“You and your book have depoliticized Brazillian
youth. When that book came out, they cared for
each other, for other people, for their country. Now
they only want to make money, thanks to you.”
--Rio de Janiero, 2010
“Are you Marshall Berman? Ten years ago, I was
in the hospital. Your book got me out.”
--Downtown Manhattan, 2011
This book of mine, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, has been an adventure, maybe the great adventure of my life. Over three decades, it has had more intense reverberations than anything I’ve ever done, reverberations just around the corner, reverberations thousands of miles away. It has amazed me to see total strangers respond to it with passion. Sometimes, it has helped them, in ways that have thrilled me. Sometimes it has enraged them, like something disgusting and loathsome. For all these years, the book seems to have been there for people. It has been through plenty of history, and it has helped me become part of the history of places whose history I never knew.
All That Is Solid is actually my second book. My first book, called The Politics of Authenticity, a discussion of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the Enlightenment, was published by Atheneum Books in 1970. Alas, my publisher lost interest in it, and sold the whole edition to a big discount house, before it actually came out. It got a couple of nice reviews, and a couple of nasty ones. (One of the nasty ones said books like mine helped to “destroy civilization”.) I am glad to say it has been reprinted, and is available again. During the 1970s I wrote many critical articles, for the New York Times Book Review, the Nation, Partisan Review, and Dissent (of which I am an editor today). I came to believe that my first book had not got across to the world because it had too narrow an expanse; the horizon of my next project needed to be larger. When I first conceived All That Is Solid, I imagined it in a very broad way: a vision of modern life with global scope, a cosmopolitan perspective that could embrace not only my neighborhood but the whole world, and that could help empower men and women everywhere. That was all! The book appeared in 1982, published by Simon and Schuster. Once again, it got a couple of enthusiastic reviews, but it didn’t seem to have much impact on anyone. Its publisher placed it in an ominous category of being: “Indefinitely Out of Stock”. This was a limbo that no one could penetrate. (I couldn’t even get the book to use in my classes.) It was only after a couple of years of nasty exchanges, and threats of lawsuits, that my agent Georges Borchardt pried the book loose. Now it was “out of print”, but at least I had “the rights”; now there was still a chance the book might have a future, might make it into the world after all.
Then, in the mid-1980s, even as I felt ignored—in a way I can see now that young writers often feel ignored—across various oceans, my book was getting discovered. It appeared in a wide range of places: the UK, Italy, Sweden, Spain/ Mexico, Brazil. The buzz in Latin America was especially striking. For years, Latin intellectuals had rejected the whole “modern” paradigm as an ideological weapon of the USA or of “the North”. But in All That Is Solid, a great many Latin Americans seemed to find a vision of the modern that they felt was about them.
This led to my visit to Brazil in the summer of 1987.
It was an uncanny time. In Andy Warhol’s phrase, I was famous for fifteen minutes. Not everybody loved me: I criticized Brasilia’s design for its lack of public space; then Oskar Niemeyer, the Communist Le Corbusier disciple who had designed the capital, told one of the national newspapers ---it was a page-one headline--“NIEMEYER : BERMAN IDIOTA!” But for plenty of Brazilians I was saying something they were sure was true but wouldn’t dare to say. In Sao Paulo, reporters met me at the plane, people stopped me on the streets, motorists honked their horns, strangers phoned me late at night. Everything I said seemed to evoke thunderous applause. I was acclaimed by people all over Brazil’s social order, from mayors and state governors, to shop stewards from the Metal Workers Union, Lula’s union—such brilliant people, I thought, Brazil would be so lucky if they ever got any power-- and then in the 2000s, under Lula, some of them really did get some power--to uniformed cooks and kitchen workers in my Sao Paulo hotel—a man in a kitchen uniform knocked on my door, said he loved my book, asked me to sign it, said I had many readers in the kitchen—I came down, spoke for a few minutes, and signed books I could tell had been seriously read; to a jazz singer who stopped her set to point me out; to a potter who saw me waiting for the bus, rushed out of his shop, and gave me a beautiful bowl “to say thank you.”
Once, on a radio talk show, I asked why Brazilians liked me so much. The moderator said that Latin America was used to Marxists who wore black suits like Jesuits and condemned everything; I was a Marxist who thought critically, but I wore color and celebrated love and happiness. A man from the audience added something: “You give a great commercial for freedom of speech.” For Brazilians, this was a time of hope. They were caught up in the process of becoming a modern and a democratic place. They were coming out of the shadows, after years of “dirty wars”. They could walk through the streets, without fear of being killed. Friends and children had stopped disappearing. Free speech was coming back. Could I be helping people talk again? Once, after explaining the Russian Revolution, I was asked if I could also explain my dream life: Did I have dreams in Brazil? How did they compare with my dreams in the USA? (Later, on the plane back to New York, as we cleared the mountains, I saw the answer: My whole month in Brazil has been a dream.)
Brazil was a thrill, but it also had a happy afterlife.
The tummel over there helped convince American publishers that my book could have a future here. American Penguin brought out a paperback in 1988, including a Preface (sadly dropped from Verso’s new 2010 Edition) that features Brazil and Dostoevsky. Like the UK’s Verso edition, the American Penguin has had limited but steady sales, over three decades. In the 1990s and 2000s, through the modern magic of translation, the book reached into some very different places: Iran, Poland, China, and back into Brazil, where there was a new translation just a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, it was translated into Lisbon Portugese (a different language, from the Brazilian, so they told me), Turkish, French, Korean, Polish, Chinese, Lithuanian; within the next few months, in Hebrew. My book has been around for thirty years. You could see it as part of a global culture, or as part of an argument that there is such a thing as global culture. I always had hopes for something like this, but it’s amazing to see old and deep fantasies come true.
Back in the USA the book made some nice things happen. Film-maker Ric Burns, after reading my New York chapter, brought me into the seven-hour documentary History of New York that he was creating for PBS, America’s Public Broadcasting Service. It was the best visual project I’ve ever been involved in. PBS soon placed the series in repertory; it plays a big role in recurrent PBS fund drives, and it gave me a whole new identity. I still get stopped in the streets or on the CCNY campus or honked at from trucks by people who know me only as “Berman the urbanist…that character on TV”.
But most of all, I talk to schools, all over the USA, all over the world. Schools are where I’m at home, and schools seem to be where people are most at home with me. The nice things and the nasty things people say about the book haven’t changed much, though much of the world has turned upside down. I try to talk across genres (which means, in schools, across departments): to show literary people how deeply modern literature, or at least a lot of it, is embedded in urban reality, and to show architects or planners how their projects and paradigms grow out of already developed cultural discourses and myths.
When I talk with urbanists, they want most to talk about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, polar stars of my chapter on New York. They are fascinated with the turbulent years when suddenly, in New York and other American cities, men and women began to think and act like citizens, and an urban public came into being. I was there for all this, and I love to tell the story; it still sounds fresh and vital. What stopped Robert Moses in his tracks was a great wave of collective learning. Americans came to see their cities could not be taken for granted, they were mortal and vulnerable, they needed to be nurtured and cared for, and ordinary people had the capacity to grasp the idea and act it out. In New York and other cities, despite their many polarizations, the horizon of empathy expanded: people came to see the point of keeping other people’s neighborhoods alive, even if they didn’t like the people and would never go to their neighborhoods or share their life. The 1960s featured millions of ordinary people who not only loved their cities, but thought like citizens. As this public developed, the Lebensraum for imperial bureaucrats shrank fast. When Moses died in 1981, he had come to feel, like so many of his victims—like my family in the 1950s-- displaced and desolate. But it was amazing, uncanny, that this should have happened. How come it happened? Is there anything that could make something like it happen again? I don’t know —you could say, the answers are blowing in the wind—but just to raise the questions is an education for us all.
Alongside my stories of modern progress and growth, there looms a vivid story of modern collapse and desolation: the ruins of the South Bronx. In the 1970s, I walked through those ruins obsessively, as if trying to penetrate to some mystical core. My quest for a core of meaning inside the ruins is one of the forces that drives All That Is Solid and gives it life.
But later, as years went by, I came to feel the ruins were too much for me, and I stayed away. I never thought it would change in my lifetime; I couldn’t imagine how. But then it was 2005, I was riding the “el” to the Bronx Zoo with my son and his class, passing directly through where I knew the wreckage was, I stood up, craned my neck, braced myself, and--THE RUINS WERE GONE! In their place, as the train rode north, I saw ordinary apartment houses, trucks unloading, kids on bikes, old people on folding chairs—the whole shmeer of everyday modern city life. “Look!” I said to the teachers on the train with me, “it looks like an ordinary city.“ They said, “well, isn’t the Bronx an ordinary city?” I noticed then how young they were. When “The Bronx [was] Burning!” these girls weren’t even born. Now, it looked like nothing special—and yet, miraculous. The South Bronx today is a great story, a fine instance of the resilience of modern cities, and of modern men and women, who have the capacity both to commit urbicide and to overcome it; to reduce their whole environment to ruins and to rebuild the ruins; to turn apocalyptic surreality into ordinary nice urban reality where any of us could feel at home.
The other group that has paid All That Is Solid special attention are the writers and critics from English and Comparative Literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic. They have especially enjoyed my take on Baudelaire, on the connection between metropolitan life and inner life. I have had many happy hours “doing” Baudelaire, bringing out his romance of a city of crowds, vibrating with mutual fantasy and desire. Baudelaire imagines a new form of writing that is also a new form of urban development, and also a new form of democratic citizenship, and also a new way of being fully alive.
But Literature departments were also the source of some pretty nasty attacks. People would denounce the universality of my horizon. They appointed themselves as Olympian judges of values, and said that I was “imposing modern values” on cultures that “have different values”. (Somehow they had picked up the authority to say what values were appropriate for everybody.) These cultures-- sometimes particular ones, geographically or religiously or ethnically defined, sometimes all cultures--were portrayed as innocent, and I was a kind of cultural rapist violating their innocence. Discussions of All That Is Solid got weird: critics took whatever features of modern life most disturbed them, and spoke as if I had magical power to make those things happen. Rage against my book often went with a reification of “tradition”: as if all the cultural, religious and political traditions in world history were alike; or as if they were uniformly benign; or as if people simply are whatever tradition they grew up with—are orthodox Jews, are Nordic farmers, are Sicilian fishermen, are devout Communists --and if they come to think differently, or secede from their parents’ world, or fall in love with the wrong people, or get the wrong ideas, it is only, as that man from Rio said, because “outside agitators” like me have messed their minds up.
For years I worried, How can I please these people? It took me awhile to get it: Forget it. It’s all part of a Culture War that has been going on since the Enlightenment. One of the weirdest facets of modernity is all the cultural energy that gets poured into a dreadful but ultimately hopeless quest to get out of modernity. Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” prophesies the power of this quest It is a primary source of the romance of totalitarianism--fascist, Stalinist, fundamentalist—that has driven so much modern history.
It would be dumb not to be sad about our time’s overflow of violence. Still, when I wrote All That Is Solid, I meant to enroll myself in those times. If some of that emotional violence is aimed at me, I have to say Yes when they call the roll.
Lately my book has been getting trashed by leftists --see that quote from Rio in 2110--who say my work and I are not left enough. I see modern bourgeois society as a mix, full of contradictions, creative as well as monstrous; such a vision, one recent critic says, marks me as a “collaborationist”. This sounds a lot like what some of Marx’s attackers on the left--Proudhon, Bakunin, and their dumb followers—used to say about him. Are they playing that song again? If he could take it, I can.
One great leap forward in the history of the worldwide left is the breakdown of Leninism, with its romance of “the vanguard”, and its contempt for democracy, civil liberties, and the people. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is one important symbol of this change. But even before that, within left institutions, times were a-changing. Nelson Mandela, while he was still a prisoner at Robben Island, was convinced (so he said) by fellow-prisoner Joe Slovo, a lifelong communist and fellow leader of the ANC, that a free South Africa would have to have a full separation of powers, a constitutional court that could overrule the legislature, and a bill of rights. It is clear today, as it should have been all along, that the left is committed to human rights. I’m glad I can pass the word on.
One human right that seems to embarrass both academic and political writers, who often leave it out, but that real people know is crucial to living a good life in the modern world, is the right to love. I have written about love (see Gretchen and Faust in Chapter One, and see The Politics of Authenticity), but not enough; I will write about it now, in my old age. Love is not just an accessory of meaning; it is central to what human life can mean. Ideas of love go back into ancient times, but for most of history it has been understood as a privilege—even though an often tragic one--available only to a privileged few. A prime meaning of modernity is that the horizon of love opens up to embrace everybody. In Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen, a girl who does housework and childcare, is transformed by love into a tragic Mensch. In Mozart’s Magic Flute, performed in the revolutionary year of 1791, the lovers are comic: the bird-catcher Papageno and his beloved Papagena, who rejoice in their commonness, threaten to steal the show. Once people have seen and heard them—and some of Mozart’s loveliest music is theirs--talking about love as a human right will seem perfectly natural. (And accounts of the opera that leave them out will sound very weird.) But what social conditions will it take? Here are a few: crowds of metropolitan density, where strangers can encounter each other and sometimes become loving couples; sexual freedom, where lovers can not only feel joy but learn intimacy, and discover each other in depth; freedom to marry, across the lines of class and religion and ethnicity, to make love the basis of lives that will carry life on.
Freedom to marry is a crucial issue. It suggests that Romeo and Juliet is our first modern play. Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story brings the tragedy home. Jane Austen’s novels are all about this; so are Shalom Aleichem’s stories, “Tevye and his Daughters”, and the 1960s musical drawn from them, Fiddler on the Roof. I have spent my working life in a school and a city that, in the late 20th century, have filled up more and more with immigrants. Our CCNY cafeteria is an amazing microcosm of the world. Yet many of the students in it have grown up in families and neighborhoods that are closed and exclusive, steeped in sexual and religious and ethnic taboos, walled off from the world. Love blooms where it will; but for couples, especially for women, who dare to “cross the lines”, the tragic potentialities are real. (Do you remember the stirring song by Tracy Chapman “Across the Lines”? If you don’t, type it in tonight!) Still, sometimes Papageno and Papagena overcome: you can see them together on Saturdays, shopping in markets or malls, exhausted but radiant, with strollers and kids in colors never known to man.
A great hero of love died not long ago: a black woman named Mildred Jeter Loving. She and her husband Robert married across the lines in the 1950s. The state of Virginia did all it could to destroy them; it focused its wrath particularly on her. But she pressed their case, and years later, the Supreme Court, in a thrilling decision, Loving v. Virginia (1967), destroyed all the barriers to marriage between blacks and whites. Some of these barriers are older than the USA itself; Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act goes back to the 1630s, not just to slavery, but to the earliest days of European settlement of the New World. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and Chief Justice Earl Warren deserve great credit for making this case happen. But the real heroes were the Lovings themselves, Papagena and Papageno confronting the dragons of a potentially free but still malevolent state. The Loving complex of ideas may soon, in the USA, become the constitutional basis for Gay Marriage. If that happens, it will be a great victory for the right to love. Loving will remind us that even in the most advanced countries in the world, modern rights are something men and women have to fight for.
Early in the 2000s, a grad student who came from the advertising business said he was glad to be reading a book that “has legs”. I liked the idiom, which denotes products, including cultural products, that have a shelf-life longer than other products. But I see now the term has another, richer meaning: the capacity to carry a product into regions the producer never dreamed of. This happened to my book a generation ago in Latin America, and now, in the 2000s, it has happened in the Middle East. Typically for our century, much of the change has happened on the Internet, but some of it happened—and is still happening—face to face.
Some new things unfolded right here in my own city, in the movement that the movers themselves called “Occupy Wall Street”. I’m not going to talk about this in any detail, except to say a couple of things. First, it is thrilling to be close to this tremendous outburst of intelligent energy, to be able to participate in it. Second, the concept of Occupy, its combination of critical militancy, social perspective, openness and self-satire, is an uncanny contribution to Modernist
Manhattan. My mother would have said, had she lived to see it, You can get there on the subway. Her point was that Manhattan is free enough that you can be there, and real people like all of us taking the subway to be there gives the event an unexpected existential power.)
But All That Is Solid also took on more life in countries with only the most fragile liberal and democratic traditions—or sometimes even less. In places where all parties have taken for granted the total passivity of the people, it is a thrill to see masses of people display themselves and engage the bad guys. They have real bastards and creeps above them, and it is likely to take many more winters before anything that they or we can recognize as spring can come. But that gives us time to affirm our solidarity with them, and to tell the world that “The Arab Spring” is “Not Just For Arabs.”
The current round of protest and fights for human rights in the Middle East began in Iran. Early in the 2000s, I started getting e-mail letters from Iranians. They introduced themselves; some told me they hoped they could speak their real names, but not yet; others, apparently younger, seemed more direct; two or three were young women. They said All That Is Solid was circulating in Farsi in bootleg form, and they all had found it a source of inspiration. In the early 2000s it came out as a book, an elegant forbidden book. A couple of years ago, I got one in the mail. [SHOW BOOK]
Some of my Iranian correspondents came from newspapers and magazines, all vulnerable; others were from Iran’s remarkable samizdat film industry. Some had been imprisoned and tortured. They shared a hatred for the theocratic police state, but some of the older writers also said they felt guilty for what happened to Iran in 1979. Then, they had disastrously “got it wrong”. Now, they hoped to have “a chance to get it right”. Thirty years in a police state had given them “some idea what freedom means.” One man said, “Maybe now Iran is ready to be modern.”
In 2008-09, messages from Iran grew more explicitly political. A liberal politician, who had been in prison for ten years, called me: would I please meet him and “explain the separation of church and state”? (I was glad to.) A woman editor asked, could I tell her readers “the meaning of the Bill of Rights.” (The government soon closed her paper.) I was thrilled to be doing political theory in such an urgent situation, and proud that imperial America still had something real to teach the world about being free.
Late in 2008, I got a message from Iran that the stream
of messages I was getting would probably stop soon. (Indeed, it did.) The state was getting more adept at censoring the Internet. And “It is not that we have forgotten you. It will mean we are in prison. But we will come out.”
And then, in the summer of 2009, there they were, with
a million people like them, out in the streets of Tehran, forming The Green Wave. And this time, unlike 1978-79, there were women in the crowd. A crucial thing to look for, in mass photos and newsreels: Are there women in the crowd? Are women taking initiative? Are men accepting their presence? Helping them be there? Crucial signs of promise. In Egypt, in another Islamic capital, women played a big role in the fight
for human rights that broke out in 2011. Priests and soldiers worked to push them offstage. But many women wouldn’t go. They risked arrest and abuse, and shouted, “I exist! We exist!”
It was great to see the protest grow, and easy to underestimate the old ruling classes’ staying power. Marx,
in 1848, says in one of the great modern books, the Communist Manifesto, that people who are just learning to stand up should not expect to win it all. More likely, they will lose. But even when they lose, he says, “the real fruit” of their struggles is in the long-term “ever-expanding union” they can create. We need to remember this when the old ruling classes take back the streets.
Something like this happened in Iran. I grow old, but not too old to feel the rush of life when modern men and women get out and fight to make a place for themselves in the streets. Last summer, in July 2012, I got this e-mail note: “I am an Iranian woman and a Ph. D. student. “ She says, about All That Is Solid, “I can use and understand all meaning in this book. I just say this book is my favorite book, and as a student who lives in other side of the world I should say thank you.” As a writer who has always tried to help people step out and put themselves in the picture, I should say thank you, too.
In that year of The Green Wave, somebody asked me, wasn’t I worried that All That Is Solid Melts Into Air “was being used for political ends”? I said I would be thrilled if anybody out there could find a way to use my work. An editor of an Iranian paper, later seized, phoned and asked if I had any advice; I said, The streets belong to the people, Stand up for human rights, Stay alive. I will be happy if I can help anybody see this way, do these things, be here now. In the 1860s, the hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground defined a great modern tradition of fighting, if necessary maybe even fighting alone, for human rights in the streets. (My chapter on St. Petersburg, “The Modernism of Underdevelopment”, lays it out.) Women saying “I exist! We exist!” in theocratic streets, and saying it in the faces of ruling classes that look through them, show us modernism today is as alive as ever, and show us it has plenty to live for.
City College, City University of New York