When Worlds Collide: My Dad Eli Sagan and Feminist Writer Vivian Gornick

My father was a freelance intellectual. He was in the family run business until he was about forty. He started writing books and was an adjunct at UC Berkeley, Brandeis, and the New School. He didn’t have much small talk. Even when I was a child, he wanted to discuss sweeping social questions. He was an exhausting person on that level. Always in search of audience, his extend family had to serve in a pinch when he was working on an idea. He was a Freudian and somewhat of a Marxist when these streams of thought were less and less in vogue. When I was in high school, he embarrassed me by talking about menstrual huts in front of my friends.
The dark side of society is what drew him. My dad died before the current election. Half the time I thought “Phew. He…and I…were spared his reaction.” Then I’d miss him. For indeed, what would he say? I wished I knew.
Recently, a book of my father’s seemed to tumble from the shelf and into the hands of a writer I adore–Vivian Gornick. Memoirist, historian, and authority on the craft of writing…I’ve read most of what she has written. And now, she has read my dad.

Check out Gornick at

The inner life of a society bears a strong resemblance to that of an individual person, and many historians have been moved to describe the rise and fall of whole civilizations in language usually reserved for psychoanalysts. Reflecting on the culture wars that we in the United States have been caught up in over the past forty years, it is hard to resist seeing the political extremities that have convulsed our national life in any terms but these.

The morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I took a book off my shelves that had sat unread for some twenty-five years. As I believe we read the books we read when we need to read them, I felt as though this one had been waiting for me all these years. Finally its moment had come.

The name of the book was The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America (1991), and it was written by cultural anthropologist Eli Sagan. In this book, Sagan argues that while ancient Athens is remarkable for having enjoyed two centuries of thriving democracy, it also provides a naked example of the various corruptions the system could sustain, including slavery, poverty, endless warfare, and the ever-threatening “fickleness, arbitrariness, and irrationality” of the demos itself. In short, democracy was no safeguard against the pain humanity remained capable of inflicted on itself.

An old-time revivalist movement seemed to sweep through the land, the kind that arises when a society being forced to face its own deepest conflicts cries out against the potential loss of familiar dysfunction, so great is its fear of coming to consciousness.

In light of this reality, Sagan posits the analytic likeness between the various stages of the psychic development of an individual and that of a society. In an individual, he points out, the first stage includes an anxiety about the world that amounts to paranoia; in the second, the growing person moves into a paranoid position (that is, one suspects one is being plotted against, but does not feel compelled to act on the suspicion); and in the third, the paranoid position is overcome, whereupon, hopefully, one achieves a psyche relatively free of pathology. By the same token, “Every society is paranoid, and succeeds to a greater or lesser degree into moving into the paranoid position” (that is, refrains from actual aggression against other nation states), where it hopefully remains. When The Honey and the Hemlock was published, Sagan thought America, under the first George Bush, was coming close to moving from the paranoid position to outright paranoia. What on earth would he have thought the day after Donald Trump was elected president?

The golden age of Athens was remarkable for the degree to which the Athenian government, time after time, resisted its own predilection for paranoia—“[We] are not going to call out the army, [we] are not going to declare the election invalid, [we] are not going to have [our] opponent assassinated”—until the time came when it no longer did. Democracy, Sagan concludes, is a miracle, considering the depth—as individuals or as societies—of the psychological disabilities under which we, as a species, labor.

In every century since the Revolution, American reformers and their opponents have revealed a split in the culture between those driven to demand that the Republic keep its promise of full egalitarianism, and those who quail before the specter of unlimited secular democracy. This split goes so deep and remains so persistently unhealed that it parallels, to an uncanny degree, the self-dividedness of an individual person struggling at one and the same time to both resolve and avoid resolving the internal conflicts that hobble each and every one of us.


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