A Valentine for Max Eastman (The New Yorker)

A Valentine for Max Eastman


Love and work, Freud said, were the keys to life, but there have been
those who found these words tinctured by a more than minimal Teutonic
puritanism, with “love” meaning mostly marriage and “work” meaning
really work. What if, instead, some thought, “love” meant at least partly pleasure,
including sex, and “work” meant less a means of accumulating goods, even
intellectual goods, than of liberating others to find love, too? Chief
among those dissidents was a man whose name ought to, though it likely
never does, come to mind on Valentine’s Day—a man who, especially here
in New York, should be the day’s secular patron saint—and that is the
maverick American essayist and memoirist Max Eastman, who flourished from the teens of the last century right up to his death, in 1969, with a high-water mark in the nineteen-twenties.

Eastman’s name is now more a rumor than a reputation, a fact not
sufficiently altered by the appearance, last year, of “Max Eastman: A Life,” a perhaps too besotted biography by Christoph Irmscher. Eastman
was a radical essayist who was genuinely radical: radical about
politics, about literature, about sex, and, finally, about love. He
started out as a leftist—he was a close friend and confidant of
Trotsky’s—but one without a trace of authoritarianism. He later became a
Tory—he wrote for William Buckley’s National Review—without a single
fever spot of reactionary nostalgia. He fell out with Communism for
being too cruel, and with Conservatism for being too religious, and with
both of them for being too dogmatic for actual people to live within.
Meanwhile, he fell in love with innumerable women—though Irmscher works
hard at enumerating them, a task a little like enumerating Sandy
Koufax’s fastballs. Semi-miraculously, given our current state, Eastman
seems never to have alienated, mistreated, abused, or betrayed any of
them—or not unforgivably so. He loved them, and they, mostly,
loved him right back. He is, truly, a Valentine’s hero to celebrate.

Eastman’s double reputation as a writer and a lover can seem a little
out of whack, since the writing is mostly politics and the love mostly
not. If his memory lingers, these days, it is probably as the editor and
chief writer for The Masses, the great radical magazine of the First
World War period. Charged with sedition, and facing a real risk of
imprisonment, Eastman bravely stood up for socialism during a famous
trial by admitting that it might well be a “beautiful mistake” but that,
even if it was, it was still worth having new ideas about it, just in
case the ideas were right. It was a classical liberal defense of a
radical idea. (The editors were acquitted.)

Eastman had a fine mind, but he had something rarer, and that was a
first-rate American style. Light in touch and serious in purpose, even
when in peril, he was committed to his cause but also capable of genuine
self-deprecating humor, not merely the “biting wit” beloved of bad
polemicists. Eastman was an original, a political writer
who works out of idiomatic poetry. His matchless essays on friendship
capture his intimates—not only Trotsky but Chaplin and Einstein and
Edna Millay were real friends, not just professional acquaintances—as
people, even as he places them in their time. He sooner or later got to
know everybody—he took issue with Freud’s dicta in the context of his
personal knowledge of the man. Indeed, Eastman’s portrait of Freud is
about as vivid as any we have: “He was smaller than I expected,
slender-limbed and [with] something softer about him than you expect—tenderer, perhaps, or more feminine. . . . Genius is a nervous phenomenon and,
except for the steam-roller variety that has come to the front in the
totalitarian states, it involves delicacy. . . . His voice was a little thin too,
as though he were purposely holding back half his breath in order to
be mischievous.”

Eastman had his faults, as we all do. Like many men who love too well,
he had too little love left over for his son, since kids need not
overflowing passion but uncomplaining patience and unostentatious
presence—just being there. Lovers are children, of a kind, and children
can’t have children. And the most complicated and deepest love of his
life was also the one that turned most tragic. She was an
extraordinarily instinctive and accomplished young actress named
Florence Deshon, a great beauty who could also go toe to toe with him
about ideas. Usually, when you read old love letters—particularly, sexy
old love letters—they feel dated and more than a little embarrassing,
nothing changing as fast as the language of erotic euphemism, but
Eastman and Deshon’s poems and letters to each other, some of which are
reproduced in Irmscher’s biography, are giddy-making in their sexual
candor and shared intelligence. (Eastman took inspiration, and courage,
from Whitman.) Deshon went off to Hollywood to become a Sam Goldwyn
contract player, and while she was there she had a passionate affair
with Charlie Chaplin. She was too smart for a woman of that vintage in
Hollywood, as Louise Brooks was a little later on, so she came back to
New York, where she then either did or did not take her own life, with
gas, in a Greenwich Village apartment. It broke Eastman’s heart—or, at
least, broke a piece of it right off. (The story of that triangle would
make a fine piece of theatre, particularly musical theatre.)

The dream of making a liberal society on a foundation of free love
rather than of free markets is much mocked, but that doesn’t make it
absurd. Indeed, right now, free love—the acceptance of all our varieties
of attraction—seems to have a much better track record for helping
happiness happen than free markets do. Looking back at our time,
historians may have doubts about neoliberalism, but no one watching Adam
Rippon skate at the Olympics can doubt that human happiness has been
increased by letting people love as they like.

Political radicalism, from Robespierre to Mao, can often bend toward
puritanism, flashingly illuminated only by hypocrisy, as with Mao’s
mistresses. The number of genuinely epicurean radicals can be counted
quickly, but theirs is an example to be savored slowly. There’s John
Wilkes, the people’s tribune and the libertine’s libertine, in
eighteenth-century Britain; Georges-Jacques Danton, a man too large in spirit
for the murderous bureaucrats of the French Revolution; and certainly
both Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom Eastman loved but never won, and Emma
Goldman, who was far braver about embracing the varieties of sexual
desire than most people of her time.

Not all of them were admirable people, but Eastman emerges largely
unstained. He wrote, “Though I love life for all men and women, and so
inevitably stand in the ranks of revolution against the cruel system of
these times, I love it also for myself. And its essence—the essence of
life—is variety and specific depth. It cannot be found in the monotonous
consecration of a general principle.” The beauty and the bravery of his
rhetoric rather masks the truth that variety and specific depth are not
the same thing but opposites, or, at best, complements. Max loved with
specific depth, yet he also sought variety, and could never escape the eternal tussle between the two. But a radical voice that is both
unabashedly for equality and unapologetically for appetite feels as
welcome these days as the pealing of a bright bell at morning. These
are, after all, the same thoughts that Camus and Saint-Exupéry both
later placed at the heart of their postwar philosophy: the primacy of
irreducible individuals and concrete reality against the brutality of
abstraction. You can’t love roses, only a rose—or, in Max Eastman’s
case, a couple of roses—at a time. It’s a thought that is, to use his
own language, the essence of Valentine’s Day.

via The New Yorker

February 14, 2018 at 12:57PM