Surely the most significant text a man ever starts out to interpret is the compromise that is his own life. The events, ragged and serene, that tempt explanation were shared by others, and so it is with delicacy and humility that the autobiographer should seek to set the record straight—yet all too frequently the public demand urges on the writer some version of whitewash. Consequently, the best that one can expect to find in an autobiography are glimpses of complexity, the occasional lowering of the self-serving hand. Because of the contradictions inherent in interpreting one’s own life, autobiography tends to be the more conservative of literary mediums. In part this results from the retrospective valuing that such thinking and telling requires, for a value scheme as it relates to the actions of a life, especially one usually past its summit, seeks generally for dogmatic closure, for a kind of ultimate vindication of opportunities squandered, roads not taken. Inevitably one will remember things that at last can be presented in the best of all possible colorations, and better to have one final say before the dust settles. What, then, can a reader learn from postured documentation? At its best, something about the quality of social living. Moreover, an autobiography should provide inspiration and guidance for subsequent generations.
William Phillips, cofounder and longtime editor of the Partisan Review, is uncertain as to what makes up a life, specifically his own. Because he has failed to live up to his responsibility as an autobiographer, his efforts serve more to indicate the general loss of nerve among his brand of intellectual than to help inspire future generations. But then perhaps this is precisely the stance toward experience he has in mind when he writes:
I think the whole notion of the responsibility of intellectuals has been worked to death on all sides of the political spectrum. It should be clear by now that the very nature of intellectuals demands that they be erratic, irrational, biased, and, in some respects, irresponsible. And one of the virtues of a democracy is that everyone is free to write nonsense and take the consequences.
This curious passage, however true a characterization of New York intellectuals manning the ramparts with their self-centered ideological bickering, immediately lowers our expectations for Phillips the storyteller, because to talk this way is to have no idea of what taking the consequences means in a world where genius ends by deserting duty owing to some loose thinking about the triumph of doubt.
The world in which Phillips resides has lost itself to doubt because it insisted on confusing its own conceptual activities with the larger flow of human sympathies and dilemmas. Ironically, such confusion occurred when the intellectual grandeur he fashioned for himself failed to grant him a major role in the social dramas unfolding before his very eyes. His regret about this has led him in contradictory fashion to rhetorically underplay his significance (“it never occurred to me that our history would some day be considered important. . . For all our vanity, our self-confidence, we felt like pygmies in comparison with not only the literary and intellectual figures of the more distant past, but with those who came just before us”) while holding steadfastly to the notion of his supposed centrality to the intellectual life of the culture.
Such an assessment of Phillips undoubtedly appears too harsh given his stands against the pluralistic materialism of our society and his insights into the treacheries of Soviet Marxism. (“The Communists were experts at maintaining a fraternal atmosphere that distinguished sharply between insider and outsider. One couldn’t just leave; one had to be expelled. . . One of the most insidious things about being a Communist, perhaps about belonging to any Marxist party, has been the simultaneous inflation of one’s intellectual pretensions and the shrinking of one’s capacities”.) But one should expect, given his privileged situation during the last 50 years, to be shown an insider’s view of how ideas, beliefs, and decisions in literary circles are really arrived at. Instead, in A Partisan View Phillips’s grasp of events only marginally exceeds an intellectual’s parody of People Magazine. From the onset, Phillips makes it quite clear that he has rubbed shoulders with simply everyone, from Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell to Arthur Koestler and Jimmy Baldwin, from Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag to Norman Mailer and Simone de Beauvoir. The gossip revealed could be entertaining if it were not so out of place. Moreover, does anyone really need to know the petty desires and willful passions of these people?
Quiet intercourse with words is certainly not the stuff of high adventure, even if we do need reminders of the details of domesticity from time to time. But what needs to be embodied is the dynamic texture of the mind as it tried to deal with the array of forces and ideas loosed in this century: How does it maintain itself in the midst of intellectual chaos? Certainly, modernism created pressures and lost opportunities; Phillips was one of the movement’s most vigorous champions, yet he all but neglects those aspects; he doesn’t even try to penetrate the paradoxical austerity of its relationship with tradition and authority. Instead, Phillips tends to dance only on the outside. He discusses his patriotic loyalty in completing a foreign literary tour for the State Department , the Jackson Pollock he could have bought for a mere 500 dollars, his flirtation with and rejection of the CIA, his comic attempt to mediate among the little literary magazines rapaciously seeking Federal grant money, and Richard Poirer and Rutgers University’s unbelievable attempt to take over the editorial office of the Partisan Review.
The inner life that supposedly sustains Phillips through all of these trials and tribulation—especially the ones centering on whether he really was a communist (the energy expended on hairsplitting on this issue confirms our worst suspicions that even without direct affiliation, Marxism subverted whole generations}—was inspired by domestic ties and his physical health. These aspects come out in anecdotes. For example, he describes a visit that Meyer Schapiro paid to his house and says, “After he left, I said to my mother that she had seen the closest thing to a genius she would ever see—by which I meant that his mind had all the attributes of a genius. All she could say was to ask how much money he made.” As for health, Phillips casually mentions, for example, that once Philip Rahv, his coeditor, flopped in a swimming pool and “would have drowned if I had not jumped in and pulled him out. Fortunately, I had worked my way through school as a swimming counselor and lifeguard.”
All wrapped up in his own censorship circles, Phillips has the audacity to suggest that the Partisan Review’s bringing together “writers committed to modernism and literary innovation, and radical social and political thinkers” represented “the first time in this country that such an idea of intellectual community had been forged, and perhaps the last time.” What happened to our Founding Fathers or the various groups of thinkers in the 19th century? Phillips’s amnesia reveals a disdain for America’s unique intellectual contributions even as he protests the “anarchy and the insatiable appetites of the market” and “the incessant demand for novelty.” In peddling his own special brand of elitism, in offering up alleged disquisitions on weighty cultural matters, Phillips reveals how the vital connections between “thinkers” and citizens have all but come completely unraveled.
Such a soft-edged ramble through a life denies the efforts demanded to create coherence. In grasping after a pseudofame, clarity and nobility are lost. And this is even more troubling considering all the tips of intellectual icebergs which Phillips surveyed. Unfortunately, the nature of our times and temperament is exposed by Phillips’s stance toward remembering and reconstructing personal history, for in failing to penetrate the complexities of the past it is hardly possible to encourage insight and value in the future.