Friday, September 1, 2006

Marshall Berman: On the Town

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report
Date Approximate

On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, by Marshall Berman
Random House; 304 pp.; $25

Harvey Blume New York

For Bronx-born and raised Marshall Berman, New York's fabled Times Square was home away from home during his teen years in the 1950s. He's maintained ties to the area since. Now sporting the official title of Distinguished Professor of Political Science at City College, he has teaching responsibilities that regularly bring him to City College's midtown campus, only blocks from the Square. And he'd be the first to acknowledge that his youthful experiences in the Square helped direct him toward his lifelong study of city life.

Berman's best-known book is "All That's Solid Melts into the Air: The Experience of Modernity" (1982), a classic study of how cities over the last centuries have helped generate the mixed messages of modernity. The book takes its title from a line in "The Communist Manifesto," in which Marx describes the dissolution, in his day, of traditional social values and constraints. But for Berman, when all that's solid melts away the result isn't revolutionary struggle leading to a Marxist utopia; the result is continuous conflict between the desire to explore new possibilities and the urge to revive and retreat into outmoded certainties. This conflict, for Berman, both within individuals and society as a whole, is a defining feature of modernism. Cities are its stage and one of its catalysts.

"All That's Solid" focused mostly on European venues -- mid-nineteenth-century Paris, for example, and pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Berman's new book, "On The Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square," brings him back home. At the beginning of the book, we find him mulling over a souvenir postcard he came across fifteen years ago. Issued in 1903, the postcard shows a young woman blithely threading her way above the buildings of the Square. The buildings, which are photographed, convey a sense of density and weight. The woman, a cartoon, is lightly and fashionably dressed as she bustles toward her own purposes in the dawning century. Berman names her the Times Girl and suspects that in so doing he has committed himself to writing a book for her. "On the Town" -- a blend of scholarship and memoir, cultural and often poignant family history -- fulfills that commitment.

All roads lead Berman toward Times Square, then radiate out toward his other concerns. When I met with him to talk about "On the Town", conversation flowed easily to questions of modernism and Jewish identity -- issues, as it happens, that he had hotly debated with Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua two years before in an exchange that prefigures the furor Yehoshua recently aroused in the Jewish world with remarks he made at a symposium of the American Jewish Committee.


Times Square got its name when The New York Times established itself at 42nd St. and Broadway in 1905. Berman's mother and father, born a few years later, met on New York's Lower East Side and moved, after marriage, to the Bronx, but always worked in or around the Square. And it was always to the Square that they went to shuck responsibility for a bit and rekindle romance. As Berman grew up, he learned how deeply the Square had entered into his family's "founding myth."

When he was 12, he and his father played a guessing game about visitors to the Square: Were they headed to the "theater? The movies? A jazz club? A hotel -- which one? A restaurant -- what kind? A game arcade?" The elder Berman was pleased that his son so often got it right. ("See, sonny," he congratulated him, "you know the street!"). And he made sure Marshall met the local worthies, including a pair of detectives -- distinctive, in Marshall's eyes for being *Jewish*  detectives -- and Meyer Berger, a well-known reporter for the Times who treated the Bermans to a tour of the Times building, conversing all the while with Marshall's father in "raucous . . . mile a minute" Yiddish.

This Times Square idyll came to a traumatic end in 1955, when Marshall's 47-year-old father died suddenly of a heart attack. Grieving, bitter Marshall, then 14, would have shunned the Square thereafter -- were it not for his mother. She argued strenuously that: "We don't have much money, but we're going to keep going to Broadway, so we don't become living dead." Berman's Times Square dinners with her ended in evening promenades she announced by saying: "Now we're going to take a bath of light." What Berman calls her "delicious image" for a stroll in the Square helped reconcile him to the area.

The Square has gone through several transformations since the 1950s, but not at the expense of luminosity. Today, colossal computerized displays rise up on buildings or curl around them. When I arranged to meet Marshall Berman in the Square on a cold February afternoon, I assumed that after we warmed ourselves with coffee, we'd go for a bath in digital light.

We convened in a tiny cafeteria tucked into the basement of Virgin Records, a multi-story, multi-media bazaar. In his mid-60s, short, stout and bearded, Berman couldn't look less like a typical visitor to the youth-oriented venue. Books, in any case, rather than CDs and DVDs, remain his main medium. Literature gives him clues to the moods, the inner lives of cities. In "On the Town," he describes the Square as intensifying normal urban experience and subjecting visitors to concentrated "semiotic overflow." He illustrates the point by way of reference to an I. B. Singer story -- "The Third One" -- in which two Holocaust survivors confront a four-story-high billboard of Annie Oakley advertising the musical "Annie Get Your Gun."

The two men had been gloomily discussing marital infidelity and the death of God in the sort of cavernous Times Square cafeteria that has not survived into the era of Virgin Records. When they emerge, they stare up at enormous Annie. One of them muses: "If there is a God, she is our God." The other concurs: "What *she* is promising, she can deliver."

But what, Berman wonders, can she promise to these characters, or anyone else? Some sort of new religion? The rebirth of an old one? Did her presence imply that Times Square's collection of super-sized images entitled it to be recognized as New York's real museum of modern art? Such answers entertain but do not satisfy Berman, leading him to conclude that you can no more capture or define Times Square's semiotic overflow than you can bathe in Times Square light and hope to walk off with a cup of it.

Literature helped Berman with the Square, but was absolutely indispensable to him when he wrote the St. Petersburg section of "All That's Solid." Berman had neither visited that city nor studied Russian. What gives his writing about St. Petersburg authority is his sensitive reading of the relevant literature. Writers like Ossip Mandelstam and Fyodor Dostoyevsky guided him to unique features of the city, including the "babble of constant digressions," that, according to Mandelstam, characterized St. Petersburg conversation.

Baudelaire was the literary guide Berman relied on for his section on mid-19th-century Paris in "All That's Solid." The French word "flaneur," connoting aimlessness or loafing, is often used in connection with Baudelaire's urban ambling, but Berman shows that for Baudelaire being a "flaneur" meant more than window shopping or people-watching on the boulevard; it signified readiness to enter into something like an altered state, willingness, the poet wrote, to "marry the crowd," and to become, thereby, "both himself and someone else."

The openness toward others and otherness that Baudelaire articulated, is, for Berman, a gift that cities make to democracy; it is modernism cum urbanism at its best. Berman planned to make Baudelaire's writings the basis of a talk he was invited to give at a Tel Aviv conference on Israeli cities in the spring of 2004. But the night before he was to speak, he came across an interview A.B. Yehoshua had given to Haaretz in which the novelist argued that for Jews, openness to otherness was a dead end.

Those familiar with the media storm triggered by Yehoshua's speech, this past May, to the American Jewish Committee -- in which, for example, he compared the meager "Jewishness of an American Jew" to the "immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful" Jewishness of an Israeli Jew -- will not be surprised by the tenor of Yehoshua's remarks to Haaretz. But Berman, at that point, knew of Yehoshua only as a novelist, one of his favorite contemporary writers, in fact. It was news to Berman that Yehoshua regarded the Jewish ability to "enter into the fabric of others' lives," and to "live without borders or clear identity," as nothing short of "dangerous."

Berman's speech the next day threw down the gauntlet to Yehoshua. (The speech was expanded into an essay for Dissent Magazine that appeared in the summer 2004 issue, to which Yehoshua replied in the subsequent winter issue). It galled Berman that Yehoshua supported the building of Israel's barrier wall not so much because he believed it would defend against terrorism -- "Yehoshua seemed skeptical about the Wall as security policy," he thought -- but because it could serve as a "foundation for a hard identity politics."

In response, Berman argued that "clear identity" had been "one of the great chimeras of the twentieth century," and that Jews, especially "need it like a hole in the head." It was better for Jews, he said, that they stick to the "fluid and elusive and contradictory identities" that served them for millennia. Solomon was one of "our Bible's stars," he avowed, precisely because of his talent for "inclusiveness and fluidity" -- as exemplified by his many "foreign wives, each with her own gods and their temple in Jerusalem." Besides, the era of wall and barrier building was over: "Since 1989," he wrote, "many of the goyim have been tearing their old walls down. Mightn't this mean that they yearn to be more like us?"

In Virgin Records, Berman told me that he valued Yehoshua as a great modernist writer: "Take his novel 'The Liberated Bride.' The protagonist is an Israeli Jew who teaches Arab studies and gets very attached to his Arab students, the way he's not attached to Jewish-Israeli students. When he describes an Arab wedding, for instance, it's much more vivid than his account of any Israeli event."

"Many great modern writers," Berman added, "hate their modernism in some way. They want to be much more closed. They can even hate literature, and feel that literature is degenerate." He cited Tolstoy as an example of modernist and anti-modernist impulses warring within a writer: "In his essay 'What Is Art,' Tolstoy foamed at the mouth against the very existence of literature. And he intended 'Anna Karenina,' to be a piece of misogynist propaganda about a whore who deserves to die. Somehow, his genius forced him to create one of the great characters in modern literature."

It was late when we finished talking. Berman had promised his 9-year-old son that he would bring a Rolling Stones t-shirt back from Virgin Records. When none were available, he settled for a hat advertising "Green Day," one of the boy's favorite bands. We took our brief bath in Times Square light on our way to the subway.

Harvey Blume is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Report. 

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