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Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years

Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years

A memoir of Fredy Perlman by Lorraine Perlman his partner for 27 years.

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Years before he articulated the dichotomy between being and having, Fredy consciously chose to have little. His aspiration to be much was initially expressed either in Faustian terms or using a humanist vocabulary which applauded the self-realization of the individual. Alert to ways in which conventional attitudes and institutional restrictions stifle the individual, Fredy saw himself in a social context and understood that his own self-realization was inseparable from that of his contemporaries. Even while railing against their acceptance of social fetters which gives life to repressive institutions, he had no ambition to be in a position to tell others what to do with their lives. A crucial part of his own vision for a meaningful life was that every individual have the opportunity to realize his or her creative potential.

With a view to changing institutions and the society in which he lived, Fredy devoted a good part of his fifty years to a study of philosophy, economics and history but his desire for change was incompatible with any theory which allowed that an authoritarian regime might be appropriate under certain circumstances or for certain populations. He sought to expose and discredit inhibiting institutions and hoped the collective efforts of his contemporaries would succeed in dismantling the institutions, thereby enlarging everyone’s scope for self-realization.

In the days when we lived in a rooming house near Columbia University in New York City, Fredy used his own words — and spoke in the present tense — to express the sentiments that William Wordsworth put this way:

I began
To meditate with ardour on the rule
And management of nations; what it is
And ought to be; and strove to learn how far
Their power or weakness, wealth or poverty,
Their happiness or misery, depends
Upon their laws, and fashion of the State.

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!

Fredy was too conscious of the recent suffering imposed on millions of human beings to aspire to “bliss” in the contemporary world, but, like the poet, felt that he and the “auxiliars” strong in love would be mighty enough to root out many of society’s fetters. The challenge exhilarated him; his confidence was persuasive to me and to others.

Fredy did not consider generous sentiments toward fellow beings to be unusual; he attributed a comparable goodwill to his associates and assumed their commitment was equal to his. Though not prone to exaggerating his or other individuals’ influence on world events, he nevertheless viewed a person’s chosen activities in a large social context. He scrutinized his own choices closely, wanting them to be exemplary.

My original intent in writing this memoir was to trace Fredy’s intellectual history, his changing views on self-realization. But the events of his life, his chosen activities and his friends had such an enormous influence on his views that I concentrated on biographical facts, convincing myself that this account would contribute to an understanding of Fredy’s intellectual trajectory.

Fredy’s life was not a tragic one. If he had acute disappointments in his 51 years, he did not articulate them; whereas he frequently professed satisfaction with his choices. He never expressed regret about our decision not to have children nor was he envious of successful professionals, either of their activity, possessions or prestige. Fredy liked the role of social critic and saw himself as part of a long and admirable tradition. Since he never admitted the possibility of a society that would not need criticism, he hoped his insights would contribute to the efforts of other dissidents.

The frequent references I make to Fredy’s essays and novels may seem fragmentary to individuals who have not read his works. In general, I have assumed that the reader is familiar with much of Fredy’s writing and I have not attempted t0 analyze or describe texts that are currently available. A list of his written works can be found on page 143.

My thanks to Julia Beard, Geoff Hall and Peter Werbe who read the manuscript and gave me useful comments. My sister, Ruth Nybakken, who, like me, met Fredy in 1957, also read the manuscript. She found a lot to criticize and helped solve numerous problems. I regret that my writing skills do not always satisfy her standards. Ralph Franklin shared his knowledge of the graphic arts and also designed the cover, using a photo fumished by Carl Smith and a woodcut made by John Ricklefs.

I am grateful to Dolores Cherella and William Donovan who gave me loving hospitality and expert advice during many sojourns in the northern suburbs. Marilyn Gilbert and Jeff Gilbert, Fredy’s and my close friends since 1970, offered affection and encouragement on Detroit’s southwest side. The words and deeds of Mary Jane Shoultz and Federico Arcos brightened my life. My admiration and gratitude go to the dozens of creative individuals in “the Fifth Estate circle” with whom I shared, over the years, contestation and enjoyment in the Motor City. Some of the long-term participants are: Alan Franklin, David Watson, Marilyn Werbe, Marilynn Rashid, Peter Werbe and Ralph Franklin. To these six as well as to all the others, I apologize for the reductive label.

I also want to thank the many unnamed friends residing in Detroit, North America, Europe and Africa who lived part of these years with me and Fredy. He treasured their friendship and acknowledged its decisive impact on his life. I recognize it too and in these pages have tried to honor those who offered it. I should point out, nevertheless, that this is my memoir, not theirs.

— L.P.

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