… has died. Here’s a good remembrance.
“[W]hy should a people want to know modern art?” Berman asks in a review of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. “What can it give them? Pamuk doesn’t offer a single ringing answer, but here’s a start: A global horizon and an expansive flow of empathy, a feeling for irony and complexity, a capacity to embrace contradictory ideas and believe and love them both.”
Berman’s one of those rare writers whose style, in almost everything he writes, is as much cheer-leading as arguing. You can always feel his tumbling excitement for the ‘sixties modernism he lived, his unapologetic nostalgia for the wraparound avant-gardism of post-war American cities:
As an ironic result of the flight of capital from American cities after World War II, every city gained grungy low-rent neighborhoods that could incubate bookstores and art studios and modern dance groups, experimental theatres, venues for jazz and folk music and performance, and the sort of shabby clubs and coffee houses and music stores and cabarets that nourished Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May and Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. New York’s Village (first West, then East) is what I knew, but there were neighborhoods like this all over America. Late in the 1950s, they started to fill up with kids from all over metropolitan areas who could read the little magazines and the Grove Press paperbacks in the bookstores, hang out in streets and play their guitars in parks, hear sounds of music that carried from clubs they couldn’t afford to go to, find intense people like themselves to walk and talk with through the night, and maybe to grope and love.
Grungy, shabby, grope: This is the loose-limbed prose that accompanies Berman’s perpetual enthusiasm for the intense, generative, experimental life that modernity’s secularity and freedom, and urbanism’s moment-to-moment dynamism, allow. Few wrote as evocatively, as convincingly, as he did about the importance of cultivating a critical consciousness and a rebellious life (Isaac Rosenfeld could match him, I guess — though Rosenfeld brought much more jaded eyes to the scene; and there’s the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer…).
Like anyone writing with seriousness and commitment in this Blakeian tradition, he was easy to mock. But Berman held aloft a certain comprehensive modernist ideal, and it’s the same ideal that a postmodern writer like Don DeLillo, in a novel like Underworld, with its long Lenny Bruce soliloquies, is exploring. And pursuing.