|PR 2/ 2003 VOLUME LXX NUMBER 2|
This issue of Partisan Review is dedicated to William Phillips, "the soul of Partisan Review." The following tributes by writers and friends testify to his outstanding intelligence, his ideas and vision, his strength of character and integrity, and his loyalty and sweetness, although not to what it took out of him to "be one of the nobodies who were to become somebodies" on the intellectual firmament of the last century.
When asked about his youth, William often would recall that while in high school and City College, his mind "had been in an emotional and intellectual fog," which, I concluded from other reminiscences, he had spent, for the most part, at New Yorks Forty-second Street library. Only while taking graduate courses at New York University, and having come upon T. S. Eliots The Sacred Wood, did he decide to become a writer and literary critic; and while taking Sidney Hooks course in philosophy, in 1933, he began to embrace Marxism and to take note of the impact the Depression had on everyone around him. That was when he began to go to the John Reed Cluba writers and artists organization that was under the umbrella of the Communist Party.
There, he met Philip Rahv, and in the following year they founded Partisan Review. Fairly soon, they came to realize that the American Communist Party was directly controlled by Moscow, and then managed to break away. In 1937, Phillips and Rahv restarted the magazine, resolving to stay independent of all factional politics, while holding on to Marxism and publishing the best of modernism. With the wisdom of hindsight, I would maintain that most of the subsequent literary and political disagreements were caused by the contradictions inherent in these two -isms, along with clashes of the strong personalities, and the egos and ambitions, of the bright individuals who joined them.
Williams essay, "Categories of Criticism," had been printed in The Symposium in 1933. In it, he argued persuasively that in order for critics to deal with discrete academic disciplines in a comprehensive way, they had to be able to "place themselves in history" and to use a "kind of forward-looking backward-seeing process." In the scores of trenchant "Comments" William wrote in Partisan Review over the years, that method became, more or less, his modus operandiwhich clearly was based on his earlier and thorough gobbling up of philosophy from the Greeks through the classics (including the French and German ones), his extensive range over literature and criticism, and the history of music, the arts, and the sciences.
Well into the 1950s and 1960s, William wrote some fiction and a good deal of literary criticism, in addition to commenting on the political questions of the day, always trying "to resist the conservative push, without, however, giving in to those radicals in politics and in the arts who had swung to a sectarian extreme." He paid special attention to psychoanalysis, which then was going strong. For instance, in 1957, in "Art and Psychoanalysis," he wondered whether or not "some day, the neurotic man will become the pillar of society." Eleven years before, in "Dostoevskys Underground Man," he had noted that to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky had been the only psychologist from whom he could learn; and that to Gide he had been the greatest of all novelists. Although William concurred that Nietzsche had been "both a creature and a prophet of the pathological," he went on to ask whether the Underground Mans madness had impelled him to break with tradition, or his surroundings had driven him to a new version of existence. The many Freudians scientific analyses, he noted, were about Dostoevskys person, and were relevant to the fictional character, but hard as they had tried, none of their takes on the artistic personality explained the art-neurosis nexus. Even Freud, William stated, had shied away from connecting the novelists creations to his personal drives, as when he wrote: "before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must lay down its arms." (Joseph Franks essay on Dostoevsky, included in this issue, was one of the last pieces I read to William.)
In "Dostoevsky and Parricide," Freud had analyzed the novelists character. But William was out to show that a geniuss personality derives not only from his psychology but also from his culture. After all, William wrote, Mann, Gide, Nietzsche, Melville, Baudelaire, Proust, and Kafka, among others, had created "what might be called a dominant type: a morbid, frustrated, sensitive, and prophetic man, in short, a browbeaten superman [torn] from top to bottom by moral and psychological dilemmas." William himself was conflicted and "could not help but be more deeply impressed [than the psychoanalysts] by the fact that conflicts, tensions, and neuroses of the literary man have become symptoms of the fate of culture in the West and are connected with at least one sideperhaps the most important oneof the modern sensibility."
In his quest to better understand this sensibility, William alternatively kept analyzing what appeared to be changes in acceptable behavior of people to their responses in the culture at large. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, he wrote, in a "Letter from New York" (Quest, 1963), that, at least on the surface, not much was going on in politics, but that:
Is this a premonition of the increasing challenge to serious criticism? In 1963, William was about to take the magazine to Rutgers University and to teach there. He was not thinking about jobs in literary criticism, but foresaw the cost for future generations who would live in a culture deprived of its traditions. In 1965, in his "Notes on the New Style," William fully anticipated the consequences of what David Herman recently summarized in "Silence of the Critics" (Prospect, December 2002): the conditions that allowed for the ascendance of academic critics who used arcane jargon and spoke to each other at the expense of literary criticism à la F. R. Leavis, Empson, Trilling, and Auerbach, et. al. William had stated:
From there, William went on to exemplifyhistorically, via Joyce, Mann, Kafka, and Proust, to Hemingway, Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellowthat novelists used to be "committed to a genre in which the writer stakes out his claim in a society that is taken for granted." Saul Bellows Augie March, for instance, even though announcing his new sensibility, is "still an adventurer within his own time and country," an outsider who becomes an insider. Norman Mailer, by contrast, and despite his preoccupation with politics and social causes, is straining to get beyond conventions by increasingly focusing on personal life while cutting down on involvement with society. William then names another slew of novelists who expected to set the tone of the new styleonly some of whom succeeded in making a complete break. And he found that "the old development of character, which takes for granted that it is possible to grow up, is out [and] we now have instant realization, and instant destruction."
I was struck when rereading Williams 1984 essay that bemoaned the passing of "four towering European intellectuals"Manès Sperber, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, and Ignazio Silonethat William probably was (unconsciously) writing about himself. He pronounced these writers the best and nearly the last of an intellectual generation that "embodied the central modern experience of fascism and communism." William had been their friend. He, too, "was informed by a sense of political and cultural fate, . . . was wise, and had no illusions, either Utopian or of Realpolitik." He, too, "was not seduced by nationalist creeds, was not deceived by popular fronts, Eurocommunism, emotional peace movements, third-world slogans, and other such contemporary crusades." He, too, was a tough-minded anticommunist and antifascistwithout "wholly embracing the one just in order to combat the other." Of course, William also was strongly "committed to a liberal society as the basis of freedom." And he, too, had the courage to go against the grain, not on principle but after carefully and deeply examining whatever were the issues at hand.
In his book of essays, A Sense of the Present (1967), in "What Happened in the 30s," which originally had been published in 1962, William noted that ideas that had been written off and forgotten suddenly were making a comeback. He foresaw a rise in radicalism that indicated a return to the left of the political pendulumcaused by the confusion created by authentic and inauthentic elements in both the political Rights advocacy of "deterrence" and the political Lefts advocacy of "peace." William noted that "many beliefs held in the 30s were abandoned without being refuted, so that the current revival of left-wing attitudes was bound to bring confusion. Of course, fear of nuclear war in the aftermath of Sputnik, the "missile gap," and the Soviets construction of the Berlin Wall was bound to divide the country. William thought:
Then he proceeded to suggest that:
Who could dispute this assessment in the aftermath of September 11, 2001? William, who by then was extremely frail, was watching the news on CNN that morningwith a mixture of disbelief and anger, and with tears in his eyes. He was devastated, and until he passed away a year later, kept trying to figure out how the country might fight and eradicate terrorism. There was no limit to Williams curiosity about the world around him. In the penultimate paragraph of his memoir, two decades before his death, he wrote:
In a darker mood, while I was in Europe in the 1980s, and he had to argue about some manuscripts with a contributing editor and supervise the last steps in the production of the magazine, he ended his letter to me: "So you see, nothing changes. Progress is the illusion of change and the denial of retrogression."
In the end, Williams body gave out, but true to himself, he remained aware of everything that was going on in the world around him until the day he died, on September 12, 2002.