Paul Goodman described himself once as “an orphan who had had a home.” His father abandoned the family while Paul was still an infant. His older brother set out early on his own, and his mother, “a bourgeois gypsy,” was often away. He was cared for—through even his years in college—by his sister Alice, almost ten years his senior. The first book of The Empire City is dedicated to her.
Many writers speak of a lonely youth, a flight into books and the world of the imagination. Paul seems instead to have contrived a family of poets and philosophers. His great masters, his fathers, were Aristotle and Kant. If the many principled examples of Paul’s life were not well known, it would be difficult to make believable the simple earnestness with which he pursued the ideals conceived in obedience to these two.
I met him in 1948. He was then thirty-seven. I was studying with William Troy at the New School, and like several of my classmates was already a Goodman fan (The Facts of Life, Kafka’s Prayer, The Grand Piano, Parents’ Day, Art and Social Nature; two Noh plays at the 91st Street Y, a production of Faustina by some poets and artists in a loft on 8th Street).
Paul’s conversation was dazzling. He was bold and iconoclastic, and was much given to rearranging, or removing entirely, the accepted pillars of culture. Yet for all his high spirits and the spontaneity of his thought and wit, there was something about him that seemed willed, willed in exactly the style of an idealistic youth correcting himself continually toward some lofty goal. Ten years later the same thing was visible; and ten years after that.
Another trait was striking. Among his agemates (as one would say, in the egotism of one’s own generation) he was combative and arrogant, and could rarely abide to be opposed; but when he felt secure, as before us admiring younger ones who accepted him as a teacher, the egotist vanished, and there appeared instead a selfless, prodigious boy, an angel of mind whose feats of memory and analysis seemed like familiar descriptions of a much-loved home. (This kind of love, comradely, familial, and touched by yearning, appears also in a writer who otherwise doesn’t resemble him: Maxim Gorky.)
By his own count Paul wrote forty books. The apparent diversity of his work is actually the unfolding of one large underlying theme: the search for harmony of the life made by man, and the life not made, but given.
It was a theme that entailed many duties. We find him, for example—especially in the poems, and the autobiographical Five Years—speaking of the task of creating a self. (“Long have I labored to make me Goodman.”) It was such a self, however, as stands in contrast to the familiar persona of art (as a poet imagines a bardic figure and tries to live it), for it was the minimal, or transparent self implicit in Aristotle’s definition of the highest good: the unimpeded functioning of the powers that are distinctly human.
Needless to say, our very characters impede these powers, and there is much in what we call our “personalities” that might be better understood as received opinion. Seen in this light, the methods of psychotherapy take on historical meaning. Paul’s self-analysis was of this kind. The public and the private self became one. The therapist and the poet were the same man. Paul’s writings on psychotherapy are intrinsically political. His political writing is philosophic. In short, wherever one touches his work, one finds his major theme, which was a task of living as well as of writing.
There are other ways of saying this. He lived “the examined life.” His tools were art, psychotherapy, and philosophy. Or one can say simply that thought was real to him, and that the truth as he saw it was never a mere intellectual proposition, but a commandment. Or one can say—as Paul does in many poems—that he “staggered from need to need,” was an exile among men, had come “from another planet.” The fact remains that most of his thought is devoted to the nature that is prior to ego, its progress through the self, and the requisites of the human home (political, social, ethical, etc.) necessary to fulfillment. (His name for the whole, at times, is Adam.) These are the subjects not only of his social criticism but also of Gestalt Therapy, and in more imaginative forms, of his short fiction and his major work The Empire City.
But to speak of tasks and themes is to say nothing of the enormous gifts that produced that body of work. Nor is it to say much about his remarkable poetry, which never was a projection of his main task, but seems to have been read off straight, or gathered in (I think of Picasso’s remark: “I don’t search, I find”) from the day-after-day, “the thousand suns falling westward.” In its uninhibited, highly detailed telling of a life, his poetic oeuvre is unique. I doubt that he set out to tell the story of his life; rather, it was the kind of poetry that he wrote, and he wrote it all the time. Whatever memories pass through my mind—Paul arriving for a game of poker, or joining friends at a bar, or conducting a session of group therapy, or presiding at dinner—there comes a moment when he hands around five or six sheets of new poems.
Paul’s days were extraordinarily varied. Anecdotes, especially in small quantity (as I discovered in earlier versions of his memoir), tend to be distorting. Moreover, he was complex beyond description. There are people who knew him, and with cause, as a monster of Reason. And others who knew him as a knight of Reason. I remember talking with a young woman after seeing the Living Theater production of The Young Disciple. She said there was a Romantic in him somewhere. And she was right, for though the whole of his work, in surface and in theme, is powerfully rationalistic, it expresses also a deep yearning, and unrequited love.
There was no end to his contradictions. He was wholly committed as a therapist, was on call at desperate hours, and displayed often a sweet, paternal kindliness. His dignity was becoming, it was the face of his service, his desire to be used. Yet he could he ruthless and destructive, quite blind to his own motives.
On the other hand, he knew his motives. He knew his faults. They are all anatomized in his poems. At times he seemed tossed by obsessions, at other times calmly attentive to the dreamwork of his life. His stability was like the eye of the storm. Then he would stumble with the awkwardness of a man who has mistaken the entire environment. Many thought him pedantic, and were astonished by the lyric turns of his conversation or his art. I remember how, more than twenty years ago, at my place, a scholarly friend who on the basis of one calamitous argument with Paul detested him and knew all about him, picked up some carbon copies of poems from my table, and began showering me with astonished praise; a moment later—“What?! Goodman wrote this?” If ever a man deserved that marvelous line of Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself,” it was Paul.
He taught the drifting of the Tao—and was never at rest, but strenuous, possessed of enormous will, and of what he often described as puritanical persistence. Yet during his middle forties his gaiety was striking, it amounted to a power.
In his forties, too, he sailed around on his bike, rather “pedalled like a ferocious fireman,” went everywhere, and grew sedate at last by switching to a Lambretta. For years—as he put it—he “looked for love where it can’t be found,” which however costly in emotion added considerably to his sense of the city. But he was a lover of the city itself, knew its history in close detail, and labored much for its possibilities. He foresaw its present condition, which many older residents would simply call its fate. Early in his career he described himself as a “regional poet,” and the region, of course, was New York. Those he sought out, either as opponents or colleagues, lovers or companions, spanned an extraordinary range: the universities and City Hall, several of the professions, the literary cliques, the community of the arts and groups of political dissidents, and the wandering youths and semidelinquents of several neighborhoods. It was really his life as a poet—that is, his classical learning and his lively pursuit of so many, including fleshly, interests—that gave such point to his later works of social criticism.
He lacked physical grace—and one was continually surprised by his agility and competence at sports. He was an excellent handball player, and was good at the games for which there was room at the place in the country: badminton, croquet, horseshoes. He played with verve, stretching the rules in favor of himself and arguing loudly, with the extended, hifalutin legalisms of young boys. He was far more domestic than (especially) his poems would lead one to believe. To see him at home was to understand his deep dependence on his wife Sally. She abetted and endured his genius, and tended the desperate child in him. The ambiance of their home, its hospitality and domestic festivals, its music and love of learning, was very much in her character as well as in his.
In his later years he enjoyed gardening. He traveled to the country ahead of the family in order to plant the seeds. His poem “Proverbs of a Small Farm” is wise: he includes the A&P in his ecology, and the neighbors’ preferences in food, and his own preference for writing books. He enjoyed swimming, small boats, campfires, and kites. He never had much feel for making things. I remember how at Wellfleet, at Dyer’s Pond, he wanted to make a raft of some timbers and scraps. What seemed to be needed—so the rest of us argued—was a good quantity of small cord. But he wouldn’t listen. He went away and came back with a piece of one-inch rope eight feet long. The contraption floated, though not all in the same direction. Nevertheless, he enjoyed it, and even went so far as to say, “I told you so.” And he was right. His study in New Hampshire was a cool corner of the barn loft. Where other men of letters would put up shelves and paintings, bring in chairs, sofas, desks, and whatnot, he braced a plank against the wall to write on, threw a mattress on the floor, and commenced with letters. Parts of ten or twelve books were produced there.
Copyright © 1973 by the Estate of Paul Goodman