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!

Gotham Diary:
The Real Soufflé
September 2015 (IV)

Monday 21st

Dig we must, as Con Ed used to say. The grim scene shown above is actually a sign of progress. Second Avenue is being restored. The staging areas for the construction of the subway station are contracting. The ground floor of the yellow-brick building on the left will be given over to the 83rd Street entrance to the new station. The era of very ugly pictures at this Web site may be drawing to a close!

Over the weekend, my left eye developed a peculiar inflammation. How peculiar, I’ll find out tomorrow afternoon, when I’ll be squeezed into a covering ophthalmologist’s already tight schedule. When the Advil wears off, it hurts like the dickens, but it does not appear to be an infection. (I’m prone to peculiar eye problems, as a sideline of the things that are really wrong with me.) I’ve had some trouble reading — I can see, but the muscles hurt; so, last night, when I wanted to read Victory, but found the print in the Penguin edition to be rather small, I bought (a medical expense) the Kindle version of the Penguin. It was quite easy to read.

I had gone straight from Nostromo to Victory. As stories, they are very different. Nostromo sprawls immensely, capturing a revolutionary episode in an imaginary South American country (Costaguana, modeled chiefly on Colombia). The cast is immense, and Conrad’s narrative is so looping that early readers complained of too much “machinery.” Victory is intimate, and far more straightforwardly deadly. I haven’t read it before, so I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but as this is Conrad, I am not expecting happy endings. What’s particularly intriguing is its operatic construction. A summary of the action would look a lot like an opera synopsis. There are four acts, each divided into a few scenes, and they feature the handful of characters pretty much as a librettist would handle them. The beginning of Act III is, I believe, an intensely ironic love duet, powerfully reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde, because while the lovers air their ardor, a ship approaches from the distance, and we know that the ship does not carry friends. When I put the book down, late last night, incapable of reading another word (not because of the eye condition, but because I was exhausted), the ship had not yet arrived. It’s a wonder I’m writing here now.

Who might write this opera? The cat-and-mouse encounter between Schomberg and Ricardo (the end of Act II) has a Verdian inexorability. First, Ricardo boasts of the awful things that he has done in the service of his “gentleman, Mr Jones.” This gives Schomberg the idea of killing two birds with one stone. Already longing to get Jones and Ricardo out of his hotel, he contrives to interest Ricardo in wreaking his revenge on Axel Heyst, who, in his piggish eyes, has stolen a beautiful girl from his imminent embrace and carried her off to his remote island. (Schomberg wouldn’t, couldn’t know that the girl found him revolting.) But the horror of Ricardo’s nature might be too much for Verdi, whose characters are wilfull and grim but always grounded in normality — even Iago. The Schoenberg of Gurrelieder, meanwhile, might do the love duet quite beautifully, and shadow it with the approaching monstrosity.

Why the Conrad all of a sudden? Because I decided to re-read Nostromo last year. I am always re-reading things now. But when I got to the middle of the book, I stalled, because I was so swelled with hope that Martin Decoud’s political plan would succeed that I couldn’t bear the suspense of the chapter in which the rootless intellectual (made political by his desire to impress his lady-love) and Nostromo, that paragon of vanity, and, unbeknownst to them, the hide-merchant Hirsch, drift around the airless Golfo Plácido in a lighter laden with tons of silver ingots, while hoping not to run into an enemy steamer. The spine of the Oxford World’s Classics edition has been scowling at me for a year now, as has its cover, which shows the arresting self-portrait of the late Italian painter, Pietro Annigoni, whose somewhat reactionary portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in her somewhat windswept robes excited much midcentury derision.

On page 62 of The Last Love Song, biographer Tracy Daugherty quotes Joan Didion as calling Victory “maybe my favorite book in the world” — a recommendation that I had to follow up at once. But first, I must finish Nostromo. This didn’t take as long as I feared it would, probably because I was so primed for the action by the complications of Sybille Bedford’s Mexicans — Costaguanans at peace, so to speak.


This afternoon, I shall have to do something about the laundry. I have this week’s wash-and-fold to put away, and last week’s as well. There is an awful backlog of pillowcases and napkins to be ironed. I don’t understand my resistance to this chunk of housework, but I would rather follow Wyle E Coyote off a cliff than attend to it. Dinner will be simple. Kathleen wants another bowl of the chicken soup that I made for her last night — her tummy is off. I took a tub of Agata & Valentina’s chicken broth, simmered it with an ample tablespoon of aromatics (also conveniently available at Agata, layers of chopped celery, carrot, and onion, also in a tub), along with some white peppercorns, a sprig of thyme and a sage leaf. When I thought that the broth had picked up all the flavor that it was going to, I strained it, kept it warm, and then spooned in some of the Arborio rice that I had steamed for my own dinner. To me there was nothing special about any of this, but Kathleen said that she had never had chicken soup like it, had not imagined that chicken soup could be so satisfying, &c. Happily, I have a few more tubs of broth in the freezer. For myself, it will be spaghetti with butter sauce. I’ve discovered that butter sauce does not freeze well; it become pallid and watery for some reason. Since butter sauce is the knock-out punch of tomato sauces, pallid and watery won’t do at all. Nor does butter sauce keep for more than a week in the fridge. I used to wish that the recipe (28 ounces pulped tomatoes, 1 medium onion halved, and a stick of butter, simmered for ninety minutes or so, whereupon the onion is discarded) yielded more sauce, but I have learned better.

What I have not learned is how to resist the appeal of the vision of the writer at work. So often, I see myself writing — at times when I am not writing, that is — and the picture is so inviting! So quiet, so focused! So safe! Now, I am that lucky writer who enjoys writing, so I do not need the blandishments of conjured delights to woo me to the desk. But I feel cheated all the same, because the act of writing is simply never like that pretty picture. The problem is not that the actuality of writing yields other, less attractive pictures — again, I’m an easygoing writer who never tears his hair out or tosses crumpled sheets of paper into the bin. The problem is that there is no picture. When I am writing, I am not thinking of the fun that I am having writing (unless I have just thought up something very cheeky). I am not thinking of me at all, even when I am writing about myself! A true picture of the artist at work would show all the accoutrements of writing, whatever those might be (pens, typewriters, computers), but no artist. In the act of writing, the writer disappears, leaving only a husk of flesh and bone that could not be less real to him.

As a reader, however, I quite consciously relish the congruence of the pleasure of reading with the pleasantness of the setting in which I am reading. The picture of me reading is obviously not the same as the picture of what I am reading, if picture there were, but the pleasures harmonize. If picture there were, I say, because although of course I imagine visual scenes when I read, those scenes are violently unstable. Reading for me is not the translation of text into a spool of film. The words on the page never disappear. In between the words, above and below and before and behind them, flash animated snapshots of spaces, gestures, utterances, and responses. Sometimes these snapshots are imported, as for example the reminiscences of Tristan summoned by the beginning of Part III of Victory. The visions appear and disappear so quickly that they never interrupt the flow of actual words, or my sense of the lyricism in the words. The words printed on the page are the great source of pleasure. Notwithstanding the chaotic flight of inconsequent images, there is no picture of what I am reading. Only a sense and a pleasure.


Tuesday 22nd

Last night, I came across something new and unexpected, even though it oughtn’t to have been either. Writing in 1967, about a sort of think-tank, Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Joan Didion comments,

I have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

Didion is a sharp writer, but she is rarely so forthrightly insulting. (I think kitsch is insulting, don’t you? It certainly was in the Sixties.) Even more fun is “the real soufflé,” which has the reckless dash of Tom Wolff. Didion’s sentence is anything but a soufflé — a chocolate mole, perhaps. “Ectoplasmic” sets you up for the fun, by sounding a clear note of bogus seriousness. (Ectoplasm was the “substance” of which visible “psychic phenomena” were constituted.) Then Didion suggests that she is a hunter — “on the track” — in search not of live prey but of dubious concoctions. The sentence comes from a very short piece, “California Dreaming,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of it.

The piece is so short that it really ought to be read, and not summarized. Didion has great Didionish fun with the Center’s activities and objectives, which the Center describes as “clarifying the basic issues.” Didion sees the Center as, primarily, a fund-raiser for itself. Its head, Robert M Hutchins, erstwhile University of Chicago worthy and co-founder of the Great Books curriculum, “has evolved the E = mc2 of all fund-raising formulae.” (If Didion is at all unfair to Hutchins, it is in her failure to appreciate his visionary exploitation of celebrities.) She retails an almost grotesquely embarrassing example of the “high-powered talk” at the Center’s conferences. It’s hard to believe that the Center survived her four pages of target practice.

“California Dreaming” was written when Didion was young, and still a contrarian California Republican. Aside from Barry Goldwater, she doesn’t seem to have liked any Republic leaders — loathing for Ronald Reagan would cause her to leave the faith once and for all — but that wasn’t important; her mission was to attack and explode liberal fatuities and government plans. In retrospect, there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly liberal about Hutchin’s Center, and it’s possible that Didion’s training misled her into treating every vent of hot air as liberal output, but in the days of Goldwater and Nixon, that was a reasonable inference. If hot air were lava, Santa Barbara would have gone the way of Pompeii.

When I stopped laughing, I was left with “hot air” and “Great Books.” Regular readers already know that I majored in Great Books in college, following a curriculum adapted from the Hutchins model. Unlike most of my classmates, I was not drawn to Great Books as a “prelaw” program; nor was I drawn to the then somewhat cryptic study of Christian humanism, which has since that time become far more pronounced at Notre Dame. No; I was already the amateur historian: I thought that it would be a good idea to read books that had stood the test of time — even if I was already more than a little suspicious of what that test entailed. What were they thinking? I was not, in short, interested in “great books” per se. Were it up to me to design the curriculum now, I’d cut back on the overexposed thinkers (from Plato to Aquinas) and include more diverse material, indicative of the anorthodox scope of thought in Antiquity. (For example, I’d investigate Iranaeus’s infamous ban of heretical tracts, of which we knew only the titles in his list until the texts themselves were discovered in a pot in Egypt, in 1945.) I should certainly do everything possible to unseat what appears to have been Hutchins’s leading objective, the bolstering of the status quo with high-minded discussions of the works of marble busts.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read all that stuff, if for no other reason than that I’ve been able to go through life without feeling guilty about not having done so (as I do for not being fluent in Latin and Greek). I think that I’ve also remarked here that those who don’t read Plato and Aristotle are probably likely to repeat them unawares. Well, Plato is complicated: lots of people who read him have quite consciously repeated him, and in action, too, particularly in the stretch of utopian revolutions running from the 1790s to the 1910s. Aristotle, who is very appealing as an early humanist, set practical science back a thousand years, not because he was bad it — he is said to have been an astute observer of such out of the way but not altogether inaccessible phenomena as tide pools — but because he didn’t do it: he substituted, for science, armchair speculation. Aristotle gave the know-it-alls of the world a great deal of extremely regrettable and unnecessary encouragement.

The Internet has put an end to armchair speculation — or it will have done, when its last remaining exponents die off. In truth, casual research used to be difficult. For all the bulk of the standard encyclopedias, there were lots of things that you couldn’t really look up, especially things having to do with other cultures and civilizations. Synopses of the past always refract upon it an unconsidered belief about what is important now. One of the reasons why the old theological disputes, about such things as the nature of the Trinity, for example, are so deadly dull to read about today is that nobody cares about such things anymore, and probably won’t ever again. Encyclopedias catalogue what has been known as if it were gathering the husks of insects, and not the passion of knowing.

And in what reputable household reference book would you have been able to learn about the tulip craze that wracked Holland in the Seventeenth Century? Or the hula-hoop craze that — sometimes seems to be making a comeback?

In any case, we want to know about the past not because it was a golden age or in any serious way superior to the present, but because everything that we know about the past throws everything in the present into richer, more comprehensible perspective. Take our worrisome environmental issues, our sudden awakening to the vital importance of sustainability. Without a grasp of the historical record, we are all-too-humanly inclined to splutter that the people who went before us were too stupid or thoughtless to stop and think what they were doing. But this was never the case. What was the case, every now and then, was that pros and cons were weighed in an intellectual environment that was ill-informed about the cons. Such considerations attended the use of coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Coal’s immediate and local drawbacks were well-known in earlier times, and so long as European economies could rely on charcoal, which is carbonized wood, coal was eschewed. But then the forests dwindled, just as the demands of new uses were set to take off. The unofficial ban on coal was lifted, creating London’s fog and a European-wide epidemic of tuberculosis. These were deplored, of course, but they were also dimmed by the startling expansion of railroads, factories, steamships, and the other products of coal-fueled heavy industry. Not only were enormous fortunes accumulated, but wealth was ever more evenly distributed. In the Nineteenth Century, the long-term costs of using coal were concealed. Stupid and thoughtless are not the right words. Venal and ignorant are. They still are.

History would help us to understand our health-care mess. It would teach us that key developments in modern medicine were paid for by bottomless pits of wealth — bottomless, because the pool of beneficiaries was very small. The armed services developed emergency-room techniques that, spread over a population of hundreds of millions, is quite literally ruinously expensive. The same goes for the fancy-schmancy diagnostic tools that were bought and paid for by corporate health-care plans, which in theory benefited all employees (already a very limited number of people) but in practice favored savvy, highly-educated executives — a goldfish bowl of users. For both the military and the mid-century corporation, it didn’t matter how high costs were, because expenses were so occasional. In short, our health care system was nourished by extraordinarily unequal access. Given that nobody gave it a thought, it is impossible to see how “affordability” could have failed to be the headache that it is.

History reminds us that we are the future’s past. In the old days, noble Romans read history in order to inspire themselves to behave greatly, so that they, too, would be remembered. The past, the present, and the future were the same thing. This is no longer imaginable. We can actually destroy life on this planet, should we be foolish enough to do so. Our footprints trample. The people who read about us, moreover, will have somewhat different ideas about what’s important. We cannot act, as the noble Roman could, on the understanding that our valor will be appreciated as we appreciate that of the people of the past.

We can’t afford hot air.


Wendesday 23rd

Part of the fun of reading Victory was imagining Joan Didion reading the novel in college and liking it a lot. I can imagine her feeling very severe about Axel Heyst’s belief that he could step aside from human entanglements, that he could sustain a disinterested position in the world. Reading Victory is not unlike reading Didion, not that her writing is all that stylistically similar. There is simply the same warm chill.

For most readers, Baron Heyst is going to be the good guy. He helps out a stranger with a small but absolutely essential loan, and is rewarded with a partnership in a coal company. The coal company fails, but Heyst stays on at its remote island headquarters, content to stop wandering. A business matter requires him to visit Sourabaya (as Conrad calls the town on Java); while there, he is drawn to a young woman who is in an unpleasant situation, from which he decides to rescue her. Together, they run off to his island, where they fall in love.

Needless to say, Heyst has a curious background. The son of a Swedish intellectual who was driven from his homeland and who settled in London, Heyst was taught by his father to cultivate contempt for worldly things: your basic Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is a difficult figure for us to grasp, because the impulse behind his thinking was an emotional response to the tumultuous upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. Contempt for worldly things was spiked by the shocking proliferation of worldly things. Rigorous materialism was the common weekday religion. The bourgeoisie was ascendant (even the military was infected). Practical people found that life was easier to negotiate if you kept a small mind, if you acted as though everything that you were taught in school were all that you needed to know. The triumphs of science, moreover, continued the Enlightenment’s enervation, vaporization of religion. Against such a background, pessimism looked almost chic. Schopenhauer cooked up a fragrant blend of Kantian other-worldliness and Indian fatalism.

What’s wrong with Heyst, in the stern view of Conrad, is that his rejection of life is not preceded by an engagement with it. It is simply Heyst’s idea good manners. He is affable but diffident. Everyone finds him strange, because he is obviously not cut out for a world populated disproportionately by opportunistic adventurers who do not see the Malay Archipelago as a locus of escape (except from creditors and European disgrace). Heyst is a good man, a quiet man, a man who takes advantage of no one. He walks through life without friends or enemies — until he falls in love. Too late, he discovers that loved ones require protection. Too late, he discovers that his loved one has ideas of her own about protecting him. Heyst is too good to be good for anything.

And Heyst is so careless about Schomberg! Conrad exploits the awfulness of Schomberg to tempt the reader into admiring Heyst. Surely the object of so abominable a man’s baseless vituperation must be a saint! We are even tempted to believe that it is fine of Heyst to be unaware of the terrible things that Schomberg, a hotel-keeper who gossips with his customers, says about him. (Without friends, how is Heyst to find out?) Schomberg has always regarded Heyst as a scoundrel and a thief, even as a vicarious murderer, but the idleness of Schomberg’s scandal curdles when, with silver-plated arrogance, Heyst steals Schomberg’s girl. She is not Schomberg’s girl yet, and she will never be Schomberg’s girl willingly, but Schomberg is so conceited that, once she is gone, he thinks of her as having been just about his. Rescue or no rescue, Heyst has made a mortal enemy — and he ought at least to know it.

It is at this point, in the wake of Heyst’s flight back to the island, that Conrad introduces a trio of malefactors. One of these villains is disgusting, or made out to be — a hairy aboriginal from the Mosquito Coast, Pedro is never so much as mentioned by Conrad without repulsive physical details. The other two, however, are nothing less than fascinating. The cadaverous gentleman who calls himself Jones is accompanied by feral Martin Ricardo. They’re as awful as Schomberg, but whereas you want to step on Schomberg and crush the life out of him, Jones and Ricardo perk you up. They conjure an amusing team of jewel thieves, working the Riviera in a glittering Fifties TV series. Of course they are actually much too malignant for popular entertainment, and dangerous, too. When Schomberg contrives to send them off against Heyst, convinced that the baron sits atop pots of ill-gained loot, you can’t imagine how Heyst will survive their attack.

And I’m not going to tell you how he does (or doesn’t). Victory put me in such a state of suspense that I almost lost the ability to read coherently. A hundred pages are devoted to the events of one climactic day, fourteen chapters of recombination and reversal. The dread, thick as humidity, ought to paralyze the six characters, but instead it shunts them onward: they must always be doing something. As I wrote the other day, the construction is oddly operatic, and the other part of the fun of reading Victory was imagining how it could be carved up for the lyric stage.

Conrad subtitled Victory “an Island Tale,” and that is how I take it — as a tale. As a novel, I think it fails, partly because it is too ingeniously pessimistic, and therefore something of a mere entertainment. It is also both unsocialized and sentimental about unsocialized ways of life. (Perhaps I should make myself clearer if I substituted “bourgeois” for “socialized”; gloomy philosophies aside, much nineteenth-century fiction, and even more of the Twentieth’s, celebrates the romance of rejecting bourgeois life as unredeemable.) This is another way of saying that, aside from the one beautiful and exemplary woman in the book, the rest are all some kind of hag. Mrs Schomberg’s appearance is deceiving, but is nonetheless a very unattractive appearance, marked by a perpetual idiotic grin that Conrad does not allow us to set aside. Conrad is second only to Trollope in his eagerness to discuss the nature of women, and he no longer appears, if he ever did, to be particularly well-informed. His thoughts about love are difficult to reconcile with his thoroughgoing pessimism. Love becomes something too glorious for human experience, and therefore doomed.

Already, with the consciousness of her love for this man, of that something rapturous and profound going beyond the mere embrace, there was born in her a woman’s innate mistrust of masculinity, of that seductive strength allied to an absurd, delicate shrinking from the recognition of the naked necessity of facts, which never yet frightened a woman worthy of the name. (Penguin, 262)

Chivalry rears its fatuous head. It even leads Conrad into nonsense: there was born in her a woman’s innate mistrust.

I am coming to believe that there is a important qualitative difference between the novel and shorter forms of fiction: the novel ought to show us how men and women (several of each at least) manage the society that they share. Societies too exclusively male or female fail to generate the necessary spark. And men really do need to learn what women have been chuckling about for a hundred years or more: many of the most ardent opponents of bourgeois life spend a great deal of their free time ensconced in amply upholstered armchairs.


Thursday 24th

On second thought.. It’s obvious that that last crack, about the upholstered chairs, is the comment of an old man addressing a vanished scene. The young men of today, at least the ones who write, appear to be quite aware of all the ironies of manly life. Bluster and hypocrisy — guilty as charged. (Doing something about it perhaps remains a problem.) Also: “bourgeois life”? What exactly is that, nowadays? Other than a way of life preserved (rather patchily, to be honest) by the likes of me? I last wrote about it about ten years ago; perhaps a rethink is in order.

Last night, I read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the long title essay in Joan Didion’s first book. Like most paranoid visions, it is so wrong that it’s funny. Also, like most paranoid visions, it springs from an important, uncommon insight.

Of course the activists [...] had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.

Didion seems to have been looking for signs of an imminent outbreak of anarchy; perhaps she was seized by a premonition of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. In the end, nothing much “happened,” beyond the shooting of a few students. By the 1980s, few people remembered the ugly and confused side of Flower Power. The experiments with communal living did not last long, at least in part, it seemed to me at the time, because the excitements of the late Sixties threw people together regardless of background, and it didn’t take long for differences in background to become annoying. People returned to wherever they’d been. Many were cynical about the experience; or rather, they were just cynical about experience generally. Some were able to keep a spark alive, an idea, at least, of what a new and more satisfying society would look like.

And then, despite nothing happening, society did change after all, did become more open and less oppressive. We’ve already become familiar with the resistance to this change, the foot-dragging or worse of white men of middle age and older. Whether they will be able to bring change to a halt, and perhaps even reverse some of it, is a very real question, because, outside the West, it is not just middle-aged men who are resisting. But I don’t want to follow Joan Didion in foreseeing an apocalypse.

Didion is absolutely right, though, about what she says happened “between 1945 and 1967.” She is especially right to suggest that “we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves.” I can still feel that. The grown-ups, round about 1960, no longer really believed in what they were doing. I don’t know why. Perhaps it had something to do with putting the world back in working order a little too quickly after the two wars. Perhaps it had something to do with the flood of creature comforts and easy entertainments that was nowhere near cresting in 1960. It wasn’t hypocrisy, but it was insincerity. The grown-ups were going through the motions. Young people were not inspired to emulate them. Even now, a generation later — or is it two? — young people are not inclined to believe that there is much to learn from older people. We older people are simply passing on what we weren’t taught.

I say that “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is “wrong,” but only as a political report. Neither utopia nor dystopia were over the horizon. As a social report, however, as a snapshot of the groovy, drug-centered lifestyle of hippies, the essay is nothing, for anyone who lived through it, but a flashback — a flashback and a slap. It seems so pointless now, that would-be way of life. For the drugs never did usher in an Age of Aquarius. They merely rattled a lot of heads and caused a bit of permanent damage. Which makes me ask: Why did I take so much acid?

It wasn’t for fun, let me tell you. Of course, it’s likely that I never came across anything like pure LSD, and that it was additives that inflicted the prolonged and wretched hangover cubed that would prevail for the duration. It wasn’t for the interior journey of discovery, either. I didn’t learn a thing about the world or about myself. I couldn’t even listen to music, because it was like throwing stones at beautiful stained glass. At first, tripping was just very unusual — it’s safe to say that much. Then, when it became familiar, it also got thrilling, because I got daring. No, I never did anything physically reckless. But socially! I went to classes. I participated in seminar discussions. And I passed. I was my own little Mr Superpower.

Whether it’s a coincidence that this was one of the lowest points in my life, as the terrifying approach of graduation from college highlighted ever more luridly my failure to imagine what on earth I should do afterward, I can’t say. Acid wore me out, I’m sure. I took it about forty times that year. But it replaced my worries about the long-term future with more immediate anxieties. And it gave me something to be perversely proud about. Acid did not turn me into the raving lunatic that my parents would have expected; quite the contrary. I was often dressed in jacket and tie.

In due course, I came to the edge of the waterfall, and tipped over into objective adulthood. There would be another flurry of drug-taking three years later, and it would climax in the flame-out of one of my colleagues at the radio station. (He survived, but relocated in Reseda.) There would be snorts of cocaine in the very early Eighties. There would be grass, but grass got to be odd. It has been a long time since I could imagine fiddling with any of these things, just as it has been a long time since I was bored, or worried that my life needed more oomph.

Joan Didion speaks of “the game we happened to be playing.” It was hip, even impious, to talk about “society” as it were nothing more than an amalgamation of people engaged in throwing dice. Life was supposed (but why whom?) to be more serious than a game could ever be. Since then, games have become extremely respectable, but I remain persuaded that if life is a game, only a game, it is not worth living. How can one talk of a game that must necessarily involve, just for instance, the love of and caring for children? What parent finds that to be a game? And yet I agree that something as trivial as a game was being played when I was growing up, and I’m sorry to doubt that anything more serious happens to be going on now.


Friday 25th

The Pope is in town, which means that you have to think hard before setting out to get from A to B in Manhattan. For those of us who live here, nobody, not even the Pope — much less the grandees who show up for the opening of the United Nations session — is quite worth the bother of traffic interruptions, at least in a town where employers pretend that nothing unusual is afoot. In the old days, visits from kings and cardinals were marked as holidays, so there was something in it for everybody. Now it is just the infliction of a celebrity crush. The police are partly to blame, certainly: they like throwing their weight around, and projecting their anxieties about social breakdown. (Besides: overtime.) The month of September is looking more and more like the real August — the time to get away.

None of this botheration affects me, of course. I stick to my corner of Yorkville, where nothing ever happens (yay!) and there’s a beautiful park that few New Yorkers know about. Of course, to a reading and thinking person who spends the greater part of the day alone, the need for a papal visit is somewhat obscure. I am second to none in my admiration for Francis; I think that he’s exactly the right pope for right now, and I worry a lot about his health. (What’s with this diet of fish and rice?) He isn’t going to change “church teaching” on the thorny sex conundrums that the Church oughtn’t to be involved with in the first place, but he has already stopped a lot of the scolding. There is a real possibility, for the first time since popes stopped having children, that Catholics who have been barred from the sacraments or whatnot by mean-spirited technicalities will be re-invited to participate, and that, really, is all that matters at this point. But everything that’s grand about Francis comes through loud and clear from Rome.

To say that I am disappointed that the Pope will celebrate the Mass in Madison Square Garden is a light-years-scale understatement. Every fiber of my sense of what is right and proper is offended. There are many reasons to hate Madison Square Garden — without ever having set foot in it myself, of course — but, basically, it is a gym that doubles as a venue for caterwauling. If Francis really must appear before sheltered multitudes, then at least he might have borrowed a page from the old Reformers and simply delivered a nice, long homily. We could use more of those. Communion from the hands of the Holy Father is no holier for that.

Kathleen, unfortunately, has been thrown into, or at least around, the thick of it. Instead of spending these two days quietly in her office, she has had to show up in Tribeca, the Flatiron District, and Madison Square (happily no longer the site of MSG). This has involved trying to avoid crossing the Pope’s path. She was nearly knocked down on an M train platform last night, by a charging woman only slightly taller than herself. She was going to stay home today, but she has a board meeting that must be attended. Kathleen would like to see the United Nations, St Patrick’s Cathedral, and the big Broadway theatres all moved to Governor’s Island.

Last night, sitting on the balcony, I could see the Pope celebrating Mass — in a church, definitely — on a television in an apartment across the street. I couldn’t hear a thing, and probably wouldn’t have even if the window through which I was peering had been open. The silent image flowed along as television images banally do. The broadcast’s producer betrayed a weakness for repeating the same withdrawing shot of the organist’s hands and the keyboards, but not the organist. If there was a clearer way to signal that liturgy makes for dull TV, I’d like to see it. Sometimes you’d see the Pope. Most of the time, though, not. Because the camera has to travel. Too bad if the other things to see in the church were even less lively than an elderly man conducting a contained ritual. Here is what television shouts to the viewer: You are not here! But you have to turn the sound off to hear it.


I went to Crawford Doyle yesterday, for the first time in an age, and bought Purity, along with one or two other things. I bought Jonathan Franzen’s new novel because I was asked by a couple of friends what I thought of it. They assumed that I’d have wangled an advance copy somehow, and they were surprised to hear me say that I wasn’t sure that I was going to read Purity at all. I was somewhat surprised to hear myself say it. But the plain truth was that I have felt no desire to put my hands on it. This may explain why I left the Crawford Doyle bag in the taxi that took me home.

I regard patronizing Crawford Doyle as a public service, so, having done my bit, I had no qualms about ordering all the books from Amazon the minute I sat down at the desk. Purity may arrive as early as tomorrow. Along with it will come Lord Jim. I’ve been thinking a lot about the poke that I took at Victory the other day — it “fails as a novel” — wondering, basically, who died and made me king. Just what did I mean? I went on to make a pronouncement about what novels ought to be, going forward, and observed that Victory does not provide much in the way of a model for the novel of tomorrow, but there had to be more to it than that.

I’m against the idea that the best novels are those that pit a man against the consequences of his actions, especially where the consequences are unforeseen (but perhaps maybe they ought to have been foreseen, &c). This is the attempt to shoehorn tragedy into fiction, and the result, as I said of Victory the other day, is usually mere entertainment. Genuine tragedy is a spectacle. There is the tragic hero, but there are plenty of other characters, too, plus the chorus. Tragic fiction is interior, focused on one point of view, one consciousness, at a time. There is also just one reader. The atmosphere is generally airless, even if a storm is rumbling overhead.

The characters in Victory are introduced as strange birds, and Conrad appears to have no interest in understanding their strangeness. The three villains are plainly sociopaths of some kind, and it is the nature of sociopathy to throw no light at all on the human condition. Heyst likes to keep to himself, but his freedom from restlessness (which has nothing to do with real curiosity) is somewhat superhuman. For me, the fact that Heyst likes to read a lot (if not to write) only underscores my preference to share his interest whilst living in Manhattan, not on a desert island. As for Lena, she comes perilously close to being a heroine of the melodrama, miraculously undamaged by her uncertain childhood and ghastly youth. I don’t know how Lena would be able to recognize Heyst as a hero (which she clearly does, even if she has to protect him). In any case, Conrad packages her too prettily, endowing her with a beautiful low voice.

“The horror, the horror.” To me, the great horror in literature occurs in The Golden Bowl, swelling throughout the final hundred pages or so. It is not scary; there are no monsters, no poisons, no risks to life and limb. What there is is worse, the dreadful isolation, from everyone else as from one another, in which Maggie and Charlotte fight their final duel. It is a horror of consciousness, of simply being aware that such a duel must be fought and why. The ostensible family intimacy in which the two women must live is also a horror: their hostility is the tightest of secrets. Every move is silent, invisible. James is very clever for having pulled off the stunt of describing a mortal confrontation without so much as the sound of a pin dropping, but the confrontation itself is no stunt at all; it’s in the deadliest earnest. It is a grand negative fantasy, and it could not be represented but in the pages of a book.

I have already suggested that Victory would make a good opera — with a libretto written for Puccini, but with music composed by Britten — and this is a way of saying that what’s important or arresting about Victory is not its moral judgment but its emotional tension. Emotional tension is a reality that music expresses best (with an exception for Henry James, whose dictated later novels have at least a parlando musicality). All of this said, I would certainly encourage you to read Victory. It’s a great book.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
How Would You Like It?
September 2015 (III)

Monday 14th

“I love listening to you talk,” said Kathleen. “Except… except when you get on one of your tangents, like Hannah Arendt or Joan Didion.”

Hannah Arendt I understand. How long did that go on? The first half of last year (2014), or nearly. But Joan Didion? Two weeks tops. It wasn’t until we returned from Fire Island that I got my hands on Tracy Daugherty’s biography. Until then, I had no reason to talk about Didion. Perhaps Kathleen was anxious that something protracted might develop. It is true that, having done with Daugherty, I read through After Henry; and I have Play It As It Lays in my pile. At the moment, though, I’m reading A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford’s first book (published by Gollancz under another title, in 1953). Given the new rules, I can’t say anything about it, except that it is crammed with instances of embedded, understated hilariousness that can’t be retailed without a lot of setup.


“You wouldn’t want to make that trip twice.”
“Not under ordinary circumstances, no.”

There is absolutely nothing funny about those two lines; you have to have read what comes before for the quiet riposte to explode. As indeed it does, slowly, quietly, but with so much force that you cannot laugh. You can only put the book down, and wonder if tears are going to burst.

Both Didion and Bedford are harsh, in incidental passages, about New York City. “Sentimental Journeys,” Didion’s long essay about the “Central Park Jogger” case, contains a denunciation of Gotham that begins (more or less):

What is singular about New York, and remains virtually incomprehensible to people who live in less rigidly organized parts of the country, is the minimal level of comfort and opportunity its citizens have come to accept.

and ends (more or less):

It was only within the transformative narrative of “contrasts” that both the essential criminality of the city and its related absence of civility could become points of pride, evidence of “energy”: if you could make it here you could make it anywhere, hello sucker, get smart. Those who did not get the deal, who bought retail, who did not know what it took to get their electrical work signed off, were dismissed as provincials, bridge-and-tunnels, out-of-towners who did not have what it took not to get taken.

I am sure that if Joan Didion were to apply the critical skills that she brings to bear on California in Where I Was From to New York, she would find the “criminality” of the city to be the consequence of change outrunning comprehension: just how do you regulate the flow of a Niagara of money? Or a Niagara of immigrants? Both at once?

Bedford’s complaint has been answered, pretty largely, by air-conditioning.

Through the day a grey lid presses upon the City of New York. At sunset there is no respite. Night is an airless shaft: in the dark the temperature still rises; heat is emanating invisible from everywhere, from underfoot, from above, from the dull furnaces of saturated stone and metal. The hottest point is reached in the very kernel of the night: each separate inhabitant lies alone, for human contact is not to be endured, on a mattress enclosed in a black hole of Calcutta till dawn goes up like a soiled curtain on the unrefreshed in littered streets and rooms.

Perhaps, also, our clothes have gotten lighter; we certainly wear fewer of them. I did not spend a lot of time in the City when I was a child, but I do remember it as stuffy, always stuffy. Bedford is right about this:

In spirit and in fact, in architecture and habits, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States remains harshly northern, a cold country scourged by heat.

These snippets of Bedford come from the very first pages of A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey; they describe what Bedford is about to leave behind. So it’s okay to mention them. (I’ll have more to say about that rather bogus-feeling subtitle when I’ve finished the book — tomorrow, almost certainly.)


I’ve ordered a couple of books about the Industrial Revolution from Amazon. One of them looks to be the standard college text — it’s certainly priced like one — and the advantage of that is that I’ll be reading the party line, the received academic wisdom, about a very complicated business. The book’s story begins in 1760. I’m interested in much earlier developments, the pre-history of the Industrial Revolution really, and the other book that I’ve sent for is a history of Western technology that runs from 1000 to 1700.

Why am I interested? Because, the more I think about it, the more it seems that the values of Western humanism — individual conscience and voluntary commitment — are most persistently challenged not by their pre-modern antagonists, ecclesiastic and sovereign authority (think Putin), but by side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the allure of automatic efficiency. You’re familiar with “physics envy,” the pressure in the “human sciences” to establish rules of gravitational predictability, a pressure that has eroded the study of human behavior that can’t be measured. I fear that this envy has spread to every public discourse. Politicians rattle on about the high ideals of the Founders, but then they try to sell implausible programs for retooling Americans with skills for the Information Age — a pipe dream rendered frankly silly by the widespread fear that robots are going to take over all the jobs. Economists are the worst, for in their view, the robot has taken over, in the form of “the market,” which works, according to them, precisely because nobody is managing it.

What made the Industrial Revolution so exciting for those with the leisure to think about it was the miracle of producing so many goods without lifting a finger. The owner of a factory, unlike the artisan who preceded him, made nothing. Other people, of course, had to lift their fingers, and more than their fingers, but they were not really workers, either, only temporary extensions of the machines, to be replaced as the machines became more sophisticated. This is where Marx came in, and it is where he made his greatest mistake (“workers”). Before the mill or the plant starts turning out widgets, however, a great many decisions have to be made, and made correctly: business decisions, engineering decisions — and political decisions. We have gotten rather passive about the political decisions. I’m not talking about political control. I’m talking about decisions about the right way to live in a society. Ought there to be a guaranteed living wage? Affordable, or perhaps even free, health care? Education? Sustainable environmental practices? And, if there ought to be these benefits, how do we pay for them? In a humane society, one that prizes the values that I mentioned, political decisions such as these must attain widespread assent in order to be effective. It is difficult to think about them in the climate of political anxiety that has fallen over not just the United States but all of the states that were formed by the inspiration of Western humanism. As usual, I look to history, to what we can make out about how we got here, for security.

We are not machines; we shall never be machines. Considered as machines, we shall always be defective. We must also understand, however, that the idea that human beings are defective is as ancient as anything about us. It owes to our imaginations: we can so easily imagine being better. (It is even easier to imagine that other people could be better!) I will not claim that these imaginings have produced divinities, but they have certainly colored our ideas of divinity. Western humanism emerged when a significant number of men grew impatient with analyzing human beings as defective something-elses. They wanted to grasp men and women as such. We are still learning. We have almost thrown off the wishful delusion, half humanist, half proto-Industrial, that “man is a rational animal.” (A great deal of classical Greek philosophy is hopelessly confused in just this way.) We are trying to understand the differences between men and women — without assuming that men are normative — so that we can minimize the risks of sexual assault without resorting to purdah. We are trying to learn that sexual practices that do not attract us need not revolt us. We are trying to reconcile our deliberated belief that, for society to work at all, each member must be treated as an equal member (for otherwise we descend into bullying) with the dizzying differences among us and the sheer peculiarity (the “uniqueness”) of each. Sociological studies will provide information that is useful in framing our questions, but it will never begin to answer them.


Tuesday 15th

Here is my hypothesis.

The introduction of firearms into Western warfare (in the Fourteenth Century) brought about a double, simultaneous revolution. In order to prevail over cavalry (mounted warriors), infantry required numbers of soldiers firing numbers of weapons. Both soldiers and weapons posed problems of coordination. The soldiers had to be trained to organize their shooting (to maximize effectiveness against the enemy as well as to avoid firing upon each other), and the guns had to be produced in such quantities that standardization was at a premium. The effectiveness of firearms, in short, depended on the availability of replaceable parts (men and matériel).

Perhaps not for the first time ever, but this time foreshadowing an overhaul of the world of work, human beings were reduced to the role of adjuncts in a mechanical organization. Of a well-drilled troop of riflemen, it is interesting to ask which, of the man and the gun, is the tool, and which is the user. That the soldier uses the weapon’s ammunition to defeat his enemy is obvious, but it may also be said that the gun uses the soldier’s eyesight to defeat the enemy of the generals who have put the weapon into the soldier’s hands. From the general’s point of view, soldier and weapon are one, and the more easily replaced the better.

Cavalry charges required teamwork, at least to get started. But they devolved into exploits of individual courage and dexterity. Cavalry no longer fought head-on, but became a kind of mounted police, surprising and harrying groundlings from the rear. The aristocrats who rode into the battles that it was their born duty to fight slowly ceased to be forces of domination and became forces of upset. Increasingly, they stood for resistance to the organizing tendencies of the centralized state.

Why have I worked out this hypothesis? Because I’m looking into the history of the idea of productivity, a concept that reduces human beings to the status of easily-replaced tools.

We usually regard the Industrial Revolution as something new, as something that burst upon the European scene toward the end of the Eighteenth Century. But here is the late Carlo Cipolla, sometime professor at Berkeley and author of Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700:

The world in which we live and the problems we face cannot be understood without referring to that momentous upheaval known as the Industrial Revolution. Yet the Industrial Revolution was only the final phase, the coherent outcome of a historical development which took place in Europe over the first seven centuries of our now expiring millennium.

The final phase. The Industrial Revolution was as much the outcome of developments as the cause of others. But what developments? I know a enough about the new inventions of the old world — the water- and windmills, the fleet Nederlander boats that ferried the bulk trade in commodities from the Baltic, the gunpowder and the printing, the clocks, the horse-driven mining railroads, the pumps and the looms — to understand that the Industrial Revolution rested on centuries of tinkering with gadgets without which the steam engine would have been neither imaginable nor reliable. But I sense that the historians have missed the factor that ignited the Industrial Revolution. This was not a matter of inventions or technologies but a profound shift in the view, among élites, of the relation between man and nature (as it would have been put then), between men and human nature (as I should like to put it now). Let me make it clear that I regard the Industrial Revolution as a force for the good overall. But, like its formidable steam engines, it harnessed explosive forces less than perfectly. It is the relation between men and human nature that will determine the revolution to come in the world of work, and that, not the technology of robots, is what we ought to be studying right now.

I shall do my best to keep Carlo Cipolla from becoming a new Hannah Arendt.


Wednesday 15

According to the colophon of the Eland edition of A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford’s first book was published as A Sudden View in 1953, and then under its present title in 1960. No mention is made of the subtitle that appears on the jacket, but not on the title page: A Mexican Odyssey. I have a hard time believing that Bedford would have applied “Odyssey” to her long sojourn in Mexico, if only because the Odyssey, and by reference any “odyssey,” is a homecoming. It is not just a trip with lots of stops. Mexico was not on the way to wherever it was that Bedford was ultimately headed.

The journey was decided at the last moment. I was not at all prepared for Mexico. I never expected to go to Mexico. I had spent some years in the United States and was about to return to England. I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible. I longed in short to travel. Surely there was scope in the Americas, the New World that had touched the imagination of the Elizabethans. Canada? One did not think of Canada. The Argentine was too new and Brazil too far. Guatemala too modern. San Salvador too limited. Honduras too British. I chose Peru.

But of course she does not go to Peru: the flight, we’re told, was too expensive. Bedford could not afford it. What could she afford? We are never told. Unanswered questions litter the opening chapters so thickly that Don Otavio ought to be unreadable. Who is “E,” Bedford’s traveling companion? (This one is easily dealt with; she is Esther Murphy Arthur, the book’s co-dedicatee.) Is E also Bedford’s lover? (An impertinent question, admittedly.) Why has E joined Bedford, when she seems to dislike the prospect of Mexico so? If Brazil is “too far,” why is Argentina even considered?

What was Bedford doing in the United States? Why was she “returning” to England? (She grew up, mostly, in France.) We are told nothing. It emerges much later that both Bedford and E are writers, because they’re lugging typewriters, but what do they write?

These questions do not actually oppress the reader at all, because Bedford is both busy and lucid about describing the moment. There was one question that did beguile me: what sort of person, with what sort of freedom, decides, “at the last moment,” on the verge of a return trip, to detour into a third country for an indefinite term and with no worked-out plans? In the teeth of any pecuniary wants, this liberty makes Bedford a very free woman indeed. She cannot afford the air ticket to Lima, but she can wander around Mexico for almost a year: not being obliged to reconcile those two propositions is a freedom all its own.

Who is Don Otavio? Is a visit to Don Otavio planned from the outset? Here we have the crowning freedom, the freedom of an author to shape material. When I came to the end of the last page, I sighed and laughed, remembering outrageous inconveniences and hooting anecdotes, and felt as if I had just returned myself from the trip that Bedford had taken (deeply grateful that I hadn’t actually had to); but presently I was imagining Bedford at work on her book. She drifted into Mexico with few plans and even fewer letters of introduction; she departed not only with plenty of stories but with an encounter around which she could render her aleatory junket in terms of almost foreshadowed coherence. Further, she could use this narrative arc as a restraint, so that she would disclose no more of herself than was necessary. She and E would carp and complain and even, every now and then, bitch, but they would remain ladies of a certain age and privileged background: unfamiliar. Their very elusiveness would become the most familiar thing about them, while all the time the focus was on what they saw.

What you don’t know about the travelers creates an unobtrusive negative force, a sort of vacuum, that pulls you from page to page no matter what Bedford is writing about. There are occasional chapters of background — about Mexico of course, not about her. She is especially intrigued by the 1860s folly that put Maximilian von Hapsburg on an imperial throne in Chapultepec Park, and the consequences that swept him off it (and into a painting by Manet that illustrated his execution). Her treatment of this chaos-as-usual episode in Mexican history is a sort of book within the book, but its drily tragic sense of life informs all of A Visit to Don Otavio. It argues against plans and projects, or at least for a suppleness that makes it possible to change plans to fit changed circumstances. (Plans are tragic because we are so unwilling to recognize changed circumstances.) The memory of Maximilian is a kind of guardian angel, seeing to it that Bedford’s occasional obstinacy about the itinerary does her no real harm.

In short, Sybille Bedford lays out A Visit to Don Otavio to impose upon the reader the same veil of ignorance about what’s to come that confronted her from day to day in Mexico, while at the same time patching her load of stories into a narrative that could only have been conceived retrospectively. The result is that you are never annoyed by not knowing what’s next. There is one thing that you can sure of: whatever is next, it will be wonderfully presented by Bedford.

Were I to stop here, I think that I should written a few words that other readers of this book would agree with, even if they’d never thought of it “that way”; but I doubt that anyone unfamiliar with Bedford’s first book would be inclined to pick it up. I want so much to keep the book’s surprises! But I recognize that there must be the irresistible temptation of well-chosen corroborative detail. Here’s hoping:

One-third of the way in, S (as Bedford refers to herself) and E are joined, in Guadalajara, by E’s younger cousin, Anthony. Anthony is a tolerably callow youth, recently graduated from Princeton. Quite unintentionally, Anthony, who is mostly out for a lark, makes the connection that will give the book its second, superior title.

He had also met, in barber shops and bars and without benefit of grammar, some Guadalajarans, male members of the jeunesse dorée, the sons of the gentlemen in silk suits at the Glass of Milk [the top restaurant, apparently]. They took him to the French Club and a rodeo, engaged him in versions of gin rummy played for high stakes, and he ceased to wear his Mexican hat.

E and I were full of curiosity. “What do you talk about? Do tell us what they’re like,” we said.

“They’re all right.”

Later he said, “They talk about sex all day, but they don’t seem to know any girls.”

One morning, he said, “We’ve had a bust-up. You see there was this night club. It didn’t amount to much in the first place. And there were all these whores. It wasn’t any fun. I mean who wants to dance with a lot of whores? Some of them just kids. I mean what’s the point. So I said to Don Orazio and to Don Joaquím, now if we had some nice girls to take out, haven’t you boys got any sisters to introduce to a fellow? Then didn’t they get mad. They said their sisters were at the True Cross in England and the Sacred Heart at Seville and my suggestion was an outrage and they guessed I didn’t know any better. They were sure my intentions were not dishonourable, but I ought to have realized that as a Protestant I wasn’t eligible and where was I brought up. So I said to Don Orazio and Don Joaquím, in the first place I was an Episcopalian, and not to be such boobies, and all the men in Princeton asked one another’s sisters down to the proms; and they said they’d rather die and they expected I believed in divorce too and I was lucky I was their guest. And then they all started jabbering to each other in Spanish.”

“Poor Anthony.”

“I was right, wasn’t I? What would you have done?”

“Never ask for a member of the family that isn’t on the table,” said E.

“What happened finally,” said I.

“Well, the father of Don Joaquím came in. And he said it was the best joke he had heard in a long while, and I was a Yankee but a good boy, and they all calmed down. So I said, let’s forget about it, and what about a round on me. Then they got mad again and acted as thought I’d insulted them. Jesus, what a night.

“Poor Anthony.”

Nevertheless his touchy new friends seemed to love him well enough… (113-114)

And so one thing leads to quite something else.

The foregoing passage conveys something of the culture clash that pervades A Visit to Don Otavio, providing much of its often exasperated but rarely condescending humor. The clash is manifold, not simply a matter of Anglophone ladies trying to make sense of Catholic Mexicans (and vice versa). There are the three levels of Mexican as well, the fewer than a hundred thousand blancos, the seventeen million mestizos, and the two or three million Indios. (This is more than sixty years ago, remember.)

After some hundreds of years of living together, neither Indians nor Spaniards were quite what they had originally been. In some ways they have become like each other; in others, they share nothing at all. The gulf between conqueror and conquered has settled into the gulf between class and class. Each still draws from a different tradition; neither has tried to learn consciously from the other’s. When they are on good terms, they call each other niños, children. There they live side by side, in domestic proxmity, familiar and remote, trusting and aloof, like so many frères de lait, boys, one from the village, one from the manor, who shared the same wet nurse. (208)

But for everything that Bedford tells us, we sense something larger, left unsaid.


Later the same day

Why not go to the movies, I thought at lunch. I checked the schedules. Grandma had arrived uptown, as I knew it would, so I went to the 4:30 show. It’s a short feature, at 82 minutes, but there is nothing rushed about it. I assume that it is set in Los Angeles, the vernacular city where there is little worth looking at, as if a comfortable climate made vision superfluous. It was hard not to see, in the background, the darker Los Angeles of Joan Didion’s prose. Los Angeles has always felt to me, on the few occasions when I’ve been there, like a moraine on which everything broken or no longer honest about American life has beached. Not that that’s all there is out there.

It was also hard not to see Grandma as a project, as a script that was pitched to producers and agents, read by actors, and passed around. In other words: “Hollywood,” that strange place where glamour is confined to red carpets and valet parking. La publicité! I kept looking around, as it were, and conjuring the crew. I imagined the set when no one was shooting. There’s a late scene, I think at the abortion clinic, in which Lily Tomlin’s hair, for the first time in the picture, looks done. I thought about how that happened; it was almost a lapse in continuity. Tomlin looks better and better as the film approaches its final scenes, a more muted version of the metamorphosis undergone by Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. Tomlin’s voice gets softer, too; she becomes more like the woman that one imagines she actually is. This is very agreeable, because her character is hopelessly rebarbative, at least until that moment in the abortion clinic.

Is there a genre name for the movie whose action is confined to a day (or to two days, in Julie Delpy’s case)? I can think of plenty of examples, from The Long Good Friday to The Day Trippers; the curious thing about these films is that they seem so leisurely, so full of extraneous encounters. Take Henry Jaglom’s Eating, perhaps the longest movie ever made, in terms of perceived duration. The closer the action gets to real time, the slower it is. Why is that?

There is usually an adventure in these pictures, something relatively straightforward that must be accomplished within twenty-four hours or less. In Grandma, Sage (Julia Garner) has scheduled an abortion, but her boyfriend hasn’t come through with the money. Now, on the morning of the appointed day, Sage turns to her grandmother, Elle (Tomlin). Elle is a once-famous poet whose long-term lover, a woman called Violet, has been dead for about a year. Elle, as luck would have it, has just paid off all of her bills, including a medical item for $27,000, and cut up all her credit cards, leaving her with only $43. The terms of the adventure are thus established: Elle and Sage must raise $600 by a quarter to six.

They try this and they try that. Seeking to raise money by selling some feminist first editions a shopowner called Carla (Elizabeth Peña, in her last role), they run into Olivia (Judy Greer) the much-younger woman with whom Elle breaks up a four-month relationship at the start of the movie. Elle literally melts down with embarrassment. (Peña, Greer, and Laverne Cox, playing a tatoo artist, are all divine.) Writer/director Paul Weitz spares us the tedium of spending too much time in the car, although he does give Grandma a snappy vintage sedan that usually runs. What he lingers over is the personal stuff. A long scene with Sam Elliott, who plays Elle’s one great heterosexual fling, consists of a string of peripeties that seems altogether free of the artifice of such chains; it also enables Elliott to widen his character far beyond the usual Marlboro Man limitations of his roles, showing us some bitter, unattractive pain and teary, but not self-pitying, regret. You would have no idea how this scene would play out, if you hadn’t seen the trailer, and known all along that, eventually, Elle and Sage will have to resort to the one person from whom they want to keep news of the pregnancy, Judy, Elle’s daughter/Sage’s mother (played, with great interest as always, by Marcia Gay Harden). (Is there a genre name for the kind of movie — The Blackwater Lightship, Georgia Rules — in which a transgressive granddaughter enlists a transgressive grandmother in opposition to a conformist mom?)

Julia Garner, playing Sage, has a face the likes of which haven’t been seen in the movies in my lifetime. It’s the kind of late Victorian face that was still alluring at the beginning of the Depression. Big eyes, tiny cupid’s-bow mouth, porcelain skin. It’s a look that is simultaneously childish (as in baby dolls) and very adult. Sage is a lost young thing whom nobody has ever tried to teach anything really serious. Whatever. Unexpected pregnancy makes her thoughtful, but she has little to think with beyond comic-book morality. Elle has plenty to think with, but the death of Violet has left her even more sour and difficult than she was. “Why did you stop writing?” she is asked. “Because people stopped reading,” is her angry but evasive answer. Judy is a lawyer (I think), which is movie-speak for too busy to have normal family relationships. All three women are in some kind of mess, but although immediate crises are sorted out by the end, at least enough to spare the audience the futility of a “foreign movie,” there are no epiphanies, no indications that tomorrow will be better. The fetus is aborted, but as Elle tells her granddaughter at the start, “This is something that you are going to think about at moment every day for the rest of your life.” The critical is replaced by the chronic.

Grandma made me laugh out loud, not that that’s hard to do; but it left me marveling at the ability of a movie to capture the lengthiness of life in little more than an hour. The message from Lily Tomlin’s face was, I may not be particularly old, but I have been around a very long time. So long, that something about her — Lily Tomlin or Elle Reid — is cinematically transcendent. In the end, Hollywood is escaped.


Thursday 17th

Another box arrived from England yesterday, and in it was another book by Sybille Bedford — a novel, A Favourite of the Gods. I read a few pages, then realized that I must put it down for a while. I’m not ready to efface the impressions of A Visit to Don Otavio. What I must read next, I realized, was Nostromo. I must go back to that. I was reading Nostromo — when? last year, I’m afraid — when something came up; perhaps it was the Penelope Fitzgerald craze. I remember also being very keyed up, very concerned about the safety of Martin Decoud, the doomed intellectual drenched in Eau de Stendhal. (I have read Nostromo before.) The long night on the silver-laden lighter, drifting around the awful Golfo Plácido, was too oppressive to read, at that time anyway. I picked it up last night and finished the chapter that I had been on the point of beginning. It was just right, somewhere between Bedford and Didion.

When I was a boy, the standard one-word epithet for the Latin-American Weltanschauung, viewed from a Yankee perspective, was Mañana. “I’ll get to it mañana” — if ever. “Mañana” was always accompanied by a rueful laugh, at the thought that this philosophy of indefinite procrastination could ever work. Well, of course it couldn’t: consider the proposition. Work. Work was not the priority in Latin America. Living was the priority. We gringos were the fools. We were the ones willing to be robots. We could have our progress. I thought about this all through Don Otavio, as the sensible ladies from the North ran up against irregularities and breakdowns. Against, as at the Guadalajara railroad station, a Möbius strip of ineffectiveness. (The man with the forms who cannot fill them in.) Individual Mexicans were usually quite competent and willing to do what was asked of them, but when the coordinated effort of several Mexicans was required, outcomes became uncertain. The railroad, an institution requiring the coordination of the greatest number of people, inflicted upon our travellers the ghastly ordeal of a nine-hour stall in the middle of a buggy swamp.

These problems did not arise out of laziness, but rather out of a profound disinclination to be part of a mechanism. A mechanism is a physical system of moving parts, and it functions with conditional necessity: if this, then that. That must be ready and able to perform whenever this occurs. Some mechanisms are made up entirely of human beings. Sports teams and performing arts companies depend upon mechanical coordination. Effective bureaucracies are highly mechanical. Vehicular traffic is viable only when most drivers respond mechanically to most situations.

In a flurry of notes exchanged with Ray Soleil, on the “man is a rational animal” business, I arrived at a different conclusion: man is an unstable animal, particularly in society. I’ll say more about this in a moment. Our tendency has always been to regard our instability (everywhere acknowledged) as a defect, as a problem to be solved. But it is no more a problem than our inability to drink salt water: it is simply who we are. Just as it makes more sense to desalinate water for drinking than to try to create a drug regimen that would allow people to drink salt water, so it makes sense to think about society as a composition of unstable members, rather than trying to force all the members to be stable. I put this observation here because the suppression of instability required for mechanical performance (dancing, driving, &c) is exhausting: you can’t keep it up forever.

Consider a school, an American public school, where bureaucracy and party line (both essentially mechanical) effectively prevent most genuine learning from taking place. (Learning requires the destabilization of the mind). Consider the school in Dallas where Ahmed Mohamed is a gifted student. Ahmed made a clock, and brought it to the school to show to his engineering teacher. This teacher, whatever his or her name is, ought to find another line of work. The teacher admired the clock (said it was “nice,” according to the Times), but advised Ahmed not to show it to other teachers. What the teacher ought to have done was to keep the clock in his or her office. Failing that, the teacher ought to have taken Ahmed and the clock to the principal’s office, in order to defuse the problem pre-emptively. The teacher foresaw the potential for massive instability (among colleagues and the police, responding to an apparent terrorist threat), but took no steps to prevent it, save cautioning the poor student. A flash of insight smothered by mechanical breakdown: not a problem confined to Mexico.

The instability of human nature has always been salient wherever men and women are granted some degree of freedom and autonomy. It’s called “choice.” What will you choose? What do you want? Desire, like learning, is destabilizing: if posits a world that does not yet exist. Imagining non-existent worlds is one of the things that marks as unstable beings. Will you vacation on the shore or in the mountains? There is no rational (mechanical) way to answer this question, hard as we try to confect one. If the decision is to be made by a family of five, and why not throw in an aunt or a grandfather, then any attempt at rational solution will create a lot of frustration and disappointment. Assuming that conditions do a reasonable job of living up to expectations, the happiest trip will be the one that is sold by an ardent and persuasive member of the family, because the pitch will have created a corresponding desire in all the others.

If the family were too poor to take a vacation, the problem would not arise: poor people have few everyday choices (which may be why their explosions are so violent). Very wealthy people are often jaded, blown by the scope of their choices. They think that they have seen and done everything, but in fact they have stuck around for very little, and so seen and done practically nothing.

The pursuit of productivity in the modern world is an attempt to put employees in temporary equivalence with very poor people — people with no choices. Why would anybody want to do this? Because another little characteristic of human nature is the tenuousness of empathy. In Before the Industrial Revolution, Carlo Cipolla quotes the saw that we regard what we consume as necessary and what others consume as superfluous. Similarly, we tend to imagine that our lives (meaning, our choices) would be more agreeable if other people were more predictable. We are eager to see others as unstable, but not ourselves. It seems to me that a much better job could be done teaching children to avoid these misjudgments.

The accent on productivity, moreover, mutes the attention that ought to be paid to what, in fact, is being produced.

I read somewhere that a trading desk at a financial firm was reorganized in a surprising way. The managers were all retirees, or semi-retirees. They had had their halcyon days as traders; they had made their pots of money. Now, without the material need to work, but with an undimmed desire to be engaged in something they knew, they served as disinterested overseers, advisers, and mentors to the rising generation. It was to be hoped that the undesirable symbiotic relationship of sponsor and protégé would be avoided, if only by the managers’ structural lack of influence. The somewhat diminished importance of the bottom line might well cut the risk of imprudent gambles. Did I make this up?

At first, I couldn’t see what this last paragraph had to do with all that preceded it, but now I do, although I shan’t dilate. I wrote that dancers, among others, depend on mechanical coordination. But great dancers transcend that by introducing a measure of instability. I don’t like putting it that way, because it suggests a formula (how much instability?) where none is really possible. How much simply depends. The dancer figures it out in the moment. The dancer resolves the tension, if only for a moment, to create a feat of mechanical prowess that is transfigured by imaginative insight. The ability to shoot through general skill to personal expression generally develops with age. It requires a lot of experience. That’s what the trading desk managers have. They know how things ought to be done, but they also have better intuitions; and they are not distracted by thoughts of personal advancement. Neither is the great dancer, who has only to live up to herself.


Friday 18th

Every now and then, after I’ve written something here, I’m stung by a sense that it is mistaken, or that I’ve left something important out. Usually, the swelling begins about half an hour after posting. I have the option to go back and fix what bothers me, but, except in cases of plain error, I usually leave what I’ve written and go on to write more, as I’m going to do now. (And while I observe no statute of limitations on correcting typos or clarifying punctuation, I otherwise refrain from altering entries after the earth’s turn.) Yesterday, the phrase “the tenuousness of empathy” got stuck in my mind, like some unwanted pop song. For I’m not really sure that I know what empathy is.

I know what sympathy is. It’s what you feel when somebody dies. Not for the somebody but for the people left behind. I remember when it was all right to feel sympathy for people who were sick, or to whom bad things had happened. Actually, I don’t really remember any such thing; what I remember is when it ceased to be all right. What we were supposed to feel instead (this was the Sixties, natch) was empathy. We were not to feel sorry; we were to feel what the former object of our sympathy was feeling. This sounded plausible at first. What a fine thing to do, to imagine the pain of another! Over the years, though, it began to look more like a spiritual exercise than something helpful. The important thing is to stay in touch and to ask if there’s anything that you can do (and then to do it). This is not as simple as it sounds, because illness and divorce and job loss induce many people, therapeutically, to retreat from social contact. Whether to go along with that or not is a fine question for the answering of which there are no general rules. Someone I’m very fond of is doing that now — she’s quite ill, and chooses to be alone with it — and I’ve decided to write a chatty letter. (And now I have to do it.)

I was troubled by having used a term that I suspect of being somewhat bogus. When I tried to rethink what I was trying to say, however, I saw that the problem with “empathy” is not the nature of the feeling. The important difference between sympathy and empathy is not a difference in point of view. It’s that sympathy is occasional: you take it out of the drawer when something bad happens to someone. It is a way of honoring a sad occasion. Empathy is not occasional. It’s a habit of mind, permanently at work. And, if that is so, it has even less to do with sympathy, because we cannot go around trying to imagine everybody’s feelings all the time. Not in New York City, anyway.

Empathy is more focused. It takes the form of a question: What would that person think if he knew what I’d like him to do? How would I feel about it if I were he?

This is Jesus 101, I know. But I still think it’s terribly practical, at least in the world we live in. The world we live in is a world without servants.

Is it something about men, or just something about men today that leads so many men to respond to this servant problem by withdrawing from human intercourse? Is that what makes fiddling with games and apps so preferable — that they do what you tell them to do? I worry about it. The destructive power of disaffected males vastly exceeds the worst that our nuclear arsenals can do; in fact, the only way that our nuclear arsenals can do any harm at all is by falling into the hands of disaffected males.

The call for empathy provokes a lot of troglodytic responses from exponents of the traditional command structure: That’s just the way it is. I came up through that system, and it was the best thing that happened to me. This is a workplace, not an encounter group. We’re being paid to get something done. Well, we used to live in caves. We used to endure cholera-prone water supplies. That’s just the way it was. The particular modest improvement that I have in mind for today is the replacement of a habit of mind that willingly or unthinkingly regards employees (human beings) as adjuncts of their tools, instead of the other way round.

This is the fork in the road that leads, one way or the other, to a world full of robots. Do the robots assist human beings, freeing them for jobs that we can’t even imagine? Or do the robots replace human beings, cutting people out of the world of work and, with it, remuneration?


As I’ve already spent much of this week thinking out loud here, I might as well wrap things up by doing a little more. I read something yesterday that illuminated an unexpected connection between two things that are much on my mind. The first will not be a surprise to regular reader: it concerns the variety of human experience — and the variety of human beings that experience things differently. Rebecca Solnit has a piece in the current issue of Harper’s, “The Mother of All Questions.” The prompt on the cover of the magazine says, “Solnit: Why I Don’t Have Children.” But although Solnit does answer that dreadfully impertinent question, she laments its thoughtless ubiquity. The editors of the magazine are no better than the others whom Solnit complains about; they, too, showcase the question. What Solnit really goes on about is the circular futility of current thoughts about happiness. Surely everybody wants to be happy. Surely motherhood is the one way in which a woman will certainly find happiness. Therefore: why aren’t you having children, when it would make you so happy?

Solnit doesn’t say this, but nobody “has children.” Women do give birth, yes. And that is precisely the end of possession. Nor do “children” really exist. There are infants, toddlers, kindergartners, Boy Scouts, sweet sixteens, undergraduates, and adults with in-laws. Many mothers have a favorite phase, only to watch their child pass right through it without leaving a trace — only memories. Most children do not begin to imagine their mothers’ fierce love until they have children of their own; parenthood is not reciprocal but endlessly giving. (Most mothers whom I know wish they could give more.) The very idea of “having children” is so lumpy and clunky that there is nothing to do with it but let it rust in the sun and rain.

To pick up a theme of this entry, however, there is something adjunct about motherhood, at least in the eyes of others. This is one reason why Solnit did not have children. She did not wish to become (no more than) the generator and support system for a troupe of offspring. We do not think of motherhood as mechanical, but it can be just as numbing as tending to a machine or standing on an assembly line. Nothing ever “gets done” — the aspect of parenthood to which most men seem allergic. As if getting through the day alive and well were not an accomplishment.

The thing at the other end of the connection is something that I need to talk about more, and from several angles. For a few years now, I have been asking myself “Why didn’t you become a journalist?” I knew very early on that I did not want to be a journalist, even if I didn’t know why. Certainly it had something to do with the offhand way journalists have of talking about what they do. But even though no one has ever really pressured me on this point (perhaps it’s obvious to anyone who meets me that I could never be a journalist), I go on asking the question, because I’m still not sure that the word that I have for what I became instead — critic — is the right one. What I need to talk about is journalism. It connects to Solnit’s problem — almost explicitly, in her piece — because journalists take the place of moralists in the modern world.

Journalists tell us what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that, to make sure that they’re read, and paid for what they write, they tend to tell us what we want to hear. They reinforce the conservative notions of their readers, whether those readers are libertarians or Marxists. They uphold the party line and defend the status quo. The best of the bunch know how to be thought-provoking and reassuring. They sustain the pleasing illusion that to read about a problem is to do something about it. Well, who would read them, otherwise? I’m quite serious. But so is the problem of journalism.

I’m describing a moment. Journalism wasn’t always as weighty as it can be these days, and who knows what will follow it. Also: what kind of journalist is Rebecca Solnit? I should say that she isn’t one at all, even if she does a good deal of plain old reporting. I should say that she, too, is a critic.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2015 (II)

Tuesday 8th September

Something has been bothering me. Before heading out to Fire Island, I listed the books that I was going to take with me, and said more than a few words about one of them, The Tale of Genji, which I hadn’t read in decades.

The first quarter of The Tale of Genji is like the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty — almost impenetrable. It is little more than a court calendar, a gazette of important ritual functions, with accounts of who showed up and, more important, who wore what. (9/3/15)

I’ve already noted that this is just plain wrong, but it’s so wrong, and spoken with such assurance, that feel foolish about the whole enterprise of keeping this Web log. Surely it would be a public service to refrain from writing further entries.

Then, after an early dinner last night, I found something that I’ve been looking for. That has happened a lot lately, finding things, because, having been away for several weeks for the first time since we moved into this apartment, I’ve returned with fresh eyes and new ideas. One of the latter was to store the drip-dry shirts from LL Bean that I bought four years ago, and wear only on Fire Island, in a milk crate in my clothes closet. The crate turned out to be full. Full of what? Damask napkins! What were they doing there? Who knows; but I’d been looking for them. They belonged in the middle drawer of a commode in the foyer. Why weren’t they there? Because the drawer was already full — full of photo albums. I’d been looking for them, too. The albums were in the drawer, and the napkins were in the crate, because I hadn’t known what else to do with them when they surfaced during the crazy weeks of moving in.

One of the photo albums, titled “Our Baby,” was full of snapshots of me. Lots and lots when I was a baby, then fewer, then lots when my sister was adopted, then even fewer. The last picture shows the two of us, me decked out for my first communion — I think. One of the pictures of just me has held my interest in recent years, because I built a little theory around it. I daresay I’ve written about this theory somewhere, drat it. It’s as wrong as my faulty recollection of Genji, and I can hardly bring myself to state it. It has to do with my becoming glum and introspective when my sister was adopted, at the age of eight or nine months; having to share the stage not with a sleeping infant but with a laughing cutie put my nose out of joint (as an aunt later put it to me — I hope that I’m not making up what she said!). And here was photographic evidence, showing a traumatized little boy. But the picture was obviously taken long before Carol came home. I doubt that I was even two years old. A photograph that appears a little later, in what does appear to be a conscientious attempt at chronology, shows me in my playpen. It is dated March 1950 — age two years, three months — along with a note, “Last day of playpen.” In the photograph, I do not appear to be keen to part with the playpen. With one elbow resting on the railing with proprietary satisfaction, I stare into the camera with a gaze that strikes me now as superficially non-committal and profoundly stubborn. It is not a hostile look, but it is clearly not a friendly one, either.

At the time of this photograph, I am still the only child in the house. I may have heard something about my sister-to-come — her birth-mother’s parents wanted to keep her, and that was holding things up (am I making this up?) — but that can’t have had much to do with my impassive expression in the playpen. When I look at the picture, I see myself already fully formed, completely me. All the schooling, all the tedium, all the dead ends, the petered-out friendships especially — none of all this was necessary for me to become me. All that was necessary was to stuff that little head with a lot of reading, and to wait for a critical mass to develop (somewhere between forty and fifty), after which I should be capable of thinking about what I’d read. Now, in my late sixties, I’m re-reading a lot of books that I read when I was young, and I’m finding that I misread most of them. You can tell from the picture of me in the playpen that I would read books the way I wanted to. Had I read them correctly, instead of flying off into daydreams on every page, perhaps the serious thinking would have begun sooner, maybe even in college.

As for the playpen, which I could easily climb out of but (I’m told?) always climbed back into, it was the exoskeleton that I have recreated numberless times in my life. I am sitting in the latest one now. I have never said, to Kathleen or to anyone else, that the book room is my room and to stay out of it, but it seems that I don’t have to. Kathleen is reluctant to come in here, whether I’m in the room or not. I’m not happy about that, but I don’t blame her.

It is easy to see that people are not going to line up to be friends with the man whom the boy in the playpen will grow up to be. Well, it’s easy to see now because I’ve been thinking a lot about it, as periodically I do. This time, thoughts about failures in friendliness have been triggered by the biography of Joan Didion. Joan Didion has always had scads of friends. Well, at least she has known just about everyone. I don’t know anyone. What’s wrong with me?

Did I say “thoughts”? There I go again, getting it wrong.

These days, I ponder the question for a reason. Day after day, I write entries for this site that hail the virtues of sociable citizenship, of setting a good example, of being generous. Day by day, I stay quietly in my apartment, which I never leave for any length of time without plenty to read. Is the dissonance merely cognitive?

I am not shy. I am wary of entering into conversation with conspiracy theorists. By “conspiracy theorists,” I simply mean all people who read neither the New York nor the London Review of Books. What’s unfriendly about that?

I have posted the playpen picture at Facebook. Two friends have commented that I ought to use it as my Facebook portrait. The portrait of an unreliable narrator.


Wednesday 9th

It is very hot. The apartment is cool, almost chilly — the renovated HVAC in this apartment works stunningly well, contrasted with the vintage 1963 fittings in the old apartment — but there is only so much that air conditioning can do to the environment, and the low atmospheric pressure is wearing. (My armchair science explanation is that everything expands, getting in the way of everything else. How many times have I written this twaddle?) I don’t sleep as well as I might, and even the lightest blanket can be too heavy. Take it off, though, and I’m freezing! It becomes difficult to get through simple tasks. It took the duration of that 1955 Callas/von Karajan performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, the one in Berlin with the encored Sextet, to process this month’s bills — late as usual (but there’s always an explanation!). At one point, there was mess everywhere — see above for rediscoveries of damask napkins and old photograph albums over the weekend — and I thought that once I’d put it all away, I’d have no energy left for making dinner. Plus, I forgot to take the ball of pizza dough and a fennel sausage out of the freezer until five-thirty. But it all got done, and Kathleen said that it was my best pizza ever. I agreed that I’d never made a better one. I think it may be time to get a peel and a stone.

After dinner, we retired to the bedroom, where Kathleen climbed into bed with her laptop, and I read in my chair. Casting about for something to read, yesterday, I was happy to find something that I’d forgotten about, Andrew Solomon’s novel, A Stone Boat. Published in 1994, it precedes by many years the nonfiction works for which Solomon is famous, and I had no idea what to expect. I need to write this as quickly as possible, because it is about my mother. That’s the first sentence, and I liked it. The words are nicely turned, but they’re also puzzling: of all the subjects in the world, why should one’s mother require a hastily-drawn account? The second sentence suggests an answer, but here my account of A Stone Boat will stop, because I’m reconsidering the habit, into which I’ve fallen this year, of talking about a book that I’m in the middle of and then never mentioning it again. Not to mention the even worse habit of reading books and never mentioning them at all.

Goodness: could I have put that more misleadingly?

When I was new at this blogging thing, or even before that, during the four or five years of Portico, I wanted to write about books because they are a big thing in my life, so to speak, and always have been. But the only models that I had were the book review and the literary essay, and neither was satisfactory, because neither provided very much room for the big thing in my life part. Reviews and essays were supposed to be “objective.” They were to be written as though by an incorporeal spirit, a free-floating intelligence unsullied by the accidents of personality. I knew how to write these things, and I flatter myself that I wrote a few good ones; but I was never happy with the templates. I wanted to show how the books affected me. What put an end to my reviewing, however, was the decision to stop reading new novels just because they were new and talked about; and to re-read old novels that had made an impact, with a view to reassessing that impact. My altered reading list entailed a shift in judgment. I was much less concerned about how a book measured up as literature, and much more concerned with the very point of literature. This led me into the thickets of humanism where I find myself today.

So to read a book and then not to mention it is a waste. I could mention it somewhere else, in a letter to a friend; but I like the scrutiny that I imagine regular readers bring to bear on what I have to say, so I say it here. And then I know, or at least have the beginning of a substantial understanding, not “what the book means to me” but where it fits in the dense fabric of what I call the World. Not every book has a place in this fabric: beach books are like bridal magazines, endlessly self-replacing novelties. I tend not to read many of those; my “beach books” tend to be delightfully quirky reads like Talk. But I did read a distressingly empty novel while I was out on Fire Island, and I quickly saw that its place in the World was as a Mistake, the less said about which the better. I shall be coy: it is not surprising, given the author, that the extracts of verse, attributed to a fictional literary legend, that appear in this novel are more than merely presentable; what’s surprising is that, given the author, the rest of the affair is as breezily clichéd as an article in New York Magazine. Instead of the sophisticated meditation on literary life that I expected, I got a not very enlightening young-adult novel.

Another book that I read by the bay was an account of the Atlantic War, A Measureless Peril, written by someone I knew. Someone I knew a very long time ago, when we were in tenth grade at Bronxville High. Actually, tenth grade was when our acquaintance ended; I went off to boarding school the following year. I had known Richard Snow since fourth grade, when we were signed up for Miss Covington’s dancing school. Richard went on to work at American Heritage, of which he was editor for decades. His father, an architect, had served in the Navy’s campaign to protect shipping between the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II, and his letters home, together with his spoken reminiscences, must have inspired Richard to write, not so much a history of the Atlantic War, as a sequence of personal recollections of it. Military history is not at all my cup of tea, but the story was dramatic (to say the least), and A Measureless Peril is every bit as well-written as I expected it to be. Nevertheless, what stuck with me was remembering Richard’s parents, who were almost a generation older than everyone else’s. I was in their home only once, as I recall, but while I was there I played, with Mrs Snow, the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” It was the only time that I ever performed a piece of music with another instrumentalist — a fond memory, and an unforgettable glimpse of how very different life might have been. I chose to read A Measureless Peril in the wake of one of those moments, made so dangerously tempting by the ease of Internet research, in which I thought about dropping Richard a note. It seemed unseemly to point him to this site without having read one of his books.


Thursday 10th

The title of Andrew Solomon’s novel, A Stone Boat, reminded me of the marble folly that China’s Empress Cixi had built for the Summer Palace outside of Beijing, using funds diverted from China’s naval campaign in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. (Wouldn’t most of Solomon’s readers have the same thought?) But the explicit reference is to something that someone says in the novel.

But sometimes I look at you and I think it’s as though you’ve chosen a boat carved from diamond with sapphire masts and sails of rubies and emeralds for your journey across the sea. It’s breathtaking to watch it cutting through the waves, but it’s a stone boat. You have to be crazy to choose a stone boat. Anything else would be easier to sail, Harry.” (194)

The stone boat is Harry’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps the way in which he prizes her love for him. I think that it’s also a good symbol for the novel itself, which is extravagantly luxurious and only implausibly seaworthy. Somehow, it completes its narrative journey, jewels blazingly intact. There are several passages of the very highest literary quality, compelling statements of truth that immediately feel essential to have read. But the experience is somewhat exhausting, and I note that Solomon has not chosen to have another try at fiction.

Is it fiction? I want to come back to that later. For now, it’s enough to say that Solomon lost his dearly beloved mother to cancer when he was still a young man. In the update to the Acknowledgments that he appended to the 2013 edition, he identifies the mother in his novel with her. (I am not a hundred percent sure, but my impression is that the mother remains unnamed.) Solomon has changed some of the details: in the novel, Harry is a concert pianist, about to release his first CD. (Schubert and Rachmaninoff, a rather intriguing pairing.) But the grief certainly feels autobiographical. It is greater than any novel can hold, so that, at times, A Stone Boat reads like a tribute. Such overstepping is almost always curtailed by Solomon’s stylistic inclination to analyze from a distance, however, and this keeps the book afloat. The author’s masterful way with words allows him to say, over and over and over, I loved my mother and My mother loved me, without ever lapsing into tediousness.

This is all the more surprising because of the preoccupation with perfection that pervades the novel. Perfection is something of a stone boat. It doesn’t really exist; what exists is the sense, after something happens, that it was perfect. Perfection figures highly in Harry’s memories of his mother and of the world that she brought forth. Mother, as I shall call her (because she is always “my mother” in the book, and I can’t be saying that), is an unflappable juggernaut of careful planning. She is beautiful; she dresses beautifully; she creates beautiful rooms; she gives beautiful parties. But she also knows how to have a good time, how to surrender to the moment. She is, when you get down to it, French. When you get down to it — Solomon never puts it this way — Mother is a prestidigitator, a mistress of misdirection capable of rendering invisible all the little things that aren’t quite right. You sense the magic act, but all you see is the illusion of perfection.

Then along comes cancer, and in two years, Mother is dead.

Mother is not, in fact, perfect; she and Harry fight all the time. We don’t see these fights, and we don’t learn the details; some readers might consider it a flaw that Solomon merely mentions the bad times with his mother. A few moments of unpleasant disagreement are shown. These share the same cause: Mother is not happy about Harry’s homosexuality. She does not want to hear that Harry has happily settled down with a lover in London. She wants him to marry a woman and have children — well, until very recently, what mother wouldn’t? Besides, it isn’t true that Harry is happy with Bernard. How can he be? He is the captain of a stone boat. One of the most powerful passages in the novel is a portrait of this captain, or a series of them, photographs taken at the party that the narrator gives to celebrate the release of his CD. It is quite a set piece, this party, a virtuoso display of disciplined excitement. You might be excused for mistaking it for a billionaire’s daughter’s wedding reception; there is in any case a photographer.

I look at the photos of myself from that party and this is what I see: I see a young man in the middle of a party as stunning as the feast day of an ancient king. I see him surrounded by many friends and a few lovers. I see him looking as though he is entirely in control, negotiating his family and overseeing the waiters and making introductions; he is evidently a master builder who has constructed everyone else’s delight. I see him utterly at ease, and clearly very happy: I see someone of vast competence, looking out at me from clear confident eyes. I look at him and I wonder who this young man is, not yet thirty, so sure of himself and of the world. I wonder what it would be like to be on top of the world like that, to have so much of what youth dreams maturity might hold. I look into his clear blue eyes and I envy him, because he is so full of laughter, because he seems not to know about or not to mind the effort life is, because he has the face of someone who has all the things that I have always wanted, but who couldn’t possibly care less about them. (208)

A Stone Boat is worth reading just for things like that. How difficult it is to bear in mind that sophisticated people train themselves to act with a self-assurance that they may not in fact feel! How hard to remember that the point of good manners is to take over, to command all decision-making, in social situations, whether or not they’re important. We fear that we won’t measure up even we assume that everyone else is effortlessly surpassing. Here we see a man confronting his well-bred shell, astounded by the appearance of supreme indifference to everything that he craves. It is a queasy, bitter feeling to experience envy of yourself.

While cancer ravages Mother — in another great passage, the narrator tells us what he is not going to tell us about the ordeals and humiliations of her treatments, and he’s as good as his word — Harry copes with the demands of his musical career, and struggles with his sex life. Here is it important to recall that A Stone Boat first appeared in 1994. A lot has changed in gay life since then, and a lot had already changed. (Interestingly, AIDS is mentioned only once, very much in passing.) Harry’s early sex life, he tells us, was furtive and incidentally regrettable. Sometimes, it was dangerous. Harry wishes that he were straight, not least because it would make his mother’s life perfect, but also because he would be normal — there he goes again, thinking that everyone else has an easier time of things. Harry is something of a familiar gay type: he has great taste in things, and he has a taste for rough trade in men. By the beginning of the novel, Harry knows that he is bored by his relationship with Bernard, who, it seems, is just about as bored with him. They live out a dream of polite content, but eventually Harry grows impatient with Bernard because Bernard does not seem to know what he’s going through, losing the love of a perfect mother. One of the later chapters is devoted to an account of Harry’s romantic experiences after breaking up with Bernard; suffice it to say, there is a lot for Harry to learn about love — love, that is, that doesn’t involve his mother. I should note, by the way, that Harry’s  mother is so perfect that she thinks that he’s more than a little bit carried away by his attachment to her. Again Solomon never says any such thing, but I thought I caught her winking: This perfection is an illusion, Harry.

Mother never says any such thing, either. She pours out her love for her two sons. (Harry’s younger brother is a straight med student, and usually somewhere else, although when the brothers and their parents are together, it’s perfect, even if someone is throwing a tantrum.) She says that she wants to die so that she can spare her sons the agony of watching her die. She talks about how she would have died for her boys when they were born. She says that she loves her husband so much that she wants him to get married again when she’s gone. You might say that she deals perfectly with the mystery of love and death, by not attempting to puzzle it out.

The last chapter provides almost documentary details about the arrangements for Mother’s funeral. Cut, cut, cut! I was about to scream, when suddenly the scene changed, as the narrator recalled a trip that he took, with just his mother, to Venice, when he was eleven. If I copied it out here, you’d see that it’s great stuff, but you wouldn’t see how great, because the scene in the Piazetta transfigures all the book’s excesses by closing on a moment of heartbreaking innocence. It is here that Andrew Solomon is finally able to convey what that perfect love felt like, and with a kind of Proustian triumph, he arranges for it to signal the end of childhood.


Friday 11th

Kathleen has once again taken the Friday off; we are both going to work on our closets, emptying their hanging contents onto clothes racks and “editing.” My mind is on the happy banalities of the day. The last thing I want to do is to write about the aspect of A Stone Boat that never quite stopped bothering me as I read it. But if I don’t write about it now, I never shall.

Even then, I wonder if I ought to write about it at all. I’ve just suggested that there was something wrong with the novel, but in fact it’s something wrong with me. A Stone Boat is a kind of photographic romance. Against the background of intense passions — a man’s love for his mother; his mother’s love of life in all its happier manifestations (and therefore necessarily a love for her sons — certain details are pinpointed and rendered clearly. The picture is so rich that you do not think much of all that’s left out, such as the extended family that makes no appearance at all until Mother’s funeral, or the addresses of various apartments, or the names of favorite restaurants. All of that is elided beneath an unstated assurance that it was as perfect as it could possibly be. The family was fine, the addresses were “good,” the restaurants genuinely notable. All of that is “understood.” It is a lot of detail to take on faith, particularly for a novel set largely in New York.

New York is not a dreamy city. It is not, as a city, particularly luxurious; its luxuries are tucked away. New Yorkers, especially affluent New Yorkers, have different ideas of luxury. They don’t all go mad for peonies, for example. I cite peonies because Andrew Solomon makes a great case for the peony as the most special of flowers. In addition to being as beautiful as any flower, the peony remains stuck to its season, the early summer. You cannot have peonies the year round; for some reason or another, the horticulturalists haven’t figured out how to produce its blooms at will. Knowing that the narrator of A Stone Boat prizes peonies tells you a lot about the kind of luxury he goes in for. It is not a decorative detail at all, but enlightening information about a certain milieu. As I read A Stone Boat, however, I was, as I say, always a bit bothered by the omission of a detail that, had it been provided, would have been even more enlightening. And I blushed to be bothered.

In college, I had a friend whose French accent was very good. When he spent a year abroad in Angers, his accent was so good that one of his teachers — or perhaps it was the formidable madame who kept the house where he lived — said to him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere. This was certainly a compliment, to the extent of implying that my friend did not sound like a hopeless American. But it also meant that he did not have a French French accent. He did not sound as if he came from Lille, or Dijon, or Bordeaux, or anywhere else. I didn’t understand this part of nul part until I was puzzled by certain American accents on display in British shows, such as Inspector Morse and Miss Marple (the one with Joan Hickson), the Eighties and Nineties. These accents had been purged of British echoes, but they weren’t really American, either. Each of the sounds was American, but no single American produced them together.

Something like this puzzle bothered me in A Stone Boat. Where are these people really from, I wondered. “New York” was not the answer. New York was the problem, the very matrix of the puzzle. Because nobody in New York, at least no one whom I’ve ever met or even read about, combines all of the characteristics of Mother and her family. Not quite. Perhaps it is more a case, as I suggested earlier, of omitted characteristics, characters that would anchor the romance in firmer ground — something that I can well imagine Andrew Solomon’s wishing to avoid. So I should perhaps better say, nobody is like this family without being more. Without being something or something else. Without, in short, being either gentile or Jewish.

Just to make this point is to evoke the horrors of anti-Semitism, I know. I also know that, by 1994, when A Stone Boat was first published, homophobia was a much bigger deal than anti-Semitism; and Solomon, moreover, set out to present a bisexuality in which many onlookers simply refused to believe: you were one or the other; to be both was simply (and temporarily) to be confused. In Far From the Tree, Solomon writes that, while his mother disapproved of his homosexuality because she believed that it would diminish his chances at happiness, she also didn’t particularly like being the mother of a gay man. With this one sentence, he illuminates all the “fights” that are mentioned by never described in A Stone Boat. I certainly don’t think for a moment that Solomon, while daring to discuss his then-problematic sexuality in a novel (still something new for mainstream fiction), regarded being Jewish as unmentionable. But I think that he miscalculated in thinking that it was a detail that didn’t matter.

I raise this uncomfortable issue not because I want to suggest that Andrew Solomon is a self-hating Jew; I most certainly don’t. I want to register, rather, an awkward moment in a momentous social shift. When I was young, Jews and Gentiles were equal but separate to a degree that was only imagined by Plessy v Ferguson. It is a grave mistake to imagine that all New York Jews were recent immigrants, uncouth and uneducated and poor. Most may have been, but then most Gentiles belonged to the working class as well. Exceptionally, however, there were rungs of Jews who could put Gentiles to shame for culture, philanthropy, and sophistication. These members of “Our Crowd” tended, if anyting, to make their Gentile equals look like slobs. These people thrived in New York, unlike their doomed distant cousins in Europe. By the time I was in college, the equality was so strikingly balanced the other way, so to speak, that the effort of maintaining the separation seemed to be not worth the efforts.

But the world doesn’t stop turning. In 1994, being Jewish in New York was simply not a big deal. Like fraternities, Jewish ways of life seemed to be on the way out. Well, we know what happened instead. Jewish culture is livelier than it has been in a long time, and there are towns on Long Island that have all but restructured themselves as positive ghettoes. But the resurgence of Jewish culture has about it the wonderfulness of just that: the resurgence of a culture. Ideas of “race,” never more than the most dubious of constructs, have nothing to do with it. Being Jewish is a matter of growing up in a Jewish household, with Jewish relatives and Jewish holidays. It is not a matter of coming into the world with a Jewish body. Jewish culture is a culture like any other, no better or worse — but only from a perspective that nobody can seriously maintain, because we all belong to the culture that we grew up in. From that imaginary objectivity, I might say that I should rather be a Jew than a Gentile from Bronxville — a place that defined itself by those who were not allowed to live there. In fact, I am a self-hating Gentile from Bronxville.

In 1994, Gentiles in New York still regarded themselves as regarded as top dogs. Solomon clearly wanted to fix his family portrait at the top of the social tree, because, I think, that is where he felt it belonged. So (I’m reasoning) he left out the one detail that would have led some readers to disagree, or at least to ask questions. The result of his omission is the blur that, for example, makes the constant tears of Leonard, Mother’s husband and the boys’ father, seem somewhat odd (because in Gentile culture, men really did not cry, except maybe once.) For another example, it the absence of cousins — of any living relatives outside the four members of the immediate families — seem strange, as if Leonard and Mother materialized out of nowhere, instead of from a background that, had those relatives figured forth, would have identified the family as either Jewish or Gentile. It makes a mystery of Harry’s piano career — the reality of life among the upper Gentility of New York might lead one to suppose that truly exceptional children are strangled as soon as they’re seen to be. The problem with A Stone Boat is not that it goes on and on about love and the agony of losing a still-vibrant mother to cancer; if it does these things, it does them very well. The problem is that A Stone Boat comes not from New York but de nulle part.

Actually, for all the family’s preoccupation with comme il faut, you could argue that the family in Solomon’s novel comes from Mother’s beloved Paris. The author begins with a chapter suggesting that that is how it would be if Mother’s deepest wish were granted.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The real new year
September 2015 (I)

Monday 31st August

Having bid farewell to Ocean Beach last Thursday, we returned to an interesting apartment. All was well, at least once the refrigerator was emptied. Everything was a bit dusty, and almost everything still is. I have, however, reasserted dominion over the bedroom. Among a thousand other actions, this involved a) unpacking the suitcase to retrieve the extremely heavy HP laptop that I lugged out to Fire Island at the last minute because I wasn’t sure that the sleek new Lenovo that I haven’t got round to using was loaded with everything that I should need and b) tearing two closets apart in search of a fresh vacuum-cleaner bag. The big laptop, onto which the bulk of our non-classical musical collection has been loaded, and nicely organized in iTunes, will be parked in the bedroom, where it really does belong, because that’s where the library of non-classical CDs is stored. That is also the room in which Kathleen is most likely to cooperate on the construction of playlists for her pleasure. As for the closets, the foyer is still littered with a couple of shopping bags that I’m working up the courage to get rid of.

I meant to get to the bookroom over the weekend, but I never did. In the bookroom, there are books that need to be put away somewhere — but where, if the bookcases are already full? There are also papers, lots of piles of little papers, receipts mostly. Getting the bookroom in order is my task for today.

But first, an entry for this Web site. Long or short? Long — no matter how much I write today. I’ve decided on a permanent shift of format, following the preceding two entries’ innovation. Entries will henceforth stretch out over the five weekdays. One thing that I expect to happen is the limitation of opening material, Aristotle’s famous “beginning,” which you are reading now, to Mondays at the top. The other daily subentries, I hope, will begin in medias res. The general idea is to move beyond the column and toward the chapter.


Although I benefited enormously from this year’s Fire Island stay, learning to relax and even to practice some cognitive behavior therapy tricks, I was fairly gloomy by the time I left, because in my solitude I was daily more depressed by the feeling that we — the human race — have piled up a mess of conflicting political and social arrangements, generated a miasma of Earth-challenging chemicals, and spun off a constellation of gadgets that point us in no direction. The complications are more than we can handle. The traditional solution to overcomplexity is war, revolution, or some other kind of upheaval, but I don’t think that we can afford that option anymore. The loss of self-esteem entailed by general collapse would make the worst of us tyrants, and the best of us suicides.

My despondency had several topical causes. The Donald, for instance. Having come to regard the Republican Party not as a truly conservative organization but rather as a profoundly anti-social phalanx that guards rabidly selfish narcissists, I do enjoy watching Trump stomp through it like Godzilla through Tokyo. As Paul Krugman has argued, Trump is no worse than any of the other would-be candidates. He’s better, maybe, because he seems to mean what he says. It’s very clear that the others don’t. They may rail against “political correctness,” but they have their own versions of it, their own pretentious claims that impatient voters have long since seen through. Trump is telling it like it is. But of course he’s doing no such thing. He’s just bellowing pipe dreams, proposing a future in which he inspires “America” to throw off the constraints that have weakened if not altogether undone its claim to be top dog. Knock yourself out, “America.”

Then there were Greece and Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico especially. Greece is not nearly as stuck with the Eurozone as Puerto Rico is immured in the half-baked concrete of a conception of overseas territories that few Americans understand. There is no doubt in my mind that most Americans, if they think of Puerto Rico at all, see it as a tourist destination (no passport required!) in the sunny Caribbean, a place that needs water, power, and sewers in order to service hotels and the people who staff them. They have no idea that Puerto Rico is enduring a harrowing withdrawal from windfall tax breaks that were eliminated years ago. Transition from an agricultural, low-wage, post-colonial economy to a self-sufficient, more educated one has been stalled for nearly a generation. And yet the usual cluster of responsible parties, people who ought to know better — in government (both territorial and federal) and on Wall Street — have behaved as if Puerto Rico really were another Golconda. Endless streams of debt that can probably never be repaid have faced ordinary Puerto Ricans with the prospect of emigration as probably the best option. I have a hard time saying even that the élites screwed up, because screwing up takes some imagination.

Finally (for now), there is the Ashley Madison thing. If you don’t know about the hacking of a cheating site for married people that attracted (among others) a hundred thousand US government and military men, but very few actual women, then I am not going to disabuse your innocent ears. What makes me weep is that none of the contestants in this challenge runs the risk of winning Darwin Awards. Because, boy, are they dumb.

Intractable global problems; idiots on parade — what could be more newsworthy? The ultimate horror is the virtual placenta that binds hypnotized smartphone users to a media complex that metastasizes serious complexity into cheap sensation. One day, as I was walking up Ocean Walk to the Pantry, I was overtaken by a quartet of thirtysomething women, two by two, all chatting away amiably. But three of the four were carrying smartphones in their right hands. Not in their pockets. Not in their purses — they weren’t carrying purses. All they felt they needed were their smartphones, and these they had at the ready, in their hands. Why? Since when do human beings socialize while wielding devices? Are you with your friends or aren’t you? A clearer case of the absence of critical thinking I can’t imagine.

No, the irony of it doesn’t escape me. My wife happens to be the one woman who keeps her phones’ ringtone levels too low to hear anywhere but in a bank vault, who forgets to call at appointed times, and who doesn’t seem to grasp the idea of incoming. This is somehow all the more vexing (for me) now that one old problem has been eradicated: Kathleen’s phones are always charged.


How to talk about Talk, Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 “novel,” now republished by NYRB as the edited transcript of actual conversations that it is? The usual angle seems to be to compare it to Girls and Broad City, to see it as a wildly precocious reality show. But it’s not a show. On The New Yorker‘s Web site, Molly Fischer complains about this.

Even with such apparently juicy material, blithe self-exposure quickly grows dull. Their mutual trust comfortably established, Marsha, Emily, and Vincent unleash endless confession, allowing one another to stand in for the analysts they aren’t seeing over the summer. Nobody has to coax anything out of anyone. “I haven’t told you about the big breakthrough I had last week,” one will say, just before explaining the big breakthrough she had last week. At one point, Marsha and Vincent show their genitals to one another, in a matter-of-fact way that suggests toddlers rather than sexual adventurers. For all their world-weary posturing (“It’s been an awful lot of sacrifice and pain, darling, but I had no choice,” Emily says, of analysis), what registers most sharply is their innocence—particularly as concerns Marsha’s tape recorder.

This innocence, I think, rather than a diminished hunger for intimate revelation, explains why “Talk” did not grip me. Confession is not riveting because of its details—or not primarily so, at least. It is riveting because of the stakes involved in disclosure. The speakers in “Talk” are proudly liberated from a previous era’s strictures (while talking among themselves, at least), but they haven’t yet recognized what the new era’s might be.

But that’s just what I loved about Talk — its innocence. To me, this innocence isn’t so much a matter of the absence of wariness about tapes and videos and evidence as it is one of the talk cru. This is the language of legal depositions, that horrifying patois that comes into being only when what we say is reduced to words on a page, showing us all to be mouth-breathing morons. Here is Marsha, Rosenkrantz’s stand-in, talking about her sister.

I made her feel disgusting — that was one of her lifelong traumas. I think I was jealous of her, but I would lie to myself and say what bothered me was that we just didn’t have much in common, she wasn’t the type of person I liked to be with, she was phony, But I wasn’t jealous, of course not — I just didn’t happen to care for her personality. That was when she was about three. Because don’t forget she had suddenly appeared after twelve years of my only child-dom, this pishy little kid who could do everything I couldn’t do, not only the manual things with her hands and athletics, but she could talk to people, she wasn’t shy. I mean all she did was get born and two minutes later she’s doing all the banes of my existence, flushing mice down the toilet and everything else.

Dull? Not at all — the language is as shocking as a donkey in a drawing room. It is language that never appears in print that people pay to read. The absurdity of everyday speech cannot be imagined! No matter how carefully the Becketts of literature listen to lost souls, they cannot bring themselves to transcribe what is actually said. For that, you need a court reporter or a tape recorder. What’s innocent about Marsha, Vincent, and Emily, the three characters who speak in Talk as they pass the summer time in Amagansett, is not their willingness to share the details of their sex lives and their “analysis,” but their unawareness of the fun-house mirror that captures the things that we actually say. Most of us begin ruminative sentences with no idea of how they’re going to end, or of the rudiments of parallel structure that most educated people command, when they write, without giving it a thought.

… and two minutes later she’s doing all the banes of my existence: even if Shakespeare were a thousand monkeys typing away indefinitely, he’d never think of that one.


Tuesday 1st September

Wouldn’t I just love to know what Joan Didion thinks or thought of Talk. (If anything at all.) Perhaps she read it when it was a novel, back around the time of “The White Album,” her essay about apocalypse in Los Angeles. (“The Doors were different. The Doors interested me. … The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”) At no point in “The White Album” does Didion sound like Marsha, Vincent, or Emily; without thinking, one wants to characterize her style as mandarin — even though it is actually somewhat easier to follow than Talk‘s unedited ramblings. But Didion is no less aware than Linda Rosenkrantz and her friends that a new freedom is breaking up old social contracts. I want to re-read “The White Album,” partly to realign my own rather greener impressions of the period. (The Doors did not interest me; they frightened me.)

For the moment, though, I’m reading about Joan Didion. Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion may have been written without her cooperation, but it is forcefully Didionic. It is as unsympathetically sympathetic as one feels Didion herself would be, were she to take up a biographical project. It tells the story of a gifted critical observer whose deepest personal commitment is to her profession, as a reporter of what she sees. She performs her other obligations dutifully but with detachment — the detachment of a critical observer. Daugherty has already chilled his text — I’ve reached the period of Quintana Roo Dunne’s infancy — with drafts of what promises to be a harsh judgment of Didion as a mother. Didion was hard on herself in Blue Nights, but she drew back from sharp conclusions. Daugherty, I expect, won’t.

There seems to be some confusion about whether or not Joan Didion is a shy person. Is she “vulnerable,” as she and others have claimed? The simple truth seems to me to be that Didion is a writer. Writers — real writers — relate to the world with written words. Their texts are their garments; without them, they are naked, and, yes, vulnerable. It is possible, even easy for men, to project a persona. This is optional and even meaningless, to the extent that the writer is not interested in living among non-writers on their terms. The persona is always an invention, but, like standards, it can be developed and improved (ie, made to fit better) over time. As a writer, Didion was never shy or vulnerable. Her persona, it seems to me, was inspired by a kind of impatience.

Some of this impatience might have been directed at herself. In only two of the many photographs that Daugherty reprints can Didion be seen to smile. One of the smiling pictures happens to be the first of the lot, and it tickled me until I figured out why. Not a classic beauty, Didion is attractive in a stylish, intelligent way. She looks like someone who knows useful things. Except, however, when she smiles. When she smiles — for the camera; I’m not speaking of personal experience (the one time that I saw Joan Didion read, she reminded me of Wendy Hiller’s character in Murder on the Orient Express: “My doctors have advised against it [smiling].”) — her face stretches out goofily into an uncanny resemblance to the mascot of Mad Magazine, Alfred E Neuman. (There is a third picture, dating from 2000, in which what might pass for a smile looks to me more like making a face.)

I’m attracted to Joan Didion because she has used her pen to make a truly conservative case against her own class, arguing, implicitly, that, if the élites can’t or won’t live up to their capabilities, it is unrealistic at least to expect hoi polloi to do so. I like it too that Didion conveys a belief that being “nice” is not a particularly grown-up thing to be. What I don’t like is a certain perceived close-fistedness. Daugherty talks of her imbibing her father’s proclivities as a “gambler”: I associate gambling with a want of kindness and generosity. I’m also repelled by “The West.” Having given us Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, the West and its voters have undone the Republican Party. I do not admire pioneers, and I feel that their settled descendants ought to forget “the pioneer spirit,” whatever that means. (In Where I Was From, Didion seems to have reached a similar conclusion.) But it is also true that the actual West makes me uncomfortable. Arid climates disturb me. Brown hills and red rocks depress me. I know that all natural wonders are produced by violence, and I suspect them all of fraud. I wouldn’t care for the West even if they spoke English there. (According to Daugherty, Didion holds what they speak is “Okie.”) I find myself quite often at odds with Didion’s takeaways. But I can never fault her expression of them.

As medieval iconography tells us, critical observers carry a scale with a set of weights. The weights used by angels conducting the Last Judgment are of course divine in origin. Where does a mere mortal, even a smarty-pants like Joan Didion (who didn’t, however, get into either Stanford or Phi Beta Kappa), get hers? I should suggest that the best critics derive their standards from the language itself, and that, as, speaking with care is a skill that takes years to develop, standards take years to develop, too. Didion famously lodges an acknowledgment of development near the beginning of “The White Album”: “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling.” Didion would go on to become a relentless interrogator of stories, as witnessed by her ruthless deconstruction of the Terri Schiavo case, which appeared in The New York Review of Books ten years ago. There, Didion hammers away with lawyerlike advocacy against the decision to remove the comatose woman’s feeding tubes — a position hardly popular with NYRB readers. Her appeal is not to law but to the leveling common sense that is always obscured in enthusiastic controversies.

In fact any notion about what Theresa Schiavo wanted or did not want remained essentially unconfirmable, notwithstanding the fact that a Florida court had in effect accepted the hearsay assertions that she had said, at one point, in reference to her husband’s dying grandmother and at another while watching a television movie about someone with a feeding tube, “no tubes for me.” (Imagine it. You are in your early twenties. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which someone has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. “No tubes for me,” you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?) Most commentators nonetheless seemed inclined to regard Theresa Schiavo’s “directive” as a matter of record, even as they undercut their own assumption by reminding us that the “lesson” in the case was “to sit down tonight and write your living will.” Living wills, it was frequently said, could be “Terri’s legacy.”

Joan Didion has spent her life sieving truth from cant. I fully share her conservative horror of life in a fool’s paradise. I prefer to speak about human affairs more hopefully; habitual pessimism can be gratuitously corrosive. But I detest received wisdom and party lines, and watching Didion explode them is both inspiring and highly entertaining.

Goodness: it just hit me. The offstage friend whose name and problems come up most often in Talk is known as “Sick Joan.”


Wednesday 2nd

This morning, after the Times, I read the first two pieces in After Henry, Joan Didion’s fifth collection of essays. The first was the title piece, a tribute to Henry Robbins, the FSG editor who, more than any other third party, helped Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to establish the economic foundation of their free-lance careers. Henry Robbins believed in them. Along with Robbins, Didion mourns the old-style personal support that Robbins provided, now famously missing from the publishing world. (In one instance, Robbins took a night flight out to Los Angeles just to read a Didion MS that she did not want to send to New York.) “After Henry” is brisk, only a few pages long. It shivers over the murder of youth by mortality: Before Robbins died, Didion writes, “I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong.”

The next piece was “In the Realm of the Fisher King.” This is one of Didion’s essays about the Reagans, and what utter frauds they were. They were frauds to the extreme degree of not even knowing it. Nancy Reagan presented herself as a “lady,” nicely turned-out, always on time, easy with bland smiles. To Didion, who, in the complicated, even contradictory way of upper-class Americans everywhere, really was a lady (if also a tramp, fond of slumming with bikers in gas stations), Mrs Reagan (definitely “Mrs”!) was only an actress, and not a very impressive one at that. She was at home in the studio system, which took care of everything. She hadn’t a clue about seating the guests at a White House dinner. Didion retells a funny story first published by Michael Deaver, in which the Reagans attend services at a very picturesque Episcopal church in Virginia’s hunt country. Deaver, as the advance man, has worked out the details of the sermon with the pastor, but the pastor has neglected to inform Deaver that Communion will be served. Nancy Reagan, a Presbyterian in Hollywood, is flummoxed by this surprise: she is not going to drink from a common cup. Thinking that dunking her wafer in the wine will do, she manages to drop it into the chalice. The President, having been instructed to do everything that his wife does, politely drops his wafer into the chalice, too. Didion likens this episode to an imbroglio out of I Love Lucy. You can still hear her laughing.

But the Communion story is not just a funny anecdote. It is the symbolic centerpiece of Didion’s visualization of the Reagan White House as a sound stage on which a movie about the Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail, is being shot. The magical thing about this movie is that there is no crew. All the people who are making the movie are also in it. They are also its audience. Political reality has been set aside and replaced by a bogus liturgy of libertarian fantasies. The President, as Hierophant-in-Chief, is as vacant as his cult. (Didion begins the essay by retailing Peggy Noonan’s statement that the President sharpened his own pencils and responded to letters from ordinary Americans that had been culled from the mailbag by staffers whose job this was.) The fraudulence of the Reagans was a projection, not by the Reagans themselves (they lack the substance for such an effort), but by their supporters and bankrollers. The deception was successful only because no one (excepting Didion and a few like-minded Californians) could imagine such a stunt. Didion doesn’t follow forward, but of course the “Fisher King” was a hard act to follow, and George H W Bush, who, however rich and remote (remember that supermarket check-out line?), was nonetheless grounded in the scrum of political life, completely lacked the Reagans’ magic. He could not help reminding — re-awakening — Americans to the resented truth that the White House is not situated at the foot of a rainbow.

In the course of reading these two pieces, I came across many of the bits and bobs that Tracy Daugherty has recycled — artfully and purposefully — in his biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song. From “After Henry,” there is the bit about Quintana Roo Dunne joining the Robbins children in trick-or-treating, one Hallowe’en, in the Robbins’s building on the Upper West Side. (I’d like the recipe for the chicken in tarragon aspic that Didion mentions in an adjacent sentence.) From “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” there is the bit about how Hollywood wives take their after-dinner coffee in the hostess’s bedroom, where there are large bottles of perfume. After Henry is collected in the Everyman’s Library edition of Didion’s nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live — a very interesting title, given Didion’s determination to deconstruct our stories — and I expect that more than two readers of Daugherty’s biography (but fewer than ten?) will construct a concordance, annotating sources and extracts in the respective volumes. From this a second text of Didion’s non-fiction might emerge, consisting of all the bits that Daugherty didn’t use.

In the Times this morning, rock star Chrissie Hynde is said to be “something close to rock’s Joan Didion.” Ha ha: Dwight Garner goes on to write,

With her new memoir, “Reckless,” Ms. Hynde proves that she can compete with male rock stars in another essential way. She’s written a book that’s just as slack and disappointing as so many of theirs have been.

So much for being Joan.


I was too young, in the late Sixties, to worry that the United States was falling apart. I didn’t know enough about the United States that, for this fear to make sense, must have existed before the alleged collapse. I knew that the Fifties were a bad joke — had there ever, in the entire history of design, been anything so monstrously preposterous as the Cadillac’s tailfins? I knew something else, something slightly to the side of America’s problems. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew that the Soviet occupation of Russia would pass, and that Russia would go back to being Russia. I knew that the apparently Soviet behavior that drove American leaders crazy had nothing to do with Communism and everything to do with the kind of Bismarckian geopolitics that Communism claimed to have superseded. If I thought that my journals would tell me, I just might hold my nose and peruse them. But I should have been too self-absorbed, in those days, to write about Russia.

If I had only followed the thought through, I should have seen that the problem with the United States was that its leaders were alone in being deluded about the Communist menace. For the general public, the Cold War meant only one thing: the possibility of nuclear annihilation. For Washington types, nuclear annihilation was the almost irrelevant, merely possible outcome of an intricate and beguiling game of diplomatic go. This game determined the entirety of American foreign policy and a great deal of its domestic policy as well. The Civil Rights legislation of the mid-Sixties is an example. It is often forgotten that white Southerners were given to attributing civil-rights activism to Communist infiltration; ironically, at the federal level, this was oddly true: Jim Crow was an embarrassment in our game with the Soviets, and had to be gotten rid of. The Cold War interposed a decades-long disconnect between Americans and their government; indeed, the disconnect persists, having outlived its cause. The Cold War generated a menu of raisons d’état that shared a common, highly intoxicating ingredient: the justification of extraordinary powers. Why would anyone in Washington want to give up ordering from it?

In the late Sixties, the country wasn’t falling apart; it was waking up to the new arrangement between government and governed, and complaining. Why, I remember collegiate bull sessions wondering, did we always support horribly tyrannical dictators in the world’s banana republics? Why did we prefer to provide the more undemocratic régimes with the most foreign aid? Another question that I recall: Does the Central Intelligence Agency really exist?

How quickly that discontent faded; how soon the uprisings came to an end. We boomers — those of us lucky enough to escape Vietnam without having to go there — duly recalled that our birth had been blessed by a good fairy: things would work out nicely for us. We accommodated ourselves to the new American constitution and invented hedge funds. Now, according to a mighty tract in the current issue of Harper’s, our principal concern is to make sure that our children and grandchildren don’t get any ideas about upsetting the apple cart. William Deresiewicz has been taking shots at higher education for years now, but in “The Neoliberal Arts,” he has made it impossible for a thinking person to take American higher education seriously. Everything that he has to say is both obvious and bouleversant.

More anon.


Thursday 3rd

Loose change: In this morning’s Times, there’s a piece about the club scene in Ocean Beach. Needless to say, the racket of these revels cannot be heard in the Summer Club, which lies to the west of Ocean Beach; out where we are, there might be a local party, but it rarely lasts past half-past eleven, or even past ten. But we’re well aware that crowds of young people cross the Great South Bay each weekend to party in the bars along Bay Walk. Most of them depart on the 1 AM ferry, or sooner. The police, who ride around on bicycles, have everything under control, at least in the town. Boys will be boys, and every year or so somebody drowns in the course of an ill-advised late-night swim, while just as surely some doofus jumps into the Bay from the ferry returning to Bay Shore. (Bay Shore and Ocean Beach are such stunningly unimaginative place-names that they contribute a deglamorizing film of soap-opera banality to the journey between them. I rather cherish the protective coloration.) But for most fun-seekers, Ocean Beach is a safe proposition. There are no cars, for one thing. And the bars, numerous enough, are no farther from each other than a hop and a skip — forget the jump.

As we walk home from our early dinners, we watch the tide of loud girls and stalking boys flood the town. The girls are always loud, but when the boys are loud they are much louder than the girls. One senses that established couples do not participate in this idyll. One is thrilled to be ancient. We amble along away from the lights, and soon the hubbub can’t be heard.

Also in the Times, Dwight Garner waxes enthusiastic about Mystery Train, Greil Marcus’s book about — well, I’ll let you fill that in. Mystery Train is about to be forty; Garner read it when it was almost ten years old, and then he read it again and again, all in the same year. He buys every new edition, because Marcus is till expanding the back matter, which now, Garner tells us, exceeds the length of the original text. I am not familiar with Mystery Train, any more than I’ve ever been inside the Island Mermaid in Ocean Beach. I shall probably remain unfamiliar with it. One of its six major sections, Garner writes, is about Elvis.

I remember hating Elvis Presley. Was it in kindergarten or first grade? Second? My aesthetic embryo was developed enough to take deep offense at “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” Aside from the dreadful grammar, I didn’t know what a hound dog was, and it sounded like a hot dog to me, and calling somebody a hot dog was revolting. And I haven’t even got to the music yet, or the look of the man — yikes! I like all kinds of music, except country and rock ‘n’ roll. Country is brain-dead church music. Rock, along with its hip-hop epigones, betrays the essence of music in being noisy and violent. Really good rock — I’m thinking of a song like “The Weight” — is not noisy and violent, but it is often loud and assertive. I don’t care for assertiveness in music; I’ve never heard Beethoven’s Fifth with pleasure. I like music to be complex. Steely Dan, for example. I never think of Aja as rock. (Do you?)

When I was young, I understood that most people my age liked popular music, but I’m surprised to find that this fondness (to put it mildly) has persisted into the sunset. Of course, I never much liked it to begin with. More groans: when my sister got old enough to buy 45s, her first choices were “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Tell Laura I Love Her.” I heaved! This was my first experience of really bad music. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has attained a goofy period charm, but the other song is just embarrassing — as a song. It’s not even ridiculous enough to be good parody material.

Now I’m learning that, at least when she was young, Joan Didion liked to drive out to the cemetery and listen to country music. That’s the sort of thing that, piled up in Tracy Daugherty’s biography, makes me wonder why I’m reading it. Well, I’m reading it because it’s good stuff; I’m learning to approach it as a novel, with “Joan Didion” as the central character. The real Joan Didion lives in her work. Her work is more important than she herself is. All too soon, she’ll have died, and her work will be all there is. Then the endless sifting will begin, as generation after generation decides what’s important enough to keep and know.


But will they? Reading William Deresiewicz’s denunciation of American universities, I had to wonder — and that it could be wondered about at all was terribly painful — if the discipline of objective social memory, a skill-set developed in the past couple of centuries, no more, is in danger of abandonment. “Objective social memory” just hit me now, and I see right away that it is as good a definition of what I mean by “humanism” as I’ve ever come up with. It also defines “history.” “Objective” means, of course, that mental impressions must be supported by some kind of documentary (independent) evidence. “Memory” must be personal, not received. I can’t talk, for example, about the novels of Sir Walter Scott, because I haven’t read any; all I know is that they are nowhere near as popular (widely-read) as they used to be. I am not worried that the world is going to forget about Sir Walter Scott. I’m sure that there are literary scholars (professors and graduate students) who keep his tomes dusted. Well, for the moment. Deresiewicz suggests that such scholarship may be facing extinction. Certainly its continuation at the great universities is grudgingly supported at best.

It must be understood that Deresiewicz’s prophesying is ongoing. He has been complaining for some time. The latest chapter, the essay in the current Harper’s, is preoccupied by the displacement, in university life, of the humanities by business curricula. This is, Deresiewicz shows, self-defeating for educational institutions, because

business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.

So, smart university students develop their own “parallel college,” in the form of extracurricular internships.

I was electrified, early in the essay, to read this:

Pinker is correct. He is emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education.

I hadn’t gone quite that far in my thinking, but I have regarded Steven Pinker as a seriously wrong-headed man ever since I read his claim, in The Language Instinct or somewhere, that creole and pidgin dialects can be just as expressive as “standard” language. Well, sometimes, perhaps. But I reject the notion that the Authorized Version (King James) of the Bible would be anywhere near as monumentally articulate, about the holiest and most mystical matters, if it were translated into, say, Haitian. I believe not only that powerful poetry is untranslatable into other languages but that this untranslatability is the source of poetry’s power. Each human language is a different facet, a different face cut into our capacity for communication, and each language showcases different ways of thinking about the human condition. The idea that one language is as good as any other is insulting to all languages. Pinker’s implication seems to be that we ought to develop a global vernacular, a universal demotic — perhaps based on English, already so widely present around the world — that would make it easier, among other things, to conduct business operations.

Deresiewicz looks closely at the bogus vernacular that business-speak has begotten upon the universities. He deconstructs three favorite terms, “leadership,” “service,” and “creativity.” While I still believe that the first two words can be salvaged, the last one has been gutted and replaced by a pod-person.

“Creativity,” meanwhile, is basically a business concept, aligned with the other clichés that have come to us from the management schools by way of Silicon Valley: “disruption,” “innovation,” “transformation.” “Creativity” is not about becoming an artist. No one wants you to become an artist. It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques — “solutions,” which imply that you already know the problem. “Creativity” means design thinking, in the terms articulated by the writer Amy Whitaker, not art thinking: getting from A to predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

I would argue that this is the creativity that is nurtured in writing programs, which are, after all, intended to produce marketable texts, thoughts that are liquid assets.

The worst of it, however, is that higher education is settling for its lowest common denominator: training young people to preserve the status quo. That is an objective that my reading of Hannah Arendt has converted from something mildly regrettable into something luridly horrible. Arendt herself didn’t, to my knowledge, quite work out the relationship between Newborns and the World, so don’t suppose that I’m summarizing her. She did, however, articulate these aspects of the human condition quite well. Human beings incidentally create the World — a complex of artifacts that, for one reason or another, survive generational change. Generational change, in turn, is the result of the constant “invasion” — Arendt’s exciting word — of Newborns, each of whom must be taught how to live among human beings. It is the Newborns — the more intellectually gifted among, them, anyway — who, as they grow into maturity, reconfigure the World. To go back to my earlier example, they decide that Sir Walter Scott is not as interesting as their grandparents thought he was. In fits of violence, they may, like the armies of ISIS, destroy ancient ruins that are our only link to distant epochs. Everything in the World depends on the support of Newborns. This is why education is the most important, the central human activity. Markets have nothing! to do with it.

Training young people to preserve the status quo is invariably fruitless, because it’s boring for young people. Fewer and fewer of them see the point of such plodding curation. When they stop caring, the status quo is swallowed by passionate, violent upheavals in which some part of the World is simply destroyed.

Deresiewicz shows that Princeton, for one, is on this wrong track.

Neoliberalism disarms us in another sense as well. For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today, and so much of the negative response to my suggestion that students ought to worry less about pursuing wealth and more about constructing a sense of purpose for themselves, presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have to do what the market tells them. A Princeton student literally made this argument to me: If the market is incentivizing me to go to Wall Street, he said, then who am I to argue?

I’d tell the student to wash his mouth out with soap, for speaking that dreadful word, which to Steven Pinker, presumably, is a perfectly useful synonym for “inspiring.”


Friday 4th

All day long, I’ve been thinking that it was Saturday. Kathleen took the day off. We spent the morning reading this and that. At one, we began to get dressed, and, an hour later, we climbed the steps to the Museum. Once in, we headed for the Petrie Court Café, where we didn’t have to wait very long for a table. Kathleen, troubled by a peripheral bug, had a cheese plate. I had the French dip sandwich. Both were very good, although I needed two napkins to protect my shirt from the jus.

The Café, not surprisingly, turned out to be the only pleasant spot in the Museum. Everywhere else — well, it wasn’t so much the holiday-weekend throngs as it was the self-parked people stalled in the middle of traffic. More than a few looked overwhelmed by the sheer muchness — the crowds, the art, the rooms-and-more-rooms. Kathleen made it clear that she was not going to linger over anything. She would try to come back when things were quieter.

So we confined ourselves to the musts. The China fashion show, the Sargent show. “What is ‘Through the Looking Glass’ supposed to mean?” Kathleen asked. That’s the title of the China show. I replied by asking if she didn’t know better than to interrogate fashion statements. “What they tell you is so embarrassingly dumb that you wish you hadn’t asked.” The show is, in a word, bizarre, considered as an exhibition. Everything is difficult to see and most things are disruptively placed. Much of it is also dark. “Hung Over on the Bund” is what I’d call it. The Astor Court, paved with highly reflective tiles so as to suggest a pond, in which a gigantic image of the moon is reflected, wasn’t so exhilarating the second time; over the life of the show, those tiles have warped a bit. Kathleen was very impressed by the embroidery on Guo Pei’s gold ball gown, but she didn’t get the kick out of the pleated plate dress that I did.

While Kathleen circled the jewelry counter at the gift shop (finding nothing, as usual), I picked up one of each of the 2016 desk calendars. I need one of them already: tickets for a jazz series have arrived, and most of the dates fall next year. I’ve also looked at the schedule for the Paul Taylor season in March; as a Friend, I get to order tickets before they go on sale, which I am going to do any minute now.


When we got home, I read the last fifty pages of the Joan Didion biography. They were so death-soaked that I began to wonder if Didion herself were still alive. Tracy Daugherty dismisses one Didion project (something about Tom Dooley) with the pronouncement that “she would not complete it.” That suggests incapacity of some kind. Didion is only 80.

The reading that Ms NOLA and I attended in Central Park is covered on page 563. “Then the skies opened up…” How soaked we got! How long ago that was — when I think of all that has happened since.

Names drop thick and fast toward the end of The Last Love Song. Who showed up for Dominick Dunne’s memorial service. Who showed up for Quintana Roo Dunne’s, also at St Vincent Ferrer. Joan Didion seems to have known everyone. She and her late husband also seem to have been great fans of a restaurant two blocks from here (and much, much farther from their apartment), an Italian place that Kathleen’s old beau liked when it opened, thirty-odd years ago. I thought it was okay, but the table-hopping and air-kissing were unappetizing for someone who was not a member of the club. During the year that my father was president of the country club in Bronxville (1965), my mother installed herself as Madame President, and we couldn’t get through Sunday dinner in the grill without two or three interruptions by passing couples. (Stand up. Shake hands. Answer questions clearly. Sit down.) I can’t say that minded all that much at the time. I always welcomed relief from the more-than-occasional fraught discussions that I couldn’t help stumbling into. But I learned that when there’s a lot of that sort of thing going on, and none it really involves you, you’re in the wrong restaurant.

Now Kathleen is napping. She says that she’ll be happy with raisin bran for dinner. Maybe we’ll watch Network later. She asked about it the other day. I’ve only seen it the once, when it was new; all I remember is that it didn’t do anything for me. People all over town opening their windows and shouting that thing about not taking it anymore — very unappealing. Certainly no kind of solution. Also, isn’t there a character whose idealism is smashed by commercial brutality? Damsel in distress! I wish I could remember what I thought about television back then. But all I know is that, in 1976, I wasn’t watching much of anything. I had a little black and white television set; I think I’d asked for it for Christmas. This was so that I could watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I did for a while. I watched Saturday Night Live, too, of course, but that was at somebody else’s house: I remember it in color. Actually, the first season of SNL, as an ongoing parody of commercial television (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”), captured fairly well my opinion of the medium, such as it was. Soon I’d be in law school, where television might just as well have not existed; and, after that, now a considerably more critical thinker, I’d be an ardent student of Neil Postman. I’m still surprised that anyone with a brain can watch television after Broadcast News. Anyway, passing by the Video Room the other day, I thought I’d rent it, and see what it looks like after all these years.

At the end of his book, Daugherty dumps his opinion of Didion’s work onto the end of a passage about whether women understand Didion better than men do. “…her range has been vast and her style has become the music of our time.” A bit too blurby to take seriously — and one would wonder how it came to pass, that bit about the music of our time. Daugherty’s biography is too detailed, too fine-grained to go in for epiphanies, although he does note, several times and in several ways, Didion’s transformation from observer to critic in the 1980s. “In spite of her particularities, she is, finally, one of the most inclusive writers of the era: politics, history, war, the arts, popular culture, science and medicine, international relations, the passing of the years.” This sounds much better in context; extracted, it’s empty. It is no simple virtue for a writer to be inclusive. The claim that I should make on her behalf is that she became an outstanding judge of public society — the society of talked-about people, places, and things — by honing her grasp of that talk and writing about it with superb clarity.

There is a relentlessness in Joan Didion’s criticism that tempts readers into thinking of her as tough, and, therefore, as masculine. A beguiling woman on the outside, a tough guy on the inside. I suppose I may lazily have subscribed to such a view myself, before reading Daugherty’s biography. But I now think that she was trickier than that. Yes, she was a womanly woman in person — she was stylish, she was a great cook who loved to entertain and decorate houses, she desperately wanted to have a child, and she even remembered the names of her friends’ children and how they were doing. But she was a woman on the inside, too. A very smart woman who grasped early on that most of what boys write and publish as journalism is simply gossip dressed up in “objectivity.” Gossip is something that a smart girl understands much better than any man, and “objectivity” isn’t much of a veneer. She was tough in the way that a really good schoolteacher is tough: she didn’t let her readers get away with anything if she could help it. I can only wish that this were the music of our time, and I forgive her yearning to be carried off into the sunset by John Wayne.

I still say that there is way too much about Nick Dunne in The Last Love Song. Not only that, but most of it, if not disrespectful, is quite unflattering. It’s as though Daugherty or his editor thought it prudent to have two strings to his bow, along with a more poisoned arrow.

Bon weekend à tous!

Vacation Diary:
Afterthoughts and Notes
August 2014 (II)

Monday 17th

Learning to relax: Yes, I’ve had to give it a try. In the past, I’ve come out to Fire Island with a simplified schedule, or what I thought would be one, But I couldn’t afford a schedule this year. I could follow the schedules of others, where necessary — if you want to get the Times, you have to get to Whitney’s Pantry before eleven — but I couldn’t plan for myself. As at home, I fell into a diet of reading, while writing less than half as much as I should have done in New York. I haven’t made dinner once, not for myself and not for guests. As long as I have to go the Pantry on weekdays, I have them make me a sandwich, something that they do almost to deli standards. By former standards, I’d just myself to be very lazy. Now I’ve learned the difference between lazy and relaxed. Lazy is putting off, or avoiding, responsibilities and obligations. Relaxed is making the most of having little in the way of either.

I’ve had to forget about Brahms and Mahler. I’m sure that they weren’t the only ones, but Brahms and Mahler developed a pattern of working out and bringing to completion their larger works (well, in Brahms’s case; all of Mahler’s were larger) at mountain-lake resorts, in the summer. This is a very attractive model, but for me this would require a printer and at least one more monitor — a lot of equipment to lug across the Great South Bay and along the narrow lanes of Ocean Beach — pulling it all in a wagon. Having all that stuff, and printing and cutting and pasting, is the last thing I want to do out here. I need to work, not only my work, but on my blood pressure, which has been significantly elevated in the past year by a meteor shower of stressors, with a couple of asteroids thrown in. I need to try not to worry.

Kathleen and her brother were out for the weekend, and they left after an early dinner. Kathleen said that she would call me when she got home. I know what this means — it means that she is not going to look at her phone, or even set it loud enough to hear the ring, until she gets home — but that knowledge wasn’t very helpful when, even two hours after her van was to have left Bay Shore, I hadn’t heard from her. I called both of her mobile phones, and after only two rings each call went to voicemail. My heart didn’t actually go cold, but that seems to be the best word for the low-frequency shock wave that swept through my rib cage as I put the phone down. There was nothing to do, no one to call. I knew — from experience, you betcha — that calling friends in town to ask if they’d heard of any road disasters would be an utterly pointless annoyance; on the very remote chance that they might know of one, they would immediately call me. So I tried to read. The book that I was reading did as good a job of distracting me, or most of me, from the crisis at hand. When the bells that announce a call from Kathleen chimed from the spires of what I think of as Te Deum Cathedral, I was not actually listening for them, and I hardly knew where to find the phone in my excitement.

Kathleen might have prevented my anxiety attack by texting at any number of points. When, still at the boarding stage, a passenger in the van declared that she needed a seatbelt, and for some reason this required everyone else to change seats. When, at the Triboro Bridge, it turned out that the van driver didn’t have his EZ Pass card. When, while waiting in one cash line, the was further delayed by vehicles cutting in from the other cash lane, where some sort of altercation was in progress. When, having reached Manhattan at last, another passenger asked to be left off at 125th Street, entailing a long drive afterward down Second Avenue instead of zip down the Drive. But, as I said, this never occurred to Kathleen. She might be running late, but she was okay. I don’t think that she makes conscious decisions not to text; it simply doesn’t occur to her. My habit of being hurled into the pit of despair by thirty-or forty-minute delays doesn’t register with Kathleen when she is okay and in transit.

But let’s look on the bright side: I was reading when she called. I was not staring at the phone or wondering “what to do.” My agitation remained fairly superficial. I even imagined taking a pill and going to sleep without hearing from her! There’s a resilience in this that I didn’t have as recently as two weeks ago.


The book that successfully pulled my mind away from worrying about Kathleen’s whereabouts was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I said a few things about this book in the previous entry, but mostly as a point of departure for talking about myself and about some recent thinking at this Web log. I wasn’t quite sure that I would be reading the entire book.

By Friday, I had come to believe that everyone who can must read this book right now. It is a book for right now, an extraordinarily lengthy news report that takes days, if not weeks, to digest, and that certainly requires conversations with other readers to grasp. Far From the Tree is a book about how to deal with the vexed notion of “identity” in contemporary America. Its way is to go out of its way to examine the complicated and often contradictory arguments with which all of us weigh and consider questions few of which were being asked as recently as forty years ago. Which is another way of saying that it invites all mature people to reconsider what they learned about the world when they were young.

I am going to try to avoid the appearance of summarizing Solomon’s book. To read it is to do a lot of heavy lifting — to understand that the book might well be much more comprehensive, and therefor physically heavier than it is. I’m also going to try to relate Solomon’s report to my own ideas about society and the world, “the world,” as regular readers will know, being practically a term of art for me, replete with specific denotations and by no means a synonym for “the earth.” (The world is an exclusively human construction, or, to put it even better, the construction of society.) I’m not going to do much of anything now, either. I have read seven of the twelve chapters, just over half.

Why does everybody have to read this book? Because, as a society, we need a lot of help replacing our binary presumptions. The extent to which binary presumptions are a natural human bias as well as a founding tic of Western thought is hard to say, and perhaps unnecessary, but we can agree that our American ideas of rationality rest on the syntactic construction of either/or but not both. You are either black or white, male or female, honest or dishonest. Rational as these statements might be, they are so unreasonable in the face of complex reality that their simplifcation is not only ludicrous but harmful. Rather than offer an example, I’ll simply point to Solomon’s chapter entitled “Deaf.” You may not be very interested in the problems of the hearing-impaired, but the ways in which those problems are being dealt with even denied (to be regarded as advantages instead) show human ingenuity at its most profuse, and also at its most conflicted; it would not be more than mildly tiresome to transpose the entire chapter into the key of nuclear capability. As on so many American fronts, organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with their opponents, and demonize them instead; while  individuals make thoughtful and often painful compromises. The beauty of Solomon’s ear is his wonderful ear for the fine discriminations that underlie those compromises. Nothing is simple, but Solomon makes it all readable.

As I said last week, a better time for me to read this book cannot be imagined. What a lucky break to find it loitering among the beach towels!


Tuesday 18th

This morning, when it was grey and humid and the air hovered on the warm side of the frontier of comfort, I read Andrew Solomon’s chapter on Down Syndrome. It was depressing for me, more depressing even than the first chapter, on deafness. I draw so much pleasure from most of what I hear, even in the city, that a world without sound would be a very dull one. Music (everything but rock — which proves my point), Kathleen’s voice, birds at twilight… even the honking of horns when 87th Street backs up, not a pleasant sound to be sure but a comic one that makes me run to the window to see how far back to First Avenue the congestion stretches. The sound of the surf, which varies in many ways with the weather. I like to think that my prose is suffused by my ear for music (and not just rhythm); when I edit my work, aside from catching typos and suboptimal usage, I’m trying to hear the music in the flow of words. I don’t mean to say that I feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy these things. There are plenty of people with perfect hearing who don’t enjoy them. And, as I get older, I live a quieter life; there is not always music playing. But a world without You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion? Impoverished.

But my hearing opens me to pleasures outside myself. Down Syndrome would limit the quality of pleasures that I could enjoy. It is difficult to read Far From the Tree without comparing and contrasting: which disability would be the worst? Which, of any two, the worse? I don’t entertain these idle distractions, but they pop up just the same, because it’s so conventional to give thanks for having been spared such afflictions. It’s what people do. Solomon, moreover, provokes two versions of the question: which impairment would be worse to endure, and, more emphatically, which would be worse to see inflicted on your child? (Solomon provides one answer to the second question, at the top of page 124.) I remind myself that, although, relative to the children in Far From the Tree, I’m normal, my daughter is normal, and (so far) my grandson is nrmal, this means little more than we find the world around us to be as convenient as it is for most of the people we know. Notwithstanding this normality, we get sick, endure sorrows, and will eventually die. Feeling pity for a disabled person is an ugly folly.

I walked to town to buy the Times and to have a sandwich made, walked back, and finished the chapter. It wasn’t time for lunch, so I picked up Ulysses and chugged through the seventh episode, which, according to the Wikepedia page that I’ve been consulting, is informally (and invisibly) entitled, “Aeolus.” Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus pass each other in the offices of a newspaper, but do not meet. Leopold is trying to made a publicity deal for an advertiser; Stephen is dropping off a letter written by the principal of the school where he teaches. The short sections are introduced by tabloid headlines. I remember a vogue for that sort of thing in the late Sixties; I associate it particularly with Donald Barthelme.

I figured out what was going on without referring to the crib at Wikipedia, but I couldn’t really follow what the characters were talking about. Nor was I trying very hard to do so. I am not so much reading the book as exposing myself to it. The story of the “vestals” who spit plum pits from their picnic atop the Nelson Column was droll, or at least drolly told, but I had no idea what it was doing there. I tried to figure out what “onehandled adulterer” meant until just a moment ago, when I realized that I’d somehow put Parnell atop the Nelson Column. Having lived for more than a few decades, and immersed myself in fancy-pants literature for most of that time, I catch most of the allusions without trying, but I can’t think why they’re there in the first place.

Plus, a lot of the subject matter is Ew! Bloom in the outhouse, for example. Worse, Bloom buys a bar of soap, and visits a bathhouse. The bath is elided, but the soap won’t go away: Bloom keeps pulling it out of one pocket and slipping it into another. There is an extravagant uncleanliness about Ulysses that strikes me as childishly antisocial.

If there’s one word that makes me wish I hadn’t picked up a book, it is “sweat.” I have a lot of trouble with sweat. I read somewhere that, if you’re very lucky, the microbes that reside on your skin will consume the entirety of the sebum that you excrete. Most of us play host to more finicky diners. What some microbes don’t consume causes body odor. If I don’t have that problem, it might well be that I don’t give it time to ripen. My microbes leave behind a film that both seals and burns. I feel wrapped in foil, and no abundance of balmy breezes will cool me off. Only a quick shower will save me. In all but the coldest weather, simply reading about sweat is unsettling enough to start me sweating.

I am also crawling through The Tale of Genji, which doesn’t at all begin the way I’ve been saying it would. It is, in fact, far more erotic than I took care to notice forty-odd years ago. Forty-odd years ago, I still needed things to be spelled out. Arthur Waley is understated about sex, but never the least bit mysterious. I was quite shocked, however, by the suggestion that, in one instance, Genji makes do with the sweet little brother of the woman whom he’s really after.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation of The Pillow Book is the perfect introduction to Waley’s beautiful translation of Genji. McKinney, like her predecessor, Ivan Morris, explains all the odd customs — women lurking behind screens when their lovers come calling, for example. Waley spends as little time on these details as possible. He remarks in a footnote that Heian houses were “arranged somewhat differently than ours,” and leaves it at that. If you read The Pillow Book first, the world of Genji will be much more familiar, and there will be less lumber to get in the way of the story, which is, after all, neither anthropological research nor shelter-magazine copy.

The weather was somewhat stifling yesterday, and only slightly worse than Sunday. While I was finishing the chapter on Down Syndrome, the sky cleared up and the air grew cooler. It’s warm in the sun, but almost chilly in the shade. That’s how I like it; that’s what I’m here to enjoy.

PS: I haven’t, on this vacation, been editing this pair of August entries. I’ll do that when I get home. Bear with, svp.


Wednesday 19th

The owner of the house we are renting is on her way over, to fetch some bottles of wine. Neither Kathleen nor I have met her, although I should recognize her from photographs mounted on the refrigerator. I was just about to say how glad I was that the house was presentable, when I realized that I hadn’t made the bed. And, to switch times, she walked in while I was pulling the sheet over the top of the duvet. She was surprised to find me all alone — quite reasonably, as houses here are either empty or lively.

The owner’s daughter and the daughter’s mother-in-law appeared presently, and all agreed that it was MUCH cooler here than where they’d been. That’s no surprise, either. The house is elevated, about six feet off the ground, and nothing stands between it and the bay breezes. I was invited to turn on the air-conditioning, an offer that I was happy to decline.

As it happened, I met the daughter yesterday. She stopped by to pick up a bicycle for her younger son. It was very nice to meet her, and to see her again today; but I’m glad that I met the owner, who was also very nice. The owner and her husband (who is also the owner, I expect, but Kathleen has had no dealings with him) will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tomorrow — unless it’s today. I’m never any good with temporal details when I’m in pass-the-hors-d’oeuvre mode.

Especially when I’m on vacation, something that began for me, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, after a walk on the beach last night. It was about six-thirty. I kicked off my beach shoes and washed away the sand, poured a glass of wine, and sat on the deck — for about a minute; the sun was still too high. An hour later (spent fiddling at the keyboard), the sun was near setting, and the sky was brilliant as usual. I was still in beach attire — an English polo shirt, bought years ago in Bermuda, with the ugliest oversized print motif ever devised, but in colors that I like, and denim trunks — and I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry, so dinner didn’t press. For the first time this season, I sat and thozed. Forgive the coinage (if it is one); I’ve run together “think” and “doze.” Dozing, you sleep without being aware of it. Last night, there was always something going through my head, but it was so light that I wasn’t aware of it.


Somehow, I managed to read about a hundred pages of Far From the Tree this morning. This included the long, penultimate chapter, “Transgender.” I had saved it for last, because it is the only one of the ten “conditions” that Solomon writes about that gives me any trouble, and I figured, rightly as it turned out, that I would be able to absorb its complications if I was in synch with Solomon’s analytic protocols.

Why do I have trouble with Transgender? I shouldn’t have been able to say, but now I know that there are many reasons. Changing gender looks optional; it does not cure a disability that is visible to anyone but the sufferer. In this, its an outlier. I now understand that changing gender can be as imperative as receiving an antibiotic. Another reason, and one that persists even after I’ve read the chapter, is disapproval of cosmetic mutilation. Solomon’s coverage of thisa issue is one reason why I spoke of complications a moment ago, and not complexities. The profusion of Solomon’s examples demonstrates the impossibility of generalizing about changing gender. Third, Transgender has also seemed to me to carry a heavy load of fantasy — and I am constitutionally chilly about fantasy. The little boy who wants to grow up to wear dresses is no more interesting to me than the one who wants to be president, or a fireman.

My fundamental reservation about Transgender, however, follows from my conviction that it displaces another problem. Solomon quotes Stephanie Brill:

“A male child who says, ‘I must be a girl because only girls want to do these things,’ is not showing evidence of being transgender; he’s showing evidence of sexism.”

I couldn’t agree more, nor could I more fiercely defend the right of boys and girls to do whatever they please absolutely without regard to what’s gender-appropriate. Interfering with harmless pastimes is just as impertinent as asking a married woman when she plans to have children. We need new conventions that respect dignity, autonomy, and privacy.*

I am not opposed to changing gender, just resistant. If I were convinced that such a change was key to a child’s happiness, I would not stand in the way. I might want to be convinced by a sympathetic therapist (sympathetic to the child, not to me), but this would only to prevent regrets down the road — which, Solomon shows us, do occur. (And of course I’m talking only about surgical interventions here. I was delighted to learn about Lupron, which forestalls puberty and its side-effects, playing for time.) So many of the conditions that Solomon writes about — nearly all of them — have changed complexion in recent decades, thanks to intertwined amplifications of identity activism and medical competence. Who knows how much of Far From the Tree will be dated in ten years?

* By privacy, I mean those instances in which interests and activities pursued in private are for one reason or another divulged in public. They remain private.


Friday 21st

Rain again. Before going to bed, I closed most of the doors and windows, but the rain, when it came, was soft and straight; I don’t think that any of it would have blown in. Dozing at daybreak, I wondered if it was peculiar of me to find the racket in the drainpipe, right outside the bedroom, so agreeable. If I had not known what it was, it would have been ugly and annoying.

When I went to bed, I had fifteen pages of The Moonstone yet to read. I had already stayed up very late, just to follow Ezra Jennings’s contribution to the story. Once I could be sure that Godfrey Ablewhite met with the death that he had coming, the tension snapped, and the words began to blur.

I wonder if The Moonstone has ever inspired a reader to become a Robinson Crusoe fan.

Yesterday morning, which was a bright as today is dismal, I declared a Total Holiday day. What this meant was that I would devote it to reading The Moonstone. Risking missing the Times, I stayed at the house until time for an early lunch at Maguire’s. There were still three copies of the newspaper when I passed the Pantry, and I bought one, but I did not read it until the middle of the afternoon, right before launching on Franklin Blake’s first narrative. At some point prior to four o’clock, I emptied a box of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan, added most of a stick of butter and an onion that I had cut in half and peeled, and set the pan over moderate heat. When I called Kathleen at four, as I usually do, the air was fragrant with Butter Sauce, as I’ve come to call this concoction (universally attributed to Marcella Hazan), because it is substantial in a way that’s quite different from the run of tomato sauces; it may not sound very appetizing to say so, but the butter contributes a meaty heft. When it came time to eat, I discovered that a Cuisinart pasta ladle is the perfect implement for keeping a Penguin Classic opean at the table. I took a walk on the beach, and did a load of laundry. I ran the dishwasher. Really, though, I did nothing but read The Moonstone.

The story is, of course, very good, an excellent yarn. But what I liked best was that Wilkie Collins was telling it. Collins can make shameless use of convenient coincidences that in lesser hands would be implausibly “melodramatic,” but he knows how to make them so uncanny that we’re compelled, for love of pleasure, to swallow them. Consider the spectacular demise of Sir Percival Glyde, burned to death in the blazing vestry of the church at Welmingham. (In The Woman in White.) It is nothing less than operatic that our hero, Walter Hartridge, is also on the scene, leading the effort to save Sir Percival’s life. But it is also operatically thrilling. When I was young, this was a guilty pleasure. Sensation was not cool. I wonder now, was that because of lingering modernism, or was it simply adolescent resistance to emotional display? I’m fairly sure that a lot of The Moonstone went over my head when I last read it, fifty-odd years ago. (Collins’s high-Victorian prose would have been too exuberant for me to follow with ease.) But I did recognize it as a guilty pleasure; and I began to hope that my life would be rich in guilty pleasures.

The part of The Moonstone that stuck with me was the character of Drusilla Clack — was there ever a better name? Miss Clack is a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances who has devoted her life to sanctimonious interference in the spiritual lives of others, especially those others who haven’t got much in the way of spiritual lives. Her family cannot dismiss her altogether, but they make their endurance plain. There suffering, of course, is grist for Clack’s mill: she is always on the lookout for the reversal of fortune that might soften someone up for the receipt of her evangelism. (She keeps herself supplied with inspirational tracts that bear such titles as “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons.”) Clack is a miracle of irony — she addresses the reader as sympathizer to her cause, as if unaware that sympathizers to her cause would not be reading novels — and the crowning touch is her hypocrisy, which, peeping out only rarely, here and there, has the astonishing effect of humanizing her.

And yet, I found myself pausing over a certain sort of passage, meant to be funny, or at least ridiculous, that I couldn’t help savoring at face value. In the following passage, the first such that I come across when I open the book, Miss Clack has just learned of Lady Verinder’s illness.

Little did my poor aunt imagine what a gush of devout thankfulness thrilled through me as she approached the close of her melancholy story. Here was a career of usefulness opened before me! Here was a beloved relative and perishing fellow-creature, on the eve of the great change, utterly unprepared; and let, providentially, to reveal her situation to Me! How can I describe the joy…

Yes, of course it’s ludicrous, and even inhuman to speak of joy here — but it is also quite essentially Christian, and aimed at transcendence. Imagine that Collins had the blasphemous idea of substituting Jesus for Clack. He would say much the same things; how would we react? It would be the wrecking of the novel, of course, but that such a notion should come to mind is testament to Collins’s gift for the rich ambiguity that holds us in thrall to the page even at moments of superb unlikeliness.

Reading The Moonstone was a bittersweet pleasure, because I knew that, when it came to an end, there would be No More. What would I do then, with nothing in my pile but The Tale of Genji and Ulysses, both of which would be somewhat medicinal after such Total Fun? Not to worry: Kathleen found my copy of The Lady and the Law, and she’ll be bringing out with her this afternoon. I won’t get to it until Sunday night or Monday, because she’s also bringing along Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil.

Bon weekend à tous!

Vacation Diary:
Notes & Afterthoughts
August 2015

Monday 3rd

In a little while, I’ve got to get started on pizza dough. My daughter and grandson are coming for dinner. (My son-in-law flew back to San Francisco this morning.) Megan and Will will show up sevenish, and I want to have everything ready to go by six-thirty. Will, I’m told, is crazy about spinach pizza, so I’ll be expanding my topping skills to encompass vegetables. I’m not sure what to do with the spinach ahead of time, but as it only takes a few minutes to cook — if cooking (aside from the pizza-baking ) is indeed necessary — I’ll confine the prep to scissoring and washing.

Aside from that, I have a little bit of paperwork to attend to. And some laundry to fold. Otherwise — you’d never know that I’m about to leave for three weeks.

Kathleen may be able to spend a few weekdays with me on Fire Island, but, for the most part, I’ll be alone. I’m taking The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which I haven’t read since college; a shopping bag full of stitching projects (as “needlepoint” is now called); and a few chunks of Reggiano Parmigiano. Also a few knives and a tea kettle. (And tea!) The usual togs; the usual digital equipment. Le minimum.

Here’s what I’m looking to on Fire Island: Nothing. Plenty of nothing. Day after uneventful day.

Which gives me an idea. The Tale of Genji. Arthur Waley’s translation — the only one I’ve read all the way through. Apparently there’s yet another new one. Someone was writing about it somewhere, and comparing it to the others that have appeared since Edward G Seidensticker’s, which I own but have not got through. As everybody knows, any translation of this ancient novel (c 1100) is a highly speculative business; so, I’ve decided to forswear attempts at accuracy in favor of beauty. Whoever-it-was mentioned that Junichiro Tanizaki consulted Waley when he translated Genji into modern Japanese.

The first quarter of The Tale of Genji is like the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty — almost impenetrable. It is little more than a court calendar, a gazette of important ritual functions, with accounts of who showed up and, more important, who wore what. How, you wonder, can this book have possibly earned the reputation it enjoys? When you read for the umpteenth time that Genji has been prevented from visiting a friend or a favorite because doing so would require him to travel in an unpropitious direction, you want to throw the book out the window. In the middle of the book, more or less, the title character dies. Now what? You persist (along with the writer) — hoping, possibly, that the difference between the Minister of the Right Hand will at long last be distinguished in some functional way from the Minister of the Left Hand.

With the object of her infatuation out of the way, the author is free to pay a more divided attention to her other characters, and pretty soon you realize that you are watching somebody learn how to write a novel.

An early case of Kill Your Darlings.


Tuesday 4th

The day began unpropitiously. I fell out of bed.

This is something that can happen; it has in fact happened once before. The question is, how much of this story do you want to hear? There would be no question at all, if it were not that my falling out of bed did not involve inebriation.

No, it was morning. I had gotten up, to see a man about polishing some shoe laces. Coming back to bed, I was overcome by the desire to sleep on my side.

Normally, I sleep on my back, in what might be called a deathbed position, head on pillow, laid out straight, my breathing barely apparent. I simply do not move in my sleep. (Kathleen is occasionally unnerved.) A bed that I alone have slept in does not need to be “made.” You just pull a blanket to, and you’re done. A corollary of this rule is that I cannot shift in bed without getting up and out of it, rearranging pillows and blankets, and, if I’m hoping to sleep on my side — my right side, never the left — crawling back in carefully, so that there’s a blanket between my legs. l’m excessively warm-blooded, you see. In the winter, people pull back from hugging me, aglow — you’re so warm! And indeed I am. I am oxidizing so profusely that I probably ought to be dead by now. Or perhaps its a very inefficient layer of subcutaneous fat, bringing my skin temperature much closer to 98.6º than other people’s. In any case, my skin cannot touch — my skin, not without becoming quite uncomfortably hot and sweaty. So there must be something between my legs when I sleep on my side.

For a long time, I didn’t know that I could do this, sleep on my side. It still feels like a new experience. I can do it for only an hour. At about that point, I am awakened by a right shoulder that aches like the dickens, and a feverishly hot right cheek. This morning, when I extricated myself from the sleeping-on-my-side position, I was not very careful about the blanket between my legs. As I turned onto my seat, I slid toward the edge of the bed and — kept going. My legs, caught in the blanket, eventually followed. I forgot to tell you that our bed is high, almost counter-height from the floor. So I fell about three feet, in a tumble of limbs. I bruised an elbow and an ankle, rattled a knee, and pulled (or maybe just tugged) a muscle in the groin. Kathleen helped me back into bed and gave me three anti-inflammatory tablets. I slept for a while and woke up feeling more or less intact, but also quite shaken, and even sorry for myself, about the fall.

When I went out to get the haircut that has to see me through three weeks of seaside living — and an anxious creature I was, let me tell you, wondering where we had put the canes in the new apartment, and feeling that a taxi to Frank Campbell would probably be the best idea; except that they’d tell me that I’d have to go to the Emergency Room at New York Hospital first; which only goes to show that you can’t even go straight to hell in this town — I wondered if I would ever see the apartment again. It was very touching.

Pop Quiz: How many readers guessed that I’ve almost finished reading Dancing In the Dark (My Struggle 4) by Karl Ove Knausgaard?


More about him some other time. I know that I’m on vacation, but my brains don’t. They’re as frisky as fillies today. First, there was the Op-Ed piece by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, about Congressional violence in the Nineteenth Century. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Houses of Congress could get as ugly as a bar in the wrong part of town. Freeman’s point wasn’t that the nation has been seriously polarized before — she wants to remind us that political stupidity, or rather, saying very stupid things in political contexts, makes for great ratings — I came away pondering the difference between now and then. Then, before the Civil War, there was really only one issue, and it wasn’t slavery so much as the expansion of slavery, into new states, such as Kansas. By the 1850s, the agreement to disagree had smashed up against an impasse.

But what is polarizing the United States today? Well, so many things! Immigration, social welfare, racism (and the discussion about racism), guns. These are the issues that you read about in the papers. Deeper inquiry might suggest that the the very model of Western democracy is broken, or at least so decadent that it has achieved the bizarre distinction of recapitulating the privileges of the ancien régime, only with different labels. The situations of Greece and Puerto Rico, to give just one example of ancien régime redux, have convinced me that far, far too many investors have felt privileged to buy the debt of these two polities; meaning, by privileged, that they could overlook the obvious risks of such investments because they’d be bailed out in case of disaster. So the disaster is befalling ordinary Greek and Puerto Rican people instead, people who had nothing to do with any of the borrowing and whose benefit from it was almost certainly highly indirect.

Most Americans seem to be aware that our political discourse is no longer addressing genuine issues, or addressing them with full engagement. Most politicians seem to be aware that the genuine issues cannot be effectively addressed, because to do so would rain on too many parades. There is a terrible mental confusion, possibly unavoidable, given the financialization of everything, about where economic discussion stops and political discussion begins. Attention spans are too short to allow anything to be sorted out. Everybody wants to be left alone — in the most interconnected society that humanity has ever known.

Is there a single issue that explains all the others? Sometimes, I think that it must be guns, but that’s because I am nowhere near as unambiguously opposed to anything as I am to the civilian possession of firearms. I believe that merely wanting to own guns is odious. The National Rifle Association might just as well be sponsoring slave auctions. I can see fighting another war of secession on the point. (Good riddance this time!) But that’s just me.

Second, there was Joanna Scott’s essay in this week’s issue of The Nation, “Liberating Reading.” It’s a review of some recent books about books — about modernist books, particularly. Several times in the piece, Scott worries about the future of the ability to read demanding literature. I share her concern, but more moderately, because I don’t think for a minute that the Internet has adversely affected literary life. Literary life has always thrived in its own elitist hothouse (and there’s nothing wrong with that), and if anyone has been having a go at the fenestration, it’s not the Amazonian e-book but the Brobdignagian b-boomers. Undermining “the canon” was well underway long before the introduction of the personal computer, and much longer before the connectivity of the Internet. It was guys my age what done it. As students, they complained about “relevance,” than which there are fewer more narcissistic distractions; then, quite horrifyingly, they went on to become teachers themselves. Now their pupils are running things, not surprisingly given their training, into the ground. If I don’t worry too much about the future of Reading, it’s because I firmly believe that most of my classmates had no business pursuing higher education.

In my old age, however, I have come to the unapoligetic conclusion that Modernism was worse than a mistake. I won’t belabor the point here yet again; it’s enough to point to John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Carey’s exposure of the links between Modernism and Hitlerism are thrillingly right and deserve to be more widely acknowledged.

It wasn’t Scott but Knausgaard who suggested that this might be a good time to read Buddenbrooks.


Thursday 6th

They just got here — Megan and Will. And then Kathleen walked in, back from an errand. We have an hour or more to kill before the cars arrive. Assuming normal traffic, we ought to be in the beach house well before six. At six o’clock, Kathleen has a conference call. She has not been terrifically busy during her first month at the new firm. Now that we’re off to Fire Island, she’s got three documents to prepare, which is a lot for even a long weekend.

Will is full of pep, hugely excited by the prospect of travel to a beach. I’m dumbly hoping that everything will go smoothly.

I was ruefully contemplating such a hope last night, right before the Chinese dinner arrived from Wa Jeal. We were all in a funk. It seemed that Will had lost a phone ,on my watch, that, while it no longer had a SIM card, was loaded with Megan’s contact information, including bank passwords and the like. It was one of the first iPhones, and it became terminally unreliable last week, when she and Ryan and Will were on the Jersey Shore. They bought a new phone at the mall and copied everything onto it. Both phones were now loaded with games for Will to play, and the old phone retained its WiFi connectivity. But there hadn’t been time to wipe off the personal data.

By the time dinner arrived, we all wore bright faces, even me, despite the fact that I’d proved to be guilty of not one but two lapses. It’s a good thing that all’s well that ends well, but sometimes a chewy story is left behind as well.

Megan had lunch yesterday with a good friend, so I took Will to what he used to call the “dinnerstore,” a coffee shop across the street. He was in something of a sulk, which I’ll explain some other time (or maybe not), so, when we sat down, he got out his mother’s old phones and donned his Sony headsets and proceeded to ignore me, saying only that he wasn’t hungry. I went ahead and ordered a grilled-cheese-and-bacon deluxe. Eventually, Will condescended to eat a few French fries, after cooling them off in his glass of icewater. He accepted a glass of milk, He even warmed to a dish of chocolate ice cream, making sure to consume all of the whipped cream on top. By the time we left the coffee shop, he was in fairly good spirits, just as I’d expected him to be.

On the street, he stopped to make sure that he had a certain piece of paper in his cargo shorts pocket. He was to carry this at all times: it bore his mother’s name and her phone number. “Do you have your phone?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, and I did not ask to see it, even though I felt that I was making a mistake. We went to Barnes & Noble and bought some stuff. Then we came home and played with stuff.

Much later, Megan, who had brought her very nice friend back to the apartment, to continue their get-together, asked after the phone. It wasn’t in Will’s pocket; it wasn’t anywhere. Stunned by the magnitude of my misjudgment — I ought to have asked to see the phone in the street; it was impossible that Will had left it anywhere but in the restaurant — I just about ran across the street to the coffee shop. No phone had been turned into the cashier, and I had to wait for two women to leave the booth before I could inspect it. No dice.

Back at home, Megan was sitting in the part of the living room that we call the boudoir, by the window, while I sat next to Kathleen in the middle of the room and stewed in remorse. It was very quiet. I sipped on my glass of wine and refrained from saying anything. Then, suddenly, I was on my feet. I can’t trace what recollection provoked this, but without saying a word, I swept into the bedroom, and there it was, lying exactly where my own phone lies when it’s being charged. I remembered that Will had reached for the phone in his pocket — while we were playing with stuff — because it was vibrating. I asked if it was low on power. Yes, he said. So I plugged it in and forgot all about it.

Well, Will didn’t forget all about it, but his recollection was, at least as stated, partial.

So that when Megan asked after the phone, I did what’s normal for me: I remembered making a mistake, and reaped the consequence of that mistake, even though that consequence had not materialized. This triggered the second lapse, the temporary obliteration of any memory of charging the old phone. This cascade of error was not even interrupted by Will’s statement that “Doodad took it.” This refutation of my claim that he had left it in the restaurant — for which I blamed myself, not him — together with the imputation that I, having taken it, then lost it, only intensified my mistaken convictions. In one sense, of course, it was quite true that I had taken it and then lost it.

A happy ending, but a troubling story — or at any rate testament to an exhausted mind.


Friday 7th

We are here, at the end of East Walk, the Summer Club. All is well, except little thises and thats. It has taken a full day for me to find the energy to get connected, and, now I’ve done it, I have nothing to say. Everyone is resting in the late-afternoon warmth. It’s not hot, really, and there is a very nice breeze to put some life into the ceiling fans. But the sun is steady, and the western (living) side of the house is baking in it.

As long as I was going to read The Tale of Genji, I thought I’d bring along Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but I couldn’t find it, so I ordered another copy — only to discover that Penguin now publishes a new translation. Ivan Morris has been replaced by Meredith McKinney. I find that I’m reading the book from the beginning, something I’ve never done before. It started innocently — I wanted to see what kind of apparatus McKinneey had provided. You can’t publish the Pillow Book without extensive notes. Morris also added a few line drawings, taken from old Japanese models, to give an idea of the costumes, the layout of palace rooms, and the carriages in which ladies traveled about the town. McKinney has added to all of this a few glossaries, identifying recurring figures and defining the ministerial and bureaucratic jobs.that give the male courtiers their identities (even if they don’t keep them very busy). As for the translation, it seems lighter-handed; where Morris’s Shonagon was something of a self-important shrew, McKinney’s is an amusing, perhaps slightly too witty woman.

I’ve also read two dozen pages of Ulysses.


Saturday 8th

This will be brief. Dinner is under preparation in the kitchen (not by me), while Megan is consoling Will in the wake of scrapes and bites and a very tiring couple of weeks. Kathleen, working on a document, was knocked out by it, too exhausted in her last waking moments to cover herself with anything but a pillow. A Brazilian playlist is tinkling in the corner.

The weather continues lovely. Going into the town for a midafternoon shop on a Saturday was regrettable, although we did get what we needed. (Except, garlic?) Will was hauled around in the gigantic wagon along with the provisions.

I’m gripped by The Woman in White. I ought to be stitching — it’s more convivial than trying to read, innit. I never manage to capture a good image of Will and the gang. I got a message saying that another computer on this network has the same IP address — that’s a new one. It must have something to do with the new MiFi card and a new Lenovo laptop that I haven’t got round to breaking in. Hence my continued reliance on this enormous old Pavilion, which wheezes with age I kid you not.

The whole point of this vacation, this emptying out, is to regain the composure and presence of mind to deal with the foregoing problems. I do hope that I’ll be able to remain in touch until then.


Monday 10th

For a few hours, I have been alone in the house. Kathleen left after dinner last night — we all walked over from Maguire’s to the ferry to see her off. Everyone else, Megan, Will, and the NOLAs, left on the same boat this afternoon. I pulled the wagon home and resumed my breathless reading of The Woman In White.

Will is living in the molten core of the pleasure principle. Now that he knows how to express his desires more or less clearly, he sees no reason why they ought not to be indulged. He knows that there are limits, but he would like to revise this arrangement. He can be very inventive. An apparently ingenuous account of what he has been watching on Nickelodeon — of what his mother has very regrettably missed — turns into an infomercial for something that he “needs.”

In another verbal development, he has learned to announce mishaps with an apology. “I’m sorry!” he says. In those cases where no crashing sounds are involved, it is then that you find out what Will is sorry for.

There was a lovely moment this morning — little more than a moment. He made up a game, involving a pail of water, a smaller, empty pail, a Tennage Ninja Turtle figure, and a few paper towels. It was a sort of laundry game: wet paper towels were squeezed over the turtle in the empty pail; then the turtle was dropped into the pail. This was more of a dropping, splashing game. Some sort of industrial process was clearly in operation. The process was repeated several times, always with variations. It was both infantile and scientific.

He told his mother this afternoon that he is never going to grow up and leave home. This accords with his frequent reminders that he is the kid, and, as such, entitled to be taken care of in the manner to which he is accustomed (see “needs”). It’s like trying to swim up a waterfall.

It is obvious that Will has a good heart. But, as his mother says, this is not the same thing as knowing right from wrong. She works tirelessly at teaching him which is what.

A week from today, Will will experience the first day of Kindergarten.



More connection problems. This is my reward for updating the MiFi card and not getting round to preparing a new laptop for travel. It is not the new laptop that’s at fault — it didn’t travel. I have sent a note to Mr Mei, pleading for help. Until I get some, I may be too distracted by uncertainty to write very well. Compounding the problem, I’m in Fairlie mode.

Readers of The Woman In White will recall Frederick Fairlie, the invalid uncle for whom any distraction from his collection of objets de vertu is an intolerable attack on his nervous composure. He says “no” to everything, but persistence can wear him down, provoking a flustered “yes.” Fittingly, this unpleasant hypochondriac, who rarely leaves his suite of rooms and can’t be bothered with the responsibilities of being the head of the household, succumbs to “paralysis” and death.

C’est moi, these days.

While there were other people in the house, the weather was glorious — sunny and clear and not too warm. Alone, I awoke to the sound of a gurgling drainpipe. I got up in time to prevent large puddles beneath the sliding-glass doors. At the moment, it is clearing up, although more rain, and perhaps even a storm, are predicted for later. This morning, however, was wonderfully gloomy. I burrowed into the sofa and finished Collins’s breakthrough “sensation” novel. I have always regarded The Woman In White as a novel that I read during or shortly after college, but precious little of it was familiar. I remember not liking it as much as The Moonstone, and I’m sure that I skimmed a great deal of Walter Hartright’s amorous heroics. The book, this time around, was as good as new.

What is it about Collins’s writing that makes the floridity of Victorian prose not only palatable but so palatable? Collins certainly pours it on as thick as anybody — he makes Trollope read like an austere modernist. And yet the copiousness of his verbiage is devoted to showing, not telling. He writes like a scenarist, not a lyricist. He wants to be sure that you have a visual sense of people and places, and he trusts you to respond with the appropriate mood. His narrative forms in The Woman In White, moreover, are limited to the diary entry and the memorandum. Walter Hartright, perhaps because he is a drawing-master, goes in for tone-poetry, but the far more representative Marian Halcombe prefers understatement. (That is but one example of Collins’s propensity for fiddling with gendered expectations.) A thorough study of Collins’s prosody would reveal, I expected, that very few of his words could be cut without impairing not only the sense but also the power of his fiction.

Almost any other novelist would have made more of Walter’s Honduran intermezzo. Not only does this episode take place entirely offstage, but it is drawn on only three times (I’m excluding mere mentions, which aren’t very numerous, either). There is Marian’s delirious but predictvely accurate dream of the three deaths that Walter escapes (plague, Indians, shipwreck); and then there are two moments in which Walter attributes his survival skills to his Central American sojourn. (And on one of these occasions, he’s wrong: he believes, erroneously, that he has shaken his tail.) In the space of an ordinary adventure, Conan Doyle would have dotted a Holmes story with vivid recollections of the sort of things that Walter saw and did on the archeological expedition that he joined in the vain attempt to forget Laura Fairlie, but, aside from Marian’s dream, we are offered no exotic asides. Collins might be accused by some readers of failing to make even merely adequate use of his material. I find it bracing: the Aztec ruins were a worrying presence that never quite showed up. Worrying, I say, because one of the things that makes A Woman In White exciting is its firmly-established setting in Victorian England.

And yet how, without a nervous intelligence honed in deadly jungles, would Walter have had the imagination to connect Mrs Clements’s remarks about the vestry door at Welmingham — an unlikely site for romantic rendezvous — with “the Secret”?


Finally, the beach.

Everyone who was a guest over the weekend deserves an apology from me, because it took several days for me to pull out a stitching project and join the conversation. Until then, I read, mostly in stolen snatches. I behaved as though I were alone, mornings especially. I’d be up before anybody else, and in my seat on the deck, basking in the morning shade. Will was usually up next, followed by his mother, but I’d stay put on the deck, half because I was content to do so and half to let Megan organize Will’s breakfast without getting in the way. Kathleen might show up earlier, but she would leave immediately, to pick up a newspaper at the market. Eventually, the sun would sail over the house, and I’d have to go in. But I’d still want to be reading. After lunch — more reading, even though I was sitting in the middle of the living room conversation area. I’d put down my book if the talk became general, but people got used to my reading and ignored me. You fool, I thought. You ought to have saved Wilkie Collins for your solitude. But I’d been too tired to think, when we got out here. First, it was The Pillow Book, After two days of that, I turned to The Woman In White, and couldn’t think about anything else until I was done with that.

When I finally did take up a piece of bargello, one that required no thinking whatsoever, I felt an immediate transformation, from curmudgeon to gossip. I could contribute to chats that I wasn’t leading, that, like the bargello, called for no serious thought on my part. And, now that I’m alone, stitching somehow creates the illusion that my thoughts are in order. I consider things, and sometimes put the work down to make a note or to look for something in a drawer. Even my worries seem manageable when I’m stitching. I’m sure that it has something to do with blood pressure; the regular pulling of needle through canvas acts as a sort of pacemaker for my erratic, high-strung heart.

The only problem is that I don’t like the project. I don’t like the colors. The piece is supposed to replace a pillow panel that I stitched about thirty years ago. A few threads have pulled loose, and the pillow is no longer entirely presentable. When I took it down to Rita’s, on 79th Street (right next to the dermatologist’s office), it turned out that the colors couldn’t quite be matched. So the palest of the four greenish hues is really just the color of a washed-out dishrag. Also, there is an olive band. I don’t care for olive. Olive and turquoise are disliked colors, because they are so unfaithful to true green, which is different from all other colors in proving, to me, the existence of both life and hope. Olive is too yellow, turquoise too blue.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure about the replacement colors, but now that I’ve got five rows of each, I can tell. The dark green I like. The sea green, which runs between the olive and the dishrag, is appealing in its way, but do little to mitigate the impression that these colors were chosen by someone else.

I bought a trio of projects in San Francisco at the New Year. Cost a fortune! The colors are great, but the thread is silk, not comfortable old wool. and it must be handled with care. Also, there is no bargello element, no wave of undulating but otherwise identical stitches. Although I am not really proficient with a needle — I’m generally not proficient with anything involving hands, although I used to be a good dancer — but I know what I’m doing with bargello. Filling in colored areas (which is what most needlepoint projects involve) is something of a challenge. What works to my advantage is the slowing-down of age. I’m no longer in a hurry to finish anything. The only thing flogging me to get on with the pop-art projects from Needlepoint Inc — cartoon clouds of Zap, Bam, and Pow, just what our rather staid living room needs by way of visual Tabasco — is the cost.


Wednesday 12th

Even in the age of e-books, there is always the question, for someone of my age, of what books to take along on vacation. This year, I chose the two most famous of Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels; I’ve read one of them, and must save the other (The Moonstone) for the last week; The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji, two books set in Heian Japan (both about a century older that I remembered when I recently dated The Pillow Book at 1100 CE; in fact, the millennium of Sei Shonagon’s death falls two years from now); and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m galloping through The Pillow Book, but I’m not always in the mood for it. As to Ulysses, I’ve put myself on a diet of twenty-five pages a day; more than that, I don’t care to read, if the first part is any indication. What can I say about e-books except that I’m not in the mood? There’s a book about World War II that I really ought to knock off, and maybe I’ll get to it; but yesterday, in my restlessness, I looked at the bookcase that comes with the house, and I found Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.

I remember deciding, when I read the reviews of this book, that it wasn’t for me. I have a problem with the “recognition” of what I used, before this book, to call “disabilities,” because it concedes to much to belief in the normal. There is no normal, except maybe in Wyoming (there aren’t many people in Wyoming, and they all live a thousand miles apart; in Wyoming, “antisocial” is normal), and we are all more or less disabled. Let’s just say that I’m focused on the pathologies of unimpaired everyday life. (“Impairment,” Andrew Solomon’s word for “disability,” is now mine as well.) I didn’t think I had the patience to read a ream of parents’ heartrending stories about deaf children, autistic children, schizophrenic children, and so on.

And I don’t. I skim through all of that. So why did I pick up the book?

Karl Ove Knausgaard had made me very uneasy about the way I’d been complaining, in many recent entries here, about having grown up an adopted child. There is nothing in my history to have warranted the dread with which Knausgaard approached his father — or, more often, which he felt whenever his father approached him. More to the point — the point being my claim that I was never understood by my mother — Knausgaard’s father never even troubled to understand his two boys. Why should he? He was the father, and it was up to them to understand him, to understand that he was a serious disciplinarian. Books 3 and 4 of My Struggle are so graphic about the misfit between natural parent and child that they almost make the adoption racket’s claim, that children can flourish in any healthy environment, persuasive. I came away from Knausgaard with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d been bellyaching.

Solomon’s book promised even more graphic examples. He has a chapter on child prodigies — couldn’t I really explain the gulf between my mother and me as a matter of raw intelligence? (In fact, I do. I just don’t let it go at that.) My father, I think, understood me pretty well, and even if he wasn’t sympathetic to my way of life (which was simply not a way of life at all, in his view, but merely a way of goofing off), he was never hostile, which my mother often was. I could quite conceivably have been born to such a couple.

Chastened by these thoughts, I resolved to swallow the medicine.

It’s much too soon to tell how Far From the Tree will shape my thoughts about adoption, but it has already revised my ideas about “identity,” a concept for which I have never had much patience. And it has introduced, in this revision, an analytical tool that I know will be helpful to me in my thinking about society. This tool is the distinction between vertical and horizontal characteristics. Homosexuality is the classic horizontal characteristic, because it is rarely shared between parent and child. Solomon’s discussion of this, in terms of his relation with his mother, is both lucid and open-ended. He understands that his mother sincerely believed that her son would be happier as a straight man, but he also knows that she did not like seeing herself as the mother of a gay man. For both of these reasons, she would have preferred a vertical alignment, one featuring heterosexuality.

Similarly, my mother wanted me to prosper in the world, and she also did not want to be associated with a subversive, possibly sadistic intellectual. (I used to think it was just my mother, but I’ve learned that bright people in any age are commonly thought to be cruel, because they argue “painful” positions.)

If I’m still disinclined to regard sexuality as an identity, that’s because identity, insofar as it concerns me at all, is a public mask, and sexuality is private. What proves my point is the tremendous shift in standards for same-sex affectionate public behavior. Twenty years ago, the sight of two grown men holding hands in the street was shockingly unconventional. Now it’s merely unusual in certain neighborhoods. Conventions are nothing if not malleable. Behavior formerly regarded as gay has become loving.

Solomon doesn’t talk much about conventions, except to deplore regrettable ones. I’m going to keep them in mind while I read his now fascinating book.


Yesterday, I mentioned that The Woman In White read almost as a completely new book the second time around. I can’t say the same of The Pillow Book, for several reasons. I’ve always kept a copy close-by, and I’ve opened it now and then to enjoy one of Sei Shonagon’s discriminating lists. Infuriating Things. Things That Should Be Small. Things That Prove Disillusioning. So charming, so Japanese, so ancient. The Pillow Book is one of those shibboleths for sophisticated people: because it is not generally taught in school, one comes across it in an accidental way — preferably by word of mouth from other sophisticated people. And you can just read the lists.

Which is what I’ve done. I’ve never actually read The Pillow Book through. I’ve always tended to give the long anecdotal entries a pass, largely because I can’t be bothered to find out who’s being talked about. Grand Counselor Yamanoi. Acting Captain Narinobu. Consultant Sukemasa. I blame Sei Shonagon for that. Specific men appear in her pages only to engage in raillery or to compete at poetry composition. (Undifferentiated men appear in amorous vignettes, and Sei Shonagon’s complaints about them are possibly the most familiar, today-sounding aspect of The Pillow Book.) We are given no idea of what these men do when they are not dallying with the empress’s ladies. Once, we see them at archery practice. “How boring,” say the ladies, moving on.

In her introduction to this translation, Meredith McKinney makes clear, in her introduction, the extent to which The Pillow Book is an exercise in looking at the bright side of things; she tells us what Sei Shonagon rigorously overlooked. Fujiwara Teishi, the empress whom she served, was, as was usual in these cases, the daughter of the Regent, a shogun-like figure who ran things while the emperor performed ceremonial functions. When this gentleman died, Teishi and her brothers lost power and influence to their uncle, Fujiwara Michinaga. Teishi was displaced by his daughter and her cousin, Soshi. One almost thinks Teishi fortunate in dying in childbirth shortly thereafter.

When I first encountered The Pillow Book, I naively thought that it recorded the life of a sophisticated, highly aesthetic court of nobility. In fact it ignores the thuggery of the top men, who never went anywhere without their “retainers.” Eventually, power would be seized from the court-bound Fujiwara and contested by provincial magnates, beginning Japan’s “medieval” period. But it would be a mistake to think that tough guys replaced cosmopolites.

One reason for regarding the Heian nobility as “advanced” is the richness of court costume, which imprinted cultural values on uniforms. Colors, patterns, textures, and fabrics were all richly associated with the seasons, with the cosmological relation of the emperor and his court to the natural world, and with status markers either borrowed or adapted from Chinese usage. The two most valued materials in The Pillow Book are both perishable: textiles and paper. (Let’s not forget reed blinds!) Precious metals and jewels are all but unknown. Porcelain is not much remarked upon. More than once, I’ve thought of the Heian court as not very distant cousins of those Native Americans who used to be called Plains Indians.

The pavilion that housed the empress often seems like a large tent. There are few rooms as we would call them, and most living takes place in “aisles,” covered verandas in which  numbers of women slept, often with male lovers, separated only by screens and blinds. I am never quite sure that I understand how it all worked. Aside from the wittiness, which, although couched in references that no longer ring any bells, remains apparent, almost everything else in The Pillow Book is simply bizarre, at least until you’ve read The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris’s book-length explanation. And even then. How’s this for fancy:

I do hate the sight of some swarthy, slovenly-looking woman with a hairpiece, laying about in broad daylight with a scrawny man with hair sprouting from his face. What kind of a picture do they think they make, lounging there for all to see? Of course this is not to say that they should stay sitting upright all night for fear people will find them disgusting — no one can see them when it’s dark, and besides, everyone else indulges in the same thing at night The decent thing to do is to get up early once it’s morning. [...] How dreary for two such people to have to look each other in the face when they get up! (104)



Friday 14th

Dear Diary: Getting more relaxed by the minute. The other night, the louvered door to the laundry closet came off its mount and nearly knocked me down. I managed to pick it up and carry it off to a corner; I’ve a hunch that Ray Soleil will be able to fix it when he comes out next weekend. Taking a shower, I felt something in the ball of my big toe. About this I worried a bit more than the door. Had I stepped on something in the short space between the bedroom and the bath? Would I have to visit the island clinic in the morning, to prevent a recurrence of last year’s catastrophe? Within the hour, I felt nothing; Kathleen can take a look at it tonight. She and her brother are coming out on a late-afternoon ferry. I’m about ready for some company.

Last night, I went to Maguire’s at six and got a table to myself outside on the terrace, even though the place was packed. (There were a few other empty tables, but only a few.) Thursday is Lobsterpalooza night at Maguire’s, so I got that out of my system. The plastic bib broke, as it always does, and I dropped a spot of butter on my shorts, but I emerged without making too much of a mess, and plus I was stuffed. I had to ask them to wrap up a claw. Lobster is so much work! More and more, I find myself making menu choices that  entail  operations no more advanced than cutting food into pieces. I particularly avoid anything that is likely to drip. But it has been four years since my last lobster dinner at Maguire’s, plenty of time for it to sound like a fun idea again. Actually, I really liked the clam chowder at the start, even though I’m not sure that it’s actually made in the kitchen.

Back at the house, I finished The Pillow Book. On the back of Meredith McKinney’s Penguin edition, there’s a finely contradictory bit of marketing copy: “A fascinating exploration of life amongst the nobility at the height of idyllic Heian period, it describes the exquisite pleasures of a confned world in which poetry, love, fashion and whim dominated, and harsh reality was kept firmly at a distance.” I can almost see McKinney rolling her eyes. Idyllic? If so, then what harsh reality? Did those exquisite pleasures really dominate? They dominate The Pillow Book, yes; but that makes the book something of a fantasy. It is a fantasy that the Japanese have kept alive for a thousand years.

I shouldn’t say, however, that The Pillow Book offers much in the way of an exploration of love. Sei Shonagon never describes the pleasure of being with a lover. The pleasure, if any, begins afterward, when the lover has departed into the night. With luck, there will be a moon, and the woman — Sei Shonagon always displaces this experience into the third person — can gaze into the moonlight and savor her amorous memories. It sometimes seems as though she wouldn’t even bother with love if it didn’t culminate in the treat of a morning-after letter. In Entry 181, she presents, almost as a sublimated sexual fantasy, a scene that no gentlewoman could possibly witness: “It is delightful to see,” the entry begins, “someone who’s a great ladies’ man, and is pursuing numerous love affairs, arriving home at dawn from who knows what night-time tryst.” She goes on to rhapsodize about the gallant’s composition of his love note. She doesn’t tell us what he writes, only that he “puts his heart and soul” into it — as, presumably, only a practiced philanderer can. But she tells us what he’s wearing, and how carefully he grinds the ink, &c &c. After he sends the note, he loiters in his study, and even recites a sutra; but Sei Shonagon (in her fantasy) catches him out — he is only waiting for his lady’s reply. This isn’t love; it’s choreography.

Needless to say, naked bodies are unmentioned. It’s important to be attractive, but it’s more important to be well-dressed. Very well dressed. Sei Shonagon’s relentless focus on the choice of costume mirrors her studied appreciation of the spontaneous deployment of classic poetry. With her dozens of lists, she is recognizable as a modern-day curator. Indeed, if you wanted to make The Pillow Book “relevant” to callow readers, you could teach it as “The Sei Shonagon Collection.” It reads much more easily that way than it does as an account of a distant culture whose political underpinnings the author is determined to repress. Indeed, it is difficult to confront The Pillow Book as a whole without thinking of Versailles in the 1780s: Marie-Antoinette at her fake little farm.

I think that this entry has gone on long enough; I ought to start a new one. Meanwhile, bon weekend â tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Limits of Relief
31 July 2015

The end of July has become the end of the year for us. Next week, we’ll go out to Ocean Beach, on Fire Island, where I’ll settle for the rest of August. Just before Labor Day, we’ll come home and start the new year.

If we had known what lay ahead for the new year last year — well, if we’d known it all, we’d have taken it in stride. We’d know that the cellulitis in my left calf, caused by a deep cut, would be arrested before the onset of sepsis. We’d know that the apartment situation would work out nicely. We’d know that Kathleen would end the new year at a new firm, a move that in my view was almost disastrously overdue (and in this I was confirmed by events — that almost was a matter of weeks at most). But we didn’t know what lay ahead, so, as it all unfolded, sometimes at a glacial pace, we spent much of the new year in an atmosphere of alternating dread and crisis, crisis and dread.

We got through it. But my circulation took a beating, so I hope that we’re done with upheaval for a while.


The thing is, relief isn’t what it used to be.

First of all, we don’t really trust it, not the way we did when we were young. When we were young, we’d jump up and down and yell, Hooray! Nothing terrible is ever going to happen again! Now, we’re not at all sure that it’s really over. (And we know that terrible things are going to happen again.)

As if to illustrate the point, the doorbell just rang. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard it, over the rush of water coming from the adjacent bathroom, where the woman who does our serious housecleaning is freshening the tub. Because I’ve learned, finally, that the best way to deal with a bad situation is to stand up and grip it as quickly and calmly as possible, I got out of my chair and went to the front door, half anticipating the pleasure of having been mistaken about the bell. But when I opened the door, someone was there, someone holding something — of course, the orchid from the florist, usually delivered on the first of the month. I’d thought about canceling it, since I won’t be here for most of the time, but Kathleen will spend some of the weeknights in the apartment, and it seemed easier not to fuss. So I didn’t. And of course I’d forgotten about it. They say that you can’t feel hypertension, but I can. It will take a while to abate.

Second, relief puts an end, whether you want it to or not, to the charade of normality that you have been keeping up for the near and dear. Our friends knew about our situation, but they did not, I hope, see very much in the way of fretting. Why should we saddle them with that? (Kathleen and I spent a great deal of the year by ourselves for this reason.)

Third, relief is for everybody else. Our friends are happy that things have worked out; they don’t have to worry about us now. But our habit of keeping to ourselves has had consequences; our friends, not hearing from us as much as usual, reasonably assume that we’re busy doing other things. And it’s not that we need company, exactly. But it has been a long time since I last looked at my inbox so needily. It is almost always empty.

Finally, relief exposes the utter depletion of reserves, which takes us back to the first thing about relief: we don’t trust it. We don’t trust it, and we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to cope with new problems. Ergo, there is no call for relief!


All the difficulties that we had in the year just ended involved challenges to our control. Short of serious illness (but then, illness is also the perfect example), the loss of control is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; it is the welcome mat to the loss of a way of life. If you cannot manage your affairs, if you cannot avoid the interference of people with conflicting plans for the space that you occupy, then you fail. If, as in our case, the challenges involve housing and income (plus, I was in the hospital!), the scope of possible failure is close to total. The way of life to which you might be reduced might very well look like a paradise to someone a lot less lucky, but to lose one’s way of life is at any level a trauma. And of course it happens to everyone who lives long enough.

I saw Mr Holmes the other day. It’s a very satisfying picture, as well as what’s called a “feel-good” movie. I bring it up now to discuss Ian McKellen’s two performances. Yes, two. He plays Sherlock Holmes at 63, and Sherlock Holmes at 93. At 63, Holmes is on the late side of the prime of life, and it’s nice to see that Sir Ian, who is more than ten years older than that, seems to be in the same good shape. He gleams with a platinum soundness that makes youth look raw and unstable. He is very much in control.

But for the Sherlock Holmes of the present frame of the narrative, in the now of 1947, 63 was thirty years ago. The older Holmes has just returned from a voyage to Japan, in search of an ash tree whose leaves (or perhaps bark?) just might provide a drug that will arrest the decay of his memory. (A long-time bee-keeper, Holmes has given up on the alleged powers of royal jelly.) The former ace detective has taken to writing names on his shirt-cuffs, so that he won’t seem rude. He is also trying to recall the details of his last case — his failure in which caused him to retire from the field. What happened? All he knows is that John Watson’s account of it, which has been filmed, is bosh.

Holmes at 93 is not in control. He is slowly falling apart, which is to say that he looks like someone who is falling apart even when he isn’t. His face has lost its distinction, and his mouth appears to have a life of its own, his lips pursing as if quite helplessly to suck. His eyes are dulled by what seems to be distraction; he is no longer looking at the world around him. Instead, he is rummaging through the collapsed mineshaft of a faulty memory. Everything about Holmes suggests that sheer inertia is propelling his life. His body has taken over.

The actor has clearly been thinking about his own future, should he be lucky enough to experience it. And he and the filmmakers have a bit of hope to offer: the best medicine for old age is the company of a lively, good-natured child who asks a lot of questions.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
No Complaints
30 July 2015

Complaining about literature does not appeal to me. I prefer to observe an old legal maxim, which is too symmetrically cute in Latin not to state: Inclusio unius est exclusio alterius. (Not very sophisticated, is it. Nothing with est in it ever is.) What it means is that the statement of one thing implies the exclusion of other, unstated things. Let’s say that all the DBR entries, taken together, constitute what I have to say about books and such. They may be said to indicate, by exclusion, that the authors whom I never mention, whose works I never discuss, simply don’t appeal to me. I also happen to believe that, by and large, the reasons for their failure to appeal to me are not very interesting, at least as literary criticism.

When I’m writing about myself, however, it’s quite different. Writing about myself gives me the license to describe, for example what a torture Moby-Dick is to read, the disgust with Melville’s dreadful writing, adolescent intellectualisms, and depressingly anti-social spirit that caused me to put down the book two-thirds of the way through. I really don’t know which is worse: Moby-Dick itself, or the reputation that twentieth-century critics, trying to counter what they feared was a feminizing trend in literature, crafted for what was by then a rather neglected book. (Melville’s contemporaries didn’t think much of Moby-Dick, either.) But I don’t talk about Moby-Dick itself except to complain about what those critics wrought when they hoisted twaddle as a model.

This is by way of making it clear that nothing in what follows is to be taken as complaint about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 4: Dancing in the Dark. My argument is with Knausgaard’s younger self, not with the way in which the mature writer presents him.

At the beginning of this book, the narrator is eighteen. He already knows that he wants to be a writer. He gives us a list of the writers he admires. That is what I am going to complain about: the preferences of a high-school graduate. The author whom that narrator grew up to become, the Karl Ove Knausgaard who is nowadays closer to fifty than to forty, does not write like Jack Kerouac or J D Salinger. It has been a very long time since I last looked at Charles Bukowski, but I’d be surprised to perceive any signs of the American poet’s influence on My Struggle — the very title of which constitutes, as I see it, a rejection of the following aesthetic:

Books about young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life’s Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.

Everything they wanted I wanted too.

The great longing, which was ever-present in my breast, was dispelled when I read these books, only to return with tenfold strength the moment I put them down. It had been like that all the way through my latter years at school. I hated all authority, was an opponent of the whole bloody streamlined society I had grown up in, with its bourgeois values and materialistic view of humanity. I despised what I had learned at gymnas, even the stuff about literature; all I needed to know, all true knowledge, the only really essential knowledge as to be found in the books I read and the music I listened to. I wasn’t interested in money or status symbols; I knew that the essential value in life lay elsewhere. I didn’t want to study, had no wish to receive an education at a conventional institution like a university, I wanted to travel down through Europe, sleep on beaches, in cheap hotels, or at the homes of friends I made on the way. Take odd jobs to survive, wash plates at hotels, load or unload boats, pick oranges … That spring I had bought a book containing conceivable, and inconceivable, kind of job you could get in various European countries. But all of this was to culminate in a novel. I would sit writing in a Spanish village, go to Pamplona and run with the bulls, continue on down to Greece and sit writing on one of the islands and then, after a year or two, return to Norway with a novel in my rucksack. (3)

Alas, the realization of this grandly shambolic vision was to be thwarted, as we’re cued only a few pages later, by a quite different dream that also held the young Karl Ove in thrall: a passion for looking sharp in cool clothes and hanging out at discos, getting drunk and groping pretty girls. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggle was not between an idealistic youth and bourgeois society, but rather between the impulses of heroism and hedonism.

Why do I say alas?


Knausgaard is about twenty years younger than I am, which I point out as a way of suggesting that, when I was eighteen, this aesthetic — and please note that that’s what it is; it’s not a political program — was newer, fresher, and even more insistent. I see now, for the first time, that it was really just an updating of the old stories about knights slaying dragons, only with scruffy clothes instead of armor, and with balding bankers and discontented housewives instead of dragons, but it seemed new in 1960 because its animus was directed at things that really were new: household appliances, suburban ranchettes, bloated automobiles, and the maintenance of wives whose participation in the working world would be frowned upon. The moral and spiritual emptiness of this package, paying for which could tie a man down forever and crush the life out of him, was manifest. I don’t argue with that. I was there; I remember. I hope never again to see meretriciousness on that scale again. But to respond by writing angry novels while crashing on other people’s sofas never struck me as a better alternative. You could suffer in dishonest style, or you could suffer in honest discomfort. When I was growing up, these were the only apparent choices. It was godawful.

Then, the world turned. The world of dishonest style was broken, along with its legal and political underpinnings. People with alternatives to the WASP ascendancy other than becoming a beach bum stepped forward and insisted on changes, most notably the equalization of former “minorities.” Authority was questioned by people who had no intention of writing scathing novels on Greek islands. None of the struggles launched since the Sixties has been fully achieved, but together they have created many new choices, and only a few of those choices are tailored to the daydreams of half-educated white males.

In short, the posture of protest that was assumed by the young Karl Ove’s literary heroes has become as ridiculous as Moby-Dick. There will still be plenty of young men to “drop out” of the “rat-race” — to use happily obsolete terms — but their experiences will be of little interest to anyone else. There is nothing admirable in self-imposed poverty, unless of course it is in the service of others (requiring a selflessness unimaginable to young novelists), and the glamor of excess followed by rehab has been shredded almost to destruction. There is nothing new about the life-cycle of the wastrel. All that has happened is that we have given up on the idea that the wastrel might be somehow wise.

Criticizing bourgeois society — and it certainly has its faults — is a matter for political thought, not aesthetic response.


For the second day in a row, I have tried to use Knausgaard’s novel as a ramp to more personal territory, only to run out of time (or energy) before covering the ground. Yesterday, I meant to marvel at the intimate ambiguity of Karl Ove’s childhood, sometimes so like my own but mostly utterly unlike it. Today, I hoped to discuss at greater length — as my principal topic — the stultifying, as it were radioactive, impact of the Cold War on the humane imagination; an impact, by the way, that, looking back, I don’t think anyone overcame, not so long as the Cold War raged. This by way of toying with my favorite question: why has it taken me so long to get to where I am now? This would be opposite to the inquiry that the young Karl Ove proposed to write about (perhaps if only in being an inquiry), but perhaps it would be just as self-involved as a book by Philip Roth. I should hope not, because I’m more interested in the “historical forces” (ie changing social possibilities) that would explain my tardiness than I am in the fact that I’ve finally made it. It’s interesting to me that Knausgaard began writing My Struggle within a year of my remastering the model of this Web site, developments that emphasize our being contemporaries, rather than members of different generations.

One of these days, I shall have to begin an entry in medias res.

Reading Note:
29 July 2015

For a number of years, my old friend Fossil Darling used to spend a few hours every weekend walking a dog, a yellow lab nicknamed Lula, in Central Park. The dog belonged to neighbors who were either too busy or too infirm to keep up with Lula’s puppydog enthusiasm, a trait that in her case was unaccompanied by brains. Afterwards, Fossil would call me up and regale me with delightful anecdotes of the day’s outing — delightful to him. I winced whenever he described Lula’s raptures in the muckier margins of the Lake, and his own delight at being covered with muck when Lula returned to his side and shook herself off. At first, I suspected that Lula had bitten Fossil, and infected him with her idiocy. Later, I suspected that it was the other way round.

I’ve been reminded of Lula by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the principal character in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 3: Boyhood. In addition to the dramatically foreshadowed career as a writer who will not have left the world as he found it, Karl Ove is something of a strange duck. As he himself will tell you, tell anybody; just try to keep him from shouting it, he is very good in school, or at school. He’s only second best at math, but he’s best at all the other stuff. When his mother forbids comic books in the fourth grade, he reads library books instead, many of them classics that most kids won’t read until they have to, in college.

This learned and literate persona is at odds with the Lula side of his personality. If I remember My Struggle 2 correctly, Karl Ove will grow up to play soccer well enough for other players to want him on their teams, and presumably he is not inept as a child; but he seems to lack the gifts for every other kind of sport, as well as for defending himself in schoolyard fights, even though he is taller than most of the boys. And when he takes to mischief, the reader reflexively murmurs, oh, no…

But before we get to the mischief, we must understand two things about Karl Ove. First, he has an ogre of a father. To put it another way, the father has serious anger management issues. From time to time — there’s no predicting when — the father is overcome by a hostile, suspicious spirit that fills his eyes with a menacing gleam. All too often, these spells coincide with some sort of lapse or misbehavior that Karl Ove has tried hard to hide. These efforts at concealment, however, invariably alert the father’s radar. The physical aspect of the ensuing ordeal is usually limited to twisting Karl Ove’s ears and pulling him about the house, but child abuse does not require broken bones. The sound of the man’s “heavy step” upon the stair strikes almost as much fear into the reader’s heart as it does Karl Ove’s.

The other little detail is Karl Ove’s Christianity. This is, quite literally, the saving of him. There are, to be sure, aspects of meekness in Karl Ove’s makeup. He is naturally sympathetic, and one suspects that the lack of “strength” that allows other boys to pin him to the ground is more a lack of interest in fighting; I can’t recall an instance of Karl Ove’s trying to pin down anybody else. And it takes less than nothing to make Karl Ove cry. His eyes don’t shed so much as they hemorrhage tears. But then, one sick day, Karl Ove reads a book “published by a Christian company,” and is transfigured by the tale, which concerns a boy whose father has died and who must support his mother by foraging, a necessity that exposes him to the hateful attentions of a gang of bullies.

Not only did they hound and beat up this boy who was so different from them, they swore and stole as well and the inequity of this gang’s successes, in the light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the unfairness of it, I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to become a good person. From then on I would perform good deeds, help where I could, and never do anything wrong. I began to call myself a Christian. I was nine years old, there was no one else in my close vicinity who called himself a Christian, neither Mom nor Dad nor the parents of any of the other kids … and of course no young people, so it was a fairly solitary undertaking I initiated in Tybakken at the end of the seventies. I began to pray to God last thing at night and first thing in the morning. When, in the autumn, the others gathered to go apple scrumping down in Gamle Tybakken I told them not to go, I told them stealing was wrong. I never said this to all of them at once, I didn’t dare, I was well aware of the difference between group reactions, when everyone incited each other to do something or other, and individual reactions, when each person was forced to confront an issue head-on with no hiding place in a deindividuated crowd, and said to each one that apple scrumping was wrong, think about it, you don’t have to do it. But I didn’t want to be alone, so I accompanied them, stopped by the gate, and watched them sneak across the age-old fields in the dusk, walked beside them as they scoffed apples on the way back, their winter jackets bulging with fruit, and if anyone offered me anything I always refused, because dealing was no better than stealing. (283-4)

Am I alone in finding this passage hilarious? It’s as though Woody Allen had become a sainte nitouche. The self-preserving self-satisfaction is too innocent to be unattractive, but it is ludicrous all the same, never more so than at the moment when, having been punished for something by his father and boiling with thirst for revenge, Karl Ove asks the What-Would-Jesus-Do question and decides to forgive. This could be intolerably cloying, but Knausgaard knows how to capture the ridiculous angle. I would perform good deeds … and never do anything wrong. Over time, the scope of bad deeds narrows down to the use of  swear-words, which Karl Ove shuns, at least until the incident in the garbage dump with the beer bottle and a black beetle (299).

Nevertheless, piety does put a stop to lighting fires in the woods and dropping stones on passing cars. Karl Ove is simply not cut out for a life of crime. He is the one who always gets caught, and, childish delusions notwithstanding, he is incapable of dissembling. When a particularly large stone connects with the roof of a sedan, buckling it but just missing the windshield, Karl Ove is transfixed by the enormity of what he has done. As always, he is immobilized by panic. Rooted to the ground, he is quickly accosted by the furious driver, and of course he gives his actual name and address. By the same token, he does not tell his parents what has happened; he keeps hoping that the driver will forget to call, and in fact so much time goes by that he begins to think that he may have gotten away with it. So they hear it from the driver first. What a cluck this kid is! Only Jesus can keep him out of trouble.


There is a je ne sais quoi about My Struggle — a lightness of touch, an air almost of inconsequence, of causes without effects — that one might associate with a book about childhood, especially a book about childhood in a relatively poor country (albeit one on the verge of reaping great oil wealth) on the edge of the habitable world. Electronic appliances and automobiles aside, it could all be taking place in the 1880s. But I attribute this simplicity to something else, to a tremendous resistance on Knausgaard’s part to the vernacular of Freud. What’s missing from My Struggle is what I think Tom Wolfe called the “hydraulics” of Freudian theory — pressures: the repressions, the suppressions, the expressions, explosive or neurotic, of psychic forces. Even the simplicity is a mirage; what’s missing is not complexity but mechanism, the if-then necessities that make machines work the way we want them to. If Karl Ove suffers from abominable conceit, then his friendship with happy-go-lucky Geir is not necessarily doomed. Human beings remain unpredictable except in one respect: they display an all but overwhelming desire to get along with their nearest and dearest, whether they understand them or not. Even when no one is really being “good enough.” It is a hard world, but it is obstinately sociable. Much of what Knausgaard presents is what we have lost to therapies and devices.

Page de Cahier:
On Chinatown
28 July 2015

The other night, we watched Chinatown. It had been haunting Kathleen, spontaneously coming to mind — lines here (“Get the girl”), scenes there (the boy on the pony) — for several days. When she first mentioned this to me, Kathleen thought that actually watching the movie would be too disturbing, but I convinced her that it would be the only way to lay the spectre to rest — the spectre of Evelyn Mulwray, whom, every time, Kathleen hopes will drive far off into the night, but who never does.

Chinatown has become famous for its screenplay, which is credited to Robert Towne, but which director Roman Polanski apparently edited rather heavily. The magic of the plot is its growing ambiguity. What begins as a story about corruption in Los Angeles’s water-management department shades into a case of incest. The water problem obviously effects everybody, to some degree; beyond a handful of people, the incest is nobody’s business. Somehow the same detective finds himself investigating both, and the vast disproportion in scale between these plot lines — the one immense, but abstract; the other intensely, horribly personal — creates a tension that the film exploits well. (Polanski would repeat the trick with The Ghost Writer.) The scenario is alternatively expansive and intimate, and it ends with a dreadfully intimate embrace in public. But since this happens in Chinatown, there are no consequences — the public there doesn’t matter.

Having many times observed Chinatown as a magnificent infernal machine, I tried to sit back and watch it naively, as if I didn’t know what was coming next. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It entails soaking up a scene for all it can tell you. With a little practice, you experience a rush of visual details that effectively blocks the recollection of prior viewings. What I took in this time, along with a renewed sense of the film’s striking beauty, was the power of Faye Dunaway’s performance.

“And Jack Nicholson’s,” you’ll say. But I don’t say. Nicholson is perfect as the detective, but he is also an Everyman, a stand-in for all of us. He’s sympathetic, but he’s not extraordinary; we wouldn’t like him if he were. Dunaway is extraordinary. She is like a star from the studio days. She is as volcanic as Nicholson is cool. Dunaway has the chops of a great tragédienne, but she knows how to tune them down for the silver screen, how to overflow the brim of her goblet without getting anybody wet. It’s a great gift. In other movies that are favorites of mine, The Eyes of Laura Mars and Mommie Dearest, hers is unquestionably the leading role, and her brilliance is certainly not surprising. In Chinatown, she is a co-star but it might be better to regard her as a supporting actress, if only in the sense that she supports Jack Nicholson. As the film proceeds, Evelyn Mulwray becomes more interested in Jake Gittes, with the result that Jake Gittes becomes more interesting himself, or at any rate less the generic hard-boiled gumshoe that we expect in these productions. It provokes a performance that ends with a living-dead gaze that Hemingway would have been proud to describe.

Also along the way, Dunaway creates a female space — a place that men cannot touch. Evelyn has built this space as a redoubt against her terrible family dynamics, and Dunaway brings it into the movie. The other women in Chinatown accept the fate of living in a man’s world. There aren’t very many of them, just Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) and Sophie the secretary (Nandu Hinds). Evelyn’s sister/daughter, Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer), is a special case. Katherine has only one distinct line: she says “Hello” to Gittes. This verbal silence, this limitation of Katherine to sobs and wails, leaves it Evelyn to articulate the darkness, which she does while betraying the horror with involuntary gestures, such as stumbling over the word “father” and crossing her breasts with her arms when she learns that Gittes has seen her father. The film bestows all the grand accoutrements of studio-era womanliness upon Evelyn Mulwray, and then strips her of them with a brutality that Dunaway fully registers — again, without overdoing things. I spent a lot of time watching her eyes. (These are almost comic in the nursing-home scene, popping out to dessert-plate size as Evelyn takes in Gittes’s improvisatory genius.) Unlike a compleat film goddess, Evelyn responds and reacts to Gittes: this is what I mean by Dunaway’s supporting Nicholson. Although stupendously attractive, Dunaway’s Evelyn remains a woman of mortal endowments. She does not know everything, and she cannot see around corners. Indeed, the key of the performance is that, as the climax approaches, Dunaway reveals that she is a damsel in distress.

I kept thinking of Bette Davis — not that Davis was ever permitted to play a role as raw and rotten and yet completely sympathetic as Evelyn Mulwray. Chinatown would have been unthinkable in the studio era. And I’m not just thinking of the censorship. Those great dramas of the late Thirties and the Forties, to my mind the first crop of great movies (I find the adoration of silent movies bizarre), were made by men and women who hadn’t grown up watching anything like them: they were making everything up. It took a few generations to produce filmmakers who knew every trick as if by instinct, and who could present complex screenplays without complication. The list of great “old” movies is impressive; after watching Chinatown, Kathleen and I named an easy dozen, from LA Confidential and Mulholland Falls to Quiz Show and Billy Bathgate, from Seabiscuit to Public Enemy. You can do it, too.

Why did Hollis and Evelyn Mulwray have to die? Was it because Noah Cross wanted to regain control of the water system, or possession of his unfortunate offspring? He wanted both, but which was more important? To consider either answer as the winner is to be pestered to botheration by the other. Chinatown knows no peace.

Reactionaries at Play:
The Nobs Did It
27 July 2015

Increasingly, we see the two world wars of the first half of the Twentieth Century as parts of a whole, as detached installments of a single horror. As our distance from the conflicts increases, we recognize with ever-greater clarity the extent to which the Great War (1914-1918) left unfinished business, or even created new business, for Bellona and her minions to sort out in World War II. Everybody knows that perceived inequities in the Treaty of Versailles, which transformed an armistice into a defeat for Germany, rankled badly enough for Nazi thugs to work massive discontent to their advantage. Someday, these wars will be given a collective name, and be thereafter known as one thing.

But first, we have to understand why they happened.

Each one begins, I think, with that mystery: why? Why did the “July crisis” result in declarations of war between countries ruled by cousins? Why did France fall? As I have nothing to do but let such questions tumble in my unoccupied brain, it does not altogether surprise me that not only have I arrived at what feel like answers to these questions, but that they are the same answer.

Before proceeding further, I want to thank Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s Number Two, who famously observed (or did he?) that, even in 1972, it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is understood to have put an end to aristocratic privilege in the West. A class of hereditary nobles that had hitherto been subject to laws very different from, and in most cases much lighter than, those imposed on ordinary people, lost its claim to special treatment. By and large, this is indeed what happened. But there was an exception, an area of public life from which the aristocracy did not fade: the military. Europe’s aristocracy was composed, of course, of the descendants of medieval warriors, but it is easy to overlook that, while many of those descendants became pampered hedonists who couldn’t be bothered to defend anything beyond their own personal honor, the armed forces of Europe were always overseen by members of the nobility. Monarchs exerted increasing control over military affairs, but they never displaced the men who had been brought up to fight on horseback. A compromise was worked out (in most jurisdictions): only competent aristocrats were allowed to make important decisions, and talented yeoman were inducted into the nobility from time to time. This arrangement survived the trauma of 1789, even in France. An “officer,” if not a bluebood, was expected to be a “gentleman” — that is, a man with an unearned income that allowed him to hone his martial skills. The cadets in officer-training schools usually came from propertied families. In the United States, the service academies admitted only those young men recommended by Senators; in an ostensibly classless society, it would be difficult to mirror the mechanics of Old-World military privilege more effectively.

From the first sound of the tocsin that preceded the guns of August, 1914, it has been asked why the cousins who sat on the thrones of Europe did not prevent the war. The question itself is telling. Russia aside, each of the Great War’s belligerents was a democracy of some kind. Notwithstanding the crowned heads, all had elected assemblies headed by powerful ministers. It was not up to the kings to say “no” to war. Curiously, however, the ministers don’t seem to have been any more in favor of hostilities. The standard way to resolve this puzzle is to point to mounting anxieties over arms buildups that, in the flashpoint of Serbian responsibility for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (or at least its complacency), pushed somebody or other into making a bad judgment. Some like to blame Kaiser Wilhelm II, a very childish man, for handing Austria a “blank check” (unconditional support for any campaign against Serbia), while others go after the weak Tsar, Nikolai II, who consented to the mobilization (or “semi-mobilization” — you can no more be “semi-mobilized” than you can be “semi-pregnant”) that did indeed trigger the German declaration of war. Round and round go the explanations and the accusations. Reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s terrific study of the run-up to the war, I found it impossible not to blame the Serbians, who, in Clark’s telling, seemed to be perfectly aware of playing with dynamite.

When the dust settled after the Great War, the kings were mostly swept away, and the titles of their aristocratic subjects were just as empty. This is a major motif in the anthem of loss that commemorates the way of life that failed to survive the war — a life that was gracious and leisured for those who could afford it, but also glamorized by titled ladies in large hats. Princesses and countesses were received at courts — there were still courts. Courts had marginal political power, but they were the clubhouses of the military leadership: the real men at any courtly function were wearing uniforms. Why, then, would these brilliant assemblages have committed suicide or fratricide by going to war against each another?

As to suicide, no one could be sure that that was would happen; and, of all people, aristocratic generals would be the last to foresee such an outcome.

As to fratricide, to ask the question is to misunderstand the aristocratic mind. From the beginning, aristocrats were the fighting class. That is what they did. As usual, my mind runs blank on specific examples, but there are plenty of stories about two knights, brought up from birth in the deepest friendship but consigned by indelible allegiances to opposed liege lords, who dutifully hacked away at one another in battle, as brutally as possible but with tears streaming down their cheeks. To the aristocratic mind, such stories have a happy ending.

In any case, the fight would not be gratuitous. It would, if successful, undermine those democratic regimes, putting an end to the deplorable influence of the shopkeepers of the third estate. It was even conceivable — just — that an even earlier dream of the aristocracy might be achieved: the unwinding of royal authority and centralized government. Once again, aristocrats might be the only truly free men on earth. Free, even, of the nationalities that they bore under protest. Kings and ministers were bound to their sovereignties, to the conceptual boundaries that demarcated the different countries of Europe. But an aristocrat was the lord of his acres, and his acres weren’t going anywhere.

There was no need for a plot, no need for conscious decisions. There was no need for collective action of any kind. All the noble generals had to do was frighten kings and ministers with tall tales about the other armies and what they might do. Their implicit message was : Rest assured, Sire, that I shall make it clear that I told you so. And this is exactly what they all did, those chiefs of staff, quite as if reading from a common script. There was no script, but there was a shared spirit, and it was this spirit that drove the nations of Europe into a war that, individualists that they were, the aristocrats were wrong about: it couldn’t be won by anybody.

Why, in June of 1940, did the French leadership, a cohort of politicians and industrialists, decide that France could only lose to a German offensive? I claim no great powers of discernment in presenting my answer, for it is a quotation from a book.

As for Reynaud [the French prime minister], he had called into his government Ybarnegaray and Marin, two reactionaries whose only surface virtue was a blustering show of war spirit. Raised to power by Socialist votes, Reynaud had turned toward men whom he trusted because they were of his own Rightist background — Pétain, Mandel, Ybarnegaray, Marin. All his Rightest friends except Mandel joined in smothering him. They felt that making war against Hitler he was betraying his own class.

This is AJ Liebling, whose report on the Fall of France appeared in the first two August, 1940 issues of The New Yorker. Liebling’s essential claim — that war with Hitler would be a betrayal of the soul of France — resonated deeply with me because of other things that I had read, especially Frederick Brown’s Fighting for the Soul of France, a history of the Third Republic through the Dreyfus case. I saw, beyond Liebling’s conclusions, that men like Pétain decided that it would be a good thing to let Hitler destroy, not France, but the Third Republic, a regime deeply hated by conservative Catholics, particularly those from titled families. As it happens, Liebling’s report is collected in an anthology of New Yorker writing from the Forties that also includes Janet Flanner’s profile of Marshal Pétain.

Now he was to have the undisputed, and for once undivided, glory of governing what was left of his beloved country, of leading her back, in a bitter penitence for her democracy and her defeat, to a restoration of the autocracy of her great seventeenth-century past, in which he thought her future still lay.

Sometimes, figuring things out is simply a matter of reading the right things at the right time. No effort required: understanding clicks into view.

Whatever they come to be called, the two world wars were wars launched against the political influence of ordinary people.