of his interests, Goodman was an intellectual, keenly aware of his debt to Western traditions. His thought was shaped by Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, and Wilhelm Reich. From Hobbes and Kant, Goodman derived material for his speculations on the social contract, by means of which people relinquished certain freedoms in order to achieve civilization. In Kafka, Goodman perceived a surrealist and comic spirit as well as the notion that writing was a form of prayer. One critic, Theodore Roszak, has identified a “coarse-grained Hasidic magic” about Goodman’s work, presumably a reference to the author’s search for transcendence in the mundane. Goodman may well have found Buber’s idealized notion of human relations congenial—the effort to transform “I-It” relationships into “I-Thou” ones.

Goodman’s work as a lay therapist with the Gestalt Institute of New York no doubt reflected his interest in the psychosexual theories of Reich, which inform all of his writings. One detects this influence in the “therapy” sections of The Empire City (especially those in which Horatio woos Rosalind); in Parents’ Day, where the teacher-narrator uses physical intimacy as an educational tool; and in Making Do, where Harold and Terry suffer from sexual deprivation. In all his novels, Goodman argues that personal contact should be communal and psychosexual. It may be disconcerting to the reader to discover that the narrator of Making Do is bisexual and that the narrator-teacher of Parents’ Day is engaged in homosexual liaisons with his adolescent students, but Goodman does not flinch from offering such revelations. Rather, he celebrates his protagonists’ (and his own) sexuality—not always to good effect. The reader may well feel distracted when an author insists on toleration for his or her sexuality, may feel annoyed when asked to respond not to the event the artist is rendering but to the artist’s challenge.

Though one must be cautious in identifying the narrator with the author, Goodman does not make much effort to conceal the autobiographical nature of much of his fiction. On the contrary, Goodman often addresses the reader in asides that prevent the normal suspension of disbelief. “This is no book/ Who touches this touches a man,” boasted Walt Whitman as he artfully concealed himself, yet Goodman does not trouble to disguise himself. The narrators of Making Do and Parents’ Day are interchangeable—both closely resembling the sort of intellectual Goodman was: a man of letters who was also a man of the streets.

At his best, Goodman is imaginative, profound, and witty. The Empire City, though uneven, is a neglected masterpiece. At his worst, Goodman becomes hortatory and shrill, as in The Dead of Spring, the third work in the tetralogy, or careless in his prose, as in Making Do.

The Empire City

The Empire City, Goodman’s ambitious tetralogy, follows a cluster of characters who have become alienated from not only society but also themselves. The first novel in the tetralogy, The Grand Piano, is subtitled The Almanac of Alienation; thus, Goodman announces that he will be exploring what Robert Frost called “inner weather”; he will be attempting a chronicle of the spirit as it unfolds in life. Given this aim, it should not be surprising if some of the book’s passages do not yield themselves readily to analysis. Goodman, like his literary forebears, Kafka, André Gide, William Blake, and Rainer Maria Rilke, seems to be charting the ineffable and bidding his reader to follow.

The Grand Piano

The narrator of The Grand Piano, hardly distinguishable from Goodman himself, is often obtrusive in the manner of Henry Fielding. By mediating between character and reader, the narrator encourages the reader to regard the protagonists as friends, members of a community of which he or she is a part. These new friends are vital, larger than life, multitalented, heroic. Witness the name of the hero—Horatio Alger—based on the American writer who encouraged boys to lead virtuous lives full of heroic deeds.

The Alger tales dealt with the self-made man who succeeded in that great mecca of success, New York City. Goodman’s Alger, however, is a street-smart guttersnipe who, having destroyed all records of his existence, revels in his outcast status. Untouched by social institutions, such as school, he is truly a self-made eleven-year-old youth. In the opening episode, he meets Mynheer Duyck Colijn. The critic Sherman Paul has observed that Mynheer is an exemplar of the cultured man. Like his Dutch forebears, Mynheer is a model of tolerance and civic virtue. If Horatio is alienated, Mynheer is the opposite. In their initial meeting, the cunning, sneering, artful dodger is pitted against the sophisticated, virtuous adult. Reading the latter’s name as “Dick Collegian,” however, suggests another aspect of his character: his innocence. His rationality and civic pride will be sorely tested by the outbreak of war.

Horatio has no parents but is being reared, as Goodman was, by a brother and sister and, again like Goodman, is searching for a father. He settles on Eliphaz, a sort of Yiddish Daddy Warbucks, but one who combines patriarchal wisdom with financial acumen. In Eliphaz, Goodman achieves the sort of fantastic realism that readers customarily associate with Charles Dickens. Eliphaz’s presence creates some of the best scenes in the novel. This merchant prince represents the idealized spirit of early capitalism: He keeps a mysterious ledger containing only an accumulating number of zeros; he practices detachment by selling his own furniture, often while his family is still sitting on it; he idly places a price tag on his own son (“$84.95. $75 cash? Good! Sold!”). He is a man of culture who can spout Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Baruch Spinoza. Opposed to the anarchistic spirit of the Algers, who subsist on welfare, he impulsively sends them a grand piano, one that is so large that they are forced to sleep under it. Gnomically, he explains his gesture, which proceeds from mixed motives: “It’s always worthwhile to hurl large gifts toward your adversary. Where is she going to put such an animal? How is she going to explain it to the relief investigator I’ll send around tomorrow?” So wonderful a comic creation is Eliphaz that the reader can only regret his death at the opening of the second novel of the tetralogy. His place in literature has been usurped by the more impersonal Milo Minderbinder of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), a similarly restless but more mindless spirit of capitalism.

Other members of the community include Horatio’s family, Lothario/Lothair and Laura. Lothair, a follower of the anarchist Prince Petr Kropotkin, is a reformer who is vilified and persecuted by the state. As Sherman Paul comments, he is yet another side of Goodman himself—a reformer and educator. In this respect, he is also reminiscent of the protagonists of Making Do and Parents’ Day. The Grand Piano proceeds toward a communal reconciliation that is partial at best; as in Richard Wagner’s music, resolution is never far away but never quite arrives. Indeed, the climax of the novel has the characters attending a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which promises “an exulting community spirit,” but, as Horatio shrewdly observes, “It’s all to be paid for at [Beckmesser’s] expense.” The survival of the larger society, as it does in fairy tales, hinges on the scapegoating of one of its members, hinges on projecting the dark side of the psyche onto a villain who can then be defeated by a hero.

The novel ends with another musical contest, one involving the grand piano. Embedded in this section are hints of the Arthurian contest to secure the sword Excalibur. Lothair, who is a composer, performs beautifully and by rights should be declared the winner, but he is arrested and transported to jail—presumably a victim of scapegoating by a society preparing itself for war.

The State of Nature

The second novel in the tetralogy, The State of Nature, pursues Goodman’s interest in the contact point between the organism and its environment. The...

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