Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Writing the Riots – Paul Goodman and Growing up Absurd

But I’ve mentioned Cyril Connolly – like him, Goodman saw himself as an all-purpose literary man. He realised what an anomaly this made of him under current conditions but it seems he just didn’t really care. Understanding the wider malaise, of which juvenile delinquency was a symptom, involved him, necessarily, in state of the culture questions. When he invoked Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund or Dostoevski’s Stavrogin in his discussion of delinquency his intentions were anything but ‘elitist’. What such references communicated, rather, was a profound optimism: that we can face and resolve these questions through the best of what we already have. Why gesture vainly after ‘a new ethics’ when most of us know so little about what our own best thinkers have already formulated, if we will only treat them not as a cultural chore but as a very present help.

Growing up Absurd also contains references to several of the books Goodman had written in the 1940s and 1950s, and to several of the many jobs he had taken, too. He was by now almost fifty and one has the impression of a man throwing everything he has into one last push. And this time it worked. His reputation was established, the novels and the poetry and the work as a Gestalt therapist had availed after all. He was perhaps a little too old to take his sudden celebrity quite seriously, though the attentions of attractive young people, of both sexes, were very much to his taste. For the generation which said never trust anyone over the age of thirty, it is indeed astonishing to find this fifty-something being made such a fuss of. He would become a crucial figure in the student, civil rights and anti-war movements.

But it did prove to be very much his last throw. He died of a heart attack in 1972 and the public role had begun to pall long before that. He was from the outset critical of much of what we associate with the Sixties. He thought little of the rock music and the Beat literature and the drugs. Towards the end he wrote poetry mainly, withdrawing to a farmhouse in New Hampshire. With the decade’s passing, and the loss of his son in a climbing accident, a weariness came over him:

Oh the number of speeches I have made

is like the witch-grass in the garden

and the press conferences for peace

have been almost as many as the wars.

It may be objected that the very optimism of that decade makes it a poor guide to a decade like our own, just getting off to such a relentlessly pessimistic start. To be sure, there are no birds this year in last year’s nests. But if their optimism came too easy, might not the same be said at times of our pessimism?

Taylor Stoehr taught literature for most of his life at the University of Massachusetts. He has also been involved since 1994 with the ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’ programme. This has grown from an initial project in 1991 and has been shown to significantly reduce re-offending rates among probationers in Massachusetts. Significantly, Stoehr was a close friend of Goodman’s and after his death edited several of his books. The Changing Lives Programme is so simple it sounds incredible: it offers probationers six months off their sentences in return for taking a literature course.

But they read, on that course, as nobody ever showed them how to at school. There are no grades and everyone is listened to. Classes are arranged so as to encourage exchanges between men of different generations. The books are chosen for the power of the writing and their power as stories – for their relevance, too, to the sort of lives that are actually lived by young blacks in American cities. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, about a young man’s journey to self-respect in mid C19th America, is the core text – and has repeatedly proven its value as such. A sister project in Exeter, England, used Oliver Twist.

It doesn’t always work, but when it does it achieves something very like that ‘acceptance of self’ which Goodman understood fifty years ago as the heart of this matter. A book about the Changing Lives Programme is forthcoming next year and Stoehr has also edited a new Paul Goodman Reader (PM Press, 2011). The first ever documentary about Goodman opened in New York in October.

Most of the Occupy protesters outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, like those in New York and elsewhere, are young. Coming from all manner of directions, most of them are asking some version of, how can I, or we, advance to the next stage—and what might a less venal economics look like? This time they are asking politely. The speechwriters and most of the journalists will do with that question what they are paid to do with serious questions: they will find ways to ignore or belittle it.

It’s still the right question.

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