Tuesday, November 05, 2019

'Max Shied Away from Lunacy'

With not a drop of nostalgia I remember the Age of Magazines. Our family at various times subscribed to Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic. We were not bookish people. My father took Field and Stream, though he was neither a hunter nor a fisherman; my mother, McCall’s, Better Homes and Gardens and other women’s magazines. All of that plus two daily newspapers and a weekly. At the public library I read The New Republic, Commonweal and National Review. At a bookstore in the late Sixties I discovered Hearst’s Eye magazine and taped its “Rock Pile” poster to my bedroom wall. I also found Ramparts, the trendy Leftist magazine edited by Warren Hinckle.

Ramparts came to mind unexpectedly while I was reading S.N. Behrman’s Conversation with Max (Hamish Hamilton, 1960). In the final chapter, “The Last Civilized Voice,” Behrman writes of Beerbohm: “Max shied away from lunacy not only in its violent forms but also in its milder forms, one of them being utopianism.”

Immediately I thought of the cover of the April 1970 issue of Ramparts which proclaims “Utopia Now!” I was two months from graduating from high school but even I could see the lunacy of such an infantile demand. The cover was keyed to an unreadable text by the Marxist crank Herbert Marcuse, a briefly influential busybody and father of “repressive tolerance.” Few think of Beerbohm as a sophisticated political thinker but most of us can agree that concerted striving after utopia is a one-way street to the Gulag. Behrman continues:

“‘Good sense about trivialities is better than nonsense about things that matter,’ he once said. He had a horror of utopians, a suspicion of ‘big ideas.’ Some of Shaw’s writings bored him, because they were impressments into what he called ‘the strait-jacket of panacea.’ The effort to force men into this strait-jacket had caused untold misery and suffering to the human race, he thought. . . . For Max, even to take oneself entirely seriously was a form of insanity.”

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