Belief and Unbelief II: Sam Brody, True Believer

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, Sam Brody struck me as one of the most entertaining and interesting men I had ever met.

Of course “Brody” wasn’t his real name. It was his Communist Party name. He probably had some Slavic name containing far more syllables. At the time I knew him, he was living in a cold-water flat in southern Harlem, New York City.

Sam Brody certainly did not belong to my accustomed world. His mission for the Communist Party—which, incredibly, had high hopes of success and influence in America in 1948—was to organize the neighborhood blacks in the Communist cause, get them on picket lines and into demonstrations and rent strikes and the like. In this, Brody was supremely unsuccessful.

But he did organize what amounted to a free-floating Saturday night salon for Columbia students and other young people. At Columbia the invitations were issued by a theological student, an undergraduate at Columbia College named Al Vogler. This tall, plump, and Germanic student looked about 40 but could only have been about 20. His learning in languages and philosophy was startling. At the Union Theological Seminary he assisted Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr in their courses.

None of the people who went to Sam Brody’s on Saturday nights was a Communist of any sort. I think that the avuncular and philosophical—and perhaps genius—Vogler was interested in Brody as a religious phenomenon. In some William Jamesian sense of the “varieties of religious experience,” I think he was interested in Brody as a specimen of “belief.”

Sam Brody, in his cold-water flat, had no money. The American Communist Party was a skimpy paymaster. Still, his walls were decorated with paintings given him by Communist artists he had known on the West Coast, and he corresponded with important poets and other writers. Sam Brody had been a Hollywood cameraman, but had lost his job because of his conspicuous Communist activities. When he came to Manhattan, his life was Communism. I think that this is what the theologian Al Volger found professionally interesting.

What was immediately impressive about Sam Brody was his sheer physical vitality. He had a swarthy Slavic countenance and Aztec-sharp features, and thick black hair. In motion, and he always seemed to be in motion around the room, he was like a nervous monkey. In his bathroom, the toilet paper consisted of paper napkins lifted from local bars and restaurants.

Brody’s wife was plump and good-natured, a Communist of course, but entirely passive around Sam. Because they had so little money, there was nothing much she could do as a hostess. When you showed up for a Saturday night, it was polite to bring a bottle of red wine.

Brody was witty and unpredictable, except about Stalin. He believed completely in Stalin. One night he lifted a donated bottle of red wine to toast the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb. “The Revolution is saved!” he shouted.

Most of the rest of us at the time were afraid of being shot up or killed in the Korean War, which was then going on. Brody rebuked us: “Russian kids aren’t afraid of being shot. They would die for the Revolution.” Of course he did not “know” any such thing, but he believed it was so.

Speaking for myself and probably for the theologian Vogler, I was impressed by the intensity of Brody’s faith. How could he “know” that “Russian kids” would willingly have been shot up defending or advancing “the Revolution?” There was no basis at all for this opinion, except that he liked the idea.

I asked him whether he knew that during the Finnish War officers in the Red Army made the troops charge by shooting the last file in their backs. Of course he dismissed this as a fascist lie.

Sam Brody thus underscored for my inexperienced mind the complicated problems of knowledge and belief, the problem of “knowing” and what that means.

A besetting problem for a literary undergraduate at Columbia, and much discussed, was whether perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats, really believed in magic and in his famous “system” concerning history. The system had been dictated to him, supposedly, by his wife on their honeymoon while she was in a trance. I was not sure whether I “believed” any of that, and in any case Yeats’ ostensible “beliefs” were nonsense. Yet those “beliefs” informed his great poetry, which struck everyone as “true.”

The leading Renaissance scholar Joseph Mazzeo once asked a Columbia seminar whether they thought Dante really “believed” that the mountain of Purgatory was located somewhere in the neighborhood of Australia, which is what the poem says. The answer was that Dante believed no such thing. He was representing moral and spiritual realities and states of the soul through marvelously concrete and specific description. The poet must “represent” such non-physical realities. Except in one famous case, the spirit has not ever been fully incarnated.

In terms of the question of “knowing,” I suppose one might say that for Sam Brody Communism was really what T.S. Eliot called an “objective correlative.” Eliot coined this term to mean the following: A poet experiences an emotion. To create that emotion in a reader he must invent an image or images, which may or may not be the images that aroused the emotion in the poet in the first place. Thus Eliot’s personal emotions issued in the public symbol of the waste land desert, and Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne may well underlie the complex drama of Hamlet. It is at least thinkable that Marx and Lenin presented Sam Brody with an enclosed symbol system which was like a poem, and which was the “correlative” of private emotions that he otherwise could not communicate. This swarthy and electric Slav might more appropriately have been a Bergsonian vitalist or a Reichian sexual theorist than a rigid Marxist. He was more like a D.H. Lawrence Indian than a part of Marx’s Victorian mechanical “scientific” system. And he was anything but a bureaucrat or a cop.

For Sam Brody’s Saturday night salons—a Communist salon?—there were usually a dozen or so Columbia students and their dates, all bringing what we called the “ginney red.” Once a nice Barnard girl brought Sam a cheap commercial wire sculpture. He gazed at it thoughtfully and asked, “What’s this? Some new kind of contraceptive?” This was apt enough as art criticism. She acted horrified by his language, as he intended she should be, bourgeois girl. Probably she enjoyed this episode in Communist bohemia.

I cannot forget his personal vitality, despite the desiccated doctrine to which he subscribed. We thought he was a lark, but he was not. His Communist mission to the Harlem blacks entirely collapsed, his neighborhood today being more interested in crack than in Lenin.

Of course, Sam Brody was a fool. Stalin’s bureaucrats would have killed him with a flick of the wrist. Brody’s beliefs were asinine, though he did act on them. His Saturday nights were fine parties, if you could put up with some roaches, and did raise for at least some students those complicated problems about belief and knowing.

What Sam Brody thought he knew he certainly did not know. He knew that capitalism and fascism were identical and that President Truman any day would become a dictator. Capitalism would soon bare its fascist face and then “inevitably” would collapse economically. He knew that socialism in his beloved Soviet Union would soon experience economic cornucopia and classless joy.

These were not matters of knowledge, tested against fact. They were matters of pure faith, serving some need in Brody. However nonsensical these beliefs were, they provided a structure within his skull, and gave him some purchase upon his experience.

The contrast between the extreme physical and conversational vitality of Brody and the rigid symbol system he inhabited was an extraordinary thing to experience. The theologian Al Vogler was right on the mark when he invited his Columbia friends to “Sam’s.”

Author

  • Jeffrey Hart

    Jeffrey Peter Hart (born 1930 in Brooklyn, New York) is an American cultural critic, essayist, columnist, and Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth College.

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