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The Romantic Agony
One of the most conspicuous features of the cultural revolution that swept through America and Western Europe in the 1960s was the demand for sexual liberation. In some respects, of course, this demand was not new. The revolt against traditional sexual mores had been an important ingredient of advanced thinking at least since the 1920s. In essentials, it can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and the Romantic cult of feeling and spontaneity. Even the union of sexual liberation and radical politicsa hallmark of the 1960s had important antecedents going back to such disparate apostles of liberation as Rousseau, Fourier, Blake, and Shelley.
Nevertheless, the Sixties were different. First of all, there was the matter of numbers. In the past, movements for sexual liberation had been sporadic and confined largely to a bohemian elite. In the 1960s partly because of the perfection of the birth control pill and other reliable forms of contraception, partly because of greater affluence and mobilitysexual liberation suddenly became an everyday fact of middle-class life. What had been a fringe phenomenon became the established norm. There was also the matter of political rhetoric and quasi-philosophical baggage. If demands for sexual liberation were a regular, if not invariable, concomitant of revolutionary politics in the past, seldom had sexual emancipation been invested with such a forbidding panoply of political mystification and high-flown verbiage. Plenty of revolutionary movements have made sexual emancipation one of their causes; rarely has sexual gratification so thoroughly defined the content of revolutionary politics.
A large part of the creditif credit is the mot justefor this development must go to Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian-born psychiatrist, demobbed Communist, renegade Freudian, militant atheist, and all-around champion of the beneficent effects of sexual orgasm. At the center of Reichs teachings were two convictions: that the sexual question must be politicized, as he put it in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), and that establishing a satisfactory genital sex life was the key not only to individual but also to societal liberation and happiness, as he put it in The Function of the Orgasm (1942) and practically everything else he wrote. As one critic acknowledged, Reich, in truth, did feel that sex was everything.
It has been said that when someone abandons belief in God, what he will then believe is not nothing but anything. Reich was one of many modern figures who would seem to confirm this observation. Reich was always obsessed with sex. By the 1940s he was potty about it. It was then that he published his theories about cosmic orgone energy and orgiastic potency. He built Orgone Energy Accumulatorsempty boxes to the rest of uswhich he sold to patients so that they might mobilize their plasmatic currents and thereby overcome sexual repression and, incidentally, cure everything from cancer to schizophrenia. It was all nonsense, of course, and fraudulent nonsense at that: Reich spent the last years of his life in a Federal penitentiary, courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration, dying in 1957 in his sixtieth year.
Although by the end he was almost certainly mad, Reich was also immensely influential. A self-declared Freudo-Marxist, he helped to pioneer that strange amalgam of radical politics and emancipatory sex that fueled the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Today, the familiarity of this union tends to obscure its oddness. As the political philosopher Harvey Mansfield pointed out in his essay The Legacy of the Late Sixties (1997), the sexual revolution depended on an illicit, forced union between Freud and Marx in which Mr. Marx was compelled to yield his principle that economics, not sex, is the focus of liberation, and Mr. Freud was required to forsake his insistence that liberation from human nature is impossible.
As is so often the case, contradiction has proved no bar to credulity. For Reich and his disciples and spiritual heirs, sex was the primary focus of political activism, and human nature was a harsh but dispensable fiction. Reich came too soon and was too much of a quack to see his ideas triumph in their original form. But by the early 1960s, variations on his core theories about sex and politics were everywhere. Norman Mailers infamous essay on The White Negro (1957), for example, with its adolescent radicalism and hymns to the apocalyptic orgasm is Reichean boilerplate gussied up with Mailerean bombast.
Mailer had a part to play in popularizing Reich. But the three men who really accomplished the Reichean gospel were the anarchist poet-psychologist Paul Goodman, the classicist turned neo-Freudian guru Norman O. Brown, and the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. None would have described himself as a follower of Reich, but all read and commented on his work. More to the point, whatever their disagreements with Reich or with each other, all absorbed the essential Reichean tenets about politicizing sex and investing it with a kind of redemptive significance. As Richard King noted in The Party of Eros: Radical Social Thought and the Realm of Freedom (1972), all three sought to combine a concern for instinctual and erotic liberation with political and social radicalism, cultural with political concerns.
It would be difficult to overestimate their influence. The critic Morris Dickstein--himself a slightly tarnished Sixties radical was quite right to insist, in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977), that Goodman, Brown, and Marcuse were prime catalysts in the rise of a new sensibility, the thinkers whose work had the greatest impact on the new culture of the sixties. At the same time, it is worth stressing that the importance of Goodman, Brown, and Marcuse was not so much intellectual as emotional and affective. Despite the elaborate scholarly machinery they employed in their books, their chief appeal was not to peoples minds but to their hearts and to other, lower, organs. They came bearing arguments, but, as the Sixties wore on, they were increasingly acclaimed as prophets. Their ideas were embraced less as reasoned proposals than as talismans of personal and political transformation. As Dickstein put it, the trio of Goodman, Brown, and Marcuse spoke with such urgency to his generation because we knew that at bottom their gospel was a sexual one, that sex was their wedge for reorienting all human relations.
Of the three, Paul Goodman (19111972) is the one whose reputation has faded most completely. Having graduated from City College in 1931 with a degree in philosophy, Goodman early on determined to be a writer. Today, most people familiar with Goodmans work would probably describe him as a kind of social psychologist. But in fact his literary interestslike his sexual interests, as it turned outwere extremely promiscuous. He contributed to all manner of left-wing publications, including Partisan Review, Politics, Commentary, Dissent, and The New York Review of Books. He wrote literary criticism (and even took a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Chicago) as well as poems, short stories, and novels; in 1951, he collaborated on a book about Gestalt psychology. He wrote essays on everything from city planning and decentralization to education, youth work camps, pornography (he was for it), Wilhelm Reich, and making antiwar films.
During World War II, Goodmans draft-dodging and anarchist views made him persona non grata at some of his usual outlets, and he receded somewhat from the scene. But in 1960 his big break came. Norman Podhoretz had just taken over the editorship of Commentary. As a declaration of editorial intention, he decided to publish three large segments of Goodmans Growing Up Absurd, the manuscript of which had just been turned down by over a dozen publishers. In his memoir Making It (1967), Podhoretz recalled that Growing Up Absurd represented the very incarnation of the new spirit that he wanted both for Commentary and for the world at large. Looking back from the mid-1970s, Morris Dickstein described the book as a masterwork in social criticism that did much to inform the whole frame of mind of thinking people in the sixties. Be that as it may, by the mid-1960s, Goodman had achieved enormous celebrity. He was an invariable participant at rallies, sit-ins, protest marches, and other events sure to attract large numbers of young men. Like Allen Ginsberg, Dickstein noted, Goodman was more than a writer in the sixties: he was a pervasive and inescapable presence . the most tireless and incandescent Socratic figure of the age.
Today, it is hard to recapture the excitement. For one thing, Goodmans prose is atrocious. Encountering Goodmans style, Norman Mailer once observed, was not unrelated to the journeys one undertook in the company of a laundry bag. The critic Kingsley Widmer in Paul Goodman (1980), a monograph designed to outline Goodmans achievement, regularly comments on his subjects deficiencies as a writer. Of his literary works generally Widmer observes that, pathetically, they are often quite literally incompetentmarked by trite and mangled language, bumblingly inconsistent manners and tones, garbled syntax and forms, embarrassing pretentiousness and self-lugubriousness, and pervasive awkward writing.
In a curious way, however, some of Goodmans failings as a stylist actually contributed to his effectiveness. Goodman had a knack for reformulating current anxieties and clichés in the astringent language of the social sciences. This had the double advantage of imbuing his sociological writings with an aura of authority while reinforcing his readers settled prejudicesa tactic sure to inspire gratitude. He managed the neat trick of balancing pathos and jargon in such a way thatfor those susceptible to his spellthe underlying banality of his thinking momentarily disappeared.
By the time that Growing Up Absurd was published, Goodmans main point was wearisomely familiar: postwar America was a conformist wasteland that stifled anything beginning with the letter sspirit, spontaneity, self-expression, and of course sexuality. Goodman said virtually nothing new in Growing Up Absurd. But somehow, his method of recycling received opinions about the problems of youth culture in what he liked to call the Organized System struck a chord. His success was due partly to the way he combined the radical clichés of the moment with a traditional language of virtue. My purpose is a simple one, Goodman wrote in his first chapter: to show how it is desperately hard these days for an average child to grow up to be a man, for our present organized system of society does not want men. (Girls and women do not figure much in Goodmans scheme of things.)
In other words, Goodman cannily blended rhetoric appropriate to a Marine recruitment poster with portentous fantasies about America being an unnatural system that warps young souls. Given current conditions in America, Goodman wonders, Is it possible, being a human being, to exist? Is it possible, having a human nature, to grow up? But the pertinent question is whether it really was desperately hard for an average child to grow up in the United States in the 1950san era of tremendous prosperity, excellent public education, potent national self-confidence. Was it true, as Goodman insisted, that the young men who conform to the dominant society become for the most part apathetic, disappointed, cynical, and wasted?
Part of Goodmans purpose was to sympathize with and exonerate those elements of youth culture that had chosen not to conform to the dominant societythe Beats and other fringe groups who believed that a man is a fool to work to pay installments on a useless refrigerator for his wife. (Not so useless if one wishes to keep food from spoiling, of course, but Goodman never acknowledges that side of things.) He praises the Beats for being pacific, artistic, and rather easy-going sexually. Indeed, as one reads through Growing Up Absurd, it becomes increasingly clear that being easy going when it comes to sex is one of his chief criteria of psychological health. My impression is, he writes in one gnomic passage, thatleaving out their artists, who have the kind of sex that artists have Beat sexuality in general is pretty good, unlike delinquent sexuality, which seems, on the evidence, to be wretched. (What kind of sex does Goodman think artists have? He never says.)
As Richard King observed in The Party of Eros, Goodmans works reveal a man obsessed with two thingssex and general ideas. Although he had two common-law wives and fathered three children, Goodman was aggressively bi-sexual, which meant as his diary, Five Years (1966), makes clearpredominantly homosexual. His sexual behavior was so flagrant that he managed to get himself dismissed from teaching positions at a progressive boarding school and even from that bohemian outpost of the South, Black Mountain College. He seems to have been obtuse as well as importunate. I distrust women clothed, he wrote in his diary. Naked, they are attractive to me like any other animal. Male dress passesbut I have to reach for their penises, to make sure. This has damaged my reputation. Imagine that! Five Years records a steady stream of one-night stands, rough-trade, and hasty pick-ups in bars. There have been few days going back to my 11th year, Goodman noted, when I have not had an orgasm one way or another.
C. Wright Mills and P. J. Salter described one of Goodmans articles from the 1940s as putting forward the gonad theory of revolution. In truth, Goodman propounded the gonad theory of life. As the critic Joseph Epstein put it in 1978, the good society, for Goodman, started at the groin. Responding to Epsteins criticism, a Goodman enthusiast quoted from a letter that Goodman had written some years before: My own view is that no sexual practices whatever, unless they are malicious or extremely guilt-ridden, do any harm to anybody, including childrena statement that not only epitomizes Goodmans philosophy, but also helps to explain why he became such an idolized figure for the counterculture of the 1960s.
To move from the work of Paul Goodman to that of Norman O. Brown is to move from the grubby and prosaic to the cerebral and fantastic. Born in 1913, Brown was educated at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin. A classicist by training, he labored in obscurity at Wesleyan University through the 1950s. His discovery of Freud was (to use a term he might like) a metanoia. In 1959, he published Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, a dense, learned academic tract that blends Freud, Marx, idealist philosophy, and mysticism East and West in a preposterous but intoxicating brew. Browns premise, in Life Against Death and in his other main book, an aphoristic mélange called Loves Body (1966), is that there is an intrinsic connection between social organization and neurosis. His goal is to break that connection by abolishing repression, thus curing the disease called man. This, you see, is the way to affirm the life instinct, which demands a union with others and the world around us based not on anxiety and aggression but on narcissism and erotic exuberance. To which one might respond, Nice work if you can get it.
Naturally, this sort of thing was a tremendous hit on American campuses, where the homeless radicalism of irresponsible affluence made all manner of utopian schemes seem attractive. Morris Dickstein doubtless spoke for many when he wrote, in Gates of Eden, that I can recall no public event more inspiring and electrifying at that time than Browns vatic, impassioned Phi Beta Kappa oration at Columbia in 1960. Vatic, indeed. That oration, called Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind, published the following year in Harpers, is a piece of obscurantist nonsense. But what seductive nonsense it was! Brown began by declaring a state of emergency: the mind was at the end of its tether, just as H. G. Wells had said it was. Civilization, ruined by rationality, had to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries and magic. What was needed, Brown told the newly elected key-holders, was the blessed madness of the maenad and the bacchant. He himself came seeking supernatural powers.
Browns great gift was infusing mystic pronouncements with a radical, anti-bourgeois animus and a febrile erotic charge. How nice to learn, for example, that time was simply the product of neurosis. Or that all sublimations are desexualizations. Or that the roots of alienated consciouness lay in the compulsion to work and that this compulsion was exacerbated by capitalism, which has made us so stupid and one-sided that objects exist for us only if we can possess them or if they have utility. How exciting to discover that all thinking is nothing but a detour and that the chief task now facing the spiritual vanguard was the construction of a Dionysian ego that would free us from the tyranny of genital organization. The work of constructing a Dionysian ego is immense, Brown acknowledges, as if he were talking about the Hoover Dam, but there are signs that it is already under way. Indeed.
Brown offered his readers a little of everything: the rhetoric of Christian eschatology and neo-Marxist radicalism and polymorphous sexuality. Was his vision of body mysticism littered with contradictions? No problem! Faced with contradiction one could always resort to Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes). Or one could quote Brown himself: We may therefore entertain the hypothesis that formal logic and the law of contradiction are the rules whereby the mind submits to operate under general conditions of repression.
Brown claimed to be plumbing the psychoanalytic meaning of history. But, as he more or less admits, Brown adopts Freudian rhetoric while totally inverting Freuds fundamental understanding of civilization and human nature. (The one thing that Brown took from Freud without distortion was Freuds extraordinary overestimation of sex as the most important thingalmost the only important thingin human life.) The writer John Passmore, in Paradise Now, a long article about Brown published in Encounter in 1970, summed it up well: Freud presented a dilemma: either civilization, which rests on repression, or unrepressed enjoyment. When it came to the point he preferred civilization, if with some misgivings. Brown, in typical mystical fashion, chooses the other horn of the dilemma. In fact, the choice is not even between civilization and unrepressed enjoyment but rather between the ordered enjoyments that civilization makes possible and the carnage and savagery of Dionysiani.e., barbaric chaos.
Brown everywhere talks about abolishing repression: in Loves Body, for example he waxes prophetic about it: The unconscious to be made conscious; a secret disclosed; a veil to be rent, a seal to be broke open; the seal which Freud called repression. He tells us that art, if it is to fulfill its redemptive function, must be subversive of civilization. In other words, like all Romantics, Brown pretends that the alternative to civilization, with its tedious checks and balances, is paradise; in fact, as every real breakdown of civilization in history reminds us, the alternative to civilization is much closer to hell on earth.
Browns popularity rested on two points: his promise of an ecstatic world- and self-transforming sexuality and his attack on rationality. The two go together. Sex, in the world according to Brown, has little or nothing to do with the family or children; in the end it has little to do with sex as ordinarily understood. It is more a mystical than a carnal or emotional reality. Sex for Brown is a synecdoche for spiritual redemption, though his cerebral musings about polymorphous perversity and the abolition of repression inspired a great deal of distinctly more mundane activity among his acolytes. Likewise Browns attack on rationality. He asked his followers to dispense with quantifying rationality and morbid science whose aims were to gain possession or mastery over objects.
What would a nonmorbid science look like? It would presumably be erotic rather than (anal) sadistic in aim. Its aim would not be mastery over but union with nature. And its means would not be economizing but erotic exuberance. And finally, it would be based on the whole body and not just a part; that is to say, it would be based on the polymorphously perverse body.That is to say, it would be based on a groundless fantasy about what constituted knowledge, a grotesque misunderstanding of nature, and a narcissistic worship of the body. Brown pretended that the alternative to rational thought (formal logic, the law of contradiction) was a higher knowledge. In fact, it was a lower form of ignorance: a word-besotted mysticism incapable of distinguishing verbal legerdemain from the claims of reality. It is easy to dismiss Brown as a gnostic curiosity, as one critic did. The problem is that his gnostic fantasies seduced some of the most influential and articulate thinkers of the 1960s, and, through them, the hearts and minds of an entire generation. Take, for example, Susan Sontags famous conclusion to Against Interpetation: In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. This bit of avant-garde word play is totally nonsensical; but it is exactly the sort of nonsense that is inconceivable without the example of Browns polysyllabic eroticism.
With the work of Herbert Marcuse (1898 1979), we descend a little closer to earth, but not much. Born in Berlin and educated at the University of Berlin and the University of Freiburg, Marcuse began his academic career as a radical interpreter of Hegel and was associated with the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist intellectuals. When the Nazis came to power, he fled first to Geneva, where he taught for a year, and then to the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life, teaching at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California at San Diego. Marcuses two most influential books, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964), lay out a position that, in essentials, anticipates and parallels Browns. Like Brown, Marcuse blends Marx and Freud to produce an emancipatory vision based on polymorphous, narcissistic sexuality, anti-bourgeois animus, and quasi-mystical theories about art, redemption, and the abolition of repression.
The chief difference between them is one of tone. Brown poses as a visionary: William Blake with a Ph.D. For him, the revolution is primarily a cataclysm in consciousness. Marcuse makes more of an effort to keep his Marxist credentials in good order. Where Brown might quote the mystic Jacob Boehme, Marcuse will add a Political Preface to Eros and Civilization in order to announce the gradual undermining of capitalistic enterprise in the course of automation. Where Brown described himself as a seeker after magic and supernatural powers, Marcuse became the mentor of Angela Davis, whom he described as the best student he ever taught. In 1972, in Counter-Revolution and Revolt, Marcuse accused the Western world (i.e., the United States) of practicing the horrors of the Nazi regime and looked forward to the fall of the capitalist superpower, an event that he believed would allow the Chinese and Cuban revolutions to go their own waysfreed from the suffocating blockade and the equally suffocating necessity of maintaining an ever more costly defensive machine. Brown might agree, but one can hardly imagine him acknowledging the existence of Cuba without first quoting Paracelsus. In other words, both men were political simpletons, but Marcuse was more likely to insist on the real-world implications of his thought.
In a famous review of Loves Body published in Commentary in 1967, Marcuse accused Brown of systematically mystifying love, politics, and human nature. He was quite right, but the charge applies equally to Marcuse. Both men were fantasists. Their world view proceeds from the assumption that human nature can be repealed. In Eros and Civilizationa book that became a bible of the countercultureMarcuse spins a fairytale about the fate of man in industrial society. Like Brown, he conjures up the image of a non-repressive reality principle in which the body in its entirety would become an instrument of pleasure. What this really amounts to is a form of infantilization. Marcuse speaks glowingly of a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality that protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality. He recommends returning to a state of primary narcissism in which one will find the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradisethe Nirvana principle not as death but as life. In other words, he looks forward to a community of solipsists.
Marcuse is much more explicit than Brown about the social implications of his experiment in narcissism. This change in the value and scope of libidinal relations, he writes, would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family. That is to say, ultimate liberation is indistinguishable from ultimate self-absorption. Of course, there are one or two impediments to fulfilling this dream. Mortality, for example. The brute fact of death, Marcuse admits, denies once and for all the reality of a non-repressive existence. But not to worry. A couple of pages after acknowledging this inconvenient reality, Marcuse assures us that the emancipation of eros means that the instinctual value of death would have changed, and he goes on to explain that the necessity of death does not refute the possibility of final liberation. Like other necessities, it can be made rationalpainless. Men can die without anxiety if they know that what they love is protected from misery and oblivion. After a fulfilled life, they may take it upon themselves to dieat a moment of their own choosing. It is sad, really, that a man so extensively educated should be so naïve.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once observed that no one should read Hegel before the age of forty: the dangers of intellectual corruption were just too great. Marcuse is a case in point. He was so intoxicated by Hegels dialectic that he could no longer register the most commonplace realities. His Marxist view of the world mandated that capitalism led to oppression, ergo capitalist societies were monuments of misery and unfreedom: Q.E.D. Never mind that the United States has developed into the most tolerant and prosperous society in history: the theory says that it cant happen, therefore what looks like freedom and prosperity must be an illusion. Marcuses boldness in this direction is quite breathtaking. The fundamental point of One-Dimensional Man is that the better things appear to get, the worse they really are. Under the rule of a repressive whole, he writes, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. And again, a rising standard of living is the almost unavoidable by-product of the politically manipulated society.
Marcuse came up with several names for the idea that freedom is a form of tyranny. The most famous was repressive tolerance, which was also the title of an essay he wrote on the subject in 1965. He even offers a simple formula for distinguishing between the repressive tolerance that expresses itself in such phenomena as freedom of assembly and free speech and the liberating tolerance he recommends. Liberating tolerance, he writes, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left. What Marcuse wants is not equal but more representation of the Left, and he blithely sanctions extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate. Marcuse admits that extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger, but he goes on to note that I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation.
Different opinions and philosophies can no longer compete peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds: the marketplace of ideas is organized and delimited by those who determine the national and the individual interest. In this society, for which the ideologists have proclaimed the end of ideology, the false consciousness has become the general consciousnessfrom the government down to its last objects.No wonder Leszek Kolakowski concluded that Marcuses philosophy advocated Marxism as a Totalitarian Utopia. In the end, Kolakowski points out, Marcuses entire system depends on replacing the tyranny of logic by a police tyranny . The Marcusian union of Eros and Logos can only be realized in the form of a totalitarian state, established and governed by force; the freedom he advocates is non-freedom.
The ideas put forward by people like Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse are so extravagant that one is tempted to dismiss them as ridiculous figments of a diseased understanding. The problem is that these figments, deceptive though they undoubtedly are, have been extolled as liberating wisdom by an entire generation. If they are no longer declared with the same proselytizing fervor that they were in the 1960s, that is because they have become part of the established intellectual and moral climate we live with. The unlikely marriage of Marx and Freud shows that it is a great mistake to believe that ideas, because untrue or even preposterous, cannot therefore do great harm. As the political commentator Irving Kristol points out in Utopianism, Ancient and Modern, the truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. Goodman, Brown, and Marcuse promised boundless liberation. What they delivered was mystification and immorality. Edmund Burke was right: liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 December 1997, on page 4
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