WITH THE PUBLICATION of his collected essays, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, has achieved a tremendous, though narrow, feat of literary imagination. He has reproduced, down to the most exact nuances, the faded American Stalinist aesthetic. His accomplishment is doubly impressive because he has astonishingly managed to cast this rarefied, left-wing sectarian mentality as neoconservatism.
Unfortunately, The Bloody Crossroads is not the complete Podhoretz. Conspicuously absent are his fawning reviews of Edward Koch's Mayor and William F. Buckley Jr.'s Overdrive. Also missing are his enthralling columns excoriating President Reagan as a wimp and lamenting that Joseph McCarthy made the world unsafe for McCarthyism. Still, the pieces assembled in The Bloody Crossroads give a fair sense of the Podhoretz oeuvre.
The supreme litmus test by which he measures novelists, critics and poets is whether they correctly answer the question: Which side are you on? Just as the Stalinists of the 1930s believed there were only two sides -- either for or against the Soviet Union -- so does Podhoretz.
His tone is at perfect pitch, veering from denunciatory invective to obsequious praise (on Kissinger's memoir: "What we have here is writing of the very highest order"), with few stops in between. He has adopted the pose of individual bravery, struggling against a ruthless ruling class, while declaiming the commonplace of the moment. He insists he speaks for the majority, an imperiled Western civilization, yet he maintains a relentlessly minoritarian sensibility.
Podhoretz calls the class enemy a variety of names: "the adversary culture," "the New Class," "the Left," "Bloomsbury." His piece on the English critic, F.R. Leavis, provides him an occasion for assailing "our own local variant of Bloomsbury, headquartered in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review."
He permits no distractions in his clarifying vision. Communism, he is moved to write, has been "more dangerous than Nazism or fascism precisely because it exerted a much greater ideological appeal." Anyone who strays from the main task of battling the monolithic foe receives his scorn. Albert Camus, for example, showed "cowardice and hypocrisy" because of "his failure to side as clearly with the democracies as Sartre was siding with the Communists." Camus also failed to realize that "the truths of The Rebel were on the whole the truths of the 'Right' " The Camus who was engaged and yet ambivalent, the actual Camus, should be relegated to the dustbin of history. The Camus "who should be revived," Podhoretz avers, is the one who unknowingly conveyed "the truths of the 'Right.' "
Podhoretz disdains Camus' ambivalence. The notion of art-for-art's-sake revolts him. "Most contemporary American novels," he writes, "invite the reader to join with the author in a luxuriously complacent celebration of themselves and of the stock prejudices and bigotries of the 'advanced' literary culture against the middle-class world around them." Even Saul Bellow "seemed always to be writing only about himself." Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, too, has fallen into this error, believing that he is not principally a political writer, but a novelist. The class enemy, called "the new aristocracy" by Podhoretz here, meaning other book reviewers, has taken Kundera's work as literature that "transcends political and ideological differences." "Why should you, of all writers," Podhoretz demands in an "open letter" to Kundera, "wish to be coopted by people who think there is no moral or political -- or cultural -- difference between West and East worth talking about, let alone fighting over?"
Like most neoconservatives, Podhoretz has little use for conservatism, which seeks in tradition a refuge from constant change. His writings on true conservatives are thin; but his essays in The Bloody Crossroads on Henry Adams and Alexander Solzhenitsyn address the subject. Adams is reduced to merely a crabbed, anti-Semitic personality. His Education is termed "repellent," and his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a magisterial work that places Adams in the same rank as Macaulay and approaches even Gibbon's, is dismissed as "covering only seventeen years of early American history." On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn is acquitted of all allegations of anti-Semitism and his "authoritarian coloration" is excused in the light of his anti-communist "prophetic mission." Once again, literature is judged mainly by an ideological -- and perhaps anachronistic -- criterion. If Adams had been born a century later and written about "the God that failed," instead of the Virgin and the Dynamo, he might have received different treatment.
PODHORETZ's hero is George Orwell, the quintessential man of the democratic Left, who, if he "were alive today . . . would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left." To prove his point, Podhoretz quotes Orwell, an Englishman, stating his preference for America over the Soviet Union. Podhoretz, however, has expertly edited Orwell's statement so that the phrases -- "In the end the choice may be forced upon us" and "if we fail to bring a West European union into being" -- no longer appear. This airbrushing of Orwell to make him absolutely fit the correct line is wonderfully Orwellian, something Orwell, if "alive today," would undoubtedly have savored.
In the through-the-looking-glass decade of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan presents himself as the latter-day Franklin D. Roosevelt, the figure Norman Podhoretz most closely resembles is Michael Gold, the literary commissar of the American Communist Party. In fact, in a 1930 essay, "Proletarian Realism," Gold foreshadowed Podhoretz: "Proletarian realism is never pointless. It does not believe in literature for its own sake, but in literature that is useful, has a social function . . . there are more intellectuals than ever who are trying to make literature a plaything. Every poem, every novel and drama, must have a social theme, or it is merely confectionery."
But Gold wrote more than essays. He was also the author of a novel, Jews Without Money, one of the few of the "proletarian realism" school that can be judged to have had some literary merit. It cannot be said that Podhoretz has approached Gold's stature until he attempts fiction, too. In The Bloody Crossroads he explains that he has retreated from modernism: "Nowadays my taste in fiction runs strongly to the realistic." In the nonfiction world, the neoconservatives are battling the Foreign Service to remake U.S. foreign policy in their ideological image. Perhaps Podhoretz may attempt a novel depicting this class struggle entitled "Neoconservatives With State Department Appointments."