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Don Juan, or The Continuum of the Libido by Paul Goodman. Black Sparrow Press, 160 pp. $5.00.
For some writers, the circumstances under which they compose a work are irrelevant, but in the case of Paul Goodman — particularly in regard to the previously unpublished work now being brought out by Black Sparrow Press — the circumstances are always interesting and sometimes important. In June of 1942, the date that Goodman affixed to this recently discovered manuscript, he was nearing his thirty-first birthday. After years of prolific writing without much being published, he was beginning to establish an avant-garde reputation: he had been included in New Directions Five Young American Poets for 1941; a few of his stories had been published in the New Directions annual and in Partisan Review; and his first novel, The Grand Piano, was just being published. In another context, it is interesting to ask why Goodman chose just this moment to become vocal in his opposition to World War II, when the rest of the country was gearing itself up for the war effort. From a literary standpoint, it is interesting to ask why Goodman chose this particular juncture to write Don Juan, a book which — in 1942 — included accounts of homosexual passion (especially for young boys), a brief mention of sexual relations between the protagonist and a collie dog, a serenade on the subject of orgasms, and a boy’s instruction “in the method of masturbating by jerking off.”
Without questioning Goodman’s political convictions (they remained rock solid throughout his courageous political life) or his sources of literary inspiration, it seems fair to say that the articles and novel spring in a way from the same source. As Goodman stated in a poem, he grew up fatherless and spent his life making trouble, and throughout his career he seemed to be made uneasy by success. As much as he yearned for acceptance, he seemed to realize that a large measure of his inspiration lay in his alienated stance. Thus it was in the sixties, when he could be successful exactly because he was alienated, that his career really blossomed.
In either case — whether Goodman believed he had finally been accepted and could really pull out all the stops, or whether he sensed the dangers of success and wanted to warn people off — Don Juan is Paul Goodman at the height of his powers. All of Goodman’s fiction is less about the external world than it is about the consciousness — Goodman’s — that is meditating on it, and in Don Juan he found a subject that perfectly combines the two, since all the characters in his tale are actually just different stages in the libido’s continuum; as he says in his Preface, “I found that my characters were parts of the same soul: different actions were seen to be merely different interpretations of the same actions.” At the same time, Goodman the seducer and sexual renegade could have found no subject more congenial to him. As he would have said as a therapist, which he was throughout the late forties and early fifties, it was a strong gestalt.
Thus as the narrative opens Goodman’s Juan enters a whimsical bucolic world — moving at “the speed of the old fashioned comic movies of thirty years ago” — in which all the elements in the continuum of the libido are present. At center stage is a married couple, the Naval Commandant and his wife Eliza, who are on a second honeymoon, hoping to become reconciled to one another after the birth of their first child. Their mournful Negro servant is the character in the book who is closest to his instincts; he cannot, however, express his sexuality at all, because he realizes that all his desires are incestuous. Eliza’s father Aurelio has concentrated all his desires in his fierce and incessant pipe smoking. At the fringes of the action is the boy Tony, who envies the baby at Eliza’s breast but is also a young Narcissus, taking pleasure in masturbation without the need of any fantasy. It is into this group that Don Juan enters, “a systematic explorer and gratifier of the aspects of the libido.”
Juan is obviously Goodman, the poet who sees more clearly than anyone else the continuum that the others express, who recounts his adventures with rough trade and a collie dog, is drawn to Tony, cruises among sailors, and, most centrally, attempts to seduce Eliza with his serenade in orgasms. (“Oh Don,” she says from the window, “You flirt so learnedly.”) Yet Goodman is also the Naval Commandant (he too was trying to become reconciled to his wife after the birth of their first child); he is the free-wheeling and anarchistic Tony, who reminds us of little Horatio in the early volumes of The Empire City; he was a fierce pipe smoker like the old man Aurelio; and he saw, at least as part of himself, the old sad Zulu who knew his deepest desires were forbidden. As Taylor Stoehr points out in his excellent introduction, none of these characters is really healthy. The Naval Commandant deeply understands the situation of his family, but he is too intellectual, and out of touch with his instincts. The Negro is closer to his instincts — always a sign of strength for Goodman — but he cannot act. And Don Juan himself, though obviously the hero of the piece, is too systematic an explorer; he does not allow for spontaneity. Finally he is something of a sad figure, the kind of culture hero whom a people looks up to but finally destroys.
Yet for all the sadness of the basic situation, it is presented with enormous gaiety. Goodman was so serious a person and so learned a thinker that not enough has been said about the uproarious humor of much of his best work. He certainly was alienated, and understood the tragedies of his situation better than anyone else, but somehow through it all, even while he was being neglected, he was able to grin, positively — as Stoehr has noted about his early photos — to beam. According to Goodman, Don Juan follows rather strictly the theories of Freud, but presents them in the midst of “speculations, meditations, dreams, and flashes of brightly lit external experience.” It is a sustained lyric comic poem. The whole round of sexuality, it says — chasing, being chased, finding pleasure in the forbidden, avoiding pleasure out of fear and spite, reducing one’s pleasure to that which is far from the object of desire — is ultimately just funny, as human beings find so many ways to avoid what they really want; it is not a theory solemnly to be studied, but a story to be told, and told again, laughed at, and celebrated.