Paul Goodman (September 9, 1911 – August 2, 1972) was an American writer, poet, public intellectual. He is mainly remembered as the author of Growing Up Absurd and as an activist on the pacifist Left.
- Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won't let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how it push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical.
- as quoted in Commonist Tendencies: Mutual Aid Beyond Communism
- The chessboard was reflected in her eyes.
Eager to beat her, first I looked on her eyes.
I made a Spanish move, an ancient one,
and broken was the red rank of pawns in her light eyes.
Then I lowered my eyes from that chessboard
and Love said, "Oh not her; conquer the king if you can."
- "A Chess Game" St. 1, Collected Poems, Random House, 1973, ISBN 0394483588.
Growing Up Absurd (1956)
- Naturally, grown-up citizens are concerned about the beatniks and delinquents. … The question is why the grownups do not, more soberly, draw the same conclusions as the youth. Or, since no doubt many people are quite clear about the connection that the structure of society that has becoming increasingly dominant in our country is disastrous to the growth of excellence and manliness, why don’t more people speak up and say so?
- p. x.
- Nothing could be more stupid than for the communications commission to give to people who handle the means of broadcasting the inventing of what to broadcast, and then, disturbed at the poor quality, to worry about censorship.
- p. xiii.
- We live increasingly in a system in which little direct attention is paid to the object, the function, the program, the task, the need; but immense attention to the role, the procedure, prestige, and profit.
- p. xiii.
- We do not need to be able to say what “human nature” is in order to be able to say that some training is “against human nature.”
- p. 6.
- Social scientists … have begun to think that “social animal” means “harmoniously belonging.” They do not like to think that fighting and dissenting are proper social functions, nor that rebelling or initiating fundamental change is a social function. Rather, if something does not run smoothly, they say it has been improperly socialized; there has been a failure in communication. … But perhaps there has not been a failure in communication. Perhaps the social message has been communicated clearly to the young men and is unacceptable. … We must ask the question, “Is the harmonious organization to which the young are inadequately socialized perhaps against human nature, or not worthy of human nature, and therefore there is difficulty in growing up?”
- pp. 10-11.
- Thwarted, or starved, in the important objects proper to young capacities, the boys and young men naturally find or invent deviant objects for themselves. … Their choices and inventions are rarely charming, usually stupid, and often disastrous; we cannot expect average kids to deviate with genius. But on the other hand, the young men who conform to the dominant society become for the most part apathetic, disappointed, cynical and wasted.
- p. 13.
- It is desperately hard these days for an average child to grow up to be a man, for our present organized system does not want men. They are not safe.
- p. 14.
- It is hard to grow up in a society in which one’s important problems are treated as nonexistent. It is impossible to belong to it, it is hard to fight to change it.
- p. 36.
- The ideal of having a real job that you risk your soul in and make good or be damned, belongs to the heroic age of capitalist enterprise, imbued with self-righteous beliefs about hard work, thrift, and public morals. Such an ideal might still have been mentioned in public fifty years ago; in our era of risk-insured semimonopolies and advertised vices it would be met with a ghastly stillness.
- pp. 36-37.
- To want a job that exercises a man’s capacities in an enterprise useful to society, is utopian anarcho-syndicalism; it is labor invading the domain of management. No labor leader has entertained such a thought in our generation. Management has the “sole prerogative” to determine the products.
- p. 37.
- Because of their historical theory of the “alienation of labor” (that the worker must become less and less in control of the work of his hands) the Marxist parties never fought for the man-worthy job itself.
- p. 37.
- The aim is not to give human beings real goals that warrant belief, and tasks to share in, but to re-establish “belonging,” although this kind of speech and thought is precisely calculated to avoid contact and so makes belonging impossible.
- p. 38.
- A boy of ten or eleven has a few great sexual experiences—he thinks they’re great—but then he has the bad luck to get caught and get in trouble. They try to persuade him by punishment and other explanations that some different behavior is much better, but he knows by the evidence of his senses that nothing could be better. … The basic trouble here is that they do not really believe he has had the sexual experience. That objective factor is inconvenient for them; therefore it cannot exist. … The sensible course would be to accept it as a valuable part of further growth. But if this were done, they fear that the approved little hero would be a rotten apple to his peers, who now would suddenly all become precocious, abnormal, artificially stimulated, and prone to delinquency. The sexual plight of these children is officially not mentioned. The revolutionary attack on hypocrisy by Ibsen, Freud, Ellis, Dreiser, did not succeed this far. … The question here is not whether the sexuality should be discouraged or encouraged. That is an important issue, but far more important is that it is hard to grow up when existing facts are treated as though they do not exist. For then there is no dialog, it is impossible to be taken seriously, to be understood, to make a bridge between oneself and society.
- pp. 38-39.
- Where there is official censorship it is a sign that speech is serious. Where there is none, it is pretty certain that the official spokesmen have all the loud-speakers.
- p. 40.
- During childhood, they played games with fierce intensity, giving themselves as sacrifice to the game, for play was the chief business of growth, finding and making themselves in the world. Now when they are too old merely to play, to what shall they give themselves with fierce intensity? They cannot play for recreation, since they have not been used up. … Since each activity is not interesting to begin with, its value does not deepen and it does not bear much repetition. … In these circumstances, the inevitable tendency is to raise the ante of the compulsive useless activity.
- p. 42.
- As Frederic Thrasher says in The Gang, “Other things being equal, the imaginative boy has an excellent chance to become the leader of the gang. He has the power to make things interesting for them.” … After a disastrous week when there were several juvenile murders, the Governor of New York made the following statement (New York Times, September 2, 1959): “We have to constantly devise new ways to bring about a challenge to these young folks and to provide an outlet for their energies and give them a sense of belonging.” … The gist of it is that the Governor of New York is to play the role that Thrasher assigns to the teen-age gang leader. He is to think up new “challenges.” … But it is the word “constantly” that is the clue. A challenge can hardly be worth while, meaningful, or therapeutic if another must constantly and obsessively be devised to siphon off a new threat of “energy.” … Solidly meeting real needs does not have this character. My guess is that in playing games the Governor will not have so lively an imagination as the lad he wants to displace as leader; unlike the grownups, the gang will never select him. One of the objective factors that make it hard to grow up is that Governors are likely to be men of mediocre human gifts.
- pp. 42-43.
- We define boredom as the pain a person feels when he’s doing nothing or something irrelevant, instead of something he wants to do but won’t, can’t, or doesn’t dare. Boredom is acute when he knows the other thing and inhibits his action, e.g., out of politeness, embarrassment, fear of punishment or shame. Boredom is chronic if he has repressed the thought of it and no longer is aware of it. A large part of stupidity is just the chronic boredom, for a person can’t learn, or be intelligent about, what he’s not interested in, when his repressed thoughts are elsewhere. (Another large part of stupidity is stubbornness, unconsciously saying, “I won’t. You can’t make me.”)
- pp. 71-72.
- Not to teach the whole curriculum is to give up on the whole man.
- p. 83.
- The “brightness” of the 15 percent might or might not indicate a profound feeling for the causes of things; it is largely verbal and symbol-manipulating, and is almost certainly partly an obsessional device not to know and touch risky matter, just as Freud long ago pointed out that the nagging questions of small children are a substitute for asking the forbidden questions.
- p. 85.
- We certainly have at present the dismal situation that the most imaginative men are directed by a group, the top managers, who are among the least.
- p. 94.
- Children, if we observe them, seem normally to be abounding in simple faith. They rush headlong and there is ground underfoot. They ask for information and are told. They cry for something and get it or are refused, but they are not disregarded. They go exploring and see something interesting. It is the evil genius of our society to blight, more or less disastrously, this faith of its young as they grow up; for our society does not, for most, continue to provide enough worth-while opportunities and relevant duties, and soon it ceases to take them seriously as existing.
- pp. 139-140.
- The irony is that in our decades, the combination of rationalism, asceticism, and individualism (the so-called Protestant Ethic) has produced precisely the system of boondoggling, luxury-consumption, and status.
- p. 143.
- The ancient dream of man to fly among the stars and go through the could and look down on the lands and seas has degenerated in its realization to the socialized and apathetic behavior of passengers who hardly look out the windows.
- p. 144.
- When the sciences are supreme, average people lose their feeling of causality.
- p. 144.
- A well-known magazine asks a man how they should refer to him, as Psychologist X, as Author X? He suggests man of letters, for that is what he is, in the eighteenth-century meaning. But they can’t buy that because the word doesn’t exist in Time-style; he cannot be that, and presumably the old function of letters cannot exist.
- p. 145.
- Freud pointed out, in his Problem of Lay Analysis, that it is extremely unlikely that a young man who would throw the best years of his life into the cloistered drudgery of getting an M.D. degree, could possibly make a good psychoanalyst; so he preferred to look for young analysts among the writers, the lawyers, the mothers of families, those who had chosen human contact. But in their economic wisdom, the Psychoanalytic Institute of Vienna (and New York) overruled him.
- pp. 145-146.
- One striking characteristic of modern education is the unanimous disapproval of exploiting the powerful feeling of shame. … Yet in ancient education, e.g. in the Socratic dialogs, this very arousal of shame is a chief device; the teacher greets the hot flush as a capital sign that the youth is educable, he has noble aims. Such a youth has dignity in his very shame.
The difference seems to be that we cannot offer available opportunities for honor, we do not have them; and therefore we must protect what shreds of dignity the youth has. Since he has no future, if we make him ashamed of his past and present, he is reduced to nothing. In other ages, the community had plenty of chances of honor, and to belong to the community itself was an honor.
- p. 149.
- Boys today hardly aspire to immortal honor, the honor of self-fulfilling achievement. It is highly disapproved of in the code of the organized system. Instead, they devote themselves to protecting their “personal honor” against insults; and conversely they dream of the transient notoriety which will prove that they are “somebody,” which they doubt. The personal honor that they protect does not include truthfulness, honesty, public usefulness, integrity, independence, or virtues like that. A reputation for these things does not win respect, it has no publicity value; it’s believed to be phony anyway, and if it’s true, the person is hard to get along with.
- pp. 150-151.
- The way in which our society does do honor to its indubitably great men … is a study in immunizing people against their virus. … They are the menagerie of Very Important People who exist only for ceremonial occasions. … The effectually prevents the two practical uses that we could make of them. We neither take seriously the simple, direct, fearless souls that they invariably are, whether humble or arrogant, to model ourselves after them because they make more sense as human beings; nor do we have recourse the them to help us when we have need of exceptional purity, magnanimity, profundity, or imagination.
- p. 152.
- Few great men could pass personnel.
- p. 153.
- We do not behave as if we believed that the affairs of our world were significant enough for the intervention of great men.
- p. 153.
- When we choose a man to beautify our towns, we do not automatically call on the major artists of the world. … We now lavishly praise Frank Lloyd Wright, but we never made any community use of him, though he longed for the chance.
- p. 153.
- To consider powerful souls as if they were a useful public resource is quite foreign to our customs. In a small sense it is undemocratic, for it assumes that some people really know better in a way that must seem arbitrary to most. In a large sense it is certainly democratic, in that it makes the great man serve as a man.
- pp. 153-154.
- It is a major defect of our present organized system and the economy of abundance that, without providing great goals, it has taken away some of the important real necessities, leaving people with nothing to do.
The void is soon filled. Behavior like going into debt on the installment plan, gives an artificial but then real necessity, something to do, paying up. This is the Rat Race, but I doubt that it would be run if people did not need its justifying necessity, for the commodities themselves are not that attractive.
- p. 154.
- Can they solve the problem of the nagging unanswerable question of justification and vocation? Their principle is the traditional one of classical mysticism: by “experiences” (“kicks”) to transcend the nagged and nagging self altogether and get out of one’s skin, to where no questions are asked—nor is there any articulate speech to ask them in.
- p. 156.
- In such an environment there operates an unfortunate natural selection. Since not only the rewards but also the means and opportunities of public activity belong to the organized system, a bright boy will try to get ahead in it. He will do well in school, keep out of trouble, and apply for the right jobs. It would follow from this that the organized system is sparked by a good proportion of the bright boys, and so it is. On the other hand, in sheer self-protection, smart boys who are sensitive, have strong animal spirits or great souls, cannot play that game. There are two alternative possibilities: (1) Either the advantages of the organized system cause them to inhibit their powers, and they turn into cynical pushers or obsessional specialists or timid hard workers that make up the middle status of the system. Or (2) their natural virtues and perhaps alternative training are too strong and they become independents; but as such they are hard put, not so much hard put for money as for means to act; and so they are likely to become bitter, eccentric, etc., and so much the less effective in changing the system they disapprove
- p. 157.
- The paucity of its vocabulary and syntax is for the Beats essentially expressive of withdrawal from the standard civilization and its learning. On the other hand this paucity gives, instead of opportunities for thought and problem solving, considerable satisfaction in the act and energy of speaking itself, as is true of any simple adopted language, such as pig Latin. But this can have disadvantages. One learns to one’s frustration that they regard talk as an end in itself, as a means of self-expression, without subject matter. In a Beat group it is bad form to assert or deny a proposition as true or false, probable or improbable, or to want to explore its meaning.
- (describing the language of the “Beat” generation, p. 175.
- Let me formulate the artistic disposition as follows: it is reacting with one’s ideal to the flaw in oneself and in the world, and somehow making that reaction formation solid enough in the medium so that it indeed becomes an improved bit of real world for others.
- p. 176.
- In a milieu of resignation, where the young men think of society as a closed room in which there are no values but the rejected rat race, … it is extremely hard to aim at objective truth or world culture. One’s own products are likely to be personal or parochial.
- p. 179.
- An awkward consequence of heightening experience when one is inexperienced, of self-transcendence when one has not much world to lose, is that afterward one cannot be sure that one was somewhere or had newly experienced anything. If you aren’t much in the world, how do you know you are “out of this world”?
- p. 183.
- Their religion is unfeasible, for one cannot richly meet the glancing present … without long discipleship and secure sustenance.
- p. 189.
- In our truly remarkable an unexampled civil peace, where there are rarely fist fights; where no one is born, is gravely ill, or dies; where meat is eaten but no one sees an animal slaughtered; where scores of millions of cars, trains, elevators, and airplanes go their scheduled way and there is rarely a crash; where an immense production proceeds in orderly efficiency and the shelves are duly clears—and nevertheless none of this come to joy or tragic grief or any other final good—it is not surprising if there are explosions.
- p. 209.
- Literary critics like Lionel Trilling … demand that our novels illuminate the manners and morals of prevailing society. Professor Trilling is right, because otherwise what use are they for us? But he is wrong-headed, because he does not see that the burden of proof is not on the artist but on our society. If such convenient criticism of prevalent life does not get to be written, it is likely that the prevailing society is not inspiring enough; its humanity is not great enough, it does not have enough future, to be worth the novelist’s trouble.
- p. 214.