September 11

Today, September 11, is a terrible date in New York’s collective memory, a day of mass death and destruction surpassed only by the coronavirus. But September 11 is also awful for New York in another sense: seven years back, the city’s great humanist critic, Marshall Berman, died of a heart attack. New York seemed smaller after Marshall’s death. Few modern thinkers ever thought about their hometown the way Marshall did. 

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I got to know Marshall well when I moved to New York at the millennium. He was enthusiastic about my coming. Terrif, he said, New York needs people like me, newcomers who care about it, who have the emotional resources to care, who open themselves up to the city, embrace it, who willingly want to live here rather than just grudgingly work here. He said as much in his co-op board letter, recommending my wife and I for the tiny apartment we were buying, seven blocks south of Marshall’s. I’m not sure the board really understood what he meant. I remember him saying, shortly afterward, something like: you have to love New York for its faults, you have to learn how to live with its faults, embrace them, embrace everything, warts and all. You have to look the negative in the face and live with it. Marshall knew I knew this was Hegel’s maxim, the speculative German philosopher who taught Marx plenty. In 1807, Hegel said: “Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.” 

It was classic Marshall, his energy of thought. It was how he could be a positive critic, a man whose life and thought derived its strength from the depressive position, from the critic as artist. “The life of the spirit isn’t the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation,” said Hegel, “but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.” This is maybe why Marshall could write such memorable lines like: “Even as New York fell apart, it rose.” I wonder now, hearing Marshall’s voice in my head, whether he was really warning somehow, telling people something we should heed, something I thought I was able to heed: looking the negative in the face and living with it, not walking away from it.

I’d learned so much from listening and reading Marshall. The pages of his masterpiece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, devoted to “Modernism in the Streets,” are particularly inspiring, some of the best Marshall ever wrote. He was proud to have written them: “People have especially enjoyed my take on Baudelaire,” he said, “on the connections between metropolitan life and inner life.” “I’ve 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,” Marshall said, “and also a new form of democratic citizenship, and also a new way of being alive.” 

I’ve often wondered whether this is Baudelaire talking, or Marshall. I’m rooting for Marshall. He makes Baudelaire better, more hopeful, less exclusively French, more universal, more eternal: so long as we have cities, Marshall’s Baudelaire will always lurk around some dark corner, even at its darkest hours. As ever, it’s an interpretation that comes with a dialectical twist. “We can hope, as Baudelaire sometimes hoped, for a future in which joy and beauty, like the city lights, will be shared by all,” Marshall said. “But our hope is bound to be suffused by the self-ironic sadness that permeates Baudelaire’s city air.” 

I hung out a lot with him in my New York’s years. He always made an effort to see me. He incorporated me into his daily life, which revolved around childminding, looking after his son Danny, a little boy back then. We’d sometimes sit in the park, at the end of my street, West 93rd, across from the Turin apartment building. A gap in the wall led to a path up to the kids “Hippo Park,” to a family of hippopotamuses wallowing in a soft foam lake. I’d sit on one hippo while Marshall sat awkwardly on another larger hippo, the pop hippo. It wasn’t most people’s idea of great intellectual, sitting on a hippo in a tie dye t-shirt on a summer’s morning, in a pair of shorts and sandals. But Marshall wasn’t your average great intellectual. 

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He sometimes pointed stuff out, indicated across the street, to somebody who once lived in that building over there, to some incident a while back in the park here, when you couldn’t walk around after twilight. To see kids back in the park, he said, was wonderful. He could remember a time when there were no kids. You can’t understand everyday city life, he said, without kids. And you can’t understand kids in cities without playgrounds. Grace Paley knew that, he said. Some of his happiest moments have been in playgrounds, with his own kids, seeing other smiling families, moms and pops of all colors, talking all kinds of languages, goofing around with their kids.

Marshall loved Grace Paley because of kids. He quoted a Paley line in many pieces he wrote, the same line, over and over again. I guess it spoke to him somehow. It said something about kids, and about his cherished, long lost South Bronx: “the block is burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to build something on the other.” The twin plagues besieging New York and America nowadays would have tested Marshall’s optimism. He never did live to see Greta Thunberg’s generation. But he may be right yet: those kids across the street, in the charred ruins we’ve left them, are trying to build something else. 

We miss you, Marshall

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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