Political theorist Marshall Berman, who was my colleague at the CUNY Graduate Center, died yesterday morning.
When I heard the news last night, my first thought was the date: 9/11. There’s no good day to die, but to die on a day so associated with death — whether the murder of nearly 3000 people on 9/11/2001, most of them in his beloved New York, or the 9/11/1973 coup in Chile that brought down Allende and installed Pinochet — seems, in Marshall’s case, like an especially cruel offense against the universe.
For as anyone who knew or read him knows, Marshall was a man of irrepressible and teeming life. The life of the street, which he immortalized in his classic All That’s Solid Melts Into Air; the life of sex and liberation, which he talked about in The Politics of Authenticity (read the section on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters; you’ll never read that book the same way again); the life of high art and popular culture, whether it was the Sex Pistols or hip-hop.
Marshall took in everything; his portion was the world. The only thing he couldn’t abide, couldn’t take in, was ugliness and cruelty. If he had to die, it should have been on May Day — not just the May Day of internationalist radical politics (though that too is a commemoration of death) but the May Day of pagan spring, of dance and song, of maypoles and fertility rituals.
And yet there is something about that date — 9/11 — that seems appropriate. For Marshall’s vision of life bursting was inextricably linked to his awareness of death and destruction. All That’s Solid Melts Into Air, which takes its name from that famous line in The Communist Manifesto, is a paean to the divided experience that is modernity: the loss of the old world paired with the creation of the new, decay as the condition of construction. Whenever I think of Marshall, I think of that line from Osip Mandelstam’s poem Notre Dame: “I too one day shall create / Beauty from cruel weight.” (Oddly, though Marshall wrote about Mandelstam at length in All That’s Solid, he never mentioned this poem.)
All That’s Solid is one of those rare texts of theory that is really a memoir, a deeply personal revelation of its author’s being. Like Rousseau’s Second Discourse or Said’s Orientalism, it is intensely, almost unbearably, intimate. Formally a discussion of Marx and modernism, it is the biography of a man who saw his world come to an end as a teenager, during the fateful year of 1953, when Robert Moses came blasting through his neighborhood in the East Tremont section of the South Bronx. The cause was the Cross Bronx Expressway, but in that cause and its demonic villain, Berman found his muse, his Faust, his Fleurs du Mal.
Growing up in suburban Westchester in the 1970s, I remember driving above the South Bronx on those long arterial stretches and looking down and out on the devastation. But it was not till I read Marshall that I understood its source or at least one of its sources: the wrecking ball of a mad urban genius, who set out to reconstruct an entire city as if it were nothing more than a system of highways, an expressway to get people and goods from one end to the other.
Robert Moses is the man who made all this possible. When I heard Allen Gisnberg ask [in Howl] at the end of the 1950s, “Who was that sphinx of cement and aluminum,” I felt sure at once that, even if the poet didn’t know it, Moses was his man. Like Ginsberg’s “Moloch, who entered my soul early,” Robert Moses and his public works had come into my life just before my Bar Mitzvah, and helped bring my childhood to an end.
[ . . . ]
For ten years, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the center of the Bronx was pounded and blasted and smashed. My friends and I would stand on the parapet of the Grand Concourse, where 174th Street had been, and survey the work’s progress — the intense steam shovels and bulldozers and timber and steel beams, the hundreds of workers in their variously colored hats, the giant cranes reaching far above the Bronx’s tallest roofs, the dynamite blasts and tremors, the wild, jagged crags of rock newly torn, the vistas of devastation stretching for miles to the east and west as far as the eye could see — and marvel to see our ordinary nice neighborhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.
In college, when I discovered Piranesi, I felt instantly at home. Or I would return from the Columbia library to the construction site and feel myself in the midst of the last act of Goethe’s Faust. (You had to hand it to Moses: his works gave you ideas.)
Right there, in that last line, is the man. Standing amid ruins, he reaches for the flowers of high culture, then cracks wise. That was Marshall. That was modernity. Marshall’s modernity. “We come from ruins,” he said in Ric Burns’s documentary on New York, “but we’re not ruined.” (H/T Bryan Waterman)
Marshall liked to sign off his emails with “Shalom.” I used to think he meant simply “Peace.” But shalom, of course, also means “hello” and “goodbye.” That too was Marshall: every hello was a goodbye, every arrival a departure.
Though I first met Marshall in 1999 and was his colleague for nearly a decade, I didn’t know him well. We served on committees together, we shared students and an office (the first copy of Treitschke’s Politics that I read was his, though he never knew it), and he treated me to stories about his son, his ambivalence about Israel, and more.
And yet I feel like I knew him: not only from his work but from the legions of students who loved him, who came to the Graduate Center just to work with him, and regaled me with stories of his kibitzing genius. He was one of those rare advisers (Michael Denning at Yale was like this too) who tossed off a sentence from which an entire dissertation grew.
You’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about if you listen to him in these three clips from Burns’s documentary (thanks to Josh Kamensky for uploading the first, and to Bryan Waterman and Cyrus Pattell for uploading the second and third; make sure to read Bryan’s wonderful appreciation).
Here in the first he talks about Corbusier as an inspiration to Robert Moses; both of them, says Marshall, were “metaphysicians” of traffic. Just listen to the pungent beauty of Marshall’s words, and you’ll know the man: “We have to merge with the cars . . . the flow that would never end . . . kill the street.”
And here he is talking about the arrival of Moses and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Again, listen out for that pairing of cruelty and beauty.
And finally here he is talking about graffiti on the subway.
Marshall was our Manhattan Socrates: not the arch dialectician but the philosopher in and of the street, not the aggressive asker of questions but the ambler in the boulevard, the man who seeks wisdom in the agora, in the conversation of Times Square, the walker in the city, the man who died among friends.