Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
February 2016 (II)

8, 9

Monday 8th

There were all sorts of things that I meant to do on Saturday afternoon, and some of them did get done, but none after I sat down with Lit Up, David Denby’s new book — the prequel, as he calls it, to Great Books, now twenty years old and I wish I could find it here somewhere. In Great Books, Denby went back to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate thirty years earlier, and sat through the great books course with a few very good teachers. This time, he visited a magnet school on the Upper West Side (and, in shorter stints, two other schools outside of town), and sat in on a class of tenth-graders as they made their first serious contact with literature. In 1996, it was all about him — what had he made of his education? what was there to hold on to? — but, this time, his interest was, he says, more “parental.” I’m still musing on that choice of words. But the teachers are once again the stars. They are brilliant and inspiring: they have ingenious ways of setting books up for discussion, and they know how to keep interest from flagging. Your first thought is that teachers can’t be paid well enough. Your second is that relative poverty attracts or at least presents no obstacle to ascetic people whose aloofness from common clutter is what high-school students need more than anything else. In any case, you keep reading, as I did on Saturday.

Denby says that today’s kids are “incredibly busy.”

School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting) — compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

My recollections of those days, which are very patchy, can’t be trusted: they present a younger, unformed image of the man I am now. What I remember most clearly is that I was never busy. I avoided busy-ness even then. There have been busy passages in my life, matters of months, in which I lived out and about, but there have been longer stages of quiet. I’m in the middle of one now, and it often occurs to me that this one isn’t going to end until I do. But I was saying that fifteen years ago. I have been old and stiff and out of shape and physically lazy all my life.

Most of my classmates, wherever I was in school, did seem to be very busy. Busy was the smell of success. I thought it idiotic, certainly brainless. Busy people are very poor listeners, for one thing: so poor that they don’t even notice the failing, and I suspect that they don’t enjoy life very much for that reason. Young people are of course prone to restlessness; even I, Oblomov that I was, was all too familiar with restlessness. But restlessness and the urge to keep busy are not the same thing at all. I wish that adolescents were not encouraged to be busy. There may be lots to discover when you’re a teenager, but I don’t think that bits and pieces of everything ought to be served up in tiny slices day after day.

I certainly never knew an old person who smelled like a book, but I think I understand what the New Haven kid was trying to say. Perhaps what he really meant was that books sound like old people: they’re quiet.


By now, I was in New Haven myself. As usual, I skipped from the end of the Introduction to the middle of the book, and found myself in a class of unadvantaged students. Amazingly, their teacher, Jessica Zelenski, managed to get them interested in three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of them classic standouts (Sonnets 18, 130, and 73). All of this happens in three or four pages — it’s rather miraculous. But what stuck to me was Denby’s reading of Nº 73, which begins,

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Denby writes that this is about “the poet’s diminishing passion for a lover”; a few lines later, he attributes to it the “grief over a passion consumed by its own strength.” I ran straight to Helen Vendler’s commentaries on the Sonnets and was relieved to find no mention of such ideas. Sonnet 73 is about ageing, and Vendler has very interesting things to say about how Shakespeare changes his mind about it in the third quatrain. The first line of the concluding couplet,

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

hardly describes the reaction to a lover’s spent passion. It isn’t love that is “consum’d by that which it was nourish’d by,” but life. I can dimly make out the grounds for Denby’s thinking what he does, but why he would want to think it — why it would be interesting to think such a thing — is beyond me.

Helen Vendler has convinced me that what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s sonnets is their construction, which, notwithstanding the form’s limitation to fourteen rhymed lines, varies enormously among the 154 poems. I should send Denby to one of the most strangely put-together sonnets, Nº 75, “So are you to my thoughts as food to life.” Whereas the bulk of sonnets consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet, this sonnet is laid out 4-6-4, with the eleventh and twelfth line joining the the couplet, to conclude the thought presented in the first four lines: I love you so much that I know what a miser feels.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometimes all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starvèd for a look;

“Sometimes,” Vendler writes, “when a sonnet seems otherwise unremarkable, as in the present case of 75, we may suspect that Shakespeare’s interest lay less in the theme than in its structural invention.” This is disingenuous; I am almost certain that Vendler believes that Shakespeare’s interest in invention is always greater than his interest in the theme. The less interesting the theme, the greater the scope for invention. Shakespeare may keep us guessing about the people to whom he addressed these poems (if indeed they were real), but he doesn’t try to hide his meanings. Sonnet 75 addresses an aspect of love that, while it rarely gets poetic treatment, much less treatment of this caliber, will be familiar to everybody. You are in love: you want the world to know it, and to admire you for it, which is a little queer, because you also want the world to go away, and leave you alone with your lover. (Sometimes, you want to be alone with your love.) The first two instances of indecision are thoughtful, somewhat abstract, as if the lover were planning the next day’s schedule. The third pair crackles with naked longing, “clean starvèd for a look.” That’s about as plain as Shakespeare’s English gets in the sonnets.

To return to what has become a favorite sonnet, Nº 95, I want to call attention to an awkward moment. The moment calls attention to itself, but you have to go to 95 to find it. It’s in the second half of the third quatrain, the first half of which I’ve already shouted from the rooftops.

O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Line 12 would offer a prime instance of bad writing if Shakespeare did not know perfectly well what he is doing. The line ought to read,

And turns all things to fair…

Reversing this order doesn’t just muss up the expected syntax. It creates the impression that a new image is going to be introduced, an image of which “all things” is the subject. (Equal accents for “all things turn” also slows down the scansion, so that there seem to be too many syllables in the rest of the line.) To begin with “And all things” is, in the nature of spoken English, to signify that the preceding line is complete unto itself, that we have done with veils and blots. “And all things turn,” which is how we read the line until we get to that seemingly out-of-place ‘s,’ might very well borrow from the cankered bud in the sonnet’s second line, and suggest a patch of sunflowers turning toward the sun, just as everyone seems to be turning, admiringly, to the secretly vice-ridden young man. Then we screech to a stop: is that ‘s’ a typo?

It is not a typo, and the fact that it is a chiasm (as Vendler tells us), while good to know, isn’t particularly material, either. It’s a jerk, intended to make us feel, in the reading of the sonnet, what we cannot see: something is wrong with this young man. His beauty’s veil is not quite up to the task of smoothing over his blots. It twitches awkwardly and reveals disorder. I don’t know how many times you’d have to read Sonnet 75 (from the top!) before the jolt would fade; I doubt that it would ever dissipate altogether. Shakespeare is quite right to regard his sonnets as living monuments that will breathe long after poet and lover are dust.


Now that I am about to finish R F Foster’s Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, I can complain about it without whining. Having attained the penultimate chapter, “The de Valera Dispensation,” I am where I wanted to be when I bought the book in June. I wanted to understand the world that Maeve Brennan, whose work I was reveling in, had to reject, a world in which a woman could be a wife, a caregiver, or a nun — and nothing else. Something that I had noticed without noticing finally clicked, something that I had seen in Colm Tóibín as well: priests had a strange power in Ireland. They were social policemen and social judges whose findings were often grounds for official enforcement. Priests had perhaps always played this role in peasant societies, but in Ireland the priests kept the educated middle classes in line as well. None but the very rich enjoyed what an American would consider everyday freedom. I believe that Irish priests are no longer the authorities that they used to be, and that today’s Ireland is as much like a modern secular democracy as a country with its hungover history can be. But I’m intrigued by the use that the new Republic made of the Church, as a stabilizing force that would forestall the social unrest that for centuries always seemed to be gathering at the edges of Irish society. Now that it’s over, I’m less inclined to regard it as the asphyxiating thing that it must have been for many Irish men and women, especially the ones I’d want to know.

Foster’s book is not written for tyros. It is a political history that assumes familiarity with events. Thus the Easter Rising is never presented as the subject of a narrative in which insurrectionaries seized public buildings, only to be overpowered and executed. You must find out what happened elsewhere. Likewise, the 1801 Act of Union is simply the after-effect of several decades’ commotion among the Protestant Ascendancy. Foster never makes much of a point of the implicit historical irony: no sooner had the Protestants upgraded their position in the English hegemony by taking parliamentary seats at Westminster instead of at College Green than the Catholics began working up to demanding what had just been abandoned: Home Rule. In any case, I was in over my head for much of the book, until I reached the run-up to the Troubles, which George Dangerfield discusses so eloquently in The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Even so, what were “the Troubles”? Just the Civil War of 1922-23? The Civil War plus the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it? Those two wars plus the Easter Rising of 1916? I’ll have to do a bit more reading before I can answer the question. For the moment, I’m panting with delight, celebrating my arrival at the end of Foster’s book. I can’t think when I’ve re-read so many sentences and still not understood what they meant. Next up, Ronan Fanning’s far more readable Fatal Path, a study of incompetence with which the British handled the Irish problem between 1910 and 1922. I know that it’s more readable because I’ve already been through the first chapter. I read much of it to Kathleen, while she was knitting. So far, I’ve discovered that Fanning (something of a grand old man in Irish history, I gather) has a fantastic knack for quoting passages that make H H Asquith look like a humbug. Great fun!


Tuesday 9th

This morning, I got back into bed again, after the Times. I felt not only tired, as I had done for about five days up to the middle of last week, but rotten as well, beset by the symptoms that most people think of when they think of a cold. (And, as always, I was cold.) For a little while, I lay in bed, feeling rotten but at rest, and superficially warm. The other two stages of this morning bedrest, with which I had become familiar, followed in due course. First was the nap, from which I awoke without being certain that I had been asleep. It took a few minutes of staring around emptily to register the time lapse, the lack of recent thoughts, that indicated sleep. The final phase ended with sharply waking from a clear dream.

In the dream, I had different parents. After the dream, I would realize that these alternative parents were borrowed, in large part, from a friend of mine, the death of whose mother several years ago had a strange effect on me. I never met her, but my friend wrote beautifully about her, and talked to me even more eloquently — although, perhaps in the talk, it was the silences that were eloquent. In the dream, she was about to go to the hospital. She was going to be tested for possible treatments; a serious cancer had just been discovered, and we all knew — my alternative father, even more like my friend’s, lurking in the corners of the dream, included — that she was going to die. But we were able to keep up good cheer because the ravages of the catastrophe were not yet evident. She was wearing a white dress, white-on-white, a cross between a summer dress and something that you might see on a débutante. Although simple and slender in outline, it was floor-length, in honor of this special occasion: a token of our brave simulation of optimism. I joked that she would be mistaken for an already-admitted patient. Her face fell a bit, and she said, in a voice that was no longer bright, “No, scrubs are blue.” I chimed in at “are blue.” Rhymes with rue.

Then I woke up. My figure in the dream had been distinctive enough for me not to think immediately of my friend’s mother; I thought, rather, of myself. (Also: patients don’t wear scrubs. Always the critic.) Was I dying? Was that why I was so cold and tired in the mornings? I wasn’t worried; it didn’t seem to matter. So long as death comes without violent pain and huge medical bills, I won’t mind it much. (Or so I fancy.) My mind wandered along until I remembered my friend’s mother. As I understand it, she decided, upon discovering the cancer, to go straight into hospice care. Now, when my aunt did the same thing, after she was told that the consequences of her appendectomy (of all things!) would involve feeding tubes and prolonged hospital stays, I was very angry about it. She was dead before I could get to New Hampshire. I had always been very fond of her, but now I discovered that she was not just the center but the entire embodiment of the alternative family that I had imagined in my unhappy childhood, an alternative that would become quite actual, I’d been told, if “anything happened” to my parents. I was angry with my aunt for removing herself from my life by, effectively, committing suicide. The atmosphere of peace and serenity with which I endowed imaginary scenes of my friend’s mother’s death were the result, I suppose, of having no actual emotional commitment to anyone in the envisioned scenes, except possibly to my friend, as to whose sentiments (whose grief!) the very decorum of friendship dictated that I keep a certain distance.

I have written here about my friend’s mother’s death several times. I was surprised by the intensity of my response. “Intensity” is perhaps the wrong word, but there’s no doubt that the death was catalytic for me. I have been on a different track ever since. Or perhaps I have had a more assured sense of what’s important. My friend’s mother’s death was distant (ie, it occurred in the Midwest), quick (a matter of three or four months), peaceful and serene, as I say (lots of pictures were published on a family site), and also undramatic. By “undramatic” I mean that my friend went into the ordeal on very good terms with his mother. There was no need for reconciliations or absolutions. She had always, it seems, regarded his sexual preference with equanimity, for one thing. I gather, on the basis of sheer inference, that she had a better opinion of my friend than he has of himself. Not that she expected more, just that she found him to be okay.

That may sound tepid, but I speak as a parent who knows that okay is the best possible state for a child to be in. There is a great deal of wisdom in the title of the film, The Kids Are All Right. Let a child be brilliant, successful, famous, whatnot: to a parent who is not living vicariously, these are all unstable conditions, and they have well-known adverse side effects. Nothing makes me feel more grounded than hanging up the phone after a chat with my daughter and feeling saturated with the conviction that she is okay. Doing okay might be a better way of putting it, because this kind of okay requires a good deal of hard work and serious thinking to achieve, and I know that being okay is not something that fell into my daughter’s lap, as if it were her destiny.

To my mother, I was never okay. Objectively, I have never been okay, at least by one important measure: I have never supported myself. The fact that this has never bothered me could be taken either way. Whenever I am beset by doubts, Kathleen insists that I am doing what I ought to be doing, and better than ever. But to most people, my unconcern with supporting myself is proof positive of my being the opposite of okay. Not that it is discussed, ever.

When I woke up, I knew that I had borrowed my friend’s parents for my dream, because I’d been okay, and I still felt okay when I opened my eyes.


In the Book Review this weekend, Tom Bissell wrote a birthday card of sorts to the late David Foster Wallace, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest. He had a couple of interesting things to say — interesting because of the starkness with which they declared a mentality unlike my own.

This difference was not surprising. I had been unable to get very far with Bissell’s first book, or first big book, The Father of All Things. I don’t remember why, but I suspect that it was a matter of punchy sentences. There was a violence in the book, not merely referred to by its contents, that I disliked in pretty much the same way that I would dislike seeing a portion of streetside slush on my dinner plate.

The first passage consists largely of a quotation that in itself has little to do with what interests me about this passage, but I give the sentence entire anyway.

In “How Fiction Works,” the literary critic James Wood, whose respectful but ultimately cool view of Wallace’s work is as baffling as Conrad’s rejection of Melville and Nabokov’s dismissal of Bellow, addresses E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters: “If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters — round and flat characters — and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.”

What interests me — to the point of astonishment — is that, while I’m not familiar with Conrad on Melville or Nabokov on Bellow, I can well imagine what they have to say, and I’m pretty sure that I should agree with them. I admire Conrad greatly, and Nabokov mildly, not so much as I did when I was younger. But I have no use for Melville, at least until I’m reduced to using an outhouse, and Bellow is the midcentury American author whom I dislike the least — but I still dislike him. And all of these men, possibly even James Wood himself, are full of themselves as men, by which I mean that simply being male (and not female), being possessed of male genitalia and having access to the locker room, seems to them to be a terrific, transformative characteristic. These writers might acknowledge that there is actually nothing very remarkable in being a man, but they would all claim, in one way or another, that, just as only a man can be a military hero, so only a man can understand a man’s burdens, and only a man who is a gifted writer can explain these burdens to the world. In other words, being male is the problem that the great male writer solves. But first, the male must be posited as an object of interest, and that’s what “interests” me, because I don’t limit heroism (or creative genius, &c &c &c) to men and therefore can’t accept men as objects of interest.

In any case, how neat of Bissell, I thought, to line up the writers I like on the one side and the ones I don’t on the other — and to be baffled by the ones I like.


Here’s the second passage.

As a member (barely) of the generation Wallace was part of, and as a writer whose closest friends are writers (most of whom are Wallace fans), and as someone who first read “Infinite Jest” at perhaps the perfect age (22, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan), my testimony on this point may well be riddled with partisanship.

Again, my interest isn’t so much in the statement as a whole as it is in that glancing phrase, “whose closest friends are writers.” I have been feeling rather glum this February, this Black History Month, because I don’t have any friends who are black. Somehow the world around me has sifted and shifted to the extent that even my acquaintance is almost entirely white, the exceptions being Asians. Aside from two doorman and an extraordinarily capable handyman in the building, and the array of check-out personnel up and down the shops and stores of 86th Street, I don’t see any black faces unless I leave the neighborhood via subway. (Or visit the Museum.) To say that this is a problem is to beg for a solution, and solutions all sound both ridiculous and patronizing. The only real “solution” would be to have a friend who happened to be black. And it’s not odd that I don’t, because I don’t have many friends to begin with, a point that I’ve been trying to make, or to puzzle over, for some time now. Bissell’s phrase brightened the situation considerably, because I have only one friend who is a writer, and that is Ms NOLA, who entered my life via family.

It’s odd, don’t you think, that someone who likes to read and write as much as I do doesn’t know anybody else who is equally committed? Especially since I live in New York, a magnet for writers?

But what about my friend whose mother died? He no longer lives in New York, but I met him when he did, and I met him through his Web log. He writes, as I say, beautifully. On the handful of occasions when we have met, however, I have always come away thinking of him as a thinker. Not as a philosopher — that word is tainted for me, and probably unsalvageable — but as someone who thinks a lot. I’ve read a lot about writers getting together, and thinking never seems to play much part in their encounters.

I suspect that my lack of incentive to have friends is attributable in part to growing up in Bronxville. In the Times Magazine, over the weekend, I read that NFL chief executive Roger Goodell lives in Bronxville. Figures, said I to myself.


More anon, on Thursday.

Gotham Diary:
House into Home
February 2016 (I)

Monday 1st

Never have I been so curious about the Iowa Caucuses. Even worse, I hope that Donald Trump wins. This is not because I’m sure that he would lose to Hillary Clinton, or because of any other calculus, either. He is simply the only one of the Republican candidates who is at all bearable. If he’s godawful, he’s like democracy: the worst, except for all the others. I am reminded that the United States survived Andrew Jackson. (Arguably, it did not.) My great fear is that Ted Cruz will win. Cruz is absolutely the worst. Speechless with anxiety, I shall now change the subject.

Ross Douthat wrote about decadence on Sunday. I remember being fascinated by decadence, in college. I mean, the very idea of it! You never heard about decadence in Bronxville. It was very alluring, perhaps because, for me, it was set to the music of Salome. Actually, aside from Salome, I had no experience of decadence. I had an idea of what it might be like — it was all in my head. I imagined dusky seraglios, piles of fruit, and exquisite bath oils. (The bath oils part was a real exercise, because it was difficult to imagine that bath oils could ever be anything but greasy and suffocating.) Over in a corner, Oscar Wilde, draped in an enormous bath sheet, made outrageous remarks, and cackled with his coterie. You had to look where you were going, lest you step on Huysmann’s jewel-encrusted tortoise.

I may have taken one bath. It was very boring. You can’t really read in the bath; I can’t, anyway. How do you keep your hands dry? After about a year of pining after decadence like one of Gilbert’s lovesick maidens, I realized that I was not cut out for languor. I suspect that I had been drawn to decadence because it might provide a creative cover for laziness. In fact, it was rather laborious. I can’t really read when I’m striking attitudes. In fact, I don’t want to be conscious of anything but what I’m reading. All you need for that is a good chair and a bright window. Simplicitas!

Later, I would understand that Wilde was transgressive, not decadent. In fact, decadence turns out to be one of those things that nobody is, except for the odd crackpot. Only other people are decadent. And you want to look closely at the people who call other people decadent. Ross Douthat, whether clever or kind, refrains from pasting the label of decadence on anybody, or, for that matter, on anything more particular than the entire United States. Here’s what he has to say about decadence:

But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

Whatever this tells us about the US of A, it reveals Douthat as a sentimentalist. He wants to advance, whatever that means. He wants the economy to grow — in my book, a shockingly unexamined desideratum. He wants people to have aspirations for their numerous children. He wants them to fight for the right causes, with complete conviction. These are all things that characterized America in the century that ended in 1970, almost a decade before Douthat was born. (1970 is about when I gave up on decadence.)

I wonder what Douthat would make of Robert J Gordon’s new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. I nearly bought the book yesterday, but I’m on a budget, so I’ll have to get to it later. I already agree with his arguments, at least as Paul Krugman laid them out in his rave review, and as Gordon himself summarizes them in what you can read online of his Introduction.

This book is based on an important idea having innumerable implications: Economic growth is not a steady process that creates economic advance at a regular pace, century after century. Instead, progress occurs much more rapidly in some times than in others. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transition century before 1870, remarkably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then.

While I believe that Gordon underestimates economic growth prior to 1770, possibly because he overlooks an alternative measure of growth, I agree wholeheartedly with his other statements, because I have discovered them for myself in the course of reading a great many histories of this and that. And I have concluded that the astonishing changes in the relationship between man and the material world that have created generalized levels of health, safety, and comfort to which affluent societies everywhere have become not only accustomed but addicted in the formulation of their hopes and dreams have climaxed. Our task now is not to grow, but to organize what we have grown — an urgent business, since the unintended side-effects of the growth spell may prove to be terminally toxic for the planet. We have to sort out who owns what, and who provides what kind of direction. Our systems of government (I speak of the developed world here) were all conceived in the latter days of the old, pre-growth dispensation; the Founders, like other revolutionaries, believed, not without reasons, that the lessons of the vanished empires of classical antiquity had much to teach them.

One of the linkages with the ancient world that we’re inclined to overlook is that of communication. News traveled somewhat faster in 1790 than it did in Caesar’s day, but it was still a matter of days, and it was still carried on horseback. Such delays were necessarily taken for granted by political thinkers. It was also the case that rich and powerful people got their news faster than the general population did. (Lots of “news,” in fact, took the form of secret communication.) The mechanisms of proclamation and assembly in our Constitution would have been manageable in Roman times. We, in sharp contrast, are threatened by the panic that might be caused by the simultaneous reception by everybody of malignant misinformation. Something like this occurred after the breakup of Yugoslavia: corrupt radio stations broadcast false warnings that Christians were at imminent risk of slaughter by their Muslim neighbors.

The more I think about it, the more instant communication carries risks of environmental degradation. It does not involve chemical pollution, but it is no less an unintended by-product of something desirable. It tends to reduce the variety of information, much as pollution seems to reduce the number of animal species. Take a “harmless” example: today’s international art market, which is made possible entirely by the modernization of communication and transportation. It is possible for a small cloud of people to be conversant with participants and developments everywhere in the international market. Local art markets are deprived of the prestige that, for reasons of human nature, must accompany the production of art if it is to be taken at all seriously. Why should Denver have its own fine-arts world, if patrons can fly to an art fair? But who benefits from this monoculture? I ask the same question about commercial combinations. Are beer fanciers likely to enjoy cheaper, better brews when the AB Imbev acquisition of SAB Miller goes through? I expect not. Lots of jobs will be cut, and a handful of people, perhaps only two or three, will see an increase in power and income. (Oops! I forgot the bankers’ fees!) The desirability of industrial conglomerations ironically depends on ideas of efficiency that pre-date the Industrial Revolution.

The other day, I went to order something from Chef’s Catalog, a reliable source for kitchenware for many years, only to discover that it has been shut down. Shut down by its recent parent, Target, whose management determined that Chef’s business “did not align” with Target’s plans. Chef’s Catalog was not losing money. It wasn’t even in the way. Target paid a lot of money to buy it, but now decided that it was just clutter. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry: closing down healthy businesses is wrong.

Let’s remember, after all that Adam Smith wrote in the pre-industrial world. Most workers in his day were agricultural laborers, and there was no reason to expect that that would change. The idea of commerce as the support (via employment) of the general population — well, since I haven’t read The Wealth of Nations all the way through, I can’t say that this idea never crossed Smith’s mind. But he does appear to have been principally interested in consumers, a preoccupation that has also outlived its eighteenth-century rationale.

From now on, growth will have to occur primarily in the human understanding. The attempt to revive the more ignorant outlook of another century is both sentimental and decadent.


Tuesday 2nd

The consolation, of course, is that the last two winners of Iowa’s contests for the Republican presidential nomination didn’t go very far.

Looking for news about the Bloomberg campaign — might Hillary Clinton’s failure to leave Bernie Sanders in the dust trigger some positive move toward Bloomberg’s actually running? — I came across a Times story reporting on a poll, sponsored by Bloomberg’s company, that showed very little support for the former mayor, at least in Iowa. This is far from surprising; people like me, who would like to acclaim Bloomberg before he delivers a single speech, are few and far between. But the poll also showed enormous support for Martin O’Malley — 46% of Democrats had a favorable view of him. So what? Having won zero delegates (in a vanishingly small Democratic turnout), O’Malley lost no time in dropping out of the race.

Are we ever going to get beyond polling? At the very least, isn’t it time to move from the random cold call to a better-organized online arrangement? Is there a way to limit polls to registered voters?

On the Op-Ed page, R R Reno says something that may strike regular readers of this Web site as familiar. (I certainly hope that it does.)

If these candidates [Trump and Sanders] have traction, it’s because over the last two decades our political elites, themselves almost entirely white, have decided, for different reasons, that the white middle class has no role to play in the multicultural, globalized future they envision, a future that they believe they will run. This primary season will show us whether or not they’re right.

A point that I might make more strongly than I do is that it is questionable and short-sighted of white political élites to imagine that they, they, are going to run a multicultural, globalized future.


I’ve been on a Gilbert & Sullivan jag. It’s very taxing; the Savoy Operas make me cry to the point of headache. Why? They’re supposed to be funny and entertaining, but I carry on as though I were a professional mourner. In part, it’s because my appreciation of the collaborative accomplishment has skyrocketed. The popularity of G&S in certain sectors of the Anglophone population does not diminish the very high polish of the music, which reveals a Mozartean fluency. Nor does it blunt the acute wit with which Gilbert volleys the English language. My tears are provoked by the dissonance between what I hear in the D’Oyle Carte recordings and what used to be produced in high school auditoriums all over the country. I used to appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan as a guilty pleasure, but now I regard it as a cultural monument of the first order, and the second cause of weeping is the fear that this monument is about to be shrouded in oblivion, in our new multicultural, globalized world.

English may be the most common second language on the planet, or at any rate seem to be, but full appreciation of Gilbert’s verses strikes me as hardly less demanding than a taste for Shakespeare. Gilbert’s usage may be closer to us temporally than Shakespeare’s is, but it is far more precise, written, as it were, to be parsed. And its references are almost equally arcane. Gilbert was a failed (or uninterested) barrister whose whole sense of topsy-turvy was inspired by legal nonsense, which was far more abundant in his common-law times. He was astonishingly alert to the comic possibilities of ambiguity, as in this exchange from the end of Iolanthe:

Celia: We are all fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses.
Lord Mountararat: It’s our fault. They couldn’t help themselves.
Queen: It seems they have helped themselves, and pretty freely, too! (II.554-557)

And then along comes the Lord Chancellor, with his simple suggestion that Fairy Law be amended to read that “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” This might seem fatuous to those who regard law as embodying scientific truths, but, as Gilbert was doubtlessly aware, quite a number of laws were amended in this fashion, not once but twice, during the 1550s alone — laws about acknowledging the authority of the Pope, for example. What looks like a breezy jest turns into a variation on a Reformation Theme. (I have already written about the farcically inexorable about-face at the heart of Patience.) As we move further from Gilbert in time, the sauciness of his humorous imbroglios becomes less salient, while the roots of his absurdities burrow deeper into obscurity. You can decide to let it all go, or you can decide that intelligent speakers of English ought to be educated to enjoy it, as we do with regard to Shakespeare. This is more than a matter of explaining the jokes; it entails nothing less than the fullest possible relighting of the world in which Gilbert wrote.

Music dates differently, and I don’t think that Sullivan is ever going to be difficult to like. This is a problem insofar as it makes his music seem negligible to the discerning. A prolific tunesmith, Sullivan was somewhat ashamed of his facility. He struggled to be not only “great” — an exercise that usually resulted in soggy pretentiousness — but also “English,” whatever that meant. At the bright beginning of his career, critical observers entertained high hopes that Sullivan would develop a distinctively English idiom. When it turned out that Elgar developed it instead, Sullivan was branded as a failure, and his immortality, depending as it does on the Savoy Operas, is yoked to an idea of second-rate hack work that Sullivan himself appears to have shared. But if you just listen to the music, and forget about the toils of nationalism, what emerges is a glorious Second-Empire style, as spacious as the Palais Garnier, all the fun of a can-can, and the dispatch of a crack express train. There is always more going on than the ear can take in, and if this is not distracting, it preserves the work from triteness. Gifted at mimicking the styles of the past, Sullivan is a self-demonstrating historian of music. At the same time, his work betrays an ardent, as well as up-to-date admiration of Verdi’s way with the orchestra, itself an under-appreciated subject. (I believe that orchestration provided Verdi with the means of planting himself as a character in his operas.) The music to which Sullivan set Gilbert’s articulate ballads is equally articulate; more than that, it shines with the most straightforward, good-humored love of life. Like Mozart, Sullivan is a master of lubricating his complexities so smoothly that they never get in the way of the unschooled. Unlike the words, the music is never superficially puzzling.

There is an astringency in Gilbert & Sullivan that sets it apart from the Victorian world outside the preserve of the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan is like one the great chefs imported from France — delicious. Gilbert is English to the bone, but he has swallowed a lozenge that makes it impossible to trust in romantic impulses. There are moments of deep yearning in his texts, but over the course of the collaboration with Sullivan, these drift from the comely heroines, such as Josephine Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, to the battleaxes, the Katishas and the Lady Janes. Young love is mocked by the young lovers themselves.

Phyllis: We won’t wait long.
Strephon: No. We might change our minds. We’ll get married first.
Phyllis: And change our minds afterwards?
Strephon: That’s the usual course. (Iolanthe, II.438-41)

This astringency saturates everything in the Savoy Operas, particularly, if invisibly, the very idea of social reform. When I first got to know The Mikado, I was naive enough to believe that Victorian audiences must have been shocked and offended by what struck me as a transparent critique of the Establishment. I see now that my surprise — my surprise that performances of The Mikado were permitted while the old sourpuss sat on the throne — says a lot about the plush, suffocating hypocrisy of life in Bronxville circa 1960, a little world in which it was forbidden not only to sell houses to Jews but to hint at the existence of the prohibition. I was so conscious of the injunction against speaking the truth about society that I mistook Gilbert’s pantomime caricatures for overt social criticism. As David Cannadine points out in his important essay, “Gilbert and Sullivan as a ‘National Institution’,” there was no social criticism in the Savoy Operas.

This, in essence, is the social universe of the Savoy Operas: a universe selectively but perceptively modelled on the real and recognizable Britain of the years 1871-1896. There is monarchy on the way to apotheosis, and there is aristocracy on the way to decline. There are those great professions most concerned with domestic security and international peace. But, apart from Dr Daly in The Sorcerer, there are no clergymen… In the same way, the commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie hardly appears at all, apart from the gentlest references to middle-class social climbing in The Mikado. … As for the working class, they are invariably picturesque and dutiful rustic maidens, country bumpkins, jolly jack tars. And the settings are almost always pastoral and sylvan: country houses and villages predominate, and apart from Titipu (which is a Japanese town) and the Palace of Westminster (significantly bathed in yellow moonlight in Act II of Iolanthe), the press and pace of urban life hardly intrude.

The complete lack of social criticism leaves Gilbert & Sullivan free to contemplate such universal social problems as the difficulty of attracting and holding on to the attention of others, the itch to be too clever for one’s own good, the false consciousness of striking noble attitudes, and the longing to bury disappointment and frustration with material wealth. We laugh because we are not asked to cry. And yet, here am I, crying as I laugh. And then not really laughing, just crying. It is not sentimentality, but an emotional discomfort, as ordinary little people are presented in magnificent language and ravishing music while emphasizing the fact that they are neither magnificent nor ravishing in themselves. As we none of us are.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Ian Bradley’s Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and followed the D’Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (the last of several; the company recorded it in 1908). Pinafore, the first Savoy Opera that I ever saw, has never been a favorite of mine. It is perhaps too hearty and masculine for my taste. (Have you noticed? When I approve of a sex-linked characteristic, I say that it’s “manly” or “womanly.” When I disapprove, I use the other words, which also, for me, suggest a strong whiff of the bogus.) There are some great numbers in Pinafore, and I used to think that “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” was Sullivan’s greatest tune. But in later years I have not been drawn to listen to it. Perhaps it would be better to say that, while I have listened to it, I haven’t been inspired to pay much attention.”We sail the ocean blue…” All right, then, off you go!

At the outset of this personal overview of the Savoy Operas, I’ll declare a marked preference for the four central works, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and The Mikado, created in that order between 1880 and 1885. I am not going to say that they’re perfect, only that (what’s much better) they’re Just Right. Princess Ida is perhaps a bit less Just Right than the others, but Acts I and II are very fine, and “This Helmet, I Suppose” redeems the rackety nature of the finale with a grand Handelian blaze. It is hard to think how the other three operas might be improved in any way. Not only do the collaborators exhibit complete mastery of their formula — a gross word for a subtle understanding of good theatre — but they mock it along with everything else.

HMS Pinafore is far from Just Right. The romantic scenes are poorly paced, and there is a great deal of confusion about Captain Corcoran’s status — is he the owner of a “luxurious home” (Josephine) or “lower middle class” (Sir Joseph)? Also, ahem, is it not pathological, rather than merely absurd, for the demoted Corcoran to wind up in the arms of the woman who took care of him as an infant? Then there’s Dick Deadeye, a character whose one virtue seems to be serving as a reminder of how lucky we are that Gilbert did not go in for real villains. (Buttercup’s swerves into gypsy effrontery are also unnerving.) I conclude that Pinafore is still too close to the kind of melodrama that the Savoy Operas eventually supplanted.

The music of Pinafore is miscellaneous. A great deal of it is merely rousing, almost nakedly patriotic. (Bradley notes that in the early years of the last century, the company ended performances with “Rule, Britannia!”) There is a black joke in the notion that Ralph Rackstraw is good enough for Josephine Corcoran simply by virtue of being an Englishman — a participant, that is, in the most tirelessly class-conscious and self-policing society in the the world — but Sullivan drowns the sting in tub-thumping jingoism. The operatic scena, “The hours creep on apace,” is quite out of joint in Pinafore‘s good-humored atmosphere, and so is “Refrain, audacious tar.” In all of these slippages the problem seems to be that Sullivan had not yet learned how unsuitable it was to be plainly earnest in the house of topsy-turvy. He would solve this problem by going over the top, out-antheming the anthems, as in Iolanthe‘s “When Britain really ruled the waves.”

I don’t mean to heap contumely upon a very popular work of art, but only to measure the sublimity of the collaboration in terms of the pitfalls that had to be traversed. (I ought to have begun with The Sorcerer, which I have seen but hardly know.) The difficulty for me is that Trial By Jury, the one-act inauguration of Gilbert & Sullivan, is as Just Right as a thing can be. But of course it is a shank, a large fragment — a spacious finale for the unwritten romance of Edwin and Angelina. And both legal absurdity and aversion to matrimony were not only quite familiar to Sullivan’s funny-bone, but also matters that would never intrude upon his serious compositions. It was much harder for him to make fun of the Royal Navy, or even to have fun while portraying it. The triumph of Sullivan’s Savoy achievement lies in his eventual success at overmastering his own impeccable manners, without, at the same time, doing anything actually rude.


Yesterday evening, I watched Bridge of Spies, which has come out on DVD. (I picked it up at the Video Room on my way home from a session with the blue lights at the dermatologist’s.) I knew that Kathleen wanted to see it; I didn’t know that she had already done so, on the flight to Australia in December. So I watched it by myself, before she came home. Considering that Steven Spielberg directed it, I liked the movie quite a bit; this may be attributable to the Coen brothers’ screenplay. It’s too bad that “Stoikiy muzhik” couldn’t have been used as the title, because it perfectly encapsulates what Bridge of Spies is about: a man who stands up for what’s right. That it is a Russian phrase intensifies the compliment, but it also guarantees that the man of whom it is said would never, speaking only English and a little German, say it himself. Tom Hanks is of course the man — “stoikiy muzhik” could be his job description. Hanks brings a barely-checked garrulity to the trivial details of life that intensifies his reticence about the big things. One senses the piety observed by a good man in the face of righteous holiness, precisely where piety is everything.

The compliment is paid by a Russian spy called Abel, who has been caught by the FBI and then defended, pro bono, by Hanks’s Jim Donovan, a lawyer who takes Abel’s case more seriously than his friends and family think he ought to do. It is just as difficult to detach Mark Rylance from this character, who submits to Hanks’s questions with silent aplomb. Rylance is the trickster god among today’s actors; you can’t even be sure that you’re being tricked. At several points in the story, Donovan expresses surprise that Abel doesn’t seem to be worried about what will happen to him, to which Abel invariably replies, “Would it help?” Does that work? is what you want to ask. Can you ease your cares by acting on the knowledge that fretting doesn’t help? Most of us cannot. Is that because we lack the power, or haven’t trained ourselves to develop it? If we asked Abel, he might give us a riddle for an answer.

For me, however, the really scary character was Amy Ryan’s Mary Donovan. If there had been more of her in the movie, I should have had to cover my eyes, because she evoked the ferocious moms of the Fifties so powerfully that I dreaded hearing my mother summon me peremptorily to come downstairs for some awful reckoning or other. Trim and blonde, perfectly made up and with every hair in place, she simmered with conflicting responsibilities. On the one hand, she was the realistic, de facto head of the household, charged with putting food on the table for a houseful of kids (while remaining sublimely unmussed). On the other hand, she was the law-abiding helpmeet, the ultimately subservient second banana. Ryan gives us both a woman who is completely in love with her husband and an imminent train wreck. She also tells us everything that we need to recall about those times — those times when the world was a great place, but only if you were one of the Jim Donovans.

I’ve seen a bunch of other Berlin-Wall movies lately. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Funeral in Berlin, The Debt, and, in a different key, The Man from UNCLE. I know there really was a Wall — as well as I can, never having been to Germany. But it seems unreal now, probably because it is. I believe that portions, or at least a portion, of the Wall were left standing, but of course the Wall was much more than a pile of bricks topped by barbed wire. It was a battlefield, where real people were really killed. For those people, and for the soldiers who shot at them, the Cold War was Hot. This active Wall was always evidence of the failure of the Russian experiment with Communism, just as it was evidence of the West’s failure to contain Russia within borders that had long been too fluid.

More forgotten than the Wall — so much harder to visualize — are the nuclear arsenals that the Cold War was fought to keep in their silos.


In The New Yorker, Elif Batuman writes about not wearing a head scarf in Turkey. Batuman’s parents were born in Turkey, but she herself grew up in New Jersey. (Even though I went to boarding school in New Jersey — way west Jersey, as I used to insist, practically the Delaware Water Gap — I share the suburban New Yorker’s bottomless contempt for the Garden State, and I always feel sorry for the Indian and other immigrant families who have for some reason perched there, of all places. I think that it has something to do with Science, but still… And by “suburban New Yorker” I am referring to folks from Westchester County and the nearer reaches of Fairfield, in Connecticut. In the mind of the “suburban New Yorker,” those parts of Long Island that are neither horse farm nor beach simply do not exist. The Hamptons are an island floating somewhere between Block Island and the Statue of Liberty.) Batuman grew up a secular (atheist) humanist. This would have made her right at home under the Kemalist régime that, after decades of rule, came to an end when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over, in 2003.

Or would it? The Kemalists were tough guys. They were a social minority determined to hold on to power. You know how that goes. Batuman is a fiercely intelligent reporter, which makes her a helpless, nonstop critic. Sooner or later, she will offend everybody who believes that holding on to power requires imposing limits on free speech. You just know that, if Batuman had been old enough to visit Turkey professionally before the AKP era (which she just about was, but let that pass), her traveling companion would have been an Armenian from New Jersey. She’d be writing from prison. If she was lucky.

In any case, Batuman writes about visiting Urfa, a provincial town on the Syrian border where interesting archaeological remains have surfaced. One day, she visits a holy site, the Cave of Abraham, and dutifully dons a head scarf for the occasion, as required by law. When she leaves, she forgets to take the head scarf off. Suddenly, everyone she encounters on her way back to the hotel is, as she puts it, “so much nicer” to her. She entertains the idea of observing local custom for the rest of her visit, but she decides against it, on the not unassailable grounds that this would be pretending. In the middle of arguments pro and con, she discusses Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the novel that forecasts a democratically-elected Islamic government of France early in the coming decade. She quotes a passage, which I shall quote as well, and adds a fascination interpretation.

“Huysmans’s true subject had been bourgeois happiness, a happiness painfully out of reach for a bachelor. …to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice.” Such happiness ispainfully out of reach for a bachelor,” even a rich one with servants; it really depends on a wife who can cook and entertain, who can turn a house into a home.

You can see why I find this “fascinating.” Only a woman can cook and entertain, and only a married woman can turn a house into a home. I am not only fascinated by this rubbish — which I’m pretty sure Batuman regards as rubbish, too — but paralyzed. Where to begin?

Let me begin with convincing selfishness. While I’m heartily sympathetic to all women who would rather do something that does involve turning houses into homes, especially to those who would like, or who actually need, someone else to effect this transformation, what pisses me off about Batuman’s paraphrase of the prevalent traditional worldview is the taboo that forbids men to do these things. I have broken it all my adult life, and I have enjoyed good-enough comfort, hygiene, and household organization, not to mention a perfect record (to the best of my knowledge) on the score of making sure that nobody gets sick at my dinner table, throughout. I have lived the life that I wanted to lead.

I discovered early that women are not natural homemakers. As with many women, my mother’s domestic expertise stopped pretty much at the frontiers of her wardrobe. A cleaning lady was engaged to run the vacuum and so on, and if there is one single reason why I took up the art of cooking it is self-preservation: my mother was a terrible cook. At her best, she was uninspired. When inspired, she was a dangerous lunatic. It’s true that no one got sick. Everything was guaranteed dead, even the bacteria. In order to hold on to my father, my mother had to learn how to broil a rare steak, ditto lamb chops, and do something with chicken. Everything else came out of a can or a box. Reheating aside, more food was cooked in the oven than on the stove. Her batterie de cuisine would have been sniffed at by cowboys at home on the range. Terrible knives, paper-thin pots and pans, an enameled cast-iron frypan that was wrong for everything.

From this unpromising environment I moved on to the vie de Bohème, where I discovered that female flatmates were without exception slobs. They were perhaps a little cleaner than young men new to the independent life, but their closets, drawers, writing surfaces and such were all tangles of whatnot. Beds were made only when parents came calling, and not always then.

Parenthood introduced me to the reality that I could change diapers as well as anybody. If you pay attention, and your baby is healthy and a good sleeper, child care, while exhausting, requires no special skills. If you know how to make love (and I do mean love), you know how to hold an infant.

I did inherit one thing from my mother: I liked to entertain. Or rather, like François in Hoellebecq’s novel, I wanted to serve friends pot-au-feu by the stove. But I wanted to make it, and I wanted it to be delicious, so that people would be glad that they were dining chez moi. I did not want to farm out the cooking to a woman; I wanted to do it myself. Most of the serious chefs in the world, are, after all, as you may have noticed… In the one kitchen that I got to design from the ground up, I created an atmosphere that Kathleen described as “a wood shop, but with curtains.”

What has made my life different from other men’s is, I conclude with increasing conviction, my size. This meant nothing to my mother (except that, as she gloriously put it, I ought to find “a nice, tall queen” to marry), and my father was just as big. But in the rest of the world, it has granted me a good deal of license. It is simply easier to stand in the way of other people, meaning people other than me, and the blessing of humanity is that there are only so many people who enjoy standing in the way of others.

And I did have a secret agenda: I wanted to prove, beyond doubt, that you don’t have to be Mary Donovan to turn a house into a home.


Friday 5th

David Brooks writes about “rational saints” in his column today. He mentions Larissa MacFarquhar’s Drowning Strangers, the title of which refers to a moral challenge. If your mother is drowning over here, and two strangers are drowning over there, where do you jump in? Do you save one life or two?

Regular readers will be able to guess what I think of “rational saints.” They might be confused, however, about where I’d jump in, because I say such nasty things about my mother. But of course I should jump in to save her. I don’t think I’d give it a thought; I’d just do it. There would be no calculus of two against one. Under the circumstances, the strangers would not be morally equivalent to two of my mother. (Two of my mother! Turn this conversation off now!)

Somehow, saving my drowning mother reminded me, by the inverted logic that is my substitute for rationality, of what I was already thinking of writing about today, which is that making and keeping friends is a rather small part of my life.

Now, like most people in New York (or so it seems to me), I have a fluid idea of “family.” My family includes several people to whom I am in no way related. The exemplar is Fossil Darling, my roommate at Blair more than fifty years ago. I know that he is a family member because I should never put up with him as a friend — he is that irritating. You think I’m joking! Fossil’s spouse, Ray Soleil, is in contrast both a family member and a friend. The point is, however, that I should jump in to save Fossil, and let the two strangers fend for themselves.

M le Neveu is family on two levels. Which reminds me — we haven’t seen him in a while, and I ought to have him up to dinner. It may seem that we are always having people to dinner, but that is not the case. I can think of only four occasions since Thanksgiving. Of those occasions, one involved neighbors, one involved family-family, and our guests at the third were friends who would be family if they did not have enough family already. (They have also moved to Cape Cod for part of the year. Last year, “part” pretty much meant “all.”) Finally, we had Ms NOLA and her husband — a classic case of Gotham friendship. Ms NOLA used to date a family-family member, but quickly became a member of our elective family.

After family come the correspondents. Some of these are friends with whom I used to spend face-to-face time. In one case, a friend became a correspondent years after moving away from New York. In other, the same thing happened, years after we got out of law school. I have always liked to write letters, and I treasure my correspondents. There are two problems on this front, however. One is that few people want to be correspondents. In the old days, before the Internet, people would say that my letters were beyond their capacities to reply in kind. If you’re a good cook, you probably get this, too. (I have.) Nowadays, I make no effort with friends who don’t like to write. The other problem is that I have little to say that doesn’t appear at this site. It not infrequently happens that I find a letter that I am writing turning into material for an entry here, but only rarely do I write a letter with that end in view from the start. In any case, I don’t see my correspondents very often, maybe twice in a year, maybe once in two years. Maybe almost never.

Then there are the people with whom we used to spend a lot of time and with whom we now catch up via telephone, and the very odd Manhattan layover, every now and then.

Beyond these thinly-populated rings, there are uncountable acquaintances. Some of them might become true friends, if we were to spend more time together, but in most cases that is unlikely. Most of the people whom we have met more than once or twice, we may meet once or twice more, before shuffling off &c. A small slice of this group shows up at the annual parties that we give, usually in the spring.

Up to this point, Kathleen knows everyone just about as well as I do, with the exception of some, but not all, of the correspondents. For the correspondents also include people whom I met after an initial encounter on the Internet. I met a lot of people that way, back in the heyday of blogging. Now I keep with almost all of them at Facebook. Only a few exchange actual letters.

And that’s that.

But what about old friends?

I’m thinking of the friend who was our best man when Kathleen and I were married. We met when Kathleen and I were in law school, and Barry was writing a dissertation on the mechanism of “cohabitation” in the constitution of the Fifth Republic (France, of course). Cohabitation was still a speculative matter in the late Seventies; it would come up, as I recall — but why recall, when there’s Wikipedia? Barry and I lived in the graduate-student dorm (few law students did), and we became fast friends. Not long after Kathleen and I settled in New York, Barry joined the Peace Corps, and spent a couple of jolly-sounding years at Azemmour, in Morocco. Then he landed in Washington. When Kathleen and I bought the house by the lake, Barry was our most frequent guest, and he had a lot of sweat equity in its improvements.

You might think that it was selling the house that dented our friendship — the house gave us a place with enough room for hanging out, something that becomes increasingly difficult in apartments as you get older. (For one thing, “hanging out”?) But it was the Internet. I became an internaut when I joined a Trollope listserv over the Fourth of July holiday in 1996. There was no looking back for me. Thenceforth, I kept in touch with everyone via email. For some reason, Barry didn’t do email. I don’t recall ever receiving a piece of email from him, although I must have done. I wasn’t just writing email, either, of course; I was exploring a new universe. It wasn’t that I dismissed the bricks-and-mortar world; I just knew that it wasn’t going to go away if I ignored it for a while. I do know that Kathleen and Barry were in touch, because Barry thought that he had been mistreated by a former employer, and asked Kathleen to refer him to a specialist in employment matters, which she did. By then, however, two new blows had been dealt to our friendship.

The one that I knew about was George Bush. Barry was always a rather gleeful conservative. When Reagan took office, two friends of his, both lawyers years ahead of us at Notre Dame, long gone by our arrival, became well-connected young men. They were all, Barry included, pious Catholics. Somehow, though, political alignments didn’t get in our way in the early days. Kathleen and I believed that Reagan was bad for the United States, but only because he was inconceivable as an actual president. He was an actor — a view from which I have never shifted. But Barry and I reveled in our arguments. We were still too young to take politics very seriously. By the time George W Bush came along, things were different. I was fifty-two. Bush was not a joke, or he was a different kind of joke. He represented the party that had impeached and tried to convict Bill Clinton, in what struck me as a gross misprision of justice. Barry’s participation in Republican campaigning, in 2000, bothered me a lot, and I cut back on initiating contact.

One fine day, I realized that I hadn’t talked to Barry in a very long time. This was partly because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say, “So, how’s the job search going?” If Barry wanted to call me up and tell me about that problem, I’d give him my undivided attention, but my decorum with men who are out of work is to make the second move — unless, of course, I have a plausible lead, which is sadly unlikely. A long time went by, and then one of Barry’s two other Notre Dame friends called Kathleen (because she had helped Barry to find an employment lawyer). I forget exactly what he told her, except that Barry wasn’t well, that his friends were helping him out, and so forth. Some time later — years — we were told that Barry had died, out in Spokane, where he grew up and had family. He died of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I see now that I made use of a dementia of my own. I stopped remembering things about Barry. Not the old things but the new things. He had a girlfriend for a while. She was just right for him, Kathleen and I thought, and we hoped that they’d get married and enjoy the rest of their lives together. But it didn’t work out. And I don’t know why. I think that it was when the signs of things not working first appeared that I stopped keeping track, stopped remembering how things stood when last we talked. It became another thing not to talk about.

I could see that Barry’s life was falling apart, for some invisible but inexorable reason, but I couldn’t think how to respond. And I wasn’t, by this time, very powerfully motivated to respond. Barry had cast his lot with the enemy; plus, he never read my Web site. We quite literally had nothing new to talk about.

Barry’s diagnosis let me off the hook, technically: there was nothing that I could do. Short, that is, of moving in with him and caring for him like a nurse. But perhaps I exaggerate. The fact is, I don’t know what I could have done, because I never looked into it, never tried. I let time do its ever-rolling thing and bear my old friend away. I’m still on the hook.

Another old friend has disappeared. I haven’t felt too bad about not trying to hunt him down — to determine whether he’s dead or alive — because a posse of my Blair classmates worked itself into a lather attempting to do just that, complete with a round-robin argument about whether you have the right to get lost to your old chums, last year, when our fiftieth reunion came round. I knew that Michael did not want to be found, whatever the problem was. He, too, backed away from computers and the Internet, but snail-mail addressed to him was also returned. I knew that, assuming that Michael were physically well — psychologically, he was never at ease — he had simply moved from one flat in Laguna Beach, where he lived modestly on the income from a trust fund, to another, and committed the partial suicide of leaving no forwarding address. Unlike Barry, though — Barry who stopped being Barry — I do miss Michael, who made me laugh more than everybody else combined by the time I was twenty-one, and who still made me laugh forty-odd years later when, in conjunction with an annual convention that Kathleen used to attend (it was held either in Palm Desert or Coronado), we made a point of swinging by Laguna Beach for lunch or dinner. Michael had some serious issues, but he knew how to make them very funny.

You tell me what any of this has to jumping into the water to save my mother.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hope & Ignorance
January 2016 (IV)

Monday 25th

The Sunday paper came this morning. Did the Times even print a paper today? I won’t mind if it doesn’t; Monday’s paper is almost always the most disposable. But for the Metropolitan Diary, which nowadays seems determined to show that, changes in style notwithstanding, New York is pretty much what it was in 1925, the Monday paper doesn’t have anything going for it, and its relative thinness — more a matter of content, at least for home subscribers (who get so many of the Sunday sections on Saturday), than of bulk — causes a small weekly spasm of withdrawal. On the other hand, plowing through the Review — a nosegay of bloviation (by regular contributors) and temptation (teasers for forthcoming books) — on a Monday morning can be harrowing. Monday’s paper, after all, reflects the severe cutback in leisure that Monday brings.

The big news — the only news, really — is that Michael Bloomberg is once again considering a third-party bid for the presidency. And that headline is really all there is to the story, for the moment. It will take a few minutes for reactions to accumulate. Maybe the phantom Monday Times is full of responses to a proposed Bloomberg candidacy. Everybody read about it online yesterday. Would Bloomberg get my vote? How many ways are there to say ‘yes’?

The big story, however, is the compare-and-contrast account of the water situation in Flint, Michigan: compare what officials said, once the decision was made to detach the city from Detroit’s supply (which was, it seems, “expensive” — however safe), with what was actually the case. This is perhaps the most dramatic tale of élite failure in our time, and I hope that it will be anatomized down to the last group-think minutes of the smallest political commission. The denial and disregard of the toxic pollution of a necessity of life by elected and appointed officials is so dire that one hears tumbrils over the horizon. What is keeping the good people of Flint from lynching the city manager, one wonders. Perhaps he has prudently left town. It difficult to fight off the conviction that, after due judicial process, Governor Snyder ought to be put to death by robots wielding lead pipes.

Meanwhile, snow. Looking at the Times’s Web site this morning, I see a lot about snow removal but nothing about store restocking. Not that I’ll need to shop for a few days yet. I still have the makings of Chicken Tetrazzini on hand, not to mention a Carbonnade à la Flamande that needs no more than sauce-finishing and a sliced baguette. As soon as the new pizza stone arrives, I can get back in the pizza business. The old stone broke because it was round, and I had to store it vertically. Inevitably, it did a wheelie, tipped over, and shattered. No more round pizza stones. King Arthur, source of the replacement, advises me to leave the new one on the bottom shelf of the oven. I’ll give that a try. I’m told that the stone, along with some re-usable sheets of parchment (now declared to be a necessity in baking pizza at home, probably because they reduce dependence on cornmeal, which scatters everywhere and then burns, like the crumbs at the bottom of the toaster), yeast and yet another sourdough starter, is in transit. Yes, but when will it get here?

Although I spent about four hours in the kitchen on Saturday, prepping this and baking that, and, more important, straightening a few cupboards, I did a lot of reading over the weekend. In the journals, there was Heather Havrilevsky on Nicholas Sparks (Bookforum) and Tanya Gold on the Royal Family (Harper’s), shrieks both. There was Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels (1955), which I pulled down from the shelf for pleasure. And there was Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1587? 1592?), which — well, I forget why I decided to re-read it. The decision was made a few years ago. When the Penguin Classic arrived (Five Revenge Tragedies, edited by Emma Smith; the first Quarto version of Hamlet (1603) is included — Polonius appears as “Corambis,” and the two flunkies immortalized by Tom Stoppard as “Rossencraft” and “Gilderstone”), I read the first couple of scenes of Act I but then stopped, defeated by the dreadful writing. In a more conscientious frame of mind, I pulled it down again last week, and struggled through it in a couple of days, finishing it on Saturday afternoon.

Having just read the Rosencranz and Guildenstern version of Hamlet, I was well-prepped to deplore Thomas Kyd’s prosody, which is long on witless repetitions and longer on witless rhymes. Consider the opening lines of 2.4, delivered by Horatio in what turns out to be his last scene. (Despite his expectation of security, he is murdered at the end of it.)

Now that the night begins with sable wings
To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
Come Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower,
And there in safety pass a pleasant hour.

I don’t mind sharing what this reminded me of:

To you, my little prairie flower,
I’m thinking of you every hour.

That’s the poem that Daniel Leeson reads, having written it down on a sheet of paper, to Lucy Warriner, in The Awful Truth, while Lucy’s husband, Jerry, lurks behind the doorway, armed with a pencil, which he surreptitiously brushes against Lucy’s ribs, making her giggle inappropriately. The terrible thing about these verses is that they really are deathless! Their inanity is unsurpassed.

Though now you’re just a friend to me,
I wonder what the end will be. [Tickle]
Oh, you would make my life divine
If you would change your name to mine.

In my senior year at Blair, I wrote a paper on The Spanish Tragedy. We were given a list of works to choose from, and this was one of them. I can only imagine what drew me to it. The subtitle, perhaps (“Hieronimo’s mad againe”), or the promise of betrayal and blood. But all the gore in the world can’t make up for the complete lack of psychological shading. I dimly recall being distressed by the play’s tedium, and I’m sure that my paper did not get a very high mark. And how lucky we are that the name “Bel-Imperia” did not catch on.

Less Than Angels reminded me of Eileen Myles, the poet who has been much in the news because — I forget why. Myles has called for men to stop writing books for fifty years and making movies for a hundred. This makes a lot of sense to me, although if I am offered the chance to publish a book I shall not decline. When I was a boy, it was doubted that women were really capable of men’s work; a generation later, we have reached a stalemate in which women are permitted to do anything so long as they accept half-pay. If only more men would step out of the working world for a while, becoming dependent upon their wives, we might rectify this imbalance.

Less Than Angels is infused with a tamped-down impatience with <sigh. men. It bubbles away, just below the laughter. Every now and then it is allowed to spew forth, but only for a moment, and only through the cross mouth of Miss Clovis, the administrative battleaxe who likes nothing so much as needling men. The men in Miss Clovis’s life are mostly anthropologists, and Pym has a field day studying them.

The most romantic character in the book is not the nineteen year-old anthropology student, Deirdre Swan, who would be the heroine of a more orthodox novel, but her spinster aunt, Rhoda Wellcome. Rhoda is a Mary who would willingly be Martha to the right man — a quantity unlikely to materialize in her shy, protected life. Rhoda is one of Pym’s miracle characters, respectable, churchgoing, more than a little strait-laced, but lovable withal. Rhoda is always learning things. Here she is at a dinner that she and her sister are giving for an assortment of friends and neighbors, including Deirdre’s first love, Tom Mallow. Rhoda’s sister starts a conversation by asking what people eat in Africa.

“The Hadzapi tribe will eat anything that is edible except for the hyena,’”declared Alaric precisely.

“Oh, well…” Mabel spread out her hands in a hopeless little gesture.

“The butcher wouldn’t offer you hyena anyway,” giggled Phyllis.

“Most African tribes are very fond of meat when they can get it,” said Tom.

“Yes, and many of them relish even putrescent meat,” said Alaric solemnly.

“Do they understand the principles of cooking as we know it?” asked Rhoda.

“Oh, yes, a good many of them do,” said Alaric. “In some very primitive societies, though, they would just fling the unskinned carcase on the fire and hope for the best.”

“Yes, like that film of the Australian aborigines we saw at the Anthropology Club,” said Deirdre. “They flung a kangaroo on the fire and cooked it like that.”

“Now, who would like some potato salad?” said Rhoda, feeling that there was something a little unappetizing about the conversation. She had imagined that the presence of what she thought of as clever people would bring about some subtle change in the usual small talk. The sentences would be like bright jugglers’ balls, spinning through the air and being deftly caught and thrown up again. But she saw now that that conversation could also be compared to a series of incongruous objects, scrubbing-brushes, dish-cloths, knives, being flung or hurtling rather than spinning, which were sometimes not caught at all but fell to the ground with resounding thuds. In the haze brought about by Malcolm’s cocktail, she saw the little dark-skinned aborigines, swinging the kangaroo by its legs and hurtling it on to the fire. Certainly she had to admit that the conversation was different from what it usually was and perhaps that was the best that could be expected. (146-7)

Tom Mallow, for all his county background, is no more a hero than Deirdre is a heroine, and he comes to a Waughian end back in Africa. The older woman that Tom leaves for callow Deirdre is far more interesting. Catherine Oliphant writes advice and fiction for women’s magazines; it does not go without saying that she rarely follows her own advice. She has a marvelous scene with an aunt of Tom’s who “drops in” for a conversation that is right out of La Traviata, as Catherine herself points out. The aunt is too late: she is almost disappointed to learn that Tom is no longer living in sin with a woman so poised, chic, and intelligent as Catherine. This is not, however, to suggest that Catherine is Our Kind. There is a corresponding scene at the end that Pym handles just as well, and perhaps even better, by resisting classical echoes and even closure itself. Tom’s sister, a countrywoman, summons Catherine and Deirdre to her club in St James’s; Tom’s first love, whose first love appears to be golden retrievers, is also of the party. It is decided that Tom’s papers, currently en route from Africa, ought to be sent to Miss Clovis; beyond that, connection is resisted. Pym shows why this must be so.

Catherine did not think it would matter very much how they dressed since it would be most unlikely that they would attain the standard set by Josephine and Elaine.

When Catherine and Deirdre entered the lounge of the club, Catherine’s suspicions were proved correct, for they had hardly set foot on the soft carpet before two women, both wearing well-cut grey suits, small hats and pearls, and carrying fur wraps, stood up and advanced toward them. It was perhaps humiliating, Catherine felt, that she and Deirdre should be so easily recognized, hatless, in loose tweed coats and flat shoes. Deirdre had scraped back her loose and flowing hair into a kind of tail and darkened her eyebrows so much that she looked quite fierce. Catherine was just herself, but had made an effort to be neater than usual. (250-1)

Less Than Angels is not entirely misanthropist. There is a young man called Digby Fox, initially part of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern pair of poor young graduate students (the other winds up marrying a debutante and going into Leadenhall Street). When Tom Mallow leaves for Africa, his friends gather to see him off at one of those old-fashioned “air terminals” from which you would take a bus to the actual airport. As soon as Tom’s bus departs, Deirdre laments that she and the others are now part of the past.

“Only where he is concerned,” said Digby. “We are still ourselves, you know.”

He had taken her arm and was attending to her with great kindness and solicitude. Catherine was glad to see this and made no attempt to take upon herself the role of comforter, which is often regarded as a kind of female monopoly though it can be admirably filled by the right kind of man. (193)

Yet another novel that I was sad to put down.

I don’t know how far I’m going to get with Daniel Martin. The first chapter is rebarbative with agricultural terminology that nobody knows anymore. Nevertheless, John Fowles declared that the novel was “intended as a defense and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.” The exploration is undoubtedly dated, and I expect that I’ll disagree with Fowles about humanism, but I’ve got to read the book to find out.


Tuesday 26th

Two papers today: Monday’s and Tuesday’s. Having gotten through both, I want to go back to bed. And I should, if I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. Also, there is this to write. It’s especially important to write something today, because I am not going to write anything tomorrow, nothing for The Daily Blague, that is, not tomorrow nor on any future Wednesday. Even without the help of such crude yardsticks as word counts, regular readers will have observed an increase in — more crudity — output. Volume. Verbiage. It has poured forth readily enough, but it has consumed all of the energy that I have for intellectual activity, loosely defined, by which I mean that I simply cannot bring myself to go through the mail or do anything else having to do with knowledge work. By the time I’ve proof-read what I’ve written, somewhere in the early afternoon, I am shot for the day, good for nothing that involves the brain. Oh, I can read. But reading doesn’t count.

There are the weekend days, it’s true — but they are weekend days. They are not work days. So I must reserve a weekday for housework: not just the bills and such but the magazine renewals and the insurance forms and the cards in which I send our grandson a contribution to his allowance — now shockingly overdue, just like everything else. Wednesdays have long been my day for going out, running errands, seeing doctors — yes, I’ll be at the dermatologist’s tomorrow — so it makes sense (or at least I hope it does) to clear the whole day for current affairs.

It seems increasingly clear to me that this site’s days are numbered, that, sooner or later, I am going to spend my mornings writing something else. I may very well do this online, but it will not be a Web log. It will be an intellectual memoir. That sounds pretty grandiose, doesn’t it. But I say that as modestly as one might speak of writing a novel. I myself am not going to write a novel. This is not to say that my intellectual memoir will be altogether free of fiction, for who can make such a promise? And I do hope to make a story of it, because it is the elemental urge to tell a story, my story, that propels me. I still don’t know quite what this story is, but I do know a great deal more about it now than I did, say, a year ago, or even last summer. I have been letting the DBR teach me what it is — one of the reasons for the increase in writing. Until very recently, I worried that my story was so peculiar that it would turn out to be a vaguely repellent curiosity, but lately I have felt the smack of cliché: my story, while indeed my own, is just like everybody else’s.


Like every lump of human stuff, I feel, at least at times, both incomplete and excluded: alone. Like everyone else, I want to put an end to these uncomfortable feelings. Some people believe that it is possible to overcome the isolation of the body, but I don’t; I believe that our very sense of who we are, each of us, is the consequence of being sealed within our skin. Union, escape, transcendence — call it what you will; it can’t happen the physical world. So we have invented a spiritual counterpart to our corporeal individuality; but we can never be quite sure that the spirits are real. Or we worry that our spirits are not as robust as we should like them to be. The strongest faith is not entirely, absolutely unwavering. Something is always missing. This is the story of everyone who is conscious of having a story. Something was missing, so I set out to find it. And I found something else instead.

Because all we have at the start is the sense of missing — incompleteness and exclusion. What we miss must, because we miss it, be somewhere. Where? So we look, but without knowing what for. Everyone who has a story — and this is by no means everybody, unfortunately — finds something else, something that takes the sense of being partial and isolated off the boil. It is something that we didn’t know was there, and to some extent it is brought into existence by our search. We must discover it for ourselves. This may sound trite, but it stands in sharp contrast to our idea that children needn’t be expected to stumble onto the rules of grammar or the multiplication tables by themselves. There are many things that can be taught, but the thing that each of us is looking for must be custom-made. It is created, if not by, then in the search.

Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that Man creates God. What I am saying is that each of us who believes in God creates his or her peculiar relationship to God — a relationship that cannot be fully comprehended by words. (To put the matter with greater piety, we allow God to frame our relationship.) The outward parts of this relationship may be rigorously orthodox, adhering in every particular to the pertinent catechism, and yet be privately distinct. For we can never know what some else’s relation to God might be. All we know is our own, and, as I say, we cannot fully express it even to ourselves. This is true no matter what the object of our relationship might be; all that is certain is that this relationship is the thing that takes the place of what we thought we were looking for.

For we began by looking for something that would make us feel complete and included within ourselves. Instead, we found relationship. To another person, perhaps. To a kind of work. To an understanding of the cosmos. The person, the work, the cosmos — these all remain outside us, beyond the envelope of skin that contains us. But the relationship to them stops the wound of incompleteness and exclusion. And that is the story told by everybody who has a story to tell. As I say, not everybody does. Some people do not, or cannot, find relationships. Some people will not settle for relationships; they demand thorough-going, self-sufficient autonomy. Some people are too damaged to sustain a relationship, and can’t seem to be healed. Some people fear that relationships are just another illusion. Many people have terrible judgment. All that we can do for these unfortunates is to tell our stories better. We can never tell our stories well enough.


I believe that what we find when we set out to look for what’s missing is, simply, humanity. Although we are human beings, we do not possess humanity. We participate in it unawares. I am part of your humanity, even though I don’t give it a thought. Humanity is other people. Humanity makes your life, your very existence, possible. It teaches you everything that you know. It creates the world that you inhabit on this planet. Humanity feeds you; indeed, there is no other source of nourishment. Without humanity, you would be nothing. And yet, you have to find it for yourself.

It is always hard to find what is standing right in front of you. We come out of childhood thinking that we know about the world, but we are mistaken: all we know is what is useful to a child. Unless something is terribly wrong, children do not know that they are incomplete or excluded: they are complete and included in their parents. Then — the horror of adolescence — their parents become other people. Rather, they cease to be what you thought they were. And yet, there they are, standing just as they always have. They are still your parents, but they are also distinct human beings, and you must find them again in humanity, that world of other people. This is understandably difficult.

I never knew my own parents, but I don’t know how important this is. Other people took the place of my parents, and the main thing to know about this is that I was told about the arrangement when I was seven years old. Perhaps the thing to know is the way I took the news. Some people, I understand, hear such news and don’t find that it makes much difference. They go on loving their parents just as much as ever, as parents. To my thinking, the salient aspect is surprise. If the news that you were adopted as an infant comes as a surprise, then I do not think that it will change anything. But if the news confirms something that you have always suspected, then you will permit yourself to acknowledge other feelings. If you are like me, you will undergo the totality of adolescence right there, in that teary hour by the fireplace. The experience will be grievously premature. What, after all, do seven year-olds really understand, about where babies come from? In any case, your parents will become human beings ahead of schedule. And, by their own admission, they are no longer quite your parents.


Thursday 28th

The foregoing paragraphs triggered an emergency response from an old friend who happens to be a doctor. She detected what I’ll call a note of suicidal resignation. I wrote back to reassure her, but I do see what bothered her, and I don’t dismiss it. I believe that some people do kill themselves because they are tired. They don’t do anything dramatic, but they stop taking care of themselves, they stop watching out. They walk in front of a bus, not deliberately but not unawares, either. They stop taking their meds. They let go. And I am very tired.

Part of it is age, but by “age” I don’t mean the physical fallapart so much as the weariness of having seen enough. There’s a piece in today’s Times — today’s Upshot column. Josh Barro reports:

The process of labor market adjustment is “gummier than anybody realized,” said Mr. Hanson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. The persistent negative effects of Chinese trade on much of the American labor market have “toppled much of the received wisdom about the impact of trade on labor markets,” Mr. Hanson wrote with his co-authors, especially the “consensus that trade could be strongly redistributive in theory but was relatively benign in practice.”

Well, gee. Thanks for waking up, you guys! Barro gives economists a pass because, historically — and I can see you becoming tired enough to walk in front of a bus whenever I say “historically” — foreign competition did not disrupt labor markets. That’s because we were competing with Canada and Germany and other places of comparable per capita wealth. Who knew that China would be different? How could anybody not know? If you squint, Barro’s piece reads like a joke from The Onion.

Gummier — I like that. But it explains why I’m so tired.

In my fatigue, I have dreamed up yet another constitutional amendment: if voter turnout in federal elections (presidential or not) drops below sixty percent, then the government is disbanded — it simply ceases to exist. The Fed shuts down, the armed forces go home, and airports become much more dangerous but also much more convenient. The more I think about it, the less frivolous this suggestion seems. It might take the extremism out of American politics, like, forever.


I’m also tired because I want to say something about what living is like — and I’m thinking about all people alive today, now, not just Americans — but I want to say it without sounding “philosophical.” One of the things that disappointed me, when I tried to sketch my idea yesterday, was that, for all the jocularity with which I tried to loosen up my insights, I caught myself beginning a sentence with “It follows…” That’s what I mean by “philosophy.” If this, then that. The rigors of reason, the urge to account for everything in some grand, all-accommodating system. I disclaim any and all ambitions to think systematically, but the ground is so littered with the habits of systematic speech that it’s hard not to trip over them. Isn’t there another way of talking about how we live?

Yes, there is, but it takes much longer to get across. So much longer that, just thinking about it, I want to curl up and sleep forever.

And yet there is hope in “forever.” Do we have all day? We have forever. We have, at any rate, as long as we’re here.

That sounds nice: no rush. But look what happens when I say, “This is going to take forever.” Not so nice. It is not really the same statement, put in different words, at all. The difference between “have” and “take” is all the difference in the world.


Can we talk? I am a human being. I am stuck in the frame of a tall, overweight male, nearly seventy years old. I always have a beard, and sometimes a twinkle in my eye. I am a bundle — it really doesn’t matter whether “I” am the bundle or “my frame,” the thing I’m stuck in, is the bundle — of skills and experiences. The thing to know about me, since we are probably never going to meet, is that I like to read, and that I especially like to read things that make me laugh. I go in for shrieks, as the Mitford sisters put it. Just for the spice of it, I’ll add that I’m crazy about the fragrance of the carbonnades â la flamande that is filling the kitchen. I made the stew myself, but I credit its miraculousness to the veal broth that I bought at Agata & Valentina.

Philosophers ranging from Hume to Descartes tell me that I might be imagining that fragrance, not to mention the existence of Agata & Valentina. They warn that I cannot be sure about anything outside the bundle that contains me. I could be living in the middle of an illusion. Life could be a dream.

Well, that certainly sounds like the kind of thought that would preoccupy a thinker living in the middle of the intellectual storm that dumped the scientific revolution on us, and then the industrial revolution. Year after year ever since, students at the best schools have been taught what Descartes and Hume and the rest thought. Then they have forgotten all about it, most of them, because life is not a dream. Hume may be right — we see what we want or expect to see — but this does not mean that there is nothing to see. There is something self-cancelling about the idea that the material world in which we think we live does not really exist: it stops in its tracks and then evaporates. You cannot make anything of it. As Descartes might have ventured, the real world exists because we think it exists.

To understand this world scientifically, these days, is to get tangled up in entangled particles, and a lot of other rebarbative concepts. Knock yourselves out, say I to the scientists. But I’m going to go on experiencing the world from inside my bundle, no matter what you tell me. I am not going to try to figure out how my bundle really works, or what it really consists of. I am not interested in “really.” I am interested in “ordinarily.” I am interested in making the ordinary a little neater, a little more consistent, perhaps even a little more helpful.


What I want to talk about is the problem that we all have, as human beings, locked up in our bundles of skin and saddled with what we call “human nature.” This phrase, “human nature,” is used as if it expressed a scientific understanding of what it means to be human. As such, it’s a folk science, and not scientific in the least. “Human nature” is a collection of received truths about how people behave, grounded in the understanding that it is almost impossible for them to behave otherwise. This is why philosophers and others get so worked up about “altruism.” Altruism appears to be contrary to human nature, so how can it exist. Does it exist, skeptics ask. We could sit here all day, or even forever, and never get to the problem posed by the appearance of altruism, not because selflessness and sacrifice are hard to understand — they’re not! — but because it’s difficult to reconcile them with “human nature.” Our ideas about “human nature” have borrowed a great deal from genuinely scientific inquiries, and especially from the investigations of Charles Darwin, but these borrowings have been selective, and we have invested them with “meanings” that existed long before Darwin. Who needed Darwin to tell us that we are selfish? Nobody. What Darwin did, we say, was this: he proved, scientifically, that “human nature’ is selfish. Nonsense.

So, here we have this thing called “human nature” that, by and large, we deplore, even though we can’t escape it. So we say.

And over there, we have something called “humanity.” We associate that word not with selfishness or greed or lust or murderous rage, but with nice things — altruism, for example. We have a concept of “the humane.” The “humane” is all good. If everybody were humane, there would be no problems on earth. Well, illness and death, maybe, but you know what I mean. Humane behavior is admirable and desirable. But what is not human about “humane”? Why does our concept of human nature seem to exclude everything that is encompassed by our idea of the humane?

I have a hunch about this. It is not a theory. It is just a thought that emerged from thinking about these things. When I was writing about it yesterday, I expressed it in bullet points, which is what led me into if/then territory. So today, Instead of building up my argument, I am going to begin with its conclusion, and then support it, but with observations instead of proofs. I am trying to avoid the appearance of proving anything. There is one little axiom that I should like to deploy, for syntactical and rhetorical reasons: “humanity” is the manifestation of “the humane.” Not really, mind you; not scientifically. But that’s how we tend to speak of it. It’s how we think that interests me, because I think that we’d be better off if we thought a little more clearly.

Humanity, as I wrote the other day, is other people. For each of us, humanity consists of people we know, and, less importantly, of people whom we don’t know. This is my conclusion. I’m very well aware that some people are so disgusted by human nature that they don’t think much of the people whom they know, either, because they are also so visibly infected with human nature. For such people, humanity tends to exist on the other side of the world, among people who speak different languages and who live without the corruption of brass and marble mod cons. I feel sorry for people who take this dim view of things, although I’m a little impatient with them, too, because so many of them live in my neighborhood.

Humanity also consists of everything that people — and note here that I use “people” as a term for individuals in whom human nature and humanity intersect — have ever done. Most of this is invisible, but that doesn’t make it nothing. Our manners, our language — everything that we take for granted as children is the result of everything that has ever been done. Perhaps that is a second axiom; maybe it’s just common sense with a telephoto lens. Mozart is dead. His music lives on, and is very much a part of humanity. But I like to think that his fondness for dressing up and giving parties is still with us, too, however dimly. I like to think of him in his ballroom — he had an apartment big enough to hold one, for a while. Yes! His own ballroom. And here you thought he was poor, because aren’t all the best artists? Plus, Amadeus? But Mozart was not poor; he was broke, and now you know why. I like to think of Mozart insisting that nobody else could play the piano as well as he could. A real pain, this guy! I like the stories about Mozart, some of which are true. They are all part of humanity — along with the great music.

Now, the important thing about humanity, I want to suggest, is not that it is so much better than human nature. We like to make humanity out to be better than human nature because we feel stuck with our own human nature, but hopeful about everybody else’s humanity. When I say that humanity is other people, I’m saying a lot, and one of those things is that we like to think that it is up to everybody else to be humane. For ourselves, for each of us, it is just too hard. We can be humane every once in a while, but we are not the Pope or Mother Teresa. The Pope and Mother Teresa, however, are, or were, other people, and capable of great humanity. But this is just one of the things that I mean when I say that humanity is other people.

What I want to say most about humanity is that it is our connection with humanity — with other people, with what other people have done — that makes us humane. Each of us. We are transformed by each connection from bundles of self into something greater. The greater the number of connections, the greater the transformation. There is a certain limitation, of course. All the connections in the world are not going to relieve us of the need to take care of our individual bundles. We can’t give away all our possessions and hope for the best. (Maybe with Eileen Myles in mind, Jesus never seems to have asked a woman to give away all her possessions and follow him. He knew a good thing.) We have to take care of ourselves, if only to spare other people the drudgery. But this is a limitation, not an obstacle. We are still free to redeem our crummy human nature by making contact with what’s good about other people.

Do admit that I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know.

I have this little aide-memoire that I want you to take. Fix it on a lapel pin, if you like.



Friday 29th

These thoughts about humanity, and what it means for each of us — or most of us, or many of us, or the few of us who can be bothered to think about it, or maybe just for you and me; just me? — leads me to thoughts about hope and ignorance. The union of hope and ignorance is most clearly illuminated by the prospect of your death. You hope that your death will be peaceful, painless, surrounded by loved ones, &c. You hope that you will die neither in a violent explosion nor after twenty years in a vegetative state. Perhaps you hope that you will never die. All of this hoping depends on ignorance. The minute you knew, if you could know, the time and circumstances of your death, no matter how distant and rosy, hope would give way to a sentence of death — a heavy thing to live with. We may hate uncertainty when it comes to things that we want or need, but ignorance about many things that lie in the future is the cushion from which reposing hope springs to life.

Hope and ignorance are also joined in humanity, at least as I’ve presented it here. You will never know what is going on in another person’s mind. And this is a good thing, because it allows you to hope that the other person is well-disposed toward you, perhaps even in love with you (whatever that means to you). I don’t mean to be cynical; your hoping that someone loves you does not mean that you are not, in fact, beloved. It means that you don’t know what loving you means to your lover, and allows for hopes of an even more perfect union. What you don’t know may very well hurt you, but by the same token it clears the ground for hope.

When it comes to the benefits of forging connections with friends and lovers, or simply making the most of the connections that parenthood creates, our dispensers of general wisdom can get pretty dogmatic. There is more insistence than assurance in the claim that these connections are Good For You, that they will make you Happy and Fulfilled, and so on. Unfortunately, luck has a role to play here: we can only hope that we do not live up the Orinoco, stranded far away, in time or space, from the society that would encourage us to make the most of ourselves, and that would present us with our compleat soul mate. We shall never know; but some of us, certainly, will feel happy enough with where we are and whom we’re with not to be bothered by such thoughts. Others, just as certainly, I fear, will not know such satisfaction. They may devote themselves to their work and do their best to make happy families, but find themselves unable to suppress the question, Is this all there is? I have no words of wisdom for such discontent; I can only say that I respect it. This means that I refrain from suggesting making lemonade out of lemons.

I do feel, however, that connections, even when they fall short, contribute true wisdom and a sense of completion, neither of which can ever be mined from within. If I recognize that life can be rough, I nevertheless insist that stoicism and other modes of withdrawal are childish, little more than spiteful but pathetic reactions to (and would-be rejections of) life’s vicissitudes. John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


A number of political humorists (citations?) have speculated that Donald Trump never intended his presidential bid to attract long-term support, and that many of his moves, such as his line about Mexican murderers and rapists, have been intended to sabotage it, the joke being that he can’t figure out how to turn the damned thing off. I love this idea almost as much as I love Alan Bennett’s portrait of the Queen as an “uncommon reader,” but I don’t believe either of them. Nevertheless, I won’t be surprised if the Donald makes use of this campaign analysis, if that is the word, in the event that last night’s pity party winds up putting him out of the running. The important thing for Trump is to win, and it doesn’t matter at what. Claiming to have pulled off an outrageous bluff would be just as good as winning the White House, so long as that improbable coiffure were wreathed in triumph.

“He clerked for Rehnquist?” Kathleen expostulated this morning, reading about Ted Cruz in the Times. I myself just learned that the other day, when the paper ran a photograph of Cruz, not even wearing a jacket, sitting to the left of the robed Chief Justice. I was more surprised to see how pretty Cruz used to be, how Elvis-like. The old maxim is true again: pretty people have to choose the face or the figure. If you stay trim, as Cruz has done, you risk becoming, as Cruz has done, extravagantly unattractive. Kathleen was also shocked to read that Cruz went to Harvard Law. Yes, and Princeton, too, I put in, making sure that her understanding of Cruz as a populist was complete. As I always say, Only in Texas.

The problem with Hillary Clinton as a candidate is that she seats the united couple of hope and ignorance on a very scratchy horsehair sofa, upon which comfort will always be an impossibility. You hope, considering the alternatives, that she will win, but you can’t quite summon the ignorance required to believe that she ought to win. Clinton has an unparalleled ignorance problem: we know her far too well. While it is generally true that we know nothing about what somebody else is really like inside, it is entirely possible that this unknowable somebody inside Hillary was strangled to death at some point no later than her Goldwater Republican days. Mrs Clinton is diligent and capable, and she will perform her presidential duties more than satisfactorily. But she will not be a leader: she will not fill the ignorant with hope.

In all fairness, it ought to be pointed out that even Barack Obama could not do that.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Exquisite Spleen
January 2016 (III)

Tuesday 19th

Still afflicted by a cold — a cold, mind you; not congested sinuses with sniffles and coughs but a sense of being cold, almost all the time, even when the room is almost unbearably hot for Kathleen — I am indulging corresponding eccentricities. Once again, I went back to bed after reading the Times this morning. I wrapped myself up like an invalid in a deck chair, and fell asleep, napping for nearly two hours. During the nap, I dreamed furiously about a book that, I decided, I must re-read. Parts of the novel (which came in four boxed, paperback volumes, with interior fire-escapes and brick walls on the covers) came to me unbidden, but it was very hard to connect them, and there was also an uncomfortable feeling that the novel was about me. That it told the whole truth about me. As I woke up, and realized that I had dreamed the book up, disappointment gave way to relief.

The novel that I had fallen asleep while reading was Theodor Fontane’s Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich, 1891). A few years ago, NYRB republished Douglas Parmée’s 1964 translation, and I bought it on the strength of somebody’s review. But almost at once, my idea of the characters clotted unattractively — they would not be worth caring about, I feared. It took a deliberate policy of reading neglected NYRB volumes, combined with the success of Stoner, another such, late last year, to get me to take Irretrievable down from the shelf. Even then, it languished for a few weeks with the bookmark tucked into the third or fourth page. The book opens at a seaside mansion, recently built by a count. But what kind of count, and which sea? That’s to say, were we in Germany or Denmark, on the North Sea or the Baltic?

When I picked up the novel again last week, I learned that its tale is set in 1859. But it was only yesterday, when I took up Irretrievable in earnest — I have now reached the two-thirds mark, and should much rather be reading Fontane’s novel than sitting here writing — that the significance of the date registered. In 1859, Schleswig-Holstein, a pair of provinces north of Hamburg, still ran up into the neck of mainland Denmark; a few years later, it would be torn away by Prussia, in the first of Bismarck’s little German wars. I know about this war because it caused no small embarrassment at the British court. The queen’s oldest child, also Victoria, was the Crown Princess of Prussia; her brother, the Prince of Wales, had just married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. (I don’t really know what to do with little wars, memory-wise, until I have an embarrassing scene to attach them to.) As usual, Bismarck made cunning use of the accidents of history, which in this case threw up some uncertainty about the inheritance of the duchy of the provinces. I remember reading somewhere that Bismarck joked — but I’ve recently written about this, in connection with Syria.

I’m trying to do better about avoiding such repetitions. Last week, wasn’t it, I wrote about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. Only when I was done did I search the site for a previous reference, and then I found that I had already said much the same thing about my favorite lines, but put it slightly differently in each case, such that I should be hard put to decide which one to keep. (I was also reminded to renew the struggle with William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity.) Within the space of a week, then, I have repeated myself twice, or nearly. Perhaps I have run out of material?

Anyway, Irretrievable is very good. It begins in what was Denmark at the time, and much of the action takes place in and around Copenhagen, involving an aunt of the then king whom I think Fontane made up — a worldly and amusing princess of seventy to whom the hero, as it were, is a Gentleman in Waiting. When I asked Kathleen if she had ever heard of gentlemen in waiting for princesses, she declared that they would be most inappropriate, but I had not learned the princess’s age when I asked. A worldly old lady definitely needs gentlemen in waiting, even if “being younger” puts them in their fifities and sixties. The trouble is, the princess has a very fetching, twenty-nine year-old lady in waiting, a very clever woman whom I instinctively cast as a blend of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alicia Vikander.


Thanks to a piece in Sunday’s Review section, the weekly potpourri of Op-Ed pieces, I learned about a Web site that I’d never heard of. I visited the Web site and read the latest entry, which is basically about the importance of dates in the study of history. Specifically, the author, who seems to be roughly the same age as the temptress in Irretrievable, felt obliged to insist that the only thing that is certain in history is the lifespan of historical figures. You can argue about the importance/virtue/depravity/&c of Innocent III, Copernicus, and Marie Antoinette, but you cannot argue about their dates of birth and death. The wonderful thing about knowing these dates is that they tell you who was alive at the same time. Josef Haydn and George Washington, for example, were very close contemporaries. (They were born in the same year, but Haydn lived for another ten.) Also a contemporary was the Qianlong (Ch’ien Lung) emperor of China (1735-1796). More interactively, Pitt the Younger and Napoleon were contemporaries, closer in age than, say, Churchill and Hitler. Nobody today needs reminding that Churchill and Hitler were alive at the same time, but just you wait. My point is that Pitt was the Churchill of his day, or Churchill the Pitt of his. (I also trust that you know what I mean by “nobody.”)

There is no getting around the importance of dates. And there’s no pretending that dates aren’t a nightmarish nuisance for anyone who isn’t really interested in history. The trick isn’t to make dates interesting, somehow; it’s to make history interesting. The history of anything will do. For me, it was classical music. Classical music is much easier to grasp if you know its history. For general purposes, that history, although it strictly begins much earlier, deep in the Middle Ages, covers the three centuries that run from 1650. The history of classical music consists of knowing what composers grew up hearing, or, more important, not hearing. The symphonies of Mahler did not inspire Bach or Mozart, but Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was explicitly inspired by Haydn’s symphonies. The dates will explain how this was so. Brahms wrote in a highly personalized version of what was for him a contemporary idiom, but it was deeply informed by music of the past, even though that inspiration does not show through stylistically, but only glimmers on the printed score. It is difficult to connect the turbulent, still-urgent operas of Verdi (who died over a century ago) with the relatively pallid court entertainments that Haydn and Mozart had to contend with. (Haydn was old enough to be Mozart’s father, but he outlived him by nearly twenty years. Their artistic primes, however, coincided.) But the links in the chain not only illuminate the connection but demonstrate its power, which it took the young Verdi about ten years to overthrow. With classical music, you have a choice: it can be either a jumble of “100 Best-Loved Hits,” in which case most of it will be complicated and boring; or it can be a development, with composers mining a few seams of musical possibility against the background of shifting audiences — a story, a history, told in music.

So it is with the history of everything. Everything that happens is the result of accidents. The man who would grow up to be Charlemagne was born in and shaped by, as we all are, the world he grew up in. That world was, in turn, shaped by him. (And how.) But if you want to understand Charlemagne’s works beyond the confines of the mere statement that he was a military leader who conquered a lot of territory — a statement that applies to Alexander the Great and to Genghis Khan as well, but so what? — then you have to know his dates. Happily, Charlemagne has left us one of the easiest dates in history: he became the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 CE. Once you nail this date, the accidental quality of Charlemagne’s existence diminishes considerably. The establishment of the Holy Roman Empire is itself much less of an accident than Charlemagne’s birth (sometime in the 740s), and, with a little work but a lot of interest, a host of other dates can be nailed nearby.

There ought to be a Nobel Prize for the genius who devises an app that insinuates all the dates into the minds of eager young gamers.

As to the Web site that was mentioned in the Times, I can say that it seems to be very popular. But I’d rather not say more until I’ve had a longer experience. I’m told to expect two to four new postings in the mail every month.


Wednesday 20th

In today’s mail, a notice from Facebook reminds me that today is the birthday of my old friend from radio days. Alas, he died shortly before his last birthday, a year ago. What is the protocol for dying at Facebook? And while we’re talking about dates, let me to my shame confess that two days ago, when I was thinking of my late friend, I neglected to do the same for my father, whose birthday (102nd) it was. Year after year, I am mortified to remember him on the 19th or the 20th, but never on the 18th. Some sort of remembrance of one’s parents on their birthdays is the plainest form of piety, and I am a perennial disgrace. Me with all the talk about the importance of dates. Mozart’s birthday, which will probably not pass by without my thinking on it, falls a week hence; ‘twould be his 260th.

Thanks to Google, I was ready for the fire. I’d looked at the pictures and seen the ruins. On 16 December 1859, Frederiksborg Castle, then an hour by train north of Copenhagen, was consumed in flames, and that is why Theodor Fontane set his novel, Irretrievable, at that time — not, as I expected, because he wanted to make some interesting use of the imminent conflict between Denmark and Prussia, with its Holsteiner hero caught in the middle. Publishing in the novel in 1891, Fontane may well have expected his German readers to expect the same — why else make use of what was by then a “historical” setting? Fontane’s resort to history is more subtle. Doubtless other great buildings had burned to the ground in living memory, but it is hard to imagine a disaster that would have suited his story nearly so well.

Irretrievable is billed as the story of a failed marriage. Both the late Douglas Parmée, in the introduction to his translation, and Phillip Lopate, in his Afterword to the NYRB reissue, call it such. But the novel may well be the first fictional representation of what we call the mid-life crisis, with all its pain and foolishness. It is only the outer chapters that portray the married couple in their unhappiness. After sixteen years, they have simply grown tired of accommodating one another. She thinks that he is frivolous and he thinks that she is a prig, and they are both right. Some readers will have no trouble sympathizing with one over the other, but I wasn’t even tempted to take sides. At the beginning of the book, it is true, the wife, having been counseled by all her friends to soften her rigors and to exercise her superior intelligence with greater discretion, is about to embark on a project of self-reform, but this is interrupted by a summons to the capital. Count Helmut and Countess Christine Holk are Germans, but their duke is the King of Denmark. This late-feudal, pre-nationalist arrangement was about to be “corrected” by Bismarck, who would take advantage of the death of the king (and duke) to interpose a German claim to the territory. But all of that is a red herring, nothing to do with the novel beyond keeping the informed first-time reader on edge.

Count Holk is a gentleman-in-waiting to an aunt of the king, the Princess Maria Eleanor — a creature of fiction. I could never figure out whether the Princess is a widow or a spinster. It doesn’t matter. She is a genial sister of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, a royal who remembers the ancien régime for its aristocratic liberties. Although no less virtuous than anybody else, the Princess rejects the patina of nurturing respectability so thoroughly that she struck me as an Edwardian figure — as having thrown off Victorian propriety in disgust, rather than as having refused to take it on. To Count Holk, a country gentleman of good breeding but astounding naïveté, the Princess is a wonderful old sinner. Why he appears on the roster of her gentlemen-in-waiting is another mystery that Fontane can’t be bothered to clear up. Just as Countess Holk is about to try to be a nicer wife, her husband learns that, because So-and-so has the measles, while Whatsisname is on a scientific expedition, waiting for Mount Etna to belch, he will have to fill in at the Princess’s little court. In the past, Christine has accompanied him to Copenhagen, but she declines to do so this time, claiming the need to place her children in suitable boarding schools — a bone of contention between husband and wife — as an excuse.

So Holk goes off to Copenhagen by himself, thoroughly prepared to enjoy the city’s amusements, as well as the comforts of his excellent landlady, Frau Hansen. In the interest of concision, I shall say only that it is at Frau Hansen’s that Holk is softened up, so to speak, for his mid-life crisis, which we already know will involve extensive internal mutterings about Christine and what fun she isn’t. Although a beautiful woman is all but catapulted into Holk’s room at the boarding house, the danger lies elsewhere, at court. The Princess has a new lady-in-waiting, Ebba von Rosenberg. Ebba is twenty-nine and a saucy mix of Voltaire and Oscar Wilde — and pretty to boot. She sizes up Holk immediately as a man who has no business being a courtier, and she tells the Princess so; nevertheless, she plays with him. The Princess worries from the start that things will get out of hand, but, aside from a mild word to Ebba, she does nothing. Holk’s fellow gentlemen warn him that he understands nothing about women, but this, as you might imagine, only piques him, for he is not aware of needing to know anything about any woman other than his wife, to whom he has always been effortlessly faithful.

It is of the essence of midlife crisis for a man to find himself caught in a trap that, not having foreseen it, he regards as an insulting act of treachery. It never crosses Holk’s mind that his blameless record in the past is no guarantee, given his current state of grievance against Christine. He fails to see that this grievance encourages him to indulge in courtly games from which he might formerly have withdrawn. He becomes, at the worst possible time, daring. All the while, the words of the woman who increasingly fascinates him, spoken not to him but to the Princess, ring in our ears.

It’s his character that is his basic weakness. And the worst of it is that he doesn’t even know it. Because he looks like a man, he considers himself one. But he’s only a good-looking man, which usually means not a man at all. All in all, he hasn’t had the proper training to develop his very modest talents in the line that would have suited him. He ought to have been a collector or an antiquarian or the director of a home for fallen girls or just a fruit-grower. (132)

There is an astoundingly funny exchange in which Holk tries to impress Ebba with his knowledge of genealogy. Is she a Polish Rosenberg or a Czech Rosenberg? Neither, she replies; she is a Meyer-Rosenberg, descended from Gustav III’s “pet Jew,” ennobled by his king only days before the king’s notorious assassination. “Holk could not repress a slight movement of shocked surprise…” (97) We can just imagine.

As Christmas approaches, the Princess moves her court, as is her custom, to Frederiksborg, still a royal castle. After the fire, it would be rebuilt with contributions from the (new) king as well as from the state, but the lion’s share would come from the brewer of Carlsberg, J C Jacobsen, and the castle would be re-established as a museum. Fontane mentions none of this: he leaves his readers will a royal ruin, as in one sense it remained; there would be no more Christmas house parties hosted by princesses. And of course the new structure would have windows that closed shut and fireplaces that didn’t smoke and whose chimneys did not spark — complaints abundantly made in the novel.

Rather than spoil Fontane’s masterful but light-handed interplay of romance and catastrophe, I should like to point rather to his answer to the question that pestered me from the moment of the party’s arrival at the castle. I’d been asking it earlier, but now it became pressing. It also involved sparks: how would Holk wake up to his obsession with Ebba, hitherto so obvious to everyone but himself? How would he realize what was going on? Just as Holk didn’t know, so neither did I: I was terrified that his awakening would be prosaic, disappointing, and somehow unconvincing. But Fontane does not disappoint.

One day, there is a skating party. The Princess is installed in a sled, and the party sets out upon the frozen part of a vast lake that in fact opens to the part of the Baltic known as the Skagerrak. Holk pushes the sled, while Ebba and two officers follow; the local preacher leads the way. It is a handsome picture. The journey takes the skaters from the edge of the castle grounds to the bank of a small hotel, where others await them.

Holk, with one hand resting on the back-rest of the sleigh, raised his hand with the other and in a second they came to a halt beside a small wooden jetty leading to the hotel. Pentz had come up meanwhile, and offering the Princess his arm, he assisted her up the bank, followed by the two captains. Only Holk and Ebba remained standing by the jetty as they watched the others going ahead and then they looked at each other. There was something very like jealousy in Holk’s eyes and as Ebba’s seemed only to reply with a half-mocking challenge which said: “Nothing venture, nothing win,” he seized her hand violently and pointed out to the west where the sun was sinking. She gave an almost arrogant nod and then, as if the others’ amusement were only an additional spur, they sped away together towards the place where the narrow gleaming strip of ice between the receding banks was lost in the wide expanse of Lake Arre. (191)

Of course! It would be a physical challenge, a carnal exhilaration that would shock Holk into awareness of his forbidden desires. Holk’s mind has nothing to do with it, mediocre organ that it is. It is his body that awakes to itself. After that, he is helpless and, of course, ridiculous.

Also very interesting is the way that Ebba deals with Holk’s laughable picture of their future together. While she is ill for a few days, recovering from the stress of the conflagration, he takes the opportunity to burn his bridges, but she does not laugh at him when he comes to her with the unwelcome but expected news. I should say that I have never seen a fire put out so quickly.

Irretrievable rather spoiled me for other novels. For elegantly formed, gently funny fiction, it can’t be beat. As Phillip Lopate suggests, Montaigne would have loved it.


Thursday 21st

The latest Reviews arrived yesterday, both of them. I dipped into the London, but read nearly everything in the New York. There’s a piece by David Maraniss about football, as in the future of, in which the author describes a spell of giving up watching the game on television. He wonders what it would be like to be Garry Wills, who told him once that he (Wills) had never seen ESPN. I can’t claim never to have seen ESPN — it’s onscreen (if muted) at too many luncheon spots. But I’ve never watched it, certainly never at home. But it is not given to man to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else, much less somebody who never does what you do all the time.

Maraniss quotes someone as saying, We’re in the gilded age of football, but the thing about gilded ages is that they collapse on themselves. Somebody else notes that college students are showing up at football games with their smartphones, leaving at halftime, and not coming back. I should forgive smartphones a great deal if they put a damper on stadium events of any kind.


Then there’s Janet Malcolm on Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes — the one from which the Hughes Estate’s permission to quote anything was withdrawn. I read Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath not too long ago, but I’d forgotten what an admirer of Hughes she was. Or perhaps she has become one. She execrates Bate’s book with such exquisite spleen that you come away wondering if sales will plummet to zero. As a literary biography, she insists, it is a washout: Bate’s comments on the poetry are jejune and his interest is clearly in the sexual gossip. These are her closing words:

He [Hughes] emerges from his letters as a man blessed with a brilliant mind and a warm and open nature, who seemed to take a deeper interest in other people’s feelings and wishes than the rest of us are able to do and who never said anything trite or obvious or pious or self-serving. Of course, this is Hughes’s epistolary persona, the persona he created the way novelists create characters. The question of what he was “really” like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.

Hear, hear! If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. This is not merely a moral claim, but the driest of truths, in that we cannot be known except by our deeds — the things that we do in public. The things that we do in private — which, certainly, we ought to do our best to keep private — are often incomprehensible to ourselves, and never intended to be comprehensible to anyone else. The minute sexual activity is intended to be anything it is no longer private or really even sexual. Some of Hughes’s lovers found him “forceful”; others, “sadistic.” Does this information help us to understand his poetry better? Or will it simply confuse us? Who knows, so long as no unfortunate is taken from the scene of passion to a hospital, what forceful and sadistic mean? The fact that everyone is naturally curious about everybody else’s sex life is the best reason in the world for excluding such tittle-tattle from literary biography. They ought to toss Bate out of Oxford.

A corollary that I can’t quite frame seems to emerge from Sue Halpern’s piece about Steve Jobs and Apple. Strictly speaking, it emerges from something that I read a long time ago, something that comes to mind every time I read about Jobs. I seem to have known something rather awful about Steve Jobs before I knew anything else, but that’s not possible, given the dates of Mona Simpson’s novels. A review of one of them mentioned that a certain character was based on Simpson’s “biological brother” — Steve Jobs. It went on to relate an anecdote about this character, who was so self-absorbed and heedless of others that he never flushed the toilet. (Never? Rarely? Sometimes didn’t? Doesn’t matter.) How I wish that I had never come into contact with this revolting information! But I don’t blame the reviewer, and I don’t blame Simpson, either. The blame falls squarely on Jobs, and his sociopathic disregard for the boundary between private and public. As to the corollary, I suppose that I’ve already expressed it: we have a duty to maintain our privacy — we owe it to everybody else. Impertinence works both ways.

Halpern, by the way, nails what’s wrong about Jobs and Apple.

Steve Jobs had an abiding interest in freedom — his own. As [the films and book under review] make clear, as much as he wanted to be free of the rules that applied to other people [ahem!], he wanted to make his own rules that allowed him to superintend others.

Earlier, she quotes something that Joe Nocera says in one of those films, Alex Gibney’s documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

The myths surrounding Apple is for a company that makes phones. A phone is not a mythical device. It makes you wonder less about Apple than about us.

Indeed. How long will Jobs go on being the superintendent?


The cover story in the Times Magazine over the weekend was about the Center for Applied Rationality, in Berkeley, California. In a nutshell, the Center’s goal is to help us all to overcome the wrongheaded biases outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Jennifer Kahn reports on the ordeal of undergoing a four-day workshop there. Along the way, she comes into contact with immortalism, the belief that becoming immortal is humanity’s most urgent objective. If there is a distinction between immortalists and transhumanists, I’m not yet aware of it, but, as a humanist, I am committed to death. We must all die, so that humanity can evolve. The evolution of humanity is not the same thing as the evolution of the human species. Humanity is human society, and it evolves much faster than DNA. Whatever “human nature” really is, its expression at any time is governed by humanity, which is to say the human society of the moment. Humanity changes as newborns “invade” the world and old people leave it. If people started living forever, they would slow and possibly halt the evolution of humanity. Ask any Millennial how keen he or she would be to have a lot of Baby Boomers still hanging around in fifty years.

(I say this as one of the older Baby Boomers.)

It seems that the Applied Rationality movement is spurred by the fear that machines endowed with artificial intelligence will take over, and exterminate human beings. The only way to prevent this is to acquire superpowers oneself. No matter how you look at this, it amounts to self-hatred, or what I should call inclusive misanthropy, in which you really do hate yourself, or despise your weakness, more than you hate or despise anybody else. It’s an adolescent outlook, an easy way out of dealing with a complicated world. It is more difficult for mature, engaged adults to dismiss humanity as a failed undertaking. Whether or not we have any faults as human beings — it is arguable that we don’t, that we’re just humans — we certainly do suffer the disappointment of feeling faulty. It is easy to imagine an improved humanity. That’s what immortalists and transhumanists are after.

What appeals to me instead is the idea of making the world a better place for faulty human beings. There is still a lot to learn about education. It probabaly wouldn’t hurt to teach Bayesian probability instead of, say, trigonometry. But we are more apt to create environments in which accidents are unlikely than we are to think statistically. Babylonian libraries of self-help books to the contrary notwithstanding, nobody really wants to live life as an experiment — as a project, that is, of self-improvement. We all just want to live. We want to do the things that we like to do, and we want to love the people we love. We need help with these things, not lessons. We need to be steered away from such pleasures as devising rules that allow us to superintend everybody else, or to appropriate other people’s property; and we need to be shown, convincingly, that is is mistaken to love people (and I’m speaking about romance here, not Christianity) who do not love us back.

We need a world that does not require us to be entrepreneurs. We need a world that shelters us from addictions. I’m thinking not of drugs here but of power and wealth-amassment. Nor am I thinking about a nanny state. I’m thinking of a butler state. A butler doesn’t keep you out of trouble, but he performs tasks, or oversees the performance of tasks, for which you are not particularly skilled. He might balance your checkbook and offer sound financial advice. He might accompany you on dates, so as to have a good chat with your date’s butler. Above all, a butler must have a withering stare that you would do anything to avoid.

Listen, these daydreams are lot less silly than transhumanism. After all, we have already invented self-flushing toilets.


Another thing that Sue Halpern mentions is Eric Pickersgill’s suite of photographs, Removed. Pickersgill poses people with handheld devices, which he then removes, asking the “sitters” to hold their stare as well as their posture. The results are interesting, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be more compelling to edit something else out of the picture. For example, imagine a colorful street scene in which those pedestrians holding and staring at devices would be presented in black and white, or in some sort of semitone. Imagine interactivists standing in empty space, or, to borrow a joke from A Night At the Opera, in front of wildly dangerous or inappropriate backdrops. Even easier: remember Albert Brooks breezing past the Taj Mahal, on the phone and unseeing, in the underappreciated comedy, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005).

In terms of the evolution of humanity, everybody holding a device as if no one else were present has won a Darwin Award.


Friday 22nd

In the new LRB, I read something so arresting that I must get right to it, without all the preliminaries. One day long ago, presumably in the halls of the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom was overheard to say, “Well, you know that the ancient Greeks, even Plato and Aristotle, had no concept of ‘power’ as we know it today.”

I have sedulously quoted from anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s mini-memoir about his intellectual formation. It was he who overheard Bloom, and his reaction was the same as mine, except that he actually did it: he ran to the library for a dictionary of Classical Greek. “I could find tyranny, democracy, monarchy, city, army etc, but no entry for any abstract or general concept of power.” (LRB 38.2: 16)

How could this be? How did Allan Bloom find it out?

A cautious scholar would take months to answer the question. I’m content to take Bloom’s word for it. The power that men exercise politically was thought — I surmise, perhaps rashly — to inhere in them as men. It was like muscle: some people have more than others. But free-floating power, existing on its own, probably never did occur to classical minds, or to medieval ones, either. My thinking is that our idea of power, “as we know it today,” is Newtonian. A kind of gravity, which I think is the model for our ideas about power, it is “out there,” and it would exist even if the human race did not. Political power requires human beings for its expression and exercise, but it is a natural force, given humanity. Especially as regards vacuums: when an array of political power collapses, chaos ensues but is soon arrested by a new array. Where the ancients might see political collapse as an opportunity for new men to exercise their inherent power, we’re more likely to see the opportunity to seize power, and to grip it tightly, or else to die.

“Power” is one of our many doubled words. It comes from the Latin word for strength. We also have the English word for strength: “strength.” For the purposes of rough translation, the words are synonyms. But of course synonyms exist only at that rough level. Over time, every distinct word accrues its own special connotations. “Power” and “strength” are not words that can be used interchangeably. We may say that an athlete is powerful, but we’re more certain to say that he is strong. Whereas machines are not “strong”: machines have power. Or they are powered. As is usual in English, the twin with the Latin root has an abstract coloration. We can’t really see power, whereas we can see strength in the bulge of a bicep. You might go so far as to say that, in English, it is power that gives strength.

That is how we use the word in politics. Power comes from somewhere — voters? grass-roots movements? campaign contributions? — and gives politicians the strength to run things. As we understand it, power does not inhere in the politician.

I’m trying to describe power here, not to analyze it. I’m curious about how we use the word, not about what power really is. And yet I am interested in what power really is, because our way of talking about it may be — must be — mistaken. We do not really know what political power is: we are often surprised by its manifestation. (Consider the Donald!) We try to erect frameworks within which power must be exercised according to certain rules, but these frameworks are all more or less fragile, vulnerable to emergencies. (Consider Lincoln and habeas corpus.) We believe that power ought to be bestowed for limited terms, but we don’t know how long those terms ought to be, and we’re not sure about rules allowing politicians to extend their terms. (Consider FDR; consider Bill Clinton, who almost certainly would have been elected to a third term in 2000.)


Holding these questions about power in mind, I consider the portrait of Iowa that Richard Manning paints in the current issue of Harper’s. It is, to say the least, extremely unflattering. Any notions of Iowa as a bucolic cornfield dotted with well-kept farmhouses will be washed away by Manning’s report on the state’s terrible problems with dirty water, polluted by fertilizer and hog excrement run-offs that would bring down federal sanctions if they did not issue from farms. Iowan evangelists may claim that they want the government to leave them alone, but their monoculture of corn depends on federal subsidies that were intended to encourage the renewable energy source of ethanol.

I say that the federal subsidies were intended to encourage ethanol production because I doubt very much that they were intended to cause the pollution of Iowa’s rivers or the increased dependence upon fertilizers that accompanies any monoculture. To talk of monoculture is perhaps misguided, because Iowa’s farmers rotate corn with soybeans. Manning isn’t clear about the extent, if any, to which soybeans do the work of fertilizers, but soybeans are just as problematic as corn. Whereas corn processing gives us high-fructose corn syrup, soybeans give us linoleic acid, a fat that not only triggers inordinate obesity but also impairs cerebral development. Nor are hogs a monoculture: Iowa has been “Tysonized” by the vertical sharecropping system that produces chickens designed more for processing than for nutrition. (Chickens, also like hogs, produce excrement in multiples of human output.) Assuming that Manning’s piece is accurate, everything about Iowa’s agriculture is wrong. The state ought to be shut down as a biohazard and its farmers (and their corporate overseers) deported to Patagonia.

Only a cynic, however, would imagine that any of this awfulness was ever intended by anyone. Once upon a time, Iowa was old-fashioned farmland. Only bit by bit did agribusiness invade; only bit by bit was Iowa’s ecology subjected to the application of industrial heedlessness. One step at a time, subsidies were floated; one step at a time, they became guarantees. (They say that Ted Cruz is going to have to change his mind about the ethanol subsidy if he wants to win in the caucuses, despite some exalted endorsements.) I should venture that the biggest shifts in Iowa’s farming occurred during the Sixties and the Seventies, when national attention was focused on Vietnam and oil. Regrettably, no one was paying attention — except, of course, Iowans with a brain. That’s a recurrent problem with running a big democracy, where political opportunists can turn any crisis into a magician’s misdirection.

So: who has the power in Iowa to prevent the United States from enforcing its environmental laws? The United States itself is on both sides of the equation, what with those “renewable energy” subsidies. Merely to render the nation’s positions in Iowa consistent would be an heroic achievement. But that would be just the start. In an essay studded with trenchant observations, this is Manning’s most piercing:

There is no doubt that conservatives would like to win the presidency, but they don’t actually need to. We have a naïve sense that to correct wrongs in our country, we simply need to elect the right president, pass the right laws, and that’s that. Politics in a state such as Iowa, however, teaches us that laws are only the beginning of the process, the opening bell for litigation, lobbying, and defiance. Faced with a federal mandate to regulate hog manure, [Iowa governor] Branstad simply cut the budget that paid for inspectors. Likewise, he roundly criticized William Stowe, urging Des Moines Water Works to address its issues with collaboration and volunteerism.

“What we see every time we hear ‘collaboration’ is buying time, a defense for the status quo,” Stowe told me. “The status quo will ultimately bankrupt our rivers and seriously jeopardize the public health of our consumers.”

If the Water Works prevail in the suit that William Stowe has brought against the state’s rural drainage districts, we will have another chance to see the exercise of power in Iowa, whoever has it.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2016 (II)

Monday 11th

On Friday evening, I watched Ex Machina. It was one of several movies that I wanted to see in the theatre last year but that I missed for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me. I ordered the DVD because I am very interested in the performances of Oscar Isaac. To me, he is one of the great actors of the day, capable of playing every kind of robust man. Sometimes, he’s a good guy; sometimes, he’s not; but his character’s relation to right and wrong is always complicated, and the complications are compelling. Isaac’s men don’t make trouble for the hell of it. Both as a screen presence and as an impersonator, Oscar Isaac is as serious as a heart attack. His best movie so far — it is also his biggest — is A Most Violent Year.

In Ex Machina, he plays a Silicon Valley bully called Nathan. He’s an insecure sadist masquerading as a smart, approachable guy, backed up with impressive hardware. Approachable, that is, upon invitation only: the pilot who ferries his few visitors to his mountain fastness must keep a distance of perhaps half a mile from the house. The house is a stylish, ecology-friendly hell, saturated in loneliness. Above ground, it offers plate-glass views of green wilderness; its subterranean quarters plaster minimalist chic on the architecture of a convention motel. (Think Cedar Rapids, without the bustle.) Nathan heads the world’s largest Internet company (a sort of Google), but he lives alone with his in-house slut, a strangely clumsy Asian woman who doesn’t speak.

Before we get to Nathan’s place, we visit the head office,  presumably in California, where a reedy young coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) hunches over his computer in what might as well be a cubicle but is not. We never see what Caleb sees when he looks up from the screen; perhaps it has no real existence for him. Within the minute, we learn that Caleb has won a competition. The prize is a week in the mountain fastness with Nathan. Cool!

I had read enough of the movie’s reviews to know that this would not be cool. Caleb is terribly naïve, but he isn’t too stupid to play mouse and cat with Nathan. Nathan is surly, obnoxious, and faux-apologetic by turns; he also drinks too much, and we wonder what that is about. If I had to some extent stayed away from Ex Machina, that’s because it was presented as a something of a horror flick. But even the creepier moments are overshadowed by an air of intellectual mystery: the answer to the question why Nathan has chosen Caleb to be his guest sounds not in horror but in science. Nathan is conducting an experiment. What is it?

Nathan tells Caleb that it’s a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with a robot that he has built and endowed with artificial intelligence. Caleb is to judge the quality of the robot’s AI. When Nathan asks Caleb if he knows what a Turing Test is, Caleb gives the correct answer, and this tips us off, or ought to do, to the irregularity of Nathan’s proceedings. When Alan Turing proposed the AI test that bears his name, computers came in boxes, and interactions were text-based. The extent to which a computer could enact the circuitous associations made by the human mind in conversation, presented, so to speak, as lines of dialogue taken from a play, would be the mark of its success. It would be able to fool its human interlocutor, however, only because, as a necessary pre-condition, the human would not know whether he was dealing with a computer or another human being, somebody hidden in the box.

There is no human “control” in Nathan’s version of the test, and no box, either: his computer is a shapely robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a marvelous concoction of skin and gear that as of yet we can encounter, thanks to CGI, only in the movies. Her face, forearms and feet are covered with something that looks just like skin; the rest of her is prosthesis, except for a mesh-covered poitrine that will doubtless inspire a few nightie fashion shows. Separated by plate glass, Caleb and Ava talk about themselves. Caleb is very impressed at first. Then, puzzled, he asks Nathan why Ava has been designed as a pretty girl. Nathan replies with some hogwash about the hopeless interpenetration of intelligence and sexuality. It is at about this moment that Caleb stops judging Ava’s performance and starts trying to learn from it. Another way of putting this is that his interest shifts from the analytical to the romantic.

You can see all of this coming. You can even foresee that Nathan will never permit Caleb to return to the outside world alive. (The moment Caleb tells Ava that his parents were killed in a car crash when he was eight, you know that his goose is cooked.) But because Nathan is such a heavy, we’re distracted by the eeriness of Ava’s ability to flirt with Caleb; instead of cocking our brows, we sympathize  What you don’t see coming is something that you needn’t worry about my revealing. I have said just enough, I hope, to whet your appetite when I conclude, in general terms, that Ex Machina poses a reverse Turing Test. Its implications are perhaps monstrous, but they are entirely conjectural, something to be mulled over after the movie; as for the climax and finale, they are unbelievably elegant.

Talking with my daughter, who is studying the application of artificial intelligence to environmental and agricultural problems, I learned that Alan Turing’s test is little more than a party trick nowadays. The object of AI research is no longer to fool human beings into thinking that they’re talking to another human being. It is to teach computers to teach themselves things that human beings are incapable of learning. I don’t really understand it well enough to say much more than that the objective seems to be the creation of algorithms that will allow computers to make sense of massively complex (and minute) data, and to decide for themselves what is important, ie a call for action of some kind. Yes, it is scary and controversial. Short of a vast reduction of human population, it may just save the world. In any case, it is unlikely to feature machines as fetching as Ava. But Ex Machina reminds us — and some of us, especially the many Calebs out there, urgently need reminding — that, whatever we create, we shall remain stubbornly human. There is no escape for us from that lot, except into sheer inhumanity.

This stern object lesson is hidden in a beautiful and suspenseful movie, so clever that you don’t see the cleverness until the last few minutes, a dreamy half-mile nature walk that gives you just enough time to recompute everything that you have just seen. Alex Garfield has written and directed a magnificent étude on artificial intelligence that doubles as an old-fashioned masterpiece of indirection.


After my week with Marilynne Robinson, I read the weekend’s newspapers with something like incredulity: why all this depravity! Can’t people see? The short answer, for everything from Trump and Cruz to sexism in academia, is the existentially-crazed determination of power élites to hold on to what they’ve got, and the resentment of those who feel that they have gotten gypped. Same old story. But the long answer is a sheer blank. That is because ambition and resentment lose their vigor over time. Power inevitably dissipates, and resentments, while not always forgotten, invariably lose emotional force. Although we are all caught up in the toils of current affairs, we are all potential historians, too, and, when we look back, and as we look back more closely and more often, we become inerrant arbiters of good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, worth and junk. History, as I have argued, is a crucial component of The World, that composite residue of human achievement that has piled up since the earliest and most primitive of persistent human artifacts, of which the historical record is the youngest. Meanwhile, of course, we have to live in the world, the everyday chaos that we have imposed upon our increasingly fragile biosphere. Most of that small-case world will be swept away without an identifiable trace, but future generations will add a few items to The World, to enhance contemplation of human weakness and possibility.

This explains, I think, my rough optimism. Like most students, I live more in The World than in the world. The past is no better than the present, but it is easier to understand, because evil has a way of starving itself to death, foolishness eventually provokes resistance, and rubbish falls apart. I believe in history because it teaches how we learn (and don’t). That we learn is beyond dispute: the American Constitution is the fruit of the rich understanding of political history that was shared by the gentlemen who composed it. (Now we must learn from its shortcomings.) More people enjoy health, freedom, and prosperity than earlier sages ever imagined; at the same time, however, we are experiencing a second Fall, for, in the space of my lifetime at least, we have learned that modern wonders come at a steep price. We need new sources of income, and for these we must look to our minds: to our minds working together.

Our great model for working together is the team. The best team is composed of variously-endowed men and women who share a common ability to pursue common goals with intelligent discretion, under the direction of a leader with the lightest touch and the greatest natural persuasiveness. I myself do not belong to a team. I have never thought that I’d be good at it. But perhaps my sense of teamwork is stunted, and, just as possibly, the importance of teamwork, and a sense of how it would work, hasn’t reached my neck of the woods. What, exactly, is our common goal?


Tuesday 12th

When I think of The Hunger, a movie that I saw only once, on video, I don’t think of David Bowie. I know that he’s there, but I think about Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, and how unlikely it is that they were in a movie together (and yet, for that very reason, given those two actresses, how normal). I remember thinking, while I watched it that once, that The Hunger is about a certain urban glamour that I’d do anything to avoid. Or was it simply glamour of any kind, that sometimes lovely but always empty carapace? I think, if I watch it again, will I like it more than it frightens me? But I don’t watch it again. The ghosts of the actresses in their Forty-ish finery drift through my mind for a moment and then fade. David Bowie appears as a name, or as a supporting dancer, lifting the ballerinas. Thinking of The Hunger, I wonder how long a sense of vast loneliness would surround me if I found myself living in Queens. Queens has always been for me the place where people go to be lonely, just as Brooklyn is where you go for complete lack of privacy. It makes sense that vampires would live in Queens.

Whenever I see a picture of David Bowie, I think, WEIRD. Not “weird,” as in “spookily unusual,” and not “weirdo!,” as if I weren’t a bit weird myself. But declaratively, self-consciously abnormal. Which is weirder than merely weird, because I can’t really understand the willingness to put your misfitness out there, in front of everything else. To me, it is simply another way of saying, “I’m bored.” It’s like having a disease, but instead of seeking treatment for the disease, sitting in one of those lawn chairs in Times Square (do they still have them?) while wearing a placard that says, “Hypertension Victim.” “I’m not like you” is such an unsociable thing to say, why say anything?

The main thing is that I don’t associate David Bowie with music. I can’t recall a scrap of his singing. I know that I heard it, back in the Seventies, and that it failed to appeal. (It was never, as the anthems of Queen were for a brief but mortifying period, a guilty pleasure.) Since then, Bowie has only been a photograph in a newspaper or a magazine. And, of course, a vampire of some kind, that once.

A friend and I have a running argument. It comes to mind because this friend was one of many who posted a tribute to David Bowie at Facebook yesterday. My friend, who is a much better photographer than I am, is not tempted to take pictures in which people won’t figure, whereas for me the draw of a photograph is its deserted composition. There is always a man-made element. If I take a picture of a tree, it’s almost certainly a tree that was planted by a landscaper. I love ruins. We don’t have many good ruins in New York, but there are plenty of neglected things that have seen better days. My photographs are actually full of people; they’re just not around anymore. Sometimes, in what I think of as my best shots, you can just see them.


I finished The Fall of the Ottomans last night, and was surprised to enjoy the last chapter quite a lot. Better late than never, I suppose. As I’ve already noted, Eugene Rogan’s book is a military history of British engagement with Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, in the Levant and in Mesopotamia. (There is also a chapter about the Armenian Genocide.) But the actual fall of the Ottoman dynasty did not occur until the war was over — as Rogan makes clear in his Epilogue. When the war ended, the Turks gained some eastern provinces, but that was more a matter of Russian withdrawal from the war than of military prowess. On other fronts, the Dardanelles had been held, but the Arab territories were stripped away. And this was before the Peace Conference. By the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which dealt with Turkey, chunks of Anatolia itself were disposed to the Greeks, the French, and the Italians; Thrace also went to Greece. The eastern provinces were taken away. Then Mustafa Kemal, soon to be known as Atatürk (or “Father of Turks”), put together a rebel army in Ankara and led it to victory after victory, until Anatolia and the eastern provinces were entirely Turkish again. It was at this point that the Ottomans fell.

I should like to see a good, readable history of Europe from 1918 to, say, 1929, framing the reconstitution of Europe with the cycle of inflation and depression in which it took place. The new nations that were conjured into existence by the conference at Versailles took their first raucous breaths, displacing millions, during this time. Nowhere was the new order shakier than in Turkey. The Greeks were awarded Smyrna and its hinterland, and these new possessions were promptly awarded to Greek settlers. They didn’t stay long, though; they were driven out by Atatürk’s men by 1922. The diplomat who talked Versailles into this folly, Eleutherios Venizelos, is still remembered as the Father of (Modern) Greece, and is so highly regarded that a slick operator, born in 1957, assumed his name (or at least claimed a relationship) and became Treasury Secretary in one of Greece’s rackety, pre-crisis governments. Venizelos was out of power during the brief war with Turkey, and this is sometimes taken as the reason for Turkish victory. Which all goes to show that you can’t lose, even if you do.

Not that Eugene Rogan so much as mentions Venizelos. I learned about him in Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919. Rogan’s interest is limited to the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the British (with a chapter about the Armenians). I did learn one interesting if outlying fact: it was Trotsky, of all people, who made the Sykes-Picot agreement public. He was airing what Rogan calls the tsarists’ “dirtiest” linen.


I subscribe to Letters in the Mail, a publication (I suppose) of the Web site The Rumpus. For a few dollars, you receive a letter every three weeks or so. I signed up at the start, out of civic duty, as it were; I shouldn’t know about it now, because I hardly look at anybody else’s Web site anymore (about which I am regretful but not exactly sorry). The mail duly arrived and just as duly piled up; I didn’t open any until last spring. The letters are written by young people who are associated with The Rumpus, or known to it, but usually, the writers are not known to me. I find the letters to be breaths of fresh air, even when all they really do is remind me that, when I was young, I had nothing to say, and that that was my anguished subject.

I opened one over the weekend. It was written by Brandon Hicks, who announced at the start that, as a 21 year-old, he wasn’t familiar with writing letters. I was surprised that he was familiar with writing at all, at his age, but it turns out that he is really a graphic artist, and a pretty effective one, too, as the illuminations adorning his letter show. One strip illustrates some of the future selves that he dreads becoming, including “impotent” and “Canadian writer” — it’s both clever and sweet. As for the letter, Hicks quite wisely ducks by posing fifteen questions. The questions appear to cover a wide range of topics; Q3 solicits advice about tools (pens) from fellow-artists. But they are all the questions of somebody who is 21 and has yet to know enough about the world to have anything to say about it. This is in no way a failing.

How come most highly educated [people] are never actually “reading” anything? They’re always re-reading something. For you, what is the value of re-visiting something you have already read? (Q4)

Is anything as maddening as hearing that some smart friend or acquaintance is re-reading a classic that you haven’t even got round to reading the first time? When you’re young, I mean, and haven’t really had the time to read much of anything, and you haven’t really understood very much of what you have read. I remember thinking it nothing less than miraculous, a wonder of piety, that Cardinal Newman (it was said) read Mansfield Park every year! (Now that I’ve been around for a while, I can see that re-reading Mansfield Park every year would be Newman’s kind of stunt.) I don’t know how old I was when I first re-read something, and I don’t want to know, either, because if I was younger than thirty-five, I was showing off.

Why re-read? Well, if you’re like me, and have to know the ending of every story before you read it, books lose nothing the first time. There are no virgins. If Jane Austen makes you smile once, she’ll probably do it again, provided you don’t revisit too soon. That is the first reason for re-reading something. Good books remain good books.

The answer that most people will give, however, is, I suspect, that good books change. Well, of course, they don’t change, any more than the sun goes around the earth. You change. And it’s like kissing someone whom, in the dark, you thought was somebody else. You’re all ready for one experience but instead you get another, and it is intimately shocking. The language seems different, or the characters make different impressions. Or you get something that went over your head the first time. The book has been unfaithful to you, but this only makes you love it the more. Bear in mind, however, that this is not what happens when you read classics of adolescence such as The Catcher in the Rye. Such books do not tell you that you’ve changed. They tell you that you’ve grown up, that you’re too old for this playground.

Later on in life, good books manage to be both, the same and different. More the same than different, perhaps, but it’s the difference that keeps things fresh. I have learned rather recently that re-reading a good book is an excellent way of living through an ordeal. While the ordeal goes on, you tuck yourself into the book and are surprised by its reassurance. This, too, shall pass.

For me, it is the writing. Which is not “words for words’ sake.” Writing is sense made flesh. Which is pretty much my answer to this question:

You’re going to think I’m pretty ignorant for this one, but … Poetry. What’s the deal with it? I don’t understand what anybody is saying half the time. And I don’t enjoy words just for word’s sake enough to appriciate [sic] the aesthetic arrangement within a poem. How is it in any way preferable to prose? Please, no bullshitty “It’s a window into the soul”-type answers. (Q14)

Somebody, I can’t remember who, tipped me off, last year, to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. I didn’t know it, I’m ashamed to admit; I have yet to bear down on the Sonnets conscientiously. This one begins,

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of your budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!

O, what a scold this sonneteer can be. But the first two lines of what Helen Vendler would identify is Q3 (the third quatrain) dazzles me with a high-voltage thrill.

O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee

This is really pretty vituperative; I can imagine any number of dramatic dames of the stage spitting it forth, their contempt for the nonce blotting out their adoration. My advice to Brandon Hicks is to memorize a few sonnets — a few famous ones. Ask around. Sonnets 73 and 129 will come up a lot, along with 18 and 116. Memorize these now, while you’re still young, and then play with them. Speak them with funny voices. Try singing them. (It will add nothing; the Sonnets are already complete music.) In Sonnet 95, which I also recommend, notice how difficult it is to say “chose out thee” instead of “sought thee out.” The beauty part is that nobody with half a brain will think that it’s peculiar of you to memorize Shakespeare. Any other poet, and you’re declaring an interest; Shakespeare is too monumental for that. To recite Shakespeare is to convince other people that they ought to be able to do the same.

Eventually, after a decade or two, you will have an answer to your question about poetry, and you will fall to your knees and thank me. Treat your tongue well!


Wednesday 13th

This afternoon, I’ve got an appointment with the dermatologist that has already been postponed twice. I’m very tempted to postpone it again. But as I really do have to go outside today, I might as well visit the doctor. I need a haircut, and the larder needs stocking. It’s very cold, so there won’t be any running across the street in shorts. I haven’t been out of the building since Friday.

I had two bad dreams. In both, the fact pattern of an administrative matter that is driving Kathleen crazy at the moment (at the office) was repurposed, once involving a book that gave faulty instructions, and, in the other, a dog that wouldn’t bark at the right barkees. These dreams were saturated with the air of inescapable workplace tedium that I took away from our conversation before dinner.

I am reading Hamlet, because Marilynne Robinson says that it is all about grace.

Hamlet’s madness is both feigned and real, and it consists in his descent into the reality of his circumstances. He cannot naturalize himself to this reality, and, consciously, at least, he cannot see his way beyond it — except, perhaps, in the thought of death. As prince, and as madman, he is flattered, manipulated, spied on. His world would compel him to an act of homicide that, thoroughly as he can rationalize it in the world’s terms, and despite continuing provocations of the darkest sort, he finally seems to have put out of mind. And when he does this, he is restored to himself. He will die because he is a generous, uncontriving man in a world where these virtues are fatal vulnerabilities. (The Givenness of Things, 43)

When I was young, Hamlet was taught as an object lesson in the futility of intellectual preoccupation. Teachers and critics were impatient with Hamlet’s reluctance to act. Robinson’s argument is precisely the opposite: Hamlet is prevented by his very virtue from descending, as she puts it, into the reality of his circumstances — a descent into something worse than hell (for in hell, the promise of humanity is altogether broken). Hamlet would rather be pursuing his studies at Wittenberg, which may seem distracted and unrealistic to the average American male but which nonetheless signifies a distaste for exercising power over others. The fact that his destiny is to be Prince of Denmark is the essence of his tragedy, not his propensity to weigh and consider. What he can do is forgive, or, as Robinson insists (what is more than forgiveness), he can free all faults. That is what she means by “grace.” It is not Hamlet who is futile. It is everyone else. (And everyone else dies, too.)

What kind of a dream is it to wonder what authority would be like if it could operate without power? That is indeed how authority works in the cultural affairs of liberal democracies. Authority does not compel, but it is there to inform the ignorant and to guide the wise. I often entertain a daydream of two political zones, one a city of enlightened cooperation and the other a wilderness of senseless self-interest. I see it as a Darwinian experiment, with the thugs eventually extinguishing themselves. Wishful thinking! The thugs would manage some rudimentary form of cooperation and so survive, while the enlightened would bore themselves to death. A truly improved humanity cannot really be imagined. It might happen spontaneously, but only without conscious planning.

That is not a counsel of despair. When I think of Shakespeare’s brain, I see a vat of gently simmering words, bubbling up in response to tacit associations. I don’t want to credit Shakespeare with automatic writing, but I know from my own experience that some of the happiest language emerges unbidden and unsought. If I were to go looking for felicitous constructions, I’d return empty-handed. If Shakespeare had to think of all the wonders that Helen Vendler finds in his sonnets, he wouldn’t have written so many, much less the thirty-odd plays. This is Hamlet’s problem, because he does have to think what to do when he “descends” into the court of Elsinore. Nothing comes naturally to him; he has to think everything through from scratch. But his philosophy, his thinking about humanity and life — well, it’s world-famous, isn’t it? The fluency of Hamlet’s soliloquies never fails to astonish. You can’t make this stuff up.

Shakespeare’s simmering brain was not a sport of nature, I am quite sure. A lot of reading was involved. That may be why we know so little about the man: he was always reading, so there is nothing to discover. On the evidence of his writing, he soaked up everything there was to know about the world. Those who trifle with the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays always argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the experience to know what he knew, but the experience that mattered for Shakespeare to be Shakespeare was an experience of words — written words. As Robinson points out in one of her many gleeful moments, those who doubt that Shakespeare could have known first-hand what life at court was like always overlook that what we know about life at court we know from Shakespeare.


The dermatologist, looking at my arms and scalp, said, “This looks great!” Then she said. “You have a lot of pre-cancers. I think we’d better try the blue lights again.” I used to use a very effective cream. Cheap, too. (The blue-lights sessions are not cheap.) But I got too sensitive. The cream inflamed my skin after three or four applications, and the inflammation took forever to die down. The cool thing about the blue lights is that you get a little portable fan. About the size of a prescription bottle, with three two-inch blades mounted at one end. A pocket windmill. The problem is keeping the fan intact. If you put it in your bag or backpack, it falls to the problem and the blades fall off. In one piece. That’s what happened to the fan I got last time. Also, I never once used it. Because the fan, while definitely cool, is not particularly cooling. I prefer old-fashioned fans, the folding ones that you snap open, if they’re any good. The paper fans from Pearl River are not very good at snapping open, but they do work. With minimal wrist action, they send up a nice breeze. Whether or not it cools you off or dries your sweat, it feels better than nothing.

It was good to get out of the house, I have to admit. In and of itself. My spirits lightened, just walking to the barber shop. Waiting in the barber shop. By the time I got to lunch, life seemed more or less normal. Home has become the place where I wait for Kathleen to come home, and where, when she comes home, we talk about her day at the office, very little of which can be discussed even with closest friends, much less here. The arrest of a partner sheds a wicked fallout. Almost every one of our friends has said something on the lines of, “We know that Kathleen has done nothing wrong, but human nature, being what it is…” The annoying thing is that everyone is so complacent about this sad truth. I’m not so fast to blame human nature. I think that the ethics of journalism (together with the exploitation of journalism by prosecutors) is a more proximate concern.

Thinking about Shakespeare as I was walking around, I dallied for about two minutes with connections between verbal fluency and “the unconscious.” Or (for ten seconds) “the half-conscious.” Suddenly I was peering over a familiar, if long-unvisited, abyss. I remembered the churning laundry cycle of puzzling out how Freud’s divisions of the mind functioned in the actual brain. How did the subconscious work? And, just as I was about to totter over the edge, I was saved by that superhero, Memory. We don’t know much about memory, but we do know that everything that we know is a memory of some kind. Sometimes we come up with new ideas (or associations) which, ipso facto, can’t be memories themselves; but they’re made out of memories and they quickly become memories themselves. Regardless of how the brain works, the mind is a bundle of memories. Some memories, as we all know, are more accessible than others. Some memories, as every senior knows, become inaccessible the moment you look for them. The same goes for verbal fluency. At least with the oblivion that clouds certain words from view just when we need them most — all we can grasp is that there’s a certain sound (the letter “o” at the start, or a Latinate root with “ion” at the end) — in such cases, we can turn to a thesaurus, where the word either will or will not stand out instantly. Retrieving names is nowhere near as easy.

(It seems that I haven’t written about this before, but my search engine may be letting me down: I was amused, a few months ago, to feel a cage of oblivion falling like a trap around the name of a very famous filmmaker. It was as though I could see it happening, but not quick enough to catch filmmaker’s name. I could remember the names of his movies, and also that of the famous film that he starred in but didn’t direct, but I was amused, as I say, by the phenomenon, enough to wait it out, instead of running to IMDb. I didn’t need to know. I wasn’t writing about him; I wasn’t even talking about him. It was a foretaste, or perhaps just a plain taste, of senility, and I was curious to see how long it would last. Now I can’t remember. It took more than a day, I do recall, for “Orson Welles” to ding like a bell. I could see him, in Touch of Evil and The Third Man, but I could not name him. I could name “Paul Masson,” but not Orson Welles. I almost felt that the name refused to present itself until my mind was certain that I’d forgotten the search. As I may have done, for a few minutes. It would be interesting to know what hidden subroutines, if any, were running in my brain for all that time. I don’t think that they were search subroutines, though. I think that they were oblivion subroutines, spinning a spell, keeping the shield up.)

I don’t know if it stands to reason, but experience suggests that it’s easier to remember things that come to mind often. Therefore — the moral of this story — it’s possible to manage your memory by keeping your attention on what used to be called worthwhile things. Not worthy things, but things of interest, items that spark curiosity. What’s especially potent is letting one thing lead to another, as Marilynne Robinson’s essays have led me to Hamlet. I hate to admit it, but in all my sixtysomething years, I’ve read Hamlet all the way through no more than three times, and I’ve never read it as carefully as I’m reading it now. I’m reading it carefully because I have a reason, a scent to follow — this thing that Robinson says about the role of grace in Hamlet’s progress through the play. Considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s sturdiest entry in the revenge-tragedy sweepstakes, it’s especially curious that the hero loses his interest in revenge somewhere in the second half of the play. And is saved by that, even if he dies. Human nature being what it is, Hamlet is able to triumph over it.


Thursday 14th

Today, I am in bed, with a cold. Officially. In fact, I am at my desk, and the bed has been made. I was awakened in the late morning by a dreadful nightmare, and then, having fallen back asleep, awakened again by the dream’s continuation. In the dream, I was being compelled to remain at a rented house by an extorting owner who somehow had the physical means (never put to the test) to detain me. How much he wanted for my freedom was also unknown. But the scenes were fearful and unpleasant. After a few hours of sitting up, I decided that I should not be going back to bed until bedtime.

We were up late last night, because Kathleen was working late, and, when she got home, we talked about her day, as I’ve noted we’ve been doing, only this time there was some sunshine in her report — some real sunshine. One heavy cloud had lifted and vanished; another showed signs of breaking up. The third instance of good news was not so much good news as the pre-emption of bad news: the cloud in this case was made to storm prematurely, before it had the force that it would have had in ten days. No outward harm was done, and embarrassments, which might have been dreadful, were minimized and duly forgotten. In this last matter, I may claim to have been the source of good advice, for which Kathleen, having taken it, warmly thanked me.

Yes, I think that last remark sounds like Polonius, too.


Hamlet and grace. What to make of Marilynne Robinson’s idea? Is Hamlet really Robinson’s “generous, uncontriving man”? How to reconcile such a description with Hamlet’s manipulation of the instructions carried by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to the King of England, a manipulation that will lead straight to their deaths? How to reconcile this with the fact that he actually does kill Claudius, finally — and deliberately? We can write both of these deeds off as impulsive, as is the killing of Polonius behind the arras. Hamlet does so explicitly, in connection with the counterfeited orders.

And praised be rashness for it — let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall (V.2.6-9)

But can these hotheaded moves be reconciled with grace? What sort of grace accommodates manslaughter?

And yet Hamlet does seem to have been changed by his time with the pirates, heading home to Denmark instead of on to England. His last words upon leaving were exhortatory:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! (IV.4.64-5)

When he reappears, by Ophelia’s grave (as yet unaware that it is hers), Hamlet muses abstractedly on death and dust without a thought for Claudius or revenge. Indeed, so unbloody are his thoughts that he seems already to have died, to have savored the vanity of human achievement. As he muses on the dead attorney’s documents, which in addition to doing the late conveyancer no good, would not so much as fill his coffin, he seems to have anticipated Claudius’s death as well as his own.

No sooner does Hamlet learn that the grave will be Ophelia’s than he tumbles into it to wrestle with Laertes, each claiming to have loved the drowned girl more. Is Robinson asking us to see this violence as gracious youthfulness? Thinking of John Ames’s quiet rhapsodies about baseball, in Gilead, I’m inclined to think that she is.

I myself do not believe that human achievements are vain. It is true that they do not prevent death, and it is also true that “you can’t take it with you” — but isn’t that a strange idea. Why should you want to? What would you do with it? Are we still beset by the relatively primitive idea, brought to an absurd high point by the Egyptians, that our corpses must fitted out for sustenance in the underworld? This idea seems to be commingled with a less primitive notion, which holds that certain things meant so much to the deceased that they ought to be taken out of circulation, and made to disappear from this world. But that is our doing, the doing of the living. The man who wants to take his wealth with him — is he conscious of any implication of denying it to those he leaves behind?

It is a very good thing that our achievements, so far as they leave positive material traces, do not die with us. Consider the doctor: the diseases that he has cured, the lives that he has (for a time) saved, the human happiness that he has added to the world, and that will stay, lingering in the air after the saved have passed away. The lawyer’s good works have made titles secure. Perhaps they have been secured to bad people, but their being secure minimizes litigation, encroachment, and even family resentment. The world is a better place because people have done well in it, morally if not materially. Human achievements, for good and ill, live on in buried roots. We are inescapably surrounded by the consequences of the past, amongst which our deeds will inevitably figure, even though we ourselves be forgotten.


I don’t know how long this is going to go on.

At the dermatologist’s office yesterday, I was asked for the phone number of my pharmacy. I had no idea, I said, but when they asked me where it was, I remembered that the number was probably on my mobile phone, so I dug it out and sure enough. Well, it was a number for Duane Reade. When I go back to the doctor next week, I’ll make sure that I have the number that’s printed on my prescription labels. Anyway, by the time this was taken care of, I was spooked again by The Bourne Legacy. Every time I pick up medications at the pharmacy counter, it happens. I feel like one of the Outcomes in Tony Gilroy’s movie, the Bourne episode that stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon. (Both actors are connected with future episodes at IMDb, but the Renner project is undated.) This almost instantly became my favorite, because it’s so monstrous. To close down a clandestine program, US security officials kill off everyone connected with it. (Stacey Keach plays a Cheney-like figure.) The Outcomes, or field agents — their mitochondrial DNA has been altered — are given new pills. Well, the South Korean agent is given new pills. But, the next thing you know, three Outcomes are on the ground, dead, with telltale nosebleeds. The Outcome played by Oscar Isaac is blown to smithereens by a drone bomb. Jeremy Renner’s character contrives to appear to be killed. Now it’s the turn of the doctors who developed the “science” that made the Outcomes possible. One of their number has been doped, and he shoots all the others in a horrific massacre at the lab. Only one doctor — played by Rachel Weisz — survives, and she’d be cooked soon if it weren’t for Outcome #5 (Renner), who shows up at her house in the nick of time. He’s looking for more meds. The doctor and her patient run for their lives.

Their adventure climaxes with a protracted chase through Manila, largely on motorcycle but also involving a dash of parkour. It is just bearable for someone like me; even my autonomic nervous system responds to the dangers of high speed. Up until then, though, the movie is a triumph of understatement. The murder of the three Outcomes who get “new meds” is particularly implicit. Everything is happening very fast — as fast as a cycle chase — but it’s happening all over the world and there is no noise. Outcome #6 (Rob Riley), built like a linebacker, pauses on a deck, surrounded by pleasure boats, then drops to his knees and, with a body-length spasm, falls on the planks. Outcome #1 is discovered on the streets of Karachi. Best of all is the death of Outcome #4. A subway pulls into a station, and as everyone gets off, you notice that three women are staring at someone whom you can’t see because of the exiting passengers. Then the camera pulls around, and you see the Korean agent who queried the change in pills. Her head is back against the window, and her eyes are open. There’s the nosebleed.

I don’t really wonder how I would meet my end if my meds were replaced with poison — I suspect that the agents’ new pills raised blood pressure to deadly levels — but I’m aware that it might happen every time I interface with someone about them. That’s because the scene in which the Korean agent gets her new pills is so banal. She’s curious about the switch, but she accepts the explanation that is given to her by the kindly but in fact diabolic security agent, who shows up as a deadly enabler in a later scene. You can’t trust anybody. You probably don’t even know who anybody really is.

Somewhere, in one of his prefaces to the reprints of his George Smiley novels, David Cornwell (John Le Carré) says that the Intelligence exercises of the Cold War, while murderous, were a waste of time, both foolish and feckless. They accomplished nothing. The truth is, they gave a lot of clever people something to do with their brains, a sort of three-dimension, real-life chess. I wish I’d known this; I stayed away from the Le Carré books because I thought that they glorified the spies and their “tradecraft.” (So does Cornwell, at least so far as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is concerned.) My suspicion that there was something seriously off about the Cold War didn’t take on any flesh until I read something that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about his time at the State Department: bright young men cultivated their sources for scandals that would attract the attention of the higher-ups. I don’t know how he put it exactly, but the upshot was that the bright young men on the South Asian desk made the most of instability in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and got all the attention. There’s no inside secret about this; Graham Greene made great fun of it in Our Man in Havana. But I had trouble accepting that grown men would spend real money and endanger real lives in the pursuit of such empty contests.

That they would bundle it all up as “patriotic,” and get away with it, is probably the worse smack in the face that Americans have ever sustained.


Show of hands: how many readers think that Donald Trump is the only American who admires Vladimir Putin? How many would be surprised if Putin showed up in Iowa, campaigning not for presidential nominee but for godfather? How many believe that Trump would have a hard time deciding whether to challenge the Russian or to settle for consigliere?


Friday 15th

There’s a surprising photograph of Henry Kissinger in this week’s Nation. Taken in 1968, when he was about 45, it makes him look like Mike Nichols’s smart-ass brother. He’s standing to the side of someone, Richard Nixon probably, but because the photograph has been cropped, you can’t be sure about that, and what would have been an expression of happily admiring support is instead the very image of the cat that ate the canary. When he was younger, Kissinger tended to look wonky-dorky; in the prime of his international influence, which began not long after the picture in The Nation was taken, he tended to look pompous. But here, he looks kind of fantastic, but also untrustworthy. Or, as the review to which it is attached proclaims, he looks like an opportunist.

The thing about opportunists is that that’s what they look like to everyone but the source of their opportunities. Kissinger was a creature of the Rockefellers for a long time, but when it became clear that Nelson Rockefeller was never going to be President of the United States (even then, his positions were too centrist, and he would give his name to a political party that came to an end in the Sixties, the “Rockefeller Republicans”), Kissinger put himself up for auction. He wound up where he wanted to be, in the White House.

It’s surprising that this Harvard-educated German scholar of Metternich and Castlereigh turned out to be so simpatico with Nixon, but as the White House tapes that are quoted by Srinath Raghavan in his account of diplomatic and military responses to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, 1971, make uncomfortably clear, Kissinger could assume the persona of an avid football fan at the big game.

Kissinger: If the Soviets move against [the Chinese], and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.
Nixon: So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?
Kissinger: Well, if the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. If the Russians gete away with facing down the Chinese, and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis … we may be looking right down the gun barrel. (1971, 256)

In an earlier conversation, Kissinger urged action because “at least we’re coming off like men.” The upshot of this was to send an American fleet into the Bay of Bengal. What would have happened had it arrived before the ceasefire is not hard to guess. The point of all this posturing, by the way, was to prove to the Chinese, whom Nixon was courting, that Americans were tough.

In “The Opportunist,” British scholar David Milne reviews two books, and one of them is the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s study of Kissinger. Ferguson is a clever fool, capable of spinning persuasive illusions that banish inconvenient contradictions. He wants to see Kissinger, as his subtitle indicates, as an idealist. But, Milne writes, “the written evidence that Ferguson provides is both vast in quantity and slight in explanatory utility.” I can easily imagine that this is the case, and that Ferguson’s book would be a terrible slog to get through. In one paragraph alone, Milne provides a prospectus of what a more accurate, but also more nightmarishly entertaining book about Kissinger would look like.

Kissinger was consistently reckless, and Ferguson is blind to the pattern. Throughout his career, Kissinger was quick to detect potential humiliations for America — in withdrawing from Vietnam too quickly; in the coming to power of Salvador Allende in Chile; in allowing a dependable friend, Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, to lose a fight with India, led by the unreliable Indira Gandhi — and quick to recommend the deployment of US military resources (whether ground troops, bombing campaigns, covert destabilization programs, or military aid), all in the interests of US “credibility.” The responses he counseled as Nixon’s national-security adviser helped to create catastrophes in each of the regions they affected: the destabilization of Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot; the ousting of the democratically elected Allende government and the rise of the murderous Augusto Pinochet; a brutal war on the subcontinent during which Pakistan slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in what historian Gary Bass has described, in The Blood Telegram, as “a forgotten genocide.” Kissinger’s brutal policy advice did not stem from realism in any meaningful way, and it certainly wasn’t inspired by the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It was about demonstrating American power to the world, absent a moral core and a sense of proportion.

That is the legacy of Henry Kissinger, and some critics, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have been shouting it for years. Kissinger is a grand old man now, but I am confident that the historians will get him right within the next couple of decades.

Kissinger would contend, presumably, that Milne is wrong about the lack of a moral core: what could be more moral than America’s protection of the free world in the Cold War? But the Cold War was an imaginary war. The hot war that it was supposed to forestall never took place, but this happy outcome cannot be attributed to Cold War strategies. The Cold War oversaw a number of local hot wars, from Korea to the now difficult-to-imagine wars between China and Vietnam (forgot that one, didn’t you) and Iran and Iraq. Perhaps these conflicts protected the free world, but it is difficult to see how, except as distractions that gave military men something to do. The advantage of American wealth was undercut by the persistence of American cluelessness: what a record we racked up, during the Cold War, for backing tyrants! Ordinary Americans understood next to nothing about foreign affairs, and still do. American governments try to convince voters that certain actions must be taken (or avoided), but they never make the slightest attempt to remove the provincial blinkers. As a result the political scene has been prepared for little more than bluster. Looking right down the gun barrel, Kissinger was a pastmaster in that department. Unfortunately, his bluster was loaded with shrapnel.

I’m sorry that Milne doesn’t mention Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” with Israel.


Eventually, I got round to reading David Cole’s piece, “The Trouble at Yale,” in the NYRB, and it surprised me, because I expected it to provoke a world-going-to-the-dogs response. Instead, I went all plus-ça-change. Perhaps college disturbances are doomed always to be the same. Either one thing or the other. Student revolts at fee increases and silenced teachers have an ancient history. These essentially administrative squabbles are easy to understand. The other kind, the political uprising, goes back to the early days of nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. First, nationalism was, from the start, tied to literacy — literacy in native languages. And literacy is concentrated in schools. Second, students seem to have more free than everybody else. They can afford to go out into the street and throw stones.

There was no throwing of stones at Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. Father Hesburgh kept a very tight lid on protest: he declared that unwelcome protesters were trespassers on the campus, liable to eviction by the police. I found this a bit heavy-handed, because it wrote a script for would-be martyrs, but those martyrs never emerged. (Maybe one or two did.) Unrest at Notre Dame remained a matter of talk. This put it on a par with the university’s proper business, also a matter of non-violent expression.

When I was in college, I assumed that, in the event of revolution, I’d be one of the first to be taken to the guillotine. (I’d have been rather put out, otherwise.) It wasn’t so much my conservative political views — I was very much a liberal even then — as my personal resistance to all things new. I also believed in good manners, and the idea that good manners were a tool of social oppression made me laugh, because I had outgrown that very idea somewhere between the ages of nine and eleven. I did not see the advantage of being young, but only the disadvantage of being inexperienced and immature. And ignorant. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to be sure that what I learned was solid. So I signed up for Great Books, because it promised to be a safe place from novelty. (And it was.)

(When you are young, you cannot imagine the physical advantages of youth; you wake up to them only when they begin to slip away. This is the saddest fact of humanity, sadder by far than death.)

If I did let my hair grow a bit (an awful mistake, given my hair), I maintained and even raised my standards of hygiene and dress. This also doomed me.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I was a terrible student. I flunked nearly all of my electives, usually losing interest in mid-course. (And it was a great mistake to take a History of China course that met at eight in the morning.) I was no better than classmates who devoted themselves to thinking about social action instead of classwork; I simply indulged in different passions. A lot of it came very easily to me, but it was therefore something of a waste of time, because I wasn’t really learning. I drove the professors crazy with my shows of occasional, unreliable brilliance. But I did read the Great Books.

The overarching problem of any attempt to evaluate my younger days is trying decide whether to blame the environment or myself. If I was only rarely inspired to work hard, whose fault was that? I learned to work hard later, at the radio station. It had nothing to do with being on the radio and everything to do with scheduling the music programming and typing it up in time for the offset printer. This new skill saw me into and through law school. I passed the New York State Bar Exam, something that I think nobody does without a spell of hard work. But after that, I lost the sense of mission. There was no reason to work hard. (The idea of working hard just to make money has flitted through my mind, but never stuck round long enough to establish itself.) This dodgy profile, which suggests a life of failing to live up to capacities, is another reason for seeing myself in the tumbril.

Capacities for what, though? When I ask this question, I feel that I’m up the Orinoco. What if the time for my talents has not yet arrived?

So the hard work of my later life has been to look at the world as closely as I can and to write down what I see. Correction: to write down what I see that doesn’t seem quite right. I try to notice the mistakes. The things that the people around me seem to think, but that don’t seem to be the case to me. Unfortunately, I am not a trained examiner in many fields. Economics, for example. It has never been demonstrated to me that economic growth is essential to economic health. Am I stupid, or is this just (a) something that it suits businesspeople to believe or (b) a reasonably accurate summary of the past three centuries only? Shakespeare grew, then grew old, then died. But his work is still very much with us, and likely to remain so. Why can’t the economy be more like Shakespeare’s work and less like Shakespeare?

Why can’t people see how unattractive, how really stinky and blotchy, selfishness is? Perhaps because they can’t afford to? Kathleen has worked closely with a gifted paralegal for nearly thirty years, and the two women are good friends. The paralegal is great source of information about life on the other side of the professional divide. An associate may be all smiles and compliance with Kathleen, while treating the paralegal like a washerwoman. Not too long ago, the paralegal was carrying an immense pile of documents, and having a hard time getting her key out for the glass door at the elevator. (Modern security.) Through the glass, she could see a partner standing nearby, on the phone. He could see her. Instead of putting down the phone and opening the door for her, he turned his back and walked as far away as the cord would allow. Why? My presumption is that, having grown into the habit of treating lesser mortals with less respect, he can’t make exceptions: he is imprisoned by his own bad behavior, which will stand revealed as such if he ever corrects it. The paralegal got through the door eventually and is anything but condemned to carry a heavy weight through some circle of the Inferno. But she will never forget the partner’s turning away, and neither will Kathleen, and neither will I. And neither will you, although, unlike us, you don’t know who he is.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Structure of the Next Sentence
January 2016 (I)

Monday 4th

The Givenness of Things is a collection of essays, most of them originally delivered as lectures, by Marilynne Robinson, the author of Housekeeping and the Gilead trilogy, plus a number of non-fiction books. The lectures were given here and there, not as a prestigious university series, and there is an amount of repetition in the collection that might annoy some readers. But I suspect that these readers would be annoyed anyway. Repetition is the least of Robinson’s divergences from current standards and practices. The Givenness of Things is off the academic grid. (And who but academics deliver lectures?) Its author is a mainline Calvinist Christian who would like to sweep “Christianist,” fundamentalist demagogues right off the bench. Her fellow academics are probably embarrassed by her acceptance of “the givenness of God” — the fact that, for Robinson, God is simply there — while the Christianists would be squirming unknown beneath remote rocks if there were more believers as robustly vocal as Marilynne Robinson.

So much I think I can say. I haven’t finished reading the book. Much of it will have to be re-read. I shall even have to read a bit of Calvin himself, because what Robinson has to say about Calvin is not what you were taught in school. I need say no more than that Robinson’s Calvin is sunny and sweet. Either generations of pastors have been taking his work in vain, or Robinson is off her rocker. But an early glimpse at Calvin suggests that she is not. In Chapter 10 of Calvin’s Institutes, “How to Use the Present Life, and the Comforts of It,” I read,

If we are only to pass through the earth, there can be no doubt that we are to use its blessings only insofar as they assist our progress, rather than retard it. Accordingly, Paul, not without cause, admonishes us to use this world without abusing it, and to buy possessions as if we were selling them.

That’s not how I interpret 1 Corinthians 7:30-31, which in both translations immediately at hand speaks of “those who buy as if they had no possessions” (Oxford Annotated). But Calvin’s gloss is appealing, obviously, because it sounds the note of stewardship: prepare to leave your things behind in as good repair as you received them. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I have simply grown to be so old at heart that Calvin is no longer so prominently a party-pooper. I ought to note that I was not directed to this passage of Calvin by Robinson herself, although she does provide John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant: Selected Writings with a Preface. I simply opened the book and there it was.

There is no hellfire in Marilynne Robinson. There isn’t very much about resurrection and eternal life in paradise, either. Robinson’s concern with religion is terrestrial. She testifies to the joy that believing in the God of her fathers brings to her, but her lectures are directed to the problems of living with and according to faith in our particular moment in time.

This necessarily makes Robinson something of an historian, and she rises to the challenge modestly but sturdily. Her history is mostly American, and mostly recent — but it is history, not mere received wisdom or just-so stories about cherry trees. It is the history of a strange silencing, either that or an acquiescence. “Nevertheless, the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate.” (104) There is also the history of “liberal,” which went from being a proud self-identifier to a stinkbomb. Robsinson does not discuss these histories at length, but they pop up everywhere. Robinson is a prophet, lamenting the withering of American generosity. Like me, Robinson believes that a lot of the blame goes to right-thinking people who have come to mistaken conclusions.

It’s curious: I feel a sympathy, an agreement with Marilynne Robinson, greater than I have ever felt with any writer. There are pages that provoke me to exclaim that I might as well stop adding pages to this blog and instead simply refer readers to her books. But it is an intellectual sympathy rather than a personal one: Robinson is stoutly Midwestern, given to muting her sophistication; I am a corrupt Manhattanite. She loves America almost as much as she loves God; a resolute agnostic about God (if that is possible, which it probably isn’t), I haven’t managed to love anything larger than a few human beings. I agree with Robinson completely about, say, Greece — Greece the economic sinkhole that spent so much time on the front pages earlier this year. But I have different things to say about it. For me, the foremost thing about Greece is not, as for Robinson, an attachment to native, traditionally Christian ways that might not harmonize with free-market economics. The foremost thing about this problem-version of Greece is that it signifies an absolute failure on the part of the European élite to do its job — to keep the affairs of the European Union running smoothly. Everybody knows now that Greece ought never have been admitted to the Eurozone, but it was pretty clear at the time, to anyone caring to look, that the books had been cooked. Greece got in because probity gave way to ego-fulfilment. It was certainly, from a viewpoint such as Robinson’s, an ultimately ungenerous, uncharitable deed — not consistent with Christian ethics. But for me, what’s more, is that it was flat-out incompetent.

So we are allies, not co-religionists. Alliances are hard to puzzle out, because allies come together from very different backgrounds, and their cooperation is always tainted by opportunism. I find that, while I can describe what Robinson has to say (and not just repeat it), I cannot quite judge it. The big question for me is this: can you feel as joyful about “Creation” and humanity as does someone for whom a loving God is a given?

The question that The Givenness of Things poses, whether Robinson intends this or not, is whether it is possible to feel any joy at all when the people in charge are making such a total hash of things.


One of the more intriguing examples of how Robinson does history appears, along with many other matter of great interest, in the essay entitled “Decline.” (I have not been able to work out the relations between Robinson’s titles and the contents of the essays upon which they are pinned; it often seems to me that the titles could be randomly reassigned.) This is her discussion of trends and fads. Although “closely related, almost synonymous,” trends and fads differ on the existential level: fads are being, while trends are becoming. Fads really happen. The financialization of the economy that has done so much harm, and produced so much economic inequality, in the past thirty years is a fad. Trends are simply anxieties. For a while, in the Nineties, we worried about being overtaken by the Japanese. Now we’re worrying about China. It is very foolish to pay too much attention to trends, not because they’re so rarely realized but because the real trends in human affairs are occult.

Who could have foretold, in 1936, that anti-Semitism would lead to horrific “solutions” in Germany, rather than in France? Robinson raises this question in connection with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in “Value,” which I haven’t finished reading. How mistaken — as distinct from being the victim of bad luck — was Bonhoeffer in deciding to stay in a Germany that would ultimately shoot him? How wise is Robinson to hang on here in the United States?

I won’t go back to Gilead to find a supporting passage, because the text wouldn’t convey any sense of the surprise that I felt when Robinson, writing as John Ames, rhapsodized about playing baseball on a sunny afternoon, and so charged it with genuinely holy grace that the words and what they really meant seemed to tumble out of the Song of Solomon. Or the way in which John Ames’s wife, Lila, in the book named after her, scratches out lines of Ezekiel with an intensity that is neither entirely sane nor entirely reverent. When it comes to blending aspects of life not commonly seen together, Robinson’s artistry is sublime. The following might be shouted down in any senior commons room, but Robinson makes it inarguable.

God is the God of history. Christianity is a creature and creator of history. On these grounds alone it is absurd to think history could possible lack relevance. Then, too, if human beings are images of God, aware of it or not, and since they have been an extraordinary presence on Earth for as long as they have been human, what they have thought and done cannot be irrelevant to very central questions about Being itself. We are grass, no doubt of it. But with a sense of history we can have a perspective that lifts us up out of our very brief moment here. Certainly this is one purpose of biblical narrative and poetry. (154)

More anon — definitely.


Tuesday 5th

Since writing here yesterday, I have lumbered through two of the essays in The Givenness of Things, “Metaphysics” and “Theology.” Their difficulty for me was their distance from the metaphysical and theological discussions that I am familiar with, that I attended to in school. I had a very hard time chasing Marilynne Robinson’s idea of metaphysics — what she meant by the term — and all I got was that it was different from Kant’s and Hegel’s in characteristic, if not essential ways. “Theology” was a bit easier; it might well have been titled “Christology,” the term that Robinson uses throughout to denote the immancence in Creation of Christ, at least from the moment of earliest humanity. She finds in this view a means of overcoming the idea of Christian exclusivism, the denial of Christ’s blessings to all non-Christians, a doctrine that she considers to be a woeful misreading of Scripture. Bear in mind, however, that I was merely keeping my head above water, or trying to. For quite aside from understanding what Robinson means to say, there is the problem of grasping her reasons for saying it.

An important thread — rope, really — that runs through Givenness is the care of the poor, and how the poor are being neglected, as they almost always have been, but now with the added bitterness of its having appeared, for a few decades, that a liberal, affluent society might put an end to poverty once and for all. Robinson’s dread of a growing oligarchy is the issue with which I am in most complete agreement with her. She argues, however, that neglect of the poor is a sin against Christ. As indeed it is, if Christ is in view. I think that it is enough to call it a sin against ourselves. Dissonances like this are a kind of gentle torture: am I missing something, or am I including it?

Two passages of great importance to me, from “Theology”:

Religions are expressions of the sound human intuition that there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life. What is often described as a sense of the transcendent might in some cases be the intuition of the actual. (212)

I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such. (222)

Before responding to these statements directly, I want to pause with a comment that is much on my mind these days, a thought of surprising simplicity. If you believe in God, why not believe in all the rest — Robinson omitted the Virgin Birth. Another, even more pronounced thread in Givenness — this one a cable from the Brooklyn Bridge — is Robinson’s squabble with the rationalist fallout of the Enlightenment. She all but jeers at atheists whose cosmology remains quaintly mechanistic, and has not yet mastered quantum physics, which fill Robinson with an almost theological exuberance. I think that she is quite right to complain about the evaporation of articulate dogma in mainstream Protestantism. She is right to belittle thinkers who have lost their faith because it cannot be reconciled with common-sense views of reality.

But Robinson is overlooking a couple of things — things that I overlooked, too, when it occurred to me that a believer might as well go whole hog vis-à-vis complex, even abstruse dogmas. Commitments to various theological niceties are all very well today, when nobody is going to burn for them; we easily forget how readily these points of dissension provided the volatile fuel of martyrdom and religious warfare — how materially wracked Europe was by what ought to have been a spiritual reformation. Robinson also forgets, I think, that the disillusionment that ex-believers wear like a bad perfume reflects the very plain fact that, for centuries, for a millennium almost, the brightest minds in Europe were devoted to proving the existence of God, quite as if faith had nothing to do with it. These smarties were the heirs of leisured pagans, who had competed to create persuasive world views. It was not enough to believe something yourself; you must convince other people to agree. When the administration of the Roman Church fell into the hands of aristocrats who also controlled education, a thousand years of suppression and oppression might have been seen as getting off easy.

Marilynne Robinson is not interested in proving the existence of God; for her, God is given. Rather, she is interested in showing that the existence of God cannot be disproved, and that there is something inhuman about the attempt to prove that God does not exist. I agree with her there.

As one would guess from her novels, Robinson’s creed is a matter of joy, blemished only by the persistence of evil, which in her view comes not from God but from the failure of human beings to be their best selves. I agree with her judgment as to human weakness. (Natural disasters, and diseases that take the lives of children, may be “evils,” but they are not evil. Only man is evil.) But I leave God out of it. For it happens that my intuition that “there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life” is a very dull thing. I grant it, which is to say that I do not deny it. But I do not really feel it. As intuitions go, it is my most anemic one.

Sometimes, I think that I have internalized Christianity. I have literally incorporated its moral teachings in the habits of my mind. I try to act accordingly, as if I were Christian, but without regard for the externalities — God, the Fall, the Incarnation, and all the rest. To the extent that God and the rest exist for me, they exist altogether inside me, as hidden from my view as the structure of the next sentence. At other times, I fear that these thoughts are grandiose, and perhaps even pathological.

Somehow, however, my resistance to Christianity, my conviction that while it was right about a few basic things it was maddeningly wrong on myriad points of detail, has collapsed. Part of this doubtless owes to the character of Pope Francis. He has discarded the mask that exponents of Catholicism have worn since I was a child in their care — a mean, frightening, and authoritarian joylessness.

I am also beginning to see in Christianity — genuine Christianity, not smug christianism — the best hope for reversing the wanton depravity of environmental degradation. The monetizing, in effect, of our only home.


I think of what the late historian Carlo Cipolla had to say about coal.

Coal was well known in London in 1228, for in that year there is a definite record of a “sea-coal lane” which, it is suggested, was then used as a landing place for sea-coal from boats. In the same year coal fumes allegedly drove Queen Eleanor from Nottingham Castle. In 1257 mention is made of shiploads of coal imported into London. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the English — like all other Europeans — remained very reluctant to use coal extensively, instinctively regarding its fumes as toxic. Early in the seventeenth century, however, the English were forced to put aside all their reservations, and after 1500 they resorted extensively to coal not only for domestic heating but also in industrial processes such as oven-drying of bricks and tiles and of malt for beer, the refining of sugar, the production of glass and soap, and iron-smelting… Concentrating on iron and coal, England set herself on the road that led directly to the Industrial Revolution. (Before the Industrial Revolution, 270-1)

When I read this, a few months ago, I realized that I had always assumed that the toxic nature of coal fumes was a discovery of the Industrial Revolution. Now I saw that the Industrial Revolution, particularly as it foregrounded steelworks, reflected a decision on the part of “capital” to overlook, or to work around, the deleterious impact of burning coal, now on a massive scale. Eyes were open. The positive result is a world transformed by ingenious applications of electricity, a resource as necessary to our society as oxygen is to our respiration. The negative results, of which the London fog was an emblem, have been cleared up, pretty much, in the developed West. The developing world is both another story and the same old story. I am perhaps unreasonably optimistic about putting the Earth back to rights, but I know that it will take a century or two simply to stop making things worse, at least in certain parts of the world.

There is an echo of the Fall in the story of coal. It has been argued that Adam did not become fully human until he disobeyed the word of God. It is an argument that can never be settled, because it is really a matter of taste. Most of us have learned to accommodate the existence of evil, if not evil itself, by finding it interesting; educated people are especially prone to quip that life would be a colossal bore if we were all good all the time. But the coal story is only an echo. It cannot be said that actual good came from the Expulsion from the Garden: the knowledge of evil and its aftermath are entirely cautionary. It would require, in contrast, a perverse austerity of mind to believe that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution have been altogether regrettable, that, indeed, they have been devoid of wonderful enhancements of human life and dignity. The Industrial Revolution was complicated, prolific, and multifarious; it was not a simple disaster. If you believe in the Fall, you know that it was redeemed by Christ but that it remains in effect: to orthodox Christians, we are all still born sinners. I believe that the negative sequelae of environmental degradation can be stopped — not now, but someday.


Wednesday 6th My Birthday (68)

Finally! Buried in the Business section, the story ought to have appeared on the front page: “Racial Identity, and Its Hostilities, Return to American Politics,” by Eduardo Porter. It appears (at last, in the pages of the Times) that white voters are prompted more by their identification as whites than by their economic status. Well, uneducated whites. I remember saying this a while back and feeling mighty indiscreet about it, as though I were calling attention to a fart. Because, where I live, it has become politically incorrect even to imagine such bigotry. Where I live, almost everybody is white. Almost everybody is educated, too. It is rude and mean to look down on the uneducated, since, where I live, the uneducated people tend not to be white. New York City does not attract uneducated white men. (It attracts almost everybody else.) On no point in the political calendar are New Yorkers more out of touch with the United States than that of the consequences of racial identity.

Speaking of the Donald, did anybody read the story, which appeared over the weekend, about his brother, Freddy Trump? It’s a sad, if familiar story: the oldest son who fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, the life-of-the-party who succumbs to drink and dies in his early forties. The remarkable thing was the tone of his younger brother’s comments. Given what we’re used to hearing from the would-be candidate, Donald Trump sounded sage, respectful, and even circumspect on the subject of his brother’s failure. Instead of screaming, “Freddy was a loser; I’m the greatest Trump,” he said (in connection with his father’s stinginess with praise), “For me, it worked very well. For Fred, it wasn’t something that was going to work.”

Oh, what’s wrong with me? I’m clutching at straws. Give me the slightest evidence of Donald Trump’s humanity and I slump with relief. What a sucker. Donald Trump is a developer. There isn’t anything that he doesn’t itch to repackage.


Fossil Darling just called to wish me a happy birthday. Every other ping tells me that a Facebook friend has done the same. I don’t know why, but this birthday feels different, just as this holiday season felt different. On the surface, the holidays were awful, owing to repercussions of the Shkreli arrest, but beneath the surface I felt a great change, the clearing of a new perspective. At the same time, a feeling of resignation and contentment that seems distinctly monastic. What’s monastic is the quiet. The quiet is not silence, just the absence of noise, particularly of the vocal variety. Most of the time.

There seems to be a new woman in the building, a new tenant, which I don’t think I’d have noticed if she were not a brayer — bruyante, as the French would say. Have you ever blushed, while traveling abroad, to notice how many Americans come unequipped with an inside voice? The new tenant is one of those. I first heard her when I tried to catch an elevator. The car was already jammed, mostly by the luggage cart but also by the guard whose job it is to prevent renovating workman from using the passenger elevators — even though there hasn’t been much evidence of renovating workmen in recent weeks (months)? But it was also full of her voice. “I don’t think so!” she said, meaning that there wouldn’t be room for me.

The elevator went down to the ground floor and then bounced back up for me. I could hear the braying woman in the lobby when I stepped out. She was asking a handyman for his name — fifty feet away from me.

I did what I had come downstairs to do and was waiting for an elevator to take me back upstairs when the braying woman sidled up and commented on my indoor clothes (a Take Ivy outfit with shorts). “I hope that you haven’t been outside, young man,” she said, brightly, even congenially, but loudly and impertinently. “It’s very cold out there!” Thinking that this must be put a stop to, I slowly turned my gaze in her direction and stared. “No,” I said, after a beat. Then I looked away. What I’d seen was a large woman, not fat, not even stout, really, but very much there, with a somewhat doughy, indistinct face and scraggly gray hair. Her expression might have been friendly, but it might just as easily have been impatient. She clearly expected to be welcomed sociably, but to me she was as annoying as an Irish setter. She was wearing a track suit — an indoor outfit, I hope, “young lady,” a thought I kept to myself.

In the elevator, the braying woman expressed admiration for the chain of beads that Kathleen made for my reading glasses. I usually smile, say thanks, and add that my wife made it — because, I’m ashamed to say, even I think that it’s a bit fruity to go about wearing what could pass for a very attractive but not particularly manly necklace. Lately, I have been pondering hitherto unguessed aspects of this sort of exchange, and how the mention of my wife might strike an interlocutress as unwelcome news. It’s still very odd and confusing to suppose, even for a moment, that anyone is trying to pick me up. But the other day, in Fairway, I had just put two six-packs of eight-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola into my shopping basket — that’s how Kathleen likes her Coke — when an attractively-dressed older lady nodded at me with a smile. “That’s the way I like my Coke,” she said, approvingly. I smiled, but for a few minutes I was thirteen, or twenty-two, or even thirty at the oldest, being complimented by one of my mother’s friends. I was wearing another Take Ivy outfit — sportscoat, sportshirt, slacks and loafers. In a few days, I shall need a trim at the barber’s, but even at my wildest I’m pretty kempt. I might be overweight, and a permanent scowl might be engraved upon my forehead. But I am male and walking without assistance. You don’t see many like me at Fairway.

Abominable conceit? I almost wish.

In the elevator, I said “Thank you” to the braying woman, but I did not turn to return her glance and I did not mention Kathleen.

I knew it: as soon as I had gotten off the elevator and was out of sight — but not out of earshot; the elevator doors take forever to close — I heard the brayinig woman say something about my not being very conversational. For my part, I felt like saying to her, “Perhaps, when I have seen you in the elevator for five years, or, more likely, twenty or thirty, I may decide to chat with you.”

This brief encounter passed from my mind — well, not really. But it stung rather badly when I was reading Marilynne Robinson a little later. In “Experience,” which is about judgment and revelation and souls, she writes, “I do believe we blaspheme when we wrong or offend another human being.” Blaspheme! I certainly did mean, if not to offend, then to reprimand, the femme bruyante. It was all the worse because Robinson had just sent me to the Bible, by wrapping up her remarks about the soul — “But the souls we let our theories and our penuries frustrate are souls still, and, if Jesus is to be trusted, they will be our judges, they are now our judges” — by observing, “Clearly I am very much influenced by the parable of the great judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.”

The “great judgment,” the division of all the people as into sheep and goats, with the goats being relegated to “eternal punishment,” is extremely clear. If you feed the poor, clothe the poor, and visit the poor when they are in prison, you go to heaven (“eternal life”). If you don’t, you’re one of the goats. This sort of thing always makes me feel completely pharisaical, because despite all the nice things that I try to say here, I do not drop coins in the cups of beggars along 86th Street. I take clothes to Goodwill and don’t claim a tax deduction, but is that clothing the poor, exactly? I certainly don’t visit the poor in prisons. Haven’t things changed a bit since Scriptural times? It feels weaselly even to suggest such a thing. I don’t in fact do a damned thing, directly, for the poor.

My excuse? “It’s the rich who need my attention!”

Which is abominable conceit.


Marilynne Robinson says something so well, in “Experience,” that I propose using it as a text, in an examination for would-be members of the élite, on which to write a thousand words.

We can no more generate ideas that are strictly our own than we can acquire ideas without making them our own. (232)

We can be neither original nor objective. We can be only imaginative and critical. We can only add and amend; we are far more likely to be forgotten utterly. I have accepted this as the plain truth for so long that it is no longer humbling. I should no sooner feel humble about lacking a third arm or an angel’s wings. It is just the way things are for everybody. I’m all for abominable conceit, but delusions of grandeur must be resisted.


Thursday 7th

I celebrated the day after my birthday by reading The Givenness of Things through to the end. I don’t know how to evaluate this experience. A great deal of “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” one of the later essays, seemed to involve the Evangelists’ way of dealing with Jesus’ identity as Messiah, but I couldn’t get a purchase on it. I never knew why I was reading it, or what I was supposed to take from it. It went over my head somehow. I’d like to think that I’ll give it another try, but while this is not altogether unlikely, there are many other uses for my time. It will depend on how the book as a whole settles in my mind.

Our friend the Deacon told me that one of his scholarly Dominican friends (a priest, that is) quipped that the world would have been a better place if only John Calvin could have been like Marilynne Robinson. These Dominicans do think that Robinson is indeed nuts about Calvin. I’d like to hear that, or the opposite, from some other voices.

For the moment, Robinson’s is a very singular voice, here or anywhere. She wants to revive Calvinist doctrine, but only for those who wish for a more robust faith. Let others find their own ways. (Not once, I think, does Robinson mention Catholicism. She goes straight from the “Early Church” to the Reformers. Her only real heretic is Marcion.) If she would change anything, it would be Christian exclusivism — the limitations of Christ’s grace and blessings to Christians. This must mean that good people anywhere can intuit Christian ethics and lead lives that put them among the sheep rather than the goats. When I say that Robinson has a high opinion of America and is proud to be an American, especially vis-à-vis Europeans, I must hasten to add that she is revolted by christianist fundamentalism, which to her way of thinking is just positivist balderdash that substitutes Scripture for Principia Mathematica, and denatures Christ’s blessings in the process.

Last week (on the 29th), I wrote about something that had only recently occurred to me. What’s wrong with modern American society today is — a general addiction to television and spectator sports aside — confined to the élites. Robinson seems to come to a similar conclusion, in “Realism,” the final essay in Givenness.

Cynicism and vulgarism are cheek and jowl. One teaches us helplessness in the face of the abuses and atavisms the other encourages us to embrace. (278)

Ordinary people do not need to be taught helplessness or encouraged to embrace atavism. It is the élite class that, being in a position to backslide, does so. I wish that Robinson had more to say about journalism, or at any rate more occasion to mention journalists, because I sense that she would agree that it is this quartier of the élite, the men and women who write for magazines and, to a lesser extent, newspapers who promote, “helplessly” themselves, these unnecessary evils. Perhaps the judgment is unduly harsh. But if journalists are quick to admire the genuinely pious, particular where piety is found with generosity, they are also quick to insist upon the exceptionality of pious, generous people, and to endow them with a hint of the miraculous, as if to warn readers away from emulation. But piety and generosity are very simple habits to grasp, if not to acquire, and they are available to everybody. If everyone sincerely wished to be pious, or more pious, and generous, or more generous, then the world would be a much safer place. And I believe that those wishes would be spread more generally among the élite if journalists would stop counseling them that cynicism is cool and that vulgarism is fun. (Why am I thinking of Pinocchio?)

Perhaps it is this simple: journalism has its roots in one part of problem-solving. The identification of a problem is the first step in solving it, and that is what journalists profess to provide. They also report on attempted solutions. But they don’t put their personal weight behind these attempts, because that would not be “objective,” and it would not be cool. Only those journalists who were also activists could write such reports, and journalists have a habit of expelling activists from their number. This is why I wish we could replace our advertising-supported apparatus of journalism with Jeffersonian councils — a dream that Hannah Arendt took up in “Thoughts on Politics and Revolutions.” Such self-selecting committees would act as fact-finders and as legislatures, at least to the extent of proposing reforms. I try not to talk about these councils, because they have never existed and we shall know little about them until we give them a try in some relatively harmless area — relatively — such as (my semi-jocular suggestion) the use of mobile phones in public. I know only that these councils must be local and that they must operate textually, with the exchange of written documents — drafts, revisions, and all the rest. The minute you allow people to stand up and speak their minds, sad experience proves, you reduce politics to bad theatre. If limiting participation in councils to those who are fluent with their pens is élitist, then that — hardly a surprise! — is the kind of élitism that I am in favor of. And I can think of no better use for empty churches than for periodic meetings and discussions. No action would be taken at these gatherings, but people would get to meet and know each other, and, very occasionally, a proposal might be read aloud. This is just about all I have to say on this subject, and although I think that it is vitally important, I try not to mention it more than twice a year.

For the moment, my council pipe-dream provides at least a conceptual alternative to current arrangements for informing public opinion. To translate Robinson’s mission into my terms (wrenching it not too violently, I hope), the idea is to foster the three social virtues (which are rooted in Christianity) of decency, self-respect, and generosity. Journalism as it is currently practiced will never be very good at doing this.


An American novel that I have re-read several times and come to love is John P Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter (1946). I am always quietly thrilled by the opening chapters, in which Polly Fulton Brett, the cherished daughter of a rich industrialist, pays an impromptu, off-season, wartime visit to her country house in Massachusetts. Given the winter snow, driving from the train station to the house is inconvenient, but by the time the reader arrives at Polly’s front door, the deep white silence of the New England night is a forceful presence. Polly walks through the house with a sense of failure: her husband, Tom, has never made the use of it that she intended. He has been distracted by political celebrity, and he lives in Washington for the most part, while Polly stays in New York. The marriage, we soon discover, is in tatters. From this beginning, Marquand takes us back through Polly’s life and loves, while at the same time moving forward. Before she can even slip into bed, she is summoned to New York by her father’s poor health; later, she will go to Washington to attempt to reclaim her husband. And Marquand will take us into the heart of the perfect gentleman who has always loved Polly, even after she wouldn’t have him, a lawyer named Bob Tasmin. Tasmin cuts an extraordinarily knightly figure, and is every inch the hero, but his weapons, so to speak, are modesty and discretion.

When I re-read the novel for the first time, ten or fifteen years ago, I learned that a movie had been made of the novel, starring Barbara Stanwyck. I had never heard of it, and it did not seem to be available for hire or purchase. That has changed. I came across the DVD at Amazon the other day, and ordered it at once. I wondered how bad it would be — to be a hitherto forgotten movie starring a great actress whose stock is ever on the rise.

First of all, it isn’t a bad picture. Second, however, it is deeply untrue to the book. Bob Tasmin is played by Richard Hart, a promising but perhaps alcoholic actor who died in 1951 at the age of 35. Hart presents Tasmin as a nice guy with snobbish tendencies and cold-fish inclinations. As in the book, Tasmin won’t marry Polly, his unofficial fiancée since forever, until he makes junior partner at his Wall Street law firm: he is determined not to rely on BF’s fortune to support Polly in half the style to which she is accustomed. But in the book, Tasmin’s ardent love shows through to everyone; Hart gives us only commonsense prudence. No wonder Polly’s eye wanders when she runs into Tom Brett, a dodgy man of the left. In the movie, Tom is played by Van Heflin, and not as in the book, Heflin’s Tom grows quieter and more discreet over time. In fact, he takes on Bob’s virtues. The marriage is still in tatters by the time we get to the War, but the blonde mistress that the book’s Tom keeps in Georgetown becomes a blind Dutch refugee for whom his care is strictly Platonic. And it is Tom, not Bob, that Polly throws herself at in the final clinch. You realize, of course, that Marquand’s novel could not have been properly adapted to the taste of mid-Forties studios and moviegoers. (In the book, Bob, who has married someone else, removes himself from Polly’s arms, because he is, after all, the perfect gent, but Polly is left alone with her millions.)

The movie deserves to be watched by any admirer of Stanwyck. Without being at all fierce, she glistens at times with the seismic intensity of Joan Crawford. But it’s the air of surprise with which her Polly falls in love with Tom that has to be seen. It’s almost as though the shoe in The Lady Eve were on the other foot.

The charming but not charmed country house of the book, however, is transformed into a Tara-on-hill, more studio-imperial Georgian than BF’s grand Park Avenue apartment. Tom never even spends the night there.


Friday 8th

Continuing to take it easy, I watched another movie yesterday, also starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Ray Soleil had told me about this one, and I picked it up with BF’s Daughter. Either Ray presented it, or I understood him to do so, as a cute conceit: in East Side, West Side, a married man lives with his wife on the East Side, and keeps a mistress on the West Side. That’s not really how it goes, but no matter. The real problem with East Side, West Side (1949; directed by Mervyn LeRoy) is that it is very hard to synopsize. I found this out when I tried to tell Kathleen about it. I’m not sure that I want to try again.

It’s much easier to tick off the film’s strengths. East Side, West Side easily lives up to its claim to be a movie about Manhattan. I doubt that any of it was shot here, but great pains were taken to convey that impression. The views from the interiors of cars were particularly authentic. La Guardia in the old days, for example — I felt that we were dropping my father off, as we used to do fairly often. (La Guardia was only twice as far in miles and not nearly twice as far in time from our house in Bronxville as it is from our apartment in Yorkville.) The Triborough Bridge — as I shall continue, resolutely, to call it, until the new name goes the way of the Avenue of the Americas — looked just like the toy that it is. Gramercy Square. Washington Square. Little Italy. The East River, seen from a terrace on Gracie Square (which is just a street). The terrace was supposedly on an actual building, 10 Gracie Square, as I could tell when a limousine pulled into its through-building driveway (the exit from which is right across the street from Kathleen’s old school, the Brearley). A portion of this driveway, with its pillars and niches, was faithfully recreated, with a shot of the paling at the south end of Carl Schurz Park mounted in the background.

Not that the art direction was perfect. The Del Rio, a nightclub with an entrance giving onto a nulle part configuration of streets and alleys — James Mason and Ava Gardner sauntered up and down an improbable thoroughfare in an early scene — was improbably spacious inside. The same was true of a high-end dress-shop. New York’s buildings may be impressively tall, but its interiors tend to be compact, if not cramped. Generations of designers have gotten very good at concealing the paucity of cubic square feet, and suggesting grandeur by means of theatrical sleight-of-hand. But the movies generally flunk the test. I will say that the Gracie Square apartment was plausible, with its staircase tucked into a small fold.

The easy part of the story concerns Brandon and Jessie Bourne. Some time ago, Brandon (Mason) had a torrid affair with Isabel Lorrison (Gardner), but he broke it off and she left town. Now she’s back, and she wants him back. He says no, but he keeps sticking around saying no, and you realize that he’ll go on saying no even after he starts kissing Isabel. Gardner is very cheap, and quite frank about it. She doesn’t live on the West Side, though. She lives at 20 Washington Square, which is too close to Fifth Avenue to be East or West.

Along with saying no to Isabel and not really meaning it, Bran promises his wife (Stanwyck) that he’ll never see Isabel again, and he doesn’t really mean that, either. Jessie fluctuates between reassurance and despair, states that Stanwyck somehow manages to personalize for just this movie. Then somebody gets murdered, and Bran is the suspect for a while. During this fracas, Jessie’s love and affection for her husband mysteriously but convincingly evaporate. But you know that this is going to happen when Bran pays a call on his mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), once a famous actress. She has always been fond of him, so he is surprised when she tells him, from the comfort of her bed pillows, that she has never been so fond of him as she is now, now that Jessie is going to be free of him. The rich, ironic demi-glace of the scene, in which Sondergaard is wonderfully spooky, just about knocks you out.

Perhaps Jessie’s attention has drifted to Paul Dwyer (Heflin). How he comes into the story makes perfect sense as it unfolds on the screen, at least to a New Yorker, which is both as big as the world and a very small town. But I would put you to sleep if I tried to explain, because first there was this, see, and then that happened, and then the pretty model was headed for LaGuardia to pick up her “fella,” and Jesse gave her a lift, and what do you know. Nevertheless, by the end of East Side, West Side, all attachments are off. We see the back of James Mason, leaning against the terrace door, with the East River humming in the middle distance.

Cyd Charisse plays the pretty model. William Frawley is the bartender at the Del Rio. William Conrad investigates the murder. But the real treat is former first lady, then Nancy Davis. She plays Jessie’s best friend and is very good at it. No starlet she! It took a while for me to recognize her (as Mrs Reagan), but by then I was impressed. I found myself working out where Joan Didion was, in 1949.

I suppose the fact that East Side, West Side whizzes by at a speed seldom reached these days by Manhattan traffic,and is just too hard to summarize (sorry, two facts), prove(s) that it is a real New York movie. There aren’t very many of them.


Not having The Givenness of Things to read is a bummer. I could start re-reading it, I suppose, but my mind is enjoying the rest. However, I have nothing else as interesting to read. I have two chapters, maybe less, of The Fall of the Ottomans to get through; I’m still at the start of The Museum of Memory, and somewhat stuck on the possibility that I don’t like Orhan Pamuk as a romantic lead. Then there is Osman’s Dream, a history of the Ottomans by Caroline Finkel. That’s a lot of Turkey! The English and Their History is a new arrival, but already faintly disappointing. Robert Tombs ends each part of his history with a chapter about how the English of the time saw their past and themselves in the world. I read the first of these chapters to Kathleen, to put her to sleep. It didn’t work; she was much too interested. I, in contrast, didn’t learn a thing. I do have Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, but I’m saving that for just the right mood. Which is another way of saying that my mind is enjoying the rest.

Oh, I know! This is the time to re-read Aria, by Brown Meggs. It’s a novel about making a recording of Otello in Rome in the late Seventies, and I read it with the greatest interest back in 1980, when I returned to New York and stayed for a while with Fossil Darling. I wonder how it has held up. I’ve had my own copy for a few years now, and it has just been sitting there.

What I miss about The Givenness of Things is the constant references to Scripture, which I faithfully checked out. The impossibly, wonderfully old-fashioned thing about Marilynne Robinson is her combination of scholarship, which she wears lightly, and religious enthusiasm, which is forceful rather than insistent. She refers to Jonathan Edwards a few times, and I began to see her as a worthy successor to that divine. But how would I know? My scurryings to the Bible reminded me that I have never read it. The whole thing. All the way through. Plus, I lack the classical languages — no Hebrew, the Greek alphabet and rhododactylos Ios, and just enough Latin to fake it with a Loeb. Let’s face it: I’m illiterate!

In today’s Times, there’s a favorable review of Tom Holland’s new book, Dynasty, which tells the bloody story of the Julio-Claudians, the family that ruled Rome from the murder of Caesar to the suicide of Nero. Tom Holland has been praised by Donna Leone as a first-rate storytelling historian, and, on the strength of this advice, I bought his Rubicon, but soon bogged down, because, like The Fall of the Ottomans, it is (at least at the start) a military history. From what I gather, war is often experienced as an appalling bore, and that’s what I find reading about it to be as well. War is also chaotic, which means that it can’t really be captured in intelligible prose. I don’t know why anybody would want to know the details of the Siege of Kut, a British disaster on the Mesopotamian front that ended ingloriously in 1916. Professional historians have to know, of course, but I don’t. Holland’s new book sounds more like a family romance in the key of Kiss of Death. Should I give it a try?

There does seem to be this new school of vernacular historians in Britain. Dan Jones has been working on the Plantagenets and their Lancastrian and Yorkist successors (Plantagenets all, really). I have one of his books and it is very brisk. I don’t want to be derogatory, but the tone is something between Time-Life and Boy’s Life. The story is well-enough told, but it is a very small story, about a handful of people clutching for the crown. There is no background at all. I don’t mean “boring details,” but background — a sense of the country muddling through. The problem with vernacular history is that it falls into an eternal present. The struggle for power is unending but also unchanging. There are new faces, but no new moves. You wreak grievous bodily harm on your enemies and hope to get away with it.

Actual history is richer. Take John of Gaunt — what was he like? (“Gaunt” means “Ghent,” John’s birthplace.) So far as I know, this second son of Edward III never attempted to parley his wealth and position, which were immense, into a grab at the throne. He was bright and ambitious and filthy rich, thanks to his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster. But he was Richard II’s honorable uncle, despite that immature man’s travails and his unwise banishment of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. (After his father’s death, in 1399, Henry would return to England and usurp his cousin’s crown, becoming Henry IV.) I don’t intend to claim that John of Gaunt was a nice guy, but he was interesting, especially in his military and political failures, which he was eminent enough to survive. “Colorful” is the word. Also, John of Gaunt was a friend of Chaucer. So saith Wikipedia. Can this be true? What would “friend” have meant? And how much of any of this can be known?

How did Archbishop Chichele, the fifteenth-century founder of All Soul’s, pronounce his name? The Internet is not authoritative.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Snobbery Doesn’t Come Into It
December 2015 (V)

Monday 28th

At the end of her remarkable little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes that it is not for everybody.

You won’t die if your house isn’t tidy, and there are many people in the world who really don’t care if they can’t put their house in order. Such people, however, would never pick up this book. You, on the other hand, have been led by fate to read it, and that probably means that you have a strong desire to change your current situation, to reset your life, to improve your lifestyle, to gain happiness, to shine.

This sort of thing usually appears at the beginning of self-help books, not on the penultimate page. Placed where it is, however, the statement about “you” is not just an alluring promise but a demonstrated fact. Well, it was for me, partly because I have, in my somewhat longer life, stumbled on a few of “KonMari’s” home truths already. I felt an enormous affirmation of all my housekeeping intuitions. This was all the more welcome for coming in the middle of a dark time, a screwed-up holiday season.

Life-Changing Magic preaches the importance of taking things seriously — the material things that crowds your closets and drawers. If they are truly important to you, if, in KonMari’s quaintly off-sounding phrase, they “spark joy,” then by all means keep them. If they don’t, then their importance consists in the need to get rid of them, no matter how profuse the excuses for retention. Once you have purged your life of things that fail to spark joy, you will find it easy, she promises, to find the places where everything that you keep belongs.

There is no need to buy anything. There may not even be the need to buy the book, because KonMarie encourages her readers to discard things that have served their purpose, and you might know one such reader. KonMari believes that you probably already possess more than enough of the storage equipment that you need — drawers, shelves, closets, and so on. The only thing that is required to make a success of her challenge is your attention. You must pick up everything that you own, one at a time, and attend to the feeling that holding it brings.

The end result is not a tidier home. It is a more sharply-focused sense of self. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is essentially a diet book, addressed to the thin person inside anybody who feels fat. This metaphorical fat is actual confusion. We have amassed heaps of stuff because we might find it useful. We intend to read this book when we have time, or to use that pot when the right party is on the calendar. You never know. You never know whom you might want to become, when you’ll need the right stuff.

This “never knowing” is obviously confusing, a cloud over your grasp of the future, such as it is. KonMari’s simple test is this: does the person that you want to become make you happy now? One of her favorite categories of clients’ discards is study guides for speaking English. Everybody seems to have a few of these, but the books never spark joy. Does this mean that speaking English is unimportant? Yes. For most people, speaking a foreign language is an accomplishment, like playing the piano. If you are passionate about it, you just do it. If you’re not, it means that you’re happy with your life as it is, but are cluttering it up with insincere aspirations. Once you clear your home of the material litter of these fond hopes, you will find the true ones. KonMari mentions a woman who pared down her library until it told her what she wanted to do with her life: When the only books left were all concerned with social work, she decided to launch a day-care center.

Modern life is characterized by cheap plenty. Just as there is too much flimsy clothing, and too much processed food, so there are too many options for “personal realization.” The odiously-named concept of the bucket list implies that life is not lived without certain special experiences. Most of these experiences are passive, even if they involve a bit of exercise. (Climbing the Eiffel Tower is possible only because Monsieur Eiffel actually built it. “The Eiffel Tower” belonged on his list in a way that it can’t on anybody else’s.) They are as inconsequential as postcards — for what, after all, does seeing the Grand Canyon bring to your life beyond yet another wow? It were better to study your local geology — better not to spend time and resources for an idle glimpse of some remote wonder. The best of these lists would include only one goal, and achieving it would be both difficult and fulfilling. It is hard to determine that one goal, however, if your house is full of how-tos.

Find out who you already are, and get better at it. Throw away all the stuff that who-you-are doesn’t need.


As it moves along, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up takes on a tone that some readers will find “spiritual,” not meaning it as a compliment. KonMari talks about welcoming her house when she comes home from work. She thanks the things that she throws away for having given her the pleasure of acquiring them, which was, apparently, all they were good for. She folds her clothing with something like reverence. Once she has presented her businesslike criteria for filling garbage bags, she lets her house tell her where everything that she retains belongs. This will certainly strike some readers as silly and new-age-y. Others might see the heritage of a Zen-like respect for the world. KonMari explicitly wants her house to have something of the sacred aura of a Shinto shrine.The secular reader in search of housekeeping tips might find this sort of thing annoying.

Asian thought, however, has never made a significant distinction between the material and the metaphysical; the spiritual world does not lie outside or beyond the one that we apprehend with our senses. There is little or no Platonic dualism. So it is entirely reasonable, in such an intellectual climate, to hold that material things, far from being vain appearances, can touch our souls. In fact, it is urgent that we recognize and accept this un-Reasonable proposition, because it is the central insight of environmental respect. The quality of the world in which you live influences the nature of the person you are.

Human beings have almost always acknowledged this, but with a fateful backwardness. If you were poor and uneducated, that was your destiny, and nothing that anybody else could help change. Perhaps it was necessary for some people to become rich and learned, just to see how far human capability might be stretched. Once that was discovered, however, and once it was at the same time discovered that most rich and educated people don’t stretch their own human capabilities very much at all, it was clear that, one day, the talk of destiny must be abandoned, and a world of more equitable distribution conceived. We are still a long way from any such achievement, and I don’t see any social tools that would realize it soon. Today, however, we have a peculiar problem. Because some people manage to organize their way out of wretched environments, we like to think that everybody living in poverty might do the same. In fact, the few who do emerge are as unusual as the figures who long ago became priests and kings, in the early days of agriculture. Ordinary people who happen to be disadvantaged need good-enough food, clothing, and shelter no less than others; above all, they need to be spared the terrible stress of being poor, the endless and exhausting decisions that navigating a hard life entails.

These are people who don’t need Marie Kondo’s book.

For those of us who do, the insistence of the connection between the world outside and the soul within is the same, despite our bland comforts. Affluent people are no less embroiled in the world around them than are the poor. Their inclination to believe that they can take or leave that world, that the freedom to do as they please assures that they will be who they please, is sadly mistaken. It is perhaps unintelligent to argue that we are all the products of the world we live in, but there is no doubt in my mind that we live in dialogue with it, and that conducting this dialogue with humility and respect will make the world a better place.


Tuesday 29th

Never having gotten round to selecting a photograph for this week’s entry, I forgot to post yesterday’s opening. This morning, I rooted around old pictures for half an hour, finally settling on something from a long time ago, a picture that someone took of me at work, shortly before or after Kathleen and I were married. So we end the year with a salute to the past, which is definitely another country.

Our trip to San Francisco is off. Kathleen is simply too swamped, doing the work of two lawyers; besides, there might be a new client in the offing. I thought, very briefly, about traveling alone, but that’s something that I haven’t done in more than fifteen years. I might travel with someone other than Kathleen, but not alone. And I don’t think that I’d leave Kathleen alone just now.


In passing, yesterday, I declared that mastering a foreign language is an “accomplishment” for most people, meaning that it is not vitally important. This judgment might seem at odd as with the genius loci of this Web log. I believe that the ability to read foreign languages is vitally important to all educated people, and even more to the society in which they live. We need as much experience as we can get of other ways of thinking, and I believe that this experience is best encountered in printed matter.

Growing up the Cold War, however, I was habituated to the drudgery of what were called language labs — rooms with cubbyholes, tape recorders, and headphones. To learn a foreign language meant to speak it. Reading it, especially reading it as literature, was secondary. The entire enterprise, I’ve since decided, was baloney. You can learn to speak a foreign language in an intense, immersive course, but you will not hold onto it, or make it part of your life, unless you spend some time — at least six months, I should think — living in a place where it is the spoken language. It would be wonderful if everyone had the opportunity to spend some time somewhere abroad, and I’m sorry that I missed my chance in college (although I was much too immature). But without such sojourns, a foreign language cannot be absorbed.

We ought to go back to the pedagogic idea that prevailed before the Cold War, when foreign languages were needed mostly by scholars who had to keep up with foreign scholarship. Learning to read a foreign language is much simpler than learning to speak it, because mere reading does not require you to stop thinking in your own — a bruising experience. Mastering a foreign grammar, as is far more necessary for reading than for speaking another language, probably gets in the way of learning to speak it, because vernacular speech everywhere is usually quite ungrammatical (or at least a-grammatical). But speaking a language will take care of itself, when the actual need arises. You will certainly not learn a foreign language better by studying it at home than you will if you’re surrounded by native speakers.

The effort to speak foreign languages is actually making us all more illiterate than we might be.


Another bit of received wisdom that has fractured for me in recent weeks can be formulated thus: the loss of religious belief has left modern man alienated and rootless, in constant but hopeless search for substitutes.

To the extent that this is true, it is true, I believe, only of highly educated people — people who formerly experienced religion as a source not only of spiritual meaning (I’m very uncomfortable with this phrase, but it turns up all the time in the received wisdom) but also of material explanation. For people who lost religious belief, the challenge of scientific explanations of the world not only dismantled their religious counterparts, as elaborately expounded by Thomas Aquinas, but undermined spiritual meaning as well. This didn’t have to happen; there are still plenty of people walking around today who believe in (the Judeo-Christian) God without discrediting science. Many of these people are highly educated.

As for uneducated people who have stopped going to church, it’s less likely that they lost their religious belief than that they are enjoying a modern liberty. If anything has changed since the old days, it is the license that our constitutional insistence upon religious freedom has given to people who want to sleep late or pursue a hobby, instead of attending religious services. This is new. You used to have to participate in the local religious rites, whether you wanted to or not. When the going gets tough, ordinary people will return to their pews — if they’re not setting up some new sect.

This, I think, is the root of the élitist anxiety about the alienation of the common man: what the common man has become alienated from is the idea that he ought to do what élitists tell him to do.

But élite alienation is much more serious. The loss of religious belief among élites is quite real, particularly among those sections of the élite that frame leadership propositions. For it must be understood that nobody has become alienated from the need for leadership. The problem is that, without some kind of divine backup, élites doubt their own authority to formulate responses to social problems. Élites throughout history have claimed supernatural support for their proclamations of what must be done. But God was divided in the Reformation — torn apart, literally; the élites of a very small portion of the earth’s surface could no longer agree on just what it was that God wanted. During the century following the demoralizing end of the Thirty Year’s War, in which Catholic Austria refused, refused, and refused again to recognize the claims of Protestant Germany, better minds devoted themselves to weighing the possibility of detaching Western élites from God.

They got no further, really, than insisting that there must be a detaching. Reattachments to other alleged sources of meaning and authority, such as art or education, have not succeeded. On the Times’s Op-Ed page, believers such as David Brooks and Ross Douthat assert, more or less emphatically, that reattachment is impossible; only the old, the traditional source of morality — Judeo-Christian scripture — will serve. (This is, after all, God’s world.) Most members of the élite — journalists, particularly — are agnostic and even self-denying. All but the most aggressive investigative journalists are uncomfortable with the claim that their reports are morally authoritative. This is particularly true in political reporting.

What constitutes leadership today? That is the very important question that lurks behind the limping complaint about “alienation.”

With the advent of nationalist, populist democracy in the Nineteenth Century, élitists found themselves to be unwelcome, for it was populism’s mad dream, wholly anticipated by the political philosophers of classical antiquity, that societies could function without élites. (Libertarianism is nothing but populism for nerds: Silicon Valley presents the comical spectacle of men (mostly men) who not only want to sweep away conventional existing élites but who regard themselves as smart guys just doing their own thing and telling no one else what to do. Just conducting orgies of creative destruction.) The emergence of an élite is just about the first thing that happens in any society.

With traditionally-trained élites ruled non grata, the nationalist democracies exposed themselves to the antidemocratic tyranny of charismatic leaders who made things up as they went along, trailing chaos and bloodshed. We were given good reason to fear the very idea of leadership. That may explain why, in all the long decades since the deaths of Hitler and Stalin, little has been done to configure the profile of a truly democratic leader. Thoughtful Americans recognize how lucky they were to have FDR — and how useless he is as a template. In any case, our leadership models are all deformed by the deadly crises that called them forth. Who was Churchill without the Nazis? An impetuous, imperialist windbag.

Fortunately, the idea of a “peacetime” leader need not detain us. We are not living in peacetime. Quite aside from the political confusions that disrupt the élite’s globalist dreams, there is the uncertain urgency of confronting environmental degradation, and the certain urgency of doing so with a patience capable of resisting apparent solutions that will only derail society.

I don’t think that we need God to inspire us to behave better than we do. I don’t think that we need the attractions of resurrection and eternal life to rivet our attention to saving ourselves from possibly immediate immolation. But we do need good leaders.

At the dawn of our industrial, then technological era, it was not unusual to hear oracular declarations that man had displaced his gods. It may be the greater part of the élite has lost its faith in supreme beings. But I doubt that there are any serious members of the élite today who entertain such orgulous notions. Lost faith in God may never be replaced, but neither will God.


Wednesday 30th

As everybody knows, the first issue of the London Review of Books for the new year features a presumably abridged edition of Alan Bennett’s diary for the year. The entries are superficially short and slight, until you read them. Humour, wisdom, a very dry nostalgia; a bemused affection for relatively unsophisticated parents — Bennett was surprised that his father found Nancy Mitford very funny. This year’s big event was the opening (or openings) of The Lady In the Van, which occasioned a trip to New York last month. In preparation for this, Bennett sprained his ankle. He was flown First Class across the Atlantic, he tells us, by the New York Public Library (which was going to make him one of its Literary Lions) and by Sony Pictures.

I wonder, though, looking at our fellow passengers, who is paying for them, so ordinary do they seem and even scruffy. Perhaps they’re all in the music business, in which case this not being a private jet is maybe a bit of a comedown.

On the one occasion when I flew first class from London to New York, the scruffiness of my fellow high-livers was what struck me, too. But I didn’t have quite the wit — even if I did share the suspicions of the second sentence — to jump from looking too poor to be in first class to looking too rich, and to break through the pretenses of airlines in order to remind myself that really grand people don’t fly First Class any more. They fly Only Class.

Here is the entire entry for 1 September:

Oliver Sacks dies, my first memory of whom was as an undergraduate in his digs in Keble Road in Oxford when I was with Eric Korn and possibly, over from Cambridge, Michael Frayn. Oliver said that he had fried and eaten a placenta. At that time, I don’t think I knew what a placenta was except that I knew it didn’t come with chips.

I left college with an ironclad determination to avoid the Oliver Sackses of this world. People who fry and eat placentas, so that they can tell you about it. I had no idea that Sacks was gay until earlier this year, when he began dying in public, but when I saw the dust-jacket photo of him astride a motorcycle in Greenwich Village, looking as burly and butch as Bob Hoskins, I felt very sad. How many pointlessly thwarted lives! How much tedious transgression! Alan Bennett’s transgressiveness, in contrast, is genial even when it is tinged with bitterness.

As it happens, Bennett puts his finger on the importance of tact in an early entry (15 February). He has just read some good reviews of a play, Blasted, given at Sheffield. (He seems to be a friend of the director.)

In such a violent play, though, I find myself spiked by my literalness … If a character is mutilated on stage, blinded, say, or anally raped or has his or her feet eaten off by rats, the pain of this (I nearly wrote the discomfort) must transcend anything anything else that happens on the stage. A character who has lost a limb cannot do other than nurse the wound, no other discussion is possible. Not to acknowledge this makes the play, however brutal and seemingly realistic, a romantic confection. If there is pain there must be suffering. (But, it occurs to me, Gloucester in Lear.) Another topic concerning me at the moment is Beckett’s sanitisation of old age about which, knowing so little of Beckett, I may be hopelessly wrong. But Beckett’s old age is dry, musty, dessicated. Do Beckett’s characters even smell their fingers? Who pisses? How does the woman in Happy Days shit?

There are two beautiful reconsiderations — what Bennett would or should have done had he known what he knows now. He now wishes, having just seen a revival of An Inspector Calls, that he had taken advantage of an opportunity to plug JB Priestley for the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey; and he laments not have been sufficiently aware of it to remember hearing Kathleen Ferrier sing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in 1950. (I, too, find that work both dreary and empty.) He had to be reminded by an old program. What he did remember was sitting behind the Princess Royal (soon to become HM the Queen) and her Lascelles relations. Well, who wouldn’t?

Whenever possible, Bennett heaps contumely upon the Tories. He does not say that he loathes David Cameron, but you get the sense that he does; yet when he says that he “did detest” Margaret Thatcher, you also sense that Cameron isn’t quite worthy of detestation, that he doesn’t measure up even as a villain. The remark about Thatcher (11 October) is provoked by Charles Moore’s recyling of Graham Turner’s “mendacious interview with me and other so-called artists and intellectuals in which we are supposed to have dismissed Mrs T out of snobbery.” Snobbery didn’t come into it, Bennett insists, because he and Thatcher arose from the same background. This ironic observation tickled me enormously, for while the Iron Lady may have impersonated Britannia during the Falklands War, in fifty or a hundred years she will only be read about, while Bennett will still be read. By the time Kathleen came in to get ready for bed, I had improvised a dactylic chanty:

For SHE was a GROcer’s DAUGHter from GRANtham,
And I was the SON of a BUTCHer from LEEDS.

Sadly — How very disappointing, I think Maggie Smith says somewhere in Evil Under the Sun — that’s not how Bennett puts it. He doesn’t mention Grantham or Leeds. “But she was a grocer’s daughter as I am a butcher’s son. Snobbery doesn’t come into it.” I do blunder so.


Friends from out of town will be coming to dinner tonight. They still share a family apartment on the Upper West Side, but they spend most of their time in Brewster, on Cape Cod. We have seen them only once since they relocated, and they have not been to this apartment. Which I shall be tidying up this afternoon. Dinner is “under control.” Also this afternoon, I shall make a soup of wild rice and mushrooms. I have already made a carbonnade. It filled the apartment with such lovely smells last night that I was afraid that all the flavor was dissipating. The secret, aside from a bottle of Chimay’s best ale, is a reduction of Agata & Valentina’s veal broth from one quart to two-thirds of a cup. And yet, when I took the casserole out of the oven, the sauce was still pretty runny. As I prefer creamy sauces, I may adulterate the dish by thickening the liquid with a roux. At the same time, my dreams of the soup involve at least the thickening of cream, so perhaps I had better leave the carbonnade alone.

I was supposed to buy two large onions along with the beef and the ale, but I forgot, and had to make do with the sorry-looking contents of the crisper. A tired Vidalia onion and a clutch of shallots. When I was through slicing everything, I had discarded nearly half. But it was enough.

The other night, we had Tetrazzini leftovers. I made the dish, comprised of chicken breast, velouté sauce, and spaghetti, two weeks ago. I dished it out into four of those lion’s head ramekins that are perfect for serving Hollandaise. I topped two of the ramekins with Parmesan cheese and warmed them in a hot oven. I covered the other two with plastic wrap and found room for them in the freezer. They made excellent leftovers. I worried that at least some of the spaghetti would turn into wires, but that did not happen. Again, I made the velouté with a severe reduction of chicken stock, which made the dish rich in every way. Kathleen couldn’t quite finish off her ramekin.


Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and Kathleen and I plan to observe it in the usual way, with champagne, caviar, and Radio Days. We’ve been watching Woody Allen’s valentine to the New York of his childhood on the last day of the year for two decades at least, and many of its lines are staples in our household macaroni. “Who is Pearl Harbor?” “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion.” “Hawk, the lions raw, is it the kingue approaching?” “I can’t take that much liquid.” “That’s no fluke!” Not to mention getting Regular with Relax. We even put up with the bathetic episode, right before the split, bittersweet finale, about the little girl in the well, because the montage, so to speak, of Americans of all walks united by the centrality of listening to the radio is so arrestingly beautiful, and at the same time testimony to an utterly lost world. Nobody listens today because everyone is too busy talking.

If we can manage to stay up, we shall speak to Will not just on his birthday but at the anniversary of his birth moment, 1:45 AM. It will be 10:45 PM in San Francisco, late for most six year-olds but not for Will, who has always been a night person.


Thursday 31st New Year’s Eve

Last night’s dinner went well. The beef was overcooked, but the sauce was delicious, and the soup was a keeper. Our friends brought a very tasty apple-cream pie. After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked until midnight.

The wives, high-school classmates, sat together on a love seat and chatted. The husbands sprawled, each on his own love seat, and argued. We argued about the failure of evolution to keep up with social and technological change. We argued about medieval science, which my friend believed to be a matter of church doctrine instead of scientific investigation. Our voices rising, we argued about universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act. Finally, even more heatedly, we argued about the Cold War. My friend asserted — without, I could tell, expecting to be contradicted — that the Cold War was not only successful but necessary, in preventing the spread of Communism around the world. Kathleen announced that it was time to go to bed.

I didn’t realize until later, after I’d loaded the dishwasher and Kathleen had gone to sleep, how far I have traveled from received wisdom on these as on so many other topics. I was appalled to surmise that a quick summary of my “positions” on many issues would mark me as an utter reactionary. But my “positions” are merely observations, informed by the historical considerations that I am always revising, and the historical connections that I am always working out.


It is one thing to examine prehistoric skeletons and to observe that we share ninety-odd percent our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. It is quite another to overlook the role of social evolution in human development. It is true that social catastrophe can undo many of the webs of support that suppress violence and other undesirable behaviors in normal times. But a reversion to some sort of natural setting, “the way we were” in, say, 175,000 BCE, has never really occurred. So far, no society has ever been “knocked back into the Stone Age” and persisted at that level. It may happen in the future — who can say? — but such a disaster would be unprecedented. And even the Stone Age is not to be confused with the State of Nature. Human society does not evolve backward. It can only be destroyed, which is quite different.

Medieval Science

Technology and science were not connected in the Middle Ages, any more than they had been in pre-Christian antiquity. Science was entirely a matter of theories, devised by philosophers and tested by other philosophers. Empirical observation played almost no role in these inquiries. Technologists (ie, cathedral architects) worked by trial and error. The roof of St Pierre de Beauvais, for example…

The origins of modern science do not lie in the overturning of church dogma. The overturning of church dogma was a consequence of modern science. The origins of modern science lie in medieval technology. I wrote about this in September, quoting a quotation:

Before men could evolve and apply the machine as a social phenomenon they had to become mechanics. (PG Walker)

Modern science began with the application of tools to scientific inquiry. One of its first manifestations was the pendulum clock, a collaborative effort dating from the 1650s.

Democracy in America

My friend agreed with me that the United States is a mess right now, but he wasn’t clear about why. In my view, he couldn’t be, because he doesn’t want to concede — and who does? — that universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act explain a great deal of our predicament.

We Americans like to believe that we have made amends for the things that the Founders got wrong, the most egregious being slavery. Instead, as I see it, Americans have substituted workarounds for atonement. This nation was framed, in 1789 (when the first presidential election was held), as a patrician republic. Voting was limited, in each of the new states except Pennsylvania, to landowners. This is to say that the Constitution’s function was thought to depend upon an educated, stakeholding electorate, with an interest in participating in local government and staying abreast of national affairs.

Universal male suffrage was a sales pitch for the new states in the Near West. The populism thus engendered, having spread to the original states, eventually flowered in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose face cannot be removed from the twenty-dollar bill fast enough for me. The patrician élites were encouraged by the Jacksonian persuasion to conceal their patrician façades in a masquerade of common-mannery. This led to élitist opportunism and the replacement of patrician élites by robber barons in the big-spender department.

The result was a permanent bifurcation of the free American population into two classes: Élite (wealthy or educated or connected to the wealthy or educated or all of the above) and ordinary. As we move further from 1945, the astonishing growth of the middle class during the decades of postwar prosperity seems increasingly that: astonishing, and likely neither to last nor to be repeated. When the wonder years were over, many in the middle class — professional people especially (doctors and lawyers) — settled among the élite. The rest of the middle class reverted to ordinary.

The élite in America today appear to be bent upon starving the ordinary American to death. That is the extent of current élitist interest in the common man. You’d think that something else that happened in 1789 has been forgotten.

Anybody who thinks that the problems created by slavery, particularly that of a large population of people immediately discernible as slaves or the descendants of slaves by the color of their skin (a problem unknown to slavery in antiquity), have been “solved” ought to be stripped of any and all academic diplomas.

With the abolition of slavery amended into the Constitution after the Civil War, the American workarounds went in the direction opposite to that of atonement. Keeping blacks separate was the unofficial work of Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 climaxed a long and arduous attempt to undo the discriminatory régime in the South. Unfortunately, it infected the ordinary class of Americans with a resentful fear. Now that blacks could not be kept in their place, or denied the right to vote, many white Americans no longer felt “safe,” in their homes, in their towns, or even in their country. There had always been lone rangers on the fringe of American life, but ordinary white America responded to the Voting Rights Act with an upsurge in antisocial, siege-mentality behavior: “Christian” academies and gated communities, the proliferation of firearms. Élite Americans, meanwhile, congratulated themselves on their high-minded legislative success, and refused to see that there was still a problem. I speak, of course, of those members of the élite who were not actively stoking the fears of the ordinary class.

“So,” my friend argued, “you would undo the Voting Rights Act, because most blacks aren’t members of the élite class to which the Framers sought to limit the franchise.” Or words to that effect.

I should do no such thing. As European convulsions from the Reformation to the Terror to the Holocaust demonstrate again and again, you can’t clean up messes by undoing their causes. You have to move on. But moving on is a lot smoother if you know where you have been — as indeed the Founders did, having just experienced the five-year fecklessness of American government under the Articles of Confederation. I don’t believe that anybody seriously considered petitioning King George to “take us back.”

The Cold War

This was going to be my only subject today. I’ve been reading a string of novels by John Le Carré, and they have brought the Cold War into focus — not just the spying (which David Cornwell has concluded was silly and pointless), but also the ideological battle. What this battle really consisted of was a pair of power centers’ barking at their underlings about the horrors of the opponent’s way of life.

After World War II, Russia, which had suffered more than any of its Allies by several orders of magnitude, sought, quite naturally in terms of its history, to surround itself with a defensive perimeter. Infusing this perimeter with Communist ideology was merely the surest way of securing the possession of Slavic Europe, Hungary, and the adjacent chunk of Germany (this last the region from which most eastward incursions into Polish and Czech territory originated). Despite having overthrown the Tsar and the plutocratic élite that controlled the country until World War I, Russia remained Russia, as indeed the vibrant stardom of Vladimir Putin, attended by flocks of Russian Orthodox clergymen, makes crystal clear. President Putin is currently engaged in restoring the former Russian Empire, which was for seven decades known as the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics.

My friend evoked the Soviet embrace of Cuba. Was not the Cold War required to limit such “expansion” to that island? Explaining at length why my answer was a resounding “No” would be wearisome for reader and writer alike. Suffice it to say two things: Russia wished to counter the American military appanage of Europe with a pied-à-terre ninety miles from Florida. The Cold War had little to do with the thwarting of this ambition. It was on the brink of a very Hot War that the world trembled in October 1962. As for Cuba’s embrace of Communism, it was inspired by much the same degrading inequality that provoked the Russian Revolution.

That’s to say that Communism in Cuba was never a rejection of Capitalism. Something much older and meaner than capitalism prevailed in pre-Castro Cuba, a blend of the American plantocracy and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Cuban capitalists (or industrialists) were mostly rentiers, not what we would call businessmen. Too many Cubans were trapped in the backbreaking production of sugar.

Communism has the advantage of being a well-articulated ideology. Capitalism, in contrast, means many things to many people. In today’s Times, Jon Caramanica writes about shopping as a way to relieve trauma: “This is one of capitalism’s many tricks, and one of its best: the notion that you might rewrite your emotional life via acquisition.” Capitalism? How about consumerism? What prevented consumerism from thriving in Warsaw Pact nations was state control of industry, which is not the opposite of capitalism. Today’s China is conducting an exciting, sometimes too-exciting experiment in authoritarian capitalism, officially “communist” but wise to the fact that markets lead, instead of following, economies.

The Cold War was less about economic theories than it was about power structures. The Authoritarians fought the Liberals. The Authoritarians’ eventual defeat did not herald the victory of Liberals, however, mistaken as the Liberals might have been about that at the time. The Authoritarians are back, everywhere, with a vengeance. Quite a few of them are Libertarians and other oxyMoronic followers of Ayn Rand. Liberals have lost academia, traditional the Liberal nursery, to the Authoritarians who enforce political correctness. Let us not forget the Higher Authoritarians who would institute a theocracy. And this is just in the United States.

The Cold War was, ultimately, a very expensive organizing principle. You knew where you stood, even you doubted your next-door neighbor. All other hostilities were either limited or suppressed by Cold War strategies. When the Cold War came to an end, the economic boom was echoed by political collapse.

Because Liberals are helplessly élitist. I’m one; if you’re reading this, you probably are, too. We are certain that peace would reign everywhere if only everyone could see things as we see them. But we see things with minds that have been overhauled by liberal education and reassuring affluence. We may understand that very few people, essentially nobody, can see things as we see them without those benefits. But not only have we failed to generate the economic wherewithal to spread those benefits — we haven’t learned how to domesticate wealth, how to make it appear where and when we want it to appear; we have also lost the art of persuading others that they are benefits.

I’m R J Keefe, and I’m a member of the liberal élite. And, notwithstanding all the many mistakes made by this group, proud of it. I believe that we are still humanity’s best hope for continuation on Planet Earth. That is why I am its scourge.

Happy New Year!

Gotham Diary:
December 2015 (IV)

Monday 21st

It’s like binge-watching an electrifying serial. Or trying to. All the episodes haven’t come out yet, and, sometimes, nothing happens. It takes a while to realize that nothing is happening, because there are no signals. There is no rolling of credits, no trailers for what’s coming up next. On the other hand, every moment is a kind of cliffhanger. I’m mesmerized. When the atmosphere of crisis abates, and then nothing happens, it takes me a while to catch on. I find that I have no taste for resuming my regularly scheduled life.

But make no mistake: it is not fun.

On Saturday evening, the landline rang. It was Kathleen’s senior associate. The formulation of an agreement, which a client had declared, two days earlier, to be of no pressing importance, suddenly had to be completed by Sunday morning. There was an air of fire drill about the whole thing, but Kathleen and her team took it very seriously. The agreement was hammered out. The team met via conference call on Sunday morning, and then the client was dialed in. Everything was great, fine, super job and so forth; but something the client said in an offhand way gave rise to new worries.

Kathleen agonized over these new worries as she got into bed last night. She couldn’t see how she would ever get to sleep. So we talked about it and sorted it out. We were lucky. Sometimes, this sort of late-night discussion backfires, and makes things look even worse. Last night, however, the talk seemed to tire Kathleen out. We nailed down the issues, so that they stopped swirling in her mind. We worked out the implications of the various awful scenarios that she had imagined. This exercise didn’t solve any problems, but it did settle them down. Bit by bit, Kathleen’s fears were transferred to an unwritten checklist that she would run through when meeting with her team in the morning.

Kathleen asked me to play Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and even I began to feel that everything would work out all right. Then she fell asleep. Somewhat later, I, too, went to bed. It was very late.


This morning, I am tired and spent. A little drama goes a long way with me. Like a strong antibiotic that kills all the healthy microbes in one’s intestinal tract, worrisome excitement strips my mind of connectivity. Nothing is related to anything else; nothing is particularly interesting. There is only the static buzz of the latest crisis, and a longing to go back to bed. The idea of getting dressed and going outside is horrifying. The effort to write the next sentence calls up not an array of words but a tide of languorous fatigue. Close my eyes, and I’ll fall asleep at the desk.

And just think! Christmas is upon us! How jolly.


There’s a story in today’s Times about how difficult it is for local farmers to sell their produce at the massive Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx — the wholesale food operation that stocks the city’s grocery stores and restaurants. “Historically, it has been difficult for local farmers to pay the fees or follow the arcane rules of consignment necessary to sell in the Hunts Point market.” Any solution depends on cooperation between the governor and the mayor — two men who embody the impossibility of seeing eye to eye. But the problem is the problem. Yes, that’s what I meant to say. We’re so much in the habit of solving problems that we don’t devote much attention to preventing problems in the first place. The problem at Hunt’s Point is almost certainly the standard sclerosis that builds up between the regulators and the regulated. It all begins innocently enough. In the interest of public health and safety, regulators demand that certain conditions be met. The regulated comply, but in such a way as to create special interests and barriers to entry. The regulations, meanwhile, pile up like Ptolemaic epicycles. There is no mechanism for reforming the regulations as a matter of course, and, with the passage of time, there is no particular will for reform. On the contrary! The regulators and the regulated alike gain power and permanence from mastering the regulatory complications — those arcane rules. They work with and around them, transforming them into a virtual infrastructure that supports the way we do business.

It is not that no new businesses can join the club, but rather that new kinds of business cannot. Local farmers, in this case, inhabit a different economic environment from the one created to deal with large-scale growers and shippers. Local farmers do not deal in the volume of produce that would allow the time or expense required to master the regulations, even if compliance were in every case possible. It requires fiat from on high to create a separate space for outsiders.

This happens in almost every walk of everyday life. Licenses and permits are required to conduct most forms of legitimate business. There would be nothing wrong with that if the process of acquiring licenses and permits were made easy for those qualified to acquire them. But the people who already have permits and licenses are not keen to ease the entry of competitors, and they, of course, happen to be the only people with a political interest in the matter. That ought not to be the case.

At some point in last night’s discussion, Kathleen and I went off on a tangent about Puerto Rico and the hedge fund managers who, dazzled by a 20% yield and the implicit understanding that the federal government would somehow force the Puerto Ricans to pay it, come hell or high water, threw good money after bad earlier this year, swelling the island’s already unmanageable debt. Why shouldn’t the hedge funds managers expect to be bailed out? Look at what happened in 2008 and after.

But the federal bailout of Wall Street was pressured in part by something that the hedge fund managers can’t claim: the public interest, even if the public never gave it a thought. If the hedge fund managers go down, they and their investors will be the only losers. In 2008, in contrast, for a week to ten days, as I recall, the American economy trembled on the brink of a collapsed short-term credit market. This sounds banal and unimportant. Banal it may be, but only because the short-term credit market, which deals in something called commercial paper (among other instruments), is what puts food on supermarket shelves and pays the clerks at the check-out lines. In the short term, that is. The short-term credit market is what keeps the cash flow of the nation flowing at a regular pulse. You might indeed call it the heartbeat of everyday commerce.

The terrible eventuality was avoided — and then promptly forgotten. Few people ever knew that the risk was even there, because nobody is taught to look for it or to worry about it. Only professionals and their smarter friends are aware of such things. When I think of all the useless things on the high school curriculum, I boil at the perversity with which important matters of every life are not on it instead.

How many Americans know that the Interstate Highway System was initiated as a matter of national defense? Long before World War II, Dwight Eisenhower suffered years of frustration in the movement, with which he was tasked, of Army trucks from base to base, and, as president, he was determined to do something about it. It makes sense, therefore, to regard the highway system as a weapon. That’s why it was built. Not the ring roads around cities — they came later — but the long, uninterrupted stretches through farmland and wilderness. Now, a question for the class. How important is this weapons system today — qua weapons system? Is it budgeted as an item of national defense? Who is interested in keeping the system going now? Does that party (or parties) have the money to pay to maintain it, or does it have to ask somebody else?

It occurs to me to inquire into how new updates of operating systems, and other very complex software, are prepared. Do coders have to examine every line? Or have they developed algorithms for focusing on the lines that have to be changed? How automated is the update process?

Lots of boring things become quite interesting when they put on a little history. And then, what to do you know: They become too important to overlook.


Wednesday 23rd

There was no point to trying to write yesterday. The building announced that it would be shutting down the water to our apartment for five hours, from ten until three. That would have been an insurmountable distraction. Not to mention the lack of a working bathroom. So I got up and got dressed early (for me), and went off to the movies.

I’ve wanted to see Spotlight since it arrived on 86th Street, some time ago. Yesterday, the reasons for staying home disappeared. I expected a film that would feature scenes of confrontation between journalists and church officials, with perhaps the threat of violence to the reporters. That isn’t Spotlight at all. Spotlight is more like Apollo 13, another movie in which knowledge radiates outward and is accepted with reluctance (and fear, in the case of Ron Howard’s masterpiece). Once Spotlight gets going, the church officials (who already know everything) disappear, remaining an offscreen menace right up to the end, only to be neutered and disgraced by some concluding title cards that note the resignation of Cardinal Law, the number of pedophile priests and their surviving victims, and the towns around the world where investigations have uncovered priestly molestation. It’s as though the Roman Catholic Church were too shabby to appear in the movies.

At the beginning of Spotlight, which is set in 2001 and the early days of the following year, three priests have been involved in court proceedings. (Or something of the kind. I’m pretty sure of the number three, but I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the details because I knew too well what was coming.) For the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), there is an air of whitewash about the handling of these cases. His idea of exposing an institutional coverup (as distinct from bad priests) is met with horror by his staff of investigative journalists, all of whom seem to be lapsed Catholics. “So you want to sue the church?” asks the assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee, Jr (John Slattery), incredulously. Boston is a Catholic town, and a majority of Globe subscribers are Catholics. The pedophile priests are bad enough, but a manageable disgrace. A bad church hierarchy would be very unwelcome news.

As the movie unspools, it appears that every mature Catholic in Boston is aware of some small corner of the problem. Bad priests are an open secret. But what everyone also believes is that the evil is isolated and rare. It’s shocking to the journalists that there are as many as three, and suddenly four, ordained predators. In the end, their list will include 87 names, almost exactly confirming the prediction of an offscreen psychiatrist (and former priest; voiced by Richard Jenkins), who estimates that six percent of all priests are molesters. What’s more troubling is the revelation that, until now, the Globe has been burying this scandal as well. A defense lawyer and the leader of a survivors’ group both complain that their long-ago alerts were ignored by the paper. That the allegations are being taken seriously now is ascribed to the fact that Marty Baron is Jewish.

The action of Spotlight is a series of end runs around the submerged barriers that the Archdiocese has constructed, with the knowledge of Cardinal Law and a great deal of cooperation from lawyers and judges. Relevant documents have been sealed by the courts — where they exist at all; many cases have been settled as “private mediation” between victims and the Archdiocese, leaving no public records. The investigators form a four-man team, with Michael Keaton as the captain, and Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James as his lieutenants. They attack the coverup with all the devices of classic newshound cinema. Doors are slammed in their faces. Angry victims are mollified. Hours are spent poring over church directors with rulers, looking for priests who have been placed on sick leave and moved from parish to parish. A clerk is bribed to provide a reporter with copies of case files (because the courthouse copy center has closed for the day). You’ve seen it all before, but then again, you haven’t, because co-writer and director Tom McCarthy and his magnificent cast do what great performers always do: they make it new.


In the evening, I went to Carnegie Hall for the Messiah. I didn’t want to go at all, but I knew that Kathleen would be happier if I sat next to her. And she was. Eventually, I was almost glad on my own account. There were stretches in which the music shook me free of the embrace of pointlessness and cleared the air of disgrace. (Kathleen was just told that, before any bills could be paid, an important client would conduct an internal review of all work done by her and her out-on-bail partner.)

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” I overheard one concertgoer say to another as we left the hall. With one important caveat, I had to agree. The caveat is that I always prefer Mozart’s Messiah (1789; K 572) to Handel’s leaner original. I miss, especially, the clarinets. It wasn’t a big deal last night, because I heard them in my mind. Handel is grandly austere; Mozart is gorgeous.

But I also had to concede that my caveat might be wrong-headed. Messiah is a work for singers, not instrumentalists. And the singers last night were simply the best. They all had fantastically secure tops — soloists and chorus alike — and when they weren’t nailing a dramatic note they all sang with supple elegance. I should not have thought it possible to produce such a wall of sound with 32 singers, but that was the size of the Musica Sacra chorus — I counted — and the wall of sound was roaring. Yet, most of what we could see from our box seats at the extreme left end of the First Tier was the planking of the stage floor. There were nine violins, three violas, one cello and one bass. There were two oboes and one bassoon. That and the positif organ were it, with trumpets and drums added sparingly. From such slight forces, Kent Tritle conjured an insuperably powerful performance. Although brisk, it made time for a full da capo reading of “He was despised.”

I don’t know what it means when I say that I have never heard a countertenor who sounded so completely womanly: is that a compliment? There was nothing weird or uncertain about Christopher Ainslie’s voice; it was simply beautiful. I must confess to a certain lingering cognitive dissonance, watching such lovely sound pour out of a slender blond man in tails. But it was never really distracting. Kathleen, who closed her eyes, claiming that she hears better that way, simply forgot that the singer was a man.

Kathleen’s favorite singer was the soprano, Kathryn Lewek. This was because Kathleen’s favorite arias from Messiah are for the soprano, and Lewek had the kind of voice that Kathleen likes — which is to say that she didn’t have the kind of voice that Kathleen dislikes, which may best be described as “spinto.” (Kathleen calls it “screechy.”) Lewek’s voice was pure and secure. She managed to be youthful and mature at the same time. I thought that she was quite thrown away on Handel, and longed to hear her sing “Come scoglio,” from Così fan tutte. The tenor was Minjie Lee. His Chinese accent was almost undetectable — although I do wish that he had been coached to sing “comfort” more formally, and not as “comfert,” even if that’s how we all say it. I’d have put up with plenty more such faults, however, to hear a voice so warmly, effortlessly accurate. Matt Boehler was the bass, and he both sounded and acted like a prophet, at one point raising a warning finger at the audience (in the trio of “Why do the nations”). Tall and slim and almost piratically bearded, he had a solid command of the bottom of his register, and his top rang with an authority that was strangely inviting.

Over dinner afterward, I answered a lot of Kathleen’s questions about Handel. I saw what she was doing, even if she didn’t: she was validating the idea of useful knowledge. But I couldn’t help worrying about whether the musicians’ expertise will be carried on by future generations. Although the Carnegie Hall boxes were packed, and the balconies were respectably crowded, there were patches of emptiness at the rear of the parterre, and also up close to the stage. I had received an online message during the day headlined “Discount Messiah seats still available.” When a performance is as good as it gets, the hall ought to be as full as it can be.


In the afternoon, I read Stoner, the John Williams novel of 1965 that has become a widely admired classic since its republication in 2003 by New York Review Books. I’ve had it for years, but resisted reading it, because I was given to understand that it was a study in disappointment. The son of poor farmers goes off to the local state university to take an agricultural course, so as to help to improve the farm. Soon, however, he falls in love with literature, of which he has known nothing, and he switches his major. He goes on to spend the rest of his life at the university, as we’re told on the first page. We are warned from the beginning of impending obscurity. I was put off by the prospect of reading about provincial American lives, set forth in hardscrabble American prose. But the story of Stoner is not provincial, and its language is not hardscrabble.


Thursday 24th

It is the tone of Stoner that distinguishes the novel. It is a grave, occasionally exalted tone. The prose is not stuffy, but it is groomed and discreet; vernacular usage appears only between quotation marks. There is nothing to occasion laughter, but there is also no heaviness. Indeed, the limpid but somehow far from ingenuous candor with which Stoner’s life is unfolded reminds me of the great European fairy tales. There is no authorial voice, only an impersonal narration. This is what happened. Although world-shaking events are not only noted but dated, Stoner could be set in once-upon-a-time.

Another thing that struck me about Stoner is the absence of an American accent. If you repackaged it as the translation of a German or perhaps Scandinavian novel — now I think of it, Stoner could pass for the work of the Nederlands writer known as Nescio — no one would doubt you. The academic setting (which, while it is specific, lacks any non-accidental detail that, aside from its name, could not be found at any university) may be provincial, but it is not regionally provincial. This is not a book about Missouri, or the Midwest, or even the United States. It is a book about scholars and teachers in the early Twentieth Century. After all, universities are the same everywhere; they differ only as to how well they do what universities are supposed to do — a matter that was much clearer in Stoner’s day than it is in ours, unfortunately.

The following paragraph, which appears early in the book, while Stoner is still an undergraduate, describes Stoner’s budding imagination, a faculty that the young man discovered one day in class, when the professor, Archer Sloane, asked him to tell the class what Shakespeare’s great sonnet, “That time of year,” meant. Stoner can get no further than a stumbling start, “It means….” He raises his hands, and his eyes glaze over. The perceptive professor, understanding that this muteness betrays a deep (if new) love of literature, dismisses the class. Shortly thereafter, we find Stoner alone in his room, where we are confronted by the starkest limitation of the novel.

He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult the fair, walked before him; Paolo and Francesca whirled in the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class, who found a local habitation in a large university in Columbia, Missouri, and who walked unheeding in a midwestern air. (16)

As I typed out this passage, it occurred to me that it is so much the heart of the novel that it could stand in for the entire novel. But of course it could not; you must read the whole novel to hear the heart beating. Stoner never outgrows this rapture, no matter how outwardly sophisticated, worldly, and disillusioned he appears to be. The problem with Stoner is that it is easy to forget the paragraph on page 16 in the small blizzard of tribulations that ensues. First, he marries badly; his wife is not only foolish and shallow but resentful, someone who nurses her grudges and learns how to wound while appearing to help. Second, he is afflicted by an unsavory colleague, also a reservoir of resentment (his shoulders and upper back are misshapen). In contrast to Stoner’s academic morality, Hollis Lomax has ambitions. Finally, Stoner falls in love, in high middle age; and for a moment — a matter of months — the vision of denseness is made flesh. Stoner shuttles between two worlds, and manages to distract himself from the knowledge that the two worlds cannot coexist for long.

These miserable episodes are very well done. You can see them coming, and you might wish that Stoner could see them coming, too; but he does not, and therein lies my tale. Stoner is still on page 16. Stoner is a love story that cannot be told — not as a novel, anyway.

In John McGahern’s Introduction to the republished novel, we’re told that the author, John Williams, regarded Stoner as a hero.

A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important. (xi)

We don’t really have to be told this. Time and again, we watch Stoner as, after every upset, he regains his footing and walks on. He is pained, to say the least, when things go badly, but he moves on. His childhood of inexpressive labor on an increasingly infertile farm endows him with the habits of stoic perseverance, but it is not mere resolution that sees him through. It is that love of literature.

But you can’t write a novel about a love of literature, no matter how sustaining it is for the lover. What you must write — but what only the lover can write — is literary criticism. Novels are about people in the substantial world. They may be limited to one character, but that character must inhabit a part of the world that readers can imagine because they have seen something like it themselves. General things about human life — food, clothing, shelter — cannot be entirely taken for granted; a fictional character must inhabit a plausible space with recognized needs. No one can love literature without seeing to those needs, either, but the love takes place in a world beyond them. It is not only private but invisible. It exists without manifestation. It exists without consummation, too.

So what we get, in Stoner, is something like the corolla of the sun. It is the periphery of Stoner’s life — the part that we can see, and that Stoner himself could see only if he could blot out his central attachment to words on the page and to the images that they conjure in his mind. We do not even see much of him as a teacher, and we’re given conflicting reports about his capacities as an educator. At the outset, we’re told that Stoner is unmemorable, but we’re also shown instances of his classroom incandescence — hints, really. The one anecdote that most nearly provokes a laugh recounts a misscheduled lecture into which Stoner pours himself so completely that he shoos away the university bigwigs who have an authorized claim to the hall. We’re told that Stoner becomes a “campus character.” But we don’t get to see it, for the good reason that we couldn’t. Nobody picks up a novel to read a lecture, no matter how magnificent, on Donatus’s influence on medieval Latin poets.

So, while I regard Stoner as a highly successful novel, a finely rendered “Portrait of an Assistant Professor,” I think that it is also successful as an anti-novel, as a demonstration that there are very important depths that fiction cannot sound.


It is two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. You would never know that from the look of our apartment, which, for the first time in either of our lives, is absolutely devoid of seasonal decoration. Kathleen was insistent on this, and I was too sore to disagree. I can remember hoping, last year at this time, that the new year would be better than the old, but it was, to say the least, not; entirely half of it was consumed by the gross uncertainty of Kathleen’s search for a new law firm that would have her. And it has ended with the arrest of the partner with whom she undertook that search, in order to continue to represent a very substantial client. A client who cannot have been happy to be named in news stories about the downfall of Martin Shkreli. For us, it is a matter of the injustice of injustice. I nevertheless go on hoping, that 2016 will be a better year.

I’ll be back before then; we still have nearly a week of 2015.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Read All About It
December 2015 (III)

Monday 14th

Working my way through Granta 133, I came to the story near the end, “The Middle Ages: Approaching the Question of a Terminal Date,” by David Szalay. At first, I thought the story was apocalyptic, because the streets of Bayswater, in which the story opens, were deserted; then I realized that it was very early on a summer morning. The story is told in free indirect style from the point of view of a thirtysomething scholar whose name, we learn at the end, is Karel. He has grown up in Belgium but his family background is Polish, as is the young woman whom he picks up at an airport in Germany, en route to Krakow, where the young woman lives. Her father, a police chief, is looking forward to the arrival of the vehicle that Karel is driving across Europe from Nottingham — the nature of this transaction remains very murky, and is pinned to the story of the man and the woman by an accidental scrape that Karel inflicts on the paint job by an ill-considered maneuver in the airport parking lot.

The young woman’s name is Waleria. Naked in bed, on some earlier occasion in Oxford, where Karel is working on early-English vowel shifts, Waleria consults a Tarot deck. Waleria concludes that the message of the cards is that it is time for Karel to stop thinking with his dick. “That’s the headline,” she says. Not that she puts it quite that way. But she does touch his penis, to make her point.

How much time has passed since then, I don’t know, but from the moment in the airport that Karel tells Waleria about the “scuff” on the car, expressing his worries that her father will be unpleasant about it, I stopped thinking of him as an intellectual homme moyen sensuel and began to see him as a failed adult, swaddled in selfishness. Worse, I found myself to be glued to a nauseating identity with him. I felt dirty and found out. It’s true that I have a guilty conscience. It’s also true that, as Waleria accuses Karel, I like to have things my own way and have largely succeeded at that objective. Or you could say that I do and have. I ought to point out that this mortifying response was ignited by Waleria’s changing the subject from her father’s possible displeasure to her own being pregnant. Before he knows what he’s saying, Karel has expostulated, “That’s shit,” and Waleria is sobbing. She loves him; she’s not sure that she will have an abortion. Karel (whose name we don’t yet know — a blankness that possibly makes it easier for readers with guilty consciences to slip into him) is beside himself with discomfort. He doesn’t bother — Szalay doesn’t bother — to spell out the reasons why Karel is not eager for fatherhood. This is, after all, one of the oldest stories in the book, utterly unvarnished by some new plot twist. And yet it is riveting.

I have probably spoiled it by speaking of Karel, instead of resorting to “our hero” and conceits of that kind. It is clear from the beginning that the man driving the new car is no hero. He is a skirt-chaser, Waleria has told him. He thinks to himself that the “set-up” that he has with Waleria is “ideal.” It’s a damning sentence, one that drains his relationship with Waleria of the possibility of love. Waleria, despite her youth, is a successful television journalist in Krakow, someone recognized in the streets by strangers. He believes in her ambition — he believes, that is, that Waleria’s ambition will sidetrack her from lovey-dovey ideas about him. They meet at remote airports and spend days in quiet inns. (Once, they met in Greece.) Their home lives do not mesh, which is what makes the errand of delivering the car so strange. The car, in the oddest way, is the relationship unwontedly made flesh.

Szalay is very good at showing how, every time that his skirt-chaser opens his mouth on the subject of the abortion that must now be arranged, he makes things worse. When he says that he doesn’t want her to do anything just because it’s what he wants, the lie is as lurid as a triple rainbow. He tries not to mention the matter but cannot stay silent. His ideal set-up has gotten all screwed up, and he is no longer happy.

As I say, just because I felt massively complicit with Karel doesn’t guarantee that any other reader would, but it does seem clear to me that the story succeeds, if it does, because of complicity. When the oldest story in the book happens to you, it’s all new. Its awfulness is not in the least bit ameliorated by its familiarity. I felt that I was Karel. I had knocked somebody up and was fretting about getting rid of the consequences. I was saying stupid but revealing things. I actually “observed” that Waleria’s letting herself get pregnant because she loved Karel and wanted to take the relationship to a new level, unilaterally, was not very commendable. Then I sort of exploded with disgust — not commendable?! Meanwhile, I’m reading all this and blushing, perhaps actually.

By the time the story ended, I had peeled away somewhat from Karel (and Waleria). But I got up and went into the kitchen to fiddle with dinner. I had found a steak in the freezer at about five o’clock, and I was nursing it to room temperature. On the way home from Mass, Kathleen picked up a couple of potatoes, and I needed to get them into the oven.


Kathleen got home shortly before two on Saturday morning. Her flight had taken off late from LAX, but it landed early at JFK. By Sunday, the only trace of her trip to Sydney on my part was the pile of books that I hadn’t touched while she was away. While she was away, I read the first five of the George Smiley novels, by John Le Carré. I hadn’t been a fan; nothing, I thought while the Cold War was still on, could be drearier than reading about agents and counteragents and moles and checkpoints. And then, afterwards, I read The Russia House, and wondered if Le Carré’s basic story had collapsed with the Wall.

To me, the Cold War was an American nightmare that began right after the War. I didn’t understand until fairly recently that it was very different for the British. For the British, the Cold War was a final twist, or nearly, in the unwinding of imperial greatness. There was also the Oxbridge romance, during the Thirties, with anti-capitalism, and its sequel, the wartime alliance with the Soviets in the fight-to-the-death against Hitler. Finally there was the craven hatred, if not of Americans generally, then of braying American brashness. There was the humiliation of Suez. There were people like Chapman Pincher.

You can’t imagine David Cornwell (Le Carré when he’s at home) and Pincher having an amiable conversation. Pincher seems, in Dangerous to Know, to have known everybody, but for all of Pincher’s scorn for British Intelligence — in Their Trade Is Treachery, which I’m looking forward to reading, he makes that case that MI5 was run by a traitor — it does not put him in Cornwell’s boat, and Cornwell does not appear in his index. But Le Carré’s novels made for a counterbalancing sequel to Pincher’s autobiography, and an even greater escape from the wretchedness of worrying about Kathleen, on the other side of the world.

(Kathleen herself had a great trip, and that is what I shall remember.)

My favorite of the five books is, hands down, The Looking Glass War. It simmers on the edge of comedy. It’s too serious and sombre for laughter, but the dismal glee of Evelyn Waugh is more than detectable. Smiley is a peripheral figure; the Circus is off to one side, a rival organization. “The Department,” as it is called, appears to stand in the same relation to the Ministry of Defense as the Circus does to the Foreign Office. But unlike the Circus, the Department has shriveled. The Circus has poached much of its staff, for one thing. For another, it has not conducted an operation in the field for some time. Its senior officers show up late in the morning and twiddle their way through the day, with nothing much to do. The fun is in watching the Department’s chief, a small man named LeClerc, try to parley a new lead about nuclear weapons in East Germany into a return to active life.

A man of Polish background, Fred Leiser, who conducted espionage for the Department during the War, is re-enlisted and, as it were, dusted off. He is whisked off to Oxford and subjected to a month of training; he is also led to believe that the Department is still what it was twenty years ago. You know that everything is going to go horribly wrong for Leiser, once he crosses into East Germany, because LeClerc is living in a dreamland, enabled by cynics and enthusiasts. His right-hand man, Haldane, seems to regard the operation as a smooth way of pushing the Department into extinction, but all he does is to follow orders. We learn early in the book that LeClerc has a gift for minimizing prospective difficulties. His penchant for looking on the bright side is tantamount to proving that there is no bright side.

Kathleen’s return found me poised on the early pages of The Honourable Schoolboy, which is much longer than its predecessors and also set in Southeast Asia. I may have to start reading it again at a later date. With Kathleen safely tucked in, I took a new look at the bedroom and saw that the reading pile was too tall; I was in the middle of too many books. So I wrote all the titles down in an Evernote and set to finishing them off.

By Wednesday — I have a Remicade infusion tomorrow afternoon — it will have hit me that Christmas is upon us.


Tuesday 15th

The book in my reading pile that I’m most reluctant to finish is Marie Kondo’s guide to “tidying” — a poor choice in translation from the Japanese for “getting rid of stuff; I tidy the apartment every week without getting rid of anything. When I finish reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I shall have to have something to say about it here; not, as you might suspect, because I want to appraise its homemaking secrets (which are quite sound, even if I don’t agree with each and every one), but because the case studies — the examples provided by clients — so richly illustrate the attempt to modify age-old habits, culturally reinforced for so long that they seem to be hard-wired, to suit modern circumstances. For most of human history (all but a tiny fraction of it, really), inadequacy and want have been the characteristics of nearly everybody’s material possessions. Now, within the space of two centuries, whoosh! — our closets are overflowing with useful things that we never use.

My favorite anecdote concerns the woman who cleared out her house by sending all her sentimental mementos to her parents, for them to store. Both mother (also a client) and daughter had to be told that they would not graduate until the boxes of mementos were removed from both houses. What did the daughter think she was accomplishing? Well, it’s clear that she wasn’t thinking, because if she had been, she would have seen that she was merely postponing a problem, not solving it. She would presumably have to clear out her parents’ house eventually. But how clever we are at substituting postponements for solutions.

You could argue that the daughter did solve the problem: she cleared out her house. But the “life-changing magic” that Kondo promises requires more than just getting things out of the way. They must be discarded. Kondo has an interesting test for distinguishing the things that you ought to keep from the things that you can rid of: when you hold them in your hands, do they “spark joy”? That’s another translation problem, at least because sparking is so ephemeral and joy is so extreme. (Problem, I say, not necessarily a mistake. There may be something to learn from Japanese itself.) I’ll tell you what sparks joy for me: no longer hoarding stuff that I thought I ought to hold on to, but which for the most part I forgot was even there.

When I laid out our current apartment a year ago, I bore a lot of Kondo’s ideas in mind, even though her book hadn’t appeared here yet. I sequestered all the stuff that was of doubtful utility in rooms and parts of rooms that hadn’t been settled yet, and the extension of settlement led inexorably to the elimination of stuff. There are still boxes to go through, and, yes, they’re in a closet. It’s enormously tedious to go through the past, and not just wearying but depressing as well. Just weeding through photographs can be upsetting. I recently found a small shopping bag from the Museum that was full to the brim of photographs that Kathleen took in 2001. There were three groups of pictures: the view from her office at that time, which included the wreckage at the base of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, along with shots of the Wall Street area in the aftermath of 9/11, with armed guards and American flags everywhere; pictures of Singapore and Amsterdam, which Kathleen visited in October 2001, flying around the world, east to west, in the process, notwithstanding the recent “events”; and a mountain of photographs of Bermuda. Over the weekend, I gave her the easy piles to cull, Singapore and Amsterdam. The Bermuda pile will be harder to deal with only because it is so much thicker. But I’m reluctant to present Kathleen with the 9/11 shots. I may cull them myself, and ask her to approve my decisions. Most of the 9/11 images are of poor quality, but the aesthetics of such photographs are different, and almost more literary than visual.

But when I come into the apartment from outside, or when I go from room to room, I am still conscience of a relief, a relief from the oppression of our rooms upstairs, which were crammed with hidden caches of stuff. This despite almost constant weeding. Here, there is only that closet with its stuffed bankers boxes. The apartment feels genuinely light and airy, and the relief that I used to feel has grown into something more positive, a calm contentment that is not always traceable to or associated with the ejection of rubbish.

Whenever I think about the storage unit on 62nd Street, I am almost crushed by hopelessness: how will we ever empty it? It tires me just to open the door, and I rush to fill a few tote bags with stuff, so that I can escape. Months pass between visits. It is shockingly expensive to maintain, and brilliantly inconvenient to unload. My advice to people who are thinking of renting a storage unit is: don’t do it! These moments of despair, however, do not spoil my happiness at home. Unlike the woman who sent everything to her parents’ house, I’m living in a space that never held what I need to get rid of.

At least I have stopped accumulating new things. (Credit card statements back me up.) Sure, there are always new books and new discs. But not so many as before, and, at least so far as the books go, I’m managing to stay in equilibrium, donating books to Goodwill to make space to new arrivals. Perhaps it’s just age: I really don’t want new things anymore. You might say that I no longer believe in them.


A more genuinely problematic book is Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. I have read through it once, but I have hardly begun to digest it. I swerved from agreeing to disagreeing with what Scruton has to say so many times that just thinking about the book gives me a headache.

Roger Scruton is a conservative British philosopher. Although he is only a few years older than I am, he belongs to the pre-baby-boomer generation. This is evident on every page; Scruton could pass for a thinker twenty years older. Many of his ideas are simply old-hat. For example, he believes that it is the duty of adults to train children to preserve social values intact. He dismisses feminism and gay rights out of hand, as simply unnatural. (Although it ought to be noted that he has retracted his homophobic teachings.) He is resistant to the idea of social evolution not, I think, because he disbelieves in it, but because social change in our time has been so rapid and ill-considered — not really evolution at all. On that point, I’m inclined to agree. I agree, too, with his contempt for “youth culture” and for the adults who have heedlessly paid for it. I agree with him about the wrong-headedness of higher education. I could not agree more heartily with his analysis of Theory as a Satanic religion — no exaggeration!

But I disagree with him about religion, about the relation between religion and art, about the importance of rites of passage and other “tribal” survivals in modern society, about modernism itself — just to name the significant bones of contention. I find his protracted discussion of means and ends, in Chapter 4, to be a stew of overcooked words and stale philosophical notions. I have never accepted the idea that there is anything particularly new about “alienation,” except that it became a behavioral fashion of the early Twentieth Century. Working through these disagreements would take days; reading the book, I could hardly keep up with them. I tended to agree with Scruton’s conclusions while taking exception to his assumptions. I have arrived at many of his positions, that is, by following very different paths, and those paths also lead me to disagree with many of his positions. So the Guide is both very interesting and quite frustrating.

Fundamentally, of course, I don’t believe in philosophy. I have gotten rid of philosophy, just as I have gotten rid of clothes, books, and papers that no longer “spark joy.” By “philosophy,” I mean systematic philosophy, the attempt to explain all phenomena in relation to select metaphysical concepts. I am especially allergic to metaphysics, which I place on a level with video games. Boys’ stuff, in other words.

So you might say — this just occurred to me — that, while I have no use for Scruton as a philosopher, I prize him as an articulate observer of the current scene, albeit one confused about — how to put it? — gender issues. I may have to leave it at that for a while.


Wednesday 16th

Regular readers will recall, probably with a groan, my Hannah Arendt phase, almost two years ago. If I didn’t read everything, I read a very great deal, and, as in all encounters with deeply engaging thinkers, I felt my world change. I was old enough to know that the surface enthusiasm would abate, and that Arendt’s ideas would lose their point as I digested them. Eventually, they would weave their way into my own thought, altered to some extent, and I would no longer be aware of them as Arendt’s. And that is what happened — with two exceptions.

The first is The World, a conception that makes its appearance in The Human Condition. The World is entirely manmade; it consists of objects (such as, say, the Eifel Tower) and ideas (political life, for example). More to me than to Arendt, The World is the history of humanity — what we know or remember of it. It also comprises our scientific understanding of The Earth and The Universe. The World is nothing less than the object of all education. Although divided into “subjects” for convenience, The World is a seamless whole. It is the society of human beings.

(It may well be that it is because The World is so vast and complex, so beyond any one mind’s full comprehension, that I have no time for and only impatience with fantasy. This raises an interesting distinction: where does imagination end and fantasy begin?)

The second idea that I have taken from Arendt is one that I thought a great deal about as I read Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. It is the idea of Newborns. Certainly Arendt’s frequent reference to “newborns” — newborn children — is the oddest thing about the experience of reading her work for the first time. Why does she insist on dragging the most basic fact of life into her philosophical discussions? Eventually, it occurred to me that she is angling to divert attention from another most basic fact of life: death. Death doesn’t seem to interest her; she accepts it and moved on without comment. Everybody dies, The End. In contrast, Everybody is born, and who knows? Who knows what the newborns will get up to? Who knows what circumstances will surround them? Will they be given a Washington to vote for, or a Trump? Will they face a plague, or a startling medical advance? What will they think about us? Within how many generations of newborns will we and our problems be forgotten? Who knows? Nobody.

At one point, somewhere, Arendt even refers to newborns as invaders. Here we are, thinking that we’re reproducing ourselves, when in fact we’re raising the portcullis and admitting a host of aliens! This one thought has been spinning like a top in my brain for nearly two years.

For of course we are not reproducing ourselves. It is a category mistake to refer to the whole business of intercourse, fertilization, gestation and birth as “Reproduction.” It might make sense to say that a species reproduces itself in successive generations, but not if the species consists of billions of individuals, living in all sorts of places under all sorts of conditions, some dozens or hundreds of whom may leave a mark upon history. Reproduction is the one thing we don’t do. It would be better to rename the subject Newborns and Where They Come From.

Each one of us was a newborn once. Then we “grew up,” a process lasting, for official purposes, eighteen or twenty-one years but capable of stretching well beyond thirty. We had children of our own, and they had children. The astonishing thing about grandchildren is that one did nothing to create them. One could do nothing — that is the wearying frustratioin of parents who long for grandchildren. Grandchildren are a forward-view mirror: getting to know them gives us the only idea that we shall ever have of what will happen after we die. The very lucky live long enough to see their grandchildren become adults, people who no longer need the protection of elders. We never quite believe that our children don’t need our protection — mothers especially. But grandchildren are independent of us.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have made The Earth a dangerous place. We used to hope that God would be good to our grandchildren; now we must hope that our grandchildren will be spared the consequences of the damage that we (and our forebears) have inflicted on the environment. This damage, in turn, has made the environment, which used to exist alongside The World, part of it, and a politically combustible part at that. Actually, we must do more than hope. We must teach our grandchildren about The World into which they have been born. They won’t have time to figure it out by themselves. And we must persuade them — persuade them — that we have useful things to teach them.

Do we? Do we have useful things to teach them? I believe that we do.

But can we? Can we speak to them persuasively through the din of so-called “youth culture”? This question is particularly lively for men and women of my age, now approaching seventy. For we were the baby-boomers; we were the first to claim that youth culture was the only culture. We were the first to insist that grown-up ways could be ignored. There are signs that the young people of today — the more intelligent ones — are tired of youth culture, which has grown only louder and more vacuous over the decades. That’s for the good. But will they deign to listen to repentant baby-boomers?

Who knows?


Thinking about Newborns has led me to the conclusion that it is wrong, immoral, to want to live forever. Personally, I think that it’s daft, as well. But as I mull over the ambitions that so-called “transhumanists” are nurturing, I see them to be inhumane, anti-human. The transhumanist project, if successful, will rob future generations of the right to be free of their forebears’ direct interference. This will endanger the most natural aspect of human life: its evolution.

The young man grunts with relief when the old hands die off and let him do things in his own way. The middle-aged man, especially if he has been what we call “successful,” denies that the new crop of young men is as worthy as he was. Their wishing that he would die off is not like his, for they are ignorant and self-absorbed. He cannot believe that he was just like them, once, or that he looked just like them to his elders. This is the egotism of success: it sanctifies the successful man, at least in his own eyes. Successful people are special, and they spend a considerable portion of their material rewards on assuring special treatment. Because they are special, they are spared the everyday tedium of crowds and queues, and because they don’t have to deal with crowds and queues they are even more special. It is not difficult for successful people to imagine that they deserve immortality.

What they fail to see is the Midas touch of success: it turns you into a statue of yourself. Spared the frustrations of striving, free for a life of golf and symposia, you cease to learn about the world — for haven’t you demonstrably learned everything that you needed to know? You cease growing; you go on being your same old self. If we want to consider just how dismal such endless continuation can be, and how much worse it would be if death were vanquished, we have only to consider two rulers from the not-too-distant past, Franz Josef of Austria and Winston Churchill. They had little in common beyond the fact that they held onto ruling power for so long that they suffocated their successors. They withdrew so late in life that those who followed them were unprepared for the sudden new world that erupted with their withdrawal. In the Austrian emperor’s case, the new world erupted before his withdrawal (but partly because he was an ineffective old man), and two successors, his son and his eldest nephew, were withdrawn even before he was. Churchill’s persistence saw to it that Anthony Eden would be overly anxious to assert himself when he finally got to the top — and the humiliation of Suez was the result. The old emperor was mistaken by many for an assurance of permanence, a guarantee that things would go on forever as they were. Many of us hate such prospects, but more of us find them comforting.

We need to be trained — educated — to see the future with the same eyes with which we see the past. The good man crowns his success by looking for worthy successors. The great man crowns his by exercising power so light-handedly that worthy successors spontaneously present themselves. He knows that worthy successors will do things as they must be done: at least somewhat differently.


Thursday 17th

The other day, casting about for something to read at the Hospital for Special Surgery during a Remicade infusion, I grabbed yet another novel by Penelope Lively, How It All Began. This was the second Lively novel that I read, on a binge at the beginning of this year, and I remembered liking it very much. But there’s got to be more to it than that. I like all sorts of books, but I don’t re-read them within the year. Lively is unusual in that I find her to be both entertaining and comfortable, and I wonder if I am saying something terrible about her with that comment. The comfort lies in the language, not the situations. But that may not be much of a save. Literature is not supposed to be comfortable.

How It All Began, which is still Lively’s latest (2011) and may well be her last, was a delightful companion at the hospital. I remembered some story lines before I opened the book; others sprang forth when characters were introduced. The book works out a conceit that is implicit in every novel: the ramifications of chaos, known in chattering circles as “the butterfly effect.” All standard novels trace the working-out of an unpredictable chain reaction. Mr Elton arrives in Highbury; complications ensue (Emma). Lively’s contribution is a droll commentary, quite as if everything in her story were really happening, and she not making all of it up. She also invites us to believe that the story is set in motion by one root cause, the mugging of an elderly woman. That is a comfort, too, and one that we can safely accept, because “it’s only a novel,” and we look to fiction to organize life. In fact, of course, muggings are themselves caused by muggers, whose criminal behavior has its own causes. Everything has multiple — myriad — causes. The paradox of the butterfly effect is that it cannot be demonstrated in the real world.

Lively is a top-notch illusionist. Her characters may be unusual (although most are not), and we may not quite understand them (although we usually feel that we do), but they all have the presence of real people confronted by real circumstances. The first branching of Lively’s story occurs when Rose Donovan has to bring her mugged mother, Charlotte, home from the hospital. As a consequence, she cannot accompany her employer, Lord Peters, on a lecture junket to Manchester. Lord Peters, who is in his seventies and reluctant to travel alone, enlists his niece, Marion, to take Rose’s place. This substitution, in turn, produces three more complications, first because Marion has only the vaguest idea of what Lord Peters implicitly expects of a companion, and not only the train tickets but the lecture notes are left behind in London. She is also seated next to a banker at luncheon. Rose and the banker would have had little to talk about, but Marion and the banker are soon doing business. Finally, Marion leaves a text message, regretting that the Manchester trip will require a change of plans, on her lover’s mobile, and the message is discovered by the lover’s wife.

And so on. Each of the characters is shunted out of the ordinary and into an unexpected, although perfectly plausible, situation. And in every case, except perhaps one, everyone ends up more or less exactly where he or she began. Even the exception is not all that divergent. How It All Began twinkles with the suggestion that Penelope Lively has deliberately subverted her alleged project.

The odd thing is that I was finally experiencing something that I’d read about but never found: the novel that can be counted upon at any time for nothing less than friendship: for counsel, for comfort, for distraction, for laughter — all on demand. I’ve always had to be in the mood for any given writer, so it seems that I am always in the mood for Lively.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Not for me, but for Lively.


If the foregoing makes any sense, it’s tribute to a writerly detachment that I did not possess until late middle age. Kathleen and I were awakened this morning by some terrible news: the lawyer with whom Kathleen moved from her last firm to her current firm was arrested earlier today, on federal charges of conspiring to commit securities fraud. Ordinarily, this is not something that I should mention here, because it has nothing to do with Kathleen beyond the accident of association on other matters, representing other clients. But the arrest will be notorious because the client in the case, also arrested this morning, is Martin Shkreli, a young man who has been much in the news for jacking up the prices of drugs to which one of his businesses holds the patent, and also for paying $2 million — I can’t quite bring myself to follow this story — for a Wu-Tang Clan LP. The alleged fraud has nothing to do with either of these matters, either. But it is pointed out that the lawyer, Evan Greebel, used to work at one place (where the fraud is said to have been perpetrated) and now works at another, a pattern that fits Kathleen exactly. I was so certain that my son-in-law would piece the story together that I called my daughter to tell her all about it. She hadn’t heard the news yet, but she agreed with my anticipation, and was grateful not to have to wonder whether to be the one to bring it up.

So much is public record — all but the telephone call that brought us the news. All but the shock and sorrow. I saw a clip on CNBC of the defendants being walked across a Brooklyn Street. I couldn’t be much more grieved if Kathleen’s partner were my son.


Saturday 19th

Yesterday got away from me. Or perhaps I was never really there. Kathleen had to be up early, for a conference call — she has spent her life on the phone, since the news broke on Thursday morning — and, when she was done, she got dressed and went into work. I read the paper, and went back to bed. I dozed for hours, but I didn’t sleep; the atmosphere of agita, which is what sent me back to bed, saw to that. When I got up, I heated a bowl of soup. I had planned to go out for lunch, but my heart wasn’t in it. After the soup, I looked in the closet that we call “the attic,” and found not just a few but about a dozen packages of bubbled mailers for Kathleen’s 2016 calendar. I shouldn’t have to go to Staples after all! I was so happy that I almost looked forward to going to the Post Office.

Once dressed, I tucked five envelopes into my bag and headed over to our brutalist branch; truth to tell, the Farley Post Office hasn’t even got enough style to be called brutalist. A comparison with the branch on 70th Street speaks volumes to the socioeconomic history of the neighborhood. I forget the name of the latter branch, but it is an elegant, Frenchified Georgian gem, with marble and soft lighting everywhere. When the Farley branch was built, in the 1950s, Yorkville was a working-class neighborhood; the Third Avenue El was dismantled at about the same time. A gigantic, overlighted room is edged by what would be tellers’ counters in a bank, and most of them are usually shuttered. No matter how clean, the place is incorrigibly dingy. It conveys a sense of what life in Russia must have been like in Soviet times. Nobody goes to the Farley branch for fun.

Most of the windows were open yesterday, because of the holidays, and the line, which was not that long to begin with (I was thirteenth) moved along nicely. I was lucky to land at the window of a very helpful woman. Among other things, she stamped the two calendars that I was sending to Europe without obliging me to fill out customs forms, as clerks have always done in the past. And her scale was steady: each of the domestically-bound calendars rang up at $1.42. I was set to buy postage for a hundred calendars at $1.50 each, just to be sure that none would be returned for insufficient postage — in past years, there has been a differential of up to five cents, even though each package is absolutely identical to the others. But the nice lady convinced me that two 72¢ stamps on each envelope would do the trick. The current 72¢ stamp features a butterfly. Mother Nature hasn’t evolved a Christmas-colored butterfly yet, but one could wish for something closer to seasonal than yellow and black. But who will notice.Who’s complaining.

Keeping busy turned out to be a good idea. It didn’t distract me from the shocking upset of learning that the partner with whom Kathleen represented her most important clients had been arrested — news trumpeted to every corner of the earth, thanks to the notoriety of that other, former client (never Kathleen’s), with whom her partner was alleged to have conspired to break the law — but it kept me from wallowing. Today, I tidied the apartment, just as I used to do on Saturday afternoons, did a load of laundry, and baked bread. I baked bread twice, in fact, because the first pair of loaves was so slow to rise. Perhaps it was the weather. I ended up baking the two, and they weren’t all that runty. The second pair is in the oven now. I shall order a new package of yeast this week — there was something funny about the way it wouldn’t quite dissolve.

The bread will be sliced for French toast tomorrow. A neighbor is coming to brunch. I thought about sticky buns, but I should have had to do a little shopping, for pecans particularly. As it is, I’ll run out to buy a pineapple in the morning. I’ll core and slice it into rings, and then run it under the broiler. That and Nueske’s bacon ought to be enough for anybody.

I’ve almost settled on buying a tabletop Christmas tree, but we’ll see when we get there.


Better late than never: Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Trump Was Not on the Test
December 2015 (II)

Monday 7th

Last night, I went to bed early — early, that is, considering that I spent almost the entire morning in bed, luxuriating in repose. I had spoken to Kathleen just before she went to bed, and I had felt for the first time that she had gone no farther than Australia; she was not blowing through a wormhole to some inaccessible galaxy. I rejoiced and relaxed. When I eventually got up, I had a good day. I managed to shelve all the poetry books together. I emptied and sorted the contents of a porcelain bowl into which I had been dumping the contents of pockets for years. I read a great deal, fascinated, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. When I went to bed, I set the alarm for seven o’clock.

It turned out to be a bumpy night. I would sleep for about an hour, after a good deal of dozing, and then I would wake up. At some point between five and six, I had just crawled back into bed when I heard the Whats App ping. Kathleen’s text told me that she was exhausted after an intense day of brainstorming about Bitcoin, and that she would struggle to stay up until eleven, seven my time. So I called her then and there. It was balm to hear her voice. She told me that the group had spent the evening at on a terrace at some well-known quai, from which she had taken “probably lousy” photographs of the Opera House. She was very glad about attending the Bitcoin workshop, for practical reasons as well as for the sheer excitement. She asked me for a wake-up call, at seven-thirty her time, three-thirty mine.

By the time Kathleen leaves Sydney, I’ll be an expert at telling you what the time is in New South Wales. Roughly, you subtract eight hours from the local time, and then add a day. To know what time it will be in New York when it is a given time in Sydney, you add eight hours and subtract a day. (This works better with the twenty-four hour clock.) As it happens, there is a certain accidental elegance about the time difference, at least at this time of year. The sixteen-hour difference invites a division of the day into three shifts — as, for example, the three shifts of doormen in our building. When New York begins the first shift, at midnight, Sydney is beginning the third, at four in the afternoon. This is the only shift in which the two cities share the same date. When New York goes into the second shift, Sydney goes into the first — of the next day. The problem with all this calculating is that I don’t know where the hell I am, or even what day of the week it is. It is Monday here but Tuesday there. Kathleen is already on the second day of her five-day workshop — well, she will be, when I wake her up this afternoon. I keep thinking that she will leave on Thursday, but for her it will be Friday. Her Friday will last a lot more than twenty-four hours, because after a few hours in the air, she will cross the International Date Line, and it will go on being Friday right through the change of planes at Los Angeles and nearly all the way to New York, where she will land between one and two in the morning on Saturday. It’s like watching a 3-D movie without the special glasses, only worse.


What’s wrong with those people? This seems to be the standard Northeast Corridor response to shootings out West. The one, and very terrible, incident that has hit close to home was the work of a clearly deranged young man: Adam Lanza’s parents split up over the proper way to deal with his antisocial behavior (and it’s hard to feel sorry for the mother who enabled him, only be murdered for her pains). I don’t suppose that many Northeasterners are waltzing around in serene confidence that a domestic terrorist shooting will not happen here. But we worry more about outsiders, and another 9/11.

What’s wrong with those people, I think, is that they’re unhappy in the America of today, and have no place to go. The West (including the Southwest) is our last frontier, beyond which there is nowhere. There has always been a residuum of disappointed people in the West. What’s new, I think, is the temperature of rhetorical violence in today’s political discourse. Donald Trump is of course the worst example by far: day after day, he invites his audiences to hate their neighbors. He and his followers believe that everyone else is a loser. But Republicans have been spewing vitriol for decades. They have been talking in polarized, we versus they, tropes since World War II. (“We versus they” sounds odd, I know, but I stick with it because it illuminates the grubby passivity of the standard usage, “us versus them.”)

Everything about our political life encourages partisan responses. Preaching for inclusiveness is not altogether unknown, but there is nothing in the way of true, persuasive leadership. I’m afraid that I’ve heard very little from President Obama that can’t be labeled “bromide.” Whatever his manner in the 2008 campaign, he has abandoned the possibly uncool approach of inspiring us to want to be our best selves. Neither he nor anyone else is engaging in dialogue with racists and libertarians; no one is trying to talk these people off the ledge from which their jumps may carry the nation to destruction. The ownership of an automatic weapon has become the emblem of stubborn/heroic resistance to a nanny state. How did that happen?

It happened because American élites, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, put too much reliance on the edifying power of progressive legislation. The first response to any problem is to propose a law that would obviate it. (In nine cases out of ten, the law already exists.) But genuinely liberal democratic states do not act in loco parentis. They do not maintain order by spanking the naughty. The naughty are shamed by their neighbors before their naughtiness becomes unruly.

American élites, seeking the rather impracticable sophistication of a modern, open state, one in which shaming played little part, not only invited members of the body politic to delegate social surveillance to the nation, but made it illegal, in many cases, not to do so. In one well-intentioned but retrospectively sad instance, local loitering laws were declared “unconstitutionally vague,” way back in the early Sixties. It is true that loitering laws were enforced with a racist bias, but doing away with the laws themselves was probably not the answer. I should have argued (with the wisdom of hindsight) for a more fine-grained response. I should have invalidated arrests that could be shown to be racist, and I should have weighted each case for its economic element. (If poor whites were shooed out of nice neighborhoods along with poor blacks, then the racism charge would not stand.)

My example of loitering may seem wrong-headed, given my premise. Loitering laws were struck down. But the opinions that informed the Supreme Court decisions about loitering had the effect of new laws, and the laws that they struck down were highly discretionary tools in the hands of local enforcement, which presumably acted in concord with the expectations of local society. That was indeed the essential legal argument against them: they were too discretionary (“vague”) to amount to any kind of law. But discretionary enforcement is still distinguishable from arbitrary enforcement.

In the back of my mind, I’m playing over Chapman Pincher’s remarks in support of Enoch Powell, the conservative British politician who, because he argued that the large-scale immigration of ex-colonials from the Caribbean and Pakistan was a mistake, got branded as a racist. I’ll have more to say about this later. Forty and more years ago, figures like Powell were regarded as radical reactionaries — crazy people. Today, however, their positions have been adopted in this country by mainstream Republicans, who want to promise that whites will remain the majority “racial” group. Forty and more years ago, you could tell white Englishmen (the only kind, in their view) that it was discreditable to view other peoples as indigestibly alien, but you can’t tell that to white Americans today.


One of the books that surfaced in the bout of reshelving that I wrote about last Friday was Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. I have no recollection of buying it nor any idea of why I bought it. It is only recently that I have taken a practical interest in memoirs, and I learned from Birkerts’s first well-known book, The Gutenberg Elegies, that he and I do not judge alike. Reading the first chapter, I fairly boiled over with objections. Objections, that is, to the notion that Birkerts’s generalizations about truth, life, and memory applied to me. Where I felt most volcanic was on the subject of childhood, which seems, for Birkerts as for many other writers (such as Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Dillard), to be the fons et origo of memoir. I vehemently believe that my childhood was only superficially formative: I learned all about table manners. The me who I am now was always there, and my attitude toward childhood while I had to endure it was one of relentless impatience. I longed for it to end not because I wished to be autonomous and to call my own shots — indeed, I was afraid of that eventuality — but because I needed to know about the world. From the dawn of my consciousness it was clear that most sure things about the adult world, when tested, turned out to be unexamined piffle. My impatience with childhood was, therefore, not inspired by admiration for the grown-ups. If I had thought of knowledge as a tool of heroism, I should have wanted to grow up so that I could save the planet.

I did not associate heroism with intelligence; nor did anyone else. Intelligence, in the wondrous Fifties, was associated with subversion, with treason. Any intelligence that was not required to pass a test was to be regarded as tumorous, and probably malignant. We were living in the best of all possible worlds. Not! It is true that I never gave much thought to the victims of social injustice. That is because I believed, as I believe still, that social injustice would disappear if anybody were living in the best of all possible worlds. Which is to say that I thought that nobody was living in the best of all possible worlds in those days. I should have had to walk miles from my home to encounter serious disadvantage, but I always knew that the long walk would not take me through any part of paradise.

My only question about childhood is this: how did I know that it was so bogus? Why does innocence seem to have been so conspicuously lacking?


After saying good-night to Kathleen, I puffed up the pillows and finished the Le Carré. More anon.


Tuesday 8th

Curiously, reading Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir is reminding me of things that I haven’t remembered in a long time. For example:

While I was a lawyer in the Law Department at E F Hutton & Co, a national brokerage firm or “wire house” that disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after I left it in 1987 (my last job), something very unusual happened. In the Law Department, we handled customer complaints, negotiating settlements, participating in arbitration proceedings, and hiring outside lawyers to deal with lawsuits. (We also dealt with certain internal affairs. For years, I reported to the General Counsel on the “outside business activities” of the stockbrokers. Quite a few brokers, I was surprised to learn, were also commercial airline pilots. This did not present any conflict of interest or other problem. My favorite example of an outside business activity that did present a problem — and a rather bulky one it was — was the publication by one of our brokers of a book entitled Riches Without Risk.) We had absolutely nothing to do with securities law.

I don’t remember how a particular customer complaint metastasized into a complaint about the Law Department itself, but it so happened that a number of our attorneys were deposed. No, we were not fired. We were, rather, required to give sworn, out-of-court testimony before a court reporter. The questions were put to us by the plaintiff’s attorneys. (In our part of the action, E F Hutton & Co was always the defendant.)

I don’t know why I had to give a deposition. I don’t remember the name or the face of the colleague whose activities formed the basis of the complaint; I seem to remember (what does that mean?) that the lawsuit came to nothing; that it was abandoned in the discovery phase. All I’m sure of is that I was asked, as I expected to be asked, about office procedures — the nuts and bolts of our workday.

We were also asked our opinions of what our colleague did or did not do. This is the part that I remember most clearly, because I steadfastly replied to these invitations to speculate with three little words: “I don’t know.”

And I didn’t know. I could surmise, I could make a good guess. But I didn’t know. Saying “I don’t know” was not evasive; it was the truth. And saying it, again and again, was perhaps the most resolute thing that I have ever done. It felt horribly rude, even unnatural. When someone asks you a question, your instinct is to answer as helpfully as you can. If you don’t know the answer, then you offer a good guess. “I don’t know, but I think I saw that book in Ben’s office.” When asked how my colleague handled his caseload generally, or the plaintiff’s complaint in particular, I had to resist this impulse, which I could override but not suppress. Every time I overrode it, I felt a bit more monstrous, more sociopathic. I was a bastard, I was a prick: I could feel the insults that such conduct would have elicited in more vernacular circumstances. But I stuck with it, and had the consolation of feeling quite proud of myself.

If I were to write a rigorous memoir, it wouldn’t be very long. “I don’t know.” Because I don’t remember. The only detail of the foregoing anecdote that I am absolutely sure of, besides my employment at E F Hutton & Co, is that I answered a lot of questions by saying “I don’t know.” I remember that much because it was simply unforgettable. Doing the right thing is often very difficult, very painful. But only rarely, in circumstances that one might well call “tragic,” does doing the right thing feel sharply like doing the wrong thing, the bad thing. Lawyers, who do things that look to others like the wrong thing, the bad thing, all the time, have been trained — indoctrinated, really — by law school professors to see things otherwise. It’s unusual for lawyers to sit in the witness box themselves, and submit to cross examination.

Now, how do I know all of that, that business about lawyers and law school indoctrination and so forth? Because I am married to a lawyer, a classmate at a particular law school, and we reminisce often about the intellectual trauma of our first year. (Kathleen has a vivid way of describing it, but I don’t remember her exact words, so I’ll just say that it sounds like a horror film involving brainwashing.) I don’t have to root about in memories that are approaching their fortieth anniversary.

On the whole, I don’t think much about my past. I am stung by certain unwanted memories that snap at me spontaneously; they all involve misconduct on my part and they can still flood me with shame. I try to find comfort in the fact that there are not very many of them. (But how many?) I have a lot of general impressions about the course of my life, but few reliable still images, so to speak. And the things that I do remember clearly are characterized by the element of unusualness. I have always preferred my life to be outwardly usual, because it frees my mind. So the unusual things are not terribly common, and either I don’t register them at all or I remember them clearly, but meaninglessly.

For example, I remember driving from Bronxville to the Woodlawn subway station on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, so that I could pick up my friend Michael, who lived in Manhattan (just a block from where I’ve lived for decades). I don’t know why I didn’t drive into the city to fetch him, but I surmise that he took the subway because it was cheaper than the commuter train; for both of us, simply being on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, alongside Woodlawn Cemetery, was an adventure. On top of this, Michael brought me a treat, one that I had asked for. I had asked him to go to Sam Goody’s and buy, if it was available, a recording on Deutsche Gramophon by an ensemble directed by Herbert von Karajan of Mozart’s Divertimento K 334. Which he did. Why I asked him to do this — had I gone to the Sam Goody’s in Cross County Center, not far from home, and discovered that they didn’t have it? — I have no idea.

This recollection is like a snapshot in that it represents an actual event or moment but is embalmed in a great cloud of So What? I wish I knew how to flesh it out, by telling you which of my parents’ cars I was driving (a blue Oldsmobile comes to mind, but that may be corrupting influence of a car that I had in law school), or what I was wearing, or how characteristically cheeky it was of me to ask Michael to go out of his way to buy me a record that I just had to have. (How did I even know about this divertimento of Mozart’s?)

And, come to think of it, it might have been a different LP: Eileen Farrell singing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.

Kathleen and I took our honeymoon at an inn in New Hampshire, not far from where my aunt and uncle and some of my cousins lived. I am reminded of it every time I hear songs from the Hall & Oates album, Private Eyes. But I didn’t know a single one of those songs at the time. It was only when we came home that we got the record. I suppose that still-lively memories of the inn in New Hampshire got mixed up with the new music. And the only thing that I am really sure of here, aside from the effect of the songs, is that I have long been mystified by this association. Perhaps the mystification is itself a mistake. Maybe, in fact, I did know the songs. Did I bring a boombox along on the honeymoon? Did we have a cassette tape of Private Eyes? I don’t remember one way or the other. All that I remember is that, for years now, I have thought how odd it was that the songs make me think of a trip that took place before I knew them.

I don’t know.


Wednesday 9th

How black can political despair get? In all of today’s Times, the statement that I most fully agreed with was this:

“Anyone who thinks@realDonaldTrump comments will hurt him don’t know the temperature of the American ppl,” the radio host Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter.

On the Op-Ed page, Frank Bruni scolded the Donald for his addiction to attention; I wondered who needed to read, or would benefit from reading, this column. Because: The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is that Americans seem to be crowding into meeting halls to hear him. The only thing I really want to know is how many Americans. I want Nate Silver’s squad of data sifters to keep track of Trump’s support in bodies. That way, I can keep my horror to reasonable proportions.

The Times reported on the worldwide dismay at Trump’s call for a ban on non-citizen Muslim entry into the United States. This dismay is largely official, which makes sense, because it is the crust of officials, a worldwide club of élite managers, that constitutes Trump’s prime target. He’s only going after Muslims because he wants to whip up his fans into a frenzy that will break that crust. “Down with the leaders!” That is Trump’s message. When pressed for a detailed second step, Trump fails utterly. “We’ll figure it out.”

Donald Trump wants attention. How long could his pre-eminence endure, I wonder, if it were challenged by those who want not attention but power? I can see Ted Cruz signing Trump’s death warrant.

Laura Ingraham is right, I’m afraid (very afraid): too many Americans have given up, not so much on our way of government, which they don’t really understand, as on the men and women who show up in the news as political leaders.

Meanwhile, in the Business section, you will find a room-temperature piece about private equity returns that reads like a communication from another planet, if, that is, you can still keep the Trump nonsense in mind. Also the news of a proposed merger of DuPont and Dow, which will be followed by the consolidated company’s breakup into three pieces. Bill Gates is “nudging” world leaders and “tech billionaires” to “team up on clean technology.” Business as usual. The lone interesting story is about a new study showing that Walmart’s Chinese imports have displaced 400,000 American jobs. Hirocho Tabuki handles the story well, providing a lot of comment that is critical of the study. A Walmart spokesman claims that job losses are offset by job creations, in such fields as transportation, &c. There’s plenty to think about in this piece, not least that 400,000 is not a lot of jobs. We need to know more, because economic insecurity at the local level has a negative impact on the temperature of the American people.


For the moment, I’m going to call it a mutable icon. That’s something of a contradiction in terms, I know, but I think that offers a better description of what I’m going to talk about than memory does.

When I was thirteen, my life changed. My body had already changed; I was fully grown. It happened very quickly, and without the glandular swings that can make adolescence a living hell. Now my personality changed, or rather, it emerged — the one that I still have. We had moved house the year before, and my electric trains — a complicated but underfunded operation — were left behind. My childhood seems to have been left behind with them.

My interest in music underwent a rapid evolution. I had always listened to my parents’ records, which were mostly original cast albums of Broadway shows. One that wasn’t featured a choral group, and songs such as “I Love Paris” and “No Other Love” — very haunting, somehow. There was a recording of “You Belong to Me” — I’m thinking that it was Vera Lynn, and not Patti Page. From this song I learned that it told me everything I wanted to know about the pyramids along the Nile and Old Algiers. Some fond adult introduced me to Mantovani. The Mantovani album of (grossly cut) Strauss waltzes led to the purchase of a much more beautiful LP: Six waltzes by Waldteufel, played by a real orchestra under a real conductor (but I forget which and who). Joining the chorus at Bronxville High, I was soon singing bits of Mozart’s Requiem, and that, I can state with unusual assurance, was my first “classical record.”

I made the mistake of mentioning Mantovani to the chorus director, in front of a clutch of seniors. The ensuing blast of scorn taught me a highly useful discretion. It did not dampen my eclecticism, but it did teach me that if I were going to venture to talk about serious music, I had better know more about it. But that could wait. The seniors who talked about classical music were dismissive nerds. I was to discover that this was typical of all the boys who knew anything about the arts. (I was given no reason to think that there existed girls who listened to Mozart. Older women, yes, but not girls.) I was to discover later still that hermetic superiority was a feature of modernism itself. Modernism and dismissiveness alike made me uncomfortable. I preferred solitude to competition — another lifelong trait.

At some point in that year when I was thirteen, Handel’s Water Music became the thing I liked to listen to best. The Water Music is an element of the icon. So is Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Although I spent a great deal of time with books in those days, I was not a very good reader. Whenever I came up against something that I didn’t understand, I relaxed my focus and drifted effortlessly through the pages. In the very long run, this turned out not to be a bad thing, but in the short run it filled my head not with the contents of books but with abominable conceit, a portrait gallery of me reading now this book, now that one, and now the next. I was so aware that reading adult books for pleasure was an unusual pastime for anyone my age, much less one with my physical attributes, that actual reading required extra effort. A little competition might have shaped me up, but only at the cost of being able to say, as I can now, that my experience of the arts has been led by love, by the pursuit of pleasure.

So, there I was, reading A Tale of Two Cities, with the Water Music playing in the background. The novel, I knew, was written in the Nineteenth Century, but it was set in the 1790s. The Water Music, as best scholars could make out, was first played shortly before 1720. My grasp of history was still sufficiently inchoate for me to bunch everything together in a sort of Georgian moment. A George I moment. The liner notes told me the tale about the Water Music. It was a musical apology, a peace offering. Handel was still the court musician in Hanover — officially, that is; in fact, he had long been AWOL, first in Rome and then in London — when the Elector of Hanover became the King of England. The new king discovered that his old music director was already, one might at best say “prematurely,” very busy and very famous in his new capital. The extent to which George I honestly gave a damn about any of this is unclear. He blandly continued to patronize Handel. Handel was such an exponent of prevailing Hanoverian dynamics that he was disliked by George II and adored by George III.

I imagined George I, as we see him in his state portraits, listening to the Water Music. An unlikely scene, in fact; but I imagined it to the degree of inhabiting it. There was a quiet but bizarre synchronicity of images: me sitting in my room; George I sitting on his throne — both of us listening to the Water Music. Dicken’s novel of the French Revolution was the unlikely catalyst of this magic.

This is my mutable icon. It is not the memory of a particular moment. As a self-image, it was not permanent. But it is the first in a series of “Our Baby” photographs, all of them variants of the icon. Throw in a candlestick and a cup of Earl Grey tea, as I did whenever I could circumvent my mother’s firm opposition to playing with matches and eating or drinking in my room, and you have a picture of my life as, aged thirteen, I badly wanted it to be. For of course the icon was aspirational. Most of the time, I was a bored, restless teenager, discovering new things to do every day but taking forever to learn how to do any of them, watching too much television and eating too many Fig Newtons.

I lived, in effect, two intellectual lives, for what happened in school had nothing to do with what happened in my room. School presented an entirely different, and, in my view, rather useless, approach to knowledge — the pleasure-free approach. As I grew older, the parallel lives bent a bit and headed toward a future intersection. Amazingly, the intersection occurred while I was a law student, thirty years old. But that’s another mystery. Is it another icon?


Thursday 10th

Ever since Thanksgiving Day, part of me has smouldered in a slow burn. The little fire was lighted by the Op-Ed piece that Kevin Dowd, given the floor by his sister, Maureen, offered Times readers for holiday dégustation. I disagreed with his estimation of the Republican candidates, although I sympathized with some of his reasons for supporting them. What bothered me much more was the tendentious self-assurance with which he overlooked inconvenient downsides. To begin at the beginning:

Donald Trump: With all his bombast and incivility, Trump has joyfully debunked political correctness for the complete fraud that it is. With his talent for making debate ratings soar, he has allowed all the other candidates to be seen and heard at celestial levels unreachable without him. He has touched a nerve because people are fed up with liberal groups being offended at every slight, real or imagined. (I can assure you none of these people were taught by Jesuits.)

It’s certainly true that Trump has livened up the campaign. But at what terrible cost? And would Dowd be as cheery about Trump today, only two weeks later, after Trump’s malignant proposal to ban entry by non-citizen Muslims? I certainly hope not. Another favorite:

Marco Rubio: Young, whip smart and self-assured, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs and is a stunning contrast to Hillary Clinton both in generation and vision.

If anything can be determined about Rubio, it is that he puts Hillary Clinton to shame as an opportunist. His defection from the Gang of Eight appears to have been all too characteristic of the man. Rubio is whip smart all right, when it comes to determining which way the breeze is trending.

The comparison of Ben Carson to Dwight Eisenhower is perhaps Dowd’s perfect flame. This is nothing but the smart-ass provocation to which Irish-Americans, although they have no monopoly on the gambit, have given their own twinkling sarcasm, which opens up wiggle room for treating everything as a joke. The proposition is cleverly made: “Not since Eisenhower has a complete novice politician been so legitimate a contender.” This doesn’t mean that Carson is any good. What it means is that, if you disagree, if you object to framing the talk-circuit surgeon with the coordinator of Allied forces, it’s up to you to name another “novice politician.” But before you can think of Ross Perot, you have to swallow the insult, because that’s what the comparison is meant to be. Which is to say that Dowd is perfectly aware that his remark will reduce most liberals to sputtering rage.

In short, you have to be tough as well as whip-smart (which presumably Dowd is as well). And it’s the note of toughness that rankles. It becomes the key of the second half of the piece, which trembles patriotically about national weakness and American exceptionalism and the heroism of our police forces. Dowd’s rhetorical swagger may be less ridiculous than Trump’s “bombast and incivility,” but it is no less offensive. For eventually you must make a choice, between stoic, vale-of-tears conservatism such as Dowd’s, with its presumptions of male supremacy, and the humane generosity of spirit that Montaigne, initially a would-be stoic, learned from the writing of his Essays. You have to decide whether Dowd’s way of talking, and the worldview implicit in his style of speech, is acceptable in public discourse.

On balance, I admire the Jesuits. They introduced a briskness to serious discussion that made it accessible to intelligent non-specialists. Conservatives of the ancien régime were probably right to discern seeds of revolution in Jesuit teaching. But the Jesuits were inclined to the vanity of always having an answer for everything. They disliked saying “I don’t know,” so instead, they said a lot of things that were plausible and glib. Kevin Dowd assures us that he was taught by Jesuits.


I have often complained of the lack of a synonym for “humanism” that isn’t grubby with the fingerprints of (a) secular, atheist humanists, for whom the whole point of humanism is to erase the role of gods in human affairs and (b) neo-Thomists, whose objective is just the opposite. What I mean by humanism is the fundamentality of human beings — people — as they live together, in all their myriad uniqueness.

I have come to wonder, though, if anything called “humanism” isn’t the wrong tree to bark up. I can state my misgivings in two ways. I don’t intend to take people “as they are,” and I’m not interested in individuals as such. I’m interested in individuals working together while remaining individuals, learning how to make the most of both cooperation and disagreement. I don’t want everyone to be the same, but I do want everyone to make an effort to live helpfully and comfortably with everyone else. I don’t really endorse our national motto, E pluribus unum. I don’t want “one thing” to result from the bustling of many. Union is not unity.

I’ve also become disenchanted with the language of “society.” Margaret Thatcher was a creep, given the context, to say that there is no such thing as society, but she was right; there isn’t. She was especially right in that society does not exist at the national level. What I mean by society is a very local affair: the people I pass in the elevator or up and down 86th Street. It is composed of familiar strangers. (In a small town, of course, everybody does know everybody else, and it become possible to talk about “community,” but community can be stifling, and of course bright people, exceptional by definition, often find life in their communities to be suffocating. Such, at least, is the story of every other newcomer to New York.)

I value peace and stability, but I also believe that intelligent change is vital. I dread violence and stupidity. I think that violence and stupidity are the fruit of loneliness and alienation; peace and stability are rooted in trust and decency. Expedience is costly and corrosive. Is there a word for my outlook?


Friday 11th

Last night, while doing the ironing, I watched Mystic Pizza. I was watching it for what has become the usual reason: a particular actor was in it. In this case, the actor was Matt Damon. Did you know that he was in Mystic Pizza? I was surprised to find it at the bottom of his credits at IMDb. He was seventeen or eighteen when it was shot, and you wouldn’t recognize him if you weren’t on the lookout. I’d almost given up waiting for him to appear when, there he was, at a family dinner, the younger brother, known as “Steamer,” of one of the supporting male leads’ character. It was very small part, in a single scene dominated by all the other actors. And it would have been a pleasant surprise, like spotting Lucille Ball in Top Hat, if it had been a surprise. But it was interesting anyway to see Matt Damon way back when.

Released in 1988, Mystic Pizza is coming up on its thirtieth year, and it looks it. Julia Roberts, whose first big role was Daisy Arujo, the wild and cynical romantic in the troika of young women who waitress at the eponymous pizzeria, is all big hair and puffy dresses. She looks best with her hair combed straight down and her body clad in a man’s dress shirt. As in another movie from 1988, Working Girl, Roberts’s exuberant look is supposed to register as low-class and uneducated. The posh women in Mystic Pizza have what would now be regarded as big hair, too, but theirs is more restrained, more coiffed.

Unlike Working Girl, which tells one story, Mystic Pizza tells three — or four, if you consider the Everyday Gourmet plotline, such as it is. There are two sisters, Daisy and Kat (Annabeth Gish), and their best friend, Jojo (Lili Taylor). The action, rather ingeniously, is footed by the displacement of a summer story. Daisy and Kat both run into men who ordinarily wouldn’t be hanging around the Connecticut coast in cold weather. (Jojo’s counterbalancing story suits her with a local boyfriend, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, an actor who had already established his cred in Full Metal Jacket.) One of these men is a married architect, working on someone else’s summer home, with a wife in London; the other has been thrown out of law school for cheating on an exam (played by William Moses and Adam Storke respectively). I found both of these stories of socioeconomic mismatch to be trite when the movie came out, and I still do.

There is nothing about the world of privilege as represented here that you couldn’t learn from any issue of Vanity Fair. That family dinner that I mentioned, the one with Matt Damon, is particularly painful, because the former law students’ parents and aunt are so clumsy about snubbing Daisy. When the mother says that there’s nothing wrong with being a waitress, she might as well be saying that there is nothing wrong with being Portuguese. I’ve been to a few dinners in which someone from the outside world was being introduced to the family, and the reception was invariably determined by personal appeal rather than snobbish standoffishness. Nor was it taken so seriously. Families don’t invest in real scrutiny until the fourth or the fifth dinner.

As for the married architect, Daisy calls the cliché before Kat even knows how seriously she has fallen for her situationally single employer (she babysits his daughter). It turns out to be no more and no less. Kat’s heart is broken when, upon the sudden return of his wife, the architect gives her, if not a cold, then a hangdog shoulder. But Kat has Yale to look forward to; she’ll find a more eligible cute guy among the undergraduates. At the end, when Jojo finally marries her boyfriend (in a twist, he refuses to have sex with her unless she does), Leona, the pizzeria owner, hands Kat a fat envolope of cash. “You three girls are our children,” she says. The former law student is still in the running when the curtain comes down, but you know that Daisy is going to give him the right kind of hard time. (His father gave him the wrong kind.) And no sooner does the Everyday Gourmet tell his television audience that Mystic Pizza’s Mystic Pizza is “superb” than the phone rings. Leona tells the caller that reservations are not necessary. Big win all round.

A law school friend of ours was living in Mystic at the time. (She was working in nearby New London.) She drove us around, and taught us that Mystic Pizza was shot largely in neighboring Stonington, a far more picturesque seaside village. This information symbolized for me the air of fantasy in the movie.


There’s no need for me to say any more about public affairs this week; it’s all in the first section of today’s Times. The essence is captured in Simon Romero’s report concerning a glass of wine tossed in someone’s face: “Some Brazilians also pondered what the encounter says about a self-obsessed and increasingly polarized political establishment.” Show me a political establishment in a liberal democracy that isn’t self-obsessed, as well as increasingly polarized! Please! Paul Krugman nails the two flavors of populist discontent, European and American, in his Op-Ed piece. There’s even a story about how Hillary Clinton is no longer laughing at or about Donald Trump. Took her a while, eh?

What’s depressing isn’t so much the apocalyptic cast of political discourse as the absence of positive critique. No one seems to have any serious idea of a better way. For several generations now, political establishments, business organizations, and news media have recruited men and women who perform well on tests. (What these prodigies retain of their tested learning is very uncertain.) While it is true that life presents endless challenges, life’s tests are not written by an older generation of educators. Agility with ignorance and the unknown is not a testable skill. For that, you have to look to designers, the creators of everything from smartphones to the software that operates them. Insofar as designers are formally schooled, they enter their schools with demonstrable talents, like the journeymen of old. They show up already knowing how to make things, like that little boy in Texas with his clock. (It is richly symbolic of education today that an object was immediately suspected of being a “device.”) I’m not suggesting that designers have much to tell us about how to run the world. What their example does suggest, though, is that the prevailing template for training élites is long on abstraction and lacking in practical experience.

That’s why our élites — in politics, business, and the press — talk only to themselves. Everything outside the élite bubble is perceived as a management problem. Which is fine, so long as the non-élite population is willing, however unenthusiastically, to be managed.

Twenty-five or thirty years of rather disastrous economic mismanagement have inclined significant numbers of people to ignore the élites and to listen to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and others of their ilk — fear-mongerers who in the happier days of Les Trente Glorieuses were written off as cranks. Ms Clinton has just received the memo: cranks are in. Neither she nor anyone else in the establishment has a clue about how to respond to cranks with anything but laughter. That is why there has been no anti-Trump. The élite cannot produce a character with, say, Michael Bloomberg’s money and Christopher Hitchens’s wit. So Trump’s insults go uncontested.

Trump was not on the test.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Manlie Constancy
December 2015 (I)

Monday 30th

Kathleen said, this morning, “I had a headache for most of the day yesterday, but I didn’t tell you, because I could tell that you were having a bad day.” Really? We talked about it for a moment, because I thought that I’d been more or less fine until the smoke alarm malfunctioned, in the late afternoon, and its unstoppable shrieking threw me into a momentary panic. But Kathleen saw through my good behavior. “You were sad.” And I might have been; we often misunderstand our own emotional climates. I should say rather that I was frightened, that I don’t feel safe, that, much of the time, I should rather not know what’s going to happen next, because, now that I’m an old man, it’s going to be meaningless to me. Worse, I’m meaningless to it. And that’s just the part about “safe” that isn’t material, that doesn’t involve loss of electric power or running water, things that I worry about somewhat inordinately, but also helplessly.

I often wonder how long I shall have to live before I make an impression on my grandson that he will carry with him through the rest of his life, instead of relying on stories from his mother. That worry immediately brings up the much closer anxieties associated with flying out, in just a few weeks, to San Francisco and back. Greatly foreshortening this dread is Kathleen’s trip to Sydney. She will leave this Thursday, and be gone for a week. That fourteen-hour flight from Los Angeles — what an insane, unnecessary risk! That’s how I feel it, even though I know that the feeling is unreasonable. Aren’t feelings usually?

My sleeping pill didn’t work last night. I have my theories as to why (they’re reassuring), but I also have recollections of a very bad hour. My fears, which I have compressed into a few lines here, burgeoned and blossomed and luxuriated with nightmarish density, and it seemed that death would be the only way to wake up. Hasn’t anyone my age lived long enough? Must there be more? Another unreasonable feeling, but for a while it was stronger by far than my fear of flying.

There were two more hours of wakefulness. The pinpoint of my consciousness would not relent. But the agony subsided, as it always does, and finally settled into a melancholy that made me very grateful for the warm and comfortable bedclothes.

No, it was my impression that I was doing well yesterday afternoon. We had a very late breakfast, and then we settled into the end of the living room by the window, where Kathleen stitched (not the best thing for her headache, perhaps) and I put down “the book that I’m reading” — in this case, a book about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, as told in a manner that would not be out of place in Vanity Fair — and picked up Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays. I read “Of Books” and “Of the Art of Discussion” (as Frame has it). Then I located a book that I haven’t yet read, Saul Frampton’s book about Montaigne, When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know that She Is Not Playing With Me? In the chapter that mentions, without quite discussing, what Frampton calls “Of the Art of Conversation,” I discovered the word “proxemic.”

The proxemic sense is a faculty we have largely lost or become unconscious of since the Renaissance. But it is an awareness that was second nature to people of Montaigne’s time, what might almost be called the sixteenth century’s sixth sense. [...] Montaigne’s boast that Henri de Navarrre slept in his bed when he visited his house might stirke us as a slightly embarrassing assertion, but for Montaigne there could be no clearer expression of the closeness of their amitié.

“Of the Art of Discussion” struck me as a thorny, typically freestyle presentation of Montaigne’s ideas, their bearing on what we could consider “conversation” shifting into and out of focus. I should have to re-read the essay before saying anything general about it. But I do think that Frampton is right to make a point of the “proxemic” nature of friendship, the most intimate relationship that can be discussed in words. This spatial or physical intimacy is a precondition, chez Montaigne, for conversation. Several times, Montaigne mentions ostentatiously learned people who distance themselves by way of special robes and windy utterances; such would-be authorities are not interested in conversation. Montaigne also complains about the deadly sports that men play, such as jousting, that can cost lives (as, for example, that of Henri II); the implication is that conversation is the game for him.

But opportunities for real conversation are rare. Montaigne never got over the loss, early in life, of the great conversational partner, one might almost say love, of his life, Étienne de La Boétie, even if he never abandoned hope that another man might come along to take his place. Montaigne spent a great deal of time alone at the top of his tower, surrounded by the books to which he makes constant reference in the essays. Were the essays a substitute for conversation? It seems to me that they begin as such. As one finds ones pace, my experience tells me, the dissatisfaction of faute de mieux passes away entirely, and the essay becomes something that has little or nothing to do with conversation. But the project of writing things down would probably never be undertaken if good conversation were always on tap. I suppose that, for those of us who do write essays, there is a persistence or intensity of thought that no conversation could tolerate.

Who can read Montaigne, these days? There have been very good books about Montaigne lately, Frampton’s among them, along with Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How To Live. But it is obviously much easier for today’s reader to read these books through than to dip into Montaigne himself. After all, Montaigne wrote a very long time ago. His French is not as archaic as Chaucer’s English, but it is not as accessible as Shakespeare’s (not to mention the French of Racine or Voltaire), and although the content of his thought speaks to us whenever we can grasp it, its flow is pre-modern. As how could it not be? The Essays as a collection is the edge of the cascade over which writers have been flying ever since, each generation learning a little more about how to organize ideas in a piece of writing. Before Montaigne, every writer was an authority, setting out to tell you what to learn, not to provoke you, as Montaigne does, to think your own thoughts. Yes, conversation was his model, and almost any literate conversation, even today, would, if transcribed verbatim, be as difficult to follow as the most dense of Montaigne’s pieces.

“Proxemics” again: we may, as Frampton thinks, have lost our sense of this faculty, but it is still the case that being physically proximate makes face-to-face encounters more powerful (even if that power purrs gently) than the plethora of virtual contacts in which so many people seem to be sunk today. Indeed, one test of friendship, which I think everyone is at least unconsciously aware of, is whether physical proximity adds anything of value to an acquaintance.

And then there are Montaigne’s references, which are really nothing less than the points in his intellectual universe. It is not our universe, certainly. The Latin classics, some more recent historians — in “Of Books,” these range from Froissart, a friend of Chaucer, to Guicciardini, a contemporary of Machiavelli: Montaigne did not have to read mountains of books to consider himself an educated man. We are supposed to know who his “authorities” are, but Horace is no longer the common possession of gentlemen everywhere, as he was in the later centuries of the ancien régime; and very, very few people with degrees from the very, very best schools have read all of The Aeneid or The Metamorphoses in Latin. For that matter, I fear, very few people have read Montaigne, at least since some mandatory exposure as students. How interesting it would be to have some Big Data about the number — the mere number — of readers who spent more than an hour reading Montaigne in this calendar year.

The essay as we know it is no longer a substitute for conversation, because it is not only one-sided but broadcast: I write not to make a point especially salient to one reader but to make everything that I have to say intelligible to many different readers. Perhaps it would be better to say that that is the skill of the essay, the techniques that writers have developed since Montaigne’s day, to achieve his ends more clearly and more quickly. (Readers have developed corresponding techniques of comprehension.) This is not to say, however, that Montaigne is primitive. He may be the first, he may still be somewhat cru, but he is génial — engagingly brilliant. He is very much worth the effort.


Tuesday 1st

One day this weekend — I forget whether it was Friday or Saturday — I read most of the new issue of the NYRB, boom boom boom, feeling guilty about going through a box of chocolates all at one go. Everything was good, but one piece stuck out, probably because it makes a point that I’ve tried to make, too. That it was made by an eminent historian of science certainly gives it superior credibility.

Steven Weinberg’s “Eye on the Present — The Whig Interpretation of Science” takes up Herbert Butterfield’s celebrated critique of progress-accented history (“history is written by the winners”) and argues that it cannot be allowed to apply to the history of science. Progress-accented history (my term) highlights developments in the past that adumbrate or foretell arrangements that the historian regards as successes of his own day. Whiggish historians, to pick an easy example, are far more likely to see Magna Carta as an adumbration of today’s liberal democracy than their more objective colleagues, who will try to tease out what the Charter meant at the time to the barons who forced it upon King John. Whig history winds up telling us more about ourselves than about the past. The objective historians whom Butterfield admired tell us more about the past, which is, after all, the whole point of history. Losers can be just as important as winners.

The history of science, Weinberg insists, is different. Being right is everything. In the course of his essay, Weinberg says some important things about what being right actually means.

Weinberg cites the work of the late David Lindberg, a historian of science who shared Butterfield’s scruples. Lindberg:

it would be unfair and pointless to judge Aristotle’s success by the degree to which he anticipated modern science (as though his goal was to answer our questions, rather than his own).

Weinberg replies, “To me this is nonsense.

The point of science is not to answer the questions that happen to be popular in one’s own time, but to understand the world. Not that we know in advance what kinds of understanding are possible and satisfying. Learning this is part of the work of science. Some questions like “What is the world made of?” are good questions but are asked prematurely. No one could make progress answering this question until the advent of accurate measurement of chemical weights at the end of the eighteenth century. [...] Other questions like “What is the natural place of fire?” or “What is the purpose of the moon?” are bad in themselves, leading away from real understanding. Much of the history of science has been a matter of learning what sort of questions should and should not be asked. [Emphasis supplied.]

It is the final statement there that interests me. The central problem of science, the first step that determines everything else, is knowing what questions to ask — and, especially, to recognize those questions that are premature. This calls for a mastery of ignorance, as Stuart Firestein has shown in his brilliant book on the subject (Ignorance: How It Drives Science). Paradoxically, we have to know what we don’t know. To put it more messily, we have to be aware of all the different things that we don’t know, and then we have to figure out which areas of ignorance are more approachable, given what we do know, and which are less.

In other words, progress in science is far more problematic than it appeared to be to the geniuses of the Nineteenth Century, for whom each new discovery seemed to present the next question that ought to be asked. For a while, the sequence of great discoveries (and their subsequent practical applications), reeking of “progress,” seemed to inhere in the nature of science itself. But it was a windfall. The measurements that Weinberg mentions set scientific inquiry on a new course; measuring everything in its turn profoundly altered our understanding of the world — and also of our capacities to alter the world. Eventually, however, everything that could be was measured. “Progress” slowed. What got it going again was a new alteration: the theory of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics posed a new set of questions, which in turn revealed new things to be measured.

The history of science began as nothing more than a narrative of theories and discoveries that began with Copernicus in astronomy, Galileo in physics, and a swarm of brilliant experimenters, working for the better part of a century, in chemistry. The narrative’s first sentence declared that everything “understood” prior to these pioneering figures was wrong. Then it marched through the several tracks of discoveries, showing how each notable figure built on the work of his predecessors. The practice of science constituted the history of science, which was little more than a committee organized to celebrate the progress of science.

Small wonder that this approach to the more or less recent past appealed to scholars in the newly-developed “human sciences.” Our modern way of doing history was one of the first of these. Formerly, history was a narrative sequence of great events, most of which featured great men. While these events influenced subsequent events, they were shown as taking place in the eternal present of unchanging human nature. In Gibbons’s hands, the Byzantines of the Nika Riots (532 CE) look pretty much like the Englishmen of the Gordon Riots (1780) — riots are riots.

With the fall of the ancien régime in 1789, however, a world-order relating kings to priests to people was utterly swept away. A different approach to history was called for, and one was found in prestigious concept of scientific progress. Henceforth, it would be very difficult to convince anybody that the fall of the ancien régime was a bad thing. It was this progressive history that Herbert Butterfield sought to discredit. “Whig” historians were English writers invested in a narrative that traced liberal democracy from its unlikely beginnings in illiterate Germanic “war bands” to the triumph of the Victorian Parliament. Factors tending to impede this wonderful development — bad kings and worse popes — were portrayed unattractively.

Interestingly, this back-to-the-future approach began to be rejected by historians of science even before Butterfield’s critique appeared. The modern history of science began by erasing that first sentence, about all prior science being wrong. It took a deep interest in the natural inquiries of Greeks and Romans; it examined astrology and alchemy. It struggled to explain why the empiricism that powers most scientific work today did not appeal to ancient and medieval thinkers. In the middle of the last century, Thomas Kuhn set out to demonstrate that progress doesn’t exist even in science. His theory of paradigm shifts refuted the rather simple-minded idea of science as mere problem-solving. The origins of modern science were shown to be much murkier than a troupe of brainy heroes shouting, Fiat lux!

Nevertheless, the history of science, as Weinberg argues, is not really like the history of humanity. Nobody knows what the point of humanity is — Weinberg would call that a bad question, and I certainly agree. But we know what the point of science is: to understand the world in a demonstrable way. The point of science is not to produce plausible explanations of phenomena. To put it better, science has rejected armchair theoretizing. It demands proof, replication, verification. To be recognized as “scientific,” a theory must be falsifiable: it must be capable of being disproved. So the history of science must evaluate every would-be contributor to science with these criteria in mind. In the process, someone like Aristotle largely fails to measure up. He is a very interesting failure; he tells us a great deal about the comfortable habits of an ill-equipped intellect. Science may have a point, but the world does not. At the very least, the question what is the world for? is totally premature.

The problem of distinguishing good questions from bad ones is particularly pressing in connection with the degradation of the environment. There are a lot of bad questions out there, and many of them involve a tincture of misanthropy: they want solutions to environmental problems regardless of human cost. They do not regard humanity as a part of nature. We are going to have to be careful to distinguish questions about scientific approaches to environmental repair from questions about human approaches to the same problem, and we are going to need thinkers capable of keeping abreast of both without confusing them.

It often seems to me that cancer remains a killer because we don’t know how to think about it; there is something that we’re missing. In The New Yorker, Jerome Groopman recently assessed the latest theory-of-everything about illness: inflammation is at the root of every malady. (I remember reading not too long ago that the same was said about infection, which is actually not a very different thing. Inflammation is a side-effect of the body’s attempt to defeat infection.) Even if that is shown to be true, it does not immediately offer a solution to the cancer problem; but it would focus attention on the relationship between inflammation and mutation. (It might also show, further along, that understanding the cause of cancer is irrelevant to developing a cure.) And yet, I wonder if the hypothesis could not be shown to be true until the cause of cancer were understood. Happily, I am not involved in the research; at least I know that I don’t know what I’m talking about in this paragraph. But I stick with my intuition: there are good questions about cancer that we haven’t hit on yet.


Wednesday 2nd

Regular readers will be aware that Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a work of art close to my heart. I was given a recording when I was thirteen, because it was recommended to my mother by a Sam Goody’s salesman. Odd as I was, it nevertheless took a few years for the opera to grow on me, but by that time I knew the music backwards and forwards, just as I knew all the music in my record collection backwards and forwards: the relatively few LPs that I had got played all the time. Mozart’s score has held up quite well to extreme familiarity.

What keeps Così fresh for me is the libretto, Lorenzo da Ponte’s masterpiece. Da Ponte is a significant important figure in Italian literature; although Venetian by birth, he was an exponent of what we might call Classical Tuscan. There is a little joke here, just as there always is with da Ponte, because he was so helplessly clever. Classical Tuscan is the official language of Italy, for one thing; for the other, in da Ponte’s hands it resounds not only with a thoroughly domesticated Latin but also with extraordinarily understated learning. Così fan tutte sparkles with quiet erudition.

Take, for example, the marriage contract that Despina, the maid who is disguised as a notary, huffs her way through just before the climax. The new lovers cut her off when she gets to the part about dowries, but she has managed to clear up a mystery of which we were probably unaware. The old lovers, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Ferrando and Dorabella, mention one anothers’ names all the time, and the men continue to refer to their increasingly unfaithful girlfriends by name throughout the opera, during most of which they are disguised as “Albanians” (think Turks). The impalpable mystery is that, as Albanians, they have no names. They are amanti or crudeli, but they are also anonymous — until Despina reads the marriage contract. From her we learn that these Albanians are called Sempronio and Tizio. These may sound like Italian names, but you won’t find anybody who answers to them, because, as I learned from my readings in medieval law, they are the equivalent of “the party of the first part” and “the party of the second part.” Or, if you like, “Blackacre,” that fictional manor that has changed hands millions of times in the teaching of English property law. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella were more learned, this parade of notional nomenclature would have exposed the deception then and there, but that’s the sly joke. The meaning of the Albanians’ names flies right over their heads, as it does the heads of almost everyone in the audience. I wonder if Mozart himself was in on it.

I came across another little joke the other day, whilst reading Saul Frampton’s book about Montaigne (see above). In a discussion of the appeal of Stoicism to aristocrats, Frampton quotes an emblem from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britannica (1612).

Amid the waves, a mightie Rock doth stand,
Whose ruggie brow, had bidden many a shower,
And bitter storme; which neither sea, nor land,
Nor JOVES sharpe-lightening ever could devoure;
The same is MANLIE CONSTANCIE of mind,
Not easily moov’d with every blast of wind.

We are to understand that Peacham’s verse restates a cliché — that’s what emblems were all about. The image of the immovable rock rising impervious to the sea would have been a well-worn metaphor, imparted to every well-born young man in any one of Christendom’s many tongues. My authority for this inference is Frampton himself; I’m assuming that there is more scholarship than gratuitousness in his quoting from Minerva Britannica in a book about a French writer.

Here is the beginning of Fiordiligi’s rebuke to the Albanians, when they make their first appearance and claim to be hopelessly in love with the sisters. (It is difficult for me to resist copying the original, but I daresay J D McClatchey’s translation will do.)

Like a rocky fortress I stand,
No wind nor wave may command.
My soul can weather any storm
With loyalty and love.

It is very clear to me now that da Ponte is playing with a well-known trope about manly constancy, putting it in the mouth of a woman who will not live up to it. I expect that many gentlemen in the audience at early productions of Così fan tutte (not very numerous) got the drift of da Ponte’s irony. For me, the current ran in the opposite direction: reading the Peacham, I laughed because I recognized the (later) da Ponte. Which is better than McClatchey:

Come scoglio immoto resta
Contra i venti e la tempesta
così ognor quest’alma è forte
Nella fede e nell’amor.

Now, there are lots of people who find Così fan tutte to be irremediably sexist and offensive, not to say downright cynical — and there always have been. Beethoven, for example, professed to be shocked that Mozart had lavished such beautiful music on so worthless a text. The plot derives from commedia dell’arte frou-frou. Two gentlemen are persuaded by a dirty old man to test their lovers’ fidelity. They tell the ladies that they have been called to war. Having marched off as officers, they reappear as outlandishly turbaned Albanians. Each makes love to the other’s fiancée. One sister’s resistance crumbles pretty quickly; the other’s lasts long enough to make the opera’s second act as hefty as the first. Just as the realigned parties are about to wed, a military flourish announces the return of the officers. When the test is revealed to the sisters, they all but die for shame. The text is not clear about what, if any, order is restored thereafter.

For about a century, Così fan tutte was regarded as a disgrace. When performed at all, it was bowdlerized, so that the sisters knew what was up from the start, and played along. But the opera would not go away. It is now regarded as Mozart’s finest score, for one thing. For another, there is something about this project that caused Mozart to veer from the implications of the title — “women are like that” — to Così fan tutti — “everybody is like that.” Because if the women are susceptible to heartfelt declarations of love, then men are determined to produce them. These boys may imagine that they remain secretly constant, but competition — a masculine weakness — induces them to act, quite persuasively, otherwise. It is not their cynicism that wins over the ladies. It is the sincerity of their appeal, particularly Ferrando’s. Despite what we know about Ferrando’s participation in a nasty stunt, our ears tell us something else.

I have long believed that the state of play at the beginning of the opera doesn’t mean very much; the attachments are somewhat juvenile. (“Matrimonio presto,” says Fiordiligi, reading Dorabella’s palm.) I don’t think that the gentlemen had to work nearly as hard to gain the sisters’ affection when they were officers as they do when they are pretending to be Albanians. There is no flicker of self-recognition in the libretto, no sign that the men have learned anything about themselves — but then isn’t that a sign of manly constancy?


I’ve just re-read Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave. I was very impressed with it the first time, earlier this year; the second reading revealed a masterpiece. If I resist hailing it as Lively’s best novel, that’s only because it is in so many ways unrepresentative of her work. There is an austerity about the storytelling that seems uncharacteristic, perhaps even somewhat experimental. The setting is unusually remote. There is a quite palpable marbling of Jamesian reticence. And the tense, unspoken drama is relieved in perhaps the best dark-and-stormy-night scene outside of crime fiction.

Pauline is a wise old owl of fifty-five. She has made enough of a success of her career as an editor to afford to buy a row of three stone cottages, plumped in the middle of a wheat field, and to convert them from peasant tenements to comfortable weekend retreats. She herself occupies one of the refurbished cottages. the other two have been combined into one unit that Pauline has rented out in the past; this summer, she has made it available, rent-free, to her daughter, Teresa, and her family. Teresa is married to Maurice; they have a toddler, Luke. Pauline has also decided to spend the entire summer in the cottage, which is known as World’s End, and so have Teresa and Maurice.

Pauline knows how to make this arrangement work; she keeps to herself for the most part, working in her study, but she is always available to take care of Luke. She knows that her daughter is very much in love with Maurice, but she doesn’t give much thought to Maurice himself, even though she inadvertently brought them together, when Teresa decided to stand up her boyfriend of the moment and attend Pauline’s New Year’s Eve party, to which Pauline invited Maurice, whom she knew through work. Maurice is closer to Pauline than to Teresa in age, and Pauline seems to have a slight resistance to treating him as a son-in-law.

Until, that is, Maurice’s editor, James, spends the weekend at World’s End with his girlfriend, an intelligent but callow blonde called Carol. Carol’s presence almost instantly resets Pauline’s focus on Maurice. Suspicions fueled by her own unhappy experience immediately preoccupy Pauline. It takes forever for the nature of these suspicions (and their cause) to be made explicit, but the reader knows all about them anyway. As a display of show-don’t-tell, the virtuosity of Heat Wave is arguably unexcelled. The Jamesian wrinkle is brought about by Pauline’s determination to say nothing — more not-telling — to Teresa. She hopes that she is wrong, but she knows that she is right. Eventually, Teresa herself catches on, but Pauline knows this only from her motherly reading of a daughter’s face. The women share one unambiguous reference to Maurice’s conduct, after which Teresa resolves to talk about it nevermore.

The background, while limited, is not austere. There is the lush agriculture that surrounds World’s End. There is the summer of relentless, uncharacteristic sun. There is Pauline’s work, which entails counseling a writer on his domestic problems, which can be openly discussed on the phone. There is Pauline’s old friend and former lover, Hugh, an antiquarian but globe-trotting bookseller. There is even a dash of London. In the book’s middle, there is a good deal of past background, as Pauline remembers life with Teresa’s father, Harry, an historian who now lives rather well in California. The contrast between Pauline’s unhinged misery as a jealous wife and her present unruffled self-possession turns up the tension even more.

Finally, in the middle of a thundering tempest, someone falls down a steep flight of stairs. Is it an accident? Is it a homicide? Since this is not crime fiction, the question is not explored. No policemen conduct investigations; the book draws to a swift close. Nor is the sinner caught in the act; the possibility that there was no sin remains open to doubt — open to doubt, that is, by anyone but a reader of the novel.

As a token of Lively’s low-key bravura, I offer Pauline’s imagination of what it must have been like when Harry and Maurice had their one meeting, at dinner with Teresa.

Harry is twelve years older than Maurice, but he has weathered well, by all accounts. Maurice would have seen in him an unwelcome reminder that he, Maurice, is no longer to be counted among the young, that he has crossed the divide, that he is of Harry’s generation rather than of Teresa’s. He would have felt one of those surges of panic. Would have wanted to distance himself from Harry, to push the disagreeable raw fact to one side. Pauline does not have the same effect on him because although standing in the same relation to Teresa she is a woman, and also a person previously known. Pauline’s age is somehow less relevant. Maurice would have talked copiously to suppress his dismay.

And Harry, looking across the table at Maurice, would have seen a reflection of the self he is leaving behind, the Harry who still had a foothold in youth, who was still — just — something of an enfant terrible, a gadfly to his elders, a subversive element. He would have been reminded that within a short while he could become a grandfather, for Christ’s sake. He too would have talked effusively, and no doubt in the process the two of them struck up some sort of accord, for they are both clever and responsive men. They would have responded to one another, recognized a potential affinity, and recoiled from the idea of it. (90)

Make haste to read Heat Wave. That way, you can have the incomparable pleasure of reading it again.


Thursday 3rd

In the middle of trying to follow the unusually incoherent story of the San Bernardino shootings yesterday, I chanced to read a note that was sent by special adviser David Hart to his boss, Margaret Thatcher, as a coal strike was about to end in 1985.

We are on the brink of a great victory. If we don’t throw it away at the last moment. Much greater than the Falklands because the enemy within is so much harder to conquer.

Thatcher underlined the emphasized words. I sat back in a kind of shock. No surprise; just a deeply reverberant shock. Here was a head of state, affirming the proposition that political opponents are “enemies within.” Not just “enemies,” but fifth columnists, subversives, traitors. What would it mean, to “conquer” such “enemies”?

It occurred to me that such language is categorically inappropriate in a liberal democracy, except when directed at the agents of hostile foreign powers — most certainly not the case here.

What I don’t want to do right now is to generalize about conservatives and their progressive opponents. As it happens, conservatives are far more likely, these days, than progressives are to behave as though they were defending a beleaguered castle. This tendency dates to the beginning of the Cold War at the latest. It has resulted, in the United States, in the near-total breakdown of political conversation, as conservatives cannot be seen to participate in conversation with others. Meanwhile, progressives, having saddled themselves with a perceived need to “look tough” — a look thoroughly at odds with their political projects — acquiesce to the embattled landscape instead of insisting that conservative talk of “enemies within” is itself treasonous. Such insistence might not convince any conservatives to change their ways, but it might very well rouse an otherwise apathetic body politic. But this is the configuration of the moment. It can just as easily be otherwise, as in “progressive” revolutions that damn “reactionary elements.” The point is that demonizing fellow citizens in a democracy — fellow voters — is always wrong. Always.


When I was in school, the two essential characteristics of the sovereign state were held to be monopolies on taxation and violence. To put it quaintly, there could be no robber barons in an effective state, and dueling was also forbidden. Dueling! I should be happy to bring back dueling, if it would put an end to the kind of violence that we’ve got instead. The United States has effectively ceded the monopoly on violence, largely through its failure to restrict commerce in weapons, but also by entertaining the discourse of “enemies within.” Such discourse ought to be suppressed; like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, it does not deserve First Amendment protection. It is a gross libel that the state ought to punish. Unfortunately, it can be very entertaining. Joe McCarthy demonstrated that sixty years ago; that he was also brought down on television did nothing to check the parade of successors, culminating (so far) in Donald Trump, also a loathsome bully.

That is the worst that I have to say about the Donald. His campaign may very well stir up so much rowdy violence among his supporters that the electoral process breaks down — who would dare to cast a vote, if polling stations were surrounded by snipers? — but I am not going to accuse the man of treason. He may be an idiot, but he is not an enemy. He is, I’m sorry to say, a fellow New Yorker — but there you are.


I am in the middle of several thick books at the moment. One of them is Chapman Pincher’s Dangerous to Know, the autobiography of a Fleet Street scooper written shortly before the author’s death, at the age of 100. Pincher retails an anecdote about Winston Churchill that belongs up there with the famous, if apocryphal, exchange with Lady Astor.

Lady Astor: If you were my husband, I should poison your coffee.
Churchill: If you were my wife, madam, I should drink that coffee.

According to Duncan Sandys, who was Churchill’s son-in-law, and present at the meeting, Churchill became so exasperated with General De Gaulle during a wartime discussion that he slammed the table and shouted, “Si vous m’opposez, je vous get riderai!

It’s the little things in life.


On the evening before Thanksgiving, Kathleen and I went to the theatre. We went to see Old Times, a Harold Pinter play from 1970. We went to see it because of the cast: Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly. I’ve wanted to see Eve Best onstage for some time, but it was my huge crush on Kelly Reilly that overcame my resistance to Pinter.

In the theatre — the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street — there was a dreadful noise. It turned out to be a motif whipped up by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It looped over and over at an uncomfortable volume. Kathleen tried, with some success, to drown it out with her Nano.

Then the house lights went down, and the drumming yielded to the sound of the surf, with seagulls. Actually, the surf sounded more like a roller coaster to me.

Then strobe lights flashed in our eyes, several times. Most annoying.

There were the three actors, arranged on the set: two chaises longues and an armchair. Also two tables, serving as bars and places to stow cigarettes. There was a lot of smoking, which dated the play enormously. Young people can have no idea what it was like, to say something Delphic, strike a pose, and exhale a plume of smoke. As long as the smoke was visible, nobody could reply. The smoke was part of the remark; to interrupt it would be rude. In this production of Old Times, the smoke took the place of those inexplicable Pinter “beats,” or pauses, that filled his plays with bogus portentousness.

The play lasted a few minutes more than an hour. As we walked out, on our way to Pigalle (our favorite after-theatre restaurant), Kathleen seethed with relief. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” She was a “philistine,” she insisted; she had no idea what the play was about. It seemed to me that the play was “about” a certain disaffection that was fashionable in the early Cold War period. It was vaguely Marxist and definitely Brechtian. It was too comme il faut, really, to mean anything. You struck a pose, and exhaled a plume of smoke. That’s what it was about.

I’d never have had the courage to think such a thing when the play was new, had I seen it then. Had I seen it then, I’d have tortured myself for being too thick to understand the symbolism. Seeing it now, I thought — not unamused — quel crock! But cheeky; I had to give it that. While Kathleen was longing for it to be over, I had a pretty good time.

When we got home from dinner, I brought up some reviews. Ben Brantley liked it, with reservations (I’ll get to them in a minute). Marilyn Stasio, who has been covering crime fiction for The New York Times Book Review for as long as I can remember, wrote about the play for Variety. She liked it, too. She called it “sexy.” I couldn’t see that. It seemed about as sexy as a really bad hangover to me. In The Observer, Rex Reed didn’t like it. He came right out and called Old Times Pinter’s “worst play.” His remarks captured Kathleen’s sentiments almost perfectly.

Now that I’ve read several “interpretations” of Old Times, posted at the Wikipedia entry for the play, I understand Brantley’s reservations better. It seems that everybody in the play is dead! Or, in the alternative, that the two women are the split personalities of one woman. There may be more, but I had to stop there. The point is that these interpretations point to sombre production values, which obtained, it seems, at the premières. The Roundabout Old Times was not sombre. It was exuberantly lugubrious — yes. The backdrop was a gigantic pink and purple suggestion of those open-shutter photographs that show stars wheeling about Polaris. The furniture was maroon, with steel and wood notes. Somewhat off-center at the rear, there was an enormous chipped block of ice. It can’t have been, actually, but that’s what it looked like. One of the critics called it “the bathroom door,” which made me laugh. It just stood there. At the beginning, Eve Best was planted in front of it, her back to the audience; she was on stage even though her character (Anna) had not made its entrance. While she stood there, Clive Owen and Kelly Reilly bantered about the latter’s (Kate’s) friends, about whom Owne (Deeley) seemed to know more than he was letting on. The idea that such twaddle could hold an audience’s attention seemed startlingly ludicrous. I could see why the production values had been turned up to the “circus” setting.

By the way, actor Douglas Hodge — philistines will recall his memorable portrayal of Tertius Lydgate in the 1994 Masterpiece Theatre production of Middlemarch — directed. Whatever that means.

It was huge fun, really. The actors performed with vehemence, which is always exciting. And I was laughing, a lot. Perhaps more than was well-mannered. It was like watching someone trying to get away with old tricks. Old Tricks! That’s what the play really was. Did Deeley really meet Anna at a party twenty years ago, sitting across the room from her and staring up her dress? Did Deeley sob in Kate’s bedsit? Has anybody seen Odd Man Out? Did Eugene Ionescu write this play? Who the hell, as Kathleen put it, cares?

The audience did not jump to its feet. The applause was somewhat warmer than merely polite, but not quite enthusiastic. The actors took what seemed to be a very muted bow. I applauded lustily, leaning forward in my seat. If they noticed me, they probably thought I was drunk; I’d been the one laughing inappropriately. I felt chastened. I wanted to shout, Allez, courage! I wanted to thank them for making such an entertaining show out of this prehistoric carcass. They were the reasons I’d come, and they had not disappointed.


Friday 4th

At least once every two weeks, I have to strangle the impulse to write, “This entry will be brief.” I know from my experience of letters begun with that announcement that, quite often, it won’t be true. After a few rushed, summarizing sentences, I’ll dilate on some tangent in a goiterish paragraph that, because, hey, I’m being brief, sprawls incoherently over the back of my mind. I may be able to grasp, later, what I was trying to say, but then again I may not. I might as well have said, “This letter will be rude and ill-behaved.” The promise of brevity might belong at the beginning, but it ought to be the last thing written.

For it is really an attempt to reassure myself. Don’t worry about having nothing to say, or no time in which to say it. Just make an appearance and then quietly step off-stage. Show that you’re alive and still thinking, and then wish everyone a good weekend. Hi. I’m alive and still thinking. But I have a terrible hangover. Not from the wine, although I did drink too much of that as I sat up, waiting for Kathleen’s flight to land in Los Angeles. The hangover is a kind of exhaustion — I’m always talking about being tired, aren’t I — that follows prolonged suspense. Follows? The suspense is very much ongoing. Kathleen is somewhere over the Pacific; she won’t land in Sydney until late this afternoon, my time. Then she’ll be in Sydney, surrounded by people I’ve never met (well, maybe one or two, but not to remember), for a week. She’ll leave on what’s Friday in Australia, but spend most of what’s Friday for me in the air, landing an hour or so into Saturday. If she were on a moon mission, I could not be more displaced.

I expect I’ll settle down a bit over the weekend. There’s plenty to do, and I actually did some of it yesterday. I catalogued four shelves of hidden books — books ranged behind other books. The shelves were not particularly long, just a little over two feet. But there were a few books that I’d been looking for. When I’m looking for a book, it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t find it. I’ll remember that its spine is blue when in fact it’s red, or white with a blue patch. In order to see books that aren’t readily visible, I have to get the books in front of them out of the way. I have to put them somewhere — in a room with few empty surfaces. I usually move a handful, and then shift the remaining books from side to side: not a very good method, I assure you.

The books are not very intelligently shelved to begin with. The books behind the books, I mean. They were placed where they are in the bustle of settling into the new apartment and emptying boxes as quickly as possible. They have sat in their disorder for a year. In four or five instances, I have bought new copies of books that I couldn’t find. One turned up yesterday, Ivan Morris’s translation of Sie Shonagon’s Pillow Book. I had looked for it last summer, I thought. Not very carefully, though, because there it was, yesterday, at the back of a shelf that’s one of the most active in my library. “What do you mean by ‘active’,” you will ask; I feel a tangent coming on. Before swerving, I’ll just say that I’m glad that I couldn’t find it, because I wouldn’t have discovered Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation if I had.

The big bookcase in here is what’s called a breakfront. The central section, which is about four feet wide, protrudes by eight or nine inches from two narrower flanking sections. Because this room is so small, and I had to put my writing table somewhere, even though I never write at it, the central section of the big bookcase is almost inaccessible. The flanking section to the right, however, is easy to reach, and it has become a default bookcase for new books that are neither fiction nor history. Nor poetry nor drama. This is where you’ll find Joan Didion’s nonfiction, and Marilyn Robinson’s. A couple of books about the Duchess of Windsor — history, arguably, but really not. Julia Child’s correspendence with Avis De Voto — how well I remember falling in love with Avis De Voto. Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction. Criticism by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn. 7 Types of Ambiguity, Lucas on Style, and Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal. Maeve Brennan, and a clutch of books about New Yorker people. A row of Oxford World’s Classics (which used to be in front but got put in back yesterday). These are the books that I paw over.

(On the left flanking section, I’ve put all the Penguin Classics and the NYRB editions. Also the Loebs. I don’t really need to catalogue these because for some reason that I’d like to understand better, I remember that a book is a Penguin Classic better than I remember how to spell the author’s name. Ditto NYRB.)

There is a sort of shelf just for Hannah Arendt. “What do you mean by ‘a sort of shelf’?” But we shall not go there. Not today. Lined up together, Hannah Arendt’s books, and the books about her, are a domestic librarian’s nightmare, because some are much taller than the others, and to range them on a proper shelf wastes a lot of space. So: “a sort of shelf.” I’ll explain it some other time. Hold your breath.

I kept note of the books’ locations in Evernote. Each shelf, or section of a shelf (front or back — in the big central section, there is also a middle), has its own note, and in the note there is a table. I could wish that Evernote’s tables were more flexible. (I believe that they are, in their Apple incarnation.) You can’t alphabetize the rows, and you can’t insert rows in the middle of the table. So I have to line up the books, in alphabetical order, so that I can fill in the table in order. I’m not really sure that alphabetization is all that important; I’ve used it in the past because it gives me an idea of which end of the long central shelves to excavate when in search of a title.

But searching Evernote is easy-peasy. I just tested it. Pretending to be looking for Josef Pieper’s best-known work, I typed “Leisure” into the search box, and voilà: up came the note (C3R) with its table, and the search term highlighted in yellow (Leisure, the Basis of Culture). If I type in “Sontag,” two notes are returned, because her critical work is in one place, and the first volume of her diaries in another. Mind you, I’ve done only a few shelves so far.

I worked on the library as a way of keeping busy. I also did two loads of laundry. I made spaghetti alla carbonara for dinner. Then I sat down with Chapman Pincher and nearly finished his book, sipping wine as I read. I tried to follow Pincher’s somewhat complicated argument that Sir Roger Hollis, sometime head of MI5, was a Soviet agent. In the end, I was persuaded, but I was mindful, too, that the kind of British treachery that was exemplified by Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, et alia, originated in the deepest ideological murk, and flourished during the War, when Britain and Russia were allies. It was also fueled by a strange brew of contempt for and resentment of Americans, who within the space of a generation displaced the United Kingdom as top dog — and who had the temerity to think that they spoke English to boot! It’s very complicated, and I can well understand why the British establishment has dragged its feet about outing its traitors.

I saved the last two chapters of Dangerous to Know for later. Kathleen called; I took my pill; I slept through the night. It’ll be a few hours before I get wound up again. And, on that note…


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Points of View
November 2015 (IV)

Monday 23rd

Although I spent almost all of yesterday in bed, and felt rather better than I had the day before, the cold that won’t go away bayoneted me early this morning. “Bayoneted” is not a word in my standard vocabulary, but I’ve been reading about the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the word comes up fairly often. The book is Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Oh, that it were. What it really is is a military history of Ottoman participation in World War I. Lots of primary source material, drawn from diaries in all the relevant languages. Aside from the interest of comparing the gung-ho but secular and even witty style of the Allied sources with the pious entries of the Turks, which suggest that they were still living in the time of the Crusades, a little of this sort of thing goes a very long way with me. I’m sure that the book is very good of its kind, but I ought to be reading something called The Transformation of Turkey: 1900-1930. If it exists. My experience with The Fall of the Ottoman Empire feels something like trench warfare, except that nobody is shooting at me and, when I’ve read a chapter, nobody takes it back. But still. I am, however, determined to win this battle.

After the failure of the August offensive, Lord Kitchener went out to Gallipoli to have a look for himself. The terrain into which he had poured tens of thousands of men (hundreds, really) turned out to be a lot rougher than he had thought. Well, gee. There you have that ghastly war in a nutshell.

I ought to be reading something more cheerful, I know. I tried the current issue of The Nation earlier. It’s devoted to “Fall Books,” and there are four or five really long pieces. I read the one on James Merrill, a poet whom I wish I liked more than I do, and the one on Walter Benjamin, a thinker whom I shall never understand. I do wish that Benjamin had made it across the Spanish border in 1940, and made his way to the United States. He seems to have been an unusually vulnerable man, and I always want someone to come along and protect him.


Whilst abed, I tried to digest what I’d read, in The New Yorker, of the thinking of Nick Bostrom. As best I can make out, Bostrom is a Swede who runs an institute at Oxford. He wants to live forever, but/and he wants to make sure that artificially intelligent machines do not interfere by becoming smarter than he is and either enslaving or exterminating him. He calls himself a philosopher, but he devotes his time to keeping the AI conversation going. The difficulty is that the men who are involved in this project (creating machines that are at least as intelligent as human beings) fall into two groups. One believes that the achievement of their aims is very distant, while the other believes it to be close at hand. The first group doesn’t see a need for immediate concern about mechanical usurpation. The second expects that problems will be dealt with effectively as they arise. Insofar as I have a position in this discussion, it’s aligned with the skeptics. While I have no doubt that we already have the skills required to produce murderously destructive robots, it also seems clear that we don’t really know what human intelligence is. How can we think of designing it?

Nor is there any reason to doubt that intelligence, especially at the higher levels, is just as personalized in human beings as everything else is; no two people are bright in quite the same way. Most honest people, moreover, will readily confess that they have no idea why some things occur to them; some accidental or chaotic agency seems to be working in the mental background. I know as a writer that if I had to consider every word, or even more than a fiftieth of the words that I use, I should not be able to think — it would be impossible to keep up with the elusive notions that lure me onward through the links in my brain. Then there is what’s called “emotional intelligence.” Every time I read a philosopher on the subjects of sympathy or empathy or just plain caring, it is clear to me that the writer has never had to look after an infant for a week.

I’ve been giving immortality some thought, recently, and I’ve decided that it is just not on for human beings. Humanity is an ongoing development — one in which, by the way, I hope that we are today in the earlier stages. Humanity develops by the succession of generations. Old ones die off; new ones, in Hannah Arendt’s marvelous conception, “invade.” It used to be, I think, that things did not change much from one generation to the next; nor was human life rich in personal options. But still, each generation left its own trace, however slight, on what it inherited from previous ones. To me, this is rather like the genetic changes that, in theory anyway, make us more adaptable to life on Earth. Lately, of course, the development of human society has evolved at a pace many orders of magnitude faster than that of genetic alteration. Also far more unevenly, as William Gibson quipped about the future. It would be nice if we could slow down a bit and work on distributing the future more evenly. It would be even nicer if we could get serious, as a global society, about reversing environmental degradation. But the “we” who would see to these objectives is largely not yet born. If it were up to those of us alive today, I don’t think that we’d get very far. Hardly anybody alive today has been raised to deal with the problems that face us.

Is Nick Bostrom aware that, personal conceit aside, his desire to live forever privileges his experience, or the experience of our times, over that of all past and future generations? How can he believe that any human being alive today possesses virtues that ought to be preserved for all time? What’s so special about now?


Raffi Khatchaduourian, in The New Yorker, tells us that Nick Bostrom is “arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today.” I sit here wondering what kind of a response transhumanism would get from Barry Lopez. Lopez is an acclaimed nature writer, which means that I’ve never read very much of his work, because nature writing defines its niche by excluding everyday human society. Also, I take a very traditional view of nature: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable. Great natural wonders — waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains especially — always make me uneasy, because all I can think of when I behold them is the violence to which I know my home planet to be prone. My interest in flora is confined to those that provide nutrition or ornament. And, as for fauna, as to which nutrition is also an important matter, I find no species other than my own to be genuinely ornamental.

Barry Lopez has the lead piece in the new issue of Granta, the theme of which is portended by its title: “What Have We Done.” It is very short — five pages — but it is packed with a very interesting wisdom. I believe that, while you can forget just about anything, you can’t methodically unlearn anything, so I was warmed and even a bit exalted by Lopez’s concise but lyrical account of working back through and against the habits of mind inculcated in any intelligent member of modern Western society. He speaks of traveling with “indigenous people,” something that I believe he has done a good deal of in his life; he refers to an encounter with the sight of a bear devouring a caribou. When he was young, he says, he analyzed, summarized, and prioritized his experiences in the wild, just like any good observer; but he learned from his native companions to avoid breaking experience down, to resist talking about it immediately, and to regard it as the unfolding of life in which he himself figured, as part of the unfolding. The moral is that the reduction of experience to information is short-sighted and, if persistent, possibly degrading. I couldn’t agree more.

Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilization, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.

As I say, hear, hear! But I get that sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world every time I walk up and down East 86th Street. The complexity that unfolds every minute of every day, very little of it witnessed by me, on a strip of high street that I have known for thirty-five years, can be overwhelming when I contemplate it from the thick of the crowd. I hope that I am not sounding like a wannabe urban anthropologist. I don’t photograph the interesting creatures, or make note of the difference, say, between those who are out shopping from those who are on their way to the Museum. I’m aware of all these things, that’s all. I’m aware of as much as I can sense. That is, I try to be. The therapy lies in putting my feet on auto-pilot and then forgetting why I’m on the street or — much more likely — what I’ll do as soon as I get home.

Some people are impatient with being human. Some people are impatient with other people’s being human. If there were alternatives, I’d understand.


Tuesday 24th

A few words about Paul Torday, the author, most notably, of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I hope that you’ve seen the movie. I liked the movie so much that I got a copy of the book. But I haven’t read it. I understand that it is not quite as sweet as the movie, but I look forward to reading when I unearth it. I bought another book by Torday at the same time, More Than You Can Say, and I did read that. It was very readable but odd, as if following a genre with which I was unfamiliar. I remember it as being quite harum-scarum. The central figure was an ex-army officer with a weakness for gambling (and an insouciance, I recall, about liquor). He got into terrible scrapes as the story progressed, and seemed to have a lot of enemies. The main thing is that he lingered on in my mind, thanks to the fictional detective Cormoran Strike, who often reminded me of him. When I was through with the latest Strike novel (Career of Evil, written by Robert Galbraith/J K Rowling), the Kindle Store suggested another Torday book, and I snapped.

This book was nothing like More Than You Can Say, a feature, I was to learn, shared by all of Torday’s seven novels. It was called Bordeaux. (I prefer its British title, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.) It tells the story of a man called Wilberforce in reverse. The four “vintages,” as the original subtitle has it, are dated 2006, 2004, 2003, 2002. In 2006, Wilberforce is a figure of black comedy, a man so addicted to the great wines of southwestern France that he has gone through a small fortune. He has also gone through his body’s ability to withstand an intake that averages four or five bottles of wine a day. He has somehow evaded cirrhosis so far, but only to contract something called Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

The 2006 vintage begins with Wilberforce stumbling into a restaurant and ordering two extremely rare and very expensive bottles of 1982 Pétrus. There are hints, scattered like shards of glass across a marble floor, that Wilberforce is a troublemaker.

I liked to go to restaurants early. It meant that I could stay in them a very long time, if I felt like staying — for example, if there were several different wines on their list which I wanted to try. Then again, if there was only one wine I was interested in, I liked to eat my dinner and drink my bottle or two of claret in and be out again before the place filled up and I risked being distracted from what I had come to taste.


It was odd how often these difficulties arose when I ate out.

Wilberforce’s focus on wine and on a small rotation of memories is humorously monomaniac at first, like the ramblings of one of Evelyn Waugh’s more irascible aristocratic coots, but those hints of trouble, in addition to the worrying amounts of alcohol (“my bottle or two”) that our solo diner is consuming, keep the froth off the fun. In fact, the atmosphere is too charged with impending horror — Torday is very good at giving explanations that are obviously incomplete — to be that of a black comedy. Surely something truly awful is about to happen. Where else can a book that begins in this manner go? (A glance at the Table of Contents answers the question: backwards.) Wilberforce hallucinates; he sees a woman called Catherine and tries to sing Bach with her. Eventually, inevitably, he passes out.

The vintage ends perhaps moments before Wilberforce’s demise, or at any rate his mental decomposition. But we don’t really know that, the first time through. We might be forgiven for thinking that Wilberforce has escaped from Britain to Colombia; we leave him on a rainy street in Bogotá.

At several points in the first part, Wilberforce has bothered by a string of capital letters, TNMWWTTW. This, he senses, is some sort of acronym. Now, in Bogotá, he remembers what the letters stand for. It involves the Catherine person, and it explains why she might be a hallucination. The next part, 2004, explains a great deal. We are more aware than we were that Wilberforce’s life has a “before” and an “after,” and that the “after” isn’t working out as well as it might have done, given Wilberforce’s wealth and his happy marriage. He has already become addicted to the wine that, just a few years before, he knew nothing about and didn’t even like. The question that the novel presents is whether the wine has so deformed Wilberforce that he is capable of two irremediably horrid (and quite criminal) acts, or whether he was always wicked. If put another way, it is clear that volumes of wine eventually disinhibited Wilberforce. But was the evil that gripped him a pre-existing part of his character?

The novel does not answer the question; rather, it enlarges upon it. In the last two parts, we see Wilberforce’s “before.” This is where the reverse chronology pays off: the Wilberforce’s future casts a dark shadow over his past. We have been given shards of information about this past, but now they are presented coherently. Wilberforce is something of an ingénu. He was brought up by foster-parents. They never adopted him — did they know something? We’re told that the foster-mother really wanted a child, something the father wasn’t keen on at all. Once she had her baby, however, the foster-mother lost interest, and merely went through the motions. Wilberforce was saved, if that’s the word, by growing up to be a maths whiz. In due course, he became an excellent software developer, and, with the help of a much more personable assistant, developed a very successful firm.

As the firm grows to a delicate size — it must either sell itself to something larger, or go public and expand — Wilberforce is distracted, and eventually (in my view) altogether undone by his contact with some members of the local gentry. They live “up on the hill,” above the city where Wilberforce toils. Wilberforce stops in at the shop of a decayed gentleman who lives by selling off the contents of his forebears’ cellars. Through this man — who does seem to adopt Wilberforce, and possibly with reason — Wilberforce meets a group of young ladies and gentlemen, one of them heir to a great estate, another the beautiful Catherine. They take him up as an amusement, something the “before” Wilberforce can no more imagine than he can enjoy wine; taking up people as amusements is a pastime unknown outside the circles of the leisured. Catherine, however, develops a genuine interest in Wilberforce; it’s possible that she’s attracted to his ability to work hard. Unfortunately, it is this very ability that contact with the swells undermines. There are more than a few moments when Torday seems most interested in showing how treacherous Britain’s upper classes can be to outsiders. At the end of the book — but the beginning of his story — Wilberforce overhears himself being described as “Mr Nobody.” It is heartbreaking to follow his meditation on this insult, which he resolves with the “realization” that he can be “Mr Anybody.” Like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Bordeaux doesn’t come to and end, but shatters instead.


When I finished Bordeaux, pretty much in one gulp, I googled Torday and, along with a bevy of photographs, I saw that he was a writer. That caught my eye. Torday died almost two years ago, of cancer. He learned of the diagnosis shortly after his first novel was published, in 2006. That was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen — a surprise hit. Torday had always wanted to be a writer, but his commitment to the family business prevented him from pursuing his literary interests until what seems to have been semi-retirement. It was his experience on a committee to clean up the River Tyne that inspired him to spin a bureaucratic satire from one of his favorite pastimes, fly-fishing.

The cancer diagnosis seems to have galvanized Torday’s determination to write as much as he could, and when he died, in 2013, he left seven novels and the fragment of an eighth — just about one per year. None of the novels did as well as the first, and although I haven’t read Salmon Fishing, I’d venture to say that the others were disappointing at least in part because they simply weren’t like it. Nor are they like anything else, especially if you’re talking genre. One writer who does come to mind is the very successful Michel Faber; like Faber, Torday is unembarrassed about moving seamlessly from genre tropes to what might be called philosophical meditations — if they weren’t so lively. Equally unfraught is the shift from realism to — well, something else. The something else in Faber’s Under the Skin, for example, is presented as deadpan reality. Torday’s The Girl on the Landing is not quite so unequivocal about the old magic of the Scottish hills, but an incarnation of that magic plants a foot in the real world at the end.

Paul Torday’s father and grandfather emigrated from Hungary in the Thirties. They settled in the North, and established an engineering firm. Paul was born in 1946, and read English at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is said to have written two novels in his youth and to have put them away. It would be interesting to see them, just for glints, if any, of the writer’s peculiar verve. Torday clearly read a great deal during his executive life. The one problem with his fiction is that he did not develop — probably did not bother to develop — a prose style as distinctive as his sense of story. Sometimes, this enhances the oddness of his narratives, as rather strange doings are bracketed by sentences that move with the workmanlike familiarity of beach books. But Torday is too interesting a writer to warrant fussing over greatness.


Wednesday 25th

I decided to read The Girl on the Landing next because Julian Fellowes, the writer of Gosford Park and the household god of Downton Abbey, was said to have bought the film rights. It would be amusing to imagine how he might shape a screenplay from the book. And it might have been, had The Girl on the Landing not been so gripping. Imagine screenplays, ha!

Actually, it wasn’t all that gripping at first. I began it late at night, and got through the first two chapters in a somewhat sleepy state; I would have to go back and reread much of the first chapter. The narrating voice alternated between a husband and wife linked by a rather listless marriage. The man needed one last chance at love; the woman needed a provider. It didn’t sound very promising, but a minor mystery had been planted. Visiting friends in Ireland, the man, Michael Gascoigne, is drawn to a small painting, an interior scene in which a woman in green emerges from a murky background. Complimenting his hosts, he is surprised when they recognize and even disparage the picture, but declare that there is no human figure in it. Sure enough, a second look the next morning backs them up. The man concludes that he was deceived by the darkness of the room.

But of course the woman in green is a portent, or rather a summons.

When the fun was over — great fun while it lasted — there were two very interesting things to think about. First was a meditation on psychotic delusions. What if they weren’t delusions? It turns out that Michael Gascoigne, at the start of the novel, is under heavy medication. Without the drug, wryly called Serendipozam, Michael would be dangerous to himself and to society. We hear this judgment from two of his doctors, and both accounts, retold by Michael, understandably present the doctors as would-be jailers. Serendipozam makes Michael “normal,” but it also makes his marriage rather listless. This is, of course, the complaint of countless victims of various mental illnesses, from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia: the drugs relieve them of the worst sufferings, but they also take the joy out of life. Existence is muted somehow; feelings are dampered. At the beginning of The Girl on the Landing, Michael sounds like a stereotypically correct English gentleman (Scottish, actually), a committee member at his club and a good-enough sportsman. He is exactly what he ought to be, and nothing more. Or so it seems. It is also the case that he has not “been himself” lately.

Dare I tell you why?

The other interesting thing about The Girl on the Landing is how marvelously well Torday handles the first-person voice. As a rule, I find first-person narrative to be a mistake for several reasons, one of which, almost always, is that ordinary people are obliged to sound like writers. They are given insights that people who are not writers rarely articulate. But Torday overcomes this problem ingeniously: one of his narrators is not ordinary, and the other is — a writer! True, Elizabeth Gascoigne, Michael’s wife, and a journalist who covers residential real estate, is no novelist, but her fluency is precisely that of an intelligent writer for glossy magazines. She uses the clichés of her trade with weary irony. She has “settled” for the life that she leads, and can’t conceive of anything better.

Torday’s mastery goes beyond providing his narrators with plausible diction. Each chapter is written as if the narrator were keeping a diary, capturing experience as vividly as possible but without knowing what’s to come. This allows for Michael and Elizabeth to change. Neither, at the end of the book, is the person he or she was at the beginning, and the transformation is right there in what they say. Michael and Elizabeth have gradually — and then, not so gradually — awakened, come to life. For a while, this new life is joyful for both of them. But joyfulness is just a stage for Michael; he keeps on changing, which is of course where the suspense and horror come in. Elizabeth comes to love passionately a man whom she couldn’t be bothered to leave. Then she is racked by divided loyalty — ought she to save him, or to save herself? (Torday’s solution is nothing if not gentlemanly.) The sadness in both voices at the end is not an unhappiness, but rather warm regret for a brief encounter.

Along the way, the woman in green makes more vivid appearances than as a figure in a painting. At the end, she shows herself to someone who is not Michael Gascoigne.


How do you make a joke about Turkey and Thanksgiving? An American joke it would be, one with no foreign currency. We Americans have our Thanksgiving holiday. This year, we also have occasion to think about Turkey as well as turkey. Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane. On two earlier occasions, Turkey complained about such planes flying across its borders; on the third, it fired. Russia, which swaggers through geopolitics these days with an insouciant recklessness that would have brought the Cold War to a swift climax, replied with vague menace. The two countries have now promised not to make war on one another. I can’t believe that such promises are worth very much. If Russia eventually responds with an escalated attack on Turkey, then NATO will be obliged to take notice. “Playing with matches,” Kathleen muttered, as she invariably does about President Putin’s antics.

A propos of the Schleswig-Holstein war with Denmark, Bismarck quipped — and, while I’m not making this up, I’m not checking it out, either — that only two people in world fully understood the legal complexities surrounding the sovereignty of the disputed regions. He was one of them; the other was in a madhouse. The Syrian morass is not quite so complicated, but it is definitely beyond the understanding of the West’s vernacular citizens. The temptation to seize a part of the problem and take it for the whole is irresistible. Here in America, it has morphed — and I use the cartoon word deliberately — into a fear of Syrian refugees. It’s as if day were night.

Take away the violence, and Belgium looks to be no less a mess than Syria. I’ve cast my eye, throughout the life of this site, on the fracturing of Belgium, a broken consortium of two cultures under one king that has been without an effective central government for about eighteen months. The Belgians have dealt with this by managing things locally, which works well enough so long as the locale isn’t Brussels. Brussels is a Francophone downtown surrounded by Flanders, and cooperation between those who speak different languages is pretty meager. Most failed states are afflicted by weak or non-existent security forces, but that is not the problem in Belgium. The problem in Belgium is that terrorist threats are always somebody else’s problem. It’s hard to know to what extent the lockdown in Brussels is intended to foil the plots of Moroccan residents.


We were going to have a small Thanksgiving dinner here, just for three, but Kathleen decided that I shouldn’t be “running around,” so she made a reservation at a good restaurant around the corner. On Friday, we’ll go to an even better restaurant, down in the Village, to celebrate the first anniversary of the wedding of Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. There’s something on for Saturday, but nothing very demanding. But then, this cold of mine makes everything demanding. I can’t tell how much of it is the cold and how much of it is “retirement.” How do you retire from doing nothing? I’m working on it.

I hope to be back here on Monday. I wish everyone on the receiving end a warm and happy Thanksgiving; I hope that everybody everywhere has a really good book to read. I remind everyone that the world is made up of small places with gripping stories: try to hear as many of them as you can.

Gotham Diary:
After Bataclan
November 2015 (III)

Monday 16th

Last night, I said to Kathleen, “Are you warm?” She said, “I’m very warm. I’m hot.” That’s when we knew I was sick, or something. I was cold. A dead sort of cold — the kind that’s internal. It’s true that I was sitting in a draft, but I was also close to the HVAC, which ordinarily keeps me quite toasty. The other thing was that I hadn’t eaten since four, but still wasn’t hungry at ten. Kathleen told me to scramble some eggs, so I did, and then I took a couple of Advil, and, when I felt a little better, I took a shower. I got the bathroom steamy first, and when I stepped out of the shower I turned the faucet to hot again. Having avoided the chills, I crept back into the bedroom and eventually into bed. I awoke in the night less often than I usually do. This morning, I felt rather pale. After reading the Times, I piled up the pillows, got back into bed, and watched a movie.

It would probably be a mistake to talk about the movie right now, but I have to say that it made me laugh — a lot. I had never heard of it until I scrolled through Saoirse Ronan’s credits, but I’d ordered it from Amazon. I have acquired a lot of odd movies that way. Watching an unknown comedy while resting in bed was obviously the right thing to do, so I put it on, and I cried at the happy ending. I’ll tell you more about it later.

On Friday night, I got out my phone to call Kathleen at eight o’clock, as we had agreed, when I saw a message from my daughter. “Stay safe.” This is how I came to learn about what had just happened in Paris. Since I thought that Megan must have been worried about something going on in New York, I called Fossil Darling before going online, and he told me. He had heard about it from Ray Soleil. I went ahead and called Kathleen, and she knew about Paris, too. When she got home, I replied to Megan’s text.

Kathleen and I had a lovely, utterly quiet weekend, the last for two months perhaps, as she’s going to be traveling, the holidays will intervene, and then we’ll be traveling, to see Megan and her family. We had a nice Face Time talk with them yesterday; Will surprised us by sitting still on the sofa for some considerable time. His parents looked great. I can’t wait to see them. At the same time, I feel a kind of despair at the onset of the holiday season. Only a kind of despair. Despair lite. Chalk it up to this strange cold, this cold without congested sinuses or a sore throat. Just: cold. I’ve felt much worse about the prospect of Thanksgiving/Christmas before.

What happened in Paris was horrible, but I can’t help feeling that it happened because the people who are supposed to make sure that such things don’t happen are even more horrible — horribly ill-equipped to do their jobs. They don’t know how to lead, they don’t know how to govern, they don’t know how to inspire, they don’t know how to nurture prosperity for all. And they don’t seem to care about any of that. They know how to lock down; they know, or they think they know, how to seal the gates to their empyrean remoteness. That, they care about. This is how Rome falls.

And now it will be ISIS everywhere. Most Americans will probably imagine — and imagine it so clearly that no amount of news reporting will correct their misapprehension — that a detachment of suicide bombers was dispatched from somewhere in the Middle East, infiltrating its way to Europe amidst a horde of refugees. One man appears to have done something like that. But the other terrorists were settled Europeans. My firsts question was, Why didn’t this happen in Germany? My quick answer was, Because Germany doesn’t have a large settled population of ISIS-sympathizing young men of Arab descent. The Muslims in Germany are Turks. It is true that, through his inactions, the Turkish president has opened his government to the charge of allowing ISIS fighters into southeastern Turkey, to fight the enemy that Turkey and ISIS have in common, the Kurds. But I haven’t heard anything about unrest among the Turks in Germany. Then again, what do I know? I didn’t know that there are disaffected Arabs in Belgium. I had never heard of Molenbeek, “a poor section of Brussels,” according to the Times, “that is home to many Arab immigrants and that has been linked to past terrorist attacks.”

But I am almost certain that most, if not all-but-one of the terrorists will turn out to be European citizens. This is reassuring in one way: Europe is not being invaded by foreign warriors. But of course it is dreadful news in every other way, because the only way to deal with terrorist citizens is to revoke their civil rights before they do anything. And this is something that non-terrorist citizens are often unwilling to wait for governments to do. As we know from our experience in the South, terrorist acts need not even occur for citizens to “respond” by taking matters into their own hands. I am not going to spell out any of the scenarios that come to mind, but I will remind readers that the Arab populations of Europe are for the most part confined to concentrated housing projects — ghettos of a sort. Europeans have a long history of inflicting devastation upon ghettos, and government protection of the inhabitants of those ghettos has quite often failed to do them any good.

The worst that we on the other side of the Atlantic have to deal with right now is an awful smell in the room — the stink of relief that all thoughtful observers of politics felt when we heard the news from Paris: Now, at last, the presidential campaign is going to be run by the grown-ups. But, really, the grown-ups are no better. <Insert fart.> The Republicans are sure to lie, I’m afraid, about the maximum power that the United States has in its fight against ISIS. It cannot put men on the ground, not unless they are all clones of the natives. Its hands are tied when it comes to allying with anyone who is on the ground in Syria or Iraq, except for the Kurds — and who knows where working with the Syrian Kurds (quite effectively, as it happens) will take us when the Kurds occupy the whole of northern Syria, right on the Turkish border. It seems that we cannot support the very determined government of Bashir al-Assad, because to do so would make our friends in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates unhappy; serious American strategists are perhaps positively happy to leave that job to the Russians. I’m not sure that American voters want to escalate any kind of conventional warfare. But I expect that American adolescents of Arab descent are going to be subjected to intense and often wrong-headed scrutiny. I hope that their parents will find a social solution that blunts such interference while also making sure that disaffected kids are closely monitored from within the community. Most of all, the grown-ups must effectively and demonstrably refute the terrible ISIS claim that it and it alone speaks for them and for their families. Some readers might consider it illiberal of me to say so, but I’m trying to speak from the vantage of history.


Now, maybe, it’s okay. The movie that I watched this morning came out in 2007. It was Saoirse Ronan’s first film (she had appeared in two TV series). She was twelve or thirteen (both, perhaps) when it was shot. The movie was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, best known for Clueless. It is called I Could Never Be Your Woman, which is unfortunate. It sounds like the sort of thing a man would say, except, of course, for the “woman” part. And naturally the woman, played by a Michelle Pfeiffer who has never looked lovelier, or nearly as lively, changes her mind, and decides to be the guy’s woman after all. The guy is Paul Rudd. They meet cute on a set — she’s a writer and producer, and he’s an actor — and no sooner click than they begin lying about their ages. She, as the mother of the snappy young teenager played by Ronan, is obviously somewhat older than he is. He doesn’t care, but this is not reckless indifference. Rudd, who has a gift for making things look easy (even being dumb), projects a certainty that his character, Adam, has actually given the age issue some serious thought and then decided that he doesn’t care. All without breaking a sweat; he’s just that kind of guy. Rosie (Pfeiffer) doesn’t really care, either, but she is vain enough not to want to look ridiculous. The probability that she will look ridiculous is insisted upon by her closest confidant, who turns out to be Mother Nature herself, as played by Tracey Ullman. Mother Nature has a pet peeve: baby-boomers who want to change everything and never to grow old. As a sly wink to boomers in the audience, Heckerling has draped Ullman in an outfit last seen on — Mother Nature, the one who didn’t like to be fooled by Chiffon Margarine. The new Mother Nature pops up at the oddest times, and it turns out that she’s addicted to snacks. I found the shtick hysterical. By the way, Pfeiffer is almost exactly eleven years older than Rudd, and no more. Big deal.

I haven’t seen Brooklyn yet; I’m giving it a chance to show at a theatre nearer me than Bloomingdale’s. Otherwise, I can’t wait. I’ve read the novel twice. I’ve stopped reading Ronan’s interviews. I don’t know why I expect her to say something intelligent about Colm Tóibín’s novel. Ronan is a real pro; she knows what readers want to hear, and she gives them that. It must make life much simpler. But it leaves a sticky feeling.


Tuesday 17th

The new issue of The Atlantic arrived yesterday, and I promptly read Hanna Rosin’s piece about the suicide clusters at Palo Alto’s two high schools. I’d heard about these before, shortly after our visit to Palo Alto last spring, during which I saw one of those Caltrain grade crossings that provide such a convenient way of doing away with yourself. Having thought about them then — Why would bright students with even brighter futures kill themselves? is not a question that I can imagine asking seriously; anyone who does sincerely ask it is, in my view, a dim bulb with no business teaching or caring for young people — I took about two pages to come up with an answer. It is not really an answer, but just a hookup, a way of connecting one apparently isolated phenomenon with a number of others.

People pay fortunes for ordinary houses just so that they can send their children to the excellent public schools in Palo Alto. These parents have been through good schools themselves; some high percentage of students have at least one parent with an advanced degree. It takes Rosin a bit longer than it ought to to blame the suicides on the parents, whose displays of affection are often conditional upon good grades. It’s not so much the immense pressure to do well in school as the qualified warmth of family life that leaves students feeling worthless. Well, duh. It’s no surprise, by the way, that the two high schools, Gunn and Palo Alto, have excellent STEM programs. The “values”taught in these schools tend to be measurable in points, and competition for points takes the place of personal growth. Students who want to know what’s important in life must make do with what the curriculum tells them. Parents are proud to be able to give their children this kind of education — and they expect to be thanked! It’s a testament to our will to survive that entire classes do not line up on the Caltrain tracks when they hear the toot of a horn.

But the crazy parents of Palo Alto are not alone. They have just carried the so-called American Dream as far as it will stretch. Perhaps I ought to call it the American Pipe Dream. In this pipe dream, there is no such thing as luck.

Americans have constructed a culture in which the idea of luck is firmly planted in the world of gambling. The country is dotted with what might be called metropolises of luck. Las Vegas is of course the largest, but you don’t have to go Nevada anymore to get lucky.

Elsewhere, however, the acknowledgment of luck is confined to a whispered cry. “Good luck!” we shout as quietly as we can, whenever someone embarks on a challenge. But it would be an insult, upon our friend’s meeting that challenge successfully, to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his good luck. No; what we say is quite the opposite: we say, “I knew you’d do it!” Knew! We confine luck to uncertain situations; the resolution of these uncertainties exorcises luck. Luck can’t have had anything to do with the fact of success or the fact of failure.

And why should it be otherwise? You do not have to subscribe to luck. Luck does not send out monthly bills. Luck does not show up ten years later like a crying woman with the babies that you abandoned. Luck leaves no trace. And Americans have taught themselves not to see it, at least where it is not glaringly obvious, as in a semi-miraculous “save.” What Americans see is personal accomplishment. I did it. My way is just the cherry on top.

Now, it is quite true that you have to be ready for good luck when it comes. You have to command the skills and the resources that will allow you to make the most — which is often the same as making anything at all — of a lucky break. You have to keep yourself in good shape. But you have to learn that your lucky break may never come. You have to find satisfaction in standing at the ready. Luck is protean. Sometimes it falls on you like a brick; sometimes you can sense that it’s just around the corner. For really good luck, you have to be in the right place at the right time, but the where-and-when is often unclear.

My point, however, is not to catalogue the myriad manifestations of luck. It’s enough to mention just one: to be born healthy to loving and capable parents. Or not.


It is generally believed, I think, that what used to be called progress has reduced the role of luck in life. If your mother gets good pre-natal care, and you are born in a decent hospital, you will probably come out all right. But I should say rather that advances in science and technology and so forth have usually been designed to favor lucky outcomes. That is the proper way to think about it. Within the past fifty or sixty years, we have learned as no previous generations ever could that some luck-maximizing techniques, while successful in the short term, have terrible long-term consequences. Let’s just point to environmental degradation and move right along. Consider Alzheimer’s Disease. I don’t think that anybody knows yet whether this terrible disorder is appearing more frequently than it ever did before because (a) people are living longer and surviving former health-threats or (b) there’s something in the water, something toxic in our environment. Either way, it is clear that we do not know very much about maximizing lucky outcomes in this area. We’re as helpless as our distant ancestors.

I expect — I certainly hope — that this will change. That will continue the trend of our civilization, which is to spread good fortune by amplifying the general readiness to make the most of it. It will also continue the corresponding trend, which is to minimize exposure to bad luck. Once upon a time, not too long ago, almost everyone was born to be a peasant; only the thinnest crust of human beings enjoyed life without having to worry too much about subsistence. Even when cities began to swell with people who were neither rich nor poor, most people were peasants. That did not change until the Industrial Revolution, and then only in certain places. There are still pockets of humanity in which it hasn’t changed. And of course the Industrial Revolution created its own breed of poor people. There is still plenty of bad luck going around.

People who don’t want to acknowledge these truths like to mutter about “socialism,” as if the effort to ameliorate the general welfare required the impoverishment of the successful. It is certainly true that many efforts to improve social welfare have failed, or led to unintended results; people who don’t like to acknowledge the immense role of luck in life have been making the most of these mistakes for thirty years or more. They have blackened words like “socialism” and “welfare” so much that the words are no longer useful, or even really meaningful — and yet no new words have emerged to take their place. Well, words don’t just emerge on cue. New words reflect new thinking, and I haven’t seen much of that. (By which I mean that too much effort is going into devising new solutions to old problems, and not enough into recognizing new problems, which are, given the human condition, simply old problems in new configurations.) The thing to remember, however, is that the Enlightenment program that has inspired governments since 1789 has always had as its first objective the increase of general welfare, and that its best successes have depended on empowering people to make the most of lucky breaks, as well to avoid the worst of unlucky ones. No government has succeeded in the long term by the mass redistribution of property. We know that society doesn’t work if material goods are simply handed out gratis. But we must also remember that every personal accomplishment is assisted by good luck, even if it is only the good luck to be born healthy to loving and capable parents. In fact, there are many things that no man, however full of himself, can be said to have done for himself.


I was thinking of a monument to luck. What would it look like? Something like a war memorial, I suppose, something to humble the present generation in the enjoyment of its prosperity. Unlike a war memorial, however, it would remind us that luck is everywhere all the time. You might still trip and fall as you cross the street to get a closer look at it, but the competence with which the city has been paved makes this unlikely. You go through life, through an invisible cloud of good and bad chances, helped to avoid the bad ones and to take the good ones by the world that we have all built together. You feel safe, and although safety can lead to complacency it is nevertheless the necessary precondition of civilization. In our civilization, you are unlikely to have the misfortune to encounter someone who thinks it funny to stick out his leg and trip you as you approach the monument to luck. Everything, good and bad, is still possible — but the bad things are less likely, sometimes vastly so.

What on earth would the monument to luck look like?


Wednesday 18th

If the Secretary of State calls ISIS “Da’esh,” then so shall I.

I notice that concern for the Syrian refugees has mushroomed, at least in my part of the Web, since the Bataclan massacre. A good deal of this increase owes to indignation, directed at American states that have determined not to accept refugees. But it seems to me a kind of displacement, as if the refugees were the top-priority problem. Pressing as the humanitarian crisis is, the real problem remains the civil war from which the refugees have fled. Syria is the top-priority problem. Happily, refugees are easier to deal with; it’s a matter of making available adequate but temporary food supplies, medical resources, and shelter — an effort to which almost everyone is capable of making a contribution. What to do about Syria itself is not simple. Indeed, it is so far from simple that I question the wisdom of advancing an opinion.

When I wrote on Monday about the constraints on American power in Syria, the source of my observations was a piece by the formidable Patrick Cockburn, in LRB 37/21, dated 13 October. Cockburn’s conclusion is that all the participants are both too strong and too weak, creating an Iraq-like stalemate in which only the US/Kurdish alliance in northern Syria (along the Turkish border) is making any headway (against Da’esh). On the larger scene, however, America, like Wotan in the Ring, is hampered by arguably ill-advised promises. For all our talk of spreading democracy &c &c, the plain truth is that we have been backing the Sunni side of the Arab division since practically forever, certainly since 1979. We are all for democracy, so long as Shia leaders aren’t involved. We have this commitment painted on our forehead and stitched on the back of our T-shirt; it really doesn’t matter what comes out of our mouth. The only way to convince the Shia that we were truly neutral would be to turn against Saudi Arabia (which by the way is funding, however obliquely, Da’esh). Our alliance with the rotten satrapy of Riyadh is more than just another bad hangover from the Cold War; it is an iridescent token of our grievous sins against the environment.

As Cockburn points out, Bashir al-Assad, however unsavory, is the de facto spearhead of the Shia cause.

Shia states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq. Shia leaders dismiss the idea, much favoured in Washington, that a sizeable moderate, non-sectarian Sunni opposition exists that would be willing to share power in Damascus and Baghdad: this, they believe, is propaganda pumped out by Saudi and Qatari-backed media.

Who can doubt this? Has such a “Sunni opposition” emerged, even with all our nursing, in Baghdad?

I do wish that President Obama would change his mind about Assad, at least to the extent of recognizing that getting rid of Da’esh is a lot more important — especially given that getting rid of Da’esh is something that we’re actually on the road to achieving. I never thought I’d live to see the day of effective American airstrikes, but our cooperation with the Syrian Kurds has been so effective that Jonathan Steele, writing in NYRB LXII/19, has devoted an entire piece to it, dated 4 November and entitled “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!” This, too, is something that anyone who wants to get a grip on Syria ought to read. Steele recalls witnessing the first instance of the alliance in action, as American planes supported Kurds in the fight for Kobani, a town quite close to the Turkish border, in September 2014.

This was the first sustained engagement between US airpower and ISIS, and reporters from across the world who were camped just inside Turkey filmed ISIS artillery strikes and the much larger plumes of smoke caused by US bombs and missiles. With most of Kobani’s civilian population fleeing into Turkey, cameras also braodcast the first pictures of vast streams of Kurdish Syrian refugees escaping northward, a harbinger of the broader flight of refugees [that] was to come a year later. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the Kobani border within a few hundred yards of the battle and did nothing.

Emphasis emphatically supplied. The Bataclan massacre puts a sharp twist on the scene that Steele recalls. Turkey may not be aiding Da’esh, but it has yet to hinder it. This has got to stop. This time, not just the West but all the world’s powers must prevent another Armenian atrocity. Turkish President Erdoğan must be persuaded to seize the chance to prevent Turkey’s making another black spot that has to be denied. Everyone has an interest in defeating Da’esh; only Turkey wants to hold on to Kurdistan. European leaders must be especially vocal here, taking care to remind Obama that friendship with Turkey ought not to enable the umpteen-thousandth instance of an American ally’s gross misbehavior. Most especially, the United States must be strongly discouraged from weakening its support of the Rojava Kurds (that’s what they call their strip of Syria) in the event that Turkey asks it to.

It was floated in the Times somewhere this morning that the Bataclan massacre was intended to avenge setbacks that Da’esh has been experiencing in northern Syria. The act of revenge is supposed to raise the question whether the fight against brutalist reactionaries in Syria and Iraq is more important than a hundred or more Parisian lives. Unfortunately, it is.


Over the weekend, I read two novels. They were both quick reads. Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, a 1950 novel by Barbara Comyns that NYRB has just reprinted, is a hoot, an unlikely picaresque romp through the ruined pavilions of the jeunesse dorée of London’s Twenties. Ruins, because it’s now the Thirties, and everyone is broke. The free spirits are merely untidy and irresponsible. I don’t want to say much about this lovely little thing, because everyone ought to come to it fresh and unawares. (The first paragraph gives a good indication of what’s coming, but in the very act of reading it you become almost as faux-carefree as Sophia herself, and so you don’t “go home and cry” until later.) The book is funny even when it’s bleak, a stunt that we associate with cynical Slavs but that, here, pipes out of the mouth of a rather sweet English twentysomething. I was reminded of Wilde’s infamous paradox about needing a heart of stone to keep from laughing at the death of Little Nell. More on Comyns anon.

The other book was Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which I was not going to read. The nerve! I thought. Here’s this guy who is young, attractive, brilliant, a major literary agent before he learns how to shave — and he trashes his whole life with drug abuse and whatnot. This is followed by the obligatory: he rehabs and repents, plus of course he writes two memoirs. Then he puts his whole life back together, almost as if nothing happened, and he writes a novel, which is a big success. There’s something wrong here, I thought.

And there may well be, but it isn’t in the novel. The novel is very good. Here is the sentence from Adam Mars-Jones’s review in the LRB that changed my mind about reading it.

The book’s success derives less from any individually overwhelming moment than its strength of construction, the author’s skill in drawing out a filament of molten narrative and twisting it as it cools to form a satisfying pattern.

That’s not how I’m going to put it, but it’s close. The characters in Did You Ever Have a Family are interesting enough, but they’re interesting as people in relation to the other characters. They make good friends and even better enemies. It goes without saying that they don’t even understand themselves, much less anybody else. There is no hero or heroine, no truly central figure. I don’t mean to compare Clegg to Austen and Tolstoy, but I think it’s fair to say that his novel does not have the profoundly intimate power of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn or Nora Webster, each of which studies one Irishwoman. But it is just about as well-written as they are, and there is something about Clegg’s web of humanity that feels new. As you know unless you live under a rock, the novel begins with a terrible explosion that kills four people, two of them bound to be bride and groom later the same day. There are questions about this explosion that Clegg circles, but does not answer, until the very end, and, when he does answer them, the effect is not that of a whodunit but just the opposite. Everybody did it. What Clegg has given you throughout the book is an intricate weave of causations, any one of which might have averted the disaster had the choice been otherwise. Clearly, however, nobody did anything remotely in the nature of planning a big boom. Everybody caused the explosion, but nobody intended it. When you consider all these chains of causation, the very idea of free will dissolves into chaos. That might be what Mars-Jones means by “molten.”

This chaos is something that we’re all aware of in life, and something that we’re always talking about clarifying, although none of us would know where to begin. We say that things are confusing, or that they’re complicated, but in fact the net effect of countless deliberate (and half-deliberate) decisions is chaos. Ordinarily, this chaos doesn’t cause any harm; it just washes away with everyday oblivion. Clegg does an excellent job of demonstrating that it is there just the same. The power of Did You Ever Have a Family derives from its proof that we are connected not by our intentions but by massive, unimaginable complexity.

Two of Clegg’s characters don’t believe in chaos, either. Both of them take full responsibility for the disaster, which is ridiculous but that’s how we are, that’s how strong our need to make sense of things is — especially bad things. (Had she lived, I’m sure that the bride-to-be would have made a third self-guilty party.) You find your head nodding — of course they feel that way; I would, too. This is another thing about the novel that feels new. I’ve read books in which the reader is made complicit in the action, pulled down from the observer’s lofty, disinterested plinth and plastered with a gooey sense of responsibility for what happens. Then We Came To the End, by Joshua Ferris, is a stunning example. Here, however, the engagement is milder but somehow deeper. We’re observers, but we’re looking at people like ourselves — Clegg’s capacious collection of first- and third-person reports works a very inclusive magic — and we’re so close to them that when their connections are shown to be wildly unpredictable, despite all the best intentions, we’re almost undone by the shock of understanding. There is an overflow of sympathy, empathy, sheer fellow-feeling.

I wish I could say that this is a significant book about the human condition. It is — it is a significant book about the human condition. But the claim is stale. I wish it weren’t. The novel, at any rate, isn’t.


Thursday 19th

In a perfect world, a new book like JK Rowling’s Career In Evil would appear every week, and I should always have something fantastic to read at bedtime. On my Kindle, of course, so that, when I turned out the light and got into bed, I could read a few lines before falling asleep. Did I say “JK Rowling”? I was wondering why neither of the previous Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted for the movies, and it occurred to me that Rowling’s insistence that the writing credits go to her pseudonymous alter ego, Robert Galbraith, might get in the way. Then again, the Harry Potter people might not like it — all those grisly bits. I’m perfectly happy with the books as they are. They’re well-written and very well-constructed. Although I’m in no hurry for Robin Ellacott to realize that she can never be happy with any man but her boss (Strike), I wish that her fiancé would step into an open manhole, sooner than later. I realize that Matthew Cunliffe is a handy tool for the author — whenever Robin isn’t in some mortal danger that Strike’s investigation has stirred up, she lives in fear of annoying the man she’s going to marry. I will give Matthew this much: he can tell that Strike is by far the better man. That he responds with jealousy, sadly, proves it.

As an alternative to crime, I’d be happy to re-read Penelope Lively. But you can’t always get her on Kindle.

There were two things that I forgot to say yesterday about Bill Clegg’s novel. The first is that the chaos that I was talking about — the literal incomprehensibility into which the book’s multiple chains of causation dissolve at the end — severely blunts the possibility that a reader might find the story over-plotted, leaving that awful feeling that a writer has invented characters just to make the clockwork go round. Of course the book is very cleverly put together. But each decision, whether good or bad, is utterly sincere, made by a character who seems both real and endowed with free agency.

The second thing is that I hope that nobody asks Daniel Mendelsohn to review Did You Ever Have a Family. It’s possible that he might like it, but it seems more likely that he would discover its hidden defect, a defect so pervasive that the book would crumble into dust, leaving me feeling both sad and stupid. I say this because I had a horridly good time reading Mendelsohn’s report on A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, in the NYRB. This is also a big-noise book that I decided, on the strength of early reviews, not to read. It’s got that Peter Hujar photograph on the jacket that makes me think of a dying faun but that turns out to be “Orgasmic Man,” one of a series, it seems, of photographs that Hujar took of men experiencing orgasm. The young man’s frown is so petulant that the overall mood is one of complaint, not transport.

Mendelsohn is so devastating about A Little Life that my mind is very unlikely to be changed (as it was vis-à-vis Did You Ever Have a Family). “The writing in this book is often atrocious…” “But the problem with Jude is that, from the start, he’s a pill…” “If anything, you could argue that this female writer’s vision of male bonding revives a pre-Stonewall plot type in which gay characters are desexed, miserable, and eventually punished for finding happiness…” It would not be too much to say that Daniel Mendelsohn finds A Little Life to be simply disgusting. Good thing it didn’t win the National Book Award.

Which reminds me: there is no sex in Did You Ever Have a Family. There are memories of sex, and a few embraces that will lead to sex, but Clegg’s discretion is exemplary. His characters do not appear to be much driven by lust. Loneliness is a far more powerful aphrodisiac. The relationships tend to be companionate, even when they’re also abusive: people get together to share interests and laughter, and the sex sorts itself out. This makes for truly post-adolescent literature. The thought of all those stiffies in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity reminds me that a lot of male writers seem determined to plaster their baggage with stickers proving that they have been to SEX, an erotic Las Vegas in which it is impossible to think about anything else. I’m not saying that these men are making things up. But their tales of carnal challenge are just as boxed-in stunted as they would be if they were about gambling instead. Sex is not the attraction. Some other human being is.

In Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, which I pulled out yesterday and tossed into my bag when I went out to lunch, centers on a mother in her summer house. The summer house is divided into two separate abodes, and the daughter occupies the other half, with her husband and child. The daughter is blatantly unaware that her husband is fooling around with other women, or at least on the verge of doing so, but the mother sees it all too clearly. She recalls her own heartbreak, occasioned by a philandering husband, and she wants more than anything to spare her daughter the same misery. For the most part, however, she can only watch. Heat Wave established itself immediately as one of Lively’s best, but I hadn’t actually read very many of her books at that point. So: premature praise. Now it won’t be, if I still feel the same. There is of course a heat wave in Heat Wave — it’s the perfect correlative of the mother’s banked rage — and I’m in the mood for one. It’s dark and chilly, and heavy rain is expected. Oh, to crawl up into bed!


Friday 20th

All week, I’ve been up early, because Kathleen has been up very early. Today, she is flying down to North Carolina for a visit with her father. I tried to go back to sleep after she left, but couldn’t. So I read the paper, and after reading David Brooks’s column, I really couldn’t.

I read David Brooks’s column faithfully because I am intrigued by the difference between us, which isn’t so much a matter of views as it is a disagreement about tradition. I believe that traditions are a mirage, usually a self-serving one. People find traditions comforting because they suggest timelessness. But traditions are never actually timeless. They all begin somewhere, usually with a lie about the past. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for carols and lighted trees at Christmas. I do like familiar things, very much. But I understand that it is their familiarity to me that makes them agreeable and even, sometimes, important — and not their inner world-historical significance. People find in tradition an opportunity to participate in something larger than themselves. But the thing that is larger than themselves is simply the bulk of other people who have felt the same. As David Denby put it in Great Books, every generation has to decide for itself that Jane Austen is a great writer.

So, I believe in decision, not observance. Almost every year, I decide that putting up a Christmas tree is worth the trouble. On a few occasions, though, I’ve been too sick (colds, flu) or too distracted (death in the family, job change) to “do Christmas.” I’ve missed the trees and the music and the cards when that has happened, but I haven’t felt that I’ve broken with tradition. The more you know about Christmas traditions, the more bogus and commercial they appear, and you’ve got to have a sense of humor, or at any rate a sense of history, to stave off the blackest cynicism.

Why on earth am I talking about Christmas when my topic is the war in Syria? Because it’s the clearest way of explaining my exasperation with today’s Brooks column. We needn’t linger over its ostensible subject — the maturity of Hillary Clinton’s thoughts about what to do in Syria. The meat of the piece is Brooks’s endorsement of the larger geopolitical status quo. Perhaps it would be better to call it Cold War Nostalgia.

For a time, the Middle East was held together by Arab nation-states and a belief in Arab nationalisms. Recently Arab nationalisms have withered and Arab nation-states have begun to dissolve from their own decrepitude.

Along comes ISIS filling that vacuum and trying to destroy what’s left of Arab nations. ISIS dreams of a caliphate. It erases borders. It destroys order.

The Arab nation-states were not great. But the nation-state system did preserve a certain order. National identities and boundaries enabled Sunnis and Shiites to live together peaceably. If nations go away in the region we’ll get a sectarian war of all against all, radiating terrorism like we’ve never seen.

The grand strategy of American policy in the Middle East, therefore, should be to do what we can to revive and reform Arab nations, to help them become functioning governing units.

I don’t see any reason to agree with Brooks’s opening proposition. What held the Middle East together was the high pressure of the Cold War, which focused international political energies on selected hotspots. Other regions were effectively bribed into quiescence. In the Middle East, the hotspots were Israel and Egypt, with related flares in North Africa. The “Arab nation-states” that Brooks says were “not great” didn’t even exist. There were borders, but the borders contained warlords, not “nations.” And the borders had been drawn by Europeans, carving up the Arab bulk of the Ottoman Empire. They were nothing more than lines in the sand. And the moment the tumultuous Twentieth Century’s long Great War (1914-1989) came to an end, the flimsiness of European arrangements became obvious. Any lingering faith in the borders that they created was crushed by the failure of the Arab Spring movements.

The “order” that Da’esh is destroying is an order that exists only in the minds of strategists outside the Middle East. The real Middle Eastern order that has been destroyed is the modus vivendi that Sunni and Shia Muslims maintained for centuries before the beginning of European interference. It was not enshrined in any national constitution but, instead, worked out over time, in towns and provinces. I can’t say that everyone was happy with the old accommodations, but they seem to have kept the peace. Da’esh may be butchering thousands, but it hasn’t touched the abstract political entities. Those were already rotten and crumbling. If it weren’t for the material support of Russia, there would be no Syria to speak of — just as Iraq collapsed as a state when American support was withdrawn after the Gulf War.

Brooks posits a parity between Da’esh and Bashir al-Assad: they’re equally awful. As a matter of body counts, Assad is certainly much more awful than Da’esh. But this does not mean that fighting one without fighting the other is pointless, as Brooks argues. Nor does it mean that Da’esh is to Sunni what Assad is to Shia. And we see that in the Syrian refugees, so many of whom led middle-class lives before the war. The Assad regime may be brutal, but Da’esh is brutal and reactionary. It intends to create a theocracy in which sinners are liquidated. Assad is a very conventional tyrant in comparison. Da’esh reinstates the Terror of the French Revolution; it inflames the hearts of disaffected young men with little or nothing to lose. It has no use for actual civilization.

I’m reminded of Simon Winder’s remarks about the vital importance of “the second step.” Everybody agreed, in the early days of the Arab Spring, that Assad had to go, but nobody could imagine who or what would take his place. History teaches that, if you can’t propose a viable second step, it is better to leave things as they are — and to keep thinking! The only thing worse than the abuse of power is the vacuum that the absence of power creates. Da’esh is that vacuum. This is why the United States ought to reverse its wrong-headed opposition to Assad; this is why the United States ought to learn the lesson of Iraq. (Americans ought to bear in mind, too, that when it comes to kidding ourselves about foreign policies, we are the world champions.)

Fighting for Assad, curiously, is not necessarily the same thing as fighting for Syria. Maybe Syria is an artificial construct that ought to be reconsidered. (There’s no “maybe” in my mind.) But Assad, as I say, is a conventional tyrant. He doesn’t rule Syria; he rules “Assadia.” And, to the extent that he really rules it, we do not have to worry about the second step. He may be awful — he is awful — but he is not worse than nothing.

Da’esh is nothing. It spreads nothing wherever it passes.

It would be a good idea to envision a second step for the Middle East. I hope that the grown-ups have abandoned the silly idea that liberated people will spontaneously form democracies. The Arab Spring has made it clear that they don’t, or that the democracies that they do create are tyrannically oppressive to minorities. (This is a lesson that we ought to have learned from the after-effects of the Treaty of Versailles.) A second step would have to be far more mindful of Arab culture and history. For one reason or another — but surely not foreign oppression — Arab cultural identity seems actually hostile to the idea of the nation, or at least hostile to the enormous and very public compromises that functioning nations require. While the Turks, the Iranians, and the Israelis have effectively nationalized themselves, bridging internal divisions with the supreme commitment to national integrity, Arabs continue to live more locally. There is also the glaring problem that Arabs are hardly of one mind about “Westernization” and its accoutrements. A second step for the Arab world just might have to work without national superstructures.

The provinces of today’s Middle East are pretty much hold-overs from Ottoman Empire. They’ve been around for a long time. How about a Federation of Arab Provinces? The federal level would consist of the army, and it would operate in desert territories, so that centralized armed forces would not be present in the provinces as a matter of course. Real power would be local, and cohere in the towns and villages.

But: The task of filling up the list I’d rather leave to you.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Marlow and Mevlut
November 2015 (II)

Monday 9th

Last week, there was a book review in the Times that I read even though I now can’t think why. Perhaps it was the photograph of Sam Phillips with Elvis Presley. I don’t know much about Sam Phillips, but I believe that the world would have been lovelier without him. And something inside me twisted with curiosity: what would Dwight Garner say? Would he say exactly what I expected him to say? It would turn out that he did. Perhaps I read the review because I was ready to take issue with what Dwight Garner had to say, not about Peter Guralnick’s new biography of Phillips, but about the cultural impact of Phillips’s career. Garner puts it all in one sentence: “It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider how lucky it was that Presley walked into Phillips’s studio and not someone else’s.”

It may have been lucky for Presley and Phillips, but it was a dismal conjunction for mankind. The brainlessly naughty confection of sex and music that flowed out of Sun Records’s Memphis studio was probably just as harmful to American minds as the chorus of disapproving clergymen and public officials feared that it would be, and no less unwholesome than that fountain of sugary drinks from which we are slowly weaning ourselves.

The following lines from Garner’s review manage to contain all the objectionable bits:

Phillips already had an aesthetic ethos. In some ways, he had prepared his whole life for Elvis’s arrival. Part of Phillips’s ethos, Mr. Guralnick writes, was his “sense that there were all these people of little education and even less social standing, both black and white, who had so much to say but were prohibited from saying it.”

Phillips wanted to pull music out of the drawing room. He sought maximum spontaneity, minimum polish. “To Sam,” the author writes, “if you weren’t doing something different, you simply weren’t doing anything at all.”

I don’t plan to complain about rock ‘n’ roll. All I mean to do is to point to the fantasy, the daydream, the sheer spell of magical thinking that is required for anyone to believe that “people of little education” are ever going to be capable of “maximum spontaneity, minimum polish” in the pursuit of grace.

I spell grace with a small g because there is nothing sacred about it. It is, however, a state of physical well-being second to none, and it ought to be no surprise that the harmonious alignment of the universe that occurs in moments of grace, radiating from one’s nervous system outward, is so often a response to music.

One such moment comes to mind. I wrote about the concert at which it occurred, a bit more than five years ago, but I didn’t say what I am going to say now. After a terrific performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Orpheus, Garrick Ohlsson came out for an encore. He played Chopin’s best-known waltz. It might have been a trivial moment, a cliché of classical music, but it was just the opposite. Ohlsson played the waltz, which everybody in the audience had heard doezens of times, as if it had never been played correctly, not even by Chopin: Ohlsson alone knew how it ought to be played, and he was demonstrating this to us as persuasively as a hypnotist. But instead of putting an authoritative spin on it, Ohlsson contrived to make it clear that the perfection of his rendition was a matter of the moment: he knew how the waltz ought to be played right now. That he was only playing a waltz was part of it, too. The music springing from the piano was too good to be “important.” It carried no baggage at all. That was maximum spontaneity, delivered with minimum polish.

How many hours, in years, had Garrick Ohlsson spent making music prior to that moment? And how many had I spent listening to it? But why bother with serious pleasures that take years to appreciate when a cheap thrill is instantly available?

My argument is not with Sam Phillips. There will always be uneducated people, and they will always find their satisfactions. My argument is with the educated people who believe that Elvis Presley’s impact on American life was culturally positive. It wasn’t. It was of a piece with the ossification of “high culture” that is implicit in Dwight Garner’s use of the term “drawing room.” It was a reaction, against the attempt to make a substitute religion out of art, that, instead of simply abandoning that attempt, devalued the art, dismissing it as “phony” — which of course it was, qua religion. Art had a problem, yes; but Elvis was not the solution.

Art has a different problem now. Who, after the decades of screaming fun that we’ve had since we took up singing about hound dogs, commands the neuronal fortitude for serious pleasures? When I ask that question, I consider the legions of smartphone-bound zombies stumbling about town, doomed to solitary, disengaged lives, and all but incapable of looking up and out. Do I think that smartphones are a blight? Not at all. They have simply allowed a massive cultural dislocation to express itself, much as the upper reaches of the Congo taught Conrad’s Kurtz who he really was.

“I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him — some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core . . . I put down the [spy]glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.”


The problem of education — what is it for? — takes on an interesting light in the nonfiction writing of Orhan Pamuk. For Pamuk, education is a matter of Westernization. Traditional Turkish life appears to have no more need of higher education than European life did as recently as three centuries ago. You learn to read and write, and to sing a few patriotic songs, and then you are apprenticed into a business, if you are lucky. If not, you work in the fields. The idea of higher education is Western, and so is the course load; even a class in the sociology of life in Turkish villages is profoundly un-Turkish. Pamuk, who seems to have learned of and read the great European novels on his own, has set out to write European novels in Turkish just as Flaubert wrote them in French and Tolstoy in Russian. I expect that he is read mostly in translation.

It is ironic — almost unpleasantly so — that the novel advanced in high European culture at the same time that nationalism was undermining its social foundations. The central idea of nationalism was that every “nation” — tribe, clan, race, whatever; just don’t try to make too much sense of this concept or it will dissolve in your hands — is different, and ought to be allowed to govern itself. The main idea of the novel is that all nations are the same (comprised of human beings), notwithstanding colorful local variations. For a long time, it was hoped that nationalism had climaxed in the long Great War of the Twentieth Century, but not only is it resurgent today, it has taken on an extra dimension. There is a feeling abroad that rulers — political élites — are as foreign to their subjects as the Viennese were to nineteenth-century Hungarians. Nor is this feeling inexplicable. The Syrian refugee crisis has thrown a harsh spotlight on the confusion within Western élites, as well as an unflattering one on those who, like Angela Merkel, seem determined to ignore the confusion. The irony here is even more unpleasant: “Syria” is a Western concoction, the result of a scheme devised by a man from France and a man from Britain. How nice it would be for the West if the Sultans and the Shahs resumed control of those regions. (It’s a pity that they weren’t very good at it before the Europeans stepped in. But they seem to have been more effective, and in any case less lethal.)

Thanks to American “pop culture,” in fact, it is not unreasonable to speak of “Westernization” is something that even Europeans and Americans must undergo if they are to understand where they actually stand. They must teach themselves somehow — for who is there to teach them? — about the core Western value: impatience with ignorance. No one, in the proper West, has the right to be stupid, or to remain uneducated. There is only the misfortune.


Tuesday 10th

Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading Heart of Darkness — for the third time, I suppose — and I immediately felt that I had missed it somehow. Well, I had missed it by picking it up here and there at various hours and reading on for many pages or a few. I had read too much of it late at night. What I had missed was the impact of Conrad’s narrative blow. I could see that it was there to be felt, and that I’d missed it by not paying attention in the right way.

Conrad’s obliquity is, to me, the heart of the story. I understand that Heart of Darkness is “about” the evils of colonialism and the illusion of moral progress. It is also about the silliness and uselessness of women. Several times, Marlow surmises that the world would simply come to an end if European women knew what their men got up to on their adventures. It is very easy to brush this apparent misogyny aside, and it is just as easy to overlook the implicit sermonizing about colonialism and depravity. What makes Heart of Darkness great is not the gruesome confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz, or Marlow’s appalled encounter with the bloody paganism to which Kurtz has “descended.” These revelations always mark the climax of dramatizations of the tale, and they make for very good cinema. But they don’t occur in Conrad’s book.

There is a linear thread in Heart of Darkness, in which chronological order more or less determines the arrangement of the scenes. Marlow takes his leave of Europe — Belgium — sails down the coast of Africa to the mouth of a great river, the unnamed Congo, and then proceeds on foot (if I am not mistaken) to an upriver station where he finds the ruin of a paddle-wheeler that he is expected to repair and then sail further into the interior. He has been hired to take the place of a captain who was killed in a fracas with the natives. All this has nothing to do with Kurtz. Kurtz is introduced to Marlow by various agents of the company that has hired him. Marlow is alternately piqued and bemused by this Kurtz fellow, and begins to look forward to meeting him. Meanwhile, the Marlow who is telling the story, years later, so shades things that we gradually understand, as the younger Marlow couldn’t have done, that Kurtz is at the center of the story.

The linear thread proceeds through the novella’s three sections. Marlow goes up the river; he comes down the river and goes back to Europe, where he has the somewhat chilling, hallucinatory meeting with Kurtz’s “Intended” — to call her a fiancée would miss the point. But more about her some other time. My interest is in the packets of information about Kurtz that Marlow-the-narrator discloses from time to time. At first, he shares the contents of these packets as and when the younger Marlow receives them, as information from the agents. But then, in the middle of the second section, and also in the middle of a violent attack on the paddle-wheeler, Marlow opens an enormous parenthesis and spreads out the contents of another packet of information.

It happens when Marlow’s helmsman is killed by a spear hurled from the shore, and a passenger comments that Mr Kurtz is probably dead by this time, too. All the younger Marlow can think of, in his frenzy to remove blood-soaked shoes, is the disappointment of not getting to meet Kurtz, about whom he has overheard some very intriguing things. Marlow-the-narrator quickly takes control of the parenthesis, filling it with details about Kurtz’s background and attaching accounts of conversations that have not yet taken place. It is from these that we learn of Kurtz’s high-minded purpose, of his intention to bring the glory of European order and civilization to the benighted tribes. Marlow tells us about the exalted tract that Kurtz has written on the subject, noting that there are “no practical hints” as to how the suppression of savage customs is to be accomplished — unless, he concludes mordantly, it is the “post scriptum” scrawled at the end of the tract, “Exterminate all the brutes!” But the real brute is of course Kurtz himself. Kurtz has given up high-mindedness and taken the low road to the acquisition of mountains of ivory.

We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favour had remained with him to the last. You should have heard him say, “My ivory.” Oh yes, I heard him. “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my — ” everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him — but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

Presently the parenthesis closes, and the body of the helmsman is thrown overboard into the river, a “simple funeral.” It is now that Marlow paddles the boat up to Kurtz’s station, where, in the third section, he finally meets the dying Kurtz.

What fascinates me is that it is the middle of a melée, a skirmish that is not easy to follow (they never are), Conrad piles on to the harried reader the essence of Kurtz’s lurid crimes. It is true that he will flesh this out in the final section, with the shamans, Kurtz’s acolytes, wearing horns that are silhouetted by blazing fires — all the rigmarole of hell. The ornamental finials atop the palings that surround Kurtz’s residence turn out to be human heads. There is enough gore to make the first-reader’s hair stand on end. But Conrad has drawn the shock of this nightmarish scene by telling it to us in advance.

What I am trying to make out is that Marlow-the-narrator prevents the reader from experiencing “the horror” as he himself did. He tells us the nature of the horror before letting us see what it looks like. This is an “error” that the movies correct. Probably wisely. But books are different. They contain a very different kind of information. Sometimes, the information in a book and the information in a filmed adaptation of that book overlap perfectly — I’m thinking of the “We’re going to Europe” scene, complete with tornado warnings, from Mr and Mrs Bridge (I forget which novel the scene appears in). Mostly, however, this does not happen. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad deposits some very disturbing but quite lucid information about Kurtz in the middle of a very disturbing and anything-but-lucid shoot-out. What we learn about Kurtz prepares us for the fragmentary sequences of the third section, not only telling us something about what to expect but trailing the violence in which we were told. I’m not sure why Conrad goes to the trouble to diffuse his story, but I believe that he makes the most of it.

To read Heart of Darkness properly is, at a minimum, to read each section in one sitting. Preferably in broad daylight.


Heart of Darkness is familiar to filmgoers as the source for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There is also Nicolas Roeg’s 1993 adaptation, with John Malkovitch and Tim Roth. But no one ought to miss the 1958 Playhouse 90 version. Roddy McDowell is Marlow and Boris Karloff is Kurtz — now, how can you beat that? Unfortunately… Stewart Stern’s teleplay is something of a Frankenstein: it is possible that there are no scenes at all that can be said to taken directly from Conrad. There is a great deal of sheer fabrication. A character called “Maria” (Inga Swenson) seems to be based on The Intended, but it’s a lot more complicated, you see, because in this version Marlow grew up in Kurtz’s house, and played with his daughter, who fell in love with him (but not he with her, it seems). The poor girl may also be dotty. Marlow must find his father-figure, so he crosses a forbidding threshold only to be confronted by Cathleen Nesbitt, cast quite against type, and Oscar Homolka, who plays himself. All of this is wrought on a dark set that is powerfully redolent of a genuine bad dream. Next thing you know, McDowell is stripped to the waist and shackled with a neck iron. Eartha Kitt appears as “the Queen,” then retires to her curtained sedan chair, in which she is discreetly slaughtered. I happened to watch this farrago before re-reading the book, and was therefore condemned to a semi-demented attempt to remember whether this bit or that bit could have come from Conrad’s pen. It gave me the worst headache.

Of course, the production values are threadbare. Part of this is the technology — I expect that the recording was made on a kinescope, not film — but part of it is the aesthetic of the day; I can remember seeing things much like it on my first forays onto Off-Broadway. Were Stewart Stern to turn out to be an alter ego of Paddy Chayevsky, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. Most of this production makes little or no sense, but it is highly symbolic and obviously important. I found it a compelling document of the confusion into which the Cold War plunged most thinking Americans. It also records politically incorrect ideas about deploying African characters in a drama about Europeans. On the whole, it is more interesting than it is awful.

The DVD is a complete entertainment experience: you are there, huddled in front of the tube. There are station breaks for Channel 2 New York (CBS), and there are two commercials, both of operatic length compared to today’s quick spots. One is an infomercial about kitchen appliances powered by natural gas. It stars Fred MacMurray and June Haver as thrilled homemakers. The other commercial is genuinely weird. It’s for Kleenex napkins, and it features this miniature butler person who recommends Kleenex napkins to gigantic human beings because the product doesn’t slip off your lap. It could pass for a fragment of The Twilight Zone.

Did I mention that Boris Karloff is also stripped to the waist? We see him as we never do in the book, with a cute crown of bones on his head.


Wednesday 11th

M le Neveu came to dinner last night. We haven’t seen much of anybody in the past year or more, what with all our upheavals, but we really haven’t seen anything of my cousin, whom I speak of as a nephew because of the generational space between our ages. My conscience was quite pricked, but weeks would go by without my doing anything. Finally, I sent a text, and it was that simple. Le voilà. While we waited for Kathleen to get home from work, we talked about matters high and low; I had recently read Patrick Coburn’s piece about Syria, in the current LRB, and was anxious to see if I’d learned anything from it, so we talked about the futility of the American program there, and then about the Kurds. I have always believed that Kurdistan is the ultimate Middle Eastern problem, one that nobody really has to deal with now, because of other crises, but one that will have to be settled before than can be real peace in the region. I floated my latest what-if, which I touched on here the other day (scroll up): What if we simply gave up on the idea of Arab self-governance and redistributed the territories created by the Sykes-Picot agreement to Turkey and Iran, with Iraq’s Anbar Province serving as the desert boundary between them. Perhaps this enlarged Turkey, or Turkish Empire, or Sultanate, or call-it-whatever, would find the confidence to grant the Kurds autonomy in their own region. M le Neveu found all of this very unlikely. Of course it’s unlikely — now! (Erdoğan can’t live forever.) (Nor is Saudi oil unlimited.)

Closer to home, I surprised myself by saying something that I found I really believe: the American voter deserves to be spanked, or at least shamed in public. The case needs to be argued (there’s no need to trouble to make it) that American voters have really let democracy down. Otherwise, campaign finances wouldn’t be the issue that they are. The awful truth is that the movement to limit campaign funding is really aimed at cutting down the number of atrocious advertisements. But these paid-for messages have no intrinsic power at all. It is only when some moron plops down in front of the television, watches one, and lets himself be persuaded by it that we have a problem.

I was tempted to speak just now of the average American voter, of course, because I am an American voter, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job of voting with my brain. But there are two kinds of average American voter, and one of them doesn’t even bother to vote. Another scheme that I floated, just for my own entertainment, was one for buying American votes. Or rather, for paying people not to vote. Quite aside from the, er, legal problems confronting such a scheme, how might it play out? We could call it the Cultivate Your Garden project, and extremists on both sides would have the lushest gardens, because they’d have to be paid more to stay at home. Billionaires would be offered tax credits instead of cash bounties — for as long, anyway, as billionaires were tolerated at all.

M le Neveu mentioned Andrew Jackson at one point — the president who would take the place of Brutus, if I were rewriting The Inferno. Jackson effectively eradicated the influence of the Framers in American politics: they stand their on their marble plinths, but the élitist democracy that they envisioned was scrapped forever by Jackson’s populism.

I don’t know how people can bring themselves to watch the Republican Party debates. I read about them in the paper next day and I shudder at the ugliness and the incompetence. I have no desire to see demonstrated what I already knew, which is that Jeb Bush is simply not scrappy enough for real political competition. He may be the family’s genius, but he’s a back-office man, a policy wonk. You don’t put people like him in front of the cameras and the commentators for long. It’s nice to read that Trump actually got booed, even if it was for picking on Carly Fiorina, a woman who deserves, at the very least, the torments of Prometheus. I remain terrified of Ted Cruz, simply because he reminds me of Richard Nixon, the president whom I would partner with Andrew Jackson in the depths of Hell. I ask myself: how will Ben Carson disappear? Will he fade away, or will a yawning pit of disgrace open beneath his feet? He seems so vague that, if indeed the latter were to happen, he might not actually fall in. Either way, it will be an embarrassing spectacle, and I’d prefer to read about it afterward.

But behind all of these cardboard ogres stands the Republican Party voter. Or rather, a voter who, we are told, wants to stop government. How this does not add up to treason is beyond me. But I don’t want to indulge the online writer’s zest for imaginative insult and contumely. My real problem with the American voter is football. I can remember when football was weekend entertainment, something that happened on crisp (sometimes rainy) fall Saturdays. Now, like so much entertainment in this country, it has degenerated into a tribal hearth before which brutal, life-threatening rites are performed in antic slow motion. Rich white guys cheer as big black guys knock the crap out of each other. In the current issue of Bookforum, Matt Hinton writes about a book by Florida State professor, Diane Roberts, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. The only thing wrong with the title, as Hinton points out, is that there’s no secret.

But for Roberts, as for nearly all fans who remain in thrall to the game against their more-enlightened cultural judgment, the lure of the stadium and the tailgate is something akin to a genetic imperative.

In fact, there is no genetic imperative, and there isn’t really a tribe, either, just the televised simulacrum of one, a bogus, self-generating excitement that requires little more than a wave of noise in the background. There is nothing, nothing at all authentically primitive about American football. It is entirely contrived, manufactured to distract its participants from the unpleasant realities of social injustice and inequality and, more to the point, of pointless consumption. Football feeds America the flattest, if loudest, possible “good times.” Yelling until you can’t hear yourself think is the point.

Hinton tells us that Diane Robert quotes Hazlitt: “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” It seems to me that the whole point of a humane education is to overcome this impulse, and to learn how to care for and about things without being prodded by hostility or possessiveness. As always, what grieves me is the enthusiastic participation of a college professor in this orgy of self-bullying.

How can such a populace, so addicted to such pastimes that they are no longer pastimes, cope with the issues facing a democratic electorate? And let’s bear in mind that the issues that come up for public discussion are all issues that concern voters directly, or that journalists have convinced voters to regard as central. So far as I know, no Republican candidate has bothered himself or his listeners with the Export-Import Bank, or with the wave of anti-competitive mergers that is sweeping the health, beverage, and railroad sectors — all of which actually do impinge on voters. What about the lousy record that we’ve racked up over the past fifty years — since Korea, really — as military losers? Why have Americans been so slow to realize that what they mean by a “strong military presence” is almost invariably an ineffective one? It’s appalling to think that our policies about dealing with China’s occupation of the South China Sea are in the hands of people who could barely find the Spratly Islands in a dictionary.

This is what I’m talking about when I complain that Americans apparently maintain a belief that they have the right to remain uninformed and ignorant, itself a manifestly stupid way of looking at the world. I’m not surprised that Americans or anyone else are more concerned about local excitements than about abstract policies. But abstract policies have very real consequences, and I believe that the whole point of democracy is to give men and women a reason to pay attention to such things. If democracy itself is not a form of education, then it cannot amount to more than a demented beauty contest. It ceases, in effect, to be democracy at all, and loses its status as better than all those worse forms of government.


Dinner was terrible, I thought. It had been a long time since my last stab at steak, potatoes, and green vegetables. I seem resistant to the idea of simmering frenched green beans in a large pot of water — why? So the beans were underdone. As for the potatoes, they used to be a specialty that M le Neveu was very fond of: chunks of sweet potato roasted in oil and rosemary, with just a touch of honey. I seem to have lost the knack — I never wrote down a recipe. Last night, I forgot the honey, failed to butter the baking dish, and ran the oven too low. On top of everything else, the potatoes were tepid when they reached the table. There was nothing wrong with the steak, but nothing very right about it, either; it didn’t taste like much of anything. A menu that I used to turn out week after week, to M le Neveu’s delight, reappeared pallidly at best. Kathleen thought that my criticism was exaggerated, although she agreed that the beans were underdone.

Last Saturday night’s dinner was another story. Aside from setting an unusually handsome table, complete with my late mother-in-law’s monogrammed linen napkins, I served at least one boffo dish. It was really the marriage of two everyday preparations. To a the purée of a very nicely-done curried butternut squash soup (with apples) I added spoonfuls of fresh corn sautéed in butter and oil with tarragon. (Ordinarily, I season the corn with oregano, but tarragon worked better, as I thought it would, with the overall sweetness of the soup, instead of pointing it up as I fear oregano would have done.) The blend of smooth and crunchy was perfect. I wasn’t nearly as pleased with a warm tortellini salad, with chopped cherry tomatoes and oil-cured olives. The olives were a mistake; I ought to have used milder green olives. And the tortellini — this is a bone that I’m always picking with Agata & Valentina — were doughy. But it was a start. I’m drawn to the idea of a pasta dish that does not involve a sauce, especially a cream sauce. The veal that followed, made according to Elizabeth David’s method, was a hit.

What will it be for dinner tonight, pizza or stir-fry?


Thursday 12th

The weather is dark, but I don’t mind. I’m in a very wrapped-up state. Partly, it’s The Strangeness In My Mind. Last night, as I was waiting for Kathleen to come home, some helicopters were making a racket overhead and I wondered, rather inconsequently, if I were in Istanbul or New York.

Hüzün, I believe, is the word that Orhan Pamuk uses to describe his feelings for his home town. According to my dictionary, it means sadness, sorrow, grief and only then melancholy. In Pamuk’s hands, this melancholy is a pleasure. Well — in my hands, rather, as I read Pamuk’s book in my tidy apartment. I am not surrounded by dust and broken glass and chipped marble and all the other signs of physical decay that Pamuk lingers over. I think that I should find them simply depressing, perhaps hideously depressing. My hüzün is purely poetical. It is very quiet here, but it is not the quiet of a remote farmhouse. It is the sweet melancholy of solitude in the city.

It has been a while since I read The Black Book, Pamuk’s first succès d’estime. I don’t think that it was ever much of a success in Anglophonia; it’s the kind of vaguely absurd, vaguely nightmarish novel that one associates with experimental European fiction. As I recall, some poor sap has to find some papers and bring them to a certain place by a certain time, or else. This wild goose chase provides the armature for meditation on many secular matters, mostly pertaining to old, Ottoman Istanbul. Wasn’t there an assassinated columnist in there somewhere? These curiosities have reappeared in Pamuk’s nonfiction, notably Istanbul and Other Colors, but they also reappear in The Strangeness In My Mind, if in a new dimension. At the macro level of criticism, Strangeness is a novel about the interior immigrant who moves from rural poverty to urban opportunity. Such novels have proliferated in every developed country, and in every country the story is slightly different, because rural customs are peculiar. But there is more to it in Istanbul. In the European, American, and even Asian versions of this basic story, the city is not very old. There may be an old building here or there, but the city is new; that is its great point of distinction from the country. Istanbul, in contrast, has not been new for several millennia. Istanbul itself is a migrant, an ancient town, with crooked streets and crooked history, trying to hold on to its identity in the modern city that has sprouted alongside it and that tends to pave over it. The old Istanbul was built of vulnerable, breathing wood; the new is a pile of dead concrete. The Anatolians who come up from the country live on edges of the city that will themselves soon become centers within the city; these newcomers rarely see the old Istanbul.

Our hero, Mevlut, is different. As a street vendor working the neighborhoods around Beyoğlu, the part of town that used to be populated by Europeans and Greeks and Armenians (the Genoese called it “Pera”), straddling the hills on the other side of the tidal inlet known as the Golden Horn from the heart of old Constantinople, Mevlut knows what passes for the old Istanbul, the houses and the wrecks of houses built at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the apartment buildings thrown up between the wars. But there are plenty of buildings older than that, and they are all shabby and neglected, because the Europeans and the Greeks and the Armenians have at one point or another been evicted. Today’s old Istanbul is the husk of a once-cosmopolitan city. As in Shanghai, however, it was always the foreigners who were cosmopolitan, not the Turks themselves. Mevlut’s problem is that he finds this jumble mesmerizing. I don’t think that he knows very much about history or foreigners, but Beyoğlu not only allows but encourages Mevlut to let his imagination play upon what he sees.

Instead of putting himself into his career, Mevlut daydreams about other people. His behavior, however, is conservative, bound by what I think of as the hygiene of tradition. Tradition, in this case, militates against the social intercourse of men and women. As such, it constitutes an array of obstacles that no novelists could disdain. Pamuk has concocted a love story for Mevlut that has an agreeably fabulous edge to it; it serves the purpose of providing a bridge for Pamuk’s interesting characters to cross from the beginning to the end of the book. To me, this love story, while charming in places and not without heartbreak, seems more nakedly a function of the sexual imperative than love stories are in the West: happy Turks do not ride off into the sunset alone; they have children, and their children have children, and so the wheel turns. To put it another way, love is not envisioned as the individually transformative thing that it is thought to be in the West. It goes the other way: love is an expression of the person you already are. Therefore, while Mevlut can nurse a passion for his loves that is as obsessional as passion anywhere, this passion does not really change him. Instead, its gratification allows him to slip happily into his traditional adult role.

As I think I’ve already said, The Strangeness In My Mind reads very straightforwardly. It presents none of the obscurities of The Black Book; one can almost imagine a Disney adaptation. I wish I were knowledgable enough to take the measure of Pamuk’s Turkish, which I suspect is not quite so artless as Ekin Oklap’s English. I also suspect that the text is rich in unobtrusive allusions that only a Turkish reader could be expected to catch. What I cannot decide is whether Strangeness is more than a vehicle for the author’s encyclopedic grasp of Istanbul’s moods. I am also intrigued by the possibility that this novel is intended to appeal, frankly and invitingly, to Turkish readers. Mevlut’s godliness is a key element of the story because it signifies Mevlut’s acceptance of his world. As a byproduct of his active imagination, perhaps, Mevlut is the character, among all his friends and neighbors, who is least altered by the move to Istanbul. Most people who know him think that Mevlut is innocent; Pamuk tells us at one point that this innocence is actually optimism. But I think that Mevlut is simply imaginative. Not in making things up, but in imagining the lives of others — including the lives of the dead. Imagination allows Mevlut to inhabit his world more fully than others do.

And yet one cannot silence the thought that, in Mevlut, Pamuk has drawn a what-if self-portrait. What if Pamuk had grown up poor? What if he had not had a father who urged him to read Flaubert and Tolstoy? What if no one in his family had understood the point of education, but merely regarded it as useful? What if Pamuk had started working at the age of eleven?

It’s this that makes me wonder how Pamuk knows how people like Mevlut live. How can he? Only through his imagination, I suppose — which is why I wish Turkish criticism of the novel were more accessible.

I have two chapters and forty-odd pages to go.


Last night, Kathleen and I watched a video of Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. We were not sure what the story was. If the heart of the film is Turner’s relationship with Mrs Booth, the Margate landlady with whom he eventually settled down in Chelsea, we don’t hear its beat quite often enough. Leigh makes no attempt to present or describe the demons, so to speak, that put Turner’s work so far ahead of its time; we are simply to take him as a genius. Turner’s role as a Cockney rebel against the grandees of the Royal Academy is blunted by his rather magnificent (if somewhat peculiar) decorum. Timothy Spall, playing the artist, gives us a rhinoceros in a frock coat — a force of nature, but, like all forces of nature, profoundly conservative. I wish that Leigh had gotten him to say more than just “Claude Lorrain was a genius!” I mean, something more about Claude.

There are more characters that the story knows what to do with. John Ruskin and his parents make an appearance that, like Turner’s association with Lord Egremont at Petworth, seems illustrative of a point that is never made. (Although Joshua McGuire is deliciously fatuous as Ruskin.) Then there is the sex — the opportunistic sex that Turner has with his deformed housekeeper, the sex that is alleged to have produced the two daughters of a harridan former lover, and of course the sex with Mrs Booth. Happily, the sex with Mrs Booth is not just sex, but companionate affection, and we don’t see much of it. That’s to say that we never see any part of Marion Bailey that we oughtn’t. Kathleen especially thought that Bailey was the star of the show. I suspect she regarded Mrs Booth’s combination of flexibility and reassurance with keen fellow-feeling. Certainly, if I add Mr Turner to our DVD library, it will be because of Marion Bailey’s performance.

I’ve just pulled out the catalogue from the 2008 Turner show at the Museum. It opened to what was my favorite thing in that show, for some no longer excavatable reason, the watercolor of Merton College. “The Sun is God!” — Turner’s last words. The sun is hiding today, and I’m in no hurry for it to reappear.


Friday 13th

As usual, I had cheated. I’d read the last page of The Strangeness In My Mind long ago. Or at least I’d glanced at it; and a glance was enough to make out the last line, “I have loved Rayiha more than anything in this world.” For some readers, this may be a sweet resolution of Mevlut’s life. For me, it jangles with horrible ironies.

For Rayiha is dead, and has been dead for a long time. A lot of good this love will do her. We have known since the end of the first chapter that her life would be “brief.” I did not cheat there. I did not try to find out, ahead of time, the reasons for Rayiha’s untimely death. For a while, I entertained the guess that she would die as collateral damage in a shootout between her brother-in-law and her husband’s cousin, not over her but over her younger, prettier sister Samiha. That would have been exciting. But Orhan Pamuk had something darker in mind, something almost tragic. And although it is true that Mevlut loved Rayiha, and loved her from the first moment that he saw her smile, he did nothing to help lift the misery into which circumstances dropped her. His contribution to her despair was twofold: he refused to clear up the matter of the letters that he had written to her before their marriage, and he did nothing to help her out with an unwanted pregnancy. In my view, Mevlut killed the woman he loved more than anything in the world.

This may not be a Turkish view — it may not be imaginable to Turkish readers. After all, Rayiha did take things into her own hands; Mevlut never laid a finger on her. Rayiha would not let the matter of the letters drop. (They had in fact been intended for Samiha — that cousin of Mevlut had tricked him about the sisters’ names. This same sneak would later poison Rayiha with intimations of the truth.) Rayiha was something like Elsa in Lohengrin: she wanted an assurance that would not be granted. I felt terribly sorry for her in those last chapters of hers, as she floundered in her wretchedness. And all the while, money worries. I am not certain that this novel would not have been better titled Mevlut the Lovable but Improvident.

The problem is that Mevlut’s behavior was perfectly correct — correct for a loving husband. I don’t mean to suggest that he was a hypocrite; he always believed that he was doing the right thing. It is true that his good behavior had a distinctly passive tinge. Mevlut always hoped for the best. He hoped, for example, that once it became too late for Rayiha to obtain an abortion, she would come round to accepting her pregnancy, and he would at last be the father of a son. At the same time, this behavior was utterly free of macho posturing. Mevlut was almost incapable of insincerity. But the culture in which he grew and made his way deprived him of the ability to assess the danger in which Rayiha struggled. So his melancholy but contented summing-up at the end struck me — smack! — as brutally complacent.

For the time being, I’m done thinking about this novel. I shall let it steep as it will. I look forward to seeing how it does, and what other people have to say about it. As I say, I wish I could read some Turkish criticism of the book. I am hoping, even though I don’t understand quite how this would happen, that The Strangeness In My Mind will find its place among the great European novels. Despite its modesty and its simplicity — mere appearances, perhaps — this is Pamuk’s greatest achievement so far. If it becomes a great European novel, that will be because it is a great Turkish novel.


Two of today’s Times Op-Ed pieces, taken together, persuade me that, if we manage to live so long, there will be great changes on the American political scene in about ten years. That is when the Millennials will begin to arrive at middle age. (Matthew Klein: “A Lost Generation of Democrats.”) By then, too, a very significant portion of the ever-ageing conservative cadre of the Republican Party will have died. David Brooks:

And so the large question Republicans must ask themselves is: Are we as a party willing to champion the new America that is inexorably rising around us, or are we the receding roar of an old America that is never coming back?

Ten years is plenty of time for new issues to swamp our attention, and other problems may cause “immigration” to lose its hot-button status. But the Millennials will still be in position to decide what is to be done about the Democratic Party, and Republicans will have lost a big chunk of its extremist base. My hope is that both parties will be dead by then, with new coalitions rising from their ashes. The idea of new parties is frightening — it ought to be! But the Democratic Party has been moribund since the Reagan years, and attempts to keep it going on temporizing life-support have alienated voters. The Republican Party is being torn apart by the tension between wealthy donors and relatively unsophisticated but impassioned supporters.

Behind all of this reality-show politicking stands an array of government structures in sore need of rethinking. One of the things that I like about Millennials is their recognition of genuine expertise: they may be the first generation since World War II to be honest about the need for élite regulation, which is essentially the need to pay qualified regulators well enough to keep them at their desks, and not on the hunt for more lucrative work in the businesses that they’re supposed to regulate. The New Deal regulatory structure is well past retirement age; among other things, I should suggest transforming the Administrative Procedure Act with a blast of online, digital wizardry. What I’m hoping is that Millennials are already scratching their heads.

What I don’t take for granted is that Millennials have a better grasp of the vital importance of humane thinking than their elders. The easiest way to say what “humane thinking” means is to contrast it to mechanical thinking, to formulaic thinking — to systems. People can operate systems, and they can oversee mechanical operations. But they cannot be subjected to these things without blighting the species. To pay a normal person to perform a mindless job is to place that person in moral equivalency with sex workers. I hope that Millennials will come to their senses about Silicon Valley, and understand that, while it provides amazing services, it is not the source of viable political templates. I often think that data engineers are lulled by the ease with which files can be overwritten: this is not a metaphor for social life.


Social life. That’s what Kurtz ran off to Africa to flee, and the disinhibiting absence of social life there exposed him to corruption. There is a myth abroad among men: great men stand alone. Great men suffer alone, fight their demons alone, wrestle with existence alone. But why is it that they never do the laundry or unload the dishwasher alone?


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Truth About Feudalism
November 2015 (I)

Monday 2nd

In yesterday’s Times, Ross Douthat offered an open invitation to liberal Catholic theologians to engage in civil war, with him and with Catholics who believe that “church teaching” is set in stone. Earlier in the same column, Douthat pointed out that one of the purposes of his Times pieces is to “provoke.” But provoke what? Certainly not discussion. I don’t  want to think about just what kind of warfare Douthat envisions, but presumably, like any war, it will be what happens after a breakdown in communications, when people no longer agree to disagree. My first thought was that Harvard University ought to be shut down as a public menace, because that is where Douthat went to college, and the fact that a student could undertake the course work at so eminent a school and yet still emerge willing to propose religious war means nothing less than that the teachers there aren’t doing their job. We have a long tradition of religious violence in the West, and we have learned that it accomplishes nothing but evil. I should have expected a man as worldly and sophisticated as I believe Ross Douthat to be to propose the much milder threat of schism. I suppose that he’s going to too many conservative gatherings — too much back-slapping, too much cowboy whooping: too desperate a thirst for testosterone. (I should be content if Harvard merely revoked Douthat’s diploma.)

The issue at hand is the welcoming of divorced (and remarried) Catholics to the altar rail at Communion. Hitherto, such people have been barred from the sacraments — excommunicated, as it’s called. (People who divorce but who do not remarry do not incur this penalty.) The religious history of divorce has almost nothing to tell us about our own world, which is why “church teaching” might be fatuous, designed as it was centuries ago to deal with vanished problems. Jesus appears to have regarded divorce unfavorably, but if you know anything about the difficulties that Orthodox Jewish women suffer in this connection, you can imagine that he was not concerned with the irreconcilable differences of two more or less equally-placed adults. The Church itself firmed up its position on divorce at roughly the same time that it reversed itself on bastardy. The situation that it sought to redress was a recurrence of old Jewish divorce, only now it was a matter of kings setting their wives aside in order to remarry and refresh their hopes for male offspring. There was no Catholic ritual for the setting aside of wives, and the Church declined to provide one.

When I recently pointed out to Kathleen, à propos of the Habsburgs, whom I’d been reading about, that Louis XIV’s wife, Maria Theresa of Spain, was his mother’s niece and the daughter of his uncle, the King of Spain, Kathleen looked up in shock. Surely the Church would not have permitted so incestuous a marriage! But it did so all the time. The Habsburgs wouldn’t have been the monstrously inbred Habsburgs otherwise. It has always been curious to me that the Church “got” this major element of dynastic family-building but refused to see the urgency of another one, the need to produce sons.

Divorce was a royal issue because of political exigency. It was never contemplated for lesser mortals, who had to live with Augustine’s settlement of the hash about sex. As late as 400, Augustine’s prime, the appropriateness of Christian marriage was still a lively question. Paul’s formulation — it is better to marry than to burn — turned out not to answer the question. Augustine, whom I’ve always thought had a great salesman’s eye for what the market would bear, and who, like all salesmen, didn’t have to think about tomorrow, much less the next millennium, proposed a solution by agreeing that truly holy people must remain celibate, while ordinary sinners could marry and procreate, although they were not to have carnal relations for any other purpose. This was certainly a workable compromise, politically speaking; politically, procreation was important. And of course what we call companionate marriage must have been extremely rare. Certainly as a social matter, men and women led different lives. Why would you bother even to think about how you felt about your spouse? As a member of the opposite sex, that spouse could be counted on to do all the annoying things that men and women do, especially in the eyes of women and men.

By the same token, kings did not seek divorce because they thought that they might lead richer, more meaningful lives with someone a little younger and prettier. They could fool around with younger and prettier women as they liked. Kings sought divorce for one reason only, whenever they came to believe that their queens were not going to produce a male heir.

In other words, only in modern times, with its considerable shift in the role of women in society — a development that conservatives around the world would like to undo, and one that the Church will never be able to accommodate without adapting (changing) “church teachings” to suit it — has the problem of divorce assumed the complexion with which we’re familiar. It is easy to denounce this hankering for happier married lives as “individualistic,” but if young people provide any indication of where we’re going (and of course they do), the ban on divorce tends to dishonor the idea of marriage, by forcing people to remain within it insincerely, and therefore dishonestly. So long as the status of women in society continues on its current trajectory, “church teaching” is going to appear more and more gratuitously misogynistic.

So, I think that a schism is not unlikely, and that the conservative branch will die out over several generations. The idea that the Church as we know it — the confraternity of unmarried males who regard themselves as more Christian and more religious than everybody else — will ever regain its appeal is awfully unlikely. We’re ripe for religious convulsions, much as it pains me to say that, but I fear that they will strike off in new and terrible directions (terrible to me), and not that they will re-invigorate old traditions.

I applaud the Pope for trying to do things that need to be done. I boo Ross Douthat for committing the cardinal sin of talking war for the sake of ideas that he holds dear.


I’m reading and re-reading a bunch of books. The new Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind; how I wish my Turkish were good enough to read it in the original. I know just enough about Turkish to understand that it is, for example, much further from English than Chinese is. I didn’t think that I would much care for the story of a street vendor, but the fact that the streets were in Istanbul, not far from the ones that I walked when I was there almost eleven years ago, overcame that objection. The book is charming, at least so far, and its paints an admiring portrait of the sort of Turk from the middle of nowhere whose piety is ingrained even if his observances are dodgy. The sort of man, that is, who would vote for Recep Tajjip Erdoğan. (I look forward to seeing what happens when the story crosses into this century.) Could Pamuk be trying to appeal to “Anatolians”?

And I’m rereading Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals. I pulled the book down because I wanted to find the place where Reynolds asserts that the ideas of a “feudal system” that have influenced scholars, philosophers, and politicians since the Renaissance, was actually the concoction of Italian lawyers working on the cusp of the Twelfth and the Thirteenth Centuries — long, long after it was supposed to have been born in the Gothic mists, prior to Charlemagne. Reynolds goes so far as to claim that there never was a “feudal system.” To think that there was is to to commit a sort of fallacy of backformation. We have systems — oh dear, do we ever! — so they must have had systems, too, back in the Dark Ages. The unlikeness of this proposition betrays the human propensity to minimize the impact of change, in the interest of seeing a smoothly continuous sequence of behaviors expressive of a common human nature. When antiquarians and constitutionalists-ante-lettera began examining medieval documents in the Sixteenth Century, it was clear that medieval political arrangements were no longer functioning very well, but scholars backed away from the truth of the matter, which was that the arrangements were breaking down because they had emerged piece-meal, without much regard for other arrangements and almost always opportunistically. There was no system. But this was unacceptable; it ruled out the possibility of making one or two fundamental alterations and producing a new civil order. In the event, it took the French Revolution in all its violence to sweep away the agglomeration of taxes, duties, customs, and inconsistent local laws that made the ancien régime so irrational, with too many people vested with two many small bits of power to allow the reforms that Enlightenment figures called for, sometimes with Royal support, throughout the Eighteenth Century.

The reason I couldn’t find the statements that I was looking for was that I ignored the Introduction, where they are all set forth. I searched the chapter on Italy in vain. I really do not know how to read a book, sometimes.

But I did fish up an extremely juicy morsel.

The law of fiefs, as interpreted and used by the French scholars, could be used in other countries, as it had been in France, to organize the past and provide arguments for the present so that ideas about it gradually spread to a wider public. When what modern historians call “feudal tenures” were abolished in England in 1660 the word “feodall” was used only in an annexe to the act of parliament and only about titles to peerages. By the late eighteenth century, Francis Hargrave, editing the writings of the early seventeenth-century lawyer Edward Coke, marvelled at Coke’s ignorance of what Hargrave called “this interesting subject” and at the absence from Coke’s Institutes of “any thing like an historical illustration with the least reference to the general doctrine of feuds.” Without it, to Hargrave, it was “scarcely possible to have a just and proper idea of our law of tenures, the great part of which is founded on principles strictly feudal.” (7)

Today’s historian would be inclined (one hopes) to deduce from Coke’s silence the absence of thinking about “feudal tenures,” an absence resulting from something like nonexistence. I spent a fair amount of time in law school with pleadings in medieval property cases, and while it was clear that the cases bespoke a very different legal climate, there was nothing “medieval” about them except their dates. If there was occasional talk of vassalage or knight-service, it wasn’t because anyone cared about those things but because they offered indicia of owernship; they supported or disputed someone’s claim to a particular parcel of land. I wouldn’t say that lawsuits were ever the cheapest way of acquiring property, but sometimes they were the only way.

Reynolds gets at the inertia that underlies so much scholarship, in the form of “solved problems,” when she writes the following:

What the concept of feudalism seems to have done since the sixteenth century is not to help us recognize the creatures we meet but to tell us that all medieval creatres arre the same so that we need not other to look at them. (11)

It is wise to bear in mind that the “concept of feudalism” was developed long before modern historiography developed its best practices. Fiefs and Vassals shows that these practices are still very much under development.


Tuesday 3rd

On Sunday, I came down with something. Maybe it’s a mild flu; maybe it’s spider bites. More patches of red skin, with a bit of swelling; more panic about the Emergency Room. Once again, Advil proved effective. Then, something new: chills. And, in the afternoons especially, that physical anomie, rather worse than mere fatigue, for which bedrest and chicken soup seem the only cure. Seizing the occasion to launch a habit of getting to bed earlier, I took the Lunesta pill too early, and wound up with almost three hours of insomnia. This morning, I feel clear and relatively pain-free but frail. And sleepy.

In spite of everything, I went ahead with yesterday’s planned task, largely because it was a postponement from Sunday, when I couldn’t face it because the something that I was coming down with hadn’t fully hit but only made me restless. I sat down at the dining table with one of those cardboard archive boxes that we pulled out of storage a few weeks ago. This one was marked “Letters, 3/3.”

At first, going through the old papers — almost everything dated from the late Sixties or early Seventies — made me feel that blend of sadness, regret, shame, and disappointment that confrontation with the archives usually provokes. The blend is partly inherent in the documents themselves, and partly a response to them. The only purely now feeling was a gentle alienation, for the world of these letters came to an end in the mid-Seventies, or perhaps the early lates: in February, 1977, my mother died, and in the fall I went off to law school, from which experiences I date the beginning of my adult life.

The idea was to get rid of as much as possible. I could have thrown the whole lot away, of course, and every now and then, as I sorted the letters into piles, I wondered why I was not doing just that. What did these letters mean anymore? A partial answer came when I realized that I was going to wrap up the pile of letters from Fossil Darling and given them back to him. Most of them were frivolous, but a few engaged with issues in Fossil’s life, and I think he’ll be interested in the perspective. But I have no need to keep his letters from that time. I have never lost touch with him and do not need to be reminded of old times by mouldering pieces of paper. We’ve lived more than half our lives in the same town, talking several times a week if not a day, and youth is just as far from Fossil as it is from me, by which I mean that we are friends as men in our sixties, not overgrown friends from our teens. Precisely because my connection with Fossil Darling is alive and kicking, the old letters have nothing to tell me. I will keep a souvenir or two, such as the very typical postcard bearing the simple message, “G. T. H.”, provoked by who knows what nastiness on my part.

But the relationships underlying all of the other letters are cold if not dead. Doubly dead in one case: a Christmas card from a friend who died this year and his long-ago divorced first wife. They were not, to my mind, at all suited, and they did not seem to be happy. It did not last long. Much later, my friend refreshed a college friendship and entered into a long and happy second marriage. I didn’t care, yesterday, to be reminded of the first. Pitching that Christmas card was easily done.

There were several correspondences with girls. The letters from those whose names I couldn’t clearly remember were discarded without any attempt to figure out who they were. This left several friends and one romantic interest. The friends were lovely girls, but I’d grown up with them. My favorite among them was ahead of the rest of us sexually (although she was by no means fast), and when I saw what love could do to you I thought of the Greeks, who, I’d just learned, regarded romantic love as a regrettable illness. I’d much rather be friends. Hormones notwithstanding (and I cannot say that mine were ever “raging,” which is probably why I’ve never written a novel), I have never felt closer to another person, or more in love, than when we were laughing hysterically at something.

My liaison with E, the romantic interest, fizzled for this reason. She liked our talk well enough, but she wanted more in the way of manhandling. She said that I couldn’t really love her if I never went beyond kissing. I was crushed, and took this failure to heart, with unhappy consequences for later girls — girls whose letters, blushing, I threw away several culls ago.

There was a clutch of letters from Miss Marion K Nelson, a/k/a Nelsy, one of our two babysitters. When Nelsy returned to her native Portland to retire a second time (she had been a nurse before retiring to babysitting), we exchanged letters, and it was a treat to see her spidery writing, so testimonial of her Down East frugality. I intend to go through her letters with a view to copying some extracts here, after which I shall save one or two.

For, as I soon saw yesterday, I shall have to read all of those letters that I saved because they were written by certain people. I won’t know which ones to throw away otherwise. With luck, there will be one letter, and only one, from each correspondent that captures a comprehensive representation of the writer, that reminds me of who he or she really was and why I was interested. Nothing would make me happier than to come out of this archival review with no more than twenty-five pieces of paper. It’s probably not going to happen; it’s far more likely that, having dipped in to Marie Kondo in a moment of aged desperation, I shall indeed toss the lot. So often, as I went over the letters yesterday, I felt that all the storm and stress — and boredom — reflected in those letters (my storm and stress and boredom) was absolutely unnecessary. If only somebody could have assured me that, if I calmed down and stuck to what I really wanted to do, I’d fine in the end. The feeling was almost overwhelming at times. I’m not sure that I’ll ever make out whether it’s true. Did coming out fine in the end depend on those trials? For many people, there would be no doubt that it did. But, as if written in invisible ink, in almost every old letter, there is a charge of low, dishonest fraud.

For I was trying to be, if not ordinary or normal, at least friendly. Seriously, and sometimes romantically, friendly. It’s a terrible thing to be — a fake friend, a friend whose interest is self-interested in that way. I wanted to have friends because I wanted not to be weird. That’s normal in the schoolyard, but you’re supposed to outgrow it at the very time when I grew into it. It is true that my somewhat willful ventures into youthful friendship shamed me, over time, into honoring strict sincerity in important relationships. But how much better to have known that without incidentally hurting other people!

Finally, there were letters from my parents. There must be another cache of these in some other box, because I did not see — and please don’t let it be the case that I threw the letter away! — my father’s final judgment that “you have come to the end of the road with your charge account at the bookstore.” I winced as I began sorting these letters, but they turned out not to be painful to read. Most were from my mother. I read only the ones that weren’t tucked into envelopes. Although she was prone to suspicion, my mother was a positive person, and she didn’t care to write negative things. On the evidence of the letters in yesterday’s cache, I was not a disappointing son. If it turns out that I have gotten rid of the letters that paint a fuller picture, then I shall have to get rid of the ones that I’ve saved, lest they convey a very false impression.

The question remains: why do I save any of these letters, when in practice I read them only when I am trying to throw some of them away? What kind of curation is that?


Wednesday 4th

What kind of curation, indeed?

The question about saving the letters now is occasioned by the fact that I still have them, because I saved them long ago, instead of dropping them into the waste basket, and have been saving them ever since. Why that?

It is embarrassingly easy to answer. If there was any job description that appealed to me as a teenager, it was “man of letters.” Similarly, I was delighted to know that the Everyman Library (or was it the Modern?) classified some of its books under the heading “Belles-Lettres.” I did not know what these terms meant, exactly, probably for the good reason that they can no longer mean what they meant when they were coined. (There is too much literature — “letters” — for anyone to master all of it, or even the important bits; and what used to be “belle” is now probably fussy). But when do we fully understand anything? I was not so naive as to confuse letters in the mail with literature, but the multiple meanings of the word refracted a common glow. Letters, even letters from Fossil Darling, were writings, and writings were — special. It did not take me long to figure out that, as a man of letters, I ought to keep copies of my own; hence all the onion-skin carbons that I threw away a couple of weeks ago, as too horribly pimply even to read.

I also knew, way back then, that historians were always — “always” — advancing theories based on recovered scraps of information that nobody thought was important at the time. Old shopping lists, for example. For a while, during my early days of domestic independence, I kept my own shopping lists, on the theory that I oughtn’t to throw anything away just because I didn’t know how important it might be. I saved almost everything on paper — for a while. Most of these vital records perished when the storage bin in the basement of my father’s condominium was cleaned out while I was in law school; my stepmother told me that there had been a flood. (Far be it from me to doubt a basement flood so close to Buffalo Bayou!) I used to have some idea of what sort of papers were lost in that incident, but I no longer do. But who knew what world-clarifying advance in knowledge might hang on the discovery, several centuries from now, that the Dodge Family Wanted Me?

What is hard to believe now is that I carted this junk from one apartment to the next — there were to be eight (including two houses) — during my years in Houston. Eight abodes in five years! Having recently vacated an apartment that I shared with Kathleen for thirty-one years, I really can’t imagine surviving such a whirlwind, much less with boxes of shopping lists. But I do know that I saved everything because it was potentially either literature or “history.” How would I know?

Years passed, and — I knew. Things like the shopping lists were first to go. Printed souvenirs, such as outsized menus from remote restaurants, and advertising posters that caught my eye. Found pop art, you might call it; difficult to store and maintain. Manifestos and conference programs. Almost everything relating to a job. Out it all went. The letters, however, I didn’t touch, not until about ten years ago, the last time I tackled “papers.” It was at that time that I abandoned the idea that literature or history had anything to do with the plethora of scribbling and typing that was crammed into boxes that I no longer had room for. But I took its replacement — the idea that I was free to throw things away — rather further than I should have cared to admit.

The letters were not, by any stretch, literature. Nor were they likely to be of incidental historical interest. But they were positive records of my history, and that is precisely why a lot of them got shredded.

By throwing away correspondence that embarrassed me ten years ago, I transformed the nature of everything that I didn’t throw away. What had been my history became nothing more than my souvenirs. For how could anyone else make sense of them, without knowing what had been cut out? If the letters from my parents that I looked at the other day were the only ones to remain, they could only convey a very false impression of our relations.

So, now, if these letters were no more than souvenirs, and souvenirs of interest to me alone, then wouldn’t the importance of holding on to them be determined by how often I looked at them, at least if it was the case that, as I said, I never looked at them, unless I was trying to save space by getting rid of some of them?

Whatever the answer to that question, I shall certainly save the letter that my father sent to my sister and me when he and my mother made their first trip to Hawaii. Contact by telephone, he said, would be difficult, not least because of “a considerable time difference,” so we were asked to call his secretary, at the office or at her home, if something came up. I shall probably save my father’s letters in any case. He once urged me to be a lawyer because, he said, “You can write.” Well, so could he.


Thursday 5th

My reading life seems to work in two gears. In the fun gear, I’m swept off my feet by a book I can’t put down. I never know when to expect this, and it sometimes happens that I’m halfway through something before it seizes me. (Most things that haven’t seized me by the halfway point never will. But if I’ve gotten as far as halfway, I usually carry on to the end.) Nor can I tell what the after-effect of an exciting read will be. Sometimes, I forget all about it almost instantly. Sometimes, it launches a serial reading or re-reading of books that I somehow perceive to be related. This is fun, too. Sometimes, it means reading everything by one author, such as Albert Hirschman, Hannah Arendt, or Penelope Lively. Sometimes it takes me back through my library, digging out things I haven’t looked at in years, on an expedition more of discovery than of re-discovery.

In the normal gear, I’m working through several books at once. The lack of fun that’s implied by working sometimes provokes my inner spoiled brat into fitful, fruitless moments, inspiring me to read everything in the latest New York or London Review of Books. Right now, though, I’m bemused by the synergy, if that’s what it is, between the three books in current rotation. I read a bit of one, can’t take any more, and turn to another. Repeat, repeat. As one of them is much shorter than the other two, it may fall out of sequence fairly soon; but as it is also the most difficult to read, and I find myself going back more than I go forward, it may not.

The first book that I’ll mention is the new one, the recently published novel by Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness In My Mind. Whether or not the title is going to be worked harder as the novel progresses, it has already appeared in the text. The hero, Mevlut Karatkaş, having taken to following a pretty woman whom he sometimes sees on his daily rounds in Istanbul, never approaching her but dreaming of the life that they might share, is aware of the dodginess, socially speaking, of his behavior.

Three months after their first meeting, Mevlut began to wish that Neriman would find out that he was following her and all the things he knew about her. During those three months, Mevlut had followed Neriman in the streets only seven times. It wasn’t a huge number, but of course Neriman wouldn’t be happy if she found out; perhaps she would even think he was some sort of pervert. Mevlut could accept that such a reaction would not be unwarranted. If someone in the village [back home] were to follow his sisters as he followed Neriman, he would want to beat the bastard up.

But Istanbul was not a village. In the city, that guy you thought was stalking that woman he didn’t know could turn out to be someone like Mevlut, who carried important thoughts in his head and was destined to make it beg some day. In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes. (106-7)

Alas, Mevlut seems destined to become a flaneur, a job description that does not fit the lack of independent means that is Mevlut’s lot. It’s because Mevlut indulges whims like following Neriman around — he doesn’t actually know her name: “Neriman” is a TV character — that he fails to complete his secondary education. Mevluk is not a bad student, just a disengaged one, and his school is certainly an unpleasant place to be. His day, or rather afternoon and evening, job, toting trays of yogurt, and later boza (a drink), through neighborhoods more affluent than his own, follows the footsteps and provides many of the encounters of a disinterested observer, and one of the little mysteries of the book is the uncertainty about just how aware Mevlut is that he cannot afford to be disinterested. But if we have difficulty fixing a readerly relationship with Mevlut, we can’t relate at all to the world in which he lives, which in Pamuk’s portrayal might well be taken as a vernacular demonstration of the adage that, while the Ottomans were ruthless conquerors, they were incompetent governors. Most of the other men in Strangeness are simply hotheads, cycling from talk through violence without actually doing anything. Those are the honest men, anyway. The few others, the successes, are sneaks. The only way to get ahead in the world is to cheat at every chance. It’s all rather depressing. You’d like to think that the novel is set in olden days of limited opportunities and cavalleria rusticana, but the action runs from 1968 to 2012.

Although I’ve read a good deal of Pamuk, I’m no critic. Although I enjoyed My Name Is Red, I didn’t understand most of it, by which I mean all the things that appeared to be happening in the background. I loved Snow, bleak as it is, because I was lucky enough to read it while I was in Turkey. Set in Kars, a city in the far east of Turkey that fell into Russian hands in the late Ottoman period, the world of Snow could not be farther from the former cosmopolis on the European side of the Bosporus, but, from the vantage point of a New Yorker, it couldn’t be closer, either. My favorite book is the nonfiction Istanbul, and I wish I could find the other book, which seems to have disappeared not only from my library but from the face of the earth, in which “The Pamuk Apartments” was published. (It appeared first in The New Yorker.) A good deal of Pamuk’s fiction can be called experimental, in that it seeks to create a Turkish foundation for literature as spacious and complex as that of the West, but without copying Western models. Strangeness is an ostensibly straightforward read — its little mysteries are indeed small ones — but I can only imagine the rich allusiveness of the tale to educated Turks. It has an old-fashioned feel, but careful readers will deduce from the many elements that are unfamiliar to us that it’s a Turkish old-fashioned feel.

So I can take only so much of Mevlut and his melancholy city before feeling gloomy myself, and at that point I turn to the second book on my table, Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals. I am going to say only one thing about this book’s contents, aside from what’s riveting about the book’s spirit, so don’t worry about my wading into medieval property law or the underpinnings of Lohengrin. And I’ll say it later.

Fiefs and Vassals is a book in which an Oxford don (Lady Margaret) raps colleagues and predecessors on the knuckles for getting their history backwards. Reynolds never explicitly accuses anyone of gender bias, but her impatience with “feudalism” is quite exciting, once you manage to hear it. Her controlled impatience with the notion that this “feudalism” — a supposedly ancient custom emerging from the mists of Germanic antiquity and reflecting the sacredness of the “war band” in its oaths of commendation — characterized and governed the possession of property in the Middle Ages suggests a bright girl’s impatience with boys’ games.

If it is true that medieval society was bound together by a mass of individual and explicit contracts between superiors and inferiors [ie, "feudalism"], rather than by the more common implied and collective contracts, then that would certainly make it distinctive, but to conclude that it was we would need to establish the prevalence of individual contracts and the absence of collective bonds. This has not yet been done.

This has not yet been done — and yet, what every student has been and, for all I know, still is taught in school rests on the assumption that it has been done. In fact, something else has been done, something of the all-too-human variety: historians, men mostly, have read what they know from late-medieval documents into the much vaguer early-medieval ones, and on the basis of this erected a theory of how it all came about. This is the most regrettable sin that a historian can unconsciously commit, but it is formidably common. We all do it by nature, because it is very hard, if not impossible, to unlearn what we know, and to remember that we used to not know it. In the case that Reynolds is dissecting, historians began with the assumption, a correct one to make about property right up to 1789, that properties known as fiefs, whatever they might be, were held exclusively by aristocrats. Where they went wrong was in applying this assumption to much earlier times, when in fact, as Reynolds shows in page after page of examples (each of which she makes into an interesting item in her collection), it was the case that, among their many possessions, some aristocrats owned some fiefs — and that these fiefs decayed over time into holdings with pretty much the same rights and obligations as today’s suburban homeowner’s. What distinguishes early from late is the appearance of a treatise on fiefs that was compiled by Italian lawyers round about 1200. The appearance of the book marked the beginning of a transition to legal systems in which we recognize the origins of our own, with trained professionals, lawyers and judges, who specialized in resolving inconsistencies in the use of terms such as “fief” and “vassal.” So much for the Germanic mists! In this new dispensation, rulers were delighted to have a legal foundation for taxation, not to mention a rationale for confiscating the estates of traitors; while aristocrats, with typical vanity, went along with the restriction of earlier freedoms because only aristocrats owned fiefs.

I happen to take an interest in medieval history that centers directly on Reynolds’s point: how much we don’t really know about its origins, because so little was written down and because what was written down so rarely involved rigorously defined terms. In short: the Middle Ages never existed. There was a post-Roman world, grim and vulnerable to marauders. Then the wind began to blow the other way — I don’t say that it really did, but that’s the only explanation that I can come up with for what happened in the Tenth Century. No doubt it began in the Eighth, when a remarkable family, climaxing in Charlemagne, took increasing control of European affairs, only to lose it in the Ninth. After the Tenth Century, it would not be lost a second time. After the Tenth Century, Europe was an established part of the world, not a marshy wilderness far from the Mediterranean. The story that began in the Tenth Century is the story of the West that we’re still telling. As I say, no one really knows how this happened. The few things that we do know about the period force us to hypothesize, and Fiefs and Vassals, in its demolition of a once rather monumental hypothesis, is a call to get back to the drawing board.

But Fiefs and Vassals is a close read; every word counts. Reynolds writes very well but her focus on detail is strenuous. So then, at the end of the evening, I turn to my third read: Heart of Darkness. Everyone has read this, or is supposed to have read it, and everybody knows how it ends: “Oh, the horror!” and “Mistuh Kurtz, he dead.” (Except that that’s not how it ends.) But I find myself asking, this third time around, “Does anything actually happen in this story?” I’m trying to read it as Reynolds would have me read an ancient charter: as if I didn’t know what (I thought) it was supposed to say; as if I didn’t know anything about it. And so far — Marlow is fixing up his sunken steamboat — I am having a hard time keeping track of actual events. This, I think, is precisely the effect that Conrad wished to create, as if to daze his readers with the monstrous incomprehensibility (to Western eyes) not only of the Congo but of European enterprise on the Congo. Heart of Darkness is magnificently indefinite, even harder to pin down than The Golden Bowl. I catch myself blithely assuming that something has happened, but when I look back, I can’t find it: it hasn’t.



Friday 6th

So intensely did I wrap myself up, last night, in Susan Reynolds’s search for fiefs and vassals in the Tenth Century, that when I switched to Heart of Darkness I really seemed to be reading the same book, just a very different chapter.

But enough about that. Let’s move into the kitchen for a spell — that vexed workspace. It’s vexed because, while we depend upon its output as human beings, there seems to be no satisfactory way to humanize it. Most cooks over most of time have been slaves, or in any case people doing a job that involves a staggering amount of drudgery, usually in ill-ventilated close quarters. Countless wives and mothers have cooked simply because it was a big part of the job description. Men generally militarize cooking, whether in the silent but deadly French manner or the Emergency Room faux chaos that Anglophones prefer. I try to conjure Alice Waters cooking just for fun, but I can’t believe it; I should think that she can cook in her sleep by now, and does, waking up now and then to appreciate a leaf of something. I suppose that that is the model: master the art so well that you don’t have to pay attention. But it hardly seems a humanist model.

I am only a few years away from seventy. My only culinary ambition is to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible without serving anything disagreeable. My dinner parties (when was the last?) really are about people, which, yes, does mean that the food has to be good enough to keep guests from wondering why they have left the certain comforts of home for the dubious ones of mine; but I shudder at the thought of wowing or “impressing” anybody. The illusion that I wish to create is that I do this all the time. I am helped in this effort to deceive by the fact that I used to do it all the time.

Why, I wonder. Why did I want to be known as a good cook? Or did I, really? Perhaps I was simply confused. Perhaps I thought that you couldn’t impose on people without offering something extraordinary. You’ll note the impose. Most people look at it the other way round: you are not imposing on people when you ask them to dinner. But I disagree, and I suspect that everybody else does, if secretly. If you really want to give someone a treat, go over to her house and, without leaving a mess, make dinner for her there, and make something that she really likes. I’ve known mothers who could do this, and I’ve known fewer expressways to being taken for granted. So, if asking people to dinner is an imposition, then there had better be something special.

What I didn’t know, starting out, is what “special” might be. Like everyone else, I looked at cookbooks that were illustrated with gonzo spectaculars, such as the lobster en Bellevue in Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book. The Times ran a piece recently about the ghastly Technicolor concoctions that were “popularized,” if that’s what happened, in the Fifties and Sixties, murky gelatine salads and obscene frankfurter garnishes. It may be that Learning From Las Vegas, the book that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published at the time, was supererogatory: everybody already was learning from Las Vegas. Life in the heart of the American Century was an endless floor show.

So, my first party dessert was riz à l’impératrice, a tarted-up rice pudding. If you do this sort of thing often, it cuts into the time available for reading, writing, and staying sane. Now I cook almost exclusively for Kathleen and myself. In recent years, I’ve tried to figure how to make things for just us that we used to have only at parties. Fried chicken is an example. I’ve written elsewhere about the depressing side effects of deep-frying food in an airless apartment; I have a kitchen with a window now, and I don’t deep-fry anything, certainly not chicken.

(A moment of insight: our apartment usually looks ready for a party. It never looks like we just had one.)

After years and years of preparing fried chicken almost as if it were Wiener Schnitzel — soaking the pieces in buttermilk overnight, then shaking them in a bag of flour and cornmeal and seasoning, and, finally (the Wiener Schnitzel part), setting the coated chicken on a rack in the refrigerator for half an hour or more before frying — I gave batter a try. I combined equal portions of flour and cornstarch, some baking powder, cayenne, paprika, and salt, and added a double portion of water. I stirred it up and set it in the refrigerator for an hour. Then I dipped the chicken in it. I had done nothing to the chicken but brine it — soak it in a quart of water into which I had dissolved a quarter of a cup of salt — also for an hour. I fried the chicken in peanut oil as usual. When it was done, I put it on a serving dish and proceeded to boil some pasta. When the pasta was done, we sat down to dinner. The chicken was delicious. It was lighter and yet more flavorful. This was the other night. The real test came yesterday afternoon, when I could no longer resist the leftover thigh sitting unwrapped on a plate in the kitchen. From the first bite, I knew that I would never go back to the old way.

The skin did not come off in one enormous, slightly rubbery piece. The meat was neither dry nor oily, but still juicy. The flavor almost knocked me out. Finally: picnic chicken! Not leftover chicken! Chicken that improves overnight! It doesn’t improve much, but the flavor does deepen by a notch. The main thing is that it loses nothing.

Thank you, America’s Test Kitchen. And thank you, Ray Soleil, for adverting me to an online book sale. Cooking For Two, apparently the best recipes that Christopher Kimball’s culinary empire discovered in 2011, cut down to serve two, was on offer for ten dollars. I had complained to Ray about the dearth of recipes for two people, and it had not taken him long to find something. The last thing I need is more cookbooks, but I do need new ideas, and my plan is to go through the three ATK books (yes, three; I forget what the deal was, but there was a deal if you bought three), make a list of the recipes that I’m likely to try, and then try them. Run my own little test kitchen. The recipes that work will be copied, with my emendations, into Evernote, and then the books can go on to help someone else.

What I need is not new recipes as such but formulas that (a) serve two people nicely, with no leftovers, (b) can be prepped well ahead, getting everything out of the way except quick, last-minute assembly and the cooking itself, and (c) do not involve fuss at cooking time. In short, I need to get all the heavy lifting out of the way long before Kathleen gets home, no matter when that is. I’ve already got two new staples, and Kathleen is crazy about both of them. One is stir fries. Back in the Seventies, when everyone was discovering the possibility of Chinese cooking at home, I mastered stir fries, but our palates were blander back then. And when Kathleen and I settled in Yorkville, it seemed silly to go to all the work to prep a simple stir fry when we were surrounded by good Chinese restaurants, all of whom delivered.

A few years ago, however, we began to be aware of something. Food that I made at home always tasted better than stuff that we ordered in. Part of this was certainly a function of the transportation problem. (There is really no such thing as a french fry that can survive the delivery process — delay, packaging — with its glory intact.) But more than that, I knew how to cook for the two of us better than the neighborhood eateries. So I began trying to make the things that we were ordering. Stir fries were one, and I’m still working on them; there’s still something missing, although it gets smaller with every dish.

Pizza was the other. Unlike stir fries, I had no history with pizzas. Over the years, I had made perhaps five or six pizzas, and never been encouraged to keep trying. This time, working with the recipe in the 1997 Joy of Cooking, I made a pleasant, slightly boring pizza. I got a little more help with the dough from a book that I found at Amazon, Truly Madly Pizza, by Suzanne Lenzer. The pizzas got better, and I ordered a pizza stone and a peel, have left rather gruddly ones behind in the move to this apartment, and then the pizzas got much better. The basic pizza that has evolved in the past six months serves two very nicely. The tomato sauce is Agata & Valentina’s Arrabbiata Sauce. Atop this I spread a mixture of fennel sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured black olives; the skinned sausage has been cooked and drained, and all the topping ingredients have been chopped together with a mezzaluna. Grated mozzarella goes on top. Somehow, what comes out of the oven hits all the pizza-satisfaction buttons without tasting like anything like a “slice.” At the moment, I am fine-tuning this basic pizza, and in the process internalizing the recipe so that no thought whatsoever is required, just some good music in the background.

I owe thanks for my pizza campaign to my daughter, Megan, who seems, whenever we visit her in San Francisco, to turn out tasty little pizzas in no time at all, while we’re all chatting over a glass of wine. It is true that her son, Will, makes the time fly by. Nevertheless Megan’s example convinced me that making pizza need not be an operation. When she and Will were here for an impromptu dinner one night last summer, I made what Megan told me was Will’s favorite pizza: spinach and mozzarella. Nothing else, just mozzarella sprinkled on and around baby spinach leaves. He ate it all up. Well, there was a corner that he left behind, so I ate it. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as dull as I expected it to be.

A third dish that I’m working on is not on anybody’s delivery menu, nor is it at all palatable, probably, to anyone under forty. It’s Chicken Tetrazzini, a dish that was invented in San Francisco, a few years before the earthquake, for a famous soprano. (First name: Luisa; you ought to hear her sing “Ah, non giunge” from La Sonnambula.) It is also a dish that both Kathleen and I grew up on, thanks to Stouffer’s, the frozen-food people. Bite-sized pieces of cooked chicken breast are immersed in béchamel and stirred up with parboiled green peas and broken-up cooked spaghetti. (Barilla actually sells broken-up spaghetti, a disgrace perhaps but very handy.) This mixture is poured into a gratin dish and topped with Parmesan cheese. Half an hour in a moderate oven will bring a brown blush to the cheese — maybe less, in your oven. We had this the other night, and, unfortunately, we could eat only half of it; the dish could have fed four people. So I’ll be working on that, too; the trick will be learning how to make half a cup of bechamel.

We’re having a friend to dinner tomorrow night. I’m thinking of a light soup, a simple pasta, Elizabeth David’s very straightforward way with veal cutlets (French Provincial Cooking, I think), and I-don’t-know-what for dessert. I’m very tempted to make tapioca pudding, which I haven’t had in an age and which I recently learned has been dusted off as “frozen soufflé.” We’ll see.


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Second Step
October 2015 (IV)

Monday 26th

Loose change: Let’s begin with a bit of lighthearted fun. In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Deborah Friedell takes a look at Michael D’Antonio’s Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. She’s very entertained by it.

‘I have made myself very rich,’ Trump says (over and over again). ‘I would make this country very rich.’ That’s why he should be president. He insists that he’s the ‘most successful man ever to run’, never mind the drafters of the constitution or the supreme commander of the allied forces. Bloomberg puts Trump’s current net worth at $2.9 billion, Forbes at $4.1 billion. The National Journal has worked out that if Trump had just put his father’s money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he’d have $8 billion.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. Finger-painting is the exact infantile correlative of what Donald Trump seems to do when he is not actually writing or cashing checks.


Dept of Mission Statements: “Needs work, to be sure.” I’ll say. All weekend, I tried to remember how I’d put it (without cheating), and I couldn’t. All I could summon was a sense of its inadequacy. Just now, I had a peek. “…rover on the network of human connections.” I do recall thinking, last Friday, that, while this describes a sensation that I should like to convey here, what it’s like to do what I do — and not, as the tradition of objective writing ordains, to cover the tracks that take me to my little discoveries — it falls short as a statement of purpose. In fact, it doesn’t even begin to fall short.

Having just read an interesting and important essay that I wasn’t expecting to encounter, I’m perhaps by that shocked into taking a very different stab at answering the question, This blog, what is it about? What am I after? What am I trying to achieve? What is important to me?

What I am trying to achieve is a comprehensive and coherent but also new way of thinking and writing about the human world, which may arguably be the only world that can be thought and written about. Why “new”? Because I believe that critical thinking — weighing and considering what you are about to say before you say it — is in danger of becoming a lost art, sunk in a sea of power points and jargon. We are in danger of running out of voices that do not tell us what we want to hear.

Indeed, the very instruments of critical thinking are a bit rusty. That became clear to me over the weekend as I read another essay, one that I was looking forward to reading enough to have ordered the book that contains it. These two essays may keep me busy for the rest of the week — by which I do not mean that I’m not going to write about anything else. One essay inspires me, the other irritates me.

The essay that irritates me is Roger Scruton’s “The Aesthetic Gaze.” The one that inspires me is Marilynne Robinson’s “Humanism,” which surprised me when I opened this week’s issue of The Nation to the back pages. I don’t read much of the political stuff at the heart of The Nation, but the “Books and the Arts” section at the rear presents me with the most demanding criticism that I read. To find an essay by this writer with this title was an indescribable treat, meant just for me.


To begin with Marilynne Robinson, I read the piece with great excitement — hey, this is what I’m working on! — but also great caution, the caution occasioned by two brow-raisers. The lesser startler is a statement to the effect that Mozart was not famous when he died — that he was out of vogue and forgotten. This is not true. Mozart may not have been as hot as he had been five years earlier, but there is no way that a man who, within a three-week period and in two different cities, has had two new operas premiered, can be said to have died, a couple of months later, in a “period of eclipse.” It’s a small point, but a stark one.

The second cause for caution is a somewhat unseemly haste that provokes Robinson into firing critical shots upon a group that she calls “the neuroscientists.” Had I been her editor at The Nation (or at FSG, which is going to publish (tomorrow) the essay in a new collection, entitled The Givenness of Things), I should have urged her to find and replace “neuroscientists” with “neuroscience journalists.” For one thing, the reading public rarely comes into contact with statements by neuroscientists that it is prepared to understand. For another, most of what the reading public does understand about neuroscience is written by journalists, not scientists. Third, and sufficient unto itself, those neuroscientists who do address the reading public about their work tend to stress the provisional nature of their findings, the crudeness of their measuring sticks, and the almost incomprehensible strides that will have to be made before we can so much as track a thought in the brain. Maybe it’s just the neuroscientists that I bump into — and I’m sorry that I don’t have any names — but they’re a humble lot. They may not be so humble about Robinson’s imputations.

If you perform the find-and-replace for yourself, however, Robinson’s essay becomes unexceptionable — indeed, magnificent. She begins by asking why it is that the humanities are being neglected today despite having been the boon companions of all the many thinkers who brought forth the modern world from the “rebirth” of “pagan learning” in the Fourteenth Century, and very much “at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization.” She observes that the humanities are indeed “poor preparation for economic servitude.” It becomes momentarily tricky to distinction her sincere statements from the sarcastic ones, but only momentarily; presently, Robinson summons science itself to rescue the humanities. This would be the very latest science, the study of “entangled particles,” of “a cosmos that unfolds or emerges on principles that bear scant analogy to the universe of common sense.” She says a few words about this cosmos, in which “mathematics, ontology, and metaphysics have become one thing.”

Great questions may be as open now as they have been since Babylonians began watching the stars, but certain disciplines are still deeply invested in a model of reality that is as simple and narrow as ideological reductionism can make it. I could mention a dominant school of economics with its anthropology. But I will instead consider science of a kind.

Id est, neuroscience. (For clarity’s sake, I should have altered the first sentence to read “more open now than.”)

What follows is a sometimes intricate argument against the exhaustively materialist claims of neuroscience — or what I would call the claims of neuroscience journalists, among whom I should include Richard Dawkins. People who write about these things for the reading public tend to indulge in atheistical attacks that, Robinson rightly points out, also challenge the idea of personal individuality. How, however, in a world that acknowledges string theory and quantum physics, can anyone claim to know that individuality is unimportant (because only those characteristics that enable an organism “to establish and maintain homeostasis in given environments, to live and propogate” matter), or to know that the self and the soul do not exist? The genius of the essay is the case that it makes against “neuroscientists,” finding that they are not up to date in their scientific thinking and perhaps not really scientists at all.

One might reasonably suspect that the large and costly machines that do the imaging are very crude tools whose main virtue is that they provide the kind of data their users desire and no more.

I believe that this is very unfair. There are surely real scientists who are using this data to design better, less “crude” machines, and who don’t believe for an instant that they know anything final about the brain or about the mind sustained by it. But Robinson is correct, I think, to insist that science has not so much as scratched the validity of claims on behalf of individuality, the self, and the soul. (I ought to note here that, while I do make claims for individuality, simply because it is so material obvious in everyday life, as any walk through Manhattan will demonstrate, I have nothing to say about the self or the soul except “I don’t know.”) What most interested me, as I read her dismissal of “neuroscience as essentially neo-Darwinist,” and therefore as pursuing “a model of reality that has not gone through any meaningful change in a century,” is a surreptitious critique, launched with the mention of “Darwinian cost-benefit analysis,” of that good old “dominant school of economics.”

The worst thing about any kind of success is that it begets inappropriate emulations. As Joan Cusack’s character in Working Girls wisely observes, a passion for dancing around in your underwear does not make you Madonna. I have yet to read an argument holding that the material success of businessmen who kept strict accounts ever inspired any “natural historians,” as scientists used to call themselves, to do the same (but we might make note of those scientists, such as Boyle and Lavoisier, who grew up in somewhat entrepreneurial families), but it has certainly taken a long time for us to see that certain lines of inquiry, especially those concerning human beings, are only very partially amenable to metric analysis. I have always been disturbed by the air of post hoc, propter hoc that hangs over talk about natural selection. “Survival of the fittest” is a circular statement with little currency among biologists but great clout among free-market economists. What could be a more prolific example of “creative destruction” than the bombing of Europe in World War II, occasioning as it did what the French call Les trente glorieuses — the thirty years of booming prosperity that did so much more than just put the continent back together (and that turned out to be anomalous). “Cost-benefit” analysis will always fail wherever benefits cannot be priced accurately. Human benefits appear to be measurable, at least roughly, in the aggregate (this makes insurance practicable), but as the focus approaches the individual, the information becomes less and less useful.

In other words, one of my aims here is to identify important areas of human concern in which keeping strict accounts is not useful, and possibly damaging. Unless I’m mistaken, an alarming number of people, many of whom consider themselves to be successful, do not believe that there are any such areas, and they do a great deal of harm to those who are not successful. Another aim is to identify similarly dubious terms and phrases, many of which come from the world of commerce. Commerce has been the big success story of modern times. Commerce and science have thrived together. The engineer’s determination of how long and strong a screw needs to be flows ineluctably to the businessman’s determination of how much that screw ought to cost. Thus we sweep from science to salary. What’s not quite right about this is that the two determinations are not equally objective, much as they might seem to be. For the engineer is disinterested; he only wants to know something. But the businessman is not only determining a salary. He is also concerned with paying himself. I really do not see much possibility of objectivity there. It follows that the very language of science and of commerce might be inappropriate — certainly inadequate — in considering it.


Tuesday 27th

Now for Roger Scruton. I have here a copy of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2000), the American edition of what was originally just Modern Culture. I have it because my friend Eric photographed a page from “The Aesthetic Gaze,” the fourth essay in the book, and shared it at Facebook. My eye was drawn to this statement:

Without tradition, originality cannot exist: for it is only against a tradition that it becomes perceivable.

I wholly agreed with this. Without tradition, or a sense of “normal,” originality is indistinguishable from the random and chaotic. The best examples of originality carry within them the bit of tradition upon which they are working a variation.

Eric’s Facebook entry was tantamount to a recommendation, so, as I make a point of following recommendations (unless I’ve a reason not to), I tracked down the author and his book, and here, as I say, it is.

Reading “The Aesthetic Gaze,” I was unable to find much else to agree with. it wasn’t that I disagreed with Scruton’s statements so much as that I disagreed with his way of thinking. Then I went back to the beginning of the book and read the first three essays, the second of which, “Culture and Cult,” is also quite substantial. Now I don’t know which to address first, “The Aesthetic Gaze,” with its antique philosophical apparatus (for which I have no use), or “Culture and Cult,” which ignited a cerebral explosion.

Before I’d read very far in “Culture and Cult,” I noticed that Scruton was talking an awful lot about the dead and death. What he was saying made sense — religion probably does originate in respect for the dead. But the focus on the dead, on the past, on judgment and atonement, and on alienation from the tribe made me impatient, because, to me, they are simply not that important. The dead are dead. They leave behind memories that die with the rememberers. In some cases, they leave independent material traces, artifacts that, made by them when they were alive, merit preservation, at least for the time being. In those cases, it is the artifacts that are of interest. Mozart’s music, and his rather interesting biography, remain, but it is something of a relief to me that no one knows where his bones lie.

Then I came to the following passage.

The cult of ancestors is the surest motive for sacrifice, and for the “readiness to die” on which the future of a society depends. It goes hand in hand with caring for offspring, and for offspring’s offspring, who come into being as a sacred pledge to those who have departed. The desecration of a grave is, on this account, a primary form of sacrilege…”

No, no! I broke off. Enough with the dead! Let’s get back to those offspring! They’re what matters, and regarding them as “a sacred pledge” to the dead is ghoulish. It was at this point that the explosion occurred. Or perhaps it was simply a moment of supreme illumination. In any case, new connections were made and fused in an instant. Unfortunately for some regular readers, these new connections were centered on a strange aspect of the thinking of Hannah Arendt.

When I was reading my way through Arendt, two years ago, I was regularly jarred by her references to “newborns.” Occasionally (perhaps only once), she referred to newborn children as invaders, which sounded bizarre, at least at first. I got what she was saying, but it still seemed out of place, like laughing in church, to talk about birth, infants, and children in a philosophical, or at least seriously thoughtful, discussion of contemporary crises. Once upon a time, thinkers didn’t talk about children at all, ever, except to call them innocent and ignorant. Then, thinkers developed a way of talking about children that highlighted their development, and new ideas about pedagogy were generated. But children were still bracketed apart, talked of separately. The weird thing about Arendt was her constant incorporation of them as invaders (whether she used the term or not) in her analysis of the human condition.

In the course of the explosion that occurred in my mind, Arendt’s talk about newborns instantly ceased to be weird. Newborns became, for me, the central, the original issue in any talk about culture, society, life — whatever. And then, a few lines later, Scruton said something that clinched it.

The sexual revolution of modern times has disenchanted the sexual act. Sex has been finally removed from the sacred realm: it has become “my” affair, in which “we” no longer show an interest. This de-consecration of the reproduction process is the leading fact of modern culture.

That’s as may be, but how can we regret it? The sexual act is of no interest, except to the actors. Whatever ought to be sacred (and therefore common knowledge), sex ought not. The reproductive act is significant only if and when it results in reproduction: it is birth that is significant. Now that we all know what birth looks like, from movies if not from personal experience — an idea that in my youth was regarded as nothing less than obscene — we understand, as never before, the miracle that the birth of a healthy child really is. We may understand the science (or think we do), but birth remains an obvious, self-proving miracle.

It was one of those intellectual reconfigurations that appears to have occurred in a great rush but which, as the excitement recedes, turns out to have already taken place, awaiting only illumination to be perceived. I saw that almost everything that I have written about here for the past couple of years has concerned, in some way or other, the transformation of rudimentarily human infants into contented but responsible adults. The common word for this transformation is “education,” but education covers, at best, only the things that adults can do to try to help the transformation along. Nor does education grasp the scope of “contentment” or “responsibility.” For, as we now know, the children of today will have to teach their children how to live in the world much more frugally than we do.

In short, we don’t know very much about the transformation of children into adults — into the adults that human beings are going to have to become if they are going to preserve their global homeland. All we know is that, while children do seem to need love, they don’t care to dilate on this subject, but prefer to behave as if they hated all authority. The management of children is an oblique, if not an occult, business.


Suddenly I understood why there are so few women among the philosophers — they’re not men. How like a man to focus on “the sexual act” in a guilty way. That was the fun part; and that is what chains him to responsibility for the ensuing child. And that’s what limits his interest to the welfare of his own children. I suddenly saw why the child care and the increased salaries for teachers that women have been crying out for since before the first bra was burned have not been forthcoming. Men remain profoundly unconvinced that they personally have any responsibility for the children of other men. (Liberal politicians are indeed simply giving other people’s money away.) Women certainly appear to believe that their own children are the best, but only disturbed women want their children to live apart from other children. It is my impression that women understand that the health of the community is a not negligible factor in the health of their children. Men seem inclined to view the community as an interference with their authority. I know plenty of elite men who believe otherwise, who share their wives’ view of the community, but no leader has emerged to change the mind of the general public.

You might argue that a man’s preoccupation with his own death is a function of his imaginative inability to engage with children.


Let me be perfectly clear: I am not trying to suggest that everybody ought to have children. Not at all! But beyond observing that some people seem to have more aptitude for raising children than others, and that some people don’t appear to be cut out for parenthood at all, I little to say: this is one of the many aspects of child-centered culture that requires a better understanding. Nor do I have any great insights about younger adolescents, except to recommend that they be housed away from home for a considerable stretch of this painful period.

I do want to point out that a culture that is focused on its children is in a state of constant self-review. What do we know that our children need to know? What do they need to find out that we don’t yet know? How can we lead them away from our mistakes?


The little patch that I’m working on is how to deal with the past. What to take from it, what to set aside. What, in rare cases, to lose. “The past” seems immense, and indeed, it has left us more books than anyone can read; but in fact very little of the past survives. Very little. In the area of writing alone, consider all the vanished shopping lists. Looking at a thick metropolitan telephone directory from the middle of the last century, consider all the conversations conducted via all those listed numbers. The oldest dresses that survive date to the late Seventeenth-Century; everything older has disintegrated. We have almost no idea of what Everyday Latin sounded like in the Roman Forum. Those cave paintings — what and why? Were there lots of such paintings, and only the ones buried in deep caves survived? Or was there a craze of adolescent derring-do? No, there isn’t much left.

But what do we do with what has survived? I hope that reading Roger Scruton will provoke a few ideas.


Wednesday 28th

And now for something completely different. (A Monty Python tag that I don’t know how to punctuate, but an agreeably ironic way of introducing the subject of this paragraph.) I went to the doctor yesterday. I went to two doctors, actually. I had that talk about scleritis with the rheumatologist. He agreed that my Remicade infusions can no longer be so widely spaced. (The protocol calls for eight weeks between infusions; for a few years, I was managing thirteen weeks nicely. The most recent infusion, which was preceded not only by the spontaneous inflammation of my eye but by a depression blacker than any I have ever experienced — only when I was writing here did life feel light enough a load to carry — followed the last one by eleven weeks.)

What I did not discuss with the rheumatologist — although I’d been prepared to — was my leg. My left leg was distinctly red and a little bit warm. There was no swelling, but the skin was tight. It did not hurt to walk, but it did hurt when I was just sitting down. The condition presented itself last Thursday, and there were several moments of horror over the weekend when another trip to the Emergency Room seemed to be in the offing. First thing Monday, I made an appointment with the internist, who is without a doubt my master doctor, the physician at the center of my many cases, even though endocrinology is not a specialty with any bearing on what ails me. I saw the good doctor yesterday. He examined me and sent me on my way without so much as a prescription. The leg still hurts, but the pain is unaccompanied by anxious uncertainty. And I knew all along that I was in for something.

I knew that I was “in for something” when — well, here’s what happened. The woman who cleans our kitchen and bathrooms had just been (this would be a week ago Friday), and when I went to take a shower after she left, I neglected to make sure that the bathmat was firmly pressed to the bottom of the tub. When I stepped in with my right foot, and the bathmat slid a bit, my left foot hastened to regain balance by closing the distance between feet. Unfortunately, my left foot was still outside the bathtub. There was an enormous thwack as it slammed against the tub. I steadied myself somehow; I don’t think that falling was ever a danger. (Except that falling is always a danger.) But I could tell from the ache in my calf that I was probably in for a big bruise.

There was a great deal of swelling, a mound almost big enough to enclose an egg. But the bruising never materialized. The swelling receded, and by Tuesday (this would be a week ago yesterday), I was experiencing nothing worse than an occasional twinge.

Then, Thursday night, while Kathleen was flying home from a quick trip to California, I felt the tight skin at the bottom of the calf, and a soreness at the instep, and I saw the blush of red. As I say, there was no swelling, and that was somewhat reassuring. Curiously, the redness did not surround the area where there had been swelling; it was all below that. I began to wonder if there was even a connection between the bang in the tub and this new irritation. I imagined all sorts of things, and each involved the administration of massive antibiotics in the Emergency Room, along with, no doubt, another unnecessary fuss about my blood pressure, heart rate, &c &c, which are under medical supervision at the moment and of no genuine ER concern.

I walked to the doctor’s office, on 72nd Street. I was a bit early. He took me into his office as he always does. I told him what had happened, and I told him about the scleritis for good measure, for, by this time, I was almost hoping that the leg business was another crazy spontaneous inflammation, even though this would mean that Remicade had stopped being effective. The scleritis made a certain sense if I was overdue for an infusion (as I evidently was), but my red calf made no sense two weeks after an infusion. When I had done talking, the doctor led me to an examining room and took a look for himself.

His conclusion was that the collision had ruptured blood vessels close to the bone. He looked at me and told me something that I really didn’t know: “Tissues don’t like blood.” When blood gets into places where it doesn’t belong, inflammation results. Eventually, the haemorrhaged blood (my term, not the doctor’s) gets flushed out. In the meantime, I ought to elevate the leg whenever possible, and wrap it in warm cloths, because heat, and not ice, is what’s called for in this situation.

I walked home from the rheumatologist’s office, which is only a few blocks from the internist’s. My leg was rather red. Walking is kind of the opposite of elevation with warm cloths.

Like the scleritis, a big nothing. But until yesterday, I lived with this big nothing against the lurid backdrop of the Emergency Room, a trauma unit that I found utterly traumatizing. On top of all the discomforts of an inadequate cot and no convenient loo, there was the din. Imagine a crowded subway car in which every passenger is speaking in an outside voice. Top that off with perfectly maddening beeps and bells. Add the occasional cry of pain. The only certainty was uncertainty. When I try to remember what the Emergency Room actually looked like, I see instead those medieval illuminations of the Last Judgment, or perhaps of the moment right after that, when crowds of agonized naked people are being stuffed into the maws of two-mouthed monsters. Just as the rich owners of those apocalyptic visions were terrified by the thought of eternal torment, so I dread, a little bit every day, another trip to the Emergency Room. This dread enhances the alertness with which I take care of myself.


In the late afternoon, dead tired after my medical adventures, I read the last couple of pages of Simon Winder’s Danubia. As the friend who gave it to me promised, I found it thoroughly amusing. But it was also far more substantial than I expected it to be. It was substantial in an unexpected way. Winder is amusingly apologetic about the tale that he wants to tell — the careers of the Hapsburg Emperors — and frequently promises to tell us as little of it as is absolutely necessary, since he expects that we’d be easily bored by too much detail. Danubia is not a very demanding history in that sense of the word. But for anyone who has done a modicum of demanding reading already, Danubia is something more than a plain history. It is rich in judgment and reflection. Because I’d read Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, for example, I felt that, in the passage snipped below, Winder was reminding me of an experience that I myself had had, having entered the world of Balint Abady.

As the First World War approached it became ever more complicated to be a Hungarian politician — not only did many suffer from a pathological aversion to the Austrians and their relentless attempts to undermine the Compromise or at least revise its terms, but there was upheaval across much of the kingdom. However many Magyarized [adopted Hungarian language and customs], it was never enough.

The Dual Monarchy that constituted the Hapsburg’s next act, after the deconstruction of the Holy Roman Empire, was always doomed to be a farce, so long as the Emperor ruled always from Vienna and came to Budapest for ceremonial purposes only. It was also a folly because there were more than two major constituencies within it, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir who was assassinated at Sarajevo) dreamed of beginning his reign with an invasion of Hungary and a proclamation of “Trialism,” which would enlarge upon the duality, to recognize the new Empire’s many (and many different kinds of) Slavs. If you don’t know much about the Hapsburgs or Central Europe, Danubia is an entertaining introduction. If you do know a thing or two, Danubia becomes quite thought-provoking.

For example, I was impressed by the simple power of Winder’s explanation for the failure of most of 1848′s revolutions.

A very broad spectrum of people could agree with the statement “It’s disgusting and embarrassing to be ruled by King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies,” but a decision on what to do next was much harder.

It was the failure to agree on the next step that allowed the military their chance, and the results were ferocious.

The failure to agree on the second step. Oh, how true! My mind spun a bit, and, when it stopped, I saw that the most successful revolution in history may well have been the real American Revolution. Not the one that began in 1776 and ended in 1783. No, the one that ran from 1787 to 1789, the revolution that limited itself to clarifying that second step, which it did in the document that we call the Constitution. The Confederation of the new United States had quickly shown itself to be a failure; everyone could agree that it needed to be junked. But nothing happened until the second step was in place, and elections could be set for Congress and for the Presidency. There seems to have been not an iota of violence. Such revolutions are unlikely to be possible, however, as revolutions are rarely engineered by the grand and the great.

One insight that emerged from reading Danubia was the awareness that the Hapsburg arrangement was doomed by the Enlightenment not because either of its empires were confused, irrational entities but because increased literacy led directly to increased nationalism, and it was nationalism that made the Austrian Empire look anachronistic. Nationalism was new and good, back in those innocent days of the early Nineteenth Century. From the moment that Herder concocted the formula of Kultur, European cosmopolitanism was endangered.

To teach people to read, you have to settle on a language to teach them; you will find it easiest to teach them to read the language that they already know. The imaginations of the newly literate are quickly swollen with new ideas and undreamed-of vistas, and languages oblige by singing the praises — praising the “national virtues” — of their speakers. That literacy should be so closely connected to demagoguery is very depressing, but this has been known since ancient times. For centuries, it was a positive conservative defense of restricting literacy.

But that is not our problem now.


Thursday 29th

Last night, having sipped perhaps a bit too much wine, and at loose ends about what to read, I fell into a dim meditation on power. The tone, although unvoiced, was incantatory. I was telling myself things in the ringing tones of an Orson Welles. I was challenging myself with overlooked truths. And of course I was exaggerating. I could imagine Conrad’s Marlow as, having heard me out, he regaled a company of after-dinner sailors with an account of my astonishing remarks. “‘I was supposed to have been a mighty man.’ said Keefe, quite as if the thought had not occurred to him before.”

Power has always puzzled me. I have always had enough for my purposes, and so I haven’t had to think much about it. Although I had no idea, when I was young, of what I would “do” when I grew up, what my career would be, it can’t have been a serious problem, because here I am at nearly seventy, still without a career but pretty good at what I want to do, which is to read and write. What this has to do with my being a physically imposing man remains mysterious to me, but I am sure that there is a connection. I do not think of myself as particularly confident — I am always fretting about something — but my body is very confident, in an indolent sort of way. It is overweight and stiff, this body, but it is big. It is often frowning — perhaps scowling would be the word (because of the fretting) — but it is usually composed, still. Many people respond to this body of mine by surrounding it with a margin of empty space. When I walk through a crowd, the crowd has a way of parting like the Red Sea. I was unaware of this for most of my life (which is also part of the puzzle), and when it was pointed out to me, I was mortified to learn that I apparently behave with obnoxious entitlement. But it isn’t I. It’s this body that I’ve been stuck with. My body is entitled, and it knows it. Other people have always told it so.

Just think — as I suspect my mother never stopped thinking — what it would have been like had I been the sort of man to make use of this body! This body was meant to be inhabited by someone of importance! When I was getting to be big, as distinct from just taller than the other boys, I excited a lot of disappointment in teachers and other men in charge. I felt that they wanted me to be something that I wasn’t — athletic and commanding — but they were only asking me to be what they saw. They wanted me to live up, as they might have put it, to my God-given body. I didn’t pay any of this much attention, because there was always a bigger battle raging on the subject of my intelligence, which, it was felt, I also wasn’t using as I ought to do. I was ashamed of my inability to be smart in the right way, but it did strike me as a genuine inability. My problem, as I saw it, was to figure out what to do with my intelligence, and I poured everything into that. I ignored the body problem, and, long before I made much progress on the brains front, it went away. I didn’t notice that it had gone from being a problem to being an asset. I’m somewhat ashamed these days to realize how much and for how long I’ve taken advantage of it.

Or so I say. Then I snap out of it and realize that my body is me, not a suit of clothes on a hanger in the closet. It has a lot to do with the way I think. It has given me an unusual amount of freedom in the world. It has taught me, for example, that the exercise of power, to the extent that it is not also an exercise of authority, is very wicked, if only because it is so toxic for the person doing the exercising, and not unlike an addictive drug. How can such coercion be prevented? I have no idea. I feel lucky, for having been too distracted by reading and writing to play power games. And for being big enough not to have had to fight for my autonomy. But the very fact that I’ve been lucky is dismaying. What about everybody else?

Why can’t everybody be big? Why can’t we create childhoods in which big is a quality, and not a quantity?


I thought that I’d be writing more about Roger Scruton than I have done. I keep putting off re-reading “The Aesthetic Gaze,” the essay that got me interested in him in the first place. I put it off because reading it the first time stirred up so many ideas that, while perfectly familiar to me, were now, suddenly, ideas that I not only hadn’t entertained recently but in fact rejected. I want to deal a bit with some of those ideas before going back and finding out that I misread Scruton, that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying. I also want to have a clearer idea of what I do think instead.

In “Culture and Cult,” I believe, Scruton attributes to Matthew Arnold the first full articulation of the fine arts as a replacement for lost religion. If we can no longer sincerely worship the God of our fathers, then we can at least worship the beauty of a painting by Raphael. There is something desperate about this replacement and I have never believed in it. Easy for me to say, as I’ve never had any kind of faith in that way; but what I believed was that it couldn’t work — art could not take the place of God for people who had lost faith in God. This, I think, is what Adorno nailed when he said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Mere art, all-too-human-made art, could never present the ennobling, inspiring mirror of God’s love. Art has no ethical content.

But Scruton seems to believe that, as long as we go about it in the right way, art can provide our lives with meaning — with the kind of meaning that would guard us against the commission of horrible deeds. I have a lot of trouble with the search for meaning. I don’t really get it. If you asked me, “Why are you writing?”, meaning what is the purpose of what you’re doing, I shouldn’t have an answer for that, either, because the question makes no sense to me. But what interests me about Scruton’s thinking (if “interests” is the word) is his description of the right way to make art yield meaning. The way to do it is to pursue art as an end in itself, and not as a source of meaning. (Consciousness, as for so many conservatives, is often deadly for Scruton.) Using art as a means to meaning would be fatal. I can’t say that I don’t understand this language of objective and instrument — of ends and means — but I do believe that it amounts to no more than a puddle of words. You can talk about means and ends — you can profess to find an urgent difference between the one and the other — but you can talk about Ptolemaic epicycles, too, without making much less sense to me.

In human life, everything is means to an ever-unrealized end. I think that it’s because the end is endlessly unfolding that some people develop a hankering for purposelessness, for a withdrawal, however momentary, from the onrush of living action. Perhaps I can’t tell you what is meaningful about my writing, but I can tell you about the satisfaction that it brings and the hopes that I nurture for its readers. You could say that my satisfaction is an end, but does it really make any sense to apply the solid, product-y end to something as ephemeral as satisfaction? You could say, baldly, that my hopes are a means for making the world a better place, but I would probably talk about them as if they were ends in themselves. Whether my writing is a matter of “means” or a matter of “ends” depends upon how the light hits the discussion. To fuss over the distinction is to play one of those boys’ games that consume intelligence in pursuit of posturing.

I don’t believe that human beings are capable of the absolute disinterest that would be required for treating any thing or any action as “an end in itself.” We ourselves, our children and our children’s children are the ever-changing, never-changing end of everything that we do. If you want to feel that you are doing something as an end in itself, take a nap.


Friday 30th

It must seem that I’m not paying attention to the political news, which in fact I follow assiduously. I can’t bring myself to write about it, though; I’m only going to repeat myself. Whether the candidates and voters (or fans) are behaving exactly as I expect them to, or whether I simply can’t see what’s actually going on through the jungle of my old analyses is hard to tell. But it’s boring either way. It’s hard to believe that anything new is going to happen in this country anytime soon, or that it is going to do anything but slowly fall apart.

Of course I blame the South. That is, I blame Abraham Lincoln. Nicholas Lemann has a fine piece in the current New Yorker about the “Southernization” of federal politics, and in it he quotes Lincoln.

“It will become all one thing or all the other,” Abraham Lincoln declared of the beleaguered, slavery-stressed Union, in his “House Divided” speech. In fact, the South and the rest of the nation have one of those hot-blooded relationships — the major one, in American history — which never settle into either trustful intimacy or polite distance.

In other words, Lincoln was wrong. The United States is neither one thing nor the other, but simply a mess. Southerners are no longer confined to the South, and ever since Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” people of small minds everywhere vote Republican as a way of resisting attacks on the fantasy of American exceptionalism. By the way, as long as I’ve got Lemann on the page, I ought to finish a thought that he leaves dangling when he cites Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. Slavery certainly seemed to be essential to the Industrial Revolution, but when it was abolished, the quickly-evolved new model, sharecropping, was exported throughout the cotton-growing world, a development that Beckert covers in detail. So slavery wasn’t, after all, essential; it’s possible that it never made economic sense. Slavery was essential in ancillary ways — the massive kidnapping of Africans created a working population out of nothing; the sexual entitlement of white slave-owners degraded even as it generated a defenseless African-American community — but not in industrial ways.

When I say that the North ought to have let the South secede (and I do say that), I’m nonetheless aware that there would have been some kind of war, if only to keep the South and its slavery out of the West. But that didn’t happen, so there’s no point dwelling on it (except to take a much, much harder look at Lincoln, great and noble man though he were). The South is like a metastasized cancer, its music and its militarism flowing freely throughout the land. It sometimes seems to me that the Southern drawl has inflected not only the American vulgate but the Anglophone vulgate. Yadda yadda yadda; I’ve said all this before.

The truly awful thing about the “Southernization” of American politics is that it is fundamentally anti-political. In the traditional South, power is exercised through hierarchical processes; elections, where they are not confrontations between unitary blocs (blacks vs whites, for example), are token affairs. The guy who ought to win is anointed in the back room, from which issues a word to the wise. Women, God love ‘em, serve almost as mechanical governors, making sure that hegemonic complacency doesn’t stray too far from rough ideas of justice. But that complacency does ensure a monumental stability, and a homogenization that either marginalizes or criminalizes social deviations. Nobody, anywhere, really likes political action; it is impossible without compromise and it often requires the alliance of enemies, characteristics that expose politics to the charges, however simple-minded, of dishonesty and hypocrisy. It is easy to see why some might prefer the “politics” of the firearm.

The disregard for political integrity — yes, there is such thing — coupled with economic adversities that no one seems to understand (and that make some people filthy rich!), has produced the clown car of Republican hopefuls among whom only one, Marco Rubio, is both attractive and viable. (As David Brooks points out, Jeb Bush would be a great candidate — if it were 1956.) We shall see if party operatives can assure that he prevails as the Republican nominee. On the Democratic side, voters are always demanding more political integrity — whatever that is — than Hillary Clinton can provide. Clinton is competent, certainly, but she cuts corners — corners that too often turn out to be the wrong corners. I pity the candidate her renewed exposure to the undying wrath of Maureen Dowd, but I do agree with Dowd that Clinton ought to have followed the Benghazi situation more closely and certainly more directly. Claiming that she had 270 ambassadors to worry about was precisely the typical Clinton gaffe. Having taken the first step, getting rid of Libya’s infamous dictator, she was responsible for the second step, what next, and this included, at the minimum, arranging for diplomatic security. So while perhaps Hillary Clinton didn’t do anything wrong in the Benghazi disaster, she didn’t do anything particularly right, either. And this is, as I say, typical. Clinton is a manager by nature, not a leader; her idea of leadership is for everybody to get out of her way. So it’s no wonder that genuine centrists are unhappy with Clinton, while those to the left are understandably wild about Bernie Sanders. Smart centrists will cast passionate ballots for Clinton, but only for the sake of the Supreme Court nominating process. And they’re worried that too many of the voters who aren’t so smart, and for whom the Supreme Court is something of an abstraction, will stay at home, throwing the election to the Republican cutie-pie. Or the Donald, as the case may be.

It would be a sin to let all this invective fly by without aiming a few shots at the media. We will take as read into the record the stupefying impact of network television news. In one of my fantasy variations on the Kingsman theme, anyone who watches more than an hour of television news a week is hypnotized into sleeping through the election, and a thousand and twenty-nine voters show up to vote, the twenty-nine being Republicans. What interests me somewhat more is television’s parasitic dependence on politics. Where does all that campaign financing go? But a parasite doesn’t just suck your blood; it makes you sick. Television serves up the likes of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, both of whom, say what you will, make for good television. Not to mention the tycoon who just fired Iowa. I should be mystified by the persistence of the extravagantly unattractive Ted Cruz, if it weren’t for the prominence, even in the Times, of news about zombie shows.

I wonder who told Jeb! that a diet would do it?


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
What’s It About?
October 2015 (III)

Monday 19th

“Well-behaved women seldom make history” is a comment that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich made in a scholarly article in 1976. In 1995, it was picked up by a journalist. By the following year, it had entered a book of “quotations by women,” and, with Ulrich’s permission, it was printed on a T-shirt. I’d like to say that I was familiar with it, but I wasn’t, and that is probably why I flipped through Ulrich’s book when Kathleen brought it home. I noticed a chapter on Christine de Pizan, the educated courtier who, round about 1400, wrote The City of Women. There were also chapters on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. I was intrigued by Christine, and irritated by not knowing anything about Stanton — except that, unlike Susan B Anthony, she was plump. And then I wondered what Virginia Woolf would look like in this company.

Ulrich is a historian; her subject, back in 1976, was the good women of Puritan New England, through whose obituaries ran a strange kind of praise: they were admirable because they didn’t make history. Ulrich wrote,

Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been.

History was made by men; everybody knew that — until it became clear, in the Seventies, that the traditional hierarchies of Western life were not going to survive the cataclysms of the Twentieth Century. The denial of civil rights to Jews in Nazi Germany turned out to be malignant not only to the Jews, but to the order that condemned them as well. As soon as the West recovered from the more percussive shocks of World War II, people who didn’t happen to be white heterosexual males decided, in millions of decisions made at millions of moments, in a cascade that has been pouring for decades, that white heterosexual males were not entitled to tell other kinds of people who they were and what they could and could not do.

As a corollary of this extreme revisionism — which, if you ask me, is responsible not only for the reactionary anti-politics, posing as conservatism, that has infected so many Americans with dangerous lunacy (and some Europeans as well), but also for the punitive anxiety of patriarchs throughout Africa and the Middle East — it began to seem, about fifty years ago, that the things that white heterosexual males had done were not the only things worth remembering. Hence the new fields of history that scholars like Ulrich began to plow.

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007) is Ulrich’s meditation on women making history. It is lucid and interesting, particularly in its account of the struggle of black women for personal autonomy, a tangent opened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s encounter with a runaway slave in 1839. “Slaves in the Attic,” arguably the heart of Ulrich’s book, ends with the ironic observation that Stanton’s autobiography, written in 1898, completely overlooked the new shackles of Jim Crow (and somewhat milder correlatives in the North). This is a reminder that the fight for freedom is almost always personal: I want mine; you fight for your own. The tendency, once freedom has been attained, is to ignore the fact that other people lack it. And men, fifty years ago, had no trouble at all believing that women were happy homemakers; women who weren’t happy homemakers were usually ugly, and that explained everything.

It was the sixth chapter, however, “Waves,” that stirred me most. At the beginning of the chapter, Ulrich touches on the metaphor of waves: waves come and go. They wash over the land, and then they recede into the sea. It is already common to speak of “third-wave” feminism. Does this mean that the situation of women today remains provisional? I believe that it does, and that the situation of gay men and women is even more provisional. I’d like to think that recent victories over the patriarchy are secure, but I can’t quite believe it, because newfound freedom naturally invites men and women to express themselves personally, individually. Every day, the bloc of women who identify as feminists in a unitary way grows smaller, because “feminism” means different things to different women. The same is true of the same-sex “community”: it, too, is breaking up. Meanwhile, white heterosexual males are traditionally habituated to form teams to defeat their opponents. They ally themselves with other men, whom they may dislike very much, in order to achieve a common goal: this is called “the principle of the thing.” I look at Silicon Valley’s campaign to replace the open freedom of the Internet with the limiting convenience of the “app,” and I shudder.

“Waves” got to me, too, by reminding me of stages in my own consciousness of women. Feminism was so simple at the start. Feminists demanded “equality.” In fact, they were asking men to shut up, and some feminists even said as much, but the opening discussions concerned political access and employment issues. There ought to be more women in Congress, and so forth; and women ought to be paid what men were paid, and so forth. You could disagree only if you believed that women were inferior to men. Many men did, and do, believe this, but in the absence of any “scientific” argument (beyond a cluster of ignorant misunderstandings about menstruation), it seemed bigoted to say so. So the opponents of feminism stalled wherever possible, and encouraged renegades like Phyllis Schlafly to remind women that most of them do, in fact, hope to have children.

The other day, Gail Collins noted that the percentage of mothers who work is dropping, largely because child-care costs are too high. (The costs are too high, and yet, ironically, the rewards for child-care workers are too low. The same is true of schooling, but most people don’t pay for that.) It bothers me enormously that so little work has been done to explore volunteer neighborhood child-care, a truly social (and positively anti-socialist!) solution to the problem. I can’t begin to understand why an updated curriculum along the old “home economics” lines isn’t taught to all schoolchildren, especially in high school. Everybody needs to know how to keep house — and child-care is a big part of housekeeping. In a neighborhood of educated housekeepers, residents could be trusted to take on, for a few years at a time, the care of small children. Working parents would contribute to the upkeep of the facilities as well as to a fund that would ensure the education of volunteers’ children or grandchildren.

As the foregoing suggests, feminism isn’t simple anymore. It oughtn’t to be.


Last week, Kathleen and I went to our downtown storage unit, tried not to faint at the prospective difficulty of clearing it out (which we’ve been meaning to do for years), and brought home ten cardboard boxes of documents — the rough equivalent of two banker’s boxes. Culling them yesterday, I brought the number down to five, with only a few small stacks of paper — three inches in all; I just measured it — to worry about keeping. I expect that another wearying session will see the end of three more boxes.

I have written before about my unwillingness to read the journals that I kept from my teens into my late twenties; having opened one or two from time to time, I’ve been horrified by what I’ve seen. It’s a sort of Dorian Gray experience, in reverse. Yesterday, I came across a sheaf of onion-skin copies of letters that I typed between 1966 and 1973. At the top of the sheaf were letters to a friend from Notre Dame written in late 1970. I was working at the radio station at the time, but I was still living at my parents’ house; they would gently throw me out the following summer. They had moved to Houston in 1968, and I had worked two very different summer jobs before graduating from college and finding my berth at KLEF. I worked at night and spent the days in my room, evidently unhinged. Reading the carbons, yesterday — I quite violently didn’t want to read them, but I couldn’t bring myself to dump the lot of them without some kind of review. Mixed in were some papers written for a philosophy class. I didn’t look at them at all; I just saved them for the time being.

When I was done, I made dinner and tried to recover my amour-propre. (One of the papers was marked with the professor’s admonition to use fewer French phrases.) All right: my self-respect. It wasn’t easy. Kathleen said, “But you were practically a baby then.” No, I was not a baby. I was, by simple fact of age, a presumptive adult. Actually, now I think of it, no child would have been capable of the profound immaturity that I not only displayed but trumpeted. What was I thinking? Well, I can reconstruct something of my thinking. First, nothing made any difference anymore. I was not the only writing type of person to think that in 1970. All the old values were bankrupt — an idea that dated to the end of World War I at the latest. It was demoralizing, also, to know that I lacked the spirit and enterprise to get out of Houston, an environment that never ceased to be uncomfortable. So, in the interest of finding out what I really believed, I disabled my decorum. I transcribed the stream of consciousness without regard for writerly politeness. I announced, an amazing number of times, that I was “bored today.” I wrote to say that I had nothing to say. And then I demonstrated it.

Just to make the composition absolutely retch-worthy, I adopted the tone of a cosmopolitan eighteenth-century wag. Having expressed the hope that things were not going as badly as they might be for my correspondent, I flourished, tremo e palpito. (I wonder where I got that. I do know where I got another patch of plaster, eh bien, mon cousinDer Rosenkavalier, not a work of the Eighteenth Century whatever its setting.) The insufferable combination of carelessness, fatuousness, insolence, and affectation on every page of those letters turned my blood to sludge. My ears and my cheeks burned. They burn right now at the re-telling.

I threw away all the letters to the above-mentioned, now very former, friend. I saved two or three that I wrote to a much closer friend who has since died. I held onto a sheaf of letters that I wrote to an art historian in the summer of 1973, oblivious of the fact that my marriage was falling apart. I didn’t read this last batch; that’s a pleasure that I’ll save for some other time. I saved a letter from 1966 concerning my account at Blackwells — did I really have a checking account already? It seems so. (I still have no idea how I paid for the books that I bought while at Blair.) Even what ought to be a simple business letter is pimply with pretension.

Dear Sirs,

I have just become aware of the fact that my latest bill has not been paid. I thought that it had been, some time ago. [redundant!] Wanting to maintain my credit, I should, of course, like to pay this due. I have no copy of the bill, however [figures], and would appreciate your sending by air-mail (please bill me if necessary [redundant curlicue!]) my most recent statement.

Thanking you [&c]

Every other second, I jump. How dare you keep a public blog? How, having written that trash, can you show your face? Then I remember that the letters are now dust. “They can’t be that bad,” Kathleen sighed. I declined further argument.

In the end, my project, my search for a truly natural style of writing was a success. I believe that I have described what I called “slash style” elsewhere. It dispensed with all forms of punctuation except the slash (/), and I didn’t capitalize any words. I forced a procrustean justification upon my text, breaking up words (without hyphenation) at the right-hand margin. This, on top of all the other violations, made for as minimal an appearance as could be achieved without giving up words, but it made my prose style seem even more florid. The appeal of this way of doing things got stale pretty quickly. Bit by bit, my radicalism weakened. I resumed ending sentences in the normal way, and beginning them with capitalized letters. I strove to make sense — to write sentences that I should understand a year later. Somewhere around the time of the conversion experience that I mentioned the other day — the Trollope-inspired realization that I must my life change and be a gentleman — I adopted an editorial commitment to writing clearly and with interest at all times. I fail at it all the time — more often than you might think, because I fix a lot of stuff when I edit these pages. I’m still drawn to complicated sentences that appeal to me even though I don’t know exactly what they mean. (Am I a poet?) I get rid of most of them. If I’m going to be difficult to read, it’s going to be for a good reason.

But, oh, how dare I.


Tuesday 20th

Loose Change: How surprised I am that the remarkable cover story in the current issue of The New York Review of Books has not generated more buzz. Am I living on a desert island? (Very possibly.) “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa” is not quite that (a conversation), but more of an interview, and the President is doing the interviewing.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know — I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — “Love they neighbor as thyself” — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as though it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

It’s hard to know where to begin to take account of this published exchange. But it makes me proud. The President of the United States having a literary, spiritual conversation with one of his country’s most important writers! This may happen all the time in France, but I cannot recall anything like it happening here. It is true that Barack Obama talks like a man on the campaign trail. He is someone who is trying to get things done, or at any rate on his way to the next speech. And it is also true that the conversation is not a casual event. If it recorded a bit of quality time that a busy man got to spend with a thoughtful woman, it would not be published. And when I asked myself who the intended reader might be, I couldn’t help thinking of the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. Not that anyone would want to hear Hillary Clinton discuss Christianity — heavens no! Perhaps Obama and Robinson are volunteering to do it for her. They can talk about these things with complete credibility. They can try to persuade voters that there is nothing Christian — really, nothing — about the Republican Party’s policies and anti-policies. They can delicately suggest that the “Christianity” of automatic weapons fanciers is a fabrication not unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


Something in yesterday’s entry left behind an irritating grain of sand. Why don’t white heterosexual men care to express themselves freely, as more recently liberated or enfranchised groups do?

Could it be that white heterosexual men are stuck with the datestamp of their hegemony?

I’m reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, an agreeably playful book about Central Europe. When it was published, a couple of years ago, I feared that it would be too playful, so I stayed away, but a friend gave it to me recently, and, dipping into it, I enjoyed the refresher. You can’t have enough refreshment where Hapsburgs are concerned. So many archdukes, so much geography!

Touring the Siebenbürgen — what Germans call Transylvania — Winder meditates on the fierce conformism that made the villages outside the German-settled towns viable. Everybody did what he or she was supposed to do, or else. There was no margin for creativity, no room for free spirits. The work was rarely very heavy, and often sociable, as Winder points out; but it was always the same. There were no new jokes.

And I thought, yes, that’s how life was everywhere, more or less. Men may have been in charge, but that hardly meant that they were free for caprices. They were as bound to their duties as everyone else, bound perhaps a little more tightly. They were expected to set an example, not just to boost morale but to instruct the young. Men were the fountains not only of virtue but of conformity.

Things changed. Being big and strong and free from child-care were no longer sufficient, or even necessary, to run things or to set society on the right path. What was necessary in the new, industrial world was intelligence. Amazingly, however — as any survey of executive suites will confirm — intelligence has not been a substitute for height and freedom from domestic concerns. Strength and freedom are still important criteria for top jobs. Intelligence has simply been added to the list of requirements.

And conformity has never been taken off the list, even though it’s very much at odds with the exercise of any kind of intelligence. This may be what has made courtiers out of business leaders. They hide in their suits and their golf bags and private jets, doing exactly what the other nabobs are doing. Meanwhile they scheme. They’re a useless lot, mostly, but that’s another matter. The point is that the new industrial order, which did eventually transform opportunities for people who weren’t white heterosexual males, did nothing for the guys. And not only that! Since being big and strong were no longer necessary, but somehow still required for success, it became difficult to demonstrate these qualities. It was no longer the case that the whole town saw you walk down the street with a ram over your shoulders. In traditional society, the markers of masculinity were tapped every day. At a certain point, a wife was acquired and children began to appear, and woe betide the man who could not keep his family in order. (In Lord Jim, which I’m also in the middle of, there’s an amusing little sideshow in which a petitioner claims that he beats his wife, but only a little, just to maintain his standing among the villagers.) You might clearly fail at being a man, but you needn’t worry about it, because, cuckholdry aside, there was so little room for uncertainty.

All that was swept away. Now you can win a shelf of trophies and marry the prettiest girl in the room — and find that it doesn’t salve the anxiety. Am I a real man? All that you can do is go on scheming, and do your best to look the part.

Oh, and you can “play the game,” whatever game it is. But games do nothing for society, local or otherwise.

So, men are bound to conform while at the same time being, thanks to their conformity, rather useless.


Something else clicked, too. Contact with the letters that I wrote when was young reminded me that I came of age at a peculiar moment. I was a misfit, but it seemed, for a brief period, that their might be a future in misfitness. It seemed that many things were changing, but the only thing that changed for good was style. Many years later, I would have a go at corporate life, and discover just how uncongenial it really was, and how confusingly hypocritical. But in 1970, there was a wonderful new word: alternative. It turned out to be French for broke. At the very best, respectably unsuccessful. More likely descriptors: eccentric and disappointing. It was my belief in alternative careers that kept me at the radio station for so long. I had a demanding job, and I did it well enough to keep it for more than five years. I derived a lot of satisfaction from it, too. But I was always running to my father for money; the job never really covered the basics. (And, in those days, books and records were my only luxuries.)

The declaration that I want to make now is that my parents — not my mother, and certainly not my father — had nothing to do with my growing up to be a misfit. There! What a relief to get that out of the way. I’ve been wondering what my parents did to make it take me so long to find real satisfaction in life, and it turns out: nothing.

They saw it coming, but, even though they did what they could to help me develop otherwise, and even though their efforts did nothing to make the problem worse, I was doomed, I think from birth, always to be odd. There was a period, about ten years ago, when I seriously looked into the possibility that I belonged on the Aspie spectrum — and I still haven’t ruled it out altogether, although the therapist whom I was seeing at the time laughed the idea out of court. (I am not currently seeing a therapist, by the way; it occurred to me that I was too old to fix.) What’s wrong with me? Well, for one thing, I’m almost pathologically rogue. Aside from cooking and talking, I do not enjoy doing things with other people. No; what I like to do with other people is to imagine what their lives are like. I’d love to say that I’m driven by empathy, but in fact it is the merest feline curiosity. I don’t envy anyone, especially as, now that I’m an old man, I know in my bones that people never truly appreciate those qualities that make them enviable. There is something awfully flat about being, consciously, enviable. Nevertheless, I wonder what it is like to be, not famous or brilliant or sexy, but just — somebody else. Novels have done nothing to diminish this interest of mine.

My imagination has developed a powerful inflection toward everything that is not, in fact, the case. This sustains my interest in history, which is all about people and places that are gone forever. (But history relates things that were, once upon a time, actual. This vital savor I find lacking in science fiction. Why follow Game of Thrones when you can watch Richard III?) It also makes me very annoying to work with. No sooner have I learned how things are done than I can “see clearly” how they might be done better. For a long time, the first thing that I would talk about after the curtain fell on a play was the scene that would certainly have been improved by a few changes in the dialogue, or maybe the blocking. You might say that I began to enjoy life only when I became too tired to sustain this impatience at times when I ought to be enjoying myself. I have tried hard to overcome the perverse variety of impatience that gets in the way of pleasure. I remain deeply impatient with the world in general, however, because it never turns at the proper speed, and is always falling off the counter onto this apartment’s unreasonably hard kitchen and bathroom floors, breaking, and making a mess. (!)

What nonsense! It’s true that I don’t envy anybody now, but, when I was a kid, I envied just about everybody. I wanted desperately to escape from my life. And my mother certainly had something to do with that; I wanted, quite openly at times, to escape her. I wanted to escape her because I was a misfit, not because she made one out of me. My mother tried everything short of incarceration and arsenic to make me one of the guys. And if she failed, I think anybody would have failed.

This is the point at which one might be tempted to lament the company of at least one compatible, congenial, similarly misfit parent, but I’m not stupid.

I think that there were more career opportunities for someone like me in the ancien régime, or even a century and a half ago. I’m thinking of Trollope’s Mr Dove, the barrister who knows all that there is to know about paraphernalia, in The Eustace Diamonds. (And you, silly you, thought that “paraphernalia” was just “stuff.”) I could have been

soft as milk to those who acknowledged his power, but a tyrant to all who contested it; conscientious, thoughtful, sarcastic, bright-witted, and laborious. He was a man who never spared himself. If he had a case in hand, though the interest to himself in it was almost nothing, he would rob himself of rest for a week should a point arise which required such labour.

Perhaps not. Mr Dove was probably easier to get along with when he was starting out. I might have had a dandy career on Wall Street, if only the Labor Department had taken its ERISA responsibilities regarding pensions and IRA plans more seriously. But let’s not play that old song. I am definitely the kind of man who could bone up on obscure points of the law and still ask for more. All I ask is that they be obscure. The law was much more fun, you’ve got to admit, when it was still tangled up in medieval roots. My legal career was probably sealed when they stopped speaking Law French.

That kind of misfit. The pre-electronic smarty.


Wednesday 21st

We love our grandmothers, and we’re thankful to them, but we don’t want to be them. When I look around this room, at the faces of the women of my generation, I see women who want to express all the different sides of themselves. There are times when we want to speak out against the injustices of the world. And there are times when we want to put on stilettos and a little black dress and find a party.

That’s Willa Ruth Stone, allegedly the voice of younger feminists, in Brian Morton’s novel of last year, Florence Gordon. The title character, a leading grandmother, so to speak, is sitting on the stage right behind the young and pretty Willa, who is wearing a wireless microphone, so that, unlike the other speaker at this symposium, she can “glide around.” Florence is supposed to be the honoree, but Willa upstages her. We see what’s going on not through Florence’s eyes but through those of her granddaughter, Emily, the book’s actual heroine. Emily is appalled by Willa’s remarks, and her being appalled is a sign that her education is well under way. (Emily has dropped out of Oberlin in a state of highly appropriate intellectual confusion.) Florence, as we also know, has something else on her mind, something personal that is not and cannot be political. Emily is surprised that Willa’s virtual assault does not prompt her grandmother’s fiery rebuttal. Instead, it seems to drain Florence’s energy. From this moment on, the novel proceeds in diminuendo. For everything in life begins, at some point, to recede. Emily, as I say, is the heroine, but her advance is reserved for another time; her bildung begins with her grandmother’s recession.

What does it mean to say, I love you, but I don’t want to be you? The thought nominally expressed is gratuitous: you can never be anybody else. So it must mean, “I love you, but I don’t want to be like you,” which rather undercuts the meaning of “love.” What the statement really means is this: “I love you, but I wish you would go away and die.” Florence Gordon hears this, loud and clear.

What’s wrong with putting on a little black dress and going to a party? Nothing. I’m sure that Gloria Steinem has always had a few slinky numbers in her closet. The problem is in the words. Again, the real meaning, discoverable in the syntax, is not as sweet and anodyne as the words draped upon it. “Sometimes we are angry at the world; sometimes, we just want to forget about it.” The anger at the world is just as transient, just as much a costume, as the little black dress. There is no outrage, but only the appearance of it. The truly outraged remain truly outraged even when they’re out partying. They may smile and flirt — we are complicated animals — but they don’t leave their sense of injustice behind. There is no either/or here, and to claim one, as Willa does, is to preach a very different sermon.

What I take to be Willa’s real outrage is the outrage that has broken out across American universities. It is the outrage of young women who want to find a party without running any of the risks that party-going entails. They want to drink as much as they like, but they want their dignity to be respected even if they cannot stand up. The want to be caressed by casual boyfriends (or even strangers), but not raped. That girls are violated at fraternity drink-a-thons outrages them. When does yes mean yes? This is a question that I wish Joan Didion would take a crack at answering.

Didion’s dismissive essay of 1972, “The Women’s Movement,” is not her best work; it tries to score too many points in too small a space. It falls into two inadequately related pieces. First, she takes on the ideology, the notion that women are an oppressed class, their plight susceptible to Marxist analysis.

If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, “the very organization of nature,” the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, “that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.”

Didion is not impressed. “Ask anyone committed to Marxist analysis how many angels stand on the head of a pin, and you will be asked in return to never mind the angels, tell me who controls the production of pins.” (That’s a good one, but it sounds to me like something that Didion heard one of her dashing, scalawag men-friends say. It doesn’t sound quite like her.)

Then there is the romance, the feminism of women who don’t really understand “the movement” but who want more “fun” out of life. Didion takes this fancy more seriously; she responds to it with a sense of existential tragedy, of the human condition.

No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told that she should. The power of sex is just an oppressive myth, no longer to be feared, because what the sexual connection really amounts to, we learn in one woman’s account of a postmarital affair presented as liberated and liberating, is “wisecracking and laughing” and “lying together and leaping up to play and sing the entire Sesame Street Songbook.” All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it — that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death — could now be declared invalid, unnecessary; one never felt it at all.

Didion, usually lucid, gets pretty mythological herself here; references to living underwater and dark involvements with blood are explicitly murky. The mention of “irreconcilable difference” demands at least a few words about men. I think that Didion is mistaken, but on principle, not because she has the facts wrong. There are no facts, really, which is why I resort to something like Marilynne Robinson’s gloss on “love thy neighbor”: as my neighbor, a woman must be regarded as no less human than myself, no less worthy of respect. Differences may not be “reconcilable,” but they can be overlooked.

But the key paragraph in “The Women’s Movement,” the awful truth, as it were, follows a bizarre catalogue of errors that romantic, not ideological, women make in living out their femininity, such absurd things as amputating their toes to fit pointy shoes (did anyone really do this?).

The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves. The bitter fancies assumed their own logic. To ask the obvious — why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set, or why, the most eccentric detail, she stayed in hotels where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service — was to join this argument at its own spooky level, a level which had only the most tenuous and unfortunate relationship to the actual condition of being a woman. That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and self-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.

I read this with something like the expression that Cary Grant makes when he says, “If it gets dull, you can always go to Tulsa.” What do I mean by that? Too many things! That’s the problem with “The Women’s Movement.” There’s so much, all pressed up together. The “elitism” — I feel obliged to put the word in quotes, as if it were dangerously radioactive — of Didion’s outlook is breathtaking. (Oh, that reference to room service! Less-expensive hotels did not offer it even back in the day.) Elitist life has always bristled with feisty, independent women who made their own way in this man’s world. If you’re smart and determined and endowed with a modicum of independent wealth, you can work out an accommodation with the boys’ club. I should like at this point to say a few things about my wife’s experience, noting, among other things, the intellectual autonomy that that was annealed when she was passed from the clever hands of the mothers at Sacred Heart to the rigorous academic demands of the Brearley. But it is her story to tell, not mine. I will say just this: only lately, in her early sixties, has she stopped simply accepting and begun resenting the condescension and exploitation of many of the men with whom she has worked in the field of securities law. There was no other package. If someone (Joan Didion?) might counter, “Well, why not do something else,” I should reply, rather heatedly, that there is nothing about securities law per se that men excel at. And Kathleen has excelled; as I write, she is participating in panels at an ETF shindig in California, after which she will be interviewed (as she was last year, I recall), by Bloomberg News. Some of her male colleagues admire her with open enthusiasm. Others are, no two ways about it, condescending and exploitative. Kathleen is a woman; ergo.

At least as allergic to Marxism as Joan Didion — although I see its handful of truths more clearly every day — I have never been tempted to regard women as an oppressed class. I can’t approach feminism ideologically, beyond, that is, bearing the Golden Rule in mind, as outlined above. The political aspect of feminism, as distinct from the problematics of the little black dress, has, however, engaged me ever since it resurfaced in cosmopolitan discourse. I should like to see an Equal Rights Amendment. Equal pay for women is a no-brainer. Almost everything else, though, is more complicated. I’m not sure that we are ready to address child-care politically, because we have not even arrived at a viable politics of teacher pay. There is this idea in America, holding that billionaires shouldn’t be taxed redistributively, that rests on the assumption that, while billionaires create value, teachers don’t. If teachers don’t create value, then why do we require education? Teachers create more value than billionaires do; the billionaires simply monetize it. Until we get our thinking straight here, I don’t think that we’ll develop realistic programs for relieving some of the stress and anxiety of young parenthood.

And then there are the housekeeping issues, which aren’t even questions yet. No one is going to get anywhere by complaining that her husband washes a plate and two glasses and thinks that he has “done the dishes.” Again, it’s an educational problem: men should emerge from secondary schools knowing what housework is, and that good housekeeping is not something that women take care of but a badge of self-respect, not unlike the one earned by keeping fit.

Finally, there seems to be a structural limit to the development of a feminist, as distinct from a more comprehensively humanist, politics. Just as few men, after a certain age, dream of “running things,” so it is that not every woman seeks genuine independence. Does this mean that, like Mrs Wilcox in Howard’s End, any woman is genuinely happy about being unable to vote? Who knows? It is not incumbent on us as human beings to clarify our positions on any matter whatsoever, unless we wish to change our condition. In that case, we must have a few ideas. But many people, whether from luck or lack of imagination, seem to be genuinely happy with their lot, with what used to be called their “station in life.” It is all very well for enthusiasts to preach “fulfillment,” but, as I think Didion suggests, people in search of something generally know how to ask for it. Educated people do, anyway, and our official objective, since the Enlightenment, has been to educate everyone. It’s an ideal, but it is not a pipe dream.

We love you, but we don’t like you. And why would it be otherwise? Every generation begins as an ignorant invader and ends as an indignant guardian. Happiness in this life, over the long haul, begins when we accept those truths and look beyond them.


Thursday 22nd

In one indication of their fervor, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is from Guinea and leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told the synod, “What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”

How is any family that is headed by a single-sex couple to feel safe, when an official of a global religious organization says such a thing and is permitted to keep his job? I am so offended on behalf of my friends and of plain decency that it is difficult to write more.

The Roman Catholic Church has long claimed that its teachings are immutable. This is always presented as a great virtue, as something remarkable to be proud of. It rests on the assumption that human society is unchanging, so that the Holy Spirit, believed to guide those who promulgate teachings, can speak at once for all time. This is to my mind the most ridiculous thing about the Church, vastly less plausible than the doctrines of the Holy Trinity or of the Redemption of the Body. We can’t, on this earth, be certain that the Church’s Trinity does not exist. But we can be certain that human society changes — that it changes whenever it has the chance. And no one reviewing the changes in human society over the past five hundred years can reasonably conclude that every change was for the worst, and thus attributable to the work of “the Devil.”

And the Church has changed its teachings. Take bastardy. This is something that I made a study of in law school, and I could floor you with dates and details, but my notes are in storage, so you’ll have to trust me. The Church’s original position on bastardy was one of enlightened indifference. At a point not too far from the first millennium, however, a very practical problem presented itself. Parish priests were bequeathing church property to sons who were also priests. It was already settled that priests could not marry; therefore the sons must be bastards. The simplest way to put an end to this testamentary abuse was to declare bastards unfit for ordination. Hence: a new teaching. I’m not entirely sure that the rule that bastards cannot be made priests has been replaced. (A workaround — ahem! — must have been developed by the Fifteenth Century.) It sounds like one of those things, those many things, that simply don’t come up anymore — like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

(Yes, painful as it is to say, human beings seem to have utterly lost interest in understanding exactly how three Persons can subsist as one God. They are no longer eager to kill people with different opinions. Is this change the Devil’s work?)

We know why Cardinal Sarah says what he says. His African flocks are engaged in mortal competition with Muslims. Leaders on both sides exaggerate their distaste for deviations from the conservative social standards that are common to all in that part of the world. (Observe the segue from sexual/reproductive matters to the entirely unrelated issue of “Islamic fanaticism.” All the bases are being covered.) It is regrettable that Cardinal Sarah says such things anywhere, but that he says them as the head of a Vatican Congregation ought to be impermissible. He may dislike and disapprove of homosexuality and abortion as much as he likes, but he may not compare them to Nazi and Communist horrors. He simply may not.

But, so long as he does with impunity, my friends are not safe.


Friday 23rd

Among the many bits of paper that I discarded last weekend as I sifted through the boxes that Kathleen and I had brought home from the storage unit was a wedding invitation from nearly thirty years ago. A Wall Street colleague of mine got married in a picturesque service at a farm in Dutchess County; Kathleen and I went. The colleague and I had lost touch; I made contact. We’re going to have lunch in two weeks.

At some point, we will talk about what I’m doing these days, and I will be asked what this site is about. And here’s what I’m afraid I’ll have to say: “I’m writing a couple of thousand words nearly every day, hoping to find out that very thing.”

Hey, it’s an improvement. When asked the question in the past, I’ve stalled, hemmed and hawed, looked at the ceiling, and generally behaved as though the effort of reducing my titanic opus to a descriptive word or two might bring on a nervous breakdown.

I am still smarting from a remark made six or seven years ago. “Your blog is about books, after all.” I hoped not, but I didn’t say anything. Because what could I have said that it was about?

I am looking for something, but I don’t know what it is. Mulling over this since the lunch date was set, I been worried that what I’m looking for is the central piece to a complicated puzzle. The missing piece will show how all the different regions of the puzzle connect, and also provide the key to thinking about them in ways that illuminate the puzzle as a whole. In other words, I’m as mad as John Nash, searching for a pattern in everything I see. Look for one long enough and you’ll think you’ve found it. The key to all mythologies.

Here’s something that I don’t think I’ve said before, but that feels as if it was been waiting to be said: The Daily Blague is a performance, a series of performances. I run through ideas and histories much as a jazz musician runs through standards. I do think that that describes what happens here, but I don’t think that it answers the “about” question. What’s it about?

Two years ago — almost three, now — when I was devouring Hannah Arendt, I quite often felt that I was seeing the world clearly for the first time. I was standing off in space and there, right in front of me, was the world and all its parts. (The World, I ought to say.) Without appearing to talk philosophically, Arendt laid out the universe and showed how everything related to everything else. My enthusiasm was as robustly green as any adolescent’s. I have not become disenchanted with what Arendt taught me, but I have recovered the sober awareness that nothing is ever going to explain everything.

There was a time when I would reply to the “about” question by laughing villainously and proclaiming myself to be a scourge of the elites. If I have a passion, it is a longing for education to work for other people as it has worked for me, by inspiring them to go on learning; but the problem is that my education was largely my own stubborn and inefficient doing, and no kind of model for anyone else. Instead of focusing on a career, I focused on nothing at all. I let things bump around in my mind, and I saw what stuck. If I were the beneficiary of a trust fund, you could argue that my intellectual freedom justified inherited wealth. But why? What have I done with that intellectual freedom? What’s it about?

This question did not occur to me when I started out. Like most blogs, this one began as a diary. A diary’s only justification is that it be interesting and readable. For a long time, I wrote about this and that, concerts and plays, and, yes, books, and cooking and housekeeping. A few years ago, however, I made what may have been a fatal mistake. I felt that I had gone to enough concerns and enough plays, and that my cooking wasn’t really serious enough to write about. The serious part of my life was all in my head. The serious part of my life was a memory, a history. It was serious not because I was me but because I had thrown myself into my brain, a brain. I had conjured my own way of being mindful.

And yet, at the very same time, I was discovering that we are not interesting in ourselves. This is ancient wisdom, but it was occluded in our time by Freud’s critique of the Enlightenment. The philosophes had posited an idea of unitary human nature. If reasonable people were given an adequate education, they would agree about all the important things. The difficulty is, however, that people are not reasonable. Freud sought to demonstrate not only that people are very, very unreasonable, but that irrationality is a powerful, positive force, not a mere defect. One side-effect of his case histories was the sensational lure of psychological monstrosity. We all harbored ids (James Strachey’s translation of Freud’s much simpler “it”); we were all potential werewolves. The unexamined life became an accident waiting to happen. The psychopathology of everyday life eventually produced the Weekly World News and reality television. Not to mention Oprah.

Although I never saw her the show, I happen to believe that Oprah Winfrey was on the right track, or at least heading in the right direction — away from that psychopathology. Her message seems to have been (at least as it reached me) that, if they can find connections to the world that work for them, even the most damaged people can find satisfaction and contentment. Perhaps we do have to figure out how screwed up we all are. But that’s the beginning, not the end. The end, which has no end, is the interrelating web of love and friendship that sustains us through adversity. And that web is what is interesting — interesting in a different way to everyone plugged into it.

I call the study of this web “humanism,” which is perhaps unwise. The word has been claimed by others, for whom it means antithetical things. There are the atheists who mirror libertarians, seeking an individual freedom not from government but from ideas of God. A smaller but much more traditional group calls upon men and women to take their places in a scheme of Creation in which humanity is second only to God. Now, I am not talking about God in any way. Nor am I talking about uniformity. Other people, with their other ways of doing things, can be very annoying, but when you take yourself out of the picture, they become wonderful.

The human web connects us to everything that we know about. The words that we use to express the thoughts that we think are the product of a massive and venerable group effort. The money that we earn, save, and spend is the product of another. History is the source of our understanding of these efforts. Because it has a lot to tell us about efforts that have failed, it teaches us the limitations of ambition. I no longer think of my mind as a ball of brain that’s locked inside my skull. I think of it as a rover on the network of human connection

My blog is about what it’s like to be a rover on the network of human connections. A statement that needs work, to be sure — but perhaps it answers the question.


Last night, I finished reading Lord Jim. Then I read the introductions to two different editions (Penguin, Oxford World Classics), and learned that Joseph Conrad considered ending the novel at Chapter XXXV, with Marlow sailing away and straining for a last glimpse of Jim on the strand. I can’t help feeling that that would have been better.

I’ve even imagined another ending to prefer. In this alternative, Jim sanctions the destruction of Gentleman Brown’s party of desperadoes.

As it was, I could hardly read two paragraphs of the final chapters without putting the book down and sighing. It was like following a log on its way to the saw. I was utterly engaged in the slow-motion horror of Jim’s extinction. But by the time I finished reading the introductions, both of which harped on the revival of chivalry that was flourishing when Conrad wrote Lord Jim (and would continue to flourish past the outbreak of World War I), I had calmed down, and by the clear light of the next morning, I can see that Jim interested me only to the extent that he interested Marlow. It is Marlow who keeps Jim from sinking into the “bottomless pit” that would have yawned beneath him had not Marlow acted to shore him up, first as Denver’s water-clerk, and then as Stein’s agent in Patusan. Why does Marlow go to the trouble? Because, I suspect, he wants to test his supposition, broached to the French lieutenant (who rejects it utterly), that heroism might “reduce itself to not being found out.” When Jim jumped off the Patna, he did so because he was certain that the ship would sink. What if it had? Jim would not have been a hero, but he might not have been a disgrace, either. Marlow wants to put Jim somewhere beyond his record, to see what he might become in a world that has not found out about the Patna. He wants to give Jim a chance to redeem himself; unlike the French lieutenant, Marlow believes that redemption is possible.

Putting a stop to Gentleman Brown in the only really reliable way would, I think, have redeemed Jim’s abandonment of the Patna. Whether or not it restored his honor, that vexed baggage, preserving Patusan from the depredations of a psychopath would have been a good thing, a very good thing. Keeping the peace at Patusan would be the best way to show respect for his work there; the peace at Patusan was Jim’s doing. But of course this couldn’t be allowed to happen; the author must prevail over Marlow. Readers of the day would have been horrified by Jim triumphant at the end. He had to die, for that is the only possible redemption for dishonor. Marlow accomplishes nothing but a prolongation of the tale.

Conrad waxes fairly Freudian himself, through Marlow, in the “bottomless pit” passage that I mentioned.

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope and flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. (XVI)

This sounds like an argument against trying to help one’s fellow man, but of course Marlow proceeds, and keeps proceeding, to do just that. Marlow’s agonies over Jim’s character are immeasurably more arresting than Jim’s own would be, precisely because Marlow is another man, standing outside the envelope of flesh and blood within which we are mysteries to ourselves. (We must remember that Freud did not recommend that people try to figure themselves out; they must seek analysis conducted by someone else.) Marlow is in fact Jim’s redeemer: he holds Jim up for us and obliges us to share his concern. Our caring about Jim is his redemption.

The mystery to me is why educators have considered Lord Jim a novel for high school readers. I can’t remember precisely when I was supposed to read it; I know only that I didn’t. The title alone made me uncomfortable: was Jim a lord, or wasn’t he? If he was, he ought to be minding his grand estate, which I’d much rather read about; if he wasn’t, then he was an imposter. Plus, the boat loaded with pilgrims was highly unsavory. Most boys and young men might, unlike me, enjoy the adventurous particulars, but how on earth would they get through the prose?

To the white men in the waterside business and to the captains of ships he was just Jim — nothing more. He had, of course, another name, but he was anxious that it should not be pronounced. His incognito, which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact. When the fact broke through the incognito he would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened to be at the time and go to another — generally farther east. He kept to seaports because he was a seaman in exile from the sea, and had Ability in the abstract, which is good for no other work but that of a water-clerk. He retreated in good order toward the rising sun, and the fact followed him casually but inevitably. Thus in the course of years he was known successively in Bombay, in Calcutta, in Rangoon, in Penang, in Batavia — and in each of these halting-places was just Jim the water-clerk. Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say — Lord Jim.

That’s from the second page, and, while far from dense in the manner of late Henry James, it is thick stuff. It is a paragraph that reads easily only after you have read the novel. Until then, it is a mass of teases, in which all the important information is withheld. The most important fact about Jim — more important by far than the “fact” mentioned here, or the “deplorable faculty” behind it — is not disclosed until the middle of the book, when Stein diagnoses Jim as “a Romantic.” Yes, that is Jim’s problem all over. While he dreams of rescuing the drowning, his classmates are scrambling toward an actual emergency. (The third page.)

The worst of it is that Jim is not really bright enough to be a successful Romantic — to discipline and harvest the fruits of his imagination. He is as reckless as a yellow Lab puppy.

I was going to read Heart of Darkness next, and I shall read it, when I find it. Meanwhile, I’m gripped by the brisker thrills of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer.


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2015 (II)

Tuesday 13th

Kathleen says that it’s the Remicade, and I hope that she’s right. She thinks that I’m ready for another infusion. I’m scheduled for one, for a week from tomorrow, and I think I’ll make, but I do feel very low. More precisely, it doesn’t take much to lower my spirits. As always, I’m fine in a crisis. This morning, we had a flood. A pipe on the seventh floor broke, and the floors in the kitchen and the foyer were soaked. Also, Kathleen’s bathroom and a bit of the bedroom. It happened after Kathleen headed out early, for a trustees’ meeting. I stayed in bed, and I did hear a dripping while I dozed. I figured that it was workers in the building. Unaware of a crisis, I didn’t deal with what seemed to be a little problem — a drip. When I finally got up, and went to get a banana, I discovered that the problem wasn’t so little. I called the super’s office, but before I heard back by phone I had an assistant super at the door. Soon there were handymen with mops and a wet vacuum. That didn’t faze me. But I still didn’t feel safe.

How can you feel safe in a country where most able-bodied young males believe that Steve Jobs was a great man, or a great inventor, or even a great marketer? Let’s be honest: the iPhone is a hula hoop for guys. Don’t tell me what it does; tell me what it does that really needs to be done. I’ve had one for about two years now. I find that it’s great for sending photos to Facebook. It’s a pretty lousy phone, although that may be AT&T’s fault. But I’ve always had AT&T mobile service, and it has never been so unreliable as it is on the iPhone.

Oh, and Evernote. But Evernote works on everything — even the Kindle Fire.

Why am I going on about Steve Jobs? Because how can I feel safe in a land where an admired columnist for the newspaper of record, Joe Nocera, complains about a movie because it leaves out the fun, engaging side of Steve Jobs’s personality? Because Michael Fassbender, the actor impersonating Jobs in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, never says, as Jobs often did — Nocera knows; he spent time with the man — that something is “really, really neat.”

Really, really neat — a remark, it seems of substance? A key to personality? Nocera complains that Jobs’s boyishness has been left of out of the movie. “Youthful mannerisms,” Nocera calls it, somewhat oxymoronically. (Maybe it’s just me. Maybe young people have nothing but mannerisms. In which case: no individual personality.)

I find Michael Fassbender interesting, because I have no sense of the man behind the actor. I don’t even have a sense of what he really looks like. He always seems to look like somebody. He reminds me of actors whom I can never place. He is an impersonator who, while convincing in any one role, takes on the character of an impersonator after two or three productions. This means that, to me, he seems always to be playing men who are hiding. I haven’t seen the new movie, but if I do, it will be because he’s in it, not because it’s about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was, on the evidence, a jerk, a determined adolescent, a Peter Pan; and he was lucky, I think, not to outlive too grossly his sell-by date.


The youthful mannerism that I find most grating these days is the habit of responding to “Thank you” with “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” It took me a long time to realize that it was in fact a case of substitution. For a few years, I thought that the remark was thoughtlessly insolent, even though there was nothing otherwise offensive about the kids who used it. I haven’t entirely abandoned hope for the more customary phrase, which, after all, does answer one personal pronoun with another. I understand that “No problem” mirrors the usage of other languages, and may simply make more sense to people for whom the word “welcome” is already archaic around the edges. “Welcome home” is almost up there with “Many happy returns (of the day).” (So is “home.”) I notice that waiters who seem to be aspiring actors are likely to reply to “Thank you very much” with “You’re very welcome.”

I can’t get too upset about any of this, because, when I was young, I was insolent myself, and not always thoughtlessly. I regarded all the formulas of civil politeness as arrant hypocrisies. For several years, I sent out Christmas cards with the holiday greeting, “Merry Whatever,” and thought that I was daring and clever and frank. I grew out of frankness the hard way, by accumulating mortifying recognitions of gauche, irritating, and even wounding behavior. It all climaxed in the middle of reading Trollope’s Autobiography: I realized that I wasn’t much of a gentleman. I had never thought that being a gentleman meant much, but Trollope convinced me that not being one was a very bad thing, at least in someone who was brought up to be a gentleman.

My sojourn in the Land of Toys came to an end soon afterward. I put childish things behind me. I must have been confused, however, because, along with the childish things, I set aside a lot of vernacular things, especially vernacular speech. To me, vernacular speech is a powerful, one might even say overpowering, seasoning. Used carefully, it imparts a bit a jolt, a slight shock; a note, perhaps, of urgency. Unlike actual spices, however, the overuse of the vernacular results in the complete dissipation of spiciness. The result is childish. I thought of this the other day, reading Michael Kimmelman in the Times. The subject of the piece was something called the Flussbad in Berlin. For a moment, Kimmelman turned his attention to something similar in Chicago, the 606, “Chicago’s down-home twist on the chic High Line in New York.”

What I saw wasn’t sleek or even especially beautiful, with plantings that need time to grow, a little too much concrete and tall steel fencing. But it connects ground-level neighborhood parks and belongs to a larger, humanizing campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to green up gritty areas of the city.

To green up? What kind of talk is that? I should have written something like, “a larger campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to humanize the gritty parts of his city with ([optional:] more) greenery.” Elsewhere in his essay, Kimmelman casts a passing shot at “the fake Baroque palace” that is under construction in Berlin (a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Schloss that was leveled by the Communists). I find his faux cowboy locution at least that offensive. (And, while we’re at it, that other “up” construction that allows men to weep without admitting to crying.)

My spirits took a nosedive when I read about greening up on Saturday. How can you feel safe in a place where grown men talk like this? Highly educated grown men? Art critics, for Pete’s sake. I have two issues with Michael Kimmelman, neither of them central to his profession. First, he and I clearly disagree about the wisdom of sounding much younger than you are. Second — and I think that this is really distinct from the first — he is pious about the vernacular. This is a pop-culture trope; it imagines and prizes a vernacular aesthetic that is accessible but not kitschy. It is simple but truly wholesome. It appears to be informal. It is relaxed but impassioned. That is, it celebrates a few beautiful and important things that we can all agree on while refusing to get caught up in styles. It is fine with accidental, negligent mess, but wary about intentional clutter. It saves sweat for the gym. Come to think of it, the High Line is the perfect embodiment of this aesthetic. To me, the High Line feels like an asylum, a desperate response to the unchecked profusion of automobiles in Manhattan, with the attendant narrowed, treeless sidewalks. The High Line is a spa. And like spas, the vernacular aesthetic is patronized by affluent people with plenty of higher ed. (Now, that’s a thought that I want to come back to.)


But it hasn’t been all that kind of gloom. I’ve been charging through Carlo Cipolla’s book about European commerce and industry prior to the Industrial Revolution. Excuse me: although I’ve actually read the entire book and am just re-reading “The Rise of England” for form’s sake, I set Cipolla aside so that I could read Arnold Pacey’s The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. This astonishingly readable book is so crammed with information and understanding that, midway through each chapter, I forgot most of what was in the chapter before it.

Having studied the history of science in five undergraduate semesters, I long thought that I knew everything that here was to know about it. You must forgive me, because, in those days, to know anything about the history of science was to know so many orders of magnitude more than anybody else that there really was no local pressure to remind me of my tremendous ignorance. It was in my fifties that I began to feel rusty, and began to notice that the subject was a more generally familiar one than formerly. I also came across good books about the history of commerce in second-millennium Europe, such as Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit. What made me think about science, technology, and business in earnest, however, was the official craziness that began with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Internet bubble, and the collapse of Enron, and that climaxed with the fall of the house off Lehman. And when I did start thinking harder about these things, it was against the background of terrifying environmental degradation.

Here is what Pacey has to say about environmental degradation, and do please note his mild humility:

The seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy has persisted, in some of its fundamentals, down to our own time, and may have led us into some of our modern dilemmas.

For example, the idea of the natural world as being something mechanical freed people from any old-fashioned doubts about whether, in making a machine or digging a mine, they might be encroaching on the prerogativves of the Creator. The thirteenth-century idea of clocks or cathedrals as symbolizing heavenly things — the idea of their construction as a reaching-out woward the source of light and life — had been replaced by the notion that the heavens themselves were little better than a piece of well-made clockwork. So there was no particular reason for feeling any humility before nature. I was a machine that one could tinker with. And the machine analogy gave no warning hat there were checks and balances in nature that could easily be upset, because seventeenth-century machines did not incorporate feedback loops or any other automatic control systems to prevent them getting out of control or running away. The only exception was the escapement mechanism of clocks, but this evidently did not prove sufficiently suggestive.

I think that I have written several times here that, prior to the very late Nineteenth Century, nobody had the least suspicion that the actions of man could affect the earth to any extensive degree. Pacey puts it better, and explains how technology itself generated the blind spot. If you extrapolate from clocks and looms that depend on very simple power sources, and if, what’s more, you extrapolate from the small-scale perspective of artisanal production, then it might very well seem nothing less than madness to have foreseen what in fact ensued. There is no doubt about the Industrial Revolution: it swept through Europe on a wave of elite enthusiasm that elicited no serious objections. Luddite opposition provoked the standard elitist riposte: learn new skills. Grumpy complaints about dark, Satanc mills did not forecast the London fog. Nobody appears to have objected that crowded, unsanitary cities were breeding grounds for the “Romantic” epidemic of tuberculosis. By the time the doctor told you to go to the mountains for a change of air, it was already too late for most patients. It may be too late for us, too. But that doesn’t let us off the hook for looking.

When I was a student, the strange part of my studies was science. The history of science sounded odd. Now, of course, it’s the history of science that raises brows. The history of anything excites whining: do we have to? Yes, we have to. There is no manageable way out of the mess that we’ve made that doesn’t begin with the story of how we made, and what we thought we were doing.


Wednesday 14th

Something happened at the server yesterday, and this site was unreachable for much of the afternoon and evening. I was advised to avoid working on it (ie, writing) until noon, just to be sure that systems were stable. I would be further advised if things were not stable at noon. Noon came and went without notice. Me voilà.

But it is a day of very crooked timber. Until yesterday, I was wondering how I would make it to next week’s Remicade infusion. Aches and pains I’ve been spared, but a fire curtain of depression has draped my mind in a funk of pointlessness. All I want to do is crawl into bed and watch movies — I want to forget about me. It’s scary and unusual. Kathleen says that she has seen it before, always right before the next infusion. I don’t remember anything like this, but, then, why should I? I have no idea why the depletion of Remicade in my bloodstream makes life so bleak, but it’s a reminder that depression is a physical disorder, in my case brought on by some weird cousin of arthritis.

Until yesterday, I said. The phone rang; it was the hospital, confirming my appointment for today. I couldn’t even read my own calendar! The appointment is for late in the afternoon, 5:30. I’ll be there!

Well beyond sixes and sevens, I completely lacked focus until I had my lunch, about half an hour ago. I worked on an entry without conviction, and I wrote a letter that is probably the first draft of another letter. It was only as I was making the bed, after lunch, that I remembered the indignation that I’ve been feeling these last few days (when I’ve been feeling anything at all), that I was never taught how a clock works. When I think of all the useless science classes that I sat through, the omission of clocks and their anatomy seems not only barbaric but perverse. Like Kathleen, I “supposed” that clocks were driven by pendulums. The weights lurking in the dim recess of my grandparents’ tall case clock bothered me a bit; I wondered what they were for — perhaps they powered the pendulum? (This would have been correct, but more indirectly than I could imagine.) As for all those wheels and gears…

Sometimes it seems that the nerds have set it up so that they’re the only ones who learn about science and math, by the simple trick of making these subjects repellent to normal people. In order to fit in, you have to be a misfit. The nerds are the kids who revel in complication and inscrutability, and who have no interest whatever in sharing what they know. If someone had offered to show me how a clock worked, I should have declined, lest it give me a headache. So I’m not just angry about not having been taught how clocks work — and I’ll get to the why of that in a minute — but infuriated by the flaccid pedagogy that governed teaching even at my high end of the scale.

Every educated person ought to know how clocks work because, long before they became reliable, clocks were perceived by thinkers of the West as models of the universe, and by the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, the simile had switched itself, positing a universe that was simply a great big clock. It is from this intellectual metaphor that men of the Enlightenment derived the “deistic” idea of a Creator Clockmaker, a remote being who, having designed a magnificent instrument and set it in motion, receded from human affairs. This is the original positive agnostic faith: whether there is a god or not, there is no need to know if he’s there, because we have his work. At the same time, the clock became the coordinator of human affairs, preparing the way for schedules and appointments. Clocks became reliable because the need to measure the physical dimensions of things discovered a need to measure their duration. They became reliable when they were needed to be reliable — and not before.


Loose change: I came across the work of Roger Scruton today: “Without tradition, there can be no originality.” I subscribe to that notion; to me, it explains the chronic lack of originality in our times, the collapse of the thirst for discovery to an excitement with handheld devices that tell us nothing we don’t already know. Whether I shall pursue Scruton is another matter. I see that he has recanted his traditional, and traditionally contemptuous, ideas about homosexuality, so he appears to be a conservative capable of learning in old age. Conservatives usually aren’t. I am a natural conservative myself, but I cannot accept the self-validation of authority (which is usually a great deal less traditional, or at any rate venerable, than its supporters make out), and I cannot work from divine causes.

I’ve been thinking about The Martian — it’s a very thinkable movie. It often feels like a true story; you have to pinch yourself and remember that, no, man has not yet set foot on the Red Planet. But the moment of touchdown is far from inconceivable. It is largely a matter of budgets and political will, at this point. And I do wish that we would try to put people on Mars, not because the idea is exciting (it isn’t, not to me), but because it is clearly the place best suited to teach us the next things that we need to know about the world beyond our atmosphere. Although I should never counsel cutting off funding for the search for habitable planets in other solar systems, I do wish that the press would drop it, because the information is worse than useless to anyone without the training to conduct such searches. Let’s say that a planet somewhere out there is identified as life-supporting; let us further suppose that this life is life as we know it. Let’s imagine that the creatures on this planet send us radio postcards, Come on in, the water’s fine! There remains the small problem of getting there. It stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that, before we undertake to travel over lengths of light years, we master the art of travel to Mars. The trip will take a long time, but the time will be our kind of time — not light years.


Thursday 15th

Yesterday’s Remicade infusion lasted about two hours, which is how long infusions are supposed to last. They usually take longer, though; lately, they seem to. And it can take a while to settle in, and then for the IV bag to come up from the pharmacy. But things were zoom zoom zoom yesterday, because I had the last appointment of the day. The nurses were putting on their coats and turning out the lights as I was leaving, a few seconds after eight. Also, I was the only patient in the unit for nearly an hour. It was beautifully quiet. I’ll try for the late slot for the next infusion, and, if it’s anything like it was last night, I’ll make a habit of it. By the way, I felt something that a friend of mine who has been taking Remicade for longer than I have says that he always experiences: I felt that I was getting better during the infusion. I walked out of the hospital feeling pretty normal.

I read almost the entirety of this week’s New Yorker. I had already begun reading Jane Kramer’s genial profile of Gloria Steinem, and when I was done with that I almost turned to Lord Jim. But there was my blood pressure to think of. Now that I have finally cracked Marlow’s rhythms, which can be as baroque as Henry James’s late narrative style, Lord Jim has become pretty exciting. So I stayed with The New Yorker and went through pretty much all of it. Not the fiction and not the piece about Dietrich and Riefenstahl — I wasn’t in the mood for those two. Nor the Laurie Anderson review. But I gobbled up the “Talk,” which I usually skip, and then Kathryn Schulz’s take-down of Thoreau, which reminded me (a) why I’ve never read Thoreau and (b) how reliable my antennae are. Everything that I have ever heard about Thoreau in general and Walden in particular has warned me away. Schulz writes,

In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.)

Horrors! Even better, Schulz points out that Walden is naturally appealing to its principal readership, high-school students. “Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders.” That got a good laugh. (Happily, there was only one patient in the unit at that moment.) Typing out Schulz’s remarks on “Economy,” I remembered that abstinence can be powerfully appealing to seventeen year-olds. Schulz rightly observes that Thoreau’s rhapsodies about simplicity are unlikely to be shared by the genuinely poor, but teenagers are only temporarily poor, and austerity is a self-dignifying way of rejecting what you can’t have, yet. Renunciation may even constitute a premature advancement into adulthood! Not that it did so in my case. I remember presenting my parents with a charter — written on onion-skin paper with a quill pen (imagine the unsightly blobs of ink, and laugh all you like!) — in which I bound myself, at the age of thirteen, to abstain from smoking, drinking, and driving even when I became legally able to take them all up. My parents, I have to say, were neither unduly alarmed by this gesture nor encouraged to take its promises at all seriously. I remember feeling that I had solved a tremendous problem. If I was already disinclined to read Thoreau (I had done with the treehouse thing), perhaps I didn’t need him.

Sometimes, a given issue of The New Yorker feels like a miscellany, an accumulation of unrelated pieces that have dumped together within one cover, but I often feel an occult connection, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. In the current issue (Oct 19, 2015), the connection is not occult at all; the editors could have called it “The Influence Issue.” The Steinem profile certainly fits under that rubric: Gloria Steinem, now 81, has been one of America’s most influential women since her thirties. She’s the kind of person who influences groups and individuals most, as distinct from movie audiences or those who attend stadium events. Having been influenced by Gloria Steinem is likely to be a personal experience rather than a crowded one. (But the lady certainly gets around!) In contrast to her influence for the good, there are the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about youthful shooters, such as Evan Harris and Christopher Harper-Mercer. As always in one of Gladwell’s glimpses of modern problems, there is a powerful hook, a discovery that seems to explain everything because what it’s really doing is giving us a new way of looking at the subject under review. In this case, the hook is explicit in the title: “Thresholds of Influence.”

Forty years ago, it seems, a Stanford sociologist by the name of Mark Granovetter published a “famous article” in which he examined, primarily, riots. In riots, people do things that they would never do otherwise. They throw things, they break windows; they loot and steal. How does this happen? Until Granovetter’s essay, the received wisdom was that people in crowds are intoxicated by crowd itself, by the gathering together of so many others that the self surrenders to otherness. This sounds plausible, but it presumes a crowd of more or less identical people making identical surrenders. Granovetter assumed otherwise, that crowds are composed of many different kinds of people, and that their interaction might or might not result in riots. He proposed that the differences between people in a crowd might be regarded as thresholds of violence. One man might have no threshold; at the slightest provocation, he might pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Another man, nearby, might have a threshold of one, meaning that he would do something that he would never do alone if he saw one other person doing it. Other people, with higher thresholds, would refrain from violence until their higher thresholds were crossed; then they would join in the fray. Eventually, the entire crowd would go berserk. In crowds consisting of a few people with thresholds of zero or one, and many people with thresholds of twenty or more, no riot would ensue.

Gladwell suggests that we apply this model to the shooters. The riot occurs in slow motion and the thresholds are crossed by the viewing of Web sites. He suggests that we regard Evan Harris, the psychopathic Columbine shooter, as a successful revolutionary. Harris launched a Web site that transformed a chaotic horror story into a ritual. Every new killing spree increases access to those with higher thresholds, to young men who would never have imagined doing such things on their own. Eventually, as in a riot, guys with no serious emotional baggage might find their thresholds crossed. Cool.

To illustrate this, Gladwell has a second hook up his sleeve, the story of John LaDue, a high-school student from Minnesota who was encountered at a storage locker full of explosives. LaDue had an elaborate plan for blowing up his school, and he had most of the stuff that he would need to realize it. First, however, he would have to kill his parents and his sister. It turned out that LaDue had Autism Spectrum Disorder — he’s an Aspie, a term that still seems to me to be useful even though it no longer means anything medically. On the one hand, he was capable of following his version of the shooter checklist more or less as disinterestedly as, in an early, more innocent time, he might have conducted a chemistry experiment in his basement. On the other, however, he really loved his family and did not want to kill them. The police were able to intervene before any harm was done because LaDue was sabotaging his project in little ways, by not buying a necessary appliance “yet,” by buying the wrong kind of ammunition, and so on. LaDue was just a boy whose threshold for violence had been crossed; he had no need whatsoever of a troubled personal history (aside from his ASD, which clearly impaired his judgment), of abuse or bullying or anything of that kind, to be inspired to blow up his school. (One might argue that LaDue has multiple thresholds, or that the shooter epidemic is not really a riot, given that almost everyone is working alone.)

I was glad to see that Gladwell is scrupulous, at the end of his piece, to puncture any balloons of problem solved that might accompany his readers’ sense of new enlightenment.

The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

I can already hear the NRA urge that we simply shut down the Internet.


Friday 16th

As I was making the bed this morning, I found myself thinking more about riots and rituals. Or, rather, I experienced one of those slips of thought that makes things look new without changing very much.

We’ve all known about the way in which the Internet has, so to speak, rewritten suicide notes, ever since Palestinian youths began making home movies before blowing themselves up. The Internet allowed people to infuse their parting gestures with a visual and compelling insistence on martyrdom that no mere document could ever express. Inevitably, certain gestures were found to be so effective that they were repeated, eventually becoming essential elements in what looked more and more like a liturgy. Malcolm Gladwell, in the piece that I was talking about yesterday, refers to a certain move that has become standard in shooter videos, involving a gun and outflung arms.

I have never seen any of these productions, Islamic or American, and I really oughtn’t to be generalizing about them. But from my distant perspective, they sound like the centerpieces of burgeoning religions. I’m reminded particularly of the cult of Mithras, which was popular (I’ve always read) with Roman soldiers (and confined to male participants), and which sacrificed bulls. This cult flourished throughout the Levant at the time of great religious fermentation in which Christianity was born. Cults that had been around for centuries were stale, and co-opted by the state. The search for spiritual meaning took a syncretic, somewhat underground turn. Might we not be seeing the same thing today? A number of Palestinian women have blown themselves up, but, so far, there hasn’t been a female shooter here in the States. Instead of bulls, these young people sacrifice other people, none of whom is regarded as specifically guilty of anything more than existence — just like those bulls.

With mainstream religions losing their hold on Western youth, and their Islamic contemporaries beset by the inability to reconcile faith with patriotism, it is not surprising that these two otherwise different groups have developed a similar artifact, the pre-immolation video that tries to make the case that secular hypocrisy must be rejected with violent gestures.

Having considered the idea for a couple of days, I’m having an ever-harder time regarding the epidemic of mass shootings performed by adolescents and young men as a riot in slow motion, as Gladwell has it. It seems more like a series of conversions, in which young men participate in the manner so increasingly favored by young people for dealing with intimacy: in isolation. It’s as if being alone in their rooms permits them to join vast like-minded throngs, viewers like themselves. We adults tend to call this kind of socializing “virtual,” because it isn’t face to face, but perhaps the secret of this new religion is that it spreads the uncritical assurance that the solitary person is the most connected. Certainly the solitary person retains a greater liberty, a freedom that no physical participant in a public rite could ask for. Our young man can leave his computer for bathroom and snack breaks. He can surface in the “real world,” washing the dishes and going to class. Then he can sit down again at pick up right where he was. No one interrupts him. No one coughs or smells or giggles a few pews away.

I do think that Mark Granovetter’s concept of thresholds is useful, although probably not as a means of preventing massacres. I’ve been thinking about thresholds while reading Lord Jim. A great question that might be asked of Conrad’s great novel is what were the thresholds that Jim had to cross before he could jump off the Patna and into a lifeboat, and how did the chaotic situation that preceded his fatal move lift him over them? I don’t mean to pose a puzzle; it would be foolish to look for a comprehensive explanation. One of Conrad’s points, I think, is that there is no getting to the bottom of such mistakes — only the clarity of the penalty. I had the strongest sense of this in Marlow’s conversation with the French naval officer, three years later, in Sydney.

Man is born a coward. It is a difficulty — parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. but habit — habit — necessity — do you see? — the eyes of others — voilà. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance.

This stumbling insistence on circumstances and “example” leads Marlow to believe that the Frenchman is taking “the lenient view.” At this charge, however, the officer pulls himself up and takes firm exception to that supposition.

Allow me … I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one’s courage does not come of itself. There’s nothing much in that to get upset about. One truth the more ought not to make life impossible. … But the honour — the honour, monsieur! … The honour … that is real — that is! And what life may be worth when [...] the honour is gone — ah ça! par exemple — I can offer no opinion. I can offer no opinion — because — monsieur — I know nothing of it.

I haven’t read much further than this chapter, but it is unquestionably the most exciting thing in Lord Jim so far. It is Jim’s tragedy compressed to the utmost. As someone who has serious difficulties with various concepts of honor, let me make it clear that I regard Jim’s obligation not to abandon the lives in his charge as no more questionable than any court of naval honor would have it; I should rather call it an imperative of decency. In his long conversation with Marlow on the hotel verandah — to me, it seemed to be the real, the genuine Inquiry, conducted by Jim himself, with Marlow as a witness — Jim seems to suggest that, because he could not save all eight hundred souls in what would probably be a confusion in which many died before they could drown, the thought that he might save whom he could is not worth thinking about. Because he cannot be a hero, and save everybody, he might as well retire from the field. Indeed, of his later life, as a water-clerk, Marlow comments,

He had loved too well to imagine himself a glorious racehorse, and now he was condemned to toil without honour like a costermonger’s donkey. He did it very well.

The matter of crossed thresholds is interesting because our speculations allow us to sound ourselves, and to measure the distance between our hope that we might do well and our fear that we might not. But Conrad’s Frenchman is adamant: no matter what it was that allowed Jim to jump — fear of death (probably not), fear of emergency (Marlow is sure about this), disgust with the third engineer’s corpse at his feet, the terrible racial superiority of well-bred Englishmen — whatever it was, it doesn’t matter, because nothing can excuse the act of abandonment. It can be explained, but not excused, not ever.

An even more interesting question would ask about the thresholds that that paragon, Captain Brierly — one of Jim’s judges — had to cross in order to commit suicide, shortly after the Inquiry. What was it about Jim’s downfall, which Brierly rather wildly hoped to prevent, if only by paying Jim to run away, that cost Brierly his self-respect? Did he throw himself overboard in order to preserve his self-regard?

It is interesting to note that these marine executives — these captains of ships military and mercantile — belong to a powerful confraternity that meets, and then only very partially, when they are onshore, and not at work. When they are at sea, they are as solitary as young men in basements.


Next week, I hope to review some thoughts provoked by a book that Kathleen brought home recently, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I read it instead, and felt, in places, that I was reading a history of my own consciousness. (Yes, how like a man: it’s all about me.) Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Dinosaurian Ethic
October 2015 (I)

Monday 5th

It is cold right now, but it’s going to get warmer. It was cold all weekend. Outside, it was only in the 50s, but there was no heat, and the apartment got chilly. All the apartments got chilly: on Saturday night, there was no hot water. Everyone had taken a bath by dinnertime. We were at home, instead of at a restaurant celebrating our anniversary, because the weather was not only cold but wet. I had made a pizza that had not performed as expected. Happily (I suppose), I foresaw that the pizza was not going to slide right off the peel onto the stone. I managed to transfer it to a cookie sheet, but the result was not pretty, and of course the crust didn’t really bake. It just steamed like all the pizzas I’ve made so far, in cheap pizza pans. There is much to learn about sliding the pizza onto the stone. (But it was good.) As I washed up, I noticed that the hot water was not hot. Everybody had used up the hot water. At least, that is what Kathleen said. I hoped that she was right, but I knew that if I relied on her theory, the water would be freezing by bedtime, because her theory would be wrong; what would have happened was a boiler breakdown. So I took a cool shower. An hour later, the hot water was hot again.

Today, the nor’easter that we had instead of the hurricane is moving off, and the temperature will climb into the 60s. Kathleen’s throat is sore. She is thinking of staying in bed today.

After the cool shower on Saturday night, I watched Casse-tête chinois (Chinese Puzzle) the third film in Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier Rousseau trilogy. I missed it when it came out — I had stopped going to the movies by the spring of last year. Then I forgot about it — also characteristic of last year, and of this year until last month. Toward the end of last month, I remembered it and ordered it from Amazon. On Saturday night, we were going to watch Shanghai. Kathleen saw an ad for it in the Times. She had never heard of it; she didn’t know that it was made five years ago, and that it was supposed to come out ages ago, that Ray Soleil and I went to a theatre in the East Village that announced showings, only to find out that the showings had been canceled. (As I recall, we saw Bel Ami instead.) Kathleen didn’t know that we had the DVD. She said she wanted to see it. So I got it out of the drawer. By showtime, however, Kathleen was engrossed in a stitching project — she’s making Christmas ornaments to give as Christmas presents. So, since she wouldn’t be watching the screen, I asked for a substitution, and she was fine with that.

Casse-tête chinois takes place in New York City, in Chinatown, mostly. I know where Chinatown is, of course, and I have walked around some of its edges, but I have never really gone in. I keep talking about going, but it’s just talk; I never go anywhere. Not since Ms NOLA and Ray Soleil went back to work have I gone anywhere, by which I mean anywhere new, because I can’t see where I’m going. All I can see is the sidewalk. To see where I’m going, I have to stop and try to stand as straight as I can, then look round. I should feel both foolish and vulnerable shuffling around Chinatown in search of a good wok, which I do need. Casse-tête chinois reinforced this reluctance. But I enjoyed the cinematic visit.

Basically, the title of the film is the title of the book that Xavier (Romain Duris) is working on, and also his way of describing his crazy situation. His relationship with Wendy (Kelly Riley) has broken down, and she has taken their two children to New York, where she has met a banker, John (Peter Hermann), with an apartment on Central Park South. Xavier decides that he must follow the children so that he can be a good dad, but, needless to say, Central Park South is not in his neighborhood. It turns out that his old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France), the lesbian who became his best buddy back in Barcelona (and L’auberge espagnole), is living in Brooklyn with Ju (Sandrine Holt), a Chinese-American woman who, conveniently, has held on to her tiny Chinatown apartment. Finding a place to live is only Xavier’s first big problem, however. To have any kind of say in how Wendy brings up the children, Xavier will have to get a job, and to get a job he will need a green card. Perhaps because the concept of anchor babies doesn’t exist in France, the scenario overlooks Xavier’s role as Isabelle’s semen donor — her child is born in New York — and commits Xavier to the usual routine of a sham wedding. This brings in the INS, which Klapisch handles just as distinctively as Anne Fletcher did in The Proposal. Meanwhile, Martine (Audrey Tautou), Xavier’s girlfriend at the very beginning of the trilogy, comes to New York on business. Guess what! Martine speaks Chinese well enough to confront a powerful tea mogul in his own boardroom! (The board applauds, but we are not provided with subtitles — because Xavier, also in attendance, doesn’t understand a word.) And then Martine comes back for another visit, this time with her two children.

And then Isabelle falls for her babysitter, also Isabelle. Oh, what a pile-up!

Xavier’s apartment is tiny so that the climax will be funny. In what begins as a bedroom farce, people keep pouring into the apartment. Even the INS. It’s almost as good as the finale of Act II of Le nozze di Figaro. And yet there is nothing mannered, nothing that whispers, This sort of thing never happens in New York. This is a French movie. No; it’s all hilariously naturalized. The crowd not only symbolizes but embodies Xavier’s crazy situation, which is, basically, that he is the father not of two children but of five, with three different moms, and probably more to come. (Kids, that is.) Cédric Klapisch is probably the world’s leading director of social films, by which I mean films about groups of people, or perhaps clusters of people, the different clusters of people that we all know, and whom we usually manage to keep separate. Keeping his clusters separate is a skill that Xavier lacks, probably because he is a writer, and inclined to let things happen.

(I must interrupt here to mention a delicious instance of the perversity of writers, novelist Elinor Lipman’s contribution to the Times’s “Modern Love” column. As a new widow, Lipman felt that she must “get out of the house,” so she signed up at

Dates followed. Not all were horrible, but the reporter in me liked the worst ones for their anecdotal value. There was the man who stuck his Nicorette gum under his seat, the 70-ish actor who had been among the six husbands of one of the “Golden Girls” and the guy who asked proudly if I had noticed that he stirred his coffee without the spoon touching the cup. I had not.

“Sincerity” can be a zero-gravity proposition for writers.)

There is a moment in Chinese Puzzle when it appears that Xavier is going to earn money as a bicycle messenger, but this plotline is quietly shed, like a jacket that doesn’t quite do anything. A more disciplined filmmaker would have cut it all out, but Klapisch is more interested in conveying the madcap chaos and the countless dead-ends of starting out in a new place. I was grateful for this, because the confusion and the noise and the subways — there is even a subway drummer in Casse-tête chinois — quite often reminded me of another picture, the vastly less cheerful movie about illegal immigrants, The Visitor.

Writing all of this down, I’ve been chuckling over Joan Didion’s “In Hollywood” (from The White Album), which I read last night.

Making judgments on films is in many ways so vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place.

The answer is that people love to read about the movies, but Didion has a point: what are the critics talking about? Don’t they realize that Hollywood is a gambling den, and that films in release are a by-product of the game? The producers make their bets, and then they wait for the box office. Each film is indistinguishable, from the standpoint of what Didion calls “the action,” from all the others: it is just another spin of the roulette wheel.

The “motive” in Bullitt was to show that several million people will pay three dollars apiece to watch Steve McQueen drive fast…

My father was on the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century Fox when The Poseidon Adventure project was floated. My father and his worthy colleagues decided that the action was too hot, or maybe too cold (I’m so not a gambler), and they voted to limit the studio’s participation instead of bankrolling the whole thing. They got to watch Irwin Allen’s production company walk away with millions every week. You can be sure that they took a bigger piece of Towering Inferno.

In other words, there would be no movies without the gamblers. This thought is uncomfortable in the same way that being aware that the earth is spinning around the sun in the middle of nowhere is uncomfortable. Could it be that foreign movies are more interesting because foreign producers get to gamble with other people’s money?


Tuesday 6th

A week ago Friday, I think it was, I noted my lack of interest in reading Purity. In the prospect, that is, of reading Purity. Actually reading Purity turned out to be very exciting., but it has been difficult for me to add, to “exciting,” any other literary characteristics. The longest section of the book, which really ought to have been called “The River of Meat,” if only because it’s a lot easier to read, not to mention to type out, than the actual title, is written as if by someone who has had a peculiar kind of stroke: the language is still there, but the style has vanished. Or perhaps, being narrated by Tom Aberant, it has no style because Tom has no style. (So without style is Tom Aberant that he is seduced by Anabel Laird’s, marking him as not even ingenuous.) Most critics seem to like this part the best (although not Diane Johnson!); James Meek praises its “emotional rawness” and “visceral engagement” — figures of speech that, in such close proximity, remind me of an abattoir. I found “[le1o9n8a0rd]” deadly, or almost, because the writing was so flat-footed, just like Tom. The other sections are viscerally engaged with the art of writing. Those featuring Pip and Andreas, for example, are firmly set in appropriate keys, signifying and sounding (respectively) Pip’s head-scratching discovery that her father’s identity isn’t the only mystery in the world, and Andreas’s insane attempt to organize his own disorder. Every sentence is composed with regard to these states of mind. Tom’s section has all the style of a contribution to class notes in an alumni magazine. He’s writing about one of the nuttiest women in literature, and although he knows it he doesn’t show it. Which is to say, he doesn’t feel it. He tells you that she was a pain in the ass, but you already knew that. What you want to know is what in hell was the matter with him, putting up with Anabel for eleven-plus years. “There’s no accounting for love,” seems to be Tom’s hayseed answer. You are left to imagine how far even Flaubert or James would get with that.

Tom Aberant is what I was afraid of finding in Purity, only I feared that it would be all Tom, which it isn’t. (Even his girlfriend, Leila, has more style; she has survived and even faced down her compromises, but she’s still the happy opportunist — I mean, reporter — at heart.) Some commentators suggest that Tom is a stand-in for the author, and while I don’t agree, I do suspect that Tom is supposed to be the book’s all-American guy, tweaked to carry, instead of the ball, Jonathan Franzen’s disdain for sport. I do hope that Franzen will outgrow the confinement of being an, even the best, American novelist. Being American has never been so meaningless, as the presidential contest ranging from Trump to Sanders makes clear. Many Americans, particularly on the coasts, have outgrown being American, only too many of them are still trying to hog the word for themselves. Those Americans who have not outgrown America have been fertilizing it with so many noxious notions that it stinks like a corpse flower.

Worse, being American is no longer interesting. Being an American — as distinct from being a New Englander who stayed behind or a Southerner with a wicked sense of humor — always involved taking Christian civilization to new places — to places previously devoid of Christians. It meant reformatting the territory to suit the needs of settled agriculture, no matter how unrealistic such an undertaking might be. It meant quitting the compromised old world and heading out for the virgin new. It meant courage, endurance, and tenacity, and sixty years of television have rotted its teeth right down to the gums. Even if it hadn’t, there are no more frontiers, no more regions in which to plant crosses for the first time. The terminus of our expansions has dimmed our wits. Once resilient and adaptable, we can’t, for example, figure out how to conduct warfare in a non-European manner. Donald Trump is right: the country is broken. That his claim to the presidency is greeted with anything but incredulous laughter is proof of that.

Purity is vexed by many of the foregoing concerns, and it would be unfair to charge the author with handling them in a provincial, Yankee-centric manner. In one of the novel’s truly grand passages, he likens the apparatchiks of the DDR (a/k/a East Germany) to the shills of Silicon Valley.

The apparatchicks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the Republic. He couldn’t listen to them without thinking of the Steely Dan lyric So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last. (Radio in the American Sector had played the song over and over to young ears in the Soviet sector.) The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC. The appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured. Inside, the professor and the engineer were learning at the German worker’s feet. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, centralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. (448-9)

Finally, I thought, when I read this. Finally, someone noticed that the Pages and the Cooks and the Thiels talk as though the United States, as a complex governmental structure requiring a great deal of care and understanding, simply no longer exists. Perhaps it is obsolete. But it still commands a big budget and major armed services. Several hundred thousand men, and even a few women, are serious stakeholders in its standing as the sovereign authority in this part of the world. You would never know this, to hear the California dreamers. The dreamers have imagined them out of the picture. Their sense of reality is only virtual. (Our experience with television could have told us that this would happen.)

But this outside/inside conundrum is not peculiar to America. It is the condition of educated elites everywhere on earth. It is the plight of everyone who failed to make sure that a package labeled “liberal democracy” would, upon being opened, benefit all or most people, and not just a cohort of deep-pocketed businessmen. Perhaps it is only human nature to overlook the importance of all the educational factors that have encouraged you to think as you do, but face it: you’ve been supposing that people without any of your background, with rather hostile backgrounds, even, would leap at the chance to share your outlook. The higher Europeans are living a nightmare at the moment, one that I suspect would militarize rural America if the influx of refugees were happening here. What’s happening across the sea was never foreseen, because Europeans lazily supposed that governments on the other side of the Mediterranean would continue to do what they themselves have abandoned, and maintain firm border controls. We were habituated the Cold War to see the world as opposed camps, with plenty of guard-towers overlooking no-man’s-land. Now, however, the world is divided between places where everyone wants to live, if only for the chance of making a living, and places where nobody much cares if you stay or go. In fact, if you’re not just like the people around you, in those places, you’d better go. Newcomen’s engine comes to mind, with the floods of would-be immigrants climbing out of the cold sea and condensing decades of European hot air.

Talk about hot air: all I meant to say was that Purity doesn’t particularly need the ramblings of a regular guy whose bland personality is doughy enough to embrace the bristling peculiarities of Anabel Laird’s privileged egotism. What it needs — well, not it, Purity, but the next novel — is an anti-Andreas, someone sane and clear-eyed and armed with a plan, even a doomed plan, to rectify the elites without sending them all to the guillotine.

A leader, in short. Would the novelists of the world please try to imagine a realistic leader? A genuine leader, someone relying entirely on persuasion and not at all upon force.


Wednesday 7th

By now, you will surely have read Nicholas Lemann’s profile, in The New Yorker, of Reid Hoffman, “The Network Man.” That’s my way of saying that, even though the current issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox only yesterday (as usual), the piece is too urgent not to read at once. There can be no dispute about this. Nicholas Lemann has been dean and/or faculty member at the Columbia School of Journalism for a long time, and he usually speaks with great natural authority. Not so here. Here, Lemann sounds like an ER patient who is babbling after an overdose. He also sounds like someone who has had very unfortunate “work” done, not to his face, but to his brain. Don’t be surprised to read, somewhere down the line (this has not in fact happened), that he has just married a twenty-five year-old majorette in digital cheerleading. What Lemann has to say about “the network economy” is morally depraved.

Never have I read a less critical Profile. A great deal of it was so riddled with enthusiastic jargon that it barely made sense. I found two points of distance between Lemann’s thought and his subject matter — two points at which Lemann stood back, like a good reporter, and frowned skeptically — but in neither case was the distance very great. He is clearly almost as intoxicated by Hoffman’s vision of the future, in which our LinkedIn profiles are utilized to compose entrepreneurial teams that will create “solutions” and, with luck, massive wealth, as Hoffman himself is.

These dreams may never be fully realized. But what if they are? Hoffman and LinkedIn represent the distilled essence of Silicon Valley’s vision off the economic future. People will switch jobs every two or three years; indeed, the challenge is to prevent them from switching more often. Hoffman’s friend Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and the founder of Medium, showed me around Medium’s San Francisco office. Gesturing toward the open workspace, he said, “Everyone out there has had a call from a recruiter this week.” Hoffman’s most recent book, “The Alliance,” argues that it should be considered honorable to remain in a job for an unmistakably long four years.

Because Silicon Valley jobs don’t carry with them twentieth-century expectations about security and benefits, employers compensate people as much as possible with stock, so that they think of themselves as owners rather than employees. It’s assumed that what everybody really wants is to quit and create a startup, and, for those who aren’t in tech, the future as imagined in Silicon Valley may not entail full-time employment at all. Instead, people would assemble their economic lives through elements provided by online marketplace companies from Silicon Valley: a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.

If you grant Hoffman’s premise that the networked economy is the new model, you can view its advent with excitement or with unease.

Or how about both: Panic. Little did I think, when writing yesterday’s entry, that an example of the worrisome delusions that hypnotize our socioeconomic elite would pop right up as if in response. It is assumed that everybody really wants to quit and create a startup. I don’t detect a flicker of awareness that the size of everybody in that sentence is tiny, minuscule, infinitesimal. An economic model designed to accommodate this particular everybody would be punishingly useless to most, to nearly all, of the world’s able-bodied and -minded workers.

I don’t think that I need to dilate on the horror of all this. It’s enough to point to two grave flaws in network thinking. The first, of course, is the supposition that there is a significant population of workers, with any amount of useful skills, who would be capable of attaining sufficient network competence to support themselves. Network competence requires a mind capable of high degrees of abstraction; it is not a matter of reading want-ads and showing up for job openings. It’s rather a matter of fashioning a sophisticated self-portrait and then refashioning it as shifting circumstances require. Nobody is truly fungible in the network economy — a great thing, perhaps, for very bright people who are driven by personal missions, but terrible for ordinary souls. The second fault is that the network model calls for reading want-ads all the time. At the beginning of the Profile, Lemann tells us that what Reid Hoffman likes to do most is to network. There is a chart in his office, it seems, that places him at the center of many networks, and that labels him as “Ubernode,” the world’s most-networked person. What kind of a model spins from that? There is only one Ubernode. Most of us enjoy doing things that take us out of ourselves, or that engage what’s inside us with the world around us. Networking is not that kind of activity. It is nothing but jockeying. If you want to be a truly networked macrame artist, then you will have no time for macrame. Or, at any rate, not enough time.

I should point to a third flaw, but I’m not sure that it is one, because I just don’t get gamification. Or rather, to me it seems to be just another Industrial-Revolution evisceration of human activity, a drastic reduction in the scope of life. “Business is the systematic playing of games,” Hoffman tells Lemann. Really? I asked Kathleen if she agreed, but when she did, it turned out that what she meant was that “businessmen” play games instead of doing anything useful. Business cannot be a matter of games. The whole point of games is to simplify the complexity of experience by imposing foreordained rules. Games also propose a verifiable outcome: this or that will or will not happen. When this or that does happen, the game is over. Business isn’t like that at all, or General Motors would have gone out of business just when it was taking off. Business is open-ended. Indeed, I don’t think that there are nearly enough rules for the conduct of business — and I’m thinking not of governmental regulation here but simply of moral integrity. Maybe I just have a different idea of business satisfaction. While a business ought to strive to provide the best goods and services that it can, it ought to be content with managing its affairs well enough. I don’t think that it’s a capitulation to discredited command-economy thinking to judge the liquidation of a functioning, profitable business, solely for the purpose of allowing its owner to cash in, to be a wicked, immoral thing to do.

Behind Silicon Valley, there hangs a curtain of oblivion. What has been forgotten is the meaning of the word medium. A medium enables the connection of two or more distinct entities, whether people or institutions or radios. As a matter of function, the medium is not itself a distinct entity. It exists only to link. To the extent that Google is a corporate entity, with many businesses alongside its search engine, it is not a medium at all, or, in any case, not a trustworthy one. Even then, however, it cannot take the place of a genuine non-medium, an entity that would exist without media. There is an inability to see such entities in Silicon Valley. The “Internet of Things” looks like a mad attempt to make a medium out of everything, but even “smart” refrigerators must be manufactured according to design and engineering principles that have nothing to do with connections. The smartest refrigerator must still keep things cold. If it can’t, then its smartness becomes moot and empty. Silicon Valley prefers to believe that, if you slap WiFi capability on an appliance, its nominal function, whether to make toast or to mop the floor, will click into place. The boring stuff will take care of itself.

But no. The boring stuff will come back and eat you.


Almost as if to refute everything that I’ve just said, I’d like to say a word about Evernote. I used to wonder what my life would have been like had the Internet been there when I was growing up. Now I ask the same question about Evernote — which, to be sure, requires the Internet. Officially, I suppose, Evernote is a project-management tool, an application that allows managers to organize the elements of a project and to share information with pertinent staff. I have no use for any of that, so I have to wonder how I should have organized my life — my reading, my thinking, my grasp of my possessions (and where they are), plus all the personal and contact information that was already a part of modern life, even if a much smaller one, when I was young.

As it is, I’ve been using Evernote for nearly three years, and I keep finding new uses for it. Even though it has no calculating tools that I can find, I’m using it for keeping track of bills and expenses, and using Quicken only for printing checks. Why? Because Evernote, even if it doesn’t add things up, allows me to keep information in a manner that suits me, not the coders at Intuit. That’s just one example. I’m also letting it teach me how to keep a journal.

The problem of keeping a journal is like that of networking: it’s an interruption, a distraction from the things that I want to do, and, presumably, to keep track of in a journal. This Web site might look like an intellectual journal, a record of what I’m thinking. But in fact it is the thinking itself. A true record of my thinking would be the index that this site so conspicuously lacks. It would trace the development of ideas that, for the most part, I’m too immersed in to be aware of any development. At any given moment, you have a choice: you can do what you’re doing, or you can create a record of it. Ideally, the record is created automatically, but we’re a very long way, I fear, from Apple Watch capabilities that grasp intellectual history. Somewhat less than ideally, therefore, the record must be brief but intelligible — a contest in itself.


More anon, about the brief but often unintelligible notes that I’ve been keeping with Evernote, about how I’ve begun at least to re-read and try to make sense of these notes, and about how one entry made me re-read a novel by Penelope Lively.


Thursday 8th

Yesterday, I went to the movies — I saw The Martian — and then, after dinner, I watched one of our favorite movies, perhaps the most engaging satire ever put on film, Mike Judge’s Extract. Kathleen was stitching, but she was howling, too: Ben Affleck’s hirsute impersonation of an inconsequent hedonist cum spiritual adviser nails a very ridiculous type of person. We love it when Kristin Wiig gives David Koechner a heart attack. We can’t imagine how anyone smart enough to behave in front of a camera could look as dim and dumb as Dustin Milligan, but when he admits that he did have sex with somebody else’s wife sixteen times and helplessly smiles, we’re blown away. We adore Beth Grant’s twanging announcement that “if he’s not going to do his job, then I’m not gonna do mine,” and, even though we never get the line quite right, we repeat it all the time. We cringe with delight when Gene Simmons offers to drop the lawsuit if only… well, you just have to see it. And, of course, we have a soft spot for Jason Bateman. Did I forget dinkus? I mean, J K Simmons? And we love the bong. Can you buy them, or did Judge have this one made?

Then there is Mila Kunis, the trickster goddess. She steals across the landscape, wreaking havoc, right into our hearts. I don’t mean that we fall for her feminine wiles. I mean that we respond to her screen presence as though Extract were, during her appearances, a great drama, a sort of Soviet Anna Karenina. No matter how false her character’s intentions, she is always a genuine diva. When she begs Jason Bateman not to call the police, she communicates an horripilating dread of incarceration that is veiled only just enough to be decent. Yet the last thing you see, during the credits, is Kunis blithely driving a stolen car toward the nearest state line. A very great actress playing a damned good actress.

But, as I say, I also saw The Martian, a film that, for all of Matt Damon’s wisecracking, is absolutely pure of satire, as adventure stories usually are. (Satire appears when the adventures are over.) I should say that it is a worthy successor to Robinson Crusoe, but I have never read Robinson Crusoe, not even in a bowdlerized version for children. (I have not read The Martian, either, although Kathleen and Ray Soleil have.) I find the language of adventure to be flat-footed and boring. Best to be done with it in the run-time of a film. Also, unsafe conditions make me wretched, and I seem to be more aware of them in the movies than I am in life. I will not have anything to do with an adventure story unless I can be sure that it ends well. Otherwise, it’s just a nightmare.

And, even though The Martian does end well, there are several near misses with disaster. I cannot dismiss the image of Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon waltzing in a festively disordered garland of orange tape. Nor can I stop seeing the sleek Hermes, more a billionaire’s severely modern hideaway pavilion than a space ship. All very disconcerting. So, I could hardly get out of bed this morning. I was clinging to the comforts of blankets and pillows. I felt very safe there, and equally disinclined to leave that safety behind by getting up. But when the alarm that reminds me to take my meds began pealing, I responded appropriately, and here I am.


We were talking about Evernote. The iPhone app of Evernote keeps changing its opening screen, but there is always the one-button option to create a new note. Such a note will be headed with an address, as, “Note from 1498 2nd Avenue in New York.” The address is usually slightly incorrect; there is a lot to learn about GPS. Whenever I start a note at home, it’s got “87th Street” in the address, even though you cannot, in any regular way, get to our apartment from 87th Street. Nevertheless, because of our views, I do feel that I live on 87th Street, so it’s all right.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to distinguish the note that is an entry in Evernote from the note that simply refers to something by capitalizing “Note” in the former case. Each mobile Note is full of miscellaneous notes and reminders of a general nature. (I keep an excellent shopping list Note for groceries that is not only furnished with check boxes but organized according to the layout at Fairway.) I pour everything in using as few keystrokes as possible, and I often forget key details. For example:

Hobsbawm LRB – thought
Left doesn’t accept human nature
Right panders to it

Which issue of the LRB? Incidental clues suggest a date from last April. The latest Note stays open indefinitely, usually coming to an end when I take one of my rare trips, and a new Note is headed with an address in San Francisco or Fire Island. There’s no need to create new Notes when I travel; I just do. This means that some Notes cover a range of many months.

Most of my Evernotes are not at all miscellaneous. They’re lined up in numerous notebooks and sub-notebooks. I keep a list of books that I’ve read, with each book having its own Note. Into this Note I may transcribe passages that have caught my attention. I am not as diligent about this as I should like to be, but I try.

Until last Sunday, the messy Notes that originate on the iPhone rather than on a computer were allowed to pile up unreviewed — I might as well not have bothered to make them. In the afternoon, I began with the most recent Note. Unfortunately for today’s purposes, I edited it (instead of working in a new note), so it no longer resembles what I had to work with, which was a handful of words and page numbers from Victory, Purity, and other recent reads. I got out the books and transcribed the full passages. It was easy work, because the books were still fresh in my mind. Soon, however, I was working with a Note from last spring.

photographs (ph) 150

What could this mean? Thanks to my book-reading list, I was able to identify the source as Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness. The word “photograph” does appear on page 150 of Perfect Happiness, but why had I made a note of it?

She looked, unable not to, and it was as though she saw, with the eyes of inexorable experience, a ghost of herself; thus she remembered recently meeting the eyes of the five-year-old Tabitha in the photograph on Frances’s dressing-table: eyes that did not now, and did not wish to, and to which there was nothing to be said.

But who was Tabitha? Who was Frances? Holding Perfect Happiness in my hand, I found it perfectly unfamiliar.

Regular readers may recall that I read most of Lively’s novels last spring. I simply went through them, one after another. I can see now that they were a tonic for the distress that I experienced while Kathleen was consulting head-hunters in search of a more congenial law firm. The process wound up taking six months, and day by day throughout that time it became ever clearer that Kathleen could not stay where she was. That in itself was rather dire. Then there was the fact that Kathleen had never dealt with head-hunters before. She had never, so to speak, had a screen test, and undergoing the experience for the first time past the age of sixty was more than mildly disconcerting. It all worked out very well, very well; but I didn’t know that it would when I was reading Penelope Lively.

How could Perfect Happiness be so unfamiliar? I decided to re-read it. What was interesting about the second reading was what came back, and what didn’t. Also interesting was the nature of my recollections. Sometimes, I remembered having read something only when I re-read it. Sometimes, I saw things coming, and in one case, I saw how the whole thread was going to be knotted from the first mention of a character’s name, at the bottom of the first page. Another line that came back to me, as I held the book, was the introduction of Frances Brooklyn, which appears at the top of the second page:

Frances, sitting with hands folded and face blank, recollecting not in tranquillity but in ripe howling grief her husband Steven dead now eight months two weeks one day.

I began to remember: Perfect Happiness is a book about bereavement, about the oppression and then the fading of grief. Steven Brooklyn, Frances’s dead husband, was something of a paragon. First off, he was faithful to her. They had an officially happy marriage. But Frances learns that she has to put it behind her. Steven left her living in it, alone, and of course she had no immediate desire to leave it, but leave it she must. For it was not, despite the title, a perfectly happy marriage. How could it be? Second thing: Steven lived for his work. He was one of those television academics whose opinion is so much more prized in Britain than in the United States, probably because Britons enjoy hearing their native language spoken well. Steven was often away on trips, participating in conferences. He was also a very reasonable man, which meant that his everyday attire was somewhat unfeeling.

There is an interesting Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to Perfect Happiness. Not far into the book, there is an episode in Venice, which happens to be where Frances and Steven spent their honeymoon. Frances becomes convinced that if she cannot hold onto her recollections of that honeymoon, if she cannot hold on to remembering that she and Steven walked here, that they ate in that cafe, then she will lose her husband forever. In the process, she loses touch with the present, and almost has a breakdown at the front desk of the hotel where she and Steven stayed — but at which she is not staying this time. I saw this scene coming about ten pages before it happened. But the moment Frances arrived in Venice, I knew that she was going to be sustained, if not rescued, by her sister-in-law’s friend, a music critic called Morris Corfield. I knew that Morris — the character mentioned on the first page — was going to fall in love with her, and that she, while very friendly, would not fall in love with him. I remembered a very poignant moment at which Frances registered this asymmetry in the middle the night, in bed with Morris. But I was wrong, there, because it is Morris himself who registers it in that moment.

It was much later, in the cold small hours, that Morris woke and realized, almost dispassionately, that Frances did not love him and perhaps never would.

Frances’s sister-in-law is a journalist called Zoe. The novel could perfectly well have been called Frances and Zoe, or Sisters-in-Law, because the book is really just as much about Zoe as it is about Frances. Zoe has never married, but her life has hardly been virginal. Where Frances is polite and reserved, and very much the caregiver, Zoe is brusque and impatient. She and Frances have been friends since university; it was Zoe who introduced Frances to her brother, Steven. But there is an even stronger tie between them, and Steven’s death obliges them, they both conclude, to disclose it. No, they are not lovers. It is rather that Tabitha, who has always known that Frances and Steven adopted her, is in fact Zoe’s child. The passage about the photograph of five-year-old Tabitha is expressive of the immediate alienation felt by the twenty-one-year-old Tabitha once she has heard this news.

And yet, I didn’t see it coming. I forgot at first that Frances’s children were adopted. Very gradually, Tabitha’s parentage came back to me, as my recollection was refreshed, or perhaps beguiled into reappearance, by vaguely-reported discussions that Frances and Zoe had about “it’s time.” It’s time to tell her is what they weren’t saying. (There is no such exciting backstory about Harry, Frances’s son. His relief at discovering that his adoption was just an adoption can only be called British.) I’d also forgotten that, contrary to all her planning with Frances, Zoe blurts out the story at an odd moment, without even telling Frances that she’s going to do it.

Two of the notes about Perfect Happiness were references to passages on facing pages, 164 and 165. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d noted these passages, but I found them and copied them out. As I re-read the novel, however, I found out that I’d completely forgotten the episode in which they appear. I’d forgotten that Zoe has a cancer scare, complete with richly-described hospital visit. The passages that I noted both capture Zoe’s exultation at being alive, before her tests. Ave morituri.

The world had never shone so brightly. Wherever she went in the city she was transfixed, as though she saw for the first time the crisp frontages of the Nash terraces, the symmetries of the darkly stooping trees in the parks, the opalescence of clouds above the river. She watched from her window, from buses and taxis, and recorded its indifference. She could not decide if the inhumanity of what she saw outweighed its pleasure; she worried at this as though there might be a correct answer. Is the physical world a comfort or not?

There is time, which is supposed to be linear, and there are seconds and minutes and hours which are supposed to be of a particular duration. And there are also days, in which we live. The day on which Zoe went into hospital was not linear, neither was it composed of minutes or hours that bore any resemblance to one another. They raced, or they crept. Occasionally the day stopped altogether and hung suspended in the greenish light of the ward, quite self-contained, like the sterile world of a space capsule.

I must have been moved by the poetry here, by the “universal experience” of facing a question of life and death in the way that most of us face them these days, before a biopsy or some other exploration.

The second Alice-in-Wonderland episode is quietly graded to show Frances’s gradual recovery: she is not quite so undone. It involves her neighbors after a move to the precincts behind King’s Cross. Just down the road, there’s a bomb site from the War, and wouldn’t you know that in the house next door to the crater lives a man who has resented Steven Brooklyn since their days at prep school, where Steven was the golden boy and Philip the perpetual loser. I didn’t remember anything about him, or his strangely bedraggled wife, until Frances’s new puppy (an unwanted gift from Harry) dodged into the bomb site, and Frances, rescuing him, needed to be rescued herself. Something that couldn’t be perceived on a first reading was the finality with which Philip and Marcia are dismissed from the novel when the Alice episode is complete. It’s as if they’d been exiled, banished from the insight of Penelope Lively. The third Alice episode, in which Frances is just fine and not unnerved at all, or only slightly, is her little romance with Morris. It is through this episode that Frances walks out of the cage of her dead marriage.

I did remember, once I’d read it again, that I loved Perfect Happiness the first time. Somehow, though, it didn’t stick in my mind as a novel. Not as novels such as According to Mark, Heat Wave, Family Album and How It All Began have done. I’ve no idea why I remarked on those passages, either, why them? This time round, I didn’t note any passages. But I did take notes for the entry that I have just written.


Friday 9th

Instead of tidying the apartment yesterday, I wrote a few letters, and one of them produced an almost instant reply. My letter had caught an old friend in a mood that she described “full of piss and vinegar.” Nothing to do with me, but it did inflect her answer. In her opinion, the robot question (can we design robots, and our commercial lives as well, to assist human beings, and not to replace them?) is already moot, because “people are already themselves turned into robots.” Then she said,

People en masse have become dangerously dumbed down. You are keeping alive a dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.

I think that this was the piss and vinegar talking. “Dinosaurian,” I mean. I don’t think that my friend meant to say that what I’m doing here amounts to nothing more than rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. Well, maybe she did, a little. I am fairly certain that she would retract the tangle of oxymorons in “dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.” Anger can make you say such things.

This is not the sort of thing that my friend usually writes. She cultivates a positive outlook. But I know that maintaining a positive outlook obliges her to avoid giving much thought to politics and society. She has pretty much written them off. The violence of her disavowal is reflected in a somewhat fractured sentence toward the end of the paragraph written in response to me.

I think the only solution to our morass is overthrow and distributed wealth, not mere subsistence. I await that revolution.

I realize that this statement reflects a momentary impatience. But my dread of overthrow and revolution is such that no encounter with such words can be casual. The violent overthrow of power invariably creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by opportunists — people who are undistracted by concerns other than self-interest. A landscape of opportunists just as quickly creates a climate of reasonable paranoia: no one can be trusted. History shows that only the exhaustion of the revolutionary impulse puts a stop to the bloodshed. Eventually, people want order more than they want reform.

My friend’s letter betrays a hopelessness that I shall try not to take too seriously. I am nonetheless aware that she is expressing what almost everyone I know thinks about American society. Nobody really believes that education, economic assistance, or improved housing will improve a lot of lives at the bottom of the ladder. Nobody expects the shrinking middle class either to outgrow the rhetoric of polarization or to become conversant with actual current affairs. My friends are not at all surprised that a minority of their countrymen holds passports.

The people I know — affluent, well-educated men and women who are trying hard to get the most out of life — have, in short, just about given up on liberal democracy as a practical matter. Men and women whose wealth and education ought to have inspired them to be model citizens, activists for a healthy, inclusive society, instead feel politically pointless, trivialized by television entertainment. Their disgust with political parties goes back to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They no longer even ask what is to be done.

Meanwhile, serious jobs go on disappearing, leaving only “a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.” Without jobs, people will be either destitute or the beneficiaries of “free stuff.” Neither course is meaningful or satisfying to human beings.


I don’t know why I’m any different — it must have something to do with the dinosaur in me, or at any rate the historian — but I believe that the situation is only as hopeless as the people in it. To quote The Martian (more or less), when everything goes south and you know you’re going to die, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. You have to begin with an idea of a more hopeful situation. Easy for Mark Watney: staying alive is easily imagined. Making it possible to stay alive is not easy, but it’s doable, at least with heaping doses of ingenuity and determination. We’ve got plenty of both, plus all the necessary resources. What we don’t have is that idea. We don’t really try to imagine a more hopeful social situation. I don’t think that we ever have. We don’t really believe that we can make this terrestrial world a better place, so we imagine paradise. We imagine lives of dolce far niente. This is what we have always done, because we couldn’t make the world a better place.

Until, that is, we discovered that we could make it much worse place. Until recently, we believed in progress. Progress allowed us to increase health, wealth, and speed. We believed that progress — these three increases — would improve the lives of millions. We believed that progress would stop there. We did not imagine that progress would poison the earth or destroy meaning. We never had a comprehensive plan for progress; we simply settled for more and better. I suppose it’s no wonder that the people who benefited most from progress were the first to see through it, or at any rate to see how inadequate the idea of progress really was.

We need an idea of the world that accounts for more than the idea of progress did. Then we need an idea of what, given our resources, the first step toward that world would look like. This is not what do we need most but what can we do right now without upsetting our human ecology (and creating power vacuumes, &c). There are lots of things that we can do as individuals, and we know what they are. But there are things that we can do only as a society, not in compliance with some socialist diktat but as fellow-citizens imagining together. (That’s how the United States got going, in case you missed class that day.) What is the most urgent of the things that we’ll have to do together?

We have to imagine how to provide everyone who wants one with a meaningful, sustaining job, with something to do in the world that earns a decent wage. The first step seems to entail imagining how we could simply create more good jobs right now. As Americans, I think we have a duty to imagine jobs for Americans; every other nation has the same duty. So, can we begin with that?


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Seated Interpretive Dancing
September 2015 (V)

Monday 28th

There was a racket outside, clearly involving a fire truck. The sirens weren’t wailing, but the horn was bleating. The horns on firetrucks are extraordinarily unpleasant. They’re somewhere between a foghorn and a braying donkey, only much, much louder than either. I find them utterly countereffective. They’re supposed to inspire the drivers of other vehicles to get out of the way, but in fact they don’t inspire anything: thought shuts down. That’s what was happening outside. Two cars were waiting to pull into the garage downstairs. The driver of the firetruck didn’t want to wait. I doubt that the truck was headed anywhere but to the firehouse on 85th Street. But right of way must be insisted upon.

A couple of garage attendants were signalling to the drivers, Drive on! Get out of the way! But the driver of the first car, a white sedan, was either stubborn or paralyzed. A door on the driver’s side of the firetruck opened, and I wondered what kind of confrontation we were in for. But the driver of the white car finally moved. He (or she) didn’t get out of the way, though; up at the corner of Second Avenue, the firetruck was still bleating. I didn’t feel like kneeling on the bench and trying to peer down to the end of the block, so I simply assumed that the driver of the white sedan, while consenting to move, was still in the way, and not pulled over, as the driver of the second car, a dark sedan, was, at the first opportunity.

Earlier on the weekend, I went out to investigate another racket. This one involved a firetruck — probably the same firetruck — as well, but only the engine was rumbling. The ruck had pulled over and blocked entry to the garage, and, behind it, there was a line of cars, some of which, waiting to get into the garage, were blocking the way for everyone else. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the firetruck, and the driver’s door was ajar. Nothing happened (except the honking of horns) for about a minute. Then a man in a uniform consisting to shorts and a shirt appeared, coming from the First-Avenue end of the block. He got behind the wheel and closed the door. Then he strapped himself in. The truck shifted gears, and the pitch of the engine rumble dropped. Still, nothing happened. Then the rest of the crew appeared, coming from the same direction, and clambered into the other doors. The truck drove off, and quite soon the only cars to be seen were the one parked by the sidewalks.

I can see the sidewalk on our side of the street now.


More anon. I am reading Purity. I really cannot think about anything else until I’m done with it. For more than three hundred pages, it was a dark thrill ride, much like Strong Motion and The Corrections, so reassuringly Jonathan Franzen at his best that I began to be genuinely curious about my lukewarm response to Freedom. Over time, that response curdled, leaving me with the fear that Franzen had lost his touch. I preferred not to think about Freedom at all, notwithstanding its many fine points.  I had been reluctant to read Purity, lest it confirm that fear. Happily, it canceled it.

Then I got to the section entitled “[le1o9n8a0rd],” and gasped to see how long it is. More than a hundred and twenty pages of Anabel Laird! It’s very well written, yes, of course; but Anabel Laird ought to have been put down in adolescence. She is the whining victim of masculine oppression who engorges me with a lust to disembowel her, and then to find other, nastier ways of killing her. In short, she makes me want to become the very image of her conceited, intolerable lamentations.

I’ve still got a few dozen pages to get through. (And then the final section after that.) Meanwhile, I read an interesting book review on Saturday. The first time I looked at it, I got as far as this:

If his outline is familiar, Orme benefits from his resemblance to previous Banville narrators. Sixteen novels in, and the author has stated he does not “really believe in the third-person mode.” His recent books are narrated by men adrift, prone to musing. “Why is there grass everywhere, covering everything?” asks Orme. “Why are there so many leaves?” These are men with painters in their pockets. Some look at the sky and think of Poussin, others turn to Bonnard. These men seep into one another; their tones intermingle.

That’s the second paragraph. It seemed to demonstrate why I don’t read John Banville. I certainly wasn’t going to read the book under review, The Blue Guitar (the impertinence!). But the review stuck with me, and, now interested, I read the whole piece. I came across this.

It’s not just that the extended cast of “The Blue Guitar” is underdrawn and the plot underfed, the difference here is that the narrator himself gets involved. Oliver Orme pre-empts any criticism of the book by repeatedly criticizing its melodrama.

You’ll have to take it from me that The Blue Guitar is filled with sumptuous prose. I think it’s fair to say that Craig Taylor’s review is not a very favorable one. I will come back to this later. Insufferable as I find Anabel Laird to be, I would rather spend time with her than with a character who can’t keep his hands off his neighbor’s wife and who muses about the prevalence of grass (in soggy Ireland). Spare me the poetic novels with sketchy characters and desultory stories!

I read a novel by John Banville once, Eclipse. It was one of the first books that I wrote about when I set up my first Web site. What I don’t say in my (not very lucid) published response is that Banville gave new heft to an existing prejudice against Irish literature. If Colm Tóibín hadn’t written The Master, I might still be laboring under a dreadful misapprehension.


Tuesday 29th

This morning, I couldn’t find my phone, so I had to call it. I could hear a distant ring, but it took two calls to track the thing down. It was in the pocket of my household shorts, hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Most irregular! I have a pockets-emptying protocol that is so habitual that I don’t have to think about it. Watch, wallet, and keys go here. Phone and handkerchief (and reading glasses, which I always wear suspended on a beaded chain that Kathleen made for me) go there. What happened last night? What happened last night was a combination of distracting excitements. After dinner, I spread Effudex on the backs of my hands and sat down to read for forty-five minutes. Effudex is chemotherapy for pre-cancerous skin cells. It is very effective, very itchy, and productive of very unattractive blotches. I walk into the doctor’s office with what looks to be plague, and she says, “Beautiful!” Even so, I felt thoughtless and gross walking past the outside diners at Maz Mezcal in a short-sleeved shirt, shortly before we left for Fire Island. Anyway, after forty-five minutes, I got up to take a shower, washing the Effudex off, something that you’re not supposed to do, officially, but that doesn’t matter, because Dr Green told me that the cream does its stuff in twenty minutes. (She does not, of course, approve of my washing it off, but doesn’t scold me about it, either.) In addition to the delight of erasing the worst of the itchiness, there was the prospect of a movie to watch: Victory. The watch, the wallet, and the keys were deposited where they belonged, and I gathered my handkerchief and glasses as soon as I came out of the bathroom, but I forgot about the phone. It’s probably worth noting that I watched the DVD without missing it.

Victory, adapted from Conrad and directed by Mark Peploe in 1996, is unusually faithful to the action of the book. Everything that happens in the story happens in the movie as well, with only a few slight divergences. (The prehistory with Morrison is summarized but cut.) What’s left out, however, is much that makes Victory worth reading. There is a great deal of reflection — Heyst’s and Lena’s — that tells us who they are, and how they’re not anybody else. I cannot imagine how the richness of this material could be folded into a movie, but Peploe, perhaps wisely, does not attempt it. What he might be more fairly faulted for is omitting most of the novel’s highly dramatic conversational set-pieces. The chief of these, the chilling encounter between Ricardo and Schomberg that constitutes the bulk of Part II, is reduced to a mere snippet. The sociopathy of Ricardo, so bewitchingly expressed in his tale of hooking up with Mr Jones, has to be communicated instead by Rufus Sewell’s off-key, eye-rolling eagerness. I like Rufus Sewell’s acting, and I wouldn’t say that he is miscast here. But he is very much a substitute for someone else — I can’t think who.

Irène Jacob is very good as Lena, better than I thought she could be. Because of course Irène Jacob is French, and Lena is English. Since Conrad never stops harping on the lustrousness of Lena’s voice, and since the “action” half of the novel begins with the lovers’ Tristan-esque discussion of their love, and since the decision was made to transform the Swedish Baron von Heyst into Willem Dafoe’s American from San Francisco, the film’s massive abbreviations are compounded, again, by substitutions. I daresay that Ms Jacob appears in the picture because one of the project’s many producers insisted upon it, and the same is probably true of Mr Dafoe’s.

The remarkable performance is Sam Neill’s. As a full-bodied man, trim and fit but by no means as cadaverous as the book’s Mr Jones, Mr Neill might seem yet another substitute, but he isn’t, because he completely captures Mr Jones’s malignancy. The substitution here is merely of one ghastly façade for another. An unhealthily bloated face is accentuated by tiny sunglasses. After the ordeal in the rowboat, the face bears poxy red patches. But the leering, louche way with words is right out of the book. The meaning of Mr Jones’s one phobia — women — is nudged into discreet, if arguably misguided, explicitude by his grazing the cheek of a Chinese waiter at Schomberg’s hotel. By the time we get to the climax, however, Sam Neill has outdone (in advance) the weirdness of his performance in Event Horizon. Somehow he completely obscures his own fit-and-trimness.

The other great performance, painfully brief, is Irm Hermann’s, as Mme Schomberg. Her smile may not be as “idiotic” as Conrad would have it, but it burns with placid intent. Having mentioned Ms Hermann, I feel that I must also say something about Simon Callow’s orchestra leader: I didn’t recognize him until he started talking. He carries himself like a jointed paper doll from the 1840s — at least until he has that fight with Schomberg. Schomberg’s vastly reduced, and therefore much less interesting part, is played by Jean Yanne. Actually, Peploe’s Schomberg is just a stereotypical ageing lecher. We’re told (by a sea-captain’s voice-over) about Schomberg’s electric hatred of Heyst, but we’re not shown it, not at all.


Most of the day went to Purity. Aside from making the bed and grabbing a burger across the street, I did nothing else but read Jonathan Franzen. Which is odd, because I hadn’t much left. When I was done, I rooted around for some reviews. There was James Meek’s, conveniently announced on the cover of the current LRB, but the only other review of Purity that I could find was Elaine Blair’s, in Harper’s. They made an interesting pair, because while they agreed about little or nothing, they fell into the same journalistic slot, as attempts to place a noted novelist’s latest work in a larger cultural conversation. For Meek, it’s “family”; for Blair, “women.” This accidental juxtapositions suggests spinning an argument that women are the true enemies of family, but I’m not going to go there. I was not interested in Purity‘s relevance to cultural conversations, even when its contributions were more essential than merely interesting. All I have to say about the two reviews is that their mutually unsympathetic conclusions seem like a sign of literary vitality.

Trying to avoid falling into any journalistic slots myself, I resist the big question, which is: What is Purity about? The question is as tempting as it is obvious, because the novel bristles with themes, ranging from the war between the sexes to the well-known dangers of the Internet and the overlooked dangers of nuclear arsenals. The characters think and talk intelligently (or at least passionately) about these themes. But, like every good novel, Purity is about a handful of people and the social environments in which they live and interact. As in every good novel, the characters are more interesting than the things they talk about — we’re more engaged, say, with Leila Helou’s worries about nukes than we are worried about nukes, because they her worries, and she’s kind of fascinating. (James Meek regards her section as “the weakest.”) We’re asked to consider both what the characters want and why they can’t enjoy it more. I think of Vladimir Nabokov with his butterfly net: what is a novelist but a hunter in search of imaginary glow-worms who will illuminate each other? Purity is a very good catch.

(My problem with Freedom, I’m coming to believe, was my problem: I couldn’t really deal with Walter Berglund. It was worse than dislike — much worse. I disliked Anabel Laird, in Purity, far more than I disliked Walter Berglund, but my dislike was passionate. Walter Berglund, I simply refused to think about, as if admitting Walter Berglund into the world of interesting people would spoil the world for me. He seemed to me to be an awfully familiar figure, and I do mean awfully. It’s perhaps à propos here to say that my big problem with Jonathan Franzen is partly that his characters are overinterested in sex and partly that Franzen is overinterested in showing me what they do about it. When I say that I don’t know anybody in real life whose genitals are so energetically autonomous, the accent falls on I don’t know, and that’s how I like it. I know that sex can be brilliantly creative, and abysmally destructive, and I even know how it can be both of these things. But the very fact that sex is (one hopes) private, and perfectly peculiar to those engaging in any given sexual act, it is not of general interest. And now I must immediately qualify that statement by conceding that Pip Tyler’s explicit idyll with Andreas Wolf in the Bolivian hotel room is an important scene that deserves its spelling out, because it is about Pip’s fluctuating moral register of the encounter. What people do behind closed doors is one thing. How their feelings about doing it shift is something else. I believe that, when, for some awful reason or another, you don’t really want to be embracing the person in your bed, you are having sex without making love, and that is an awful thing, quite literally an immoral thing. I seem lately to have read a number of accounts, fictional or otherwise, that highlight the sudden lack of interest in their partners that males feel after ejaculation (Knausgaard comes to mind). I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never experienced such post-coital withdrawal, even if that means what it implies, which is that I haven’t experienced “casual sex.”)

If I were obliged to vote for a Most Central Character in Purity, I’d be deeply puzzled, because to pick either of the two obvious candidates would be to overlook the other’s importance to the integrity of the novel. These two characters are Anabel Laird and Andreas Wolf. They never meet, which means that, if one is the room, the other can’t be. This is not to say that there are “two plots,” but only that this election gets in the way of understanding the book. The better contest might be for the choice of Prime Mover: who is the character who sets the story in motion. This character is clearly Pip Tyler, the Purity of the title. It’s true that she sets the story in motion by merely existing, but it’s a matter of existing when Andreas Wolf is looking for avenues of attacking sometime friend Tom Aberant. We understand this in retrospect, not at the beginning; but the book does begin with Pip, and moves quickly to include Anabel, although we don’t know that Pip’s mother is Anabel yet. (We do understand that Pip’s mother and Anabel are the same person long before it is announced, because they are identically impossible.) Perhaps it is a feature of the Prime Mover to be a young person who does not yet know what she’s dealing with or whom she’s up against, but it is definitely youthfulness that inclines us to root for Pip. By making her edgy and funny, and clearly very aware of the words that come out of her mouth, Franzen insures that his literate readers will root for her — will take, for the duration, her destiny as their own.


Wednesday 30th

About my eye: I mentioned last week that my left eye was inflamed, and that I was waiting to see the ophthalmologist who was covering for the doctor who has taken care of my eyes for decades but who was traveling — as I say, September is the month to leave New York. By the time I did get medical attention, the problem had pretty much cleared up by itself, with perhaps a little help from Advil. I saw the regular doctor yesterday, and he confirmed a diagnosis of non-infectious scleritis, an apparently spontaneous inflammation of the membrane surrounding the eye — the sort of thing that can happen to people with hypertrophic immune systems and, presumably, the sort of thing that Remicade ought to prevent. Something to talk about with the rheumatologist! The good news was that, if it happens again, and the pain is responsive to Advil, then I can use Predniselone drops to end the inflammation without bothering the doctor. Very good news indeed, since bothering the doctor about something that clears up by itself is expensive at any price, and, in this case, this being Manhattan, just plain expensive.


At the recommendation of a most regular reader (I ought to be able to put that in Latin), I diverted my attention from Carlo Cipolla’s Before the Industrial Revolution to his Clocks and Culture, a short book that is divided into the three parts. In the first, Cipolla talks about the invention of the “verge escapement with foliot” that is the basis of the mechanical clock. (Foliots have been replaced by fusées and pendulums.) In the section part, Cipolla runs through the interesting history of Western clocks in China and Japan, from the Sixteenth Century on. Finally, there is a brief epilogue. The epilogue is the heart of the book.

Although the epilogue is written in the clearest language, you must read the rest of the book in order to understood it, or you will wind up like the Chinese eunuchs. The Chinese eunuchs thought that clocks were fantastic toys. You probably think that clocks were invented to tell time.

Eventually, of course, clocks did get round to telling the time, but this took a few centuries — more than three. It wasn’t until Christian Huygens applied a pendulum to a clock, in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, that clocks told time more or less reliably. What, you may ask, did clocks do before that?

Well, clocks were fantastic toys. They were big public clocks, mounted on cathedral spires and other highly-visible urban spaces. They might not have been reliable, but they were impressive. It was best to have just one, as the burghers of Dijon discovered when, in 1641, it was found to be intolerable that no two of the town’s public clocks kept the same time. The dirty little secret about pre-pendulum clocks is that they had to be “governed” by human attendants, who determined the correct time from sundials and water clocks and adjusted the big clocks accordingly.

We imagine a bunch of guys in a garage, or some similar shed, trying to figure out how to make a clock. That is a post-Scientific Revolution picture. Since the Scientific Revolution, one of whose first triumphs was Making Clocks Reliable, our technological developments have fallen within programs. The personal computer begins with human computers, battalions of men armed with adding machines, determining the trajectories of weapons. It is discovered that the desired computations are beyond the time and intelligence of any number of human beings. How to perform the computations otherwise is the problem, and the personal computer is the answer — or, rather, one side-effect of the answer.

But pre-modern technology was not so teleological. The picture was different. Inventions from far beyond Europe’s borders — water mills, windmills, and gunpowder — were appropriated by Europeans. And then they were improved. Why? Because the artisans who produced them became mechanics, or in other words guys who try to figure out a better way to do something just for the hell of it. The something was already a given. As in Before the Industrial Revolution, Cipolla quotes P G Walker in Clocks and Culture:

Before men could evolve and apply the machine as a social phenomenon they had to become mechanics.

This is a very subtle thought, not nearly as easy to grasp as it seems to be once you’ve got it. The Middle Ages were technologically fertile, but they were also technologically disorganized. This followed a world-wide pattern, in which men of learning believed that men of practical skill had nothing to teach them. Throughout the Middle Ages, university professors went on preaching Aristotle. They were not consulted by the builders of cathedrals, who confronted and solved daunting engineering problems on their own. (The cathedral, unlike the clock, is the produce of end-driven solutions.) It is difficult for us to imagine the divide between theoretical and applied science, but it was indeed absolute; the one had nothing to do with the other. As the centuries rolled by, however, smart educated men began to think about the world that they grew up in, a world of mills and clocks and square-rigged sailing ships, and they began to infuse high science with artisanal practicality. Both Galileo and Leeuwenhoek were dependent upon lens-grinders to produce the instruments that they needed for their discoveries. And because the schooled scientists began to want to measure things, they demanded reliable clocks — and got them, thanks to Huygens. The application of the pendulum to the verge escapement clock is, in its marriage of theory and know-how, the first invention of Modern Times.

Bear in mind that, discordant church bells aside, ordinary people did not really need to know what time it was. On a sunny day, they could tell perfectly well what they needed to know. You showed up on the right day and waited for things to get going. It’s still that way in many parts of the world. In Asia, the day was divided into six daylight and six night-time hours. Obviously, the length in minutes of these hours fluctuated throughout the year, and, when they began making their own clocks, the Japanese learned how to make adjustable instruments that told Japanese time, not “of the clock” time. The whole idea of clock time, the whole idea of deferring to a mechanical instrument instead of regarding it as an optional gadget that might or might not have anything useful to say, came from the Scientific Revolution, when it became very important to the new men of science to know how long processes lasted. Solid bodies no longer just fell; they fell at an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second.

In his epilogue, Cipolla reminds us that people cannot see what they are not looking for. To put it another way, they cannot see at all unless they are looking. The Chinese officials who could afford to own a timekeeping devices had no need to use them; they snapped their fingers, and things happened then. Europeans were no different. In the three hundred years and more between the invention of the verge escapement and the attachment of the pendulum, clocks evolved as entertainment devices. A single clockwork might power six different faces, showing the movements of the heavens and the changes of the calendar, and throwing in a mechanical floor show for good measure, Adam and Eve doing the hokey-pokey with a serpent. What distinguished East and West was the humility of Europe’s educated men, who stopped teaching and started learning.

What we need now is to learn not from the scientists but from Oscar Wilde. Here is Cipolla’s penultimate paragraph:

The machine is a tool. But it is not a “neutral” tool. We are deeply influenced by the machine while using it. De Saint Exupéry optimistically believes that “little by little the machine will become part of humanity,” and that “every machine will gradually take on [man's] patina and lose its identity in its function.” However, in a world of machines we too are gradually taking on a patina and are little by little infected by a mechanistic outlook that is not always useful or beneficial in handling human affairs. As Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “the evil that machinery is doing is that it makes men themselves machines also.”

It’s hard to believe that Wilde wouldn’t have put it better. But it is too true that, since the Scientific Revolution engendered the Industrial Revolution, men have been regrettably inclined to regard other, allegedly lesser, men as capable of mechanical regularity: to show up on time, to repeat operations exactly, to disregard irrelevant impulses. I can’t think how often my blood has been brought to the boiling point by reading that businessmen have an interest in effective education because it produces skilled and reliable workers. Whether they do or they don’t, today’s public schools are indistinguishable from third-world factories, and students regard them as comic-book prisons. The clock is a tool, but it can’t prevent us from using it to make tools out of human beings. Only we can do that. And maybe the best way to begin that exercise is to remind ourselves of the guys in the pre-industrial garage.


Thursday October 1st

This will be brief. I have just lost my second attempt to add to this entry. I have no idea what the problem was, but fifteen hundred words just went poof. Then the three hundred that I managed to scribble down before I forget them vanished as well.

Losing text is always disheartening. I have a number of protocols for saving work as I go along — I can’t count on the software — but every now and then, I get so involved in what I’m writing that I disregard them, and today I’ve paid for that. I was writing about Angela Bourke’s harrowing true-crime book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, and about Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism” by William Mac Askill, Doing Good Better. The latter poses important problems that I hope to come back to. When I finish reading about Bridget Cleary, I may be able to write again about her strange ordeal. But I’ve been at the machine for long enough today.


Later the same day

Kathleen had not slept well the night before. At the dinner table, her eyelids fell shut. “Why don’t you go to bed?” “I’m fine as as I can close my eyes. What were you saying?” What I wasn’t saying was that it’s discomfiting to sit over dinner with someone whose eyes are closed. We did not linger at the table. By the time I’d washed the dishes, and spread Effudex over the backs of my hands, Kathleen was all tucked in. “Would you like me to turn out your lamp?” “No, I may sit up and read a few pages.” I sat down and read for forty minutes, but Kathleen never budged.

Before I disappeared into the bathroom to wash off the Effudex and get ready for the night, I woke Kathleen up and asked her to take her meds, which would see to it that she stayed asleep. It turned out that she had forgotten to take them the night before; hence the bad night. Then I turned out her lamp and kissed her good night.

The book that I was reading rendered Kathleen’s mildly odd behavior rather disturbing. When did Kathleen ever have a problem falling asleep? When did she ever close her eyes at the table? What were those pills I’d given her? The book was Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary, one of the most harrowing true-crime books, not least because the perpetrators were not entirely sure that they were participating in a crime at all.

In 1895, in County Tipperary, a young married woman, Bridget Cleary, was killed by her husband, while her father, her aunt, and several cousins stood by. Two weeks later, when these family members were in prison, pending questioning, Bridget Cleary’s body was interred by four policemen. Not one villager, not even the priest, would attend the burial. What had Bridget Cleary done to bring down such an horrific end upon herself?

I haven’t finished reading the book, but, if you ask me, what she did was to apprentice herself to a dressmaker in Clonmel, the town nearby, and to acquire a Singer sewing machine. She might as well have  stitched herself a pair of trousers. Bridget Cleary was moving up in the world; unfortunately, she was still at home.

Angela Bourke was drawn to Bridget Cleary’s story because it is enmeshed in the lore of fairies. Irish fairies are not for children, if for no other reason than their penchant for ambiguity. When irritated, fairies could wreak nasty magic upon mortals and their animals. They could, among other things, abduct family members and “replace” them with changelings. Changelings were difficult and sickly. When Bridget Cleary came down with a touch of bronchitis, her family convinced her husband, with all the obliquity of which an Irish family is capable, that the woman in his bed was not Bridget but a changeling. If he was a real man, he would deal with it.

The way to deal with changelings was to expose them to fire. Fairies hated fire. They would run up the chimney, and restore the kidnapped family member. A number of burnings were reported by British doctors in nineteenth-century Ireland. (Oscar Wilde’s father filed a lot of those reports.) All of them but one involved small children who were not developing normally. A few were burned to death. The one adult victim of the burning cure was Bridget Cleary.

In addition to her business head and take-charge mentality, Bridget Cleary was rumored to have a lover, the Protestant bailiff who happened to live next door. The folklore of fairies allowed Bridget’s family to rectify an awkward and potentially scandalous situation by invoking the fairies. They persuaded themselves that they were doing no harm to their relative — they were only trying to get her back. How sincerely they held this conviction is open to question, but that was  part of the fairy point, too. Fairies did not subscribe to the ratonal law against contradictions. As such, they were weapons of a sort in the fight of a waning traditional society against British commerce, medicine, and justice. It is the ambiguity of the family’s beliefs, playing behind the stressed-out agony of Michael Cleary, who didn’t know what to believe but who was left no choice about proving his manhood, that makes Bourke’s book both fascinating and sickening.

The Cleary case attracted a lot of attention throughout Britain. The English seemed incapable of grasping the fairy angle, and kept asserting that Bridget had been burned as a witch. Nobody who knew her ever thought such a thing. With the precision of a neurosurgeon, Bourke — author of the Maeve Brennan biography; that’s how I came across her work — keeps the story’s many strands distinct, and makes what is in essence a scholarly case study yield a gripping read.


Almost as gripping a read is Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism,” the latest version of utilitarian philosophy. Another term that comes up in the review is “existential risk.” These rather bland phrases turn out to be coded facilitators of slick selfishness. William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better: blah blah blah, is a lecturer at Oxford who is not yet thirty years old. It may be hoped that he will eventually outgrow his callow simplificatons.

Effective Altruism — the associated movement — errs at the starting line. Srinivasan observes that MacAskill’s

main claim, familiar from the utilitarian tradition out of which the movement emerges, is that we should not only do good, but to do the most good we can.

But nobody is in a position to know what that might be. MacAskill parades a troupe of trumpery metrics, all pungently redolent of the physics envy that induces economists to overlook the bent timber of humanity and dream of fungible individuals. He believes that good can be calculated — there is even such a thing as a Qaly, “a single year of life lived
at 100 per cent health.” Calculations involve highly even more speculative figures: “We must also think both marginally and counterfactually.” “Counterfactually” usually means that, if you don’t do something, someone else will. Marginal thinking is just that. Let’s say that you want to do some good by being a doctor. Being a doctor in America will do some good, but, marginally considered, not very much, because there are already lots of doctors here. (Tell that to someone with no coverage.) If you go to Africa, you can do a great deal more marginal good, but even better is to become a hedge fund manager, make a killing, and distribute your fortune philanthropically among a legion of doctors in Africa. Bill and Melinda Gates couldn’t put it better.

Even if “the most good” could be known, the virtue of pursuing it would be doubtful. For one thing, says who? For another, this somewhat bogus self-sacrifice would interfere with a clearer imperative: that we live as well as we can. Living well is the compromise that we make with all the imaginary possibilities for fulfilment that life seems to offer, for example, having a good time. To live well is, in the end, to live well  enough. Doing the most good surely requires us to forego doing anything else, and as such to ignore the limits on all activities that fleshly mortality imposes. Monomaniacs do not flourish.

We must consider existential risks. These are threats to humanity as a whole. At a recent conference on effective altruism hosted by Google, the hot issue was existential risk, according to a report filed by Dylan Matthews at Vox (and cited by Srinivasan). Asteroids, plagues, climate catastrophes and the other usual suspects took a back seat to the menace of robots, who will turn on their creators and destroy them (us) just as soon as we make them smart enough. This prospect is so totally, totally awful that any amount of money thrown at its prevention, no matter how unlikely the odds of success, is better spent than on any of the fixable problems all around us right now. Is it any wonder that Silicon Valley was gladdened by this ethical imperative? I can’t be the only one to be reminded of late-medieval chantries: why leave your money to the dirty poor when you can
endow a chantry, paying priests to say perpetual Masses for the salvation of your eternal soul? All the effective altruists have done is to substitute coders for clerics.

The ultra-rational MacAskill has a bias against bias: he believes that you oughtn’t to support a charity that benefits someone you know. Writing of his decision not to fund a hospital in Ethiopia that he visited and where he made friends — beware of friends like William MacAskill! — our Young Turk says that such contributions would be unfair and arbitrary.

If I’d visited some other shelter in Ethiopia, or in any other country, I would have had a different set of personal connections. It was artibitrary that I’d seen this particular problem at close quarters.

On which Srinivasan comments,

That word “arbitrary” is striking. It is indeed arbitrary that MacAskill went to this hospital and not another, in Ethiopia and no some other country, just as it is arbitrary that we have the family, friends, lovers and neighbors we do. But doesn’t such arbitrariness come to mean sometehing else, ethically speaking, when it is constitutive of our personal experience: when it becomes embedded in the complex structure of commitments, affinites and understandings that comprise social life?

The most pressing moral imperative that I perceive is the need to do what we can to sustain and improve our local environments. This just might counseling young people against becoming self-centered jerks. I don’t know about the robots, but we surely need protection from the effective altruists.


Friday 2nd

Reading the news from Roseburg, Oregon, I can’t do much more than register that I’ve read it. The urge to explain yet another shooting is irresistible, but it has been irresistible on so many previous occasions that it is difficult to marshal the energy. I applaud President Obama’s declaration of impatience with current gun regulation, but putting the accent on gun regulation suggests that these outbreaks are happening because they can. I suspect that that would be — arguably — a necessary but not sufficient explanation. The shooters seem alike, but we only get to know them when they’re dead. The Adam Lanza case reminds us that very disturbed people behave in ways that resist explanation. Is there a connection between Lanza’s temporary addiction to Dance Dance Revolution, as reported in a recent issue of the NYRB, and his attack on the elementary school in Sandy Hook? It’s an exciting, but not very illuminating question. Adam Lanza needed care that his mother thought she could provide on her own and that the state could not provide effectively. The only positive idea that we can take away from these episodes is that we do need to reconsider the balance of anti-social behavior and freedom, especially where young men are concerned. I’d like to get rid of the guns as passionately as anyone, but inadequate mental health care is a sore point that needs a great deal more attention.

It is also worth remembering that, until quite recently in human experience, the autonomy that adult males prize so highly used to be earned, and granted not by the mere passage of years but by the recognition of other adult males. I do not mean to prefer traditional societies here. It’s to be hoped that we have left them behind forever. There are many ways of being an adult in our world, and I cannot even begin to propose a scheme whereby boys are put in touch with sympathetic mentors. But I can begin thinking about it, and so can you.

In other loose change, I’m actually almost delighted that Pope Francis had his little talk with Kim Davis. (He did, didn’t he?) Even assuming that he knew all about her, it was perfectly pastoral of him to urge a woman conflicted over faith and duty to “be strong.” If she took that advice as an endorsement of her behavior, that’s her business. Our business is to heed the wake-up call, if needed, and stop dreaming about an overnight transformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which remains, emphatically, the domain of a confraternity of unmarried males, an organization many of whose members would not think twice about stifling His Holiness in his sleep, sooner than see him celebrate a same-sex marriage. Does Francis cower at their threat? I don’t think so. What he is doing is far more general, and at the same time more fundamental. He is insisting that Christian empathy is more important that Christian doctrine. Almost all self-styled Christians of every stripe have just about forgotten this message. (It was the power of empathy that inspired the doctrine. The doctrine did not prescribe empathy; empathy can’t be prescribed.) The Nunciature committed a gaffe by including Ms Davis in the receiving line, but those who are “disappointed” in Francis because he greeted her are not hearing what he’s saying.


Ever since my vacation on Fire Island, I’ve found it difficult to roll up my sleeves for housework. Last week, I didn’t get around to it at all. I simply shirked. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why the spell of laziness ended when it did. But it did end, on Wednesday. Yesterday, I was even more industrious. As the entry reports, I lost the morning’s work at the point of proofing it. These things happen, I told myself; and, probably because I have been working very hard here since the end of August — the fact that I’ve enjoyed doing so just means that I’m lucky — I actually listened. I dealt with lunch briskly and turned my attention to the half of the apartment that I hadn’t straightened up the day before. But first, I thought, let’s see if Web Expressions 4 is set up on the Lenovo in the dining ell — my “house,” as distinct from “work,” computer. Here’s what I had in mind: I’d use Web Ex, which allows saving work to the local disc, instead of the WordPress, with its cloud (the Cloud of No Undoing, I call it), to jot down bits and pieces of what I had written in the morning as I remembered them. I would come and go. I would dust a table, and then sit down at the laptop for a quick minute. What in fact happened was that I sat down for ninety minutes or more. By now, my head was clear of that awful lost-work staticky heartburn, and I was almost taking dictation from a surprisingly clear memory. Then I tidied the rest of the apartment. I made dinner, too, a mushroom and sausage ragù that was all right, but in need of some flavorful oomph (olives, maybe?).

Kathleen had a glass of wine at dinner, which may explain what happened next. She was in bed, about to resume reading Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings, which I’ve been urging her to read since it came out — she’s liking it, too — and I was ready for bed but sitting in my chair, The Burning of Bridget Cleary at my side. Instead of opening her book, however, Kathleen said, “It’s like the song. I love you more today than yesterday.” Our 34th wedding anniversary falls tomorrow, so we’ve been thinking such things for a while now. Instead of getting sentimental, however, I got the song, sung way back when by Spiral Staircase. We listened to that a couple of times. It seemed safe, after the passage of so many years, to treat the lyrics as a statement of fact (but, even so, I’m not taking anything for granted). Kathleen had her computer out by now, and she was running through songs on YouTube. She paused momentously at “This Guy’s In Love With You,” the Herb Alpert hit from 1969. So I bought that as well and loaded it onto the Nano. While it was playing, I was reminded of a terrible song that I was horribly in love with in Houston, not long before law school, “(They Want To Be) Close To You,” sung by the striking voice of Karen Carpenter. Kathleen almost exploded when I played it, but instead she launched a breathtaking interpretation of the song, using her skill and artistry as a Seated Interpretive Dancer. (That’s what we call it, anyway.) With her upper body, she mimed the song ruthlessly. The way she coyly embraced her heart with both hands at the title words was both beautiful and hilarious. And that “Waaah!” at the finale! Complete abandon! When Kathleen hates a song, she really throws herself into it. Never has an audience felt more privileged.

Then we put down our toys and set to reading.


Bon weekend à tous!