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Jewish World Review August 4, 1999 /22 Av, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Podhoretz's 'Ex-Friends' is our gain --
NORMAN MAILER emerging from the bathroom stark naked. Lillian Hellman concocting ambrosial feasts for her glittering company. Allen Ginsberg hurling the curse, "We'll get you through your children." Is this the stuff of an intellectual's memoir?

It is if the intellectual is Norman Podhoretz, editor emeritus of Commentary. In "Ex-Friends," Podhoretz graciously consents to serve as tour guide on another eye-popping excursion into the world of the writers, critics and professors who debated freedom and socialism, sex and family, art and kitsch for decades almost without pausing for breath. Podhoretz is uniquely suited to conduct this tour, since he has known and been intimate (not in that way,) though almost) with so many of them.

Though this is a memoir about New York intellectuals (a k a the Family), and therefore about ideas, it reads more like a novel than a treatise. To read Podhoretz's memoirs -- one must use the plural since he has been chronicling his life since about age 40 -- is to derive the almost guilty pleasure of learning history through personality. Just as the best biographies paint a picture of an entire age through the telling of one person's story, Podhoretz's memoirs offer a highly personal and accordingly richly entertaining introduction to the great debates that have roiled our time.

For those who know Podhoretz only as the steely cold warrior and scourge of liberalism he became in the 1970s and 1980s, it may come as a shock to discover that he once counted among his closest friends Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman and that he had a complex but not entirely hostile relationship with Allen Ginsberg.

How did Norman Mailer, the bad boy of American letters, become such a close friend to Norman Podhoretz? You'll get insight into this pairing in a passing anecdote elsewhere in this engrossing book. Norman P. was the sort who could use the "f" word with Jackie Kennedy. Like to like? Well, if so, the Norman/Norman friendship could not withstand Mailer's gross personal behavior (including stabbing and nearly killing one of his wives), his ridiculous and offensive political views, and his confusion of cultural experimentation with criminality. (As to the naked reference, it was about hetero- not homosexuality. I'll say no more.)

Podhoretz's attraction to Hannah Arendt is easier to understand. Her "The Origins of Totalitarianism" was one of the pivotal liberal anti-communist books of the 1940s, and she was among the first to describe fascism and communism not as polar opposites on the political spectrum but instead as brothers under the skin.

It wasn't over totalitarianism that Podhoretz and Arendt parted ways (though her peculiar hostility to anti-communists did not help matters). No, that friendship was rent over Arendt's cruel determination to place some blame for the Holocaust on the Jews, though Arendt, like so many members of the Family, was Jewish herself.

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In parting with Arendt, Podhoretz recounts his own soul-searching. He had been drawn to her, as to many others, by love, even worship, of brilliance.

Like to like. The entire circle in which he traveled was chock-full of the witty, the learned and -- this is not insignificant -- the powerful. It was not political power but the authority to confer prestige that "the Family" commanded, but that is of course enough to make grown men cry.

Through his roller-coaster relationship with Arendt, as well as due to the passage of time, he revised his estimation of brilliance and eventually came to demote it. Brilliance does not protect one from moral obtuseness or from self-delusion on a massive scale. Many brilliant minds blinded themselves to the reality of Soviet communism for decades and continue to justify their blindness today. Brilliance is dazzling, but wisdom is superior. In a touching epilogue, Podhoretz assures the reader that he far prefers the man he is today to the "merry" left-winger he left behind, but he cannot help feeling wistful for the lost world of the Family.

It requires more integrity than is now commonly found in 10 men to break ranks with the glittering friends Podhoretz once enjoyed. And even when we fail to see the allure from this remove (Hellman's cooking must have really been something!), we can admire the rectitude and intellectual honesty that have guided him all along.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate