Gotham Diary:
Whirlwind
August 2018 (III)

16 and 17 August

Thursday 16th

Most human organizations that fall short of their goals do so not because of stupidity or faulty doctrines, but because of internal decay and rigidification.

— James A Garfield

What attracts me to this gem, found in Beth Macy’s stupefyingly discouraging Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Company That Addicted America, is certainly not its prosody, which I would characterize as homefalutin, a peculiarly American patois. I think that it’s the vintage that appeals. I don’t know when Garfield said it, but it wasn’t after 1881, the year of his assassination. Also, it’s a president speaking, expressing what I regard as a central fact about humanity. It concerns not individual humans, with their widely differing characters, but people acting in concert. No matter smart or well-intentioned those people may be, the organizations that they design inevitably fail — unless, as seems to be the case at Oxford University, they periodically renew themselves from within. Come to think of it, the British have a knack for stealth radicalism that may explain the uniqueness of such institutions as Parliament. (A good argument in favor of Brexit would be that membership in the European Community stifles the United Kingdom’s vitally important genius for muddle.)

Americans, who are really much more German than English, do not share this skill; Americans like their reform noisy — revivalist, almost. We also have a passion for writing brand-new laws instead of overhauling old ones. The other night, Kathleen and I were speculating on the benefits that might have accrued from a mid-Seventies re-think of the three major securities laws (which in this house we call the ’33 Act, the ’34 Act, and the ’40 Act), and it occurred to me that such an overhaul would have been a splendid occasion for folding the Glass-Steagall Act into the regulatory framework overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. I doubt that, had he had to deal with the SEC, Sanford Weill would have had such an easy go of annulling Glass-Steagall — by violating it. (No event more directly precipitated the Crash of 2008, and lots of us predicted disaster when the knot was untied ten years earlier.)

A brilliant and well-seasoned lawyer recently told me that he believes that all human arrangements need to be reconstituted every hundred years. It sounds appalling at first — an invitation for organized highjacking. On reflection, I think it would be better not to wait so long. Let’s say that reform is designed and imposed by one clear-sighted generation. The next generation grows up with it, and the third generation takes it for granted. The fourth generation begins to specialize in workarounds, as circumstances and opportunities never dreamed of by the reformers develop in the normal course of social evolution. The backbone of the original reform may have lost none of its importance, but it may be embedded in stale and outdated provisions. For example, did you know that New York State public health law still requires movie theatres to staff glove-wearing matrons, to supervise children’s matinees? Well, it did in the 1980s, when Kathleen was working on a commission related to the secession of Staten Island. It was laughable then. Laws should never be laughable.

***

Dopesick is about two things: a pair of twisted addictions — to drugs on the one hand and to money on the other — and the hopeless mess that we have made of treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery. The addiction to money is illustrated by the nicely contrasting examples of Purdue Pharma sales rep bonuses, which were legal at the time (and may still be, albeit curtailed) and the story of Ronnie Jones, for six months the Shenandoah Valley’s heroin kingpin. Known in the trade as “DC,” Jones never used the drug. “He was much too scared of heroin to ever use it,” one of his henchmen told Macy.

But from the first moment he sent one of his subordinate dealers out in Woodstock to sell a gram’s worth of heroin he’d paid $65 for in Harlem — and the dealer returned with $800 in cash — DC was hooked on another drug. (153)

It is hard to believe that opioid addiction would have mushroomed as it has done without the boost that it got from money addiction. And let’s not forget the money addiction that drug addicts themselves quickly develop, as they lose their jobs, their homes, their assets, and in general all lawful sources of income.

As for the hopeless mess — I just can’t. I can barely read Macy’s crackerjack reporting. The nub of the problem is an only-in-America polarization between believers in medically-assisted treatment (MAT) and believers in abstinence, among whom figure the proponents of Twelve-Step programs. The message that the destructive effects of alcohol come nowhere near those of opioid drugs is not universally accepted.

Adding to the confusion is the plethora of organizations charged with partial responsibility for treatment, together with the authority of competing jurisdictions. There are programs at the municipal, county, state and federal levels. There are also religious and other charitable operations. Each of them may be above reproach, but taken together they inflict a lot of stupidity and faulty doctrine.

***

Friday 17th

The most extraordinary little book came my way yesterday. Published for the first time in 2017, and now appearing as an NYRB imprint, it was written in 1939 and 1940, the diary of an Italian aristocrat of complicated, Anglophone background. Entitled A Chill in the Air, it documents the slow-motion whirlwind of Italy’s descent into World War II. That is its only topic.

Iris Origo was the daughter of Bayard Cutting, an American millionaire, and Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of an Irish peer. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother brought her up at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, above Florence. Although the girl’s ambition to go to Oxford was thwarted by her mother’s preference for débutante cotillions, Iris was educated by the galaxy of brilliant visitors to her mother’s salon, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Bernard Berenson among them. Craving a simpler, more purposeful life, Iris married the aristocratic scion of Italian industrialists, Antonio Irigo, in 1924. They settled down on a desolate estate in Tuscany with a view to restoring its agricultural fertility. The loss of their son, Gianni, to meningitis put a strain on the marriage, but as the warclouds gathered, Iris recommitted to her marriage and to her estate. It was at this point that she decided,

Perhaps it might be useful to try to clear my mind by setting down, as truthfully and simply as I can, the tiny facet of the world’s events which I myself, in the months ahead, shall encounter at first hand.

The diary runs from March 1939 to July 1940; Origo set it aside after the birth of her daughter, Benedetta — an event that is prefigured in the most unusual way. In an entry from the previous month (15 June 1940), Origo writes,

William Phillips has come up from Rome. After a second air raid last night, he does not recommend it to me as the most restful place for my accouchement.

There has been no earlier mention of a pregnancy. We do know that William Phillips is the American Ambassador and Origo’s godfather. She will be delivered at the American Embassy — and that will be the occasion for abandoning the diary. By then, of course, the ambiguity and confusion that set the tone of the diary’s atmosphere will have evaporated in open hostility, with Churchill’s Britain Hitler’s only opponent. But the rigor with which Origo’s attentiveness to “the world’s events” eclipses all merely personal notations is stunningly professional, and it goes far to recreating, in a way that I have never seen done, except perhaps in Jean Paul Rappeneau’s glamorous film, Bon Voyage, the nightmare of not knowing what’s going happen next in the world at large. (And the film, it must be noted, is riotously personal.) Most narratives of World War II focus on the terror of being hunted down, a horrific experience that disturbed relatively few people. The crisis that Origo covers affected everyone.

She is a privileged observer. This does not mean that her information is better than anybody else’s (although she has a great deal more of it than most Italians), or that she “really knows” what’s going to happen. In fact, she teaches the opposite lesson. Her richly-networked perch allows her to see something that the man in the street is unlikely to discover.

The truth is that, according to the company in which one happens to be, one knows beforehand what the opinion will be on any of the current topics. Among the anti-Fascists, Chamberlain is spoken of with contempt and Bonnet with loathing; Roosevelt is admired. In Fascist circles the odium falls on Churchill and on the Labour Party; Catholics unite to deplore the advances to Russia. Moreover one also knows beforehand where the blind spots will be. The Fascist averts his mind from the refugee problem [in the Tyrol] and the situation in Czecho Slovakia (“All very much exaggerated — one must allow for foreign propaganda.”) The Catholics turn a deaf ear to all accounts of executions in Spain; the anti-Fascist has seldom heard of any trouble in Russia. Only on one point are they all agreed: they don’t want war. (6 August 1939)

This lockstep chaos is magnified, of course, in the press, and in the radio broadcasts that, until the very end, announce nothing not already known. There rumors, of course, and the diary is stuffed with the lively anecdotes in which they’re embedded. (Origo has a good head for dismissing the baseless ones.) In an astonishing promotional gesture that I had never heard of, Mussolini had himself filmed in a cockpit, apparently flying through a storm, reminding viewers that you don’t bother a heroic pilot with unnecessary questions.

Even Mussolini didn’t want the war, but he had no choice — not in the summer of 1940. After the Fall of France, his only alternative was to invite a German invasion that would in all likelihood have repeated the French capitulation. As A Chill in the Air progresses, the contemporary reader’s chill is likely to emanate not so much from the uncertainty of war (which cannot be fully shared, knowing, as we do, what happened) as from the figure of Il Duce. The fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the United States is not currently anywhere near Italy’s pre-war crossroads, is the only source of warmth when I consider the following entry. The speaker, Count Senni, belongs to a “Black Roman” family, more loyal to the Papacy than to the Kingdom, notwithstanding which he has served Mussolini for years.

Count Carlo Senni has just been talking about his years with Mussolini, to whom he is whole-heartedly, but not wholly uncritically, loyal. He emphasizes one trait which strikes everyone who has ever worked with Mussolini: his unbounded, almost undisguised, utterly cynical contempt for his own human instruments. Except for his brother Arnaldo (now dead) and perhaps, to a lesser degree, his daughter, there is no human being in the world whom he loves and trusts. He believes in the ability of his son-in-law [Count Ciano]; he does not trust him. A sentimentalist about “the people” en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use to which he can put them to … Yet so great is his personal ascendancy that his underlings — knowing that they themselves will be kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful — to retain their personal devotion to him. (31 July)

Perhaps, in the case of Donald Trump, the ascendancy is less personal than symbolic: Trump stands for destruction. That is why, says the discarded Steve Bannon (if not in so many words), he is mobilizing for Republican candidates at the midterms: it will keep that wrecking-ball swinging. The awful truth is that some Americans do want war.

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was an accomplished biographer whose reputation has faded, as reputations do when new titles stop appearing. Until, that is, the writer is for some reason or other rediscovered. A Chill in the Air ought to prompt such a rediscovery. The woman certainly knew how to write.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
No Critics, Please
August 2018 (II)

7, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 7th

Nearly fifty years have passed since Jane Jacobs published The Economy of Cities, and nearly thirty since the appearance of its sequel, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Re-reading the latter, and interrupting that re-reading to read the former for the first time, I thought of two things that had developed since 1984. One, of course, was the Internet. In my ignorant way — understanding so little about the basics of economics and technology gives me the freedom to dream — I wondered if some inversion of China’s Internet, in other words an Internet connecting and available to the inhabitants of what Jacobs would call a “city region,” and only to them, might be tweaked to provide the feedback loop that Jacobs locates in sovereign currencies. That’s pretty much where the ignorant dream ends, though, at least for now.

The other thing was chaos theory, again something that I don’t understand very well. It turned out that Jacobs was not as unaware of chaos as I thought at first, as I discovered when I resumed reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations and encountered her discussion of bifurcation, and then the devotion of her final chapter to the idea of “drift.” These are both alternative expressions of chaos. Bifurcation is a form of discontinuity, an unforeseen tangent. Drift, it seems to me, is not the happiest choice of terms, for while it might, as the Japanese thinker cited by Jacobs proposes, suggest inadvertent discoveries, what it suggests more forcibly is the economic stagnation that Jacobs deplores. Drift is pretty much passive. What Jacobs has in mind in her final chapter is a partial passivity, coupled with dynamic engagement: unplanned action. This is, from a political point of view, contained chaos. I wish that Jacobs had written a third book, about how to encourage the fertile experimentation and shift in objectives that lie at the heart of her many tales of unexpected enterprise — such as the invention of the brassiere industry. But this imaginary third book would not have involved much reporting — Jacobs’s forte. It would have been speculative, like the dark books about politics that Jacobs did go on to write.

What I’m left with, then, is the model of an economy that is (a) devoted to the sustainable provision of everyday material needs, (b) protected from fear and violence by civic institutions that may or may not be political in nature, and (c) constructively dissatisfied with the commercial status quo.

The United States fails most glaringly on the first count. Owing, perhaps, to their history, Americans don’t know the meaning of “sustainable,” which may explain the glibness with which the term is retailed. Until a point very much within living memory, it was always possible, in this country, to move on to new opportunities, leaving old messes behind for others to worry about (or not). I needn’t belabor the environmental aspect of this problem. But “sustainable” also encodes an economic principle that is not very developed in our culture, as a corrective to the concept of “profit.” While financiers are perfectly alive to the meaning of profit, the man in the street often has a different idea, one much closer to breaking even. The man in the street might say that a businessman is entitled to a “decent profit,” meaning, however not genuine profit but just the extra revenue sufficient to pay himself for his troubles, or to repay his backers. There is a widespread vernacular misunderstanding that owners and managers (unlike rank-and-file workers) are paid not out of revenues but out of profits. Journalists focused on economic matters ought to be working hard to correct this.

From an economic standpoint — that is, from the point of view of the people participating in an economy, considered together — the ideal business is one that breaks even. Nothing costs more than it ought to cost, allowing for the compensation of managers and backers. This is where the difference between a genuinely capitalist enterprise and a mature business ought to be marked more clearly than it is. I have belabored this matter, in several earlier entries. A capitalist enterprise is essentially a gamble, in which the generation of revenue is uncertain. The revenues of mature business, in contrast, are quite predictable over the medium term, if not the long. Americans appear have developed an impatience with mature businesses, and for the past forty years have been needlessly subjecting them to capitalist gambles. (There is no other way to judge the private equity racket.) This may be nothing more than a side-effect of the constantly trumpeted message that we live in a capitalist economy. But for the purposes of this paragraph it is enough to say that the managers and backers of a genuinely capitalist enterprise are entitled to increased compensation, to make up for the managers’ trial-and-error search for revenue, and for the backers’ losing gambles.

Because we do not clearly understand the meaning of terms such as profit and capitalism, we flounder in a widening swamp of unseemly incomes and sickened businesses. It is a swamp because the United States is beset by a fear of what it calls “socialism,” an imaginary alligator that approaches unseen — unseen because it is not there. This is failure on the second count. Our civic institutions seem increasingly incapable of calming fear and preventing violence. Our depraved popular culture — a non-political civic institution — actually celebrates fear and violence, arguing somewhat disingenuously that doing so is just a way of telling it like it is. In America, socialism is a bogeyman, a Freddie Krueger waiting just around the corner. Politicians have been exploiting this monster since the interwar period; during the Cold War, it meant little less than enslavement by Russians. Socialism is a mirage in the same way that the large business corporation is a mirage. There can be no abstract “state” or “corporate” ownership of anything. It will always be people, individual people, who are running things, either overmastering managers or faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats.

We fail on the third count because American curiosity and inventiveness have been directed away from the nitty-gritty of nuts and bolts, or, in other words, how things work. I attribute this to educational fastidiousness, to the misapprehension that intelligent people do not get their hands dirty. At the same time, there is a lot of romantic nostalgia for dirty hands. The modern equivalent to the old dream of running away with the circus is the ownership of a motorcycle repair shop. Perhaps the introduction of the first mass-produced home robot will straighten this out. In the mean time, I would encourage a lot of would-be journalists to sharpen their inquiring minds on the resistance of the material world, and give opinions and eyeballs a break. And just to be clear, electronic circuits and the instructions that govern them (a/k/a “code”) are utterly material.

***

Thursday 9th

The manuscript of the writing project has been moved from atop the printer to the writing table, but otherwise it has not been touched since last year, when two friends read it. (A third never got back.) In all this time, I have often wondered where to go with it. One of the readers liked it very much, but I’m not sure that she would have paid for a copy. The other reader, more rigorous, noted tonal incongruities and undeveloped propositions. His judgment convinced me that I would have to start over. From time to time, I would have an idea for reshaping the material, but nothing came of these daydreams, not even the slightest sketch.

About two weeks ago, maybe three, I was writing to a third friend about my impasse. It was a bleak paragraph and I deleted it. Then I blurted out the remark that I was trying to convey an idea of what it’s like to be me. Intellectually, I mean. What it’s like to be curious and expectant, obsessive and undisciplined, accountable to no one. Well, I didn’t spell out the latter two sentences. But I realized at once that this was exactly what I had set out to write in July 2016. And what I had stopped aiming for when it proved to be very, very difficult. What I went on to write was a highly selective, rather jumpy autobiography.

I remember how hard it was to make the first section, the original material, intelligible, and how bit by bit the complications were simply erased. At the heart of the piece was an attempt to express the rapture, which had overcome me earlier that July, of reading a passage from the dinner party chapter in To the Lighthouse as though it were one of Keats’s odes. Something about Mrs Ramsay “diving” into the daube, in search of prize morsels for William Bankes, sparked the “festal lyricism” of the great poems that I had been closely reading, in Helen Vendler’s magisterial study. And the joy was mine. It was something that had always been promised, but never quite attained — until now. The part that was hardest to get across was this very postponement: why had it taken so long? And why hadn’t I given up the pursuit?

The whole thing was ecstatic and incoherent, a bog of uninfectious enthusiasm. A year later, after much revision, it remained the weakest section of the manuscript. With every revision, the writing project withdrew its commitment to intellectual atmosphere — what does it mean to say “Yes” to the question, “Have you really read all of those books?” — and invested more in amusing anecdotes, funny things that happened to me on the way to old age. The writing got easier and easier as I forgot what I had set out to do.

But the manuscript remained studded with souvenirs of the original enterprise, and my more serious reader fastened on these. Either they would have to be given more substance, or they would have to go. Hearing this stern advice, I didn’t grasp how far I had drifted from an arduous path. All I could think of was the dreadful facility with which I had edited the various sections into readable shape. It had bothered me very much that this was too easy.

What it’s like to be me. Abominable conceit, or recovery memoir? Either way, what’s different about me? I didn’t — and still don’t — know, but I hoped that the writing would show me. If it failed to produce this revelation, I see now, it might be because I didn’t work hard enough. I remember thinking that the important thing was to get something down on paper, but I succumbed to the temptation to regard this preliminary something as a finished product, a mistake that it became ever easier to make as my revisions kneaded the text into the contours of a slightly exotic magazine article.

I have an idea. I am going to try to explain an unusual but nonetheless characteristic episode in the growth of my mind. In 1972, I was inspired to teach myself Chinese by an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I expect that this is going to be nearly as hard to write about as the learning experience was. With a lot of effort and a bit of luck, I may even learn something new.

***

Friday 10th

For weeks now, the Times has been running environmental disaster stories above the front-page fold. Quite aside from the depressing attempt to capture some of the excitement of television with photographs that seem determined to tell us nothing that we don’t already know, the newspaper is ignoring the constellation of poor commercial judgments that lead to every kind of disaster except volcanoes and earthquakes — and where fracking is concerned, even the earthquakes are manmade.

Meanwhile, the Times’s business pages appear to be clueless about this causality. The spice of thrilling danger is unwelcome there. Wildfires are out of place amid the financial tables. But so are stories about suburban sprawl, lawn-grass monoculture, heavy automobile use, and other bad things that looked good at the time but that now need to be scaled back, arguably eliminated, in order to reduce wildfires. If the Times does not want to take a stand on these issues, can it not find organizations that speak out about them, or that attempt experimental alternatives?

It seems to me that the Times is stuck in the bind common to media that depend on advertising. Printing or airing ads (and collecting a fee) is only the visible part of the deal between advertisers and media. The invisible part is the media’s obligation to frame the reader or the viewer as a consumer, as someone who buys stuff. What advertisers don’t want is an audience of critics and fault-finders. They want people who feel good about themselves and the world — good enough, anyway, not to be demoralized by all the bad news (which, if it must be reported, ought to be presented as happening Somewhere Else.) They want people who look to the media for entertainment.

In a story about new limits on Uber cars in New York City, two reporters make a blandly passing reference to “the city’s failing subway and buses.” Why doesn’t the Times have a weekly special section, mapping out the parties (human beings) responsible for operating the subway, and exposing, if nothing else, how each of them can point to someone else as the problem. Feet must be held in the fire!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Oxymoron of “Political Rally”
August 2018 (I)

31 July and 3 Augst

Tuesday 31st

Last week, I wrote a few lines about the anti-democratic thrust of neoliberalism. The neoliberal program endeavors to take certain economic options — principally the popular expropriation of foreigners’ property — off the local menu, using global institutions such as the World Trade Organization to enforce its safeguards. This enforcement, so far at least, makes no recourse to the violence of military solutions. Rather, it imposes economic sanctions that make non-compliance uncomfortable at best. It does nothing to prevent nations from committing political suicide, as Venezuela has done and as Britain is in danger of doing. But suicide is pretty much the only expression of democratic sovereignty that neoliberalism allows.

I am unsympathetic to neoliberal objectives. For one thing, I believe, with Jane Jacobs, that local economies have to learn how to do their own growing. Simply importing capital investments is sterile, because local workers, no matter how well treated, learn little or nothing about doing business, and are therefore helpless when capital moves on to more lucrative venues. I also believe that trade between cities ought to be weighted in favor of short distances. I’m sure that you’ve heard that tale about the Scottish salmon that is sent in freezer containers to Asian processing plants for slicing and then returned to Scotland for sale. I believe that it’s true, but even if it’s an urban legend it’s repugnant, an example of something that shouldn’t happen. Finally, I regard the tendency of liberal economics to encourage the proliferation of rentiers as a weakness requiring counteractive vigilance.

But I was thinking yesterday that the mechanics of neoliberalism might provide the only solution to the problem of environmental degradation. Again, it’s a matter of taking certain economic options off the menu. But instead of xenos expropriation, the principal no-no of climate globalism would be consumer recklessness. Consumers are reckless when they insist on access to goods whose low prices are made possible by the exploitation of natural resources and disregard for the unpleasant side-effects of manufacturing processes. The American belief that ground beef ought to be affordable by almost everyone — not just available, but available at an every day price — is a particularly blatant instance of consumer recklessness. I daresay that the nation’s political system is incapable of confronting it, much less of curbing it. Sadly, American exceptionalism has already demonstrated our disinclination to subscribe to international environmental conventions.

I’m just about to finish reading a biography of Lord Palmerston, by James Chambers. Palmerston crowned his very long career as a statesman, principally in the Foreign Office, by becoming the first Liberal prime minister. Nevertheless, he remained steadfastly opposed to any expansion of the electoral franchise that would include uneducated voters without property. In his view, universal franchise in France merely resulted in the election of a tyrant, Louis Bonaparte. Liberal democrats have long since decided that, the risk of tyrants notwithstanding, every sane adult must be presumed to be smart enough to cast an intelligent vote. I often wonder if anyone today is really smart enough to vote. The implications of every choice are so often either bewildering or invisible. Somebody must decide what to do, but I wish that we were better at asking the right questions.

***

Friday 3rd

Is “category mistake” the term? Not really, but it certainly sounds apt. Regardless of their attitudes toward the President’s policies, pundits and their audiences discuss his Administration in political terms, looking for the political outcomes of institutional rearrangements. But this sort of talk is of no interest to his fans. Perhaps it never has been, to the fans or the foes of any president. But Trump’s fans are no longer pretending to evaluate their man in political terms. They judge him as an entertainer. I think that we all have to admit that he is indeed very entertaining, however gruesome the show is for those who aren’t amused. It’s a waste of time to regard him as a political figure. Trump may be a political zero (or worse), but it is meaningless to point this out, or to expect the observation to usher Trump off the stage.

There are many kinds of entertainment, but it seems to me that Trump owes his success to a mastery of the forms of entertainment that have replaced, in many parts of America, what used to recognized as religion. American religion used to be noted for its rejection of the entertaining qualities of high-church, old-world, mainly Catholic services. Even American Catholics have learned to live without them. But whether or not God is dead, Hell is certainly on the fritz. Now that the threat of hellfire is no longer a prod to virtue, austerity has given way to simplicity. Now that Americans have gotten used to being entertained wherever they go, rituals have been replaced by rallies. And in the age of the smart phone, a rally can be attended by masses of people who don’t leave the house.

Similarly, the Republican Party has succumbed to a hatred of politics. The only thing that gives Republican politicians any pleasure is winning elections. They’ll do anything to win elections, not so that they can exercise legislative power but so that they can prevent its being exercised at all. A dynamic legislature confutes the belief that entertainment is the only thing that matters. Republicans may not be capable of being entertaining themselves, certainly not as a body, but they’re making sure that the spotlight rarely wavers from the White House.

The question is whether national political life can be revived without having to be recreated from the ground up.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Exceptional
July 2018 (III)

24, 25, and 26 July

Tuesday 24th

Last night, I finished reading Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities for the first time.

I had paused in the middle of re-reading her Cities and the Wealth of Nations when it finally struck me, what ought to have been obvious much sooner, that Cities is the second half of a two-volume treatise on urban economies. I read it, when it came out in 1984, in all ignorance of this fact; I hadn’t even read The Death and Life of Great American Cities (though I’d heard of that one). I learned so much from Cities, most of all the possibility of a humanist economics, that what I missed from not having read the first book might only have gotten in the way of my burgeoning grasp of something I’d never given much thought to (political economy) — had, that is, I read The Economy of Cities in 1984 as well.

Reading The Economy of Cities now, nearly fifty years after its appearance in 1969, my first reaction was an explosion of rage. Why was I not taught this book in school? It was unbearably mortifying to know that I had been holding forth on all manner of subjects for half a century without being aware of, among other nuggets, Jacobs’s brilliant hypothesis that agriculture originated in cities, not in the countryside! Ignorance of such an elemental insight threatened to invalidate every notion that I’d ever had.

When I simmered down, though, I saw that there were a few things that I would have missed way back then, no matter how forcibly Jacobs tried to express them. The less important of these blockages would have involved the singularity of the Industrial Revolution, which initiated all of the urban activity that Jacobs talks about, aside from those Stone-Age speculations about agriculture. Fifty years ago, it was easy to imagine that the Industrial Revolution was going to go on indefinitely. Even Jacobs, in her final pages, suggests that this might not be the case, but I’m not sure that I’d have taken the hint. The more important issue is one that, although she certainly describes it, she never identifies, and that is chaos.

Chaos is really nothing but unpredictability. When everything is unpredictable, life of any kind cannot be sustained, but a healthy economy requires a kind of organized unpredictability that continually refreshes the world of work. It’s important to state right away that we don’t know how to create or manage such organized unpredictability; at present, we can only appreciate it in retrospect. Unpredictable successes might be imagined as trains that go off the rails, only instead of heaving into disorder, these very special trains create new rails. Jacobs tells many interesting stories involving such felicity, and my  favorite is the one about Ida Rosenthal, the inventor of the brassiere. As a New York dressmaker, Rosenthal was unhappy with the fit of her clothes on her customers, so she designed an undergarment to improve it. But the thing about the invention of the brassiere is not that Rosenthal came up with it but that she decided to devote her working life to it. She stopped making dresses and started Maidenform, manufacturing brassieres first in New Jersey and then in West Virginia.

Another dressmaker might have been prompted, by the same dissatisfaction that motivated Ida Rosenthal, to invent the brassiere, but then that dressmaker might also have simply gone on doing what Rosenthal did at first: she simply gave brassieres to her customers. We might, were we privy to all the ins and outs of the current state of dressmaking in 1920, have been able to foresee something like the brassiere, but we should never have been able to predict that its inventor would decide to change careers, to give up cutting and sewing individual gowns in order to take up the mass production, cut and sewn by “workers,” of a single product.

The only thing that we can be sure of is that unpredictable successes are undertaken almost exclusively by the self-employed — or by those who are in a position to become what Jacobs calls “breakaways.” Another fine instance of creative chaos is provided by the young engineer in Southern California who left Douglas Aircraft after the war to start up a business manufacturing furnaces. The furnace idea turned out to be a bust, so the engineer took up sliding glass doors, a novelty for which there was a market in booming Los Angeles. There is no way that Douglas Aircraft would have sponsored the research and development, and then the manufacture, of sliding glass doors. The customers of Douglas Aircraft were not looking for sliding glass doors. Only stand-alone producers can decide, as Ida Rosenthal did, to change their customers.

For every success story, though, there are at least a few, and possibly dozens, of failures. To say that trial and error do not guarantee eventual success is to indulge in cruel understatement. Trial and error lead nowhere without help from the Mercury of chaos, whom we call luck. Meanwhile, who is to pay for all the effort that, while arguably not absolutely wasted, fails to make a sale?

Now, as we all know, Jane Jacobs hated planners. But The Economy of Cities is itself, at least implicitly, a blueprint. If you want your city to have a robust economy, it says, then here’s what you need. And what you need, although Jacobs quite understandably doesn’t emphasize it, is a lot of money thrown out the window. Who’s going to sign up to be in charge of that department? Who wants to play VC to breakaways that are only going to break down? How do we plan for innovation in a world where, when most trains run off the rails, nothing but disaster ensues?

Fifty years ago, none of these questions would have occurred to me. I’d have imagined instead a world in which, thanks to the discovery of the right scientific secrets, everyone would be Ida Rosenthal.

***

Wednesday 25th

There’s a big piece about Brexit in the current issue of The New Yorker, by Sam Knight. Having assiduously followed the Times‘s account of this slow-motion disaster, which still seems to me to be much worse than anything happening in the United States, and having been tipped from the start by what has turned out to be a spot-on analysis of Theresa May’s political character, published by David Runciman in the LRB a few months after she took office, I was not surprised by anything new in Knight’s resume. But Knight did capture a comment, made by “a senior EU official” in response to the resignations of Boris Johnson and others that followed May’s Chequers ultimatum on 6 July.

“It’s a moment that should have happened two years ago,” the official said, of May’s late attempt to soften Brexit. But the official stressed that the E.U. still would not accept her plan, which aims somewhere in between a free-trade deal and the more integrated ties of the E.E.A. nations. “The point of departure for the U.K. is ‘We are exceptional,’ ” the official said, sighing. “They don’t understand.”

Perhaps it was always going to be a problem for the former seat of empire, the ruler of the planet’s oceans and the overseer of its international compacts to see itself as no more than the equal of neighbors to whom for centuries it condescended. Knight captured another, even pithier comment, this one made by Kristian Jensen, Denmark’s Finance Minister. According to Jensen, there are two types of nations in Europe: small nations, and nations that don’t yet realize that they are small. Great Britain, which during my lifetime has staggered from the imperial metropole to the den mother of a ceremonial association of former colonies whose half-siblings have little use for each other, to the frequently mortified junior partner of a “special relationship” with the United States, often behaves like a reduced gentlewoman who insists on privileges she can no longer afford.

The purpose of Brexit, seen in the best light, is to restore total sovereignty to the UK. Easier said, it turns out, than done! Those who voted for it doubtless assumed that interfering Continental regulations were all contained in a book that could be binned. They had no idea of the “acquis,” the extensive interpenetration of those regulations into hundreds of English statutes, such that nobody can now tell the domestic from the foreign — because, as a matter of law, there is no difference! From the start, it ought to have been obvious that the only way to achieve Brexit’s goals was from within the EU.

The Brexit campaign, as everybody understands now, was a dog’s breakfast of Leave’s grotesque misrepresentations of facts and figures fermented by Remain’s criminal complacency; as with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there will probably always be many who believe that the winners always intended to lose. As such, the vote ought to be stamped invalid. The referendum itself was engendered by such deep cynicism that there ought to be no talk of a second try. Parliament ought simply to direct the Prime Minister to proceed to Brussels on bended knee to beg that the Article 50 filing be rescinded. Then, and only then, can the twenty-eight members of the European Union take up the issue that bothers all of their populations: Has the EU gone too far? Or, as I put it, are France and Germany too big? What a difference it would make if Berlin and Paris ceded their authority to the constituent states and regions of the Union’s principal founders!

Beyond that, Europe must put a great deal more effort into creating a future in which non-Europeans are happy to remain where they are. The unsavory aftermath of colonialism must be cleared away. In other words, Europe will have to turn its back on global neoliberalism with a firmness that makes American persistence even more embarrassing than it already is. It is time to stop exploiting and “developing” the less fortunate economies of the world, and instead to help them grow flourishing markets of their own — and on their own terms.

***

Thursday 26th

Having finally pushed my way through the final chapter of Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, after letting the book settle at the bottom of the pile for a dangerously extended hiatus, I’m considering whether or not it makes sense to continue my meditations on the word “liberal.” The word signifies too many different things, some of them good, some of them almost vile. Actually vile, as Domenico Losurdo makes clear in the pages of Liberalism that critique the staunch liberal case for slavery.

A word about Globalists: it was one of those books that leave me at sea. I could never tell from the text itself what Slobodian made of the theories that he was summarizing; only in the introductory material does he suggest that his book is an act of atonement for not participating in the Seattle manifestations of 1999. I looked in vain for a description of “ordoliberalism.” The term “cybernetic” was never quite properly grounded: what exactly did it mean to Hayek and his friends? Slobodian makes explicit the more recent neoliberals’ allegiance to property rights and corresponding opposition to democracy (that is, to democratically instigated expropriations), but he never comments on it. Whatever he might think of it, though, I did not find that this particular res simply spoke for itself. And, while it would have taken him on a tangent, how could he resist the hypocrisy of neoliberals such as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, who claimed to be passionately committed to democracy in Iraq, when what they really wanted was a régime that would protect the property rights of foreign investors?

I also think that Slobodian might have invested some effort in explaining the imperial origins of neoliberalism. Imperial globalism was a peculiar and manifestly impermanent blend of developed economies and territories of commodity extraction. The goal of developing former colonies into actual competitors with the former centers of empire was never sincere, which is why it has never succeeded.

If neoliberalism is antagonistic to democracy, then, what about just plain liberalism?

The relationship between neoliberals and colonial populations is not quite the same thing as that between liberals and peasant populations, but there are certainly similarities, if ultimately the outcomes were different. (Until recently, that is.) If neoliberalism is a mutation of liberalism caused by imperial and post-imperial conditions, it is also true that liberalism itself was deformed by the Industrial Revolution. The origins of liberalism do not lie in democratic impulses.

The first liberals were grandees who intended to put a stop to royal caprice. After the liberal triumph of 1689 in England, the monarch was no longer free to interfere with private property — which, at the time, meant the private property of great landowners and merchants. (The property of middling people, such as it was, was protected by local customs with which the crown had long since ceased to interfere, a quiescence which has done much to give England its reputation for precocious democracy.) Among the property rights of these grandees was felt to lie the right to an orderly government, and as I have written earlier, it was established, in the decades following the Glorious Revolution, that the king could take the advice of anyone he liked, so long as that person were the chosen leader of Parliament, with a strong preference for the elected leader of the House of Commons. In the Eighteenth Century, the liberal dispensation of British politics, which is still in force, began to flourish.

With the Industrial Revolution, however, the nation was confronted by a new phenomenon. As grandees put their property to work in the development of factories and the like, they drew forth from the countryside a population of peasants who had never owned much of anything, and who therefore had little or nothing for the law to protect. These peasants did not, to say the least, vote; they quite literally counted for nothing. The idea that every human being owns his or her own body, and that, in parallel to the grandee’s expectation of orderly government, anyone might claim of the body politic a minimum of human decencies, in the way of food, clothing, shelter, and access to a better life — that, in short, the truly liberal state must liberate each and every person — citizen! — from any condition suggestive of bondage — took a long time to develop. The oppression of workers in the new factories might be universally deplored as cruel, but it was not for a while regarded as necessarily illiberal.

I think it safe to say, though, that liberal democracy, as it grew through the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, not only greatly extended the protection of property rights but augmented the range of property protected. Professional credentials, for example, became “as safe as houses.” Home ownership, perhaps not a very good idea in itself, made a mini-grandee of anyone who could afford it — and it was made very affordable. Unfortunately, the growth of liberal democracy was repeatedly defeated wherever it came into conflict with pre-existing racial bigotries. Eventually, liberal leaders would create a social crisis whose measure still remains to be taken when they committed their governments, in response to Communist equalitarianism, to overruling racist exclusions. That is how “liberal” became a term of abuse.

Meanwhile, empires came and went, leaving the neoliberal commitment to a globalism in which property rights were “encased,” as Slobodian nicely puts it, or protected from local government interference. Foreign investors were to be granted “xenos rights” that might exceed the property rights of natives. Inevitably, this global arrangement altered the commercial fabric of the developed countries, leading among other things to the familiar phenomenon of job exportation. Workers in the United States found themselves no more protected from globalist currents than workers in Borneo. For reasons not hard to seek, “liberal” became a term of quite different abuse, hurled by people who might well consider themselves the political opponents of those who complained of “liberal politicians.”

A mess, but such, I think, is the state of play.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Inconsequence
July 2018 (II)

17, 18 and 19 July

Tuesday 17th

While the commentariat is fixated on the arguable treason of President Trump’s response to his meeting with Russian President Putin, I’m bemused by other grounds for this most serious of charges.

The other night, realizing that irritations inflicted upon the characters in a long Mavis Gallant story, “The Pegnitz Junction,” were going to make it difficult for me to get to sleep, I confronted the bookcases and noticed a volume that, hving lost the latest round of musical chairs, was lying horizontal atop a tight row of up-and-down spines. Easy to grasp, it proved equally easy to imagine reading. Its title, The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism, might not seem very restful, but I knew that its author, William Pfaff, who died a couple of years ago, never wrote anything that wasn’t measured and considered. I read the book when it came out, in 1993. Regular readers will know that nationalism has been much on my mind lately, and it seemed providential that a brisk study of the subject was all but handed to me.

Indeed, Pfaff’s prose soon restored my mind to comfortable temperatures. But the next afternoon, when I continued reading, the substance of Pfaff’s discussion began to disturb me. I was hearing something beneath the explicit text, a meaning of which Pfaff may or may not have been aware. At the end of his second chapter, “Nations and Nationalism,” he quotes “the most eminent of contemporary students of nationalism, the late Hugh Seton-Watson.”

… a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one. (58)

Ever since last summer’s clash of demonstrators at Charlottesville, the president has displayed, sometimes ostentatiously, a comfort with groups of Americans whom all previous Postwar presidents have taken care to keep at an official distance, whatever their private sympathies. White supremacists, male supremacists, armed supremacists — extensively overlapping groups of Americans, in short, whom the educated classes have been taught to regard as bigots, and who have therefore been denied a forum on the media that the educated classes control. The president, simply by voicing his interest and support, has thrown a spotlight of encouragement on these people, and, much like Christians in the time of Constantine, they have been given an unprecedented opportunity to assess their own numbers. That they are nationalistic Americans hardly needs saying. But I wonder if the groups against whom they define themselves — Mexicans and Moslems notoriously — are not proxies for those other Americans who do not so define themselves, who, indeed, are too secular to define themselves at all.

These erstwhile bigots — isn’t Trump encouraging them to consider themselves to form the nation of Americans, resolved to throw off the oppression of the established authorities of the United States?

***

Wednesday 18th

Reading on in William Pfaff’s The Wrath of Nations, I came to the late chapter on American nationalism, and read it in the light of an idea that I know I didn’t have twenty-five years ago, and that I didn’t expect Pfaff to have, either. It came from David Nasaw’s Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, a book that appeared about five years after Wrath. I didn’t read Going Out until many years later, but I read enough about it when it was published to absorb what might be its thesis, which is that the exclusion of African-Americans (the descendants of slaves) from amusement parks, theatres and other venues of commercial entertainment made it much easier than it might have been for those who were not excluded, particularly “swarthy” or “dark” immigrants from Mediterranean Europe, to attain genuinely American nationality. In other words, by representing the unacceptable other, blacks served a catalytic role in the making of modern America. It was a very simple test. If you were not black, then you were acceptable — at least at the movies.

So simple! If you were not black, then you were not the child of people who had suffered inhuman degradation. Therefore you would not arouse feelings of defensive hostility in the children of those who had inflicted that degradation. Nor would your white neighbor think of you, reflexively, Thank God I’m not him! You might be strange-looking, and you might speak English poorly, or with a heavy accent, but no one would wonder if you were actually, really human. If you weren’t black, you must be white, and all whites were welcome everywhere.

This is an essential element in the formation of an American nation, one that never quite breaks the surface of Pfaff’s account. It would be tedious to recapitulate his chapter here; perhaps I fear that I wouldn’t do it very well. It is always difficult to describe an absence. Pfaff is certainly aware of the inequities of black status, beginning with “the grotesque standing of three fifths of a free human being” prescribed by the Constitution for census purposes. He sees the Civil War as the event that transformed the citizens of various states into citizens of the United States, but he also mentions the “ignominious” survival of states’ rights rhetoric in the defeated South. What he does not mention is the shabby treatment of blacks elsewhere in the country. Elsewhere in the country, new immigrants (who tended to avoid the South) slipped right in to new American lives, simply on the strength of not being black.

In Nasaw’s book, this is an important but incidental point; Nasaw is primarily interested in the amusements themselves. It would hardly be surprising to find that nobody wants to address the institutionalized inferiority of blacks as a condition precedent to the easygoing homogenization of all other Americans. (Does the involuntary sacrifice never end?) We are willing enough to see that what was done to blacks was wrong. But we prefer to believe that any benefits conferred by this wrong to whites ended with the Civil War. That is not true. In the age of mass immigration that directly followed the war, white Americans had a new use for blacks, and blacks were tied to this new task with much of the bondage of slavery.

It was when that new use was put to an end, officially at least, in the “civil rights era” of the Sixties and Seventies that nationalism became a problem for many Americans, a problem to be ameliorated, if not solved, by waving a lot of flags. Many metaphorical feet were broken after having been caught standing up for the heavy, slamming door of the American War in Vietnam; there has been much limping since. Oblivious of the solvent role formerly played by blacks, but increasingly uncomfortable with economic dislocation, many Americans wondered why they could not return to a world in which cheerfully inclusive white men supported stay-at-home wives. It did not take long to develop a picture in which those who had no desire to make such a return marked themselves as un-American. In this picture, blacks are, quite understandably, all but invisible.

It is essential that this picture become visible to everyone in this country, and now.

***

Thursday 19th

At the other site, I referred to “a particularly vacant edition of the Times.” A little reflection suggested that this is not the newspaper’s fault.

The problem isn’t fake news. It’s no news. There is only the reality television show of the Trump régime’s entertainment cycle. Round and round it goes, and it threatens never to stop.

Events usually have consequences, but not for Donald Trump. This has always been the case. When, way back in 1980, he demolished the Bonwit Teller signage that he had agreed to preserve, there was a lot of moaning and groaning, but moans and groans break no bones. They didn’t then and they haven’t since. Trump’s businesses have undergone multiple bankruptcies. Not a problem! Now the president has unleashed an array of mutually-assured destructive tariffs, which something tells me he is not going to be the one to clean up.

We were ready for Trump, I suppose; we had it coming. Mass shootings, mounting evidence of environmental degradation, increased inequality directly attributable to our hopeless enthrallment to neoliberal ideas about capitalism, systematic social injustice inflicted on Americans of color — the repetitiveness of these stories has taken on that of the Super Bowl for quite some time. What else would happen? Could happen? Even an alien landing would have a hard time puncturing the bubble of our settled narrative tropes. Donald Trump is simply the epitome of our pre-existing inconsequence.

It terrifies me to imagine the violence that might be required to put an end to this pointlessness.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Foreign Oppression
July 2018 (I)

10, 11 and 12 July

Tuesday 10th

Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism is not a fun read. It’s as well-written as it can be, I suppose; as the history of a line of economic thought, it’s clear even when its subject isn’t. If nothing else, it has pried my attention away from Friedrich Hayek.

Ten years ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Hayek. Maybe fifteen. When I looked into him, I couldn’t figure him out, or pin him down. I still can’t. I even read a book about the Mont Pèlerin Society (Angus Birgin’s The Great Persuasion) and remained mystified. It seems to me that Hayek was an earnest but not very clever man. Dim bulbs don’t cast a lot of light.

What with the fuzziness surrounding the use of “liberalism,” it’s no wonder that I found “neoliberalism” indigestible when it emerged into general commentary about twenty years ago. When journalists spoke of the “neoliberal” supporters for intervention in Iraq, I thought that they were referring to tough-minded, pro-democracy policy makers, most of them Jewish and not fond of Arabs. That their motivation was essentially economic never crossed my mind.

Even until the day before yesterday, I thought that “globalists” were businessmen who dreamed of free markets and the world peace that would ensue if everybody bought the same Nikes and ate the same McDonald’s. I sensed that they dreamed of everyone’s taking home the same pay, too, but I couldn’t believe that American statesmen would ever permit American workers to suffer such impoverishment. Even though that is precisely what they seem to have been doing.

Slobodian has cleaned up all of this sloppy thinking. I now grasp that the slipperiness of “neoliberalism” is attributable to its uncertain regard for democracy; it is certainly not pro-. I see that “globalist” is almost a euphemism: who can be against bringing the people of Earth together? But of course that’s not what neoliberalism is about. Neoliberalism is about securing the property rights of international businesses against the “caprices” of local sovereignties. Its idea of democracy is centered on consumers: one dollar, one vote. I can’t believe I never figured this out for myself, but I am certainly shocked by the extent of neoliberal influence within the Western democracies.

“Democracy” is the whitewash on the sepulchre.

A conspiracy conducted out in the open, by the Heritage Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, and so on. I thought these were all just sort of conservative, right-wing organizations. In true liberal élite fashion, I didn’t consider their ideas worthy of consideration. And maybe they’re not. But now I know that they’re expressed in an open code.

***

Wednesday 11th

Of course, reading the thoughts of von Mises, Hayek, and Röpke that are quoted in Globalists reminds me how often I have said the same things, pointing out “the problems of democracy.” A hasty reader might well conclude that I’m a neoliberal myself. But I regard the problems of democracy as challenges: democracy is the important thing. It isn’t for the neoliberals. For them, business is the important thing, and neither democracy nor any other form of government ought to be allowed to interfere with it.

Mind you, they say “capitalism,” not “business.” You don’t have to wonder why. “Business” sounds like the shop around the corner, while “capitalism” brings the Vittorio Emmanuele monument to mind. But capitalism has little to do with most commercial activity.

Why is this not more widely understood? Let me ask another question: why is the history of economy, or the history of economic thought, not on the syllabus? The short answer is this: we’re still too new at these things.

The social sciences, so-called, as we know them were all launched in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. They were all hived off from what prior to 1800 was called “philosophy.” In each new field, methods were devised for replacing Aristotelian rational description with dynamic critical analysis. In chemistry, for example, “fixed air” gave way to “carbon dioxide.” The first term indicated an inadequacy for respiration. The second explained it.

Like the railroad terminals in Paris and London, the new disciplines built their various redoubts: history, social studies, psychology, political theory, economics, and of course all the “hard” sciences. The student of one would never, following his proper course of studies, arrive at another. It took more than a century for interdisciplinary studies to emerge, the history of science being among the first. In fact, the history of ideas — intellectual history — is still somewhat rudimentary. I would attribute this lag to Plato’s grip on many educated minds. There is no room for history in Plato; Plato hates change. If an idea is good today, it will be good a millennium hence. And there are no new ideas. The idea of a history of ideas makes no sense in the Platonic worldview.

That’s, I think, why there is not much in the way of a history of economics. The field of history history, the kernel of which was the rise and fall of nations, did, on its own, eventually generate an interest in the history of political theory, and the upheavals and catastrophes of the early twentieth-century brought changes in political thinking out into the open. What’s still needed is a history of political economy. It’s precisely owing to the lack of such a history that terms such as “liberal” and “capitalism” are used with such incoherence.

***

Thursday 12th

Over the weekend, I read something about “Europe” that stuck with me. When I went looking for it, I was pretty sure that it was in the Times — and it was, but in Saturday’s paper, not Sunday’s. Max Fisher’s “Borders, Nationalism and the Fight for a Unified Europe” underlines the EU’s most embarrassing weakness. From the start, in 1949, European leaders envisioned a post-nationalist future, but, as Fisher writes,

instead of overcoming that barrier, European leaders pretended it didn’t exist. More damning, they entirely avoided mentioning what Europeans would need to give up: a degree of their deeply felt national identities and hard-won national sovereignty.

In short, pro-European leaders did what paternalistic meritocrats always do: they misled the public with a combination of silence and distraction. They ignored the problem of nationalism, and they promoted economic improvements and the convenience of border-free holiday trips. The recent refugee crisis, coming hard on the heels of a much-resented austerity program, together with the crazy upset of Brexit, have finally outed the supra-national mission of the European Union, and everyone is blushing, not at the emperor’s old clothes, but at having managed to ignore them for nearly seventy years.

Fisher’s phrase, “hard-won national sovereignty,” however, sticks in my craw. It’s not that Fisher is mistaken to assert it, but rather that the idea is so rankly bogus. European nationalism, quite famously, dates from the 1790s, when the French took to singing about their “nation,” which in fact did not exist: most of the people then living in today’s France could not speak standard French — could not, that is, be understood by “Frenchmen” living more than at the distance of few dozen kilometers away. The history of the idea of a French “nation” is not exactly obscure, but it is very ironic, given the outcome: according to proto-racist theories popular among French aristocrats at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, France’s nobility was German in origin, long ago imported to maintain order among the unruly, semi-barbaric natives, a mongrel bunch. A hundred years later, populist revolutionaries projected the outline of national (racial) unity on this rabble, now known as “the people.” No longer defined by subjection to the deposed king, they were forged into solidarity by their negative identity: they were not blue-bloods.

Then, thanks to Napoleon, the infection was carried throughout Europe. Before the Corsican was even carted off to St Helena, seeds of language-based nationalism were sprouting everywhere. Your speech expressed your race.

It was a terrible idea, but a better one for organizing Europe in the wake of the fall of the French monarchy (which would be echoed almost everywhere in Europe throughout the next one hundred fifty years) does not appear to have been on offer. Because, in Central Europe especially, millions of people were governed by authorities who did not speak their language, nationalism became the antidote to what was now denounced as foreign oppression.

This is not to suggest that, prior to 1789, all men were brothers. At a popular level, almost everybody hated the French, because the French sat right in the middle of Europe and were immensely rich (if also immensely wasteful). Having been defeated in their foolish attempt to conquer most of France, hundreds of years earlier, the English particularly loathed the French. But they also hated the Spanish, their newer rivals in the quest for empire. The French despised the Austrians — marrying an Austrian princess to a future king of France was perhaps the worst mistake in the entire history of French diplomacy. Und so weiter. The prehistoric hostility to folks living on the other side of the hill persisted everywhere. But these tensions were more like the feelings that run among today’s European football fans than the insane hubris that nationalism would spark. Before nationalism, everyone acknowledged the obligation to play by the same rules. After nationalism, the Nazis believed that they played by different rules, not because they were better at the game but because they were too good for it.

We would all be much better off without nationalism, patriotism, and all such swollen sentiments that find no natural expression in ordinary human life. We are all local creatures, with local allegiances, unless we are not, in which case our allegiances are not of a higher, more generalized order but simply vacant.

The real problem in Europe, however, isn’t the centrifugal force of national sovereignty. It’s the condescension of of disingenuous meritocrats. If their experiment in European union fails, it will have been largely their own doing.

Why didn’t they slap down Boris Johnson when they had the chance?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
For Shame
June 2018 (IV)

26, 27 and 28 June

Tuesday 26th

How many times have I quoted a passage from one of David Brooks’s columns only to say, “Yes, but…”? It doesn’t bear counting. My reservations, my hesitations, my qualifications are usually rooted in the things that Brooks doesn’t spell out. On the face of it, I have no quarrel with this, from today’s Op-Ed piece, “Republican or Conservative, You Have to Choose.”

As Scruton put it in his bracing primer, “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,” “The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.”

The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.

Agreed, but what if those institutions are mildewed, as I believe was the case when I was growing up? What if community and culture have been denatured by discrepancies too great to ignore? What if other institutions, such as the free market economy, are inimical to home and school? What if everything that a conservative treasures is actually ersatz?

When I look back on my home town, Bronxville, New York, and consider it as “the sacred space where individuals are formed,” I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up. Even today, Bronxville is largely white and Christian; when I was a child, there were absolutely no exceptions. The Jewish merchants who owned and ran the shops had to live somewhere else. For all intents and purposes, local culture was a matter of athletics, and manners were insincerely perfunctory. In school, we learned about the American Revolution and the Civil War. The American Revolution that we were taught was not the real revolution (the one that happened in 1789, when the “Founding Fathers” overthrew the ramshackle government concocted when independence from Britain was achieved earlier in that decade), and the Civil War was a civil war only along the border separating Dixie from the Union. Never was it even suggested that both misnamed conflicts were wars of secession. (In the South, at least they get the second one right.) But what difference did it make, if the only point of school was to produce successful executives and their supportive wives? At home, I was supposed to pretend that I was my adoptive parents’ child, or in other words that the weird gulf of alienated misunderstanding that separated us was my doing, and not symptomatic of the lack of shared DNA. It would take years to unlearn all the nonsense that the sacred institutions of Bronxville tried to stuff into my head. I am a born conservative, but I insist on having something worthwhile to conserve!

What seems to me to be the insoluble problem of American conservatism is the corruption of the sacred space by African enslavement. Whites naturally minimize the impact of this wickedness, while blacks are just as determined to deny the effects of persistent degradation. Every day, it becomes harder for me to believe that the Refounding that America needs can be achieved without the preliminaries of a bloody and this time genuine civil war, or perhaps an even worse collapse into paranoiac chaos, with everyone fighting everyone. It becomes difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Donald Trump’s principal contribution to public affairs has been a terrifying clarity.

Finally, I agree that order precedes liberty. But I also believe that this is the fundamental liberal premise, even if it has never been advertised as such. The English liberals of the Seventeenth Century, no matter what John Locke said, sought to replace the constant risk of feudal anarchy, which fluctuated with the character of hereditary monarchs, with a suite of regular processes, or political order, that would encourage cooperative liberty. If they accentuated property rights, that was because they believed that good fences make good neighbors. With trumpeting irony, the liberal régime became, in the course of a century, the sacred space that conservatives sought to defend, from the nightmare of the Jacobin movement.

The phrase “social justice” fills me with Terror. In the end, I’ll sign anything that David Brooks wants me to. But I wish that he were more demanding.

***

Wednesday 27th

Here’s the thing about shaming: it requires consensus. Everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, must agree that shameful behavior has been committed, and that the person who behaved shamefully ought to be isolated by the community’s expressed disapproval.

If the community is divided on the matter, then shaming is tantamount to picking a fight. The shamed person will not be isolated, but on the contrary will probably attract overt support from those who believe that nothing shameful occurred. Considerations of right and wrong give way to partisanship, or, in today’s parlance, tribalism. Shaming without consensus risks the very disturbance that consensus shaming, by isolating and ignoring the offender, makes a point of avoiding. It is also an ugly and intrusive form of protest. It is one thing to picket an office, and quite another to upset someone’s dinner.

I haven’t seen anyone make a connection to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, as a source of provocation for the diners at the Mexican restaurant and the staff at the farm-to-table place. If nothing else, Masterpiece is a further instance of the complicated interactions of righteousness, fairness, and the law. You could say that, if it’s all right for the owners of the Masterpiece Cakeshop to turn down the order for a gay wedding cake, then it’s all right for the management of the Red Hen to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her party to leave the restaurant. But that’s to argue that two wrongs make a right. It also prolongs a train of ill-conceived litigation. I would have argued against bringing the wedding-cake suit in the first place. How else to justify it except as an attempt to shame? While it might be rational to expect a public business to serve its customers without regard to personal opinions — unless, of course, objection is supported by a genuine consensus, as, for example, the general opinion that a wedding cake in the shape of a penis would be in deplorable taste, tantamount to an insult to the ceremony; but of course there could be no talk of such a consensus on the issue of same-sex marriage — it is not reasonable to take a baker to court for refusing to bake a cake. It simply isn’t. If you think that it is, then your righteousness is out of control.

Nor is it reasonable to convert a public facility, without warning, into a private club, where only the like-minded are welcome.

Made somewhat uneasy by the suspicion that I’m having my cake and eating it here, I’ll admit that I’m very sorry that the full force of social-media activism was not available in the fight against Richard Nixon, the true begetter of our presidential calamities.

***

Thursday 28th

John Lanchester, until ten years ago an interesting, even promising novelist, has been a crack, indispensable reporter on political economy ever since he realized that the notes that he was gathering for a novel on the Crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession would probably be more gripping if presented as fact. In the new issue of the London Review of Books, he takes stock of the prediction, made by himself and many others, that “the aftermath of the crash would dominate our economic and political lives for at least ten years.” It looks like understatement now. What he might have said is that it would take ten years for the impact of the crash to become visible.

Because I’m in the middle of Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, I saw, through every paragraph of Lanchester’s lengthy account of that aftermath, a very simple explanation for such wildly unforseeable phenomena as Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit. While finance ministers everywhere continue on the neoliberal course — autopilot, really — voters throughout the developed world have become conscious, if not of the essence of neoliberalism itself, then at least that most of them are likely to suffer collateral damage from its successes. Not without a good deal of confusion, they are trying to throw monkeywrenches into its operations.

Slobodian’s book is a readable, even gripping history of the branch of neoliberalism known as the Geneva School, from its beginnings in the years before World War I, and mostly in the brain of Ludwig von Mises, to the Seattle riots. Unfortunately, it is also depressing. For the first time I think I understand what Friedrich Hayek and his colleagues in the Mont Pèlerin Society had in mind. And I see that what they had in mind has been brought into being: a global consumerist economy that seeks to prevent popular interference with international trade, no matter how much discomfort this imposes on national populations. Neoliberalism envisions a world in which standards of living for workers are equalized, and, as Lanchester points out, we are much closer to that “impossible dream” than we were ten years ago. The percentage of human beings living in what the UN terms “absolute poverty” has dropped from nineteen to nine since the crash, while incomes in the developed world have dropped while also becoming precarious. “Austerity” is the euphemism for this equalizing process. If nothing else, it’s dementedly single-minded. The inevitable result will be that the only shoppers at Wal-Mart will be the people who work there. What kind of business model is that?

Neoliberalism drapes itself as a defender of capitalism, but it is nothing of the kind. Capitalists absorb gains and losses as they come. Neoliberals keep the profits and offload the losses to the public. Noble as the goal of global economic equalization might be, neoliberalism imposes the very heavy tax of the so-called one-percent, the very rich getting richer, as wealth concentrates in the ever-fewer hands that control the insulated global economy. I expect that I’ll have more to say about Globalists when I’m done with it, although that may take a while, because the story that Slobodian has to tell is sickening. Neoliberal contempt for the working classes — which more and more includes everyone who is not living off investments — is so intense that it is unconscious.

Bad as political neoliberalism is, the reaction against it, which seems to be socialism, is worse. Socialism replaces heads for business with faces for beauty contests. It shorts the circuits of political economy, the challenge of which is to keep the two strands, politics and economy, intertwined but distinct. Liberal political economy, democratic by nature, seeks to erect a framework in which everyone is free to go about his business without being oppressed by the state or anyone else. Socialist democracy is a contradiction in terms, and has been ever since Marx wrote about it, postulating a framework that, in theory, dissolves into thin air, while in practice it calcifies everything it touches. We have had a century and a half’s experience to teach us the inexorability of socialism’s failure. Ironically, only twenty years have passed since that failure was universally recognized and celebrated. But that’s time enough for a generation to grow up in ignorance.

We are still so close, on the larger scale of human history, to the Industrial Revolution that we forget that a truly successful ongoing commercial enterprise simply breaks even. It does not incur losses, of course, but neither are its prices excessive. We are still so close to the age of new businesses that we unthinkingly regard managerial remuneration as drawn from profits, not from revenues. We associate not-for-profit enterprises with charity and volunteerism. We persist in the binary simple-mindedness of seeing capitalism and socialism as the only imaginable alternatives, even though capitalism, as I say, is nothing more than the necessarily risky phase of innovation. Very little of a liberal political economy requires capitalist investment.

It’s time for me to reread Jane Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations. It persuaded me thirty years ago that global economy is a chimera, and that only a regional economy, centered on a capital city and heavily reliant on import substitution, is sustainable.

The whole idea of “the nation” is an unfortunate pipe dream of the French Revolution; “kingdoms” are built on the idea of territorial expansion (and defense). Neither nations nor kingdoms are truly capable of political economy. Socialism aspires to a global, unpolitical economy that cannot be squared with what we know about human nature — which it madly proposes to alter. Only in a well-run city-state are we free to disagree, to put our various skills to the test, and to enjoy our privacy; only there can prosperity flourish without great wealth.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
More Rectification
June 2018 (III)

19 and 20 June

Tuesday 19th

I have something new, I think, to say against television. I don’t think that I’ve said it before.

Television is a dream.

Last night, as I was finishing up Thinking Without a Banister, a collection of odds and ends by Hannah Arendt, including interviews and panel discussions, I came across this, from an opening address to her students at the New School.

Plato, certainly foremost among all those whose texts have been taught and learned throughout the centuries, once said: “Every one of us is like a man who sees things in a dream and thinks he knows them perfectly, and then he awakens and finds that he knows nothing.” (513-4)

So it is, I saw at once, with watching television. Television is crafted to convey an illusion of knowledge and understanding. This illusion evaporates when put to the test, when the dreamer “awakens” and tries to contribute the new knowledge and understanding to a discussion with other people. Confusion ensues. Dreamers remember something of what they saw, but nothing about what it meant. Only vague and contradictory feelings persist.

Many viewers of television, of course, never awaken in this sense at all. They go on thinking that they know and understand everything.

In its infancy, television was regarded as a medium that would connect people to the world. Proto-MOOCs provided some of the earliest programming; Sunrise Semester debuted in 1957. By then, however, it was understood that the general audience was not interested in genuine edification. Learning is difficult, by turns tedious and scary. (Just ask any first-year law student.) People have enough real life as it is. What they want from television is entertainment and uplift.

I’ve got nothing to say against that, except that anyone with an education ought to find entertainment and uplift in superior formats. (It’s difficult to think of any that are inferior.) And to argue that presenting news as a kind of uplifting entertainment transforms it instantly into fantasy — a dream that never was and can never be. So it is with the monstrous (and partially scripted) reality shows, of which Donald Trump was a leading exponent.

For many, television is a dream of luxury and gratification in comparison to which their actual circumstances are matter for bitter resentment.

It is frightening to consider how much time and emotional investment the citizens of what is supposed to be the world’s most powerful nation spend on dreaming.

***

The other day, I concluded an entry at the other blog by quipping, “Men may make things happen, but it’s women who keep things going.” I thought that this was very clever at the time, but as soon as I repeated it to Kathleen, who did laugh, I saw how fatuous it was, because everyone has always known that it is true. What is new, what I neglected to say, is that women’s ability, or determination, to keep things going is no longer to be attributed to some mysterious female essence, inborn or hermetically inculcated, that a real man could never comprehend, much less imitate. If feminists have accomplished nothing else, they have exposed traditional women’s work as a grim regime of unattainably smooth routine pursued behind a mask of false placidity. They have traded in the model of keeping things going that men had in mind for something more humane and sustainable. And there are men who do know how to keep things going. Engineers come to mind. Now if we could only get teenaged boys to pick up their rooms.

(This was never an issue for me. By the time my mother got through with me, and I was living on my own, I found the sight of an unmade bed deeply unsettling.)

If only, that is, we didn’t have to wait for men to find out that there is nothing inherently special about being male. What’s special about being male is living in a culture that believes it to be the case. In our culture, this belief is somewhat vestigial. The principal traditional manly virtues, courage and stoicism, are no longer so blankly admired. Courage turns out to be surprising. It is not something that you have, but something that you express (or don’t) in an uncontrollable, often spontaneous situation. Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish heroism from recklessness, the reach for glory from vanity. As for stoicism, it’s a cop-out, a learned inability to feel. There is something nihilistic about playing tough. If life is a struggle, then it ought to be for the sake of improvement, not for acquiescence.

Still, courage and stoicism — and let’s throw in honor while we’re at it — are often what keeps a man, especially a young man, from behaving like a rank pig, from collapsing into a black hole of selfishness. From expecting life on earth to follow the script of a pornographic film. Simple decency would do the job just as well, but one of the hiccups of receding machismo is the idea that decency is for losers.

The very concept of losers betrays the tremendous anxiety of men who, mistaking masculinity for personhood, sense that their manliness is “under siege.” (If so, by whom? By women? Ha! By other men, that’s by whom.) Losers are traitors who let down the side. Have a look at the Ngram: it’s interesting that the surge in usage coincides with the advance of feminist policies. I don’t think that men who use the word “loser” are afraid of becoming women. I think that they’re afraid of not being, ipso facto, special. It’s painful to lose privileges, especially unearned ones.

***

Wednesday 20th

Perhaps my favorite piece in Thinking Without a Banister, the Hannah Arendt collection that I mentioned yesterday, is entitled “Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt.”

Even before I became familiar with the work of Hannah Arendt, I shared her habit of beginning by defining terms, by making distinctions, in her case often surprising ones (between “power” and “violence,” for example). I know that it imparts a potentially tedious atmosphere of the treatise, teasing the reader with a suspicion that the preliminaries are never going to come to an end, but I don’t know where I stand if the words representing ideas are untethered to clear limitations.

The key word in the following discussion is going to be capitalism.

I’ve just read a piece by Ross Douthat in which he discusses the evaporation of feminist opposition to surrogacy.

You can tell a number of stories about why this happened. Defending the legal logic of abortion rights — my body, my choice — pushed feminism in a libertarian direction. The benefits of in vitro fertilization made a lively trade in eggs and embryos seem desirable or at least inevitable. The gay rights movement created strong social pressure in favor of allowing male same-sex couples to have children as close to the old-fashioned way as possible. And biotechnology advanced to a point where most commercial surrogacy became “gestational,” meaning that the surrogate carries someone else’s child rather than her own — which reduces the particularly agonizing aspect of the Whitehead case, where it was her own biological child that she had sold and wanted back.

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

The logic of capitalism? What’s that doing there? Puzzling over the statement, I conclude that Douthat is attributing to the concept of capitalism the notion that everything is for sale, that consumerism will eventually prevail. I certainly share his concern, but I don’t think that it helps his argument at all to invoke capitalism. For one thing, it obliges him to claim that “the most serious form of cultural conservatism has always offered at most two cheers for capitalism, recognizing that its great material beneficence can coexist with dehumanizing cruelty, that its individualist logic can encourage a ruthless materialism unless curbed and checked and challenged by a moralistic vision.” Not only is it confusing to hear a conservative commentator derogate capitalism, but it heaps up further attributions that aren’t really proper to capitalism.

I have said it before, but I will say it again. Capitalism is a strategy for creating new enterprises — perhaps it’s the only effective one. In order to get a new business going, investors commit a pool of money (“surplus capital”) to entrepreneurs, who use the money to buy things and pay salaries and go into business and, it is hoped, make a profit. Profits are then repaid to the investors (the “capitalists”), replenishing and perhaps even augmenting their stock of surplus capital, so that they can go and invest in other start-ups. That is all there is to it. Capitalism itself is agnostic about the morality of the enterprise and its business methods. Those are social concerns, to be decided and enforced by behavioral norms or by laws. Many conceivable enterprises ought to be discouraged, or even prohibited, but it is not up to capitalists to decide which ones, because they have no interest in making such distinctions. It is up to society at large, not to capitalists, to decide what is for sale, and what isn’t.

We happen to live in a time when money is the only medium of value that is recognized by everyone. We all agree that a dollar is a dollar. We’re nearly as unanimous on the point that it’s wrong — unacceptable, criminal, punishable — to pay a third party to kill someone. It is wrong to kidnap children for ransom. If I put my mind to it, I might be able to come up with ten or twenty nearly absolute monetized no-nos. A trivial pursuit, in light of the perfect legality of covering acres of agricultural land with shoddy ranch houses and lots of pavement. This isn’t perceived as an instance of “dehumanizing cruelty” today, but I hope that it will be, in a generation or two. But the fact that today’s capitalists can invest in a tract housing scheme does not imply that capitalism is wicked, or even that capitalists are wicked. The dehumanizing cruelties of the early phase of the Industrial Revolution had never been experienced before, but they were quickly recognized as such, and duly curbed. It really cannot be argued that the activities of capitalists have not been substantially humanized — not that there isn’t room for improvement — since 1800.

“Capitalism” and “consumerism” are not synonyms, nor does one term subsume the other. Unlike capitalism, which is neutral in this regard, consumerism actually seeks to put a price on everything, to gratify every conceivable desire. As a vernacular, consumerism has become confused with self-realization, a projection of the soul onto stuff. Advertising has replaced scripture.

Now I will wrinkle the page a bit by positing two forms of capitalism, or rather a sequence of capitalist phases. The first, which is what I have been discussing, is risk capitalism: money invested in new enterprises. When I said that “profits are then repaid to the investors,” I was being idealistic, because that is what ought to happen. When a start-up is successful, and especially when a business stabilizes, the investors ought to sever their connections and move on to other gambles. This is pretty much what venture capitalists do. They sell the new operation to another class of investors: rentiers. I have nothing against those who spend their days clipping coupons and eating bon bons (pardon my dated image!), but I should prefer them to be creditors, not owners.

I raise this distinction between gamblers and rentiers simply to underline my belief that genuine capitalism is exclusively a matter of short-term ventures, and that mature business operations ought to generate and consume their own revenues without the distraction of passive shareholders. In other words: no profits, no surplus capital. Mature businesses, in my view, owe too much to the communities in which they flourish to entertain the concerns of profit-seeking investors. I hope it will be seen that I am by the same token opposed to government interference or ownership. The idea that, between them, rentier capitalism and socialism exhaust the possibilities of business operations is unintelligent.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Characters
June 2018 (II)

12, 13 and 15 June

Tuesday 12th

Looking for a book, a few weeks ago, I emptied a triple-decked shelf that I have not yet catalogued. I found what I was looking for, but I left the books that I’d pulled out in stacks all over the room, as a way of forcing myself to note what was where in the course of putting them back. That hasn’t happened yet, and the book room is a mess. But I’ve been doing some unexpected reading. That’s what the books are for, I suppose.

The shelf was at the top of the breakfront bookcase, and in theory it was shared by books on music and on film. (For some reason, most of these books are as hefty as, or even heftier than, history books.) Among the titles disturbed by my search for the score of Mahler’s Third Symphony was David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. It came out at the end of 2004, right when I was beginning to keep a Web log. Is that why I didn’t get very far? (A bookmark was stuck between pages in the first chapter.) Or was it just not what I was expecting — a history of Hollywood. For it isn’t, not really. An historical meditation, perhaps. The Whole Equation assumes a familiarity with the nuts and bolts of movie history that I didn’t have fifteen years ago; even in those days, like most moviegoers, I knew what I liked, which was a lot, but that was about it. I wasn’t much interested in the business of making movies, which seemed to me to be so unlike, so almost at odds with, the movies themselves. That’s part of Thomson’s point, but I wasn’t ready to ponder it.

The title comes from the book that F Scott Fitzgerald hadn’t finished when he died, in 1940, The Last Tycoon. The narrator, a bright young woman roughly modeled on Irene Mayer Selznick, tosses it off as something that maybe only three or four men in Hollywood really understand. David Thomson doesn’t claim to know precisely what the whole equation is, but it seems to connect the many variables of gambling (with a view to winning big) to the psyches of millions of viewers sitting in dark halls, overpowered by colossal images — heads thirty feet high. Both sides of the equation are clouded by dreaming; there is a great deal of slippage between what the parties think they are doing and what they are actually doing. This distributed dreaming has the effect of absolving everyone of responsibility for the movies. No one is responsible for the box-office success or failure of a film. Nobody is responsible for the insidious effects of moviegoing on moral character. No one is responsible for the transformation of an audience into a mob. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

From the start, “no one in the race could see where it was going.” (44) The two leaders in the race were Thomas Edison and William Dickson in America and the Lumière brothers in France. Edison foresaw a profusion of kinetoscopes, each one controlled by a solitary viewer. The Frenchmen foresaw what we call the movies, with a crowd of people sitting the dark while the images fly before them, inexorably projected by an invisible power. Thomson allows that, in the end, Edison may have proved right, but it is unlikely that anything like the material in my large collection of DVDs would have been produced for a market of kinetoscopes. Right there is a point worth mulling over.

I never cared much for movie theatres. I hated crowded ones, always, especially when the crowds were diverse — which they certainly weren’t at the movie theatre on Kraft Avenue in Bronxville, or in the Engineering Auditorium at Notre Dame. In the former, I saw The King and I twice, the first repeat in my long life with the movies; in the latter, I saw a great many of the prestigious and sophisticated European films that buffs were supposed to have seen. In these venues, audiences behaved politely. Settling in Manhattan, I came to prefer sparsely-attended afternoon shows (with the result that Kathleen and I hardly ever went to the movies together), but even then I had to put up with the occasional whiner. I greeted videotapes with immense and immediate enthusiasm, for I had already learned from Million Dollar Movie that there were pictures that I wanted to see again and again. That I could also see them at will and at home seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t. I am now content to wait for films to be released on DVD, no matter how loud the roar of approval. The last movie that I saw in the theatre was Get Out, last year — a movie that I quite agree is wasted on a solitary viewer.

By the time I began writing about movies here and at my other, earlier sites, it was fairly clear to my mind that movies were a kind of literature — which is to say that I gave no thought to movies without such literary values as structure and implication — just as serious music is another. Like books, movies and symphonies can be collected and organized and experienced in private. I find that this notional arcade that I have imagined does not accommodate the multi-year series that has become so popular. I collected the first two seasons of Mad Men, for example, but I let them ago, having lost interest in watching the show at about the beginning for the fourth season. While there are a few items in my video library that exceed by a considerable margin the conventional two-hour running time of most movies, almost everything that I have tells its story in the standard frame, a dramatic pulse to which my body as well as my mind have become thoroughly acclimated. When I sit down to watch a video, I know that, in a couple of hours, I’ll be doing something else. Thinking about the video that I’ve just seen will certainly be one of them.

The Whole Equation is like one of those advanced courses that are stamped with “prerequisites” — less-advanced courses that the student must complete first. Thomson’s take on Hollywood history is extremely impressionistic; he omits whatever doesn’t forcibly illuminate his search for the elements of the equation. Alfred Hitchcock, for example,was

a world unto himself in so many ways. Indeed, he hardly seems to have noticed the experience of being in America, beyond enjoying the more sophisticated facilities of the Hollywood studios. He was engaged in his own equation of film and suspense, as if it were a private mathematics.

How true this is! I often think of Hitchcock as a one-man studio, a master of every aspect of filmmaking who outdid the studio factories for sheer control over output. The mathematics was not entirely private, however. Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, which Thomson considers to be Hitchcock’s masterpieces, are

reflections on the very art or mathematics that obsesses Hitch. They are about looking, fantasizing, and what happens when the reality and the fantasy clash. Vertigo above all is a morbid analysis of fantasy involvement, and its resolution is not pretty or comforting. These films are something new and more disturbing than even Psycho. For they begin to ask the question: What have movies done to us? (303)

But the paragraph from which I have snipped these passages is the only one, in a book of nearly four hundred pages, in which Hitchcock is more than mentioned. Clearly, the book will be opaque to anyone who hasn’t seen a great many movies. After that, a history such as Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System — not that I can think of any “such as” — would be a helpful preliminary.

What have movies done to us? Thomson is pretty sure that they have increased the divorce rate. Not just because actors notoriously marry and remarry — their actual full-time occupation, my mother always insisted — but because every new movie promises a fresh start, a different course of action. And it seems clear to me that intelligent people learn protect themselves from flightiness by weighting the experience of seeing movies with knowledge about how they’re made, how they used to be made, changes in taste over the decades as well as a grasp of developing technology, so as to prevent the surface lightness from kiting them off to the crash of fantasy into reality. Studying film acts as a vaccine. (It can also render unusually powerful movies that rely heavily on cliché rather pathetic and ridiculous, and ultimately painful in an unintended way — I’m thinking of Titanic.) It can also act as fertilizer. Going to Woody Allen’s movies for the jokes is pretty dim; for every spoken line that’s funny there is at least one purely visual gag, often a reference to the sheer magic of the movies (in the Méliès sense), but you won’t catch it if you don’t know your movies. You can’t be dreaming if you want to feel the dream.

Many years ago, on a snowy afternoon in New York, a young woman who was my nephew’s girlfriend at the time and I left the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we had seen a big Diane Arbus show, and headed east along 82nd Street. I lapsed into a bloviation about the bourgeoisie, which so captivated that I had to be pinched by my companion in the middle of Park Avenue. “Did you see?” she whispered. “That was Woody Allen who just passed us!” Of course I hadn’t seen, but what I did see right away was that we were re-enacting a scene played out in several Allen films, in which an older man purports to instruct a younger woman. Of course, there is usually the hint that the older man harbors other designs, my utter innocence of which meant that we weren’t getting the scene quite right, but all the same, for a brief moment, Park Avenue, complete with snow, filled the interior of a sound stage.

***

Wednesday 13th

The plan was, to take some time off after the New Year, and then to get to work on an overhaul of the writing project. Instead, I relaunched the old Daily Blague, with a new focus (“the incidental housekeeper”). That’s going fairly well — yes, we’ll leave it at that: fairly well. Now, for the writing project.

There were to be three readers. One was an old friend from law school. She liked it, as I expected she would. The two others were former colleagues of Kathleen’s. I never heard back from one of them. The other spent an afternoon with me, going through the MS page by page, rigorously exposing the confusion in the text. I was grateful for his severity, really, but it wasn’t as constructive as I pretended. I wasn’t devastated, but the writing project was. Its shaky foundations gave way under my friend’s criticism. I had always sensed that he regarded me as something of a dilettante and now, without any malice, he effectively wielded the writing project as proof. I thought to myself: Well, it was awfully easy to write.

Of course, I hadn’t known, when I began the writing project, what it was supposed to be about. I complain all the time about that phrase, what the book is about. It’s — vulgar. Is Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, “about” her taking a very large dog into her very small apartment, in a building that does not allow dogs, and running the risk of eviction? Of course not. But the dog story is an armature, on which Nunez erects overlapping meditations on men and love and men and art and men and age. Plus, of course, women having to deal with all of the foregoing. The dog story provides occasions for Nunez to come up for air, as it were, with an everyday situation that people who do not teach writing for a living can relate to. But the book is about the former lover, a suicide, whom the narrator addresses throughout The Friend.

I had created an armature for my story, but, like the tale of Apollo in The Friend, it wasn’t inherently interesting. The armature was a series of thematic chapters: schooling, working, growing up in Bronxville, sojourning in Houston, and, finally, settling in Manhattan. For many years, I had thought of writing a book with adoption at the center, as the big deal, but even before I began the writing project, two summers ago, I knew that it wasn’t the big deal. I couldn’t believe for a minute that adoption had wounded or deformed me. Quite aside from its placement in my childhood — at the beginning of the story — it wasn’t any kind of climax. So what was the point of this — this intellectual memoir, I took to calling it; but was it even that? My rigorous critic didn’t think so. I remember his saying at one point, this isn’t thinking, this is blogging. Ouch!

On most days in 2018, I have tended to think that my writing project is a dead thing. But I have never surrendered to this conclusion. If nothing else, the writing project taught me a lot about myself, or at least it raised a lot of questions. Why has it taken me so long to feel that I understand human life, and what does that understanding amount to? I won’t dilate on those issues in this entry, because so many others at this site are devoted to them. I’ll just ask one more question: is there anything specific to the life that I have lived that has predisposed me to reach the particular understanding of the human condition (the human condition of the moment, let me add) that I have settled on? And if the answer to that question is yes: I have become a housekeeper who reads and writes a lot, then so what?

Especially so what when you bear in mind my conviction that intimate personal matters are not revealing.

***

In the immediate aftermath of the writing project’s apparent collapse, I hit on the idea of beginning the rewrite with the portrait of my parents’ marriage. This would be a matter of shifting material that I had already written to the front, and I would set it up as something of a stunt, for it would only be at the end of the portrait that the presence of children would be introduced. I would show, what I had only told, that my parents had a great marriage, or at least a successful partnership, in which children were only so much distracting, unsatisfactory furniture. They would have been better without us — my younger sister and me. They would have been better without us but for the awkwardness of childlessness, very much a black mark in their world. Children were important, nay vital, accessories for an ambitious corporate executive couple. They were necessary handicaps, without which the game of Executive Suite might be too easy to play.

I did say stunt. My parents were not cynical people. But they did not understand human life very well. My father simply wasn’t curious, and my mother not only didn’t see but actively fought against seeing that her view of life was nothing but a heap of sentiment, hardly more substantial than Life According to Hallmark. She was ready and willing to do and to feel all the right things. And I don’t think that she ever felt let down by her ideals. She felt — she often said so — let down by me.

My portrait of the marriage would begin with the wedding album, with a book of photographs taken on Valentine’s Day, 1942. I would treat the album as documentary evidence, from which to extrapolate comments about the newlyweds’ families, expectations, ways of life. (I would make oblique use of the fact that no children appear in any of the pictures.) This was a simple thought at the time, last autumn, when I was still shaking a little from the reckoning and planning to set the project aside for a few months. I didn’t have to write anything down; it was easy to remember.

Gradually, however, as the year has ground on, I have come to see that, no matter how eagerly I would read such a portrait, I have no desire to write it — not again. What I’d much rather do is just describe the photographs. I have always liked looking at them, and in fact this was one of the things about me that let my mother down. It was odd. For her, the album was a keepsake, the covers a sort of box that she did not need to open. That the pictures were there, that the day had been memorialized, that was enough. Actual viewing evoked the awkward contingencies of ageing and death, not to mention the outmoded modes. That, of course, is precisely what I liked about the pictures. My uncle, always so boyish even in old age, really was a boy, barely twenty years old. My favorite aunts were so chic! And the flashbulbs revealed my mother’s mother’s bursting corsets, although I was nearly middle-aged before I figured that out. The setting was the only familiar element: the dining room and the ballroom at Siwanoy Country Club had always been familiar to me. And the loot. The last photograph in the album is of my grandmother’s dining table, loaded with wedding presents. I still have a few of the goodies. I used to have more, but it has been years since I stopped holding on to things just because they fell into my lap.

So the upshot is that my parents’ wedding album is not a souvenir. Although it is beginning to fall apart, it belongs to the present, because that is where I am when I look at it. It doesn’t take me back, even if does remind me of long-gone people having a fine old time more than 75 years ago. They don’t seem so strange — I’m 70 myself. What I see is the world I was born into. Now that I have fought my way out of it — but is fighting the right word? — I can see what I was up against. Not the least of which was how appealing it all looked, at least on a good day.

***

Friday 15th

In today’s Times, David Brooks introduces a term that’s new to me, personalism. It’s pretty much what I mean by humanism: a belief in the importance of according to everyone you encounter a life of complex, autonomous dignity. Whether you can behave accordingly is an endless challenge, but at least you have the right idea.

Personalism is a philosophic tendency built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person. Over the years people like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, William James, Peter Maurin and Wojtyla (who went on to become Pope John Paul II) have called themselves personalists, but the movement is still something of a philosophic nub. It’s not exactly famous.

As the label for a “philosophic nub,” “personalism” has pros and cons. It makes an important point that “humanism” misses, which is that we are all different. All different, but all, as human beings, worthy of the same absolute regard. It does not carry humanism’s train of contradictory religious/anti-religious baggage. In order to preach personalism, however, a bit of antiquarian etymology might be required. Rooted in persona, it is difficult to pin down. And the vulgar notion of personality threatens to cloud the understanding.

But Brooks is certainly right to say that this is what we need right now. Whether you call yourself a humanist or a personalist, calling someone else a “loser” is wrong.

***

Before going to bed last night, I read a New Yorker piece by D T Max about a new Facebook phenomenon called “SKAM Austin.” Skam is the Norwegian word for “shame,” and it is also the name of a public television show whose creator, Julie Andem, was brought to the US by Simon Powell, of American Idol fame, to collaborate with Facebook — Facebook Watch, to be precise, although I have no idea what that is beyond what Max tells me — in presenting a seemingly real-time high school drama, complete with comments and Instagram accounts. The characters in this drama do what high-school students do: they try to bury the fact that they are in school with clods of adolescent personality formation. (Let’s try to remember that “adolescent” means “becoming adult.” It is unhelpful — although I do this all the time — to use the word to describe behavior that is resolutely hostile to the idea of growing up.) According to Max, the show, which materializes in “dropped” episodes — that’s as in “dropped into the timeline” — is addictive, partly because of multiplying interactive ramifications. (Both characters and actual Facebook users post comments.) “SKAM Austin” sounds to me like a jigsaw puzzle. Once you fit two pieces together, you’re hooked. But working on a jigsaw puzzle is quiet, almost meditative. “SKAM Austin” sounds very, very noisy.

Just as I question the virtues of high school as a place for adolescents to spend time in, so I raise my eyebrows at the proposal that adolescence is interesting, or worthy of any kind of attention, especially from adolescents themselves. Until very recently, adolescent eyes were fixed firmly on the future that had been mapped out by fate; even for the privileged, options were not conspicuous. Ever since Enlightenment thinking was addressed to the circumstances of education, in the late Nineteenth Century, the best minds have been curious to find out what young people will do when given a free hand with the widest range of opportunities — only to find that the boys go in for organized brutality while the girls fiddle with eye-liner. Given choices, young people begin at home; instead of learning about the world, they study personal accessories. Before getting to the question of what you would do if you could do anything, the adolescent wants to decide on what kind of a person to be — and I’m not talking about moral fiber. Perhaps it would be better to say that the young person finds it essential to settle on a way of expressing given characteristics — sexual preference, for example. The problem with high school is that it is a cage of adolescents, an artificial hell. One of the reasons for putting adolescents to work in community service is the increased exposure to fully adult possibilities. This is a good thing about the bad old days that we ought to think about reinstating.

So long as genuinely learning about the world, and not just going through the motions, were regarded as a form of community service, as it certainly ought to be, I should have had a much better time in those awful years, with none but the other genuinely curious students in the classroom.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
De Man, DeWitt
June 2018 (I)

6, 7 and 8 June

Wednesday 6th

More about the meritocracy: in today’s Times, a review of Steven Brill’s Tailspin: The People and Forces &c. According to Jennifer Szilai’s review, Brill charges the meritocracy with having recreated itself as an aristocracy more entrenched than the old-money class that it replaced. “This argument isn’t new,” Szalai points out, going on to mention Chris Hayes 2012 Twilight of the Elites. Both of these authors make use of the image of ladders being pulled up behind the rising new élites, foreclosing opportunity to others. It’s a nasty and depressing picture. I think it’s incomplete at best.

To me, the problem with the meritocracy is that nobody knows anybody. Oh, sure, people know their classmates from Harvard and Princeton, you can be sure of that. But connections within the meritocracy are not the problem, or, rather, they wouldn’t be the problem if there weren’t such a dearth of connections between the meritocracy and the rest of America. That statement needs refining, too. The connections that we need aren’t between a monolithic élite and the American population, but between individual meritocrats and the people whose lives they affect. What’s missing is local connection.

At lunch yesterday, a friend talked about various plans to subdivide the United States into more homogenous, governable regions. Like the meritocracy (toot, toot), this is something that I’ve discussed in the past. But I find that I have moved past such proposals, although I don’t dismiss them. When I look back on the old aristocracy, I see that it was rooted in hometowns. Young men from the better families went off to school and then returned, to take over from their fathers. There was an interdependency of economy, local tradition, even plain old gossip. I don’t mean to idealize some golden past. There was a great deal of atrophy in the old dispensation. But the community’s health was protected by a degree of human accountability that is difficult even to express in today’s globalist rhetoric. The local manufacturer might have the power to sell his firm to a conglomerate, or to shift his operations abroad, but the freedom to do so would be constrained by loyalty to the town, at least so long as he and his family wished to remain in it. And, where conditions were at least moderately harmonious, townsmen took pride in local prosperity.

The meritocracy that replaced this old local aristocracy was not itself local. It operated, and still operates, only at the higher, more abstract organizational levels. Local politics has been left to dubious figures, either developers or their creatures. Or to ambitious lawyers who intend to leave the locale behind. The talented young person who settles down on and to a local scale is either not making the best use of talent or maybe not all that talented. Meritocrats go far.

Mobility, like growth, is generally thought to be an inherently good thing. I agree that everyone ought to be able to make a home in a congenial environment. But I think that making more than two long-distance moves in the course of a career is a sign of the exotic instability that used to characterize the entertainment business (where movement is now too institutionalized to be either exotic or unstable). Rather than divide the United States into constituencies that are easier to manage from the top down, I prefer to encourage communities — and, in rural settings, counties — that manage themselves from the bottom up, with business organizations scaled to match. Maybe it’s time to learn from the food revolution: build economies of local sustainable commerce.

***

Thursday 7th

In the current, fiction issue of The New Yorker, Roz Chast has a three-panel cartoon entitled “Manspreading in Art.” I don’t expect anything to happen right away, but I can hear the canons caving as the triumphs of Western imagination are interrogated for the assumption that, because I am a passionate man, what I have to say is interesting, and not only interesting but true, and you have nothing better to do than to listen to me.

The film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey is now fifty years old. If that weren’t bewildering enough, I can remember seeing the roadshow Cinerama presentation in Houston during the summer of 1968 as if I just walked out of the theatre. There are a few nerve endings somewhere in my body that have never quite recovered from the two boulders that hurtle toward the audience in the middle of the “Mission to Jupiter” sequence. And I can remember the quasi-religious feeling that 2001 was not “just a movie.” At twenty, I was just young enough to imagine, if not quite to believe, that Kubrick’s fable might be the gateway to a radically new kind of life on Earth. I can remember being very, very impressed by the movie’s fidelity to the silence of what we used to call “outer space.”

But because I was so young, and so forth, I did not appreciate the extent to which 2001 is a silent movie, or the extent to which, when it is not silent, it derogates language by refusing to make use of a single line of interesting text. There was something reassuring, I suppose, about the polite nothings that burbled from the mouth of bureaucrat Heywood Floyd on the Space Station and at the Clavius Base. He sounded just like my father. Nor did I make much of the nearly complete lack of women. That wasn’t abnormal in a space movie, and there was something about Kubrick’s austerity that reminded us, then, that the women who did appear in space movies were usually sluts. All he gives us is a handful of suitably-Stepford stewardesses and the estimable Margaret Tyzack, playing a Russian scientist. Oh, and the filmmaker’s little daughter, Vivian, who plays Floyd’s child on the picture phone. What was extraordinary about 2001 was how gracefully Kubrick pushed utter normality into awesome incomprehensibility. We young fans did not object to that incomprehensibility at all. It was the guarantee of quality.

Not the least of the explanations for why it feels only yesterday that I saw 2001 for the first time is that I have not watched it very often since. Perhaps four times between 1968 and the other night. (I saw it at least three times during its first year.) It is as though the original viewing planted a monolith in my brain that could slumber for half a century, to be awakened by the great anniversary, or at any rate, by Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

As books about the making of particular films go, Benson’s is good enough. Benson wisely avoids the film’s metaphysical projections and settles firmly on the material terms of its production. His account is somewhat skewed by the availability of surviving crew members, who recreate the atmosphere of a primitive village in which anxious tribesman try to conciliate a capricious god. Or, I should say, a mean god, a very mean god, as stingy with credit as he is with compensation; it’s his very occasional generosity that’s capricious. The bad habits of manspreading are usually critiqued in the context of mixed company, especially by women, but Benson’s book reminds us that full-blown manspreading is something reserved by the Kubricks of this world for the control and belittlement of other men. Kubrick not only routinely makes “impossible” demands of his costume designer and special-effects technicians but goes on to take credit for their work, so that it is he who takes home the film’s one Oscar. And yet, smoulder as they will, the crew worship him. He is the greatest filmmaker of all time, &c &c. Space Odyssey ought to be required reading for students of the psychopathology of project management in male groups.

In short, I couldn’t wait to finish the book.

I did, as I say, watch the DVD in the middle of reading it. I had thought to wait until I’d read it all, but there was so much talk of scenes that didn’t make it into the original film or were later cut before wide release that I needed to refresh my awareness of what actually happens in 2001. The film stands up very well. It does not seem dated at all; it seems period, rather. The difference is that datedness results when a style of moviemaking, including its conventions, has staled or fallen out of use. In this regard, 2001 is not so much pioneering as genre-setting. Its conventions, say, for representing landing pads, remain standard. The “period” of 2001 is a beguilingly split one, between a future that has yet to develop and a past, the filmmaker’s present, in which Pan Am was the world’s premier airline and the bell logo marked all public telephones. (Hilton — crediting with operating the hotel on Space Station 5 — is still with us.) I was especially impressed by the Dawn of Man sequence, which I had found tiresome as a youth. It used to seem very long; now, probably because I am better at watching film, it was brisk and lean. But the “Stargate” business still annoys me; I would later discover that acid trips are just as boring. What really surprised me was how fast the penultimate scene plays out. I was fascinated by the strange floorlit set when the movie was new, because I had never suspected that a decorating style that I admired could be perverted into a hellscape. For me, Dave Bowman’s final scenes were the most astounding.

Needless to say, I wanted to bash Benson’s head in every time he referred to that decorating style as Louis XIV. But, hey, it’s guys.

What I loved most about 2001 when I saw it for the first time was the fantasia of satellites floating over the earth, which had still not been seen by mortal eye, accompanied by Werner von Braun’s ideal of a space station (which we already knew from The Wonderful World of Color), an interestingly Concorde-looking transport plane, and An die schönen blauen Donau — the “Blue Danube” Waltz. I don’t think that I had ever seen anything so comprehensively beautiful, at least in motion. I sort-of recognized the extract from Shostakovich’s Gayne Ballet (which brilliantly sets the melancholy mood of the Discovery), and I had actually attended the New York première of Ligeti’s Atmosphères — I remember Leonard Bernstein’s joking that the orchestra was playing on the honor system — but I hadn’t, strangely or not, heard Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, even though, or perhaps very much because, I knew and loved his eighteenth-century operas, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio. I was quite alarmed to read in Benson’s Space Odyssey that this music was chosen by Stanley Kubrick as “temporary,” to hold the place where the movie’s proper score, composed by Alex North, and a source of no little profit to MGM, would go. Happily, the termporary became permanent, but it gave me quite a scare nonetheless. Thinking about the movie (as distinct from the making of the movie), I realized that the music that Kubrick chose, especially the music by the Strausses and Shostakovich, represents the element that is altogether missing — visually — from 2001: civilized life on Earth.

***

Friday 8th

Anthony Lane has reviewed The President Is Missing for The New Yorker. The review won’t appear in print until next week, but I’ve read it online — well, some of it; I couldn’t care less, really, about this silly collaboration. Wondering exactly how literary partnership works, Lane comments,

Bill Clinton, who can write, has hooked up with James Patterson, who can’t, but whose works have sold more than three hundred and seventy-five million copies, most of them to happy and contented customers for whom good writing would only get in the way.

It’s a great crack. But what is good writing?

Getting about as far away from James Patterson as it is possible to go while remaining intelligible, we find Helen DeWitt, who occasionally lurches into impenetrable mathematical discussions that can be parsed if not understood. Most of what she has to say is comprehensible, but it is loaded with references and elisions that many readers, I fear, will have difficulty catching and filling. Reading Some Trick, DeWitt’s collection of thirteen stories, I was often reminded of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s rarefied manifesto, Ways of Curating. One story, “The Climbers,” a send-up of literary hipsters, seemed to send up Obrist’s idea of what constitutes an interesting aesthetic experience, but by the very fact that it breathed the same very cool air, the story seemed to be making fun of itself. Well, having fun. I was certainly laughing.

At the center of a particular cluster of hipsters is Gil, and at the center of Gil’s attention is Peter Dijkstra, a Dutch writer, currently in Vienna, who has just emerged from five years in a mental hospital. On a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam — honoring another disturbed Nederlander Gil impetuously purchased all of the Dijkstra books that had not yet been translated into English. These now stand on a shelf in his Tribeca loft, taking up thirteen of the eighteen inches of Gil’s collection of the author’s work. The remaining five inches are taken up by the translations that Gil is actually capable of reading. As interest in Dijkstra heats up, and Ralph, an agent who has made contact with Dijkstra, is proposing to bring Dijkstra to New York, Gil fears exposure as someone not hip enough to read Nederlands. In a meltdown, he retires to a local bar.

Ralph has learned that, although Dijkstra does not have a “book” in the works, he has filled fifty notebooks with texts in English, and written interesting words on a pile of file cards. He has sent a sample notebook and collection of file cards to Ralph, and Ralph has shown them to Gil. At a booth in the bar, Gil devises schemes for keeping Dijkstra in Vienna.

What if the normal rate for a room at this underground hotel [where one of Gil's satellites met Dijkstra, who is living there] cost $79 a night. BUT, you could get a room with notebooks & file cards on loan from Peter Dijkstra for $299 a night, and the $220 goes to Peter Dijkstra. So he can keep his room indefinitely because it is paid out of lending out his notebooks &c. AND, there are SEPARATE ENTRANCES. So you NEVER SEE Peter Dijkstra. He uses one entrance and you use another, so he can go on working without interruption, and you can sit in your room with the notebooks. This would Be. So. Great.

It would be great if you knew Peter Dijkstra’s favorite restaurant. People go to the restaurant and they can just order a meal. Or, they can order a meal plus notebook and file cards for the cost of an extra meal, which is left on account for Peter Dijkstra. Who can turn up whenever he wants and finds his meal is already paid for!

Gil could totally see himself going to a restaurant and ordering a meal and a notebook and paying extra for the notebook. It would be better than going to a restaurant and having a meal with Peter Dijkstra and paying for the meal because there was no reason to think words from the mouth would have the intensity of the ink on the grid. (101)

As she demonstrated in her second novel, Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt has a fertile imagination for schemes of this kind. Schemes that appear to serve grand purposes while appeasing craven desires. Schemes that seem, for the moment, quite plausible, as clear as soap bubbles.

Most of Some Trick, though, isn’t funny. Oddly, the two really sad stories are the ones written in laddish patois, both of them involving disaffected rock musicians. Beneath their antic stories, “Stolen Luck” and “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16k Having Once Been Young” drag a bottomless melancholy. The first ends with suicide, and we do not find Nick buying a Harley in the second. At least, I don’t think we do. I am not sure that I followed that narrative, although I did grasp that DeWitt was ventriloquizing complains that she has made elsewhere about being in it for more than fame and money. Pete, the true artist in the band, recalls his misery with a dumb eloquence.

You know, just before our US tour we were in Gibraltar and I went over to Africa ’cause I didn’t think it would take that long to get back. It was just after our second album had come out, and Steve had changed a lot of shit to make it like the first album. And that album was really popular, the fans didn’t notice, so I felt the fans were total wankers. I felt betrayed, and Steve had booked us for a whole year of gigs, just playing the same shit the same way every time.

So I walked along the beach, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought it would be better just to walk into the water and die than go through the year, and I couldn’t understand how they could do it. They turned my life into something worse than nothing, into this torture, for the sake of extra sales, well couldn’t we just have enough sales and something in it for me? And how could they just decide like that that my life didn’t matter, it didn’t matter if I was in, like, agony. But the thing is they didn’t know they were doing it. They didn’t know what they were taking away because they never had anything real to know what it was like when everything was a fake. They could get a lot of money and blag about the business. The money was the only thing there could be for them, and they’d never have anything else. (164)

In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Wood ends his review of Some Trick with a very clever turn. He is writing about “Famous Last Words,” in which a man and a woman discuss the Death of the Author in the context of the deaths of authors Voltaire and Hume. At the same time, the man puts the moves on the woman. “What is woman?” he asks. “Is this the mark of woman?” The woman comments, “[He] puts a hand on my breast, cannily pursuing sous-texte sous prétexte.” Wood can’t resist. “He’s de man. But she’s de wit.” Forgive me for my presumption, but I can’t help but see DeWitt frowning over that.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hamlets
May 2018 (V)

29, 30, and 31 May

Tuesday 29th

The most interesting thing about Donald Trump, I’ve concluded, is his abstemiousness. The man doesn’t drink. And what’s really interesting about this is that nobody comments on it, neither friends nor foes. Nobody exclaims that the president is bold because or reckless even though he avoids alcohol.

Like everybody else, Trump acts on a braid of conscious, intuitive, instinctive, and deeply learned impulses, and there’s no saying which are more important than the others, no point in trying to trace the intentions behind his behavior. But whether Trump is a teetotaler by taste or by prudence, it’s a simple fact that he is never “incapacitated,” not even “under the weather.” He’s all there, all the time. It’s amazing to me, with my very different bundle of impulses, that he manages to be himself all the time without seeking some sort of chemical relief, but he is apparently untroubled by it. His bundle of impulses works for him.

And, I mean, it really does work: the man is in the Oval Office! What does Trump have that other presidents haven’t had? My theory is that he has an unerring sense of what doesn’t matter, and that his not drinking reflects some awareness that he has to be stone cold sober to keep this sense alive. When you’re drunk, nothing matters, everything matters — things get all mixed up. Trump is never mixed up. He is probably ignorant of many things that a normal person of his background would not want to be caught not knowing, but he is not confused. His decisions may be inconsistent over time, but they are always the right decisions for the moment, or at least never the wrong ones, because, really, how could a businessman with his history of bankruptcy and general lack of verifiable financial success get a roomful of people to support him? Much less win the Collegiate vote?

It’s not that bankruptcy doesn’t matter. It’s that it doesn’t matter that much. As much as other things. Trump can calibrate to a fine degree the context of self-presentation in which other things outweigh bankruptcy to the point of making it vanish. Building a wall, draining the swamp. Compared to these, bankruptcy is just a less-interesting abstraction.

And he also knows who matters. Right-thinking people were genuinely shocked by his dismissal of Rex Tillerson by means of a tweet, but Trump knew that neither the position of Secretary of State nor the person of Rex Tillerson meant very much to most Americans.

Rather than produce further examples of Trump’s unusual discernment — tedious if not vomitrocious reportage — I suggest that we examine what he does in the future as so much evidence that he understands the world that we’re living in better than we do, and that we can learn from him what really matters in the United States today. Instead of deploring his grandstanding, follow him as if he were a Geiger counter.

When he attacks something, we add it to our list of things that need to be fixed. It’s going to be a long list.

***

Wednesday 30

In yesterday’s Op-Ed column, David Brooks wrote about what’s wrong with the meritocracy. Having written a few things about this myself, I read it with the greatest interest. Here follow some quibbles.

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. By “intelligence,” Brooks seems to mean IQ, and he also seems to suggest that we put too much stock in aptitude and raw brainpower. This overlooks the extent to which the humanities have been denatured by ideas of efficiency. I don’t just mean tests and language labs. I mean the buzz words and the jargon that reduce intellectual effort to dog whistles. When too many teachers want to hear students say the right things, students learn to say the right things without understanding what they mean.

The best teachers learn from their students. I don’t mean that they learn anything much about the syllabus, but rather that students, as a result of the best teachers’ prodding, reveal the limitless variety of human possibility. The best teachers, in other words, do not have an exaggerated faith in their own intelligence, and this is what they teach their students.

Sometimes, I’m reminded of the medieval disconnect between theory and practice, wherein scholars drew their schemata but never handled a tool, while masons erected cathedrals without the benefit of physics equations. Americans today distinguish between a higher learning that is pursued in classrooms and an everyday commonsense morality that is picked up in cafeterias and on playing fields. Crabbed and fustian as it was, the old public-school curriculum of studying classical literature not only for mastery of Greek and Latin but for moral exemplars seems comprehensive in comparison.

Why, I wonder, does Brooks make two points out of one? Misplaced faith in autonomy and Inability to think institutionally are the same thing. The old WASP élite enjoyed a proprietary interest in its institutions and its society: it quite literally owned almost everything. Meritocrats aren’t invested in society. We haven’t learned how to replace the old ownership equity with a moral equity, with a collegial authority by which the meritocracy is enabled to judge itself. The medical and legal professions’ attempts at self-regulation are pale and often ineffective copies of the powerful back-room councils that ran things in the bad old days.

Finally, Brooks’s paragraph about the Misplaced notion of the self fails to make it clear that character is a social phenomenon, not a spiritual one. Too often, character is regarded as a sort of Superman costume that is revealed only in crisis. In fact, character is revealed by every gesture, every statement, every smile, every frown, every angry word, every kindness. Character is not a sash of merit badges but a messy array of inconsistent behaviors. The good news is that most of us behave better when surrounded by others who behave well. The central flaw in the current version of meritocracy is its postulation of individual merit. On any truly meaningful test — testing the members of a class — cheating is impossible.

***

Thursday 31st

Just when I was wondering what was going to push Philip Roth off the screen, along came Roseanne Barr with her tweet about Valerie Jarrett. It’s still too soon, I think, to comment on that — although I must say the President, with his demand that ABC apologise for all the HORRIBLE things that it has said about him, didn’t disappoint — so I’m grateful to Dara Horn for her piece in the Times‘s Sunday Review, which in its online version is entitled “What Philip Roth Didn’t Know About Woman Could Fill a Book.”

Roth’s three favorite topics — Jews, women and New Jersey — all remain socially acceptable targets of irrational public mockery, and Roth was a virtuoso at mocking the combination of all three. “What are they, after all, these Jewish women who raised us up as children?” Roth’s narrator asks in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the 1969 novel that made his reputation. “It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech — look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic. Yes, yes, maybe that’s the solution then: think of them as cows, who have been given the twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg.”

One could generously say that jokes like this haven’t aged well, yet they were just as cruel in 1969 — and the misogyny isn’t really the problem. After all, if one policed literature for bigotry, there would be little left to read. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.

**

Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.

To which I would add that the snippet of Roth’s prose reveals the disregard for grace that’s typical of impatient, unpleasant men. “[T]he twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg” might sound funny when you say it, but it falls flat on the page.

When Dara Horn says that Roth’s curiosity is limited to Roth, it sounds like a put-down. We’ve come that far, at least. When Roth was writing Portnoy’s Complaint, though, it would have been praise. In those days, Hamlet was the greatest work of literature, and what does Hamlet do but think about himself? The language in which he does so is grandiloquent, possibly immortal, but I prefer it in extracts. As I play, Hamlet is simply depressing: the cogs of a revenge tragedy grind in their inexorably noisy way, and the only thing slowing them down is the prince’s introspection. Hamlet was the perfect model for the Postwar school of alienated, existentialist writers convinced of the absurdity of existence. As also for the school of writers who dared to subject themselves to their own variants of Freudian analysis. This was a struggle that had nothing to do with women, except insofar as women were trophies, carried off in victory. The enemy was the vast phalanx of men who cooperate in soulless routines of bureaucracy and commerce, who plot to exterminate meaning. Only by studying himself could the author find freedom.

So many things that made sense during the Cold War — that made so much sense that men developed whole personalities around them — don’t make sense anymore.

As a young man, I watched this battle, you might say, from a point outside its Overton Window. I could root for neither side. I felt a moral — aesthetic? — obligation to stand up for the writers, because they were, after all, writers, artists, thinkers, and so forth, whereas their opponents were duped robots. But I wouldn’t have wanted to see the writers put in charge of things, either. If the conformists were boring, the writers were disagreeable. They had terrible manners, and were proud of this. They were very greedy, and not just for attention. They were terrible, terrible listeners. And they were not very nice to the women who were attracted to them. And women were attracted to them. That was the worst of it.

Has that changed? Perhaps we can say that the attraction has been infused with … complications. I can’t see Dara Horn fluttering on a park bench if Philip Roth sat down beside her with a Mr Softee and eventually, like Lisa Halliday’s Alice, in Asymmetry, retiring with him to his apartment for “Operations” sex. No. I hear her saying, you always use the language of possession when talking about love. And then standing up and walking away.

In time, the old battle faded away, as antagonists grew old and died, women entered the workforce, and Hamlet began to sound solipsistic. I got rid of a lot of novels. None by Philip Roth, though. I’d never had any.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Women and Men
May 2018 (IV)

22 and 25 May

Tuesday 22nd

The anecdote appears on page 59 of Andrea Barnet’s new book, Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters Changed Our World (Ecco), in the chapter about Rachel Carson. After Carson’s The Sea Around Us appeared in the summer of 1951, a fan sent a properly-addressed letter but  began it with the salutation, “Dear Sir,” explaining that he (the fan) had

always been convinced that males possess the supreme intellectual powers of the world

and he could not now change his mind about that.

How jolly it would be to know that this sort of thinking no longer sprouted, much less flourished, in the minds of males. How nice to live in a world in which James Damore and Jordan Peterson had nothing to say!

As regular readers know, I’ve been plowing through books by and about women, if only because two very good ones, Michelle Dean’s Sharp and now Barnet’s Visionary Women, have just been published. I found myself asking just what sort of gifts women bring to the table. What special contributions do women make to the counsels of power? And how to evaluate these contributions? By the criteria established by men? By the criteria that men would endorse if they actually learned a thing or two from women? Do women fit in, or are they, as I think Peterson has it, “chaos”? Where to establish a point of view?

Probably because I sensed that I was proposing a very tedious project, I looked hard at the initial question and realized in a flash that women bring the table. Men bring the expression, the cliché, but their accessory is much more likely to be a handsaw, the better to facilitate taking away parts of something. Let’s not push the conceit. I’ve answered the question to my own satisfaction. Women bring people together, and the world with them.

Remarkable women, that is, women endowed with great critical intelligence. Women in our time, the first that has allowed women to speak. Women addressing the men of our time, who, in response to fear and uncertainty, have throughout the past century adopted the intellectual habits of the professional engineer, the applied scientist who insists on linear exactitude and dispassionate analysis. Men as gifted as the women, but men in whom the spark of humanism has been almost extinguished.

Whether the women bring something peculiar to women, or whether they insist on restoring humanist priorities, I can’t say. It doesn’t seem to be important anymore. Barnet quotes Wendell Berry’s distinction between nurture and exploitation.

The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of number, quantities, ‘hard facts,’ the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. (444)

Women, perhaps only because they have not surrendered to the engineering outlook, understand that the gains of exploitation are, if nothing else, soon exhausted. Remarkable women remain unmoved and unimpressed by things that are done simply because they can be done, and they are disgusted by men who cannot be bothered to take care of what they have done. How much more admirable engineers would be, if, instead of designing new and “superior” airliners, they concentrated instead on reviving the vast web  of railroads in this country, and improving everything about it. Such a conversion might make America great for the first time.

On page 439 of Visionary Women, Barnet begins to present a panorama of the United States in the 1950s. It is a familiar picture, and every detail is important, so I won’t even summarize it. It’s enough for me to say that I was a child in those days, and that I remember them well, even if I didn’t understand them at the time. There seemed little to look forward to, if Walt Disney’s cartoon of Tomorrowland was anything to go by. In my town, few of the houses were genuinely old (only one or two were more than a hundred years older than I), but all were built in styles that echoed the past, and I was drawn to what had been far more than to what was to come.

The brutalism of the Fifties, happily, did not long survive the decade, and I agree with Barnet that, for all our failings and disappointments, for all the unpleasant consequences of good intentions, our world is a much better place than that of my childhood. I try to resist giving all the credit to women, but it is difficult. I wish I could be sure that the trend would continue, but the very wicked fairy who currently dominates the scene makes the techno-conformists of sixty years back look appealing by comparison. What’s clear is that women saved civilization, or at least kept it alive; now men need to learn from them how be of help. Men must become humanists.

***

Friday 25th

News of Philip Roth’s death was more interesting than I would have thought it could be, had I given it any thought. I’d have expected no more than a sigh of dismay, that Roth’s kind of writing could make anybody famous at any time. That his “themes” and “subjects” were generally — among literary journalists — could be considered the supreme American ones. Sex, death, rage, resentment, nitpicking. Well, no one praised him for nitpicking. But he did seem to be rewarded for having just been his neurotic old self, compulsively scribbling, writing in the voice of a discontented man muttering to himself. I had no use for Philip Roth.

But Ezra Blazer — I won’t go so far as to say that I found Lisa Halliday’s fictional recreation of her former lover much more appealing than his model, but Halliday at least made reading about him interesting. Had Philip Roth recommended Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness to the general public, in a Paris Review interview, say, I’d have half-guiltily shrugged it off, but when Ezra Blazer recommended the book to his girlfriend, Alice, I did think about looking for it my library, and then, within a day or two, when I came across it by chance, I did read it. Ezra Blazer’s wisdom never manifested itself to me in Philip Roth. In her very absorbing novel, Asymmetry, Halliday did what Roth could never do, making it conceivable that any woman (or other human being) could love him, even if only for a little while. The man as he presented himself was simply repulsive.

Daphne Merkin told a story a few years ago, in The New Yorker I think. She mentioned spending the night with an eminent writer at his place. I forget whether this was in the middle of an affair or just a one-night stand, but it would seem to have been the latter, because, when she was dressed and saying her goodbyes, he told her that, on her way out, she would find a box of books by the front door. His latest. Feel free to take one. Later, through the grapevine, I heard that the writer with whom Merkin had consorted was Philip Roth — no doubt about it. When I told the story to Kathleen last night, she scoffed at Roth’s self-promotion. Self-promotion? I disagreed. If ever there was a writer who needn’t promote himself, it was Philip Roth. The world took care of that for him. Largesse, rather, I thought. Even worse, said Kathleen. Once again, though, the man’s behavior is filtered and made bearable (or at least amusing) by a woman’s attention.

Philip Roth has been a large literary fixture for my entire adult life, and commensurately irritating. He was not alone. He stood in a grove of sex-addled Americans. Hemingway, Mailer, Bellow, Updike. But as the last to go, Roth bore the concentrated residue. How can I be sure that I am a man, and not just a sack of flesh with male generative equipment? What does having sex mean? Why do we have to die? With the exception of the fatally-glib Updike, these figures seemed to medicate such puerile anxieties by writing in self-important, often rather scraping tones. It is a relief to know that they are gone.

The basic question is this: are men undone by women? Or — the same question rephrased — are men undone by civilization? In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, there was a great deal of worry about this, a reaction, so they say, to the over-upholstery of bourgeois life. Muscular Christianity and organized sports were conjured to the rescue. So was World War I — a calamity of chivalry in trenches of rotting muck. After World War II, the model was updated, and stoic knighthood yielded to the capable engineer, a man of few words. A bad fit for the men of many words who aimed for the Nobel in Literature! But an opportunity to recycle all the old fears. The only challenge was this brave new world in which women were getting used to speaking for themselves.

Also new, after the two wars, was the collapse of respectability as a barrier to what young people now call hooking up. In Kafka Was All the Rage, Anatole Broyard writes beautifully but painfully about how hopeless men and women were in the dawn of this freedom. Nobody knew what to do, beyond the tab-and-slot part. Nobody knew what to say, and only women had a clue about listening. On bad days, things don’t look any better now, what with boys learning about sex from degrading videos. Incels may be the heirs of the late literary giants, raising their fists to heaven and demanding the love of beautiful women.

I find my ironic eulogy for Philip Roth in Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, The Friend:

And not to be too cruel, she doesn’t say, but you will not be missed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
May 2018 (III)

16, 17 and 18 May

Wednesday 16th

The weather got very hot yesterday, and then very windy: it was clear even without reference to meteorology that we were in for some storms. And they came, says the Times, as if on a conveyor belt, wreaking havoc on power and transportation. (But not in Manhattan itself, of course.) The temperature dropped twenty degrees in their wake, and we are now back to the cool and somewhat gloomy weather that has marked this month of May. All in all, the perfect climate for learning of the death of Tom Wolfe.

One had rather forgotten about him. Although I consumed The Bonfire of the Vanities as quickly as my eyes could travel, I was never a fan. I looked at From Bauhaus to Our House, but I did not read it. I gave up on A Man in Full after five or ten pages. Wolfe’s excited prose made me suspect that he was one of those men for whom the word “people” doesn’t include women — a very common failing, to be sure, but unforgivable in a writer. (In a thinker, that is.) I was astonished, even somewhat embarrassed, by the Times’s two-page obituary, much of it taken up by a photograph of Wolfe leaning against a lamppost. Wolfe lived two lives, the necessarily solitary one of the writer, for which, however, he seems to have dressed like a dandy, and then that of the dandy. The writer could be savage; the dandy was by all accounts courteous. Somehow, that strikes me as completely backwards. Shouldn’t the dandy be flamboyant, and the writer sympathetic? Either way, Wolfe cut an unusually public figure for a writer, and I daresay that’s what earned him the spread in the Times.

In an op-ed piece, Kurt Andersen says that he was inspired to become a writer by Tom Wolfe — he discovered him in ninth grade — and that a great deal of his own career was spent in open imitation of the older writer. He claims that Wolfe was a great inspiration for his work at Spy Magazine. I can see what he means, but I must insist that the inspiration could only have been partial. Tom Wolfe never made me laugh, while Spy very nearly laughed me to death. There was something anhedonic about the pile-up of words in Wolfe’s prose, something never sweetened by the giggling self-ridicule that gleefully topples David Foster Wallace’s mountains of clauses. Wolfe was a satirist, Wallace a comedian; the difference is that comedians never scold.

The style of Wolfe’s dandyism was of course the particular style of the Southern gentleman, the planter. This allowed Wolfe to wear his roots as a Virginian, as an outsider in the Big Apple, while looking much more presentable than most New York writers. Of course, if he had grown a beard, he would have risked comparisons with the colonel of fried chicken.

***

Back in 1968, the word “students” still meant “men”; I had to remind myself of that as I read Mavis Gallant’s “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” which was published in two instalments in The New Yorker in the autumn of that year. I ordered a copy of Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews, at the recommendation of Lisa Elkin’s Flâneuse, an interesting book that I may have been a little hard on in the other blog. Gallant, a Canadian, was already an established Parisian by 1968; what’s more, she lived around the corner from the university. The violence did not touch her immediate neighborhood, but the disorder did, and that is the subject of the Notebooks. Although the water never stopped running, the power was only intermittently cut, and the phones usually worked, most urban amenities were suspended, as workers, inspired by students, went on strike. Although deeply upset by this uncertainty, Gallant hoped that “the events” would lead to improvements in French affairs, if only by clearing the scene of the elderly de Gaulle, and she was very depressed when everything went back to normal. In fact, she left Paris as soon as she could, for her usual vacation in Menton, on the Riviera, and she declined to cover the conclusion from afar. But the Notebooks do not end on an abandoned note.

Bouleversante conversation with woman in travel agency, Rue de Rennes, where I cancel my auto-couchette reservation for last Friday. She begins by asking what I think. We both pussyfoot around the subject, and she then says, “Don’t you think that le social followed upon something perhaps more lasting and important?” Answer, “Yes, of course.” She becomes excited, says that she, for one, will never be the same again — that she will never accept anything at its face value, that “no one can stop her now” from asking herself questions. She pulls out from under the counter two morning papers, Le Figaro and Combat, and cries what may be the justification, finally, for the massacre of the trees: “Regardez! Je lis!” She says, “Je traîne, je lis, je pense.” Says she goes to the Sorbonne, to the Odéon, to a Catholic discussion group on the Rue Gay-Lussac: “J’écoute.”I say to her, ”What did you hope would happen? What did you want?” Seems taken aback, stares at me, says, “Je ne sais pas. Quelque chose de propre.” Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this. Say, “Une merveilleuse abstraction?” She shakes her head. Doesn’t know.

The “massacre of the trees” is indeed the most heart-rending detail in the Notebooks. Gallant cries when she comes upon trees that have been cut down to make barricades, to improvise armor. So do most of the other women who appear in the Notebooks. This felling of slow green life is regarded as a crime that only thoughtless, ignorant young men could commit, emblematic of youth’s horrifying appetite for terror. The massacre of the trees is the very opposite of quelque chose de propre — something decent. But Gallant is prepared for forgive the students, amazed as she was to hear them chanting, Nous sont tous des juifs allemands!

Musing on Gallant’s memoir, Lisa Elkin decides that it all comes down to immigrants. The events of 1968, after all, were sparked by the insolence of a stateless foreign student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. If Elkin is right, we are all soixante-huitards, on one side or the other, even down to this day.

***

Thursday 17th

In the current issue of The Nation, which arrived on Monday morning with the Times, I read Bill McKibben’s review of Visionary Women, by Andrea Barnet. I ordered it, and it arrived yesterday afternoon. Sometimes I think Amazon knows what I’m going to buy before I do.

There are four “visionary women” in Barnet’s book: Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters. Add to these the ten women in Michelle Dean’s Sharp — Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm — and a trend emerges, a trend away from a movement. Few, if any, of these women were (or are) notable feminists. Reading about them has led me to conclude that feminism, formerly known as women’s liberation, has nothing to do with remarkable women.

The other night at dinner, Kathleen mentioned “incels,” which she had just read about somewhere, and then, without a break, told me about a show that she had sat through in the back seat of a taxi. After a moment’s difficulty trying to turn off the news feature, she gave up; at least she could mute it. Presently she saw Jennifer Lopez modeling inappropriate outfits inappropriately — striking poses that could most kindly be described as “kittenish.” We agreed that some women’s lack of judgment might be a good explanation of some men’s depravity, and that in fact it might be a case of depravity on both sides. Depravity is the belief in rationalizations that make misconduct permissible. The incels, as a group, have made misogyny normative among themselves, claiming a totally spurious entitlement. The behavior of women who imitate harlots is more puzzling. I can attribute it only to a lack of self-respect.

None of the fourteen women whom I have named suffered from a lack of self-respect. Although they made the most of such opportunities as presented themselves, they did not really require any kind of liberation. They made the most of what they had (minds, mostly), and the results were impressive enough to win admiring attention.

We have recently been treated to the appalling tale of the Washington Redskins’s junket to Costa Rica. During this pleasure trip, the team’s cheerleaders were advised to go about topless and to make themselves available for friendly encounters with rich hangers-on. Do we draw a line? Or ought the line have been drawn long ago, when cheerleaders’ outfits were downsized to their current skimpiness? And who would draw that line? Something tells me that it would not be any of my fourteen smart women. I can’t imagine any of them bringing herself to comment on cheerleaders, any more than correlatively smart men would take notice of drug lords.

The smart women and the cheerleaders do share the fact that they are not common. Now that people routinely marry for love, it may be that there are more beautiful people than smart people in the world, but beautiful people — beautiful people who are also just the right shade of young — are still unusual. (Psst! Have you seen Celeste Sloman’s extraordinary photograph of Gloria Steinem?) But beautiful people have much more in common with each other than smart people do. This may explain why beautiful people face such powerful challenges to their self-respect. Consider Pauline Kael. Kael was lured into a film-production partnership with Warren Beatty that nearly cost her her professional credibility; it was a terrible mistake to swallow this bait. But the bait was unique. It would have been neither offered to nor registered by the other women in my group-that-is-not-a-group. Whereas beautiful people in general are asked, sooner or later, to take off some or all of their clothes.

The object of women’s liberation, or feminism, is to develop the self-respect of ordinary women. Extraordinary women have nothing to contribute; on the contrary, their example may be discouraging — to ordinary women. In the forty odd years since the feminist movement became impossible to ignore, beautiful women have been so many spanners in the works, terrible distractions, insoluble conundrums. Smart, sexy, or both, unusual women make it difficult for an ordinary woman to figure out how to live. It would be nice if their presence on the Internet and in other media were more muted, if they were not presented as Kewpie dolls for the incels to shoot down.

***

Friday 18th

Reading about the shootings in Santa Fe, Texas — a town not far from Galveston, which my daughter and her family plan to visit this summer —I wonder if the modern public high school is not inherently unsafe. It seems to me to create an atmosphere of hostility. I say this even though I have not set foot in a school — any school — in many years, so feel free to ignore me.

High school used to be a place in which to grow up, to come to maturity. Few people went to college, so it was expected that high school graduates would be ready to take their places in the adult world as soon as they handed in their rented gowns. High school was a rehearsal for adult life in that learning was the student’s job. Ideally, among all the facts and figures that had to be mastered in different courses, students learned about the world that they would soon be entering. Perhaps it would be better to say that they were taught a vision of what the world might be if everyone brought his or her best to bear on it. By the final year of high school, students were expected to behave, at least, like adults.

What is high school today but a ghastly holding pen? Nobody takes a place in the adult world at the end of senior year anymore. The adult world is open only to college graduates, and its full richness is foreclosed to all but those who make it through postgraduate professional training. The high school student’s job is to get into a good college. This is not a job that all high school students may be willing or prepared to undertake. The postponement of adult entry postpones the end of childhood; instead of a rehearsal for “real life,” there is only a prolonged playground. The inevitably sexualized atmosphere of high school, no longer contained by the imminence of respectable adulthood, poisons the interactions of adolescents at different stages of development. Instead of appearing to be grown up (and self-controlled), kids in high school fall back on the quixotic project of being experienced.

The supposed collapse of educational standards is not what bothers me. It’s the collapse of educational seriousness that’s frightening. High school is a bad joke.

That solution that I propose is to insert a gap of three to five years between high school and college, and to overhaul business enterprises to welcome cohorts of high-school graduates with suitable jobs, jobs that today are reserved for college grads as a matter of employers’ convenience, not because college coursework is prerequisite but because a college degree indicates workplace virtues that used to be signalled by a high-school diploma. I am not arguing that fewer people ought to go to college, but rather that no one ought to go directly to college from high school except those few students who are probably going to spend their careers in the higher reaches of academia or professional expertise. (And even those gifted ones would probably benefit from a year out of school.)

There is nothing inherent in modern life that makes it take longer than it used to do to grow up. Keeping young people in elementary school until the age of eighteen is a vast civil mistake.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Post Office Revenue
May 2018 (II)

8 and 11 May

Tuesday 8th

Lady Susan, an epistolary novel, appears to be Jane Austen’s first complete work of mature fiction. She made no attempt to publish it, however; her nephew appended the text to his 1871 memoir. So it exists in a limbo, between Austen’s juvenilia and the canon of six novels that begins with Northanger Abbey and ends with Persuasion. The Penguin edition, edited by Margaret Drabble, packages it with fragments of uncompleted projects, The Watsons and Sanditon. Austen abandoned The Watsons, but work on Sanditon was, in Drabble’s incisive phrase, “interrupted by her death.”

Although formally finished, Lady Susan ends with an abandoned air, too. There are 41 letters in all, but I suspect that there were a few more, which Austen scuttled with a Conclusion. Having brought her tale to its climax, she may have lost interest in laying out the dénouement in letters that could no longer shock or surprise. There was also the problem of a nice young man’s affections. Like those of Edwin in Mansfield Park, these required time to shift attention, from one lady to another, and the Conclusion informs us of this with a similar caginess as to how long it took. However long, it was time that the quick short term of Lady Susan didn’t have.

Lady Susan Vernon is a widow. Her father’s title is never disclosed, a detail that encompasses the mystery of how she came to be what she is. Still beautiful at 35, and more accomplished at coquetry than ever, she is in the middle of a torrid, adulterous affair when she writes the opening letter to her brother-in-law, announcing her intention to visit him. The reasons behind her decision to pay the visit are suggested in the second letter, written to a a bosom buddy in London, but Lady Susan is too intelligent to incriminate herself explicitly, so the full extent of her misconduct with Mr Manwaring, the tranquillity of whose home she has disturbed, emerges only at the end, when this lover, who like almost all the men in the novel does not write letters, is seen to be entering Lady Susan’s abode. In the third letter, we learn that Mrs Vernon, the wife of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, is unhappy to receive her, given her notorious reputation, but feels obliged to yield to her husband’s generosity. Thus Lady Susan is marked as an eighteenth-century fiction. In the Victorian era that followed, Mrs Vernon and her real-life counterparts would not suffer such oppression. We don’t know if Jane Austen lived to see the full transformation; it is, after all, Sir Thomas Bertram, and not his wife, who refuses to take the disgraced Maria back to Mansfield Park.

In the fourth letter, Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, writes to his sister to “congratulate you and Mr Vernon on being about to receive into your family, the most accomplished coquette in England.”

… but by all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect. I shall be with you very soon …

Reginald’s leering, sneering tone is designed to set him up as a target of Lady Susan’s conquistatorial ambitions, and so rapid is his tumble that his father, in the twelfth letter, feels obliged to intervene. Sir Reginald’s formal understatement is almost funny.

You must be sensible that as an only son and the representative of an ancient family, your conduct in life is most interesting to your connections.

Just as almost-funny the outrage in Reginald’s climactic letter to Lady Susan:

But since it must be so, I am obliged to declare that all the accounts of your misconduct during the life and since the death of Mr Vernon which had reached me in common with the world in general, and gained my entire belief before I saw you, but which you by the exertion of your perverted abilities had made me resolve to disallow, have been unanswerably proved to me. Nay, more, I am assured that a connection, of which I had never before entertained a thought, as for some time existed, and still continues to exist between you and the man, whose family you robbed of its peace, in return for the hospitality with which you were received into it!

This from the thirty-sixth letter. In response, Lady Susan briskly dismisses Reginald with the expectation “of surviving my share in this disappointment.” The four shortish letters that follow make it clear that, with Lady Susan’s conquest of Reginald undone, the story has run out of air. Was Austen too squeamish to compose an  ending similar to that of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, upon whose Marquise de Merteuil Lady Susan seems at times to be so clearly modeled (in the tone of her ruthlessness, especially)? In that book, the beautiful villainess is disfigured by a horrible pox that, together with her public disgrace, force her to retire entirely from the world. Her partner in crime is killed in a duel. Lady Susan has no partner in crime. Austen simply does not believe in melodramatic finales: the wicked, in Austen’s world, are made ridiculous. But none of her correspondents, save perhaps Lady Susan herself, has the wit (or the malice) for ridicule. If Lady Susan is to be condemned to marry the rich and foolish Sir James, whom she intended to foist upon her daughter, Frederica, whose dullness may be attributed to Lady Susan’s mistreatment and neglect, and if Frederica is to capture the affections of Reginald, then Austen is going to have to step in and tell us all this herself, as she does in the Conclusion.

In the Conclusion, almost-funny gives way to funny.

This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.

One is put in mind of a powerful nanny who is breaking up a tiresome children’s game and sending her charges to bed, or at least to dress for dinner. The crack about Post Office revenue is pure Austen, as we know not only from the established novels but from her youthful sketches as well. Exploding the artifice of dramatically offended respectability, it is the joke of a well-behaved lady who has taught herself to write down what she cannot say, so that when the reader laughs, she is not in the room to scold. The satisfaction of Lady Susan lies in seeing how long Austen can carry on writing prose that, like her correspondents, does not seem to know what is really going on — the enrichment of the Post Office — and in enjoying how almost-funny the temptation to tell the truth occasionally makes her.

***

Friday 11

Duly, then, we watched Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan: Love and Friendship.

It is, above all, a Whit Stillman story. The principal characters are attractive and at least apparently affluent young people, or youngish. (The only older woman, Lady de Courcy, is meltingly played by Jemma Redgrave; she sounds almost exactly like her aunt.) They are clever. Their manners are polished beyond effortlessness, to the point of unconsciousness. They regard enthusiasm as a bore. Aside from Frank Churchill, there is nobody like them in Jane Austen’s novels, not even the Crawfords.

A fair amount of the conversation is lifted from the letters, although, so far as I could tell, all the almost-funny bits were replaced by realistic remarks that weren’t even mildly amusing. Indeed, all of Love and Friendship‘s fun was invented especially for the movie itself, and put in the mouth of Sir James Martin. In Lady Susan, as I recall, we’re not given much in the way of examples, even indirect ones, of this man’s allegedly foolish speech; his boorishness is evidenced simply by his uninvited arrival at Churchill. He materializes with equal spontaneousness in the film, but then he never shuts up. He goes on and on about getting lost on the way to the Vernons’ house, because he could see the church, but not the hill; that this might be intended as wit is suggested when he collapses into mention of the great family of Blenheim, mumbling “no connection,” presumably but not certainly with reference to the Vernons. Later, when corrected about the number of Commandments — he thinks there are twelve — he wonders, then, which ones will have to go. Personally, he’d be happy without the commandment to honor the Sabbath, because it interferes with his hunting. Tom Bennett, the actor who impersonates him, punctuates Sir James’s fatuities with a perfect whinnying laugh, the likes of which I haven’t heard since Alice Brady. He’s really marvelous, but. It is impossible to surmise Jane Austen’s reaction to the cinema, but I really cannot imagine her sitting through the show.

I do wonder what she would make of Kate Beckinsale, whose Lady Susan is fetching enough but really rather harmless. She is obviously Stillman’s favorite character, and he can’t treat her harshly. The film’s sympathies turn to Lady Susan as flowers to the sun. It is she who breaks with Reginald de Courcy (an interesting, but possibly dim, Xavier Samuel). Far from suffering with Sir James, she imports the strong, silent Manwaring (upgraded to a lordship) into her immediate circle. There he is, standing alongside her, rather like — but in key ways not like — a Wooden Indian, at her daughter’s wedding reception. One wonders if the husband will ever learn that his favorite interlocutor has made him a cuckhold.

We rented Love and Friendship, and felt glad that we hadn’t bought it. It’s handsome and reasonably entertaining, and it has its funny bits. But it hangs uncertainly, like one of those rickety rope-and-plank bridges in action movies, between two aesthetic realms. Whit Stillman is no cynic; his beautiful young people face genuine moral problems, and try to do their best, even if the lamp that he burns for virtue is not as steady as Austen’s. But he is a filmmaker. No filmmaker since the Thirties, arguably, has filled his scripts with such intelligent badinage, but the point is that this badinage pours forth from men and women even more self-confident, and possibly better looking, than Myrna Loy and William Powell. As for Austen, the ruler of the land on the other side of the bridge, she is a writer. And the tale that wobbles over the chasm is the last one that she will allow her characters to dictate. Henceforth, she will tell the story, impersonal, invisible, neither rich nor beautiful perhaps but in complete command of the English language, and with a great deal more to say than any of her inventions. All that can be said for Lady Susan is that it is a milestone in Austen’s development, tremendously interesting as such but only as such. The true climax occurs only after she has rounded up all the quill pens, poured all the ink down the drain, and stated her regrets — her regrets, not those of Lady Susan or Reginald or anybody else among her correspondents — for the Post Office revenue.

Love and Friendship is the title of a late entry in the catalogue of Austen’s juvenilia; like Lady Susan it is epistolary in form, but its tone is entirely mock-gothic, and it was apparently intended to be read to the Austen family, provoking choruses of laughter. I think that it was a mistake of Whit Stillman to borrow this title for his Lady Susan — possibly a curse. The more I muse on the difference between the achievements of his film and her novella, the more like Sir James he looks. Had he consulted me, I’d have urged him to call his movie Finding Churchill instead.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
May 2018 (I)

Friday 4th

Of all her many novels, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Heat Wave is my favorite. Although on its surface an unremarkably representational narrative, generously supplied with the telling details of an accomplished English fiction, its starkly troubled depth is never out of view — or out of touch, perhaps. It vibrates off the page like the wheat that “hisses” in the summer heat; later it hums like the harvesting combine. It takes possession of the principal character, Pauline Carter, as she worries about the state of her daughter’s marriage.

Keeping this worry on the boil, Pauline, Teresa, and Teresa’s husband, Morris, are spending the summer together in a pair of attached stone cottages. The cottages stand in the middle of a field, somewhere in the South of England. Pauline bought them some time ago. She uses the smaller one, and has given Teresa the larger. This summer, Maurice, who is finishing up a book (a cheeky interrogation of local tourism), has decided to decamp to the cottage for the entire summer. I ought to mention that Teresa and Maurice have a little boy, two year-old Luke. Never has a child filled any novel with so much vivid but unconscious vulnerability.

It does not take long for the reader to discover that Pauline, who knew Maurice for several years before inviting him to a party, where he met her daughter, is not keen on her son-in-law.

Only when you know Maurice well — when you have had occasion to observe his habits over time — only then do you see that he practises a system of relentless manipulation. (20)

Pauline knows Maurice well. She does not trust him at all. She watches intently as he flirts, discreetly but unmistakably, with his editor’s girlfriend. Pauline is reminded of an earlier self, a young mother whose husband, Harry, an ambitious university professor, seemed to feed his career on the attention of female students. It is a tale that is possibly the most oft-told in modern fiction, but a great part of the pleasure of Heat Wave is watching Lively make it new. Pauline’s suffering and anger ought to be dispelling, but the genius loci keeps it fresh and cool, even as the cottages and the wheat bake in the ever-hotter sun. I don’t know how she does it, but Lively pins up against the oppressive brilliance of her setting a negative image, black as a starless night, that keens with the outrage of a Medea. There is no reason to fear that this will infect Pauline; she was long ago inoculated by it. She longs to spare her daughter the experience.

Because of other things that I’ve been reading, a line at the end of Chapter Twelve stood out in blinking bold-face. It is nothing but what guilty husbands tend to say, but this time it carried, for me, immense moral, as distinct from narrative, freight. When Pauline finally asks Harry why he’s unfaithful, “he shrugs.”

“These things happen, Pauline,” he says. “There isn’t anything I can do about it.” (154)

And I thought: that is depravity. What Harry says (as well as what he does) to Pauline is inhumane: no human being ought to be treated as he treats her, no matter how common such nastiness might be. But what he says to himself, implicitly — that he can’t do anything about it — is, to the extent that he takes it to be a true statement, depraved. Depravity is what happens when you stop treating yourself as a human being. Please note: Harry’s infidelities are not the issue here. The issue is the collapse of his responsibility for them. These things happen.

I am more and more convinced that the very idea of evil is thoroughly childish, and that adults ought to outgrow it. Evil is a thing, a blob, a vampire maybe, that can turn you into a monster. The ease with which people allow themselves to dismiss other people as monsters seems to me to be on the same order of moral turpitude as Harry’s exculpation. Evil is — exciting. The terrible things that happen in real life are rarely that. They’re grim and monotonous and wretchedly familiar. I am not talking about the horrors of psychopaths or other organically defective human beings. I’m talking about healthy men and women who let themselves get away with things, and who do it so carefully and successfully that they almost lose sight of the fact that they’re doing wrong. There is nothing monstrous about it. If they do, finally, lose sight of right and wrong, then their connection with themselves becomes depraved, a matter of lies. The difference between depravity and evil is merely poetic: we like to make evil out to be bigger and stronger than we are. Depravity is nothing but diminishment.

In the final pages of Heat Wave, Maurice says much the same thing as Harry, and what happens next is the climax.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Properly and Naturally Amassed
April 2018 (IV)

24, 25 and 27 April

Tuesday 24th

David, of course, was used to his mother’s busy people-filled life. As she liked to say, he had been brought up “on coats,” meaning she had dragged him along to the many parties and “happenings” and other events she had not wanted to miss just because she had a young child. … In fact, though he had a much stronger sense of privacy than Susan did, like her, he grew bored and restless when things were too quiet. He also had her stamina, and though he was perhaps somewhat less social than she, he was far more social than I, who already carried the seeds of the person I would become: someone who spends ninety percent of her time alone. (76)

That’s Sigrid Nunez, in Sempre Susan: A memoir of Susan Sontag. I read the book yesterday, with the greatest pleasure. I had understood it to be something of a hatchet job, but it wasn’t anything of the sort. Although Nunez itemizes Sontag’s foibles, she does not ridicule Sontag herself. She presents her rather as a mixed-up person like all of us, only much more determined to be famous. This pursuit of fame, which used to be positively admired in men, is treated by Nunez with kindness and generosity. She finds two great flaws in Sontag’s professional character. In the only passage in the memoir that I found “judgmental,” Nunez deems her subject to have been “mortally malcontented,” largely because, although famous, she wasn’t famous for her fiction. The other flaw, seemingly fatal for a writer, was that Sontag hated being alone. She had two ways of dealing with this problem, according to Nunez. She would create the undergraduate fugue state of dexedrine-fueled all-nighters, obsessively combing through piles of books in search of the mot justissime, or she would rope in a friend to play editor, and the two of them would decide where the commas belonged.

Meanwhile, Nunez was carrying those seeds.

***

I put the book down and talked about it with Kathleen — without whom I should certainly be someone who lived alone in more ways than one. I observed that I have never learned much from people directly, except, and I’ll come back to this, about who they are. What I mean here is that I’ve never learned how to live from the example of another person. I have never had a role model or a mentor. I thought for a long time that this signified a moral failing of some kind. Instead, I learn from books. And I learn, or demonstrate what I have learned, by writing. Reading and writing are something of a mining operation in which I excavate and assay myself and so find my place in the civilization around me. It is not an image that I want to push very far, but it feels like an apt description of how I have spent my life most profitably. The restless socializing, occasional thrill-seeking, the longing to find myself embedded in the alienated but romantic scenario of an Antonioni film — these were enormous, sometimes nearly catastrophic wastes of time, at least to the extent that it took so long to figure this out. The wonderful thing about being old is having outgrown, outlived all such urges.

What could be less “popular,” less “American,” less generally recommended, though, than learning about life, not from people directly, but from books. An interesting point occurs to me. Looking for wisdom in people, I would focus on one person at a time, as if interviewing prospective gurus. Nothing extraordinary about that. But with books, I was never looking for right one, the book that would unlock the secrets of the universe. (I’m amazed by the number of books that make such claims.) Certainly there were books that made an extraordinary impression at the time, but they never prevented me from reading other books, books that I never expected to be revelatory. When I say that I learned from books, I mean exactly that: from an undifferentiated pile, variously digested, of texts. It was only when I had read thousands of books — I hope that nobody takes that for a boast; it would be lame of me indeed if I could not at least make that claim — that the learning began, that the writing took on a purpose.

Kathleen — remember that we have spent more than half our lives together — agreed.

***

What I have learned from people is about them. This may have been what slowed me down in school: I learned more about teachers themselves than about what they were teaching. I’m not talking about secrets here. I learned what made people smile, what their smiles were like, what made them cross or impatient; I learned whether they were generous or mean (although almost everybody is both). I learned most about people when they were not paying attention to me — although this was another thing that it took me too long to realize. I would have learned more if I hadn’t been so fond of talking. I still like to talk, and Kathleen, bless her, insists that she likes to listen. But, more than ever, I like to watch people.

At lunch in a quiet restaurant, I am annoyed when my reading is interrupted by a telephone conversation that I cannot help overhearing half of. Sometimes, in cases of great witlessness, both halves — is there anything as passively obnoxious as activating the speakerphone option in a public place? These intrusions are never quite entertaining enough to justify the nuisance, probably because people who conduct private business in the company of strangers lack rudimentary discernment. Actual conversations between people sharing a table can be just as bothersome. The other day, I could not shut out the Elmer-Fuddish monotone of a sensible, plain-speaking Midwesterner as he lectured a younger person, who might have been his daughter but who was probably, given her animation, a more distant relative, on the virtues of an IRA account. Everything that I heard come out of the man’s mouth was worthy of the very earliest pages in some Life for Dummies handbook. No sooner had the two of them left than a woman about my age took a seat. She was not very glamorous to look at, but her voice reminded me very much of Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton at the beginning of Something’s Gotta Give, when she can’t wait to get rid of Jack Nicholson, her very laugh a sigh of dismissal. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the waitperson, with whom this customer was going to be both chummy and demanding. Not long after she had ordered, her phone rang — the “old phone” ringtone. All I could make out was that she was looking for a better package than what they were offering. If you’re going to complain like Diane Keaton, perhaps you had better look as good as she does, too.

***

Wednesday 25th

The last page of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, a meditation on responsibility, built on interviews with Franz Stangl, the Kommandant of the Treblinka death camp, is entitled “Epilogue.” But it is actually a closing prayer. Here are the first and the last two paragraphs:

I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom.

Social morality is contingent upon the individual’s capacity to make responsible decisions, to make the fundamental choice between right and wrong; this capacity derives from this mysterious core – very essence of the human person.

This essence, however, cannot come into being or exist in vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense: not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole. The fact of its existence therefore – the very fact of our existence as valid individuals – is evidence of our interdependence and overall responsibility for each other.

There are no names on this page, no specifics — as befits a common prayer. Nevertheless, I take it to mean, in particular, that, had he grown up in a better world, without an abusive parent and then the social collapse into fascism, Franz Stangl would have remained a working man, as he was before and after his Nazi career as the attendant to exterminators. I don’t take it to mean that Stangl, in particular, wasn’t fully responsible for what he did, but only that we are none of us fully responsible for ourselves, and that we are all somewhat responsible for one another. Human society depends on this interdependence, but as we have seen again and again it is prone to break down when the reach of that society stretches too far, too quickly, beyond conceptions of family, community, and nation. At this very moment, thousands of American men — I hope they are only thousands — are nourishing the worst in one another, forming an adamantine opposition to the intrusion of “human society” into American life.

As it happens, I am also reading some of the essays in Lionel Trilling’s collection, The Liberal Imagination. Sadly, none of the essays bears this title, or describes what it refers to, but the opening essay, “Reality in America,” makes it clear to me that the book’s title ought to have substituted “American” for “liberal.” Writing during the Forties, Trilling could assume that ours was a liberal society, at least for the moment. He could write, in the Preface, that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Not that he was complacent: he could project from recent European experience the lesson that “it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.” Even without the menace of a conservative movement (one that, at that very moment, ironically, was furiously developing ideas, mainly in the brain of William Buckley), there was for Trilling the crack in the liberal, or American, outlook:

Its characteristic paradox appears again, and in another form, for in the very interests of its great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence — in the interests, that is, of its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life —it drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.

Trilling gives this thought an almost poetic expression in “Reality in America.”

We live, understandably enough, with the sense of urgency: our clock, like Baudelaire’s, has had the hands removed and bears the legend, “It is later than you think.” But with us it is always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing. We seem to like to condemn our finest but not our worst qualities by pitting them against the exigency of time. (18)

So much has changed since Trilling wrote — which is practically the same thing as to say, during my lifetime — but not that. If anything, the tendencies outlined in that passage have, if you’ll allow me, massified, grown like the biceps of a committed weightlifter. They have done so primarily by means of broadcast television and its spawn: the biggest mistake that any media critic could make would be to downplay in the slightest degree the fact that our entertainments are mirrors distorted to flatter us. Understanding and thought are not only dull but idiosyncratic: it’s hard to understand what someone else is thinking, no matter how lucidly the thought is presented. But wrath is exciting, and what better way to wind up a sitcom episode than with a bit of moralizing? Bad enough for shows, these tendencies have wrecked the very idea of “news,” occluding complication with violence of every kind, from the automotive to the meteorological, and reducing public figures to the vocabulary of pap.

The liberal vision of enlargement and freedom and rationality — I would put it, the enlargement of civil freedom — is, like all hope, somewhat opportunist, ready to extrapolate success from promising signs, to expect that rackety improvisations will stabilize in time, and, ultimately, to invite disappointment. When we consider what happened in and to the United States during the forty years after Trilling’s preface, by which time only dimwits admitted to being liberal, the Columbia professor’s prescience can seem otherworldly. But I think that Trilling was simply more aware than most Americans wanted to be of the difficulty of the liberal project, and of its dependence for success upon a rigorous, not a freewheeling, imagination. The climate of life in which a human society can flourish on Earth demands much more than heartfelt commitment. That’s where things begin. From there, it is a matter of long, hard thought.

***

Friday 27th

If I have ever read everything in Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, then I have certainly forgotten it or, more likely, grown a different mind. In the past couple of days, two passages from essays in the the later pages of the collection have shocked me.

[T]here can be no doubt that a society in which homosexuality was dominant or even accepted would be different in nature and quality from one in which it was censured.

**

A prose which approaches poetry has no doubt its own values, but it cannot serve to repair the loss of a straightforward prose, rapid, masculine, and committed to events, making its effects not by the single word or by the phrase but by words properly and naturally massed.

The first comes from “The Kinsey Report” (p 241) and the second from “Art and Fortune” (p 273) Both are offensive in more ways than one. The functional equation of homosexual dominance and heterosexual acceptance is as bizarre, or gratuitous, as it is grating; the implication that the nature and quality of a society in which homosexuality is censured are superior to those of the hypothetical alternative is, among other things, evasive. This is clearly a topic about which Trilling believes that the less said is the better. He has postponed this distasteful discussion of “sexual aberrancy” almost to the essay’s final paragraphs. The other passage, which is preceded by comments on T S Eliot’s judgement of Nightwood, a novel whose name Trilling does not disclose, even though he must assume it to be common knowledge among his readers — more distaste; if you look up Djuna Barnes today, Google will tell you that Nightwood is “a classic of lesbian fiction” — yokes poetry to femininity and prose to masculinity, with the latter alone capable of “words properly and naturally massed.”

These remarks are offensive — today. Trilling, writing in the Forties, seems unaware of making controversial or exceptionable statements. His opinions are delivered with a conviction that can afford to be understated. And I do not think that he was mistaken. These are not the only instances of Trilling’s expressed belief in the salubrious superiority of maleness. (“Masculinity” is the figleaf essential to decorous writing.) It was widely if not universally shared at the time; alternative beliefs would have raised eyebrows. And yet they betray a certain unease, the “concern” that might attend efforts to extinguish a fire before it gets out of control. Kinsey and Eliot, perhaps without realizing it, are encouraging the forces of anarchy and upset. To be sure, Trilling is far more worried about the deadly substitution of ideology for ideas in American discourse, and with good reason. Very much contributing to the shocking effect of the passages that I have copied out is a tone quite unlike that of most of the text. As I say, it would seem that if Trilling could have figured out a way not to mention homosexuality at all in his critique of the Kinsey report, he would have taken it, and the entire collection is shot through with admiration for Henry James, whose sexuality was, in those days, a secret almost brutally suppressed by Leon Edel’s control over access to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

And yet I cannot help but be upset by these glancing blows. They betray the power of common, deep-rooted prejudices in a very fine mind.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Considering Privacy
April 2018 (III)

17 and 20 April

Tuesday 17th

If we want to blame our moral disasters upon the loss of dogmatic authority, we shall again find ourselves in the midst of notions which have little if any place in the great tradition of Western thought or in the history of ideas. For politically speaking, it was the fear of hell which acted as the most potent curb upon the potential criminality of human beings. And the idea that a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell should have restrained mankind from the worst crimes is no more palatable than the notion that such an intellectually unspeakably low product as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should have had the power to influence the course of contemporary events. Yet, I am afraid these very unpalatable notions are closer to the reality with which we were confronted than any dialectic of ideas. It would lead us too far astray now, but I think it can be shown that the belief in hell is the only strictly political element in Western religion, and that this element is neither Christian nor religious in origin. If this is true, then it would follow that the politically most momentous consequence of the loss of dogmatic authority was the resulting loss of belief in rewards and punishments in a Hellfire.

To be honest, I copied out this passage* simply for the pleasure of repeating the phrase “a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell.” The Roman church’s exploitation of hellfire is arguably its most discreditable failing. We are left with a somewhat cynical question: did it work? I myself suspect that the totalitarian atrocities of the Twentieth Century would never have occurred without the many new facilities of technological convenience in communication, transportation, and manufacturing. We have no way of knowing (I suspect further) how many agents in the Holocaust and the Soviet purges found it easier to participate because they no longer feared eternal punishment. I often wonder if the hellfire element of medieval life (of which we know very little directly) wasn’t overdone, resulting in a demoralized population incapable of virtue. I wish I knew more about the paradoxes of Calvinist predestination, which  if anything re-moralized Europeans. This brings me to my other thoughtful lady.

It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus closer to home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan world-view, the exalted mind is central for them as it for all these writers. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made, grace assisting exquisite effort, to experience its meaning. … The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected, as absence, a sense of immanence that gave the theological meaning to anything in itself in the moment of perception — a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.**

In this passage, what captivates me is the description of thinking as a communication with reality. Although Hannah Arendt belonged to an earlier generation and was trained in a very different cultural environment, I like to think that she would agree with Robinson on this point. A mind such as Robinson or Arendt’s is stuffed with learning, with highly articulated ideas of “authority” and “grace” (to pick an example from each), but the act of thinking is always an undertaking to find points of articulation by which the mind’s stock can connect with the palpable world. Connection is more important than explanation, if only because explanation is impossible without it. Both thinkers exhibit a gentle impatience with the sluggishness of connection — there is never enough of it; one is never satisfied. Arendt and Robinson combine a practical worldliness with tremendous suspicion — not unlike, say, Jonathan Edwards’s fear of religious hypocrisy — of the reduction of reality to the dimensions of a problem that can be solved.

***

Something to think about:

On the one hand, we have readers who nod deliberately when the Times intones that the President is not above the law. On the other, we have a television audience for whom those are just words, words like any others in the script, or the show, or whatever it is — the word does not exist, does it? that describes the contemporary entertainment experience, something categorically beyond symbiosis, in which the audience is part of the show, and the show is part of the real world, a world more vivid than the world perceived by the audience members when they are not watching, or, to put it better, involved with the show. One the one hand, we have political discourse. On the other, political discourse is suffocated by entertainment, entertainment that consumes all the oxygen (ie meaning) in the public space that is occupied by the audience.

Better than to say that television created this audience, to say that television inspired the audience to create this reality. The audience is wholly, morally, responsible.

*The extract is from “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” in Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister, ed. Jerome Kohn (Schocken, 2018), p 189-90.

** From “Old Souls, New World,” in Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p 294-5.

***

Friday 20th

Kindly attribute my silence this week to my discretion on two points: first, that I have been thinking full-time about something that doesn’t appear to have been much thought-about by anyone (then again, I don’t get out much), and my thoughts are not yet fully fit for publication; second, an iron determination not to mention a certain German-American political thinker (1906-1975) more than once a week.

So much for her.

What I have been thinking about is privacy, and I have been thinking about it because the idea of privacy seems to me to be what’s missing from current social discourse, particularly in the context of lamentations about social media. The word “privacy” is mentioned all the time, but there is no real idea behind the word, just a bundle of legal concepts. This makes a certain sense, because our notions of privacy have their origin in jurisprudence, specifically in the arguments of Louis Brandeis and others, made around the beginning of the last century, that we all have the right to be left alone. Far from being a universal right, moreover, privacy is not only a relative novelty, apparently confined, until very recently, to the Anglophone world.

Isn’t that odd. Privacy is important to everyone — to mature adults, anyway. How can it not always have been?

In the old days, before the word “privacy” had much currency, the right to be left alone was limited to a few special cases, usually involving the word “privy.” Alone, it represented what we now call the privacy of the bathroom, although actual bathing was not covered by it, for the simple reason that bathers had to be provided with hot water by helpers capable of filling and lifting pails. At the other end of the scale — what scale, exactly, I hesitate to say — the king and his advisers met in privy council. I have a couple of scholarly to-dos to check off. When did the word “privates” come to be used as a partial euphemism for genitals, and how do we explain the positive right to privacy deriving etymologically from words denotating deprivation? But these don’t seem terribly important at the moment.

In the old days, ideas of modesty and discretion imposed the effects of privacy on everyone. And there was also an idea of the family that encompassed a large part of the idea of privacy that I’m trying to work out. It would be wrong to say that there was no need for privacy, but there was no thought of it as something that was missing from the rule book. Finally, aside from smoke signals and bonfires, there was no such thing as communicating at a distance.

The last thing I want to do is to lapse into treatise-writing mode, beginning with definitions and distinctions. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing all week. But if I have the sense to keep my doodles to myself, I still think that there is at least one worth sharing, and it’s something that I call social privacy. It is the privacy of two or more people living more or less together more or less intimately. That’s to say that they may or may not live in the same place all the time, and that they may or may not be what we’ll call lovers. They may be parents and children. They may be cousins or friends. They may be like the group of five or six former camp counselors who get together every summer in cabins on a pond in Maine (my wife being one), a gathering not to be confused with your garden-variety reunion.

The second thing that I want to say about social privacy is that it is nourishing, beneficial. Toxic relationships preclude it. Unhappy families do not enjoy it. Nor does it just happen by itself. It requires certain kinds of behavior, and working out what that behavior might be is my real concern here.

The third and last thing that I want to offer is a distinction between secrecy and privacy that might be useful. A secret is simply information that is purposefully withheld from universal knowledge. It is defined by the people who don’t know it. (Those who know that it exists together with those who don’t.) Privacy is positive, a possession really. Privacy operates on the assumption that those who don’t share it don’t exist. The right to know a secret might be disputed — it’s disputed every time friends argue about whether to tell someone about a cheating spouse. What takes place in private, however, is nobody’s business — which is why these arguments occur. Whether the social privacy of an adulterous relationship destroys the social privacy of a marriage is, I conclude from the variety of human experience, not a question to be answered by deduction from principles. I will leave this very thorny question here.

What makes these thoughts urgent is, of course, the mobile phone in all its varieties. The mobile phone has created a contested, confused space, one in which many people pursue their private lives in the company of strangers. Strangers are on record as finding this annoying, but the greater harm, it seems to me, is the nuisance to the users. Is it not foolish to detach private conversations from the affect of physically sharing a familiar interior?

That’s enough for now. Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Ladies
April 2018 (II)

Wednesday 11th

The other day, a copy of Thinking Without a Banister arrived. This collection of essays, speeches, letters, and journalism by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn, takes its title from Arendt’s description of thinking in modern times.

I have a metaphor … which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister — in German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down, but we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.

I’ve read only the first essay in the book, but I expect that the second, “The Great Tradition,” will describe that banister and what happened to it. I’ll let you know. For the moment, I want to say something about reading the first essay, a two-part block of seriousness in which it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Arendt is speaking for herself or crystallizing the thought of her subject, Karl Marx. Sometimes my sense of perspective, of point of view, becomes unsteady, and I can’t really follow the train of thought. Sometimes I suspect that my problem comes down to not having had a German education.

It’s more likely that my problem comes down to not having read Marx and other modern political thinkers until rather late in life. I may be accused of having cultivated patches of ignorance, a slightly paradoxical endeavor in which I simply refused to learn more about something that puts me off. In the case of modern political thought (and action), what puts me off is collectivization, bundling individual people up into indissoluble lumps and dealing with them en masse. My humanism, I now realize, has always been liberal humanism. Not Roman Catholic or Christian humanism; not atheist humanism; not even the anthropocentric humanism that underlies the whizbang triumphs of material progress. Liberal humanism can be simply described but never simply lived. As a liberal humanist, I treat each and every person with whom I come into contact as an unaffiliated individual, a person with unique resources. I like some people more than others, of course, but I don’t like or dislike anybody on account of a tribal or ethnic allegiance. Even “Trump voters”! I cannot think in terms of “classes.”

Now that I am robustly resistant to ideology of any kind — I maintain that liberal humanism is not an ideology like any other but rather a set of rules for, among other things, withstanding ideologies — it is safe for me to read about the formation of modern political ideas, forms of government, and social organizations. And I think that I have done wisely in appointing Hannah Arendt as my tutor. She can be as ponderous and obscure as any mystical German, but she can also be homely, homely in a very sophisticated manner. (This comes out strongly in her correspondence with Mary McCarthy.) Denken ohne Geländer is a fine example of her everyday style.

The lesson that I have most strenuously postponed is Arendt’s insistence that Karl Marx is the central figure. That so much of what he wrote was wrong is not the point. The point is that he alone is our link to the Western intellectual tradition that came crashing to the ground in the multiple revolutions that clustered around the year 1800. Marx was one of the last thinkers to be formed by the old tradition, and one of the first to understand that it had been wrecked beyond repair. Being Marx, he celebrated the wreckage, and went all in for the new dispensation, the previously unthinkable enfranchisement of what Arendt calls “the laboring classes.” I was brought up to find laborers uncouth, and Marx an incendiary lunatic. Now I understand that laborers often have the wisdom as well as reason to hope that their children will not be laborers, and I agree with Arendt about the centrality of Marx, despite as much as because of his confused legacy of inhumane totalitarianism.

But what am I to make of this:

The social revolution of our time is contained in the simple fact that until not much more than one hundred years ago [Arendt was writing in the Fifties], mere laborers had been denied political rights, whereas today we accept as a matter of course the opinion that a nonlaborer may not even have the right to stay alive. (37)

We do? Where? Outside the nightmare of totalitarian régimes, where have “parasites” been put to death, or denied medical attention? This is the sort of perplexity that sometimes makes it difficult to digest Arendt.

***

Karl Marx gave us the concept of “capitalism,” and it has taken me several years to understand just how profoundly the term is, or ought to be, defined by the historical developments that inspired him. Unfortunately — most unfortunately — it has become synonymous with “business” and “private ownership.”

Last summer, I read a book that I wrote about in August, before I’d quite finished reading it, William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). What I took away from Janeway’s memoir of successful investing was an understanding of capitalism as a vital preliminary phase that, if prolonged, could easily become toxic. Mature businesses don’t need to issue equity shares; if they require cash, they can issue debt, and do so all the time. (It is a commonplace to observe that the public trading in Silicon Valley’s Big Five stocks was simply a reward to early investors, a liquidation, if anything, of capital commitment.) Capitalism is a necessary instance of gambling; when and if the gamble pays off, capitalism’s contribution to the enterprise comes to an end. At this point, shareholders ought to be replaced by stakeholders. The work of legally determining what we mean by “stakeholders” remains to be done — probably in step with environmental restoration. But it seems to me that there is plenty of room for options between state ownership and public (ie rentier) ownership.

Another book that highlights the transitory nature of capitalist enterprise is Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, by Joshua Freeman (Norton, 2018). Freeman’s subject isn’t so much the factory as the really big factory, the vogue for which has come and gone within the space of two centuries. What explains the trajectory is the workforce. In case after case, the workers at impressively huge new factories consolidated the power of their numbers, and by the postwar era it was a rule of thumb for industrial giants like General Motors and General Electric to avoid enlarging existing plants and to develop new works in smaller, geographically diffuse locations. Polish and other Communist authorities learned the same lesson the hard way.

I have known, ever since I began reading about medieval trading operations years ago, that capitalists hate one thing more than all others combined: the payroll. The ideal capitalist payroll does not exist, because it is unnecessary: there are no employees. If Freeman’s behemoths had been erected in order to nourish the prosperity of their workers, many of them might still be operating, and those that weren’t might have been neatly dismantled or repurposed. Imagine: a corporation in the business  of employing people and paying them well! Rocket science?

***

Thursday 12th

A great deal of the current issue of the London Review of Books (40/7) is given over to James Meek’s report on breakdowns in health care, particularly the care of frail, elderly people, in Leicestershire, an English county beset by a familiar strain between uncongenial urban and rural populations. Well on the way to being frail and elderly myself, I read it with harrowed interest. But nothing in Meek’s piece was as shocking to me as an innocuous sentence in another article, Rosemary Hill’s essay on “frock consciousness” — the phrase is Virginia Woolf’s, and she found it difficult to define — entitled “What does she think she looks like?

Clothes, for those who could afford to choose them freely, had always been to some extent an expression of the wearer – of their status, character and taste – but it was in the popular Modernism of the interwar years, when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society, that the particular compound of woman + clothes, Woolf’s ‘frock consciousness’, became a significant aspect of female experience, a colour on the writer’s palette, a possible agent in a narrative.

Forget parsing “woman + clothes.” The electrifying phrase is this: when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society. Haven’t we all — but perhaps it’s just we men — haven’t we long looked back on the Twenties and the Thirties as the time of a Lost — dead — Generation? Hasn’t it been customary to feel sorry for all the women who couldn’t find mates? An intellectual cliché, certainly; but we couldn’t get through the day without thousands just like it. Hill’s sentence takes a scalpel to the received view and scrapes a bloody gash. Many men dead -> more room to maneuver for women.

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” No, indeed I hadn’t. And I’m not sure that the point would register so sharply if we weren’t in the #MeToo moment, when every intelligent man feels estopped from generalizing about women. I felt no such constraint forty years ago, when men were pigs, period. Those were crude times. What did women want? They seemed to know only what they didn’t want. We learn to want things from what we see, and many women saw nothing desirable except career opportunities formerly available only to men. So this was changed, but that was about it. Men certainly didn’t change. Most women decided that they couldn’t do without pigs after all; they settled down.

Now a new generation has stood up to complain about men. The complaint is vastly more focused, and yet there is a blur at the center. What does the narrator of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” want? We know what she doesn’t want. But is there a way to describe her beau idéal that would serve as a template for young men to emulate? Something that isn’t simply negative (“don’t get any ideas from porn”)?

(Interestingly, most men accused of sexual improprieties have not put up a fight, but quickly folded. So that has changed.)

It seems to me that Rosemary Hill has hit upon something positive. Room to maneuver. It is a bit vague, but it is not at all negative, except to the extent that all freedom implies the elimination of limits.

Hill devotes several paragraphs to the wardrobe of Emily Tinne. Mrs Tinne was a doctor’s wife in Liverpool; the Tinnes belonged to “the solid Liverpudlian bourgeoisie.” When Emily Tinne died, in 1966, she left behind a rather grand collection of evening dresses, some with matching “coatees.” What she did not leave behind were matching shoes or handbags. Many of the outfits still carried price tags. Hill concludes that they were never worn, if they were ever worn at all, outside of Mrs Tinne’s chamber. Perhaps she merely went through them lovingly, with her hands, like Mrs Danvers with Rebecca’s underthings. It is too late for us to scold Mrs Tinne for wasting her husband’s money on a private wardrobe; she enjoyed it while she had it. Indeed, one lesson to be drawn from the exhibition of her gowns at the National Museums, Liverpool would be that pleasure, like taste, is non disputandum.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Promotion
April 2018

2, 4 and 6 April

Tuesday 3rd

In Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, a woman agrees to adopt the Great Dane that belonged to an old friend, a man who has committed suicide, even though the lease to her apartment expressly forbids dogs. Whether or not she will be evicted by her landlord provides dramatic excitement. The woman’s friends are excited, anyway. They “stage an intervention” at one point, insisting that she cannot risk losing her apartment because of a delusional attachment.

None of that is what The Friend is really about, though. The eviction is issue is dealt with so calmly and assuredly that it becomes something of a tease; surely the reader can’t really have worried. The woman herself never seems perturbed. Several times, she blithely says that she’s hoping for a miracle, but no miracle is required, thanks to advances, sort of, in medicine. I’ll leave it there.

We could say that the woman narrates The Friend, but it would be better to say that The Friend is a letter that she writes to her dead friend. This might sound creepy, but so strong is the second person pronoun that it brings the departed squarely into view, if not quite back to life. (Indeed, the letter’s power draws from our awareness that it will never be answered: the letter is a final judgment.) We could say that writing the letter is the woman’s way of grieving the loss of her friend, but this would be arch. In fact, the woman grieves in the ordinary ways: she weeps and she remembers. Time passes. The need for a miracle disappears at just about the same time as the grief. The Great Dane has become her new friend: in the final chapter, the second person pronoun addresses the dog, not the suicide.

Everybody mentioned in the letter, with the exception of the apartment superintendent, the Great Dane — Apollo, the only creature bearing a name — and the dead man’s third wife, is a writer. Almost everybody is not only a writer but a teacher or a student of writing. The man was once the woman’s writing teacher. Then she became, more or less, his colleague. He wrote notable books, but he continued to teach, for the money: no Philip Roth he. The woman, who lives in Manhattan, can spot other writers anywhere. She can detect the complicity with which writers support the transfiguration of actual men and women, hitherto leading their private lives, into the characters who appear in published books. She quotes a famous writer who said that, when a writer is born into a family, that family is “finished.”

In the penultimate chapter, the woman sketches an alternative ending. The pronouns here are third-person. The woman visits the man, who did not die, who was saved at the last minute. He has come out of the hospital, and she is returning his dachshund, which she cared for in his absence. The two writers talk shop. The man is distressed to hear the woman announce that she has set aside what he considered a promising piece of work, a report on women living in a Victim of Trafficking refuge. These women have had horrific experiences, often having been sold into sex slavery by family members, and, in the third chapter of the letter, we are taken to the shelter and told some of those awful stories. The woman concludes:

Here is what I learned: Simon Weil was right. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.

This was the lasst thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year. (76)

Weil’s observation is expressly negated by the man in the eleventh chapter — the alternative ending in which he is allowed to live.

“I find myself inclined to agree with people like Doris Lessing, who thought imagination does the better job of getting to the truth. And I don’t by this idea that fiction is no longer up to portraying reality.”

Here he breaks off into a tirade against his “self-righteous” students, for whom it doesn’t matter

“how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that — a snob and a pervert, as they saw him, shouldn’t be on anybody’s reading list. … It upsets me how writing has become so politicized, but my students are more than okay with this. … That’s why I’ve decided not to go back to teaching. Not to be too self-pitying, but when one is so at odds with the culture and its themes of the moment, what’s the point.”

And not to be too cruel, she doesn’t say, but you will not be missed. (194)

That last line went through me like an arrow, and in fact it made me read the book all over again. As I say, this alternative ending allows the man to live, but it also denies him the right to be relevant, to engage with the future of writing. “You will not be missed” is a way of telling us that the friend is better off dead, as indeed may explain his suicide. It also tells us, of course, that the grieving is over, at least the grieving that is inspired by the death of an artist.

Reading The Friend a second time, I not only saw how beautifully woven it is, and how effortlessly it handles — without attempting to solve — the problem of priapic writers and their adoring female students. I saw that it is a conundrum, a sort of Möbius Strip. The dust jacket announces that The Friend is a novel. But it reads like a letter — at some points like one of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, or like an entry from the displaced diary, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The writer’s reflections on writing are never discursive or impersonal, but they are grave; intellectual positions are every bit as vital here as emotional states: not the stuff of regular literary fiction, much less fiction generally. The eleventh chapter is an argument, right out of a philosophical dialogue. The rigors of defined terms may be avoided, so that it really does read as two people talking, but you still have to know who Svetlana Alexievitch is and why she won the Nobel Prize. So, is the book a memoir? Did this really happen? Is Nunez exploiting a suicide? And yet, no one has a name, not the writer, not the dead friend, not Wife One, Wife Two, or Wife Three. Is that discretion or a process of enfabling?

I think that I had to go through The Friend a second time because, for such a serious book, it is awfully easy to read. And, thanks to Apollo, not without moments of great fun.

***

Wednesday 4th

In my enthusiasm for Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, yesterday, I elided direct reference to the rumbling argument that surfaces here and there in throughout the novel and before being taken up directly by the interlocutors in the eleventh chapter. It is not so much an old argument as the revival of one. Whether you call it a moral argument or an aesthetic argument probably indicates which side you’ve taken. It is proof, I think, that our literature culture (at least) has embarked on a confrontation with the “collapse of values” that characterized, or was said to characterize, the postwar years.

In the passage that I quoted yesterday, we see the man grasping the essence of the argument when he mentions Vladimir Nabokov, author, notoriously, of Lolita. Is Lolita a worthy novel or a dirty book?

It would be disingenuous to disclaim that Nabokov invites this question. Lolita is narrated not by a third person representing the values of the community, as shocked as anyone by the report, but by a pedophile. A European pedophile — a monstrous growth from foreign parts. Lolita luxuriates in its criminality, never more than in the narrator’s account of his aimless tour, both tortured and tedious, of America’s roadside motels. It would be one thing if Humbert Humbert carried Lolita off to a handsome chateau by a Swiss lake. Lolita is another thing altogether, altogether sordid. It is regarded as a triumph because the sordid details are expressed in such luminous prose.

Years and years ago, a friend and I were goofing around in a racy gift shop near Wall Street. She pointed to a nude male pinup calendar and asked, in a stage whisper, “But is it art?” “No,” I replied, “it’s Hank.”

The idea that art can redeem patent immorality is, like our taste for polyphony, unique to the post-medieval West. It is a notion whose prevalence in Europe and America encourages mullahs to denounce the depravity of our civilization. For quite some time, sophisticated Westerners have regarded such critics as primitive and benighted. But now, this kind of criticism is coming from Western students. They are no more impressed by the luminous language than are the mullahs. They are not saying that Lolita is not art. They don’t seem to get that far. They just don’t think, as the man in The Friend says, that Lolita belongs on a reading list.

This argument is bound up with another quarrel. Can truth be revealed by fiction? Generations of critics and literature professors have insisted that it can — that, indeed, it gets closer to the truth than any mere reportage of facts. But students — including former students, like the woman who writes the letter that is The Friend — are in open disagreement. The imagination may produce an account that is meaningful and compelling, and perhaps even morally useful. But it is not really true. It leaves things out, it alters slight details, it struggles to present a coherence that does not in fact exist.

If anything can account for this new moralism, this brisk change in the artistic climate, I think it is the failure of the sexual revolution to overpower and eliminate predatory men. Put this another way: the sexual revolution unleashed predatory men in the company of “nice” girls. Girls from good families, girls who had been to good schools, girls with professional futures. Before the sexual revolution, social norms had protected such woman from untoward advances (much less threats). It may have been conveniently forgotten by polite society, that predatory men exist. Some of these predatory men, moreover, like the suicide in The Friend, were and are nice guys. They ask politely and they don’t make gross requests. They are never coercive. But they manage to indulge their appetites. According to the man who later killed himself, “the classroom is the most erotic place in the world.” (28)

Guys who weren’t so nice (or nice-looking) took note.

***

Thursday 5th

Bob Odenkirk’s “Headlines You May Have Missed” is very amusing, but unlike most such pieces that appear in The New Yorker, I expect it to enjoy a long life in print. Its satirical view of the way we live now will be as easy to laugh at in twenty or a hundred years as it is now. Well, maybe not. But it captures our ludicrous obsession with screens, our insane conviction that the screen is the locus of reality.

It’s more than a little interesting to set Odenkirk’s mordant exaggerations next to something else that I read yesterday, this in the Times, an op-ed piece by Tim Wu arguing for the replacement, not the reform, of Facebook.

What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of “free” TV is also true of “free” social media: It is ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.”

Wu has written a book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads. I haven’t read it, although I feel that I ought to, out of some sort of solidarity. It has long been obvious to me that promotion is the whole point of “free TV” and “free apps.” Promotions must necessarily get our attention, and do so in a very short stretch of time. Initially, broadcast television offered a series of “programs” — dramas, evening news, sports — with occasional promotions, or advertisements. Over time, every moment of broadcast television was surrendered to the promotion of something — the network itself, its stars, the excellence of its presentations, the careers of athletes; and then along came Fox News, with its relentless promotion of right-wing grievances. What Fox News effectually promotes is viewers’ anger and dissatisfaction. Where old-time ads urged members of the television audience to improve their appearance, Fox News marinates viewers in their own funk and applauds the stink. Fox News is really all about you, the viewer: that’s what it’s promoting. What an unbeatable product! What an orgy of egoism! No wonder the “you” whom Bob Odenkirk addresses in his funny piece has missed the birth of a grandchild and isn’t aware of any car trouble.

(That’s my favorite part of the piece: “The smell has to do with your brake pads. Doesn’t matter—just keep driving and ranting at the dashboard, and soon this problem, and all your problems, will end.” — and all your problems.)

The difference between persuasion and promotion is the disingenuousness of the latter, a deceptiveness that works only in the short term. Persuasion lines up the pros and the cons of an argument as objectively and comprehensively as possible. Promotion makes no such attempt. The pros are suited up like Marvel heroes, the cons look like the monstrosities in fun-house mirrors. Often the cons are simply left out, exploiting the genteel proposition that, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Promotions are rarely lengthy, even when they can afford to be, because, inevitably, infotainment begins to smell of shill, an indifference to right and wrong that is foreign to persuasion.

Has someone come up with a term that describes the behavior of people, whether at a crime scene or in the presence of a celebrity, who turn to their phones for the televised version of what’s right in front of them? The same behavior can be seen during a game at Madison Square Garden. Cameramen are the arbiters of our reality: they know what will interest us before it happens. The cession of personal judgment to professional interpreters is alarming, but I hear no alarms. More to the point, I don’t hear any discussions. No: I see couples sitting at tables for two in restaurants, each bemused by a device.

Doesn’t matter.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Vaccine
March 2018 (IV)

27, 28, 29 and 30 March

Tuesday 27th

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Alison Gopnik appraises Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, and finds it wanting — as indeed all reviews that I’ve seen have done, but far less clearly than Gopnik. Gopnik is disturbed by Pinker’s complete failure to address what the editors call “small-town values,” perhaps in a bid to appeal to readers in the flyover. For Gopnik, the problem is that Pinker has no sense of those local commitments that are characterized by peculiar, rather than rational and universal, objectives and relationships. The peculiar has always been a problem for Enlightenment thought; the philosophes appear to have believed that higher levels of education would simply float everyone above it — everyone with a brain, anyway. But people with brains have family ties to people with other strengths. They are attached to circumstances that are not optimal. Maybe Harvard is the best place to study X, but studying X at Harvard means living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least for several years. In our matrix of higher education, a stint at Harvard might require, for optimization, a few years studying X at Stanford, on the other side of the country. As Gopnik says, a scientist may well be unable to settle down to family life before the age of forty. Especially, of course, a scientist who is also a woman.

Gopnik’s piece is not very long; she doesn’t have the time to lay out the extent to which education has been infected by globalist values, or what that means when education involves moving people in the way that investors move money. People, unlike money, are not fungible; everyone is unique, and brilliant people are notably unique. Bringing a few gifted and unusually congenial minds together in the same place may be all it takes to set the Renaissance going, or, for that matter, the Enlightenment. This sort of cultural globalism was apparent in the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks who went to study mysticism with the Egyptians. Even in what we think of as a Dark Age, in 972, Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar and statesman who would die as Pope Sylvester II about thirty years later, moved to Rheims, because that was where the best students of logic congregated. Their being in Rheims meant, of course, their not being anywhere else. Ever since, Europe, then the Western World, and now the planet itself have been marked by cultural capitals, outside of which everything was dismissable as provincial.

This is a problem that the Enlightenment didn’t solve, just as it didn’t solve so many others. (There were so many that it never took up.) By and large, the Enlightenment concerned itself with useful, material improvements, and Pinker is right to celebrate them. But he is obtuse to expect readers to ignore the costs. The measurable improvements that he charts throughout Enlightenment Now intensify our sense of what’s missing, the much more difficult to measure but still biting decline in the strength and reliability of personal attachments. Low crime rates and improved nutrition might well seem empty boons to people living alone in featureless environments.

There has been a strong intellectual tradition, ever since the Enlightenment, of regarding the family as a dead weight on the man who would be autonomous and self-realizing. A powerful fuel of this tradition has from the beginning been a contempt for the countervailing bourgeois tradition of regarding the family as a business enterprise requiring cooperation and commitment to collective goals. Initially a struggle of sons against fathers, it has become a resistance of individuals to family responsibilities. Our institutions, so many of them shaped by the Enlightenment and its failure to treat women equally, provide few avenues of resolution. That, Gopnik says, has to change.

One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support, even if the political will for such measures never seems to emerge.

The question is whether the Enlightenment can transcend its preoccupation with specialization, which rests on the observation that it is much easier to do something well if there are no distractions. Family life is a tissue of distractions. So long as Enlightenment institutions prefer people who are willing to abandon the family context, or to rely on others (women) to minister to family life, the Enlightenment project will continue to have fierce enemies.

***

Wednesday 28th

It is often quite difficult to think of writing anything here while Donald Trump occupies the White House. I am of two minds about the man, or rather, of one mind and one body. To my mind, Trump is a vaccine, untested and possibly lethal, that nevertheless might at the very least render smart people allergic to spending nonworking hours in front of screens. For over a year now, men and women who believe in the benefits of procedure, compromise, and complexity have been reeling in toxic shock; to my mind, this is a great opportunity to develop greater political respect for those who don’t, if only because the alternative might involved tumbrils and Madame Defarge.

So much for my mind. My body is, like everyone else’s, reeling in toxic shock. My mind counsels that things may very well get better. My body wants to throw up. My body is broken by the fact that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian has, not entirely unpredictably, exploited American media to make the derailment of American politics even worse than it already was. My mind argues that trains can usually be put back on the track. My body is not certain that it hasn’t been mauled by the derailment. Hush, hush, says my mind — why, you’ve hardly been out of the house. Exactly, says my body.

My body sees the man, hears the voice — nausea. And the knockdown stench of symbiosis — can his Republican and evangelical enablers ever be forgiven? Or will they kill us first?

***

Corey Robin’s “Easy Chair” essay, in the current issue of Harper’s, is one of the rare responses to Trump to indicate that the vaccine might be working; Robin, at least, has gotten beyond the allergic-to-Trump phase. Reading his essay, “Forget About It,” a second time, I wonder, actually, if Robin might have been previously inoculated. “Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about [Trump's] candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.”

What Robin is saying here is that the Trump vaccine ought not to have been necessary, after Nixon and Reagan — and, although he doesn’t mention him, Dick Cheney. You can argue that Nixon and Reagan are different because they held elected office prior to the presidency, but all that means is that it didn’t, and doesn’t, make a difference. You can’t argue that Nixon and Reagan were better than Trump because one of them had been a vice president and the other a governor. If Trump is in any way worse than Nixon and Reagan, that might simply owe to the destruction that they wrought on our institutions and traditions. Trump’s damage is more spectacular but also less fundamental, more superstructural.

Robin notes that friends find his plus ça change observations about Trump irritating. Sadly, they do so because they are still allergic to Trump. If we could get of Trump, they feel, everything would be fine. But that is dangerously wrong, for getting rid of Trump might simply make room for someone more capable of deploying malignancy than a repeatedly unsuccessful casino developer. It is essential that we explain Trump’s ascendancy in terms of everyday political life, not monstrous electoral aberration. “The racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law” — these characteristics are hardly limited to the conservative leadership. Nor are they necessarily signs of blinkered intelligence. The rule of law, for example, has degenerated into the rule of technicalities. Law no longer pretends to speak with deliberate intelligibility, because our complicated environment has convinced us that law, as if it were a branch of engineering, need only be understood by lawyers. I have long argued (to anyone who would listen) that one truly amazing thing about American history is how little time it took for the United States to develop the very same paralyzing surfeit of competing jurisdictions that made getting things done in medieval Europe so expensive. Regard for institutions is inevitably diminished by such bureaucratic kudzu. As for violence and racism, both express widespread existential uncertainties about masculinity in an industrial world that no longer requires manly muscle; I see zero effort to respond to this other than by scolding.

Meanwhile, everyone is staring at screens — when it’s time to man the lifeboats. That is: do something.

***

Thursday 29th

In today’s Times, there’s a story about Douglas Greenberg, ace financial planner and serial wife- and girlfriend-beater. As of publication date, Greenberg was still employed by Morgan Stanley, although the firm has been aware for some time of his domestic issues.

It’s a clarifying story, because Greenberg’s misbehavior does not involve work associates (or clients, needless to say). Greenberg was not a Human Resources problem for the banking firm. What he did at home was his business, or rather, it was not his business; it was his something else. Call it recreation if you like. Professionally, Greenberg was an untainted star.

This is a classic case of the meritocracy at work. So long as Greenberg’s “personal life” evaded criminal conviction, and his derelictions were in no way financial, Morgan Stanley could ignore them. Until #MeToo, anyway.

The other day (14 March), I wrote that the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts, by parties that are themselves mutually opposed. They are, interestingly, attacking the meritocracy for complementary reasons. The deplorables-and-proud-of-it, also known as Trump supporters, charge the meritocracy with incompetence — ruling without merit. Meanwhile, women and others who have been slighted by heteronormative privilege are calling out the meritocracy for ruling without humanity.

At a minimum, the meritocracy is going to have to do a better job, even though this will not redeem it with women, and to treat women properly, even if this would excite Trump supporters’ contempt.

***

Friday 30th

Kathleen and I often ask ourselves, whatever happened to leadership? The answer came to me yesterday: meritocracy. And how obvious. What could be less conducive to leadership than pursuing the skills required to do well on examinations — in other words, learning how to follow.

In their zeal to eliminate favoritism, nepotism, and other routes whereby the unqualified might attain political or professional power, the architects of meritocracy did what they could to prevent the replication of networks of eminent, mutually influential men in future generations. Professionalizing (quantifying) eminence was one step. Making prominence contingent on competition and mobility was another. By continuing the steeplechase of tests in the guise of publications and prizes, meritocracy made it difficult to settle down in any one place or position. Two professors, say, at Stanford and at Princeton, who might have been friends in the pre-meritocratic dispensation, sharing information about promising students on either side of the country, were now rivals for a top job at Harvard.

When my grandfather went to law school, I’m told, he wrote to say that he’d be coming. This was not in reply to an acceptance letter. The distance between his hometown, Clinton, and Davenport, both on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, was not great, and doubtless the authorities at St Ambrose had heard a thing or two about the young man, and were happy to welcome him. They may have had an inkling of his future, even if they could not foresee that he would become active in the Democratic Party, and instrumental in holding the Iowa delegation together in support of FDR at the 1932 national convention —for which he would be rewarded with appointment to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court.

I am fairly certain that my grandfather would have done just as well in our meritocracy. But I think the United States lost something in the surrender to academic gatekeeping. We might recall, by the way, that Roosevelt distinguished himself at Harvard neither as a student nor as an athlete, but as editor of the Crimson.

Bon week-end à tous!