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Daniel Bell at 100 | Dissent Magazine

Daniel Bell at 100

Bell never quite reconciled the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical within him. This pressure helped generate some of his most necessary 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 regret that my father, Daniel Bell, who would have turned 100 on Might 10, didn’t write memoirs. In the early 1990s, I spent a long time making an attempt to influence him to do so. He was then in his early seventies and had just retired, very a lot towards his will, from his professorship at Harvard (they still had obligatory retirement for teachers in those days!). For over a decade, books concerning the “New York Intellectuals” had been showing at a gentle clip, they usually often devoted considerable consideration to him: his early years within the socialist motion and at the City School of New York; his profession as a prolific mental journalist; his improvement into one of many great trendy sociologists. A lot of the authors handled him fairly favorably. Some had carried out in depth interviews with him.

Nonetheless, every time a new e-book arrived at his house in Cambridge, he would name me, fulminating concerning the inevitable misrepresentations and mistakes. Typically he would go as far as to ship lengthy letters on the topic to the unfortunate 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 turn distinctly dyspeptic. “You should write memoirs,” I might tell him on the telephone. Get your personal story out. Ensure that future historians have your aspect of it. He was notably irritated when the authors referred to as him a “neoconservative,” as journalists had completed 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 tell this to me, I might say. I know it already. Write it.

But he would all the time demur. He couldn’t write trustworthy memoirs, he insisted, without revealing certain secrets that might harm individuals he had recognized, or their families. This appeared like a transparently false excuse. Once I pressed him concerning the secrets and techniques in query, they either concerned fairly minor peccadillos or have been totally tangential to his own life story and could have been easily overlooked.

Extra necessary, I feel, was the completely human and understandable cause that memoir-writing appeared too much of a last chapter—to a career, to a life. My father was a man who virtually by no means exercised after graduating from highschool at age sixteen, usually ate purple meat at least twice a day, especially bacon and salami, and developed diabetes in his forties. When he was simply fifty-four, he informed my mother he didn’t assume he would reside another decade. I feel he was as stunned as anyone 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 Evaluate in 1981. It begins with a tender and vivid account of the best way he turned, at age thirteen, what he referred to as a right-wing socialist. The other is Joseph Dorman’s fantastic 1997 documentary Arguing the World, about him, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe. There, he informed tales about his childhood, and concerning the fabled days in “Alcove 1” within the cafeteria at Metropolis School the place these four poor Jewish boys, sons of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, turned pals. 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 film assist make up for the shortage of memoirs. So do the varied histories of the New York Intellectuals, to not mention three substantial biographies. But there’s nonetheless much, inevitably, that’s lacking. A son’s perspective could also be anything but neutral and unfiltered, nevertheless it does assist me see what has been ignored.

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, nevertheless it says little about his inside life. Apart from a quick, affecting vignette about his shock at the pervasive poverty in New York City in the course of the Melancholy, which he credit with making him a sociologist, probably the most personal section deals with how he reacted, at age thirteen, to the diary of the anarchist Alexander Berkman, which recounted Trotsky’s brutal suppression of the sailors’ mutiny in 1921 at the Kronstadt naval base, outdoors what’s now St. Petersburg. One passage of the essay has turn out to be deservedly well-known: “Every radical generation, it is said, has its Kronstadt. For some it was the Moscow Trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for still 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 be more to come). My Kronstadt was Kronstadt.”

Arguing the World appears to supply a way more private, unrehearsed portrait. Personal, sure; unrehearsed, no. As everyone who knew my father might testify, he was an enormously well-practiced and skilled raconteur. He had a huge stock of tales, jokes, and quips that he might sprinkle into his speak with good timing and supply. “What do I specialize in?” he would ask. The answer: “I am a specialist in generalizations.” “Why did I give up a career in journalism for academia? Three reasons: June, July and August.” “What is an intellectual? Someone who asks, if something works in practice, does it also work in theory?” By the time I went off to school I might virtually all the time predict which of those bon mots was coming several sentences prematurely (and, in good adolescent trend, start rolling my eyes at it). They have been a efficiency. But they have been additionally a defend of types, allowing him to deflect the dialog away from areas where he felt uncomfortable.

The defend was there, partially, to cowl some very deep-seated vulnerabilities and ache, some of which he readily acknowledged, and a few of which he did not. When he was less 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 long 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 could not decide him up early enough, he would have to spend the night time there as properly. He might describe in heart-rending terms the worry he felt, daily, standing at the door of the Day Orphanage, waiting for his mother to return, and not understanding if she would make it on time. It was considered one of his well-rehearsed tales. He was more reluctant to discuss his feelings toward the stepfather his mom had married when he was thirteen, and with whom he never acquired alongside (I never met his two step-siblings). Only 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.

Still, he made his method out of that labyrinth, thanks in large part, as he all the time stated, to his analyst. In my own lifetime, while I might see my father sad, or annoyed, I not often noticed him within the grips of something worse, and I keep in mind many moments of real 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 until my mom, Pearl Kazin Bell, had a terrible fall and suffered critical brain injury in the spring of 2002. The accident crushed his spirit for a long time and left him bereft. But he did ultimately get well, somewhat, and struggled heroically to care for her, building an extension onto their house in Cambridge in order that she might keep at house with twenty-four-hour nursing care. I am positive one purpose he lived so long as he did was because of his have to deal with her.

The performances weren’t just a defend, in fact. The sport of the New York Jewish intellectuals was aggressive talking, they usually all wanted their stories, their performances, to be contenders. Cocktail and dinner events tended to turn into intellectual jousting matches, and while loud male voices often dominated, Diana Trilling and Bea Himmelfarb Kristol simply held their very own within the company (my mother was somewhat—not all the time—extra reserved). Like all baby who has heard his mother and father’ stories a thousand occasions, I groaned at the repetition, but I also grasped that his tales have been, actually, excellent ones: entertaining, witty, and in addition thought-provoking. Among the best ones made its means into Arguing the World. It recounts the moment when my father, together with his orthodox Jewish background (his paternal grandfather was a cantor), advised his rabbi that after his bar mitzvah he would not attend shul as a result of he didn’t consider in God. “Tell me,” the rabbi replied. “Do you think God cares?”

As with this story, the performances all the time centrally involved Jewish humor. My father favored to tell the story of a Jew who had a dialog with God. “Lord, is it true,” the Jew asked, “that in your scale of reckoning, a thousand years is like a minute?” God stated: Yes. “And is it true that in your weights and measures, a thousand dollars is like a penny?” The Lord again stated: Sure. So the person continued: “Lord, I am poor, can you give me a penny?” The Lord replied: “All right. Just wait a minute.” Then there was the story of the Jew who volunteered to serve in the Israeli Navy. “Do you know how to swim?” the recruiter requested him. “I know the theory of it,” the person replied. There have been many, many different such tales.

It might be straightforward to see this humor as incidental to understanding a person who was, in fact, a deeply critical thinker, writer of long tomes of typically troublesome social evaluation. In reality, it’s completely central. Humor is in fact a basic type of emotional defend, a option to deflect from harm and vulnerability. But there was also rather more to the stories 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 considerable Jewish learning that this non-believing and largely non-observant Jew nonetheless managed to accumulate over the course of his life. One of many loveliest things he ever wrote, too typically uncared for by his biographers, was the commencement handle he delivered at Brandeis in 1991, entitled “Serious Thoughts on Jewish Humor.” In it, he referred to as Jewish humor “a wisdom literature that draws upon a thousand years of experience and gives one a sense of human yearning, and its limits.” And he defined the best way during which it’s deeply, inescapably political:

Jewish humor is the strain of two contradictory parts in its makeup: 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 break the regulation, to unloose murder and pillage on populations, to inflict cruelty and struggling on victims, resembling have occurred—and can repeatedly recur—all through the millennia. But Yiddish experience has been radicalizing, as a result of it has been an experience of humiliation. the humiliation of Jewish students in prewar Poland who had to sit on ghetto benches within the lecture room and chose to stand, moderately than settle for the situation; the humiliation of being barred from positions in universities despite their evident talents; to the humiliations of being either pariah or parvenu, a stranger typically in a land that would not be their own, when getting into the fashionable age.

I think of this as one of the revealing issues my father ever wrote about himself. As a result of he was a mix 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 presents a glimpse into a number of the most necessary impulses behind each his writings and his politics.

Start with the conservatism. My father was fortunate to have been born in New York fairly than in his mother and father’ shtetls in present-day Belarus, so he by no means had personal experience of the horrific violence of the 20 th century (he didn’t serve in the Second World Warfare). However the dying of his personal father, his childhood experiences at 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 physical or mental, 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 at the loss, and suggests psychological wounds that went very deep. The phrases repeat: “always in despair”; “anxiety attack”; “I always begin in sadness.” After studying it, I might only consider the strains of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

He typically stated that what mattered most in politics was temperament, and his personal temperament was undoubtedly conservative, precisely due to his painful sense, born out of his own childhood experience and his reminiscences of the Melancholy, of how fragile the buildings of atypical, 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, because of a deeply personal revulsion at the violence and cruelty that would so simply overwhelm civilization’s weak defenses. An individual of a special temperament may need been more prepared, as so many Communists have been in the 1920s and 1930s, to simply accept Trotsky’s actions as vital, and maybe even to take a certain 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 only appeared to verify what he had first felt on studying Berkman. There was the unfathomable degree of murder, pillage, cruelty and struggling of Stalin’s purges, and the show trials, and the Nice Terror, followed by the conflict and the Holocaust. And even after the Holocaust ended and the struggle was gained, a menace nonetheless remained. Stalinists took power in Japanese Europe, with more purges, extra show trials, more terror, and even, at the top of Stalin’s life, the threat of renewed persecution of the Jews.

Defeating this menace mattered greater than something. That is why, in the 1950s, he devoted so much time to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was striving to counter Communist affect, especially in Western Europe. A decade later, he sensed one thing of the identical temperamental extra, the identical “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” in 1960s scholar radicalism, and he turned away from it in revulsion as nicely. But he was no happier with the self-consciously “tough guy” poses adopted by a few of his fellow Jewish intellectuals, particularly once they turned the type of neoconservatives who by no means stopped beating the drum for American army motion (he typically referred to some of the outstanding of them using 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 culture, especially television and rock music (though, oddly, he had a taste for televised football). He was horrified by the love of comedian books that I developed as a small baby, and when he saw it was a dropping battle, he did every thing he might to steer me from the garish American variety to the extra refined European type, especially Astérix and Tintin (thereby setting me on the street to my PhD in French history). Though he enthusiastically promoted ladies students and colleagues, and took monumental satisfaction in my mom’s literary criticism, their marriage was totally too conventional when it got here to the division of household labor. He adored a certain aristocratic type 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 art and manners. He was not a connoisseur of radical, flamboyant inventive experimentation.

This conservatism discovered its approach 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 once held the culture and the economy together,” and concerning the damaging results of the “hedonism” he saw embodied in in style tradition. He warned of a world dominated by “impulse and pleasure alone.” While he might have been referring most instantly to the youth tradition of the sixties, it’s onerous for me not to hear in the words an echo of the “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” that he saw 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, where the collapse of order within the realm is matched by its collapse in the family, in the natural world, and finally within the thoughts of its title character.

On the similar time, there was also, still, much Yiddish radicalism in him. He did not himself encounter the kind of fierce, radicalizing humiliation that his Jewish counterparts had earlier faced in Poland and Russia. Again, he was lucky to have been born in New York, at a time when anti-Semitic limitations have been dropping, and he might make his approach by way of establishments like Stuyvesant High Faculty, CCNY, and Columbia, to develop into an editor at Fortune, after which a professor at Columbia and Harvard. One other one in every of his favorite remarks, humorous but as all the time bearing a deeper wisdom, was: “Between Rome and Jerusalem, I choose . . . New York!”

Even so, especially when he traveled outdoors New York, he encountered his share of genteel anti-Semitic humiliation. He didn’t like to talk about these moments, but 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 real name is, I think, much longer, I made up my mind about him at a conference in Venice a few years ago. He pomped away on ‘futurology’ and gave himself great airs. . . . I have a full (illustrated) private record of that conference: most of the illustrations are of D. Bell, in various animal forms.”

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 satisfaction, of the time he and a good friend broke out right into a loud chorus of “The Internationale,” in Yiddish, in that internal 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 much as anything, stored him from following his pal Irving Kristol into neoconservatism. The defining moment was the 1972 presidential election. He had no love for George McGovern, whom he saw as having given in too simply to the spirit of the sixties, and what he noticed because the antinomian ethos of the youth movement. From his time modifying The Public Curiosity magazine (which he had founded with Kristol), he had developed a distinct skepticism concerning the effectiveness of Nice Society social packages, worrying about what he noticed as their ideological dogmatism and overreach. However he could not stand Nixon (another grobian), and, more essential, couldn’t convey himself to break with the political custom he had first embraced as a very young teenager, in the Melancholy.

It was all the time a matter of delight with him that he had forged his first presidential vote for Norman Thomas. The poverty and despair he remembered from the 1930s also amounted to a form of humiliation, and that stuck with him. He remained, all the time, an excellent reader of Karl Marx, whom he typically described to me as probably the most profound social analyst he had ever encountered. One in every of 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 moment that greatest encapsulates that wrestling for me had nothing at all humorous about it. It’s one among my sharpest early reminiscences of him, the truth is, 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 students occupied numerous college workplaces, together with the president’s. A standoff ensued, and my father was one of the school members who tried to negotiate between the protesters and the university administration. He fearful concerning the scholar movement, feared its wildness, appeared askance at the hedonism associated with it, but nonetheless could not help 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 students have been badly crushed, and lots of have been arrested. I keep in mind waking up early on the morning of the 30th—I was six years previous at the time—and discovering my father, absolutely dressed, on the couch. He had been up all night time and he was weeping uncontrollably.

Maybe this is one more reason why he by no means wrote memoirs. He might never quite reconcile the Jewish conservative and the Yiddish radical inside him—never quite determine from what perspective to guage and interpret the occasions he had lived via. In different ways, although, this similar rigidity (the cultural contradictions of Daniel Bell?) thankfully did not matter a lot. In his writing, it helped generate some 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 History at Princeton. His new e-book, Males on Horseback: Charisma and Energy within the Age of Revolutions is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.