Paul Goodman Changed My Life

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.

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