Scott McLemee's recent consideration of the writer Isaac Rosenfeld in his IHE column, Intellectual Affairs, reawakens my own long fascination with Rosenfeld's life and work.

Scott titles his piece Dangling Man -- not only the name of Saul Bellow's first novel, but also a description of the sort of person Rosenfeld, Bellow's lifelong friend, turned out to be:


July 15, 2009

Scott McLemee's recent consideration of the writer Isaac Rosenfeld in his IHE column, Intellectual Affairs, reawakens my own long fascination with Rosenfeld's life and work.

Scott titles his piece Dangling Man -- not only the name of Saul Bellow's first novel, but also a description of the sort of person Rosenfeld, Bellow's lifelong friend, turned out to be:

By the end of his friend’s life, wrote Bellow, his friend was living in “a hideous cellar room” from which any hint of bohemian glamor had long since fled. He had, Bellow wrote, “one of those ready, lively, clear minds that see the relevant thing immediately.” But Rosenfeld’s cutting lucidity left him filled with scorn for any motive involving the pursuit of success, let alone propriety. Bellow wrote that his friend “seemed occasionally to be trying to achieve by will, by fiat, the openness of heart and devotion to truth without which a human existence must be utterly senseless.”

He imposed a grim discipline on himself, a kind of squalid asceticism. To the naked eye it looked like failure. When he died in a shabby apartment, Rosenfeld was 38 years old.

Rosenfeld's self-destructive insistence on cutting lucidity and honesty, on ceaseless rebellion against repression and materialism, inspired McLemee, as it inspired me:

[His] example loomed in my imagination for many years as essentially heroic. Rosenfeld’s intransigence, his disdain for the gods of success, was somehow inspiring, albeit in ways that have not done me very much good over the long term.

"There's no success like failure," sings Bob Dylan in Love Minus Zero: No Limit. Only "bankers' nieces seek perfection."

Intellectuals stand at the opposite edge of the universe from bankers' nieces; like Rosenfeld, they generate an understanding of the world for us, the sort of understanding that changes the world, through their language, their uncompromising emotional sensitivity, and their resistance to falsehood and conformity. They stand, sometimes contemptuously, against what Rosenfeld, in his great 1957 essay about the University of Chicago, "Life in Chicago: The Land and the Lake," called the "more or less healthy and well-adjusted men and women of rather inflexible mind, who regard life not as an adventure but an investment."

I've written, in this blog, about other heroes of mine along these lines -- James Agee and Malcolm Lowry, for instance. Christopher Lasch is up there too.

Scott notes how difficult it is today for intellectuals to assume even a reasonably against-the-grain stance; he quotes George Scialabba on

the emergence of a “new variety or mutation” of thinker in the “modern, efficient machinery of persuasion” necessary to hold highly developed societies together. Scialabba calls this type “the anti-public intellectual, whose function is not criticism, not defense of the public against private or state power, but the opposite.… As a result of the intellectuals’ incorporation en masse into the ‘power elite,’ it now requires far more training, leisure, and resources to penetrate the screen of corporate or government propaganda….”

I'd argue it gets even trickier than that. All sorts of postmodern simulacra of subversive thinkers are currently running around, inside and outside of universities, people who've studied the style of twentieth century alienated intellectuals and aped it.

Up against such odds, is the only option for the authentic intellectual what Scott describes as a pretty much Sisyphean effort to "crash through the screen every so often, with enough luck and a good aim"?


Here Scott returns to Isaac Rosenfeld, and the principled failure of his life. In the absence of a group of intellectuals to whom you can belong, and from whom you can expect support of various kinds, and in the face of constant come-ons from the larger culture in which you're invited to be co-opted as one more manipulator of symbols, you can of course say no. You can take up a close-to- total rejection of the world:

As psychic defense and compensation, [what can emerge is] a spirit of aloofness -- not just about your job, but towards life itself. [This spirit leads] to “embarrassment with human subject matter,” said Rosenfeld [in a talk he gave toward the end of his life], the desperate cultivation of a “flair for the abstract… for the ‘cool.’ ” This sensibility tolerate[s] expression of “nothing too immediate, too direct or emotional, because that would be considered ‘square’ or ‘frantic.'

Rosenfeld is obviously wary of this Warholesque outcome; he satirizes its early stages in his University of Chicago essay:

The ideal is to live a passionless, 'cool' life, exposed, but uncommitted, to many worlds, and to be au courant in them all: to be able to chatter... of drama, books, art, jazz... Aristotle and other philosophers... to avoid extremes of romanticism in sexuality or love, and all extremes of feelings... One undergraduate I know calls the composite formo-frigidist..."

A mild formo-frigidism, if you will, can be an attractive midpoint; it can be where creative, or potentially creative, bohemians tend to locate themselves. I have in mind people like Paul Bowles - restless travelers, expatriates, creators in a variety of modes, people to varying degrees detached -- aloof -- from ordinary life.

Yet under the pressure of a world in which all the rewards, as one sees it, are in the direction of compromise, the serious writer might indeed eventually fall into utter rejection of that world, might find "no escape from the need," writes Scott, "to go it alone."

Need, though, says it all. After awhile, this isn't a decision to become radically aloof; after awhile, this gesture shades into pathology. Rosenfeld, Scott concludes, "turned into an intellectual equivalent of Bartleby the Scrivener, saying, 'I would prefer not to,' over and over, as the years slipped past."

I think the shading here may involve the transition from resisting the world on behalf of a set of ideas that transcend your particularity, to withdrawing from the world on behalf of the defense of your particular, wounded interiority.

In other words, you wouldn't, in the first place, have been Isaac Rosenfeld, brilliant and precocious social critic and artist, if you weren't already endowed with ferocious sensitivity, lucidity, independence, and stubborn convictions about the right way to live. But a series of frustrations and disappointments will make a stubborn, sensitive person like Rosenfeld move not toward forms of rapprochement with the world, but deeper into his own sense of things.

Intellectuals and artists of Rosenfeld's type take a very big risk -- Their ideas and personalities may be so powerful as to bring the world along, to some extent, with them. They may turn out to be like William Blake. Or like Bob Dylan. (Though note that Dylan too withdrew from the world at various points in his life, and still isn't exactly out and about.) Or people like Rosenfeld may simply fail; they may turn out not to have the combination of courage and clarity and obstinacy and charisma and whatever else you need to sustain a radical project, a radical existence.

It's intriguing to me that the final intellectual / soulmate about whom Saul Bellow wrote a novel was Allan Bloom, a man who loved wealth and luxury, a voraciously social animal who had no trouble accommodating himself to the mainstream politics of his time. Yet Bloom, like Rosenfeld, was for all that a principled and I think rather courageous intellectual. He came at things from the right, to be sure, but he shared Rosenfeld's inability to be anything other than sharply honest about what he believed, as well as his obstinacy about being exactly the strange person he was.

Indeed Allan Bloom wrote the sort of book -- a big, controversial book that provoked a national discussion of higher thought -- that everyone expected Rosenfeld to write.

Bloom might, in other words, have come to embody for Bellow a Rosenfeld who can survive, who can live, as Bloom seems to have done, a joyous life.

There's no success like failure, says Dylan. And failure, he goes on to sing, is no success at all.



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