Edmund White

On Paul Goodman

by Edmund White

Paul Goodman was always someone I wanted to meet and never did meet. I moved to New York in 1962 and never met any published writers at all until I was 29. I used to have dreams about meeting Susan Sontag and Paul Goodman—they were very vivid dreams in which we spoke to each other and they offered to advise me and help me get published. Fifteen years later I did get to know Sontag and for a few years we were very very close until we had a falling out, but she did indeed blurb one of my early novels and recommend me for a prize, which I received. Paul Goodman, who was even more famous than Sontag in the Sixties, remained more elusive and he had died by the time he was 61 in 1972.

Though I didn’t know him his spirit got mixed up in my mind with everything that was progressive about New York—rational city planning, good liberaleducation reform, an end to racism, an end to poverty, an end to war. Then, as a gay man, I was blown away by the publication of his diaries in 1966, a book called Five Years in which he talked about having sex at the docks, which was something I was doing—and about all his mixed feelings about being gay and bisexual. Later, in 1969, he wrote another stunning essay called “Being Queer.”

In that essay he wrote that ” the illegal and catch-as-catch-can nature of much homosexuul life at present breaks down other conventional attitudes. Although I wish I could have had my parties with less apprehension and more unhurriedly, yet it has been an advantage to learn that the ends of docks, the backs of trucks, back alleys, behind the stairs, abandoned bunkers on the beach, and the washrooms of trains are all adequate samples of all the space there is. For both bad and good, homosexual life retains some of the alarm and excitement of childish sexuality.”

For a long time, due to the practices connected with the transmission of HIV, this playful, transgressive, intimate but impersonal view of sex fell out of favor. But Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips in an exciting new book about to be published, Intimacy, take up a point of view that might have been Goodman’s if he were alive today. In a reading of Socrates’ theory of love from Plato’s Phaedrus, Bersani and Phillips call for a new form of intimacy which they term “impersonal narcissism”: a divestiture of the ego and a recognition of one’s non-psychological potential self in others. This revolutionary way of relating to the world, they contend, could lead to a new human freedom by mitigating the horrifying violence we blithely accept as part of human nature.

Paul Goodman argued for the way that gay life broke down social and racial barriers, even the barriers between generations. Even, in his case, the barrier between straight and gay, for finally he was a bisexual—that most dreaded sort of interstitial being.

Goodman was both a utopian and a very practical person. He always thought in terms of concrete situations and problems-of problem-solving. But he was the opposite of a cold technocrat. He was a visionary who believed that there were people of good will and intelligence out there. I am delighted to be among such a group tonight—and finally to meet Paul Goodman if not in the flesh than in the spirit.

—remarks made on April 17, 2008 at a fundraising event for the film in New York City