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The Sad Fate of Lenny Bruce

In response to:

On Lenny Bruce (1926–1966) from the October 6, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

I would naturally be grieved if I found it possible to credit the news brought by Jonathan Miller that something I wrote played a decisive part in the sad fate of Lenny Bruce (NYR, Oct. 6). But I fear that in his explanation of how I incurred my unhappy responsibility Dr. Miller has allowed his gift for mordant comedy to get the upper hand of his usually canny sense of cultural fact. By his account, a group of liberals and intellectuals were intent upon making Bruce a martyr to one of their characteristic received ideas, that a free sexuality is the cure for all social ills. In the judgment of these people the most persuasive formulation of their cherished idea had been made by me in an essay on Freud. They communicated the purport of this essay to Bruce, who forthwith allowed himself “to be hanged until he was dead from the yard-arm of this particular ship of fools.”

Dr. Miller believes that a commitment to utopian sexuality came easily to Bruce, that quite without prompting from anyone he gave credence to the idea that “if only prudery would relax we could screw our way to peace and prosperity for all.” He had no trouble in maintaining the expectation “that in some hypothetical millenium, bigotry and suffering would not be heard for the swishing of the pricks.” But although temperamentally disposed to the idea of liberation through sex, Bruce was not ready to suffer martyrdom for it until “he was encouraged to do so by people who were prepared to push a much more sophisticated version of the same argument.” This, according to Dr. Miller, was to be found in my essay, “Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture.” Dr. Miller doubts that the essay itself ever got to Bruce’s “immediate attention,” but he is certain that Bruce came to know its substance through the agency of people who would stick at nothing in their purpose of making him a martyr, going so far in desperateness that they were “prepared to push” what I had written. In its primitive formulations, the idea that we could screw our way to peace and prosperity had won from Bruce no more than assent; to my “much more sophisticated version of the same argument” he gave his ultimate allegiance. As Dr. Miller sums up the effect of my essay, “…Certain intellectuals leaped at its utopian possibilities and then found in Bruce a conveniently self-sacrificing public spokesman on behalf of the doctrine.”

Alas, there are no utopian possibilities to be leaped at in my essay. Nor have any intellectuals deceived themselves into thinking that there are—such leaping as they have done has been with hostile intent, upon what they have taken to be the essay’s conservative implications. These they discover in the support I gave to the continuing emphasis on biology in Freud’s thought. Perhaps more than anyone else, I said in effect, Freud had made clear to us the extent to which the human condition is to be understood in terms of culture, yet for him culture was not the only factor in human destiny; there was also biology. The correctness of Freud’s position seemed to be confirmed by the developing psycho-analytical theory of child-rearing at the time I wrote: I quoted Anna Freud, who said in 1954 that it no longer seemed possible to trace the origin of infantile neuroses to environmental influence; they were now seen as due “to inevitable factors of various kinds.” Miss Freud spoke of the new period of psychoanalytic theory as “pessimistic.” I said that some comfort might be found in its darkness, that “when we think of the growing power of culture to control us by seduction or coercion, we must be glad and not sorry that some part of our fate comes from outside the culture.” And I developed the idea that the biological given of man is to some extent intractable to culture. It seems to me quite possible that this idea should be understood as conservative. But my mind boggles at the process by which Dr. Miller came to understand it as a sophisticated version of the utopian belief that we can screw our way to peace and prosperity for all, or even some.

I should like to add that in an essay on Bruce’s last trial for obscenity (Censorship, Spring 1965) Albert Goldman gives an account of the comedian’s conduct that radically qualifies the character Dr. Miller presents in his commemoration. Mr. Goldman tells us that “Bruce broke openly with his distinguished liberal attorney…and assumed his own defense, stating that he believed in censorship and did not wish to be exonerated at the cost of weakening the law. The sophisticated public opinion that had championed Bruce in the early course of the trial changed during the muddled last phase to disgust.” Many liberal intellectuals had been recruited to testify, or to affirm in the press, that Bruce’s performances were not obscene and offensive. Bruce would have none of this. As Mr. Goldman makes plain, he knew that the point of his performances, and their power, lay in their being thought exactly obscene and offensive, in their violation of all (including the liberal) pieties. At least on this one occasion Bruce would seem to have transcended the humble admiration Dr. Miller says he had for liberals and intellectuals.

Lionel Trilling

New York City

Jonathan Miller replies:

I must apologize to professor Trilling if some clumsiness of my own expression had led him to misinterpret the burden of my argument. The trouble comes, I now see, from something close to an undistributed middle in the course of my discussion. I hope I can make amends by distributing a little more clearly.

I suggested, correctly I still hold, that Bruce was encouraged to develop his position as sexual evangelist through meeting intellectuals who were equipped to make his argument at a number of higher levels. The essential point being that in all these sophisticated versions, the biological core of human nature is always seen as something in opposition to culture; working against it to the benefit of mankind at large. The actual method of this benevolent thrust differs of course from argument to argument. On the Left, as it were, biology is seen as a sort of satirical and indeed satyriacal saboteur. The Right wing, represented in part by Professor Trilling, puts biology into a much more critical role, as sedate arbiter of culture. Divergent as these two positions are, they can, on confused and wishful reading, be combined to provide a sort of sexual Popular Front. And a person like Bruce, unfamiliar I am sure with the primary texts, would almost certainly have received the arguments in the amalgamated form. At no point did I mean to suggest that Professor Trilling’s text represented the fons et origo of Bruce’s final extremism. Nor even did I mean to imply that whispered mis-representations of Professor Trilling’s thesis egged him on to make a fool of himself. I suggest that the whole process worked much more distantly and haphazardly than that. Like someone at the far end of a line of people passing instructions on to each other, Bruce got the grossly over-simplified précis of a whole range of proposals all of which favored biology as against culture. What I meant to suggest was that even the most reasonable proposals, of which Professor Trilling’s is possibly the best, can be debased beyond recognition in the process of prolonged social transit. It is no novelty to find sophisticated and impeccably honorable ideas getting press-ganged into the service of what turn out to be disreputable and fatuous campaigns. I wished to commiserate with rather than indict Professor Trilling for any part which he might inadvertently have played in Bruce’s social tragedy.

On quite another point, however, I believe that Professor Trilling has read more vehemence into my argument than I actually expressed. Nowhere did I suggest that intellectuals deliberately conspired to bring about Bruce’s matyrdom. I simply pointed out that, now with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see that we were careless in the way in which we encouraged Bruce, and that even the frightful outcome, if not consciously sought for, provided at least an obscure fulfillment of our theories about the cruel indifference of society. As someone who did in fact spill a lot of ink in support of Bruce, I now hold, myself in part responsible for the way things turned out. My point being that since fortune is devious, enthusiastic support can poison even as it nourishes.

It is true too, as Professor Trilling points out, that in the final stages of his ordeal in the courts Bruce did in fact repudiate his intellectual support. But by that time he was at the end of his tether and despair had made him suspicious of everyone about him.

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