My Friend Marshall

By Robert ChristgauMay 27, 2019

My Friend Marshall
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED after the Village Voice published my rave review of Marshall Berman’s 1982 book, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. The author called me up, and within months we became such fast friends that, three decades later, I found myself delivering a eulogy that nabbed me the only Dissent byline of my career. Not that it was all that strange Marshall Berman called — he often telephoned people he knew slightly if at all, including me several times before then. And obviously there was nothing humorous about the sudden loss of a 72-year-old polymath whose intellectual fecundity was unimpaired by that dent in his skull, souvenir of the botched 1989 brain abscess operation his second wife browbeat the hospital into fixing. Nor, I should add, did my eulogy close an SRO funeral. That honor went to Marshall’s second son, Elijah Tax-Berman, a blunt 29-year-old I’d known since he left the incubator. His flow leaning Run-DMC, Eli nailed it. At the cemetery, he was still shoveling dirt into his father’s grave after the rest of us fell back.

Marshall’s call came during the crucial turning point of a life that was pretty tumultuous for someone who resided in one West End Avenue apartment and taught at one no-longer-free public university for all the time I knew him. Professionally, the turning point was a triumph. Although Marshall’s masterwork was assigned a supercilious pan in The New York Times Book Review, All That Is Solid enjoyed a trajectory more in keeping with the fondly skeptical daily Times review John Leonard ended with the perfect “I love this book and wish that I believed it.” Spurned in France and Germany but translated into many humbler tongues, the book made him a hero in Brazil, Norway, and other nations where socialism had a life. Personally, however, the turning point was a catastrophe: the December 1980 murder of Marshall’s five-year-old son Marc by his first wife, who threw the child out of their sixth-floor window and then jumped herself (he died and she didn’t). That, Marshall explained on the phone, was why he hadn’t called in a while.

This nightmare had been in the news and on the gossip networks, but I’d missed it, and having struggled for years to conceive a child with my wife, I was primed to listen. So, after an hour-plus of talk, we made a date to meet. Marshall was already on his way to marrying novelist Meredith Tax, who hit it off with my wife, and for several years the four of us enjoyed a wealth of movies, museum shows, and mutually prepared meals together. Culturally, Marshall usually set the agenda, and to reciprocate I made him rap mixtapes and hooked him up at the Village Voice, where over the years he wrote about Georg Lukács and Public Enemy, artists’ housing and “urbicide.” By 1985, Eli’s difficult birth and our daughter’s overdue adoption had put us into play-date mode, which continued after Meredith’s tumultuous side ended the marriage. Soon commenced a romance with not altogether untumultuous English teacher Shellie Sclan, who married Marshall in 1993. Play-date dynamics having evolved, we hung out less after Marshall’s third son, Danny Berman, was born in 1994. But whenever the phone rang late, my default surmise was that it was Marshall, tracking down a detail or raring to schmooze.

Emotional, enthusiastic, interested in everything, Marshall Berman had more to give intellectually than anyone I’ve ever met. His erudition was so vast and his recall so phenomenal that I came to depend on him for background on non-musical subjects; pre-Google, a local call would tell me what I needed to know, and unlike Wikipedia, Marshall was available for questions. As a Marxist humanist he was nominally to my left, but day-to-day our politics were congruent, and we were both committed family men who regularly discussed the pleasures and tsuris of that way of life. But deep though our friendship was, I never entered his world — an almost exclusively Jewish post-’60s left I couldn’t triangulate today except to say that it wasn’t altogether congruent with the board of Dissent, his intellectual home base. In a way, however, this degree of separation cemented our bond. Without Marshall I wouldn’t have read Goethe’s Elective Affinities as I theorized romantic monogamy; without me, he wouldn’t have heard It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back pre-release at the beach. And although he worked with many Voice editors, I was the one who assigned the 1995 Times Square piece that in 2006 flowered after much labor into Marshall’s third full-length book.

On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square is a wide-ranging, deep-diving, exhaustively researched meditation on the New York City nexus that kvells about the Broadway theater of Marshall’s youth while advocating for “mass culture,” his term, in all its bedazzling strut — his praise for a Benetton sign depicting six near-nude young models of cunningly varied racial identity could have been designed to put old lefties off their feed. It also celebrates many fictional and real-life women, most of them physically beautiful and/or materially powerful, while taking down both the vicious sexism of The Deuce and Laura Mulvey’s explicitly anhedonic attack on the male gaze with equal vigor. It thinks about sailors and developers, Sister Carrie and The Jazz Singer, Fancy Free and Taxi Driver. It has its gaffes, and in no way surpasses All That Is Solid — masterworks are by their nature unsurpassable. But its conceptual daring deserved much better than it got from the culturati.

Marshall was passionate about teaching, and CUNY too, but he was a writer first — a writer bent on giving pleasure and doing good. With sleep apnea among his many ailments, he wrote all the time — the morning of his death he was working on a book about Jerusalem and Athens, Paris and New York called The Romance of Public Space. And because he loved to write, he took on lots of shorter work, crafting essays, reviews, and lectures that consumed much of his literary energy. Eager to follow up All That Is Solid, he only came to terms with this compulsion when he dreamed up the rubric “adventures in Marxism,” the title under which Verso assembled 14 of his essays in 1999, proving to him that, to quote the introduction, “a writer could say something, without saying everything.” It led with a tale he’d longed to tell about his father, a garment-district schlepper turned Women’s Wear Daily reporter-salesman who suffered a second and fatal heart attack at 47, five years after the one that ensued when a partner absconded with the capital of a rag-trade magazine they’d co-founded. Before too long, Marshall explained, that trauma occasioned his immersion in Marx’s humanistic, then-obscure Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Suspending Isaac Babel and Studs Terkel as well as Walter Benjamin and To the Finland Station from its Marx hook, Adventures in Marxism is palpably conceived — as editors are always imploring, it “works as a book.” We’re fortunate it exists.

Marshall died 14 years after Adventures in Marxism, which worked as a book by excluding many essays that didn’t suit its concept. So it was inevitable that his widow, heir, and literary executor would plan a posthumous collection. But for emotional as well as financial reasons, Shellie Sclan needed to keep teaching; she had a son to get through SUNY Purchase and was working with Columbia to archive her late husband’s books and papers. So, having devised a tentative table of contents, she enlisted the help of Dissent editor David Marcus, who turned out to have his own ideas. Where Sclan’s selections began with the autobiographical introduction to Adventures in Marxism and included three more of its picks (one too many I’d say), eight of the 24 chapters in Modernism in the Streets: A Life and Times in Essays (2017) — a full third of it — also appear in the earlier book.

Modernism in the Streets is nonetheless a thorough, affecting, and intellectually powerful document — the Berman to read after All That Is Solid bowls you over. That it wasn’t reviewed anywhere near widely enough could reflect the hegemony of the “theory”-driven posthumanism Marshall opposed, which was one excuse. But the fact that the new book wasn’t all that new couldn’t have helped — nor its implicit assumption that the Marshall Berman whose legacy the posthumous volume was supposed to cement had barely evolved from the proper left intellectual who gave the world All That Is Solid, which claims high culture for progressive politics as if buttering up a Partisan Review it then leads onto the Cross Bronx Expressway. Marshall the tie-dyed hippie who wrote the 1974 Faust-meets-Mick-Jagger screed “Sympathy for the Devil” for New American Review was altogether absent. And if Sclan hadn’t advocated for Al Jolson, Marshall the omnivore who devoted years to On the Town would have too.

That said, however, the previously uncollected two-thirds is choice, including sanely visionary 1965 and 1971 political interventions published in Dissent and, yes, Partisan Review, a jaw-droppingly evenhanded 1975 Ramparts piece about All That Is Solid villain Robert Moses, and daringly down-to-earth ’00s essays about Jewish fabulist Franz Kafka, in his day job “one of the most creative bureaucrats of the century,” and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, in Marshall’s view a fellow battler against “modernist anti-modernism” whose protagonists in Snow (2002) are a man and woman in love struggling for a life Marshall calls “unheroic, ordinary, ‘normal’” — a life he suggests is typified these days by interracial couples “schlepping their babies around in ultra-modern snugglies” “in all sorts of American places I and Pamuk have never heard of.”

In an introduction that warmly praises Marshall’s “humanist exuberance, his vision of a feeling Left,” editor Marcus judges the Pamuk essay one of Marshall’s “late classics.” But where Marcus applauds Pamuk for holding that “something about modern life seems to stop us from loving,” Marshall argues that the failure of Snow’s lovers to escape together to Germany’s promised land is an anomaly — a “last-minute plot intervention by the author” that reflects Pamuk the novelist’s belief that “stories of love crushed are more poignant than stories of love fulfilled.” Then he adds: “But there’s a difference between the logic of a story and the logic of history. At the start of the twenty-first century, our history may be more open than our literature.”

Accounting himself “troubled” by Berman’s failure to see that Snow “revealed the deeper sorrow of modern experience — our inability to connect with one another,” is Marcus himself expounding a “modernist anti-modernism”? I say this dead-in-the-water alienation bromide exemplifies it. Yet I do wonder why neither literary leftist mentions that the encompassing preoccupation of Snow is the impenetrable yet also poignant complexity of “Islamism.” And were he alive I’d yell at Marshall that that’s not a “plot intervention,” it’s the plot itself, where this particular meditation on the contradictions of Islam has always been going, and then point out to Marcus that this particular “one another” comprises two complex characters, one of them a porn-addicted cosmopolitan litterateur who rejected the Islam of his youth as a student and ended up far more fucked up about sex than the provincial divorcee he adores. But to take my take home I’d also mention that at the end of Modernism in the Streets, as Marcus is well aware, Shellie Sclan gets her own brief section, complete with an introduction that gives On the Town its props and then explains that Marshall’s summum will end with two selections from The Romance of Public Space: the published version of “Emerging from the Ruins,” the 2013 Lewis Mumford Lecture on Urbanism at CUNY that proved his final public address, and “The Bible and Public Space,” which he was still revising a few hours before a heart attack killed him instantly on September 11 of that year.

As someone who grew up on the King James Bible and reread Genesis plus commentary to review Robert Crumb’s 2010 version of that quintessentially foundational work, I hereby report that nowhere in my research did I encounter anything as comic or bemused as Marshall’s vision of it — certainly not in Crumb himself. Marshall takes every holy word at face value, yet he’s devoid of reverence — not to show off or shock, but because for him Genesis stands as one more philosophically redolent literary text ripe for interpretation. Hence Adam, Eve, and a guy named God are all characters in a confusing tale that, if you’ll recall, begins with two different versions of the Judeo-Christian creation myth. But it’s a love story nonetheless.

In an afterword to the 2010 British edition of All That Is Solid, Marshall writes:

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.

In the Genesis essay, he begins to keep that promise. Among other things, Marshall observes that, once God has created Eve, he knows he’s got trouble on his hands, not because Eve is sure to eat that apple but because she’s competition — someone else for Adam to talk to. Why do Adam and Eve cover their genitals? Embarrassment? Maybe not. Maybe it’s because they’ve already figured out that the pull of that joystick and whoopee cushion are so powerful the couple could end up loving each other more than they love God. Which, given the pickle God’s put them in, may be all He deserves:

The couple’s survival seems to depend on knowledge. But what are they supposed to know? What are they not supposed to know? “Good and evil”? But isn’t God also saying that their knowledge itself is evil? How can they know what they shouldn’t know if they don’t already know it? Adam and Eve have a lot to work out. Can anybody help them? Probably not in any Jewish, Christian, or Islamic establishment.

Writing about Crime and Punishment once, I found myself irritated by the way Harold Bloom and his ilk dismissed the afterword, in which Raskolnikov is saved by his pure love for the prostitute Sonia. So naturally I called Marshall, and learned that he loved that ending too, at least until Raskolnikov went all Christlike on him. Soon we were talking about how poorly served romantic love has been in so-called serious discourse, and Marshall told me that he planned someday to write a book about it. And on the day he died, as he redefined the Garden of Eden instead, human beings’ propensity to love each other was nonetheless on his capacious mind.


This essay originally appeared in the author’s Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading, published by Duke University Press on May 3, 2019.


Robert Christgau is an American essayist and music journalist. He was the chief music critic for the Village Voice for four decades.

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Robert Christgau is an American essayist, music journalist, and self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics.”


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