New School Gestalt and its Hidden Sociology
Anatole Broyard at The New School
One of the most engaging memoirs about studying at the New School is critic Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. Broyard (1920-1990) had an ongoing relationship with The New School, not only taking courses in the BA Program through the GI Bill in the late 1940s but also teaching writing workshops for many years. Broyard worked on the memoir at the end of his life, crafting a narrative perhaps more artful than accurate. It shows the power of literary reconstruction, but also lingering lessons of navigating the New School. “There is a sociology concealed in the book,” Broyard noted cryptically, “just as a body is concealed in its clothes.”
“Like the Village itself,” Broyard writes, “the New School was at its best in 1946.” Giddy at the war’s end, students — including veterans like himself — “were excited, expectant, dressed to the teeth. They struck poses, examined one another with approval. They had a blind date with culture, and anything could happen.” The professoriate, defined by the heavily accented “Germans” whom the University in Exile had saved from Nazism, tried to dampen this enthusiasm.
Because they were displaced themselves, or angry with us for failing to understand history, the professors did their best to make us feel like exiles in our own country. … All the courses I took were about what’s wrong: what’s wrong with our government, with the family, with interpersonal relations and intrapersonal relations — what’s wrong with our dreams, our loves, our jobs, our perceptions and conceptions, our esthetics [sic], the human condition itself.
Broyard’s fellow students were not daunted but delighted. When neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (a forgotten New School mainstay) declared that they “feared freedom, saw it as madness, epistemology run amok,” they happily accepted this pronouncement — “in the name of freedom”! Broyard was less taken by the frisson of existential crisis. New School students were enthralled with the fashionable idea of alienation, he tells us, but he found himself “alienated from alienation.” (Fromm was little help: he turned down Broyard’s request to try therapy.)
Fromm’s is one of a trio of psychology courses that Broyard depicts in his memoir, along with fellow neo-Freudian Karen Horney and Gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim. (The course descriptions reproduced here are from the 1946-47 course catalog.) He recounts his inability to take them seriously with an irony that only just stops short of being truly self-mocking. “Germans were sometimes stunned into a kind of stupor by an ordinary insight,” he reports, “which they would then try to elevate into a philosophy or a system.” In Kafka Was The Rage, New School professors are the foil to the sexual and literary education Broyard was receiving outside of class, but their disconcerting questions haunt his Bildungsroman.
Broyard is a little defensive about the neo-Freudian Horney, but he is dismissive of Gestalt psychologists like Arnheim who “had discovered that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — something everybody already knew.” But Gestalt is more sophisticated than that. The defining insight (in Kurt Koffka’s phrase) was that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts — that pieces have no meaning except as parts of wholes perceived independently of them.
Broyard’s description of a particularly memorable session of Arnheim’s class offers a fitting illustration.
Max Wertheimer, the father of Gestalt psychology, made a guest appearance in the class. He was a small man, dressed in a frock coat, and he wore his hair en brosse. The high point of his lecture was a demonstration of requiredness, a key term in Gestalt thinking. It meant, if I understood him, that each thing implied other things, or a context, something like a counterpoint of structures. He showed us what he meant with a little experiment of his own. First, he taught us a complicated African hand clap, and then when he had us clapping away, he himself set up a weird howling accompaniment.
This strikingly visceral memory connects us in a multi-sensory way to the work of a legendary teacher. Revered by his students as “the greatest teacher since Socrates,” Wertheimer was a dynamic and conversational instructor who made regular, often spontaneous, use of music in his psychology and philosophy lectures. A collaborator of ethnomusicologist Erich von Hornbostel, he had done early work in cultural psychology, too.
It’s apt that Wertheimer should show up in Arnheim’s course, since his arrival among the first members of the University in Exile in 1933 cemented the New School’s status as an American home of Gestalt psychology.
There’s just one thing. When Broyard studied at the New School, Wertheimer had been dead for three years.
When I confronted someone who’d studied writing with Broyard in the early 1960s with this anomaly, he responded with typical Broyardian bravado: “‘Max Wertheimer died in l943’ is irrelevant. Anatole Broyard was a brilliant, beautiful self-invention. Yes, he dealt with facts but, to a certain degree, they were beneath him.” Besides, Broyard was writing almost four decades after the fact. Still, one would like to know who was howling to the complicated African hand-clap. Was Broyard remembering someone else? Or had he misremembered someone else’s vividly recounted Wertheimer experience as his own? Human memory offers us such cases in abundance.
To Wertheimer, this posthumous jam session might have been a teachable moment. His first publication in the New School’s journal Social Research, “On Truth” (1934), discussed just such cases where truth needs to be judged not piecemeal but in terms of the whole and its required parts. Generally, true parts contribute to true wholes, false parts to false wholes, relationships for which Wertheimer proposed the notation tT and fF. But many a larger falsehood is composed of piecemeal truths misleadingly presented: tF. He gave an example which pointed to the Nazis’ disingenuous claims of innocence at the burning of the Reichstag a year before.
There are also cases of fT. Sometimes a larger truth is best conveyed through what, taken piecemeal, is a falsehood. The Gestalt may even require it. Wertheimer’s chosen example is that of a caricature whose exaggerations make it an all-the-more effective depiction of a personality. Wertheimer’s spectral appearance in Broyard’s New School class in 1946 might demand to be appreciated as fT too.
More broadly, Wertheimer’s fT and tF might aid in understanding the persistence of some of our most cherished myths. Hannah Arendt didn’t join the New School until 1967, for instance, but we picture her among the refugee scholars in the 1940s: she fits the New School Gestalt. So does the association of the New School for Social Research with the Frankfurt School for Social Research, with which it had no overlap until the Graduate Faculty became a major center for critical theory in the 1970s (indeed, Horkheimer and Adorno went to Columbia, though Fromm taught here!). On the other hand, conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, who spent a decade at the center of faculty discussions from 1938 to 1948 and was the celebrated embodiment of its commitment to political diversity, doesn’t fit the current progressive Gestalt and has vanished from memory.
Wertheimer wouldn’t want me to suggest that anything goes, that any story can legitimately be told, cherry-picking or replacing what really happened in service of whatever larger story one feels compelled to tell. An understanding of the laws of Gestalt may help us better understand how to hide things – something illustrated in one of his early essays, “Laws of organization in perceptual forms,” in which he examined ways of hiding a coffin-shaped object in plain sight. But awareness of this phenomenon should really instill a deeper reverence for the preciousness of truth, and of the work of being faithful to it.
The concern remains Truth. And given the potential for tF and fT (hardly news in 2019!), the priority is the character trait of truthfulness, something we know when we see it – another example of Gestalt. (Wertheimer made a similar argument about freedom: “Sometimes one sees a man, and by the way he goes through life, by his attitudes, by his behavior in dealing with life situations, one feels: this is a free man, he lives in an atmosphere of freedom.”)
Broyard’s account of clapping with Wertheimer initiates us into the New School as a Gestalt, something else than the sum of its parts. Wertheimer wasn’t there but might as well have been. Others — like the women who have always made up the majority of New School students — continue to struggle to be noticed.
What about Broyard himself? Broyard’s own experiences at the New School — there but not quite there — can push us to disconcerting discoveries about the sociology concealed within the New School Gestalt. Fêted during his life as a great arbiter of taste through his book reviews for the New York Times, Broyard is today remembered mainly for the fact, revealed after his death, that he was a Creole who passed as white, coming to the New School to be “a writer, not a black writer.” Broyard’s passing was not something he wished to be known beyond a small circle of friends (his own children had to find out only at his death). His Gestalt professors might have predicted the different ways every aspect of his life is now seen.
Broyard’s memoir gives us an enduring image of normatively white students “examin[ing] one another with approval,” confident that they are not exiles and don’t need to be free. The deeper sociology Broyard’s story unconceals, however, takes us further. Who else is hidden in plain sight by the New School Gestalt?
Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.