Daniel Bell at 100
Bell by no means fairly reconciled the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical inside him. This pressure helped generate a few of his most essential and artistic insights.
David A. Bell ▪ Might 9, 2019
Daniel and David A. Bell in 1965 (courtesy of David A. Bell)
I all the time remorse that my father, Daniel Bell, who would have turned 100 on Might 10, didn’t write memoirs. Within the early 1990s, I spent a very long time making an attempt to influence him to take action. He was then in his early seventies and had simply retired, very a lot towards his will, from his professorship at Harvard (they nonetheless had obligatory retirement for teachers in these days!). For over a decade, books concerning the “New York Intellectuals” had been showing at a gentle clip, they usually often devoted appreciable consideration to him: his early years within the socialist motion and on the Metropolis School of New York; his profession as a prolific mental journalist; his improvement into one of many nice trendy sociologists. A lot of the authors handled him fairly favorably. Some had accomplished in depth interviews with him.
Nonetheless, each time a brand new ebook arrived at his home in Cambridge, he would name me, fulminating concerning the inevitable misrepresentations and errors. Typically he would go as far as to ship lengthy letters on the topic to the unlucky writer, typed on his previous Smith Corona electrical, with shaky, handwritten corrections. If the e-book had handled him unfairly, as some did, the letter would flip distinctly dyspeptic. “You must write memoirs,” I might inform him on the telephone. Get your personal story out. Be sure that future historians have your aspect of it. He was notably irritated when the authors referred to as him a “neoconservative,” as journalists had achieved since Peter Steinfels had revealed The Neoconservatives in 1979. My father insisted that he remained a person of the left, a “socialist in economics,” a “Menshevik.” Don’t inform this to me, I might say. I do know it already. Write it.
However he would all the time demur. He couldn’t write trustworthy memoirs, he insisted, with out revealing sure secrets and techniques that may harm individuals he had recognized, or their households. This appeared like a transparently false excuse. Once I pressed him concerning the secrets and techniques in query, they both concerned fairly minor peccadillos or have been solely tangential to his personal life story and will have been simply unnoticed.
Extra essential, I feel, was the totally human and comprehensible purpose that memoir-writing appeared an excessive amount of of a final chapter—to a profession, to a life. My father was a person who virtually by no means exercised after graduating from highschool at age sixteen, usually ate purple meat a minimum of twice a day, particularly bacon and salami, and developed diabetes in his forties. When he was simply fifty-four, he informed my mom he didn’t assume he would reside one other decade. I feel he was as stunned as anybody that he made it to ninety-one.
In the long run, he did depart some shards of memoirs. One is an excellent essay referred to as “First Love and Early Sorrows,” which he revealed in Partisan Assessment in 1981. It begins with a young and vivid account of the best way he turned, at age 13, what he referred to as a right-wing socialist. The opposite is Joseph Dorman’s fantastic 1997 documentary Arguing the World, about him, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe. There, he advised tales about his childhood, and concerning the fabled days in “Alcove 1” within the cafeteria at Metropolis School the place these 4 poor Jewish boys, sons of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, turned buddies. Dorman additionally superbly traced their subsequent careers, the best way they handled McCarthyism and the New Left, and their political parting of the way: Howe the democratic socialist (and Dissent founder) on one aspect, Kristol the unabashed neoconservative and Reaganite on the opposite; Glazer and my father someplace in between, with my father ultimately tending extra towards the left.
The essay and the movie assist make up for the shortage of memoirs. So do the varied histories of the New York Intellectuals, to not point out three substantial biographies. However there’s nonetheless a lot, inevitably, that’s lacking. A son’s perspective could also be something however neutral and unfiltered, however it does assist me see what has been overlooked.
He himself left quite a bit out, even when he didn’t appear to be doing so. “First Love and Early Sorrows,” as an example, is superbly, touchingly written, however it says little about his internal life. Apart from a quick, affecting vignette about his shock on the pervasive poverty in New York Metropolis in the course of the Melancholy, which he credit with making him a sociologist, probably the most private part offers with how he reacted, at age 13, to the diary of the anarchist Alexander Berkman, which recounted Trotsky’s brutal suppression of the sailors’ mutiny in 1921 on the Kronstadt naval base, outdoors what’s now St. Petersburg. One passage of the essay has grow to be deservedly well-known: “Each radical era, it’s stated, has its Kronstadt. For some it was the Moscow Trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for nonetheless others Hungary (the Raik Trial or 1956), Czechoslovakia (the defenestration of Masaryk in 1948 or the Prague Spring of 1968), the Gulag, Cambodia, Poland (and there will probably be extra to return). My Kronstadt was Kronstadt.”
Arguing the World appears to supply a way more private, unrehearsed portrait. Private, sure; unrehearsed, no. As everybody who knew my father might testify, he was an enormously well-practiced and skilled raconteur. He had an enormous inventory of tales, jokes, and quips that he might sprinkle into his speak with good timing and supply. “What do I focus on?” he would ask. The reply: “I’m a specialist in generalizations.” “Why did I hand over a profession in journalism for academia? Three causes: June, July and August.” “What’s an mental? Somebody who asks, if one thing works in apply, does it additionally work in principle?” By the point I went off to school I might virtually all the time predict which of those bon mots was coming a number of sentences prematurely (and, in good adolescent style, begin rolling my eyes at it). They have been a efficiency. However they have been additionally a defend of types, permitting him to deflect the dialog away from areas the place he felt uncomfortable.
The defend was there, partially, to cowl some very deep-seated vulnerabilities and ache, a few of which he readily acknowledged, and a few of which he didn’t. When he was lower than a yr previous, in early 1920, his father had died of the Spanish flu. He, his older brother Leo, and his mom Annie, a poor immigrant garment employee, spent the subsequent few years squeezing into the already-overcrowded flats of different relations, and counting on Jewish charities for help. His mom often took him and his brother on the lengthy subway journey from the Decrease East Aspect into deepest Queens, to go to their father’s grave.
As a toddler, he spent his days in a so-called Jewish Day Orphanage, and if his mom couldn’t decide him up early sufficient, he must spend the night time there as properly. He might describe in heart-rending phrases the worry he felt, every single day, standing on the door of the Day Orphanage, ready for his mom to return, and never understanding if she would make it on time. It was one among his well-rehearsed tales. He was extra reluctant to debate his emotions towards the stepfather his mom had married when he was 13, and with whom he by no means acquired alongside (I by no means met his two step-siblings). Solely late in life did he speak to me concerning the agonizing break-up of his second marriage within the early 1950s, which despatched him tumbling into melancholy and intensive Freudian psychoanalysis.
Nonetheless, he made his approach out of that labyrinth, thanks largely, as he all the time stated, to his analyst. In my very own lifetime, whereas I might see my father unhappy, or annoyed, I not often noticed him within the grips of one thing worse, and I keep in mind many moments of actual pleasure (particularly of him beaming uncontrollably at my very own youngsters). There was emotional scar tissue aplenty, however principally previous, settled, and overgrown with more healthy materials. No less than this was the case till my mom, Pearl Kazin Bell, had a horrible fall and suffered critical mind injury within the spring of 2002. The accident crushed his spirit for a very long time and left him bereft. However he did ultimately recuperate, considerably, and struggled heroically to maintain her, constructing an extension onto their home in Cambridge in order that she might keep at house with twenty-four-hour nursing care. I’m positive one purpose he lived so long as he did was due to his have to deal with her.
The performances weren’t only a defend, in fact. The game of the New York Jewish intellectuals was aggressive speaking, they usually all wanted their tales, their performances, to be contenders. Cocktail and dinner events tended to show into mental jousting matches, and whereas loud male voices often dominated, Diana Trilling and Bea Himmelfarb Kristol simply held their very own within the firm (my mom was considerably—not all the time—extra reserved). Like all baby who has heard his mother and father’ tales a thousand occasions, I groaned on the repetition, however I additionally grasped that his tales have been, actually, excellent ones: entertaining, witty, and in addition thought-provoking. Among the best ones made its method into Arguing the World. It recounts the second when my father, together with his orthodox Jewish background (his paternal grandfather was a cantor), informed his rabbi that after his bar mitzvah he would not attend shul as a result of he didn’t consider in God. “Inform me,” the rabbi replied. “Do you assume God cares?”
As with this story, the performances all the time centrally concerned Jewish humor. My father appreciated to inform the story of a Jew who had a dialog with God. “Lord, is it true,” the Jew requested, “that in your scale of reckoning, a thousand years is sort of a minute?” God stated: Sure. “And is it true that in your weights and measures, a thousand dollars is sort of a penny?” The Lord once more stated: Sure. So the person continued: “Lord, I’m poor, are you able to give me a penny?” The Lord replied: “All proper. Simply wait a minute.” Then there was the story of the Jew who volunteered to serve within the Israeli Navy. “Have you learnt tips on how to swim?” the recruiter requested him. “I do know the idea of it,” the person replied. There have been many, many different such tales.
It will be straightforward to see this humor as incidental to understanding a person who was, in fact, a deeply critical thinker, writer of lengthy tomes of typically troublesome social evaluation. The truth is, it’s completely central. Humor is in fact a basic type of emotional defend, a method to deflect from harm and vulnerability. However there was additionally far more to the tales my father informed, which he all the time insisted might by no means simply be decreased to mere “jokes,” to Borscht-belt comedy.
He thought deeply about Jewish humor, bringing to bear the appreciable Jewish studying that this non-believing and largely non-observant Jew nonetheless managed to accumulate over the course of his life. One of many loveliest issues he ever wrote, too typically uncared for by his biographers, was the graduation handle he delivered at Brandeis in 1991, entitled “Critical Ideas on Jewish Humor.” In it, he referred to as Jewish humor “a knowledge literature that pulls upon a thousand years of expertise and provides one a way of human craving, and its limits.” And he defined the best way through which it’s deeply, inescapably political:
Jewish humor is the strain of two contradictory parts in its make-up: a Hebrew theology, which is deeply conservative, and a Yiddish expertise, which was intensely radicalizing. Hebrew theology reads the character of man within the histories of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Babylon and Rome. It has witnessed the sweeping, unrestrained impulses to interrupt the regulation, to unloose homicide and pillage on populations, to inflict cruelty and struggling on victims, resembling have occurred—and can repeatedly recur—all through the millennia. However Yiddish expertise has been radicalizing, as a result of it has been an expertise of humiliation. the humiliation of Jewish college students in prewar Poland who needed to sit on ghetto benches within the lecture room and selected to face, fairly than settle for the situation; the humiliation of being barred from positions in universities regardless of their evident talents; to the humiliations of being both pariah or parvenu, a stranger typically in a land that would not be their very own, when getting into the fashionable age.
I consider this as some of the revealing issues my father ever wrote about himself. As a result of he was a mixture of the conservative and the novel in precisely the best way he described right here. The humor might have been a defend, and a efficiency, nevertheless it additionally gives a glimpse into a few of the most necessary impulses behind each his writings and his politics.
Begin with the conservatism. My father was lucky to have been born in New York slightly than in his mother and father’ shtetls in present-day Belarus, so he by no means had private expertise of the horrific violence of the 20 th century (he didn’t serve within the Second World Warfare). However the demise of his personal father, his childhood experiences on the Jewish Day Orphanage, and his battles with melancholy within the 1950s all left him with a deep worry of abandonment—of the abyss, whether or not bodily or psychological, that would typically appear all too shut.
After he died, I discovered amongst his papers an extended journal of types, written after his second spouse, Elaine Graham, left him, that breathes with utter, piercing anguish on the loss, and suggests psychological wounds that went very deep. The phrases repeat: “all the time in despair”; “nervousness assault”; “I all the time start in unhappiness.” After studying it, I might solely consider the strains of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the thoughts, thoughts has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Maintain them low cost / Might who ne’er hung there.”
He typically stated that what mattered most in politics was temperament, and his personal temperament was undoubtedly conservative, exactly due to his painful sense, born out of his personal childhood expertise and his reminiscences of the Melancholy, of how fragile the buildings of unusual, civilized life could possibly be. I feel he reacted so strongly, at age 13, to Berkman’s description of Kronstadt, and continued to recoil towards political extremism all through his life, due to a deeply private revulsion on the violence and cruelty that would so simply overwhelm civilization’s weak defenses. An individual of a unique temperament may need been extra prepared, as so many Communists have been within the 1920s and 1930s, to simply accept Trotsky’s actions as needed, and maybe even to take a sure savage pleasure within the crushing of the Revolution’s enemies. That type of pleasure didn’t exist in my father’s emotional repertoire.
In fact, my father’s political experiences after 1932 solely appeared to verify what he had first felt on studying Berkman. There was the unfathomable diploma of homicide, pillage, cruelty and struggling of Stalin’s purges, and the present trials, and the Nice Terror, adopted by the conflict and the Holocaust. And even after the Holocaust ended and the warfare was gained, a menace nonetheless remained. Stalinists took energy in Japanese Europe, with extra purges, extra present trials, extra terror, and even, on the finish of Stalin’s life, the specter of renewed persecution of the Jews.
Defeating this menace mattered greater than something. This is the reason, within the 1950s, he devoted a lot time to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was striving to counter Communist affect, particularly in Western Europe. A decade later, he sensed one thing of the identical temperamental extra, the identical “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to interrupt the regulation” in 1960s scholar radicalism, and he turned away from it in revulsion as properly. However he was no happier with the self-consciously “robust man” poses adopted by a few of his fellow Jewish intellectuals, particularly once they turned the kind of neoconservatives who by no means stopped beating the drum for American army motion (he typically referred to some of the outstanding of them utilizing the Yiddish phrase grobian, which means a rough and vulgar individual).
Yet one more of his well-known remarks was his definition of himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in tradition. That cultural conservatism expressed itself abundantly in his private life. He detested hottest tradition, particularly tv and rock music (though, oddly, he had a style for televised soccer). He was horrified by the love of comedian books that I developed as a small youngster, and when he noticed it was a dropping battle, he did all the things he might to steer me from the garish American selection to the extra refined European type, particularly Astérix and Tintin (thereby setting me on the street to my PhD in French historical past). Though he enthusiastically promoted ladies college students and colleagues, and took monumental delight in my mom’s literary criticism, their marriage was solely too conventional when it got here to the division of family labor. He adored a sure aristocratic kind of Englishness and sometimes stated that the yr he and my mom spent at King’s School, Cambridge, in 1988–89, was one of many happiest of his life. He had simply as deep an attraction to Japan, which he adored for the elegant simplicity of its artwork and manners. He was not a connoisseur of radical, flamboyant inventive experimentation.
This conservatism discovered its means into his work, above all in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. From its very first paragraphs, he warned about “the unraveling of the threads which had as soon as held the tradition and the financial system collectively,” and concerning the damaging results of the “hedonism” he noticed embodied in in style tradition. He warned of a world dominated by “impulse and pleasure alone.” Whereas he might have been referring most instantly to the youth tradition of the sixties, it’s onerous for me to not hear within the phrases an echo of the “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to interrupt the regulation” that he noticed Jewish theology as struggling to include. The regulation mattered. Order mattered. He was not a frequent reader of Shakespeare, however the play that all the time spoke most deeply to him was King Lear, the place the collapse of order within the realm is matched by its collapse within the household, within the pure world, and finally within the thoughts of its title character.
On the similar time, there was additionally, nonetheless, a lot Yiddish radicalism in him. He didn’t himself encounter the kind of fierce, radicalizing humiliation that his Jewish counterparts had earlier confronted in Poland and Russia. Once more, he was lucky to have been born in New York, at a time when anti-Semitic obstacles have been dropping, and he might make his means by way of establishments like Stuyvesant Excessive Faculty, CCNY, and Columbia, to turn into an editor at Fortune, after which a professor at Columbia and Harvard. One other certainly one of his favourite remarks, humorous however as all the time bearing a deeper knowledge, was: “Between Rome and Jerusalem, I select . . . New York!”
Even so, particularly when he traveled outdoors New York, he encountered his share of genteel anti-Semitic humiliation. He didn’t like to speak about these moments, however they have been definitely there, they usually stung. As late as 1985, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a very nasty letter about him. “As for Bell,” he sneered, “whose actual identify is, I feel, for much longer, I made up my thoughts about him at a convention in Venice a number of years in the past. He pomped away on ‘futurology’ and gave himself nice airs. . . . I’ve a full (illustrated) personal report of that convention: a lot of the illustrations are of D. Bell, in numerous animal varieties.”
My father might have been Anglophilic, however he by no means tried to make himself into an Englishman, as a few of his American Jewish educational contemporaries did. His accent and manners remained proudly these of a New York Jew. And he typically spoke, with a sure mischievous delight, of the time he and a pal broke out right into a loud refrain of “The Internationale,” in Yiddish, in that inside sanctum of Englishness, the Reform Membership in London. For him, the response to humiliation was to pressure the individuals who needed to exclude him to simply accept him.
It was this cussed Yiddish radicalism which, as a lot as something, stored him from following his good friend Irving Kristol into neoconservatism. The defining second was the 1972 presidential election. He had no love for George McGovern, whom he noticed as having given in too simply to the spirit of the sixties, and what he noticed because the antinomian ethos of the youth motion. From his time modifying The Public Curiosity journal (which he had based with Kristol), he had developed a definite skepticism concerning the effectiveness of Nice Society social packages, worrying about what he noticed as their ideological dogmatism and overreach. However he couldn’t stand Nixon (one other grobian), and, extra essential, couldn’t convey himself to interrupt with the political custom he had first embraced as a really younger teenager, within the Melancholy.
It was all the time a matter of satisfaction with him that he had forged his first presidential vote for Norman Thomas. The poverty and despair he remembered from the 1930s additionally amounted to a type of humiliation, and that caught with him. He remained, all the time, a fantastic reader of Karl Marx, whom he typically described to me as probably the most profound social analyst he had ever encountered. One among my very own prize possessions is the entire set of Marx and Engels in fifty volumes, revealed within the Soviet Union, that I inherited from him.
All through his life the conservatism and the radicalism wrestled inside him. However the second that greatest encapsulates that wrestling for me had nothing in any respect humorous about it. It’s one among my sharpest early reminiscences of him, in truth, from the spring of 1968. He was nonetheless educating at Columbia, and it was being torn aside by the scholar protests. In late April, radical college students occupied numerous college workplaces, together with the president’s. A standoff ensued, and my father was one of many school members who tried to barter between the protesters and the college administration. He fearful concerning the scholar motion, feared its wildness, appeared askance on the hedonism related to it, however nonetheless couldn’t assist sympathizing with its political radicalism.
However on the night time of April 29 the negotiations broke down, and the police moved in with nightsticks and tear fuel. Most of the college students have been badly crushed, and a whole lot have been arrested. I keep in mind waking up early on the morning of the 30th—I used to be six years previous on the time—and discovering my father, absolutely dressed, on the sofa. He had been up all night time and he was weeping uncontrollably.
Maybe that is one more reason why he by no means wrote memoirs. He might by no means fairly reconcile the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical inside him—by no means fairly determine from what perspective to guage and interpret the occasions he had lived by way of. In different methods, although, this similar rigidity (the cultural contradictions of Daniel Bell?) thankfully didn’t matter a lot. In his writing, it helped generate a few of his most essential and artistic insights. In his politics, it stored him delicate to the risks of extremism, but in addition to the risks of injustice. And in his life, it didn’t simply drive the Jewish humor, but in addition the countless hours of heat, sensible, fantastic speak that I keep in mind so keenly. I miss that speak.
David A. Bell is the Lapidus Professor within the Division of Historical past at Princeton. His new e-book, Males on Horseback: Charisma and Energy within the Age of Revolutions is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
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