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Paul Goodman Changed My Life

An occasional fist fight, a better orgasm, friendly games, a job of useful work, initiating enterprises, deciding real issues in manageable meetings, and being moved by things that are beautiful, curious, or wonderful — these diminish the spirit of war because they attach people to life. They should not be postponed while we “buy time” with deterrence and negotiations. On the contrary, if people began to insist on more life, the Front Page would carry very different news.

Paul Goodman, “Some Remarks on War Spirit”

Paul Goodman’s daughter Susan remembers him as a dedicated father. He had custody of her when he and her mother divorced, looked after her when she contracted polio in 1956, and imbued in her an appreciation for a rigorous intellectual life. As she recalls in the documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life, he was committed to “the old tradition of the man of letters.” That is, she says, “You’re supposed to know the scientific culture, the literary and philosophical and theological culture. You’re supposed to know it all if you’re a proper grownup.”

Goodman was such a grownup. And this made him unusual then and now. Jonathan Lee’s film, which opens at New York’s Film Forum on 19 October, looks back on Goodman’s particular effects on people — some who felt close to him in one way or another, and others who never knew him personally, but read his work or heard him speak. “Mr. Paul Goodman is, roughly speaking, everything except a basketball player,” says William Buckley by way of introducing him on an episode of Firing Line, “Everything else he excels in.” A poet and essayist, novelist and philosopher, he was also a practicing lay psychiatrist and founder of Gestalt Therapy, and by most accounts, a gadfly. He took these roles seriously. “The essence of an honest scholar,” he says in one of the film’s many archival interview clips, “is to point out to people what could be done, how it could be done, why that conception is the most direct and probably the only one which really works in the end, and then hope that you educate the public. That’s what the professional has to do, is to elevate the public to sense.”

The sense Goodman offered was not common. When he wrote Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society in 1959, its effects were immediate. In the book, he called out the US education system as “social engineering,” a cause of young people’s disaffection. This bad educational system, he says in an audio interview, played over photos of the man at work — that is, in a discussion with an audience — “is a waste of the most hopeful part of humanity, the growing up part.” Young people, he says, don’t have a “chance to find their own identity, certainly not their vocation, as far as they can see most of the vocations in our society are corrupt.” As he goes on to list the many vocations he sees as corrupt — law, business, politics, and the physical sciences — it’s notable that he suggests that perhaps, in the 1960s, “Religion’s becoming a little less corrupt for them.” Ah, the olden days.

Goodman sought remedies for the profound “disaffection of the youth,” in aggressive thinking and challenges to the systems that generated it. He pursued this course throughout his life and in every aspect of it. While he was well known as a professional writer and thinker, he was almost as famous for his sexuality (Buckley calls him a “bisexualist”), which he refused to keep hidden. Married to Sally for decades, father of three children, he maintained his family while regularly and openly cruising for men (“The fact about Paul was that he was a married man with children,” says Gregory Gardner, “They were really married”).

As Jerl Surratt notes here, Goodman wrote brilliantly about his desires and lusts. After reciting the sonnet “In Lydia” from memory (“I have my cock traduced / to which I should be loyal. None to blame / but me myself that I consort with them / who dread to rouse me onward and distrust / what has a future”), Surratt comes to a full stop and says, “How do you deal with a poem like that?”

The film provides a range of lively interviews, suggesting that people who knew Goodman feel much the same way about him. For all his openness, he could seem strange and unfathomable, exasperating bit also beguiling. “He was a teacher to everyone,” testifies Judith Malina, a founder of the Living Theater and former patient of Goodman. “I don’t know about his casual pickups, but I’m sure that every one of them profited from encountering from meeting a man of such depth, I’m sure that he gave every one of them, even if it was a quick blow job, he gave him his best heart and his best ideas.”

Even as you’re pondering this rather remarkable assessment, the film includes as well a view from Sally, his wife: “Picking up guys in bars just another thing about him that was different,” and there were so many things that were different. “I just liked him from the moment we met.” She appears here briefly, extending her arm to point out the grassy yard where he played and worked. Black and white photos show him in place, rumpled and a little fierce even when he was relaxing with his kids. His daughters Susan and Daisy appear in separate interviews, the latter remembering his devastation when her brother Matthew was killed in a climbing accident (“I think what contributed to his first heart attack was his grief”).

As much as his children had to make allowances for his father’s distractions by boyfriends, they also admired him: Matthew and Paul were notoriously engaged in resisting the war in Vietnam, Matthew by refusing to register for the draft and his father by helping other young men to do the same. Gardner sees Goodman’s opposition to the war — indeed, to the broad military-industrial complex — as just one example of his “moral courage.” When Goodman was asked to speak at a symposium held by the National Security Industrial Association (NSIA) in 1967, he took full advantage of the forum (the State Department auditorium) and the occasion (an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon), excoriating the “manufacturers of napalm, fragmentation bombs, and the planes that destroy rice fields.” I’m sure,” he goes on, “that most of you conceded that much of what you do is ugly and harmful at home and abroad, but you would say it is necessary for the American way of life at home and abroad, and therefore you cannot do otherwise. Since we believe, however, that that way of life is unnecessary ugly and un-American, I and those people outside cannot condone your present operations.”

It’s striking — horrifying and unsurprising at once — how these words still work to elevate the public to sense.

RATING 8 / 10
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