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Marshall Berman (City College of New York)
Marshall Berman (City College of New York)

OBITUARY

Marshall Berman: interpreter of urban life Add to ...

‘In a sweat, melting, shedding clothes and tears, flashing hot and cold.” This was how Marshall Berman described the first time he opened Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, a blue fifty-cent Moscow edition he found at a foreign-language bookstore on New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1959.

Prof. Berman came of age as urban planner Robert Moses was pounding and blasting his way through postwar New York. From the viewpoint of where a South Bronx street used to be, the young Marshall and his friends would “marvel to see our ordinary nice neighbourhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.” Mr. Moses, a disciple of Le Corbusier and great “metaphysician” of expressway traffic, replaced neighbourhoods, streets and cultural life with gleaming slabs of interconnected concrete. But it was while surveying the devastation that Prof. Berman realized what it meant to be modern: “We come from ruins, but we are not ruined.”

To the chagrin of his critics, Prof. Berman took his cues from both high and low culture, but most of all from Marx. The first prophet of modern cultural life offered more than a failed communist playbook. He belonged alongside the literary masters and Prof. Berman mobilized political philosophy, fiction, art and architecture interchangeably and effortlessly to teach us how to get a grip on the modern world. Love and sex helped. So did education, civic engagement and critical culture, suffrage, freedom from suffering, freedom from the fetishism of commodities, freedom to dance alone in a tie-dye T-shirt down Broadway.

A life-long New Yorker, Prof. Berman was a writer, Marxist-humanist philosopher, social critic and distinguished professor of political science at the City College of New York. He died in Manhattan on Sept. 11 at the age of 72, after suffering a heart attack at his favourite diner. He leaves his wife, Shellie, and his sons, Eli and Danny, and was predeceased by a son, Marc Joseph.

Prof. Berman’s writing in books and essays was original, poetic and provocative, and his imagination, intellectual range, sensitivity and relatability will continue to inspire generations of students, academics, readers and free thinkers.

The destructive onrush of modern urban life reminded college-age Prof. Berman of Goethe’s Faust and Marx’s Capital. He believed that modern life is paradoxical, contradictory and threatens to destroy everything we have, know and are. “To be modern,” he wrote in his visionary book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), “is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom … To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows.”

As a grown-up Marx doppelganger, Prof. Berman became the best kind of optimist. Streetcar graffiti snaked rainbows through grey, rickety neighbourhoods. Rap and hip-hop music announced by those born from misery that “we can rise again.” Skyscrapers offered nice views. Times Square’s “Disneyfication” wasn’t so bad, compared to the porno dive it once was. And 9/11 was no excuse to turn New York into a repository of hate and blame. Prof. Berman reminded us that sharing space and living city life means living through the ways in which our cities are torn down, consumed and destroyed, but that from the ruins emerged new art scenes, countercultures and green spaces, new ways to resist modernity’s dark forces.

For University of Toronto historian Sean Mills, “Berman was more than an intellectual who helped us think through the complexities of the modern world. He was one of the extremely rare writers who also taught us how to live and who helped us see the beauty and creativity of life in the streets.”

Marshall Howard Berman was born on Nov. 24, 1940, in the Bronx. His parents, Murray and Betty, ran a tag and label business in Times Square. His father died when his son was 14.

Growing up taking the subway with his family to Times Square was a life-long stimulant that Prof. Marshall celebrated in his 2006 book, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. The book for which he will be most remembered is All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a history of modernism in which he passionately critiqued everything from German, French, and Russian literature to the Cross Bronx Expressway. Among the other books he wrote or edited were The Politics of Authenticity (1970) and Adventures in Marxism (1999).

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and his doctorate from Harvard in 1968. Arriving at City College of New York shortly after finishing his doctoral studies, he became devoted to the university’s missions of diversity and accessibility, passing up chances to move to Ivy League schools or colleges in the West.

At City College, Prof. Berman helped establish the Center for Worker Education in Manhattan, where working adults could pursue college degrees. He also wrote for many publications and was a board member of the leftist journal Dissent.

Inside the kitchen cupboards of the Upper West Side apartment where he lived for decades, he stored his staples: books. Inside the bathroom cabinets, he stored his balm: more books.

Caught up in the mix of modern life, Prof. Berman tried to keep Marxist humanism alive because he believed it could “help people feel at home in history, even a history that hurts them. It can show them how even those who are broken by power can have the power to fight the power; how even survivors of tragedy can make history. … It can help new generations to imagine new adventures, and arouse their powers of desire to change the world, so that they not only will be part of the mix, they will get to do part of the mixing.”

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