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Reintroducing Paul Goodman, the 'Public Intellectual'

A new documentary film, "Paul Goodman Changed My Life," tells the at-times risqué story of the seminal public intellectual of the American left whose impact evaporated after his death in 1972.
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Once upon a time, there was something called a "public intellectual," and writer/pacifist/political radical/bisexual Paul Goodman was practically its template. Brilliant and witty, a New Left guru and regular TV presence on shows like William F. Buckley's Firing Line, Goodman was particularly famous thanks to his enormously influential 1959 book, Growing Up Absurd, in which he argued that society was so morally corrupt, youthful rebellion and disaffection actually signified mental health.

"He's a wonderful example of an intellectual who was active as a citizen, who cared about young people, and that there were things that were deficient in our society that were upsetting them," says Jonathan Lee, director of Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a new documentary showing around the country on October 19.

"[Goodman] really appointed himself to be this public intellectual," adds Lee, "and he was reaching people by what he was saying, how he was saying it. He sparked something in young people, that there's not something wrong with you."

If nothing else, Lee's film is a terrific introduction to Goodman's life and work, especially since his death in 1972, Goodman has been almost forgotten. But as the film makes clear, for a time Goodman was a major figure on the American left, and a thinker whose ideas about education, city planning, warfare, psychiatry (he practiced as a Gestalt therapist) and other topics are as startling and relevant today as they were more than 40 years ago. He was also out as a lover of men in an era when homosexuality was criminalized, and he was a critically acclaimed poet who wrote about his sexual preferences.

"I think he made people uncomfortable," says Susan Sontag in the film. "He was a professional outsider."

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He was also, it appears, a difficult person to be around. "To want to live truthfully meant he could hardly live with anybody," says Grace Paley, who befriended Goodman in the Vietnam era anti-war movement. Described as ornery and difficult by various people, Goodman traveled through life with an expression of "slight bemusement" on his face. He also had a very unconventional personal side: a married man with two children (one of whom died young in a climbing accident), Goodman was notorious for hitting on almost anything that moved, man or woman, age no barrier.

"He didn't suffer fools, unless they were physically attractive," says composer Ned Rorem of Goodman's sexual tastes. Adds Paley: "He was a big dope to go cruising on the piers."

But he did.


Despite this randy nature, Goodman still had major cred as a thinker. His plan to ban private cars from Manhattan, written in 1961, still makes plenty of sense. And his critique of the military-industrial complex and the endless wars that feed it is certainly germane in 2011.

Unfortunately, Goodman lived long enough to see his star decline. The premature death of his son shattered him emotionally. And as the Vietnam War ground onward, he eventually lost his biggest audience, the student movement, over tactical issues.

"The New Left became more and more unhinged because they weren't able to stop the war in Vietnam," Lee. "Their politics and views changed. When [activist Students for a Democratic Society] was formed it was trying to pay attention to American realities, but as the '60s went on, it transformed into something else, so the student left was advocating violent revolution. Goodman felt they had lost their way, to be advocating a violent revolution in the United States was pure fantasy. He was an idealist, and he was also a realist."

Lee thinks it's time to reintroduce Goodman back into the mainstream, and maybe he's right. If nothing else, there are plenty of prominent people for whom the title of his film holds real meaning, from Noam Chomsky to Nicholas von Hoffman and the Living Theatre's Judith Malina. That helps explain why three compilations of Goodman's writings have been released in the past year, although strangely enough Growing Up Absurd remains out of print.

"The publishing industry is straining to put books on the shelf that will sell fast and easy, and we as a society have very little interest in the past," Lee says of this omission. "Goodman died in 1972, he had his 15 minutes of fame, and the political climate shifted way to the right. There weren't the kind of broad movements that created his kind of thinking, that we can make the world better for all of us. So it becomes an uphill struggle to restore some of our history, and the ideas of people like Paul Goodman."

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