Obelisk Note:
Curation II
23 January 2015

Surely you remember Hermes Trismegistus? No, he’s not a Levantine con man played by Peter Lorre. He’s much older than that. Older by far than his swanky Graeco-Latin name. According to Augustine, he lived

long before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea, and Moses also: for at the time when Moses was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’s brother, a great astronomer, living, and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury, who begat the father of this Trismegistus.

Plus, of course, he was Egyptian, this Hermes, this “thrice magisterial” figure (priest, philosopher, king). He was also an invention. We don’t know whose, but by Augustine’s day there were (evidently) manuscript references ready to be copied out by the diligent. Hermes seems to be of the same vintage as the Kabbalah, a tasty morsel in the stew of eclectic philosophy stirred by Jewish mystics.

It’s from this Hermes that we get the word “hermetic,” with its two meanings. First, it refers to a body of writings, blending alchemy, astrology, and speculations on the nature of God, that dates from the early centuries of the Common Era. Second, it means a way of talking that is intelligible only to initiates. That’s why we’re talking about Hermes today. I’m tickled to death by the attraction that high-grade mumbo jumbo exercised upon the Renaissance scholars who tried to parse the ancient obelisks that had been unearthed in the course of re-birthing Rome. The attempt to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics was foredoomed by the widely-held conviction that the obelisks were inscribed with ancient wisdom.

Many believed that Hermes Trismegistus himself had devised the hieroglyphs as a way of preserving and protecting the old wisdom, encoding it in a symbolic language that was universal but also indecipherable to everyone but the truly wise.

So writes John Glassie in his delectable book, A Man of Misconceptions, which I ought to have read when it came out (in 2012) but did not, because, well, why would you read a book about someone who misunderstood just about everything?


Athanasius Kircher — Glassie’s subject — appears, along with his famous Wunderkammer, in what is perhaps the key chapter of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s strange little book, Ways of Curating.

Though the aim of amassing evidence may sound like a rather scientific way to think about collecting [ — bear in mind that Obrist is a top dog in today's art world, which is why he wants to excuse his appearing to be "scientific" — ], it is necessary to remember that the hard distinction between science and art which marks more recent centuries was not evident as late as the sixteenth century. The separation of art and the humanities on the one hand, and science on the other, is a fundamental feature of modern life, but it also constitutes a loss.

Looking back in time can be an invaluable tool for this: pre-modern scholars had a more holistic and comprehensive picture of human life than we do today. The hard division between the rational and the irrational that marks modernity has rendered unclear how science and art might relate to one other [sic] — how each is, perhaps secretly, part of the other. The history of the Wunderkammer — in which artefacts, paintings, specimens, sculptures and geological samples were collected in one place — is also the history of the period in which explanations, facts and the scientific method were first being elaborated. To study the Renaissance is to gain a model for reconnecting art and science, sundered by history. (39-40)

It’s when Obrist writes like this that I regard him as a licensed charlatan. I am not going to dwell on the almost idiotic assertion that history separated science from art; I am going to do no more that to suggest that the “loss” caused by that separation could be made good by humanists’ getting better at math. It’s hard to imagine what good might come of taking seriously the proposition that art and science are “perhaps secretly” the same thing. Obrist himself is not in the business of taking ideas seriously. On the contrary, he looks for ways to enact them — to dramatize them, really, or to turn them into physical exercises, thus draining them of intellectual content and stuffing them in allegory. Obrist is an ideal apologist for a crank like Athanasius Kircher.

Born in 1602, Kircher studied and contributed to the understanding of geology, optics, astronomy, perpetual motion machines, Chinese culture and history, clock design, medicine, mathematics, the civilization of ancient Egypt, and an amazing array of the other subjects. (40-1)

There’s no disputing this — although the mention of perpetual motion machines ought to put you on your guard — but what is the value of all those contributions?

That’s why I’m reading Glassie. Glassie quotes a historian, John Ferguson, who said of Kircher in 1906 that “his works in number, bulk, and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning.”


Few things are as frightening as the wrong-headed authority. And nothing is more useful to such an authority than a symbolic language that is universal but unintelligible to all but the truly wise. There’s really no arguing with an authority who wields such weapons. Critical minds eventually wise up and simply ignore the wrong-headed authority, but during his sway he can ruin a lot of research projects.

Plato was, of course, the very worst of wrong-headed authorities. Insisting that the five (known) planets, together with the sun and the moon, orbited about the earth in uniform circular motion — each traveling, that is, in a perfect circle, at a constant speed — he wrong-footed astronomy for nearly two thousand years. Plato also privileged explanation over observation. What a cushy life I’d have had, gifted as I am at spinning armchair theories. Having devised my own multi-step program to overcome this addiction (I’ve trained myself to listen for the peculiar pitch that my voice takes on when I embark upon speculations), I had to laugh, last night, when Kathleen asked me, “Who was the first to use the scientific method.” I kept laughing, as a cover, until I was ready to commit to an answer. (Lavoisier — and not because he discovered oxygen.)

Glassie reminds us that pre-modern science was Platonic in its disregard for mathematics: numbers didn’t explain anything. Aristotle, who was sensible rather than elegant, and in other ways as well the opposite of Plato, was a virtuoso of explanations, many of them based a kind of observation that we would call literary rather than scientific. Aside from ignoring the important advice to keep it short, Aristotle was basically a journalist. The object of his reports on the world was not to understand how the world actually works but to make the world understandable to his readers. This approach to reality stopped satisfying the keenest minds in the Fifteenth Century, and by the end of the Seventeenth Century mere explanation was no longer regarded as scientific at all. tou

But the switch from words to numbers did not happen overnight, and Glassie’s book shows that the transformation was so chaotic that to speak of a “scientific revolution” is itself wrong-headed. The term tells us nothing about the complexity of intellectual ferment during what was, after all, the Age of Baroque.

For the moment, I’m savoring the utterly Baroque idea that wisdom ought best be proclaimed, in universal but unintelligible symbols, by the stone faces of obelisks.

And I’m also pondering Obrist’s notion that presenting Athanasius Kircher as an artist gives meaning to his nonsense.

Bon weekend à tous!

Weekday Movie:
American Sniper
22 January 2015

How long has it been since I’ve been to the movies? Four or five months? More? I used to go every Friday, almost without fail. I saw a lot of interesting but not-great movies, and I spent hours in nearly empty theatres. At long last, I’m beginning to miss that.

I almost backed away from the box office late yesterday afternoon. There was a line. Not a long line, maybe five or six parties ahead of me. But this more than whispered the possibility that I might not be able to get a seat on the aisle at the very back. Well, in that case, I’d just walk out — no big deal. It was worth the gamble to wait and see. Having decided to “go to the movies,” taking a chance was the only way to avoid the despond of failure into which I should certainly sink if I slunk back home. It has not been easy to amass the exit velocity required to get me out of my reading chair and then out of the apartment and back to normal city life, and it seemed important, yesterday, as I weighed the pros and cons, not to dissipate the effort that had brought me this far. In the event, I got just the seat that I wanted, and the theatre was only about twice as crowded as normal (normal for midday-viewing me). Which is to say that it wasn’t even half full.

Going to the movies yesterday made sense; the day had already been broken by two medical appointments. The upper left side of my face was bandaged in three places, and, although I wasn’t in pain, I felt, if not violated, then disrupted. Such was the thrust that propelled me to one of the two remaining neighborhood movie houses, to see American Sniper.

It wasn’t the movie that I’d wanted to see; I had thought that A Most Violent Year, which looks keenly appealing, would still be playing — but no. This left three choices. Aside from Clint Eastwood’s movie, there was Inherent Vice and there was Selma. If Inherent Vice, with its louche Seventies setting and Pyncheon background, threatened to be demoralizing, Selma menaced an exhausting uplift — I really did just want to “go to the movies.” The one thing that American Sniper had going for it was Bradley Cooper. I’ve admired Cooper ever since he played the loathsome creep in The Wedding Crashers (although one Hangover was enough), but/and there has been a consistency to his roles that the new movie promised to break with.

I knew nothing of Chris Kyle; I didn’t even know that American Sniper is a “true story.” All I knew was that the film would ring a variation on a theme already visited by The Hurt Locker. A very capable soldier puts his all into fighting for his country on repeated tours of duty in Iraq, only to find that life back home lacks color and meaning. There would be dusty, broken down Mesopotamian cities, whose empty streets would be punctured by armored trucks and gunfire. There would be arguments in a suburban house somewhere in the American Southwest, as a wife waited for her husband, only physically present, fully to come home.

What Bradley Cooper brings to this scenario is well worth its familiarity. The accuracy of his impersonation of the heroic shooter doesn’t concern me in the least; nor does the film’s utter neglect of such contextual explanations as what the war is about or why the enemy deserves to be killed bother me at all. American Sniper is not the vessel for such issues; it is, rather, a showcase for the demonstration of a particular American masculinity. The demonstration is so pure, so serenely untroubled by the existential uncertainty that this brand of manliness is dedicated to overpowering, that its exponent becomes a figure of mythic attraction. You might not like him, but you cannot look down on him. Nor can you argue that he is not a good man. You can try, as Matt Taibbi does in his takedown of the movie in Rolling Stone; you can call Kyle “a killing machine with a heart of gold.” But it won’t stick. Cooper’s Kyle does not have a heart of gold. He does, however, have a clear conscience.

Cooper’s best moments are the understated ones, when, embarrassed by attentions paid to abilities that are no more remarkable to him than the ability to tie his shoes, he can only nod, as minimally as a neck can nod, or half-bark, half-murmur the simplest assent, yes, as if straining after invisibility. The frontier between the decent discretion of a man determined not to talk about himself and the pained aversion of a man troubled by PTSD is both infinitely porous and quickly traversed. In the metabolism of the story that the movie tells, Kyle finds redemption in helping others with similar afflictions. This seems perfectly plausible: the disorder is not ignored, but its focus is prised from the secret self and brought out into the open. As long as the subject is not himself — as long as he is not being asked to account for himself in words that he obviously regards as superfluous to the record established by his deeds — Kyle can rattle along like any good old boy. Within the parameters of his firm and stern masculinity, Kyle is warm and amiable.

I didn’t know how American Sniper would end, but I knew that it was going to end, and end badly, when a datestamp suddenly appeared at the bottom of the screen. Earlier, such markers as “First Tour” and “Second Tour” had announced the beginning of each of the Iraqi episodes. Now, there was a date. Clearly something momentous was going to happen, and, given the story so far, and the way the scene begins, it seemed likely what this something would be: Kyle would be shown to have lost his wits to PTSD, and to have murdered his wife and children before taking his own life. He is shown, walking up to his wife with a revolver. But: just kidding! Kyle would indeed die that day, but as the victim of a troubled fellow veteran whom he was trying to help. But that would happen offscreen.

If it weren’t for the regrettable final scene, conceived after Kyle’s murder, Cooper’s portrayal would be altogether majestic. The scene is regrettable because it plays off of the actor’s numerous earlier performances as a manic nut-case. Those who know the Chris Kyle story going in, of course, won’t be misled; indeed, they’ll probably sense an irony that, from what I’ve since read about the real Kyle, was terribly apt. Kyle may very well have been more like Cooper’s troubled young men than, up to this final scene, Cooper’s Kyle has been, but that’s the problem: the kidding-around with guns doesn’t fit the Kyle whom Cooper has shown us. I think that it would have been far more interesting to dramatize his death.


American Sniper might well have been hard for me to watch. The reverent presentation of Texan virtues always antagonizes me. But Cooper eschews reverence. So does Eastwood, at least until the very end, where clips from Kyle’s obsequies turn on the waterworks. Instead of making me question whether Kyle’s conscience ought to be as clear as it is — the issue for many viewers, I gather — Bradley Cooper made me wish that Texas could be spun off as a separate planet. Texas is a very large state, but it has to be, because it is also intensely inward. It has little or no use for the outside world. The principle Texan virtue is the ability to see Texas as the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful belief, but if you don’t happen to share it — if Texas brings to mind one of the darker books of the Bible, but one in which the language of King James has yielded to a drawling and immodest demotic, then you might wish that Texas were a great deal more otherworldly than it is.

Gotham Diary:
Not Too Early
21 January 2015

The call to arms:

We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early [emphasis supplied] to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.

That’s Leon Wieseltier, writing in a cover story, at The New York Times Book Review, that does not involve a book review. Marilynne Robinson might put it differently, but she, too, is urging us to put up courageous resistance to the ecstatic revolutionaries.

Wieseltier’s final statement sounds, in context, like an exhortation, but it is a statement of fact. How the would-be engineers have tried and failed! Aside from a great deal of suffering, they have accomplished nothing. But no: there is one good thing. They have proved, by their consistent failure, that we are each of us unique, unlike everyone else in some way or other. Of human beings generally, only two things can be said: they are born, and they die. Beyond that rages a blizzard of particular details. We are in fact universally particular — a paradox that neutralizes two ideas that are toxic in isolation.

We used to make idiotic statements, such as “Man is a rational animal.” That’s universalism. At the same time, we stated that human beings of varying description were not really men. That’s particularism. It’s good to know that ever-fewer thinking people make these mistakes.


Wieseltier offers a thumbnail syllabus of humanism. He begins with the idea that it comprises a history of thought that is taught with a view to making humanists of its students. This is both elegant and important, but it is not where I should begin. I should begin where Wieseltier ends, with “a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.” I should try to find another word for “values”; it has become confusing, in this age of free-market economics, to speak of moral values. Values are pricetags, statements of relative desirability. I should say, “self-evident truth.”

The moral truth of tolerance and compassion is self-evident because every rigorous challenge to it breaks down. The rigorous challenge is one that does not, to quote Wieseltier quoting, depend on “the importation of another framework of judgment” — a non-human framework. Such “imported” critiques of the human condition abound. All you need do is compare the human being to something more (momentarily) attractive. In modern times, the human being has been endlessly compared to and measured against the mechanical system. Why? Mechanical systems can accomplish great things — although you do have to be on guard against noxious side-effects. The worst of these, aside from all the insults to the environment, is that mechanical systems tend to make the people who control them very rich, and when you have been made very rich by a mechanical system, it is very tempting to prefer mechanical systems to human beings. The advantages of mechanical systems seem to proliferate: not only do they make you rich, but they can be controlled. They can be turned on and off. They can be adapted to new purposes. They can be adjusted to changing circumstances. They can be duplicated precisely. Best of all, they do not talk back. With mechanical systems, you know where you stand — and, if you control them, they make you rich. They make you less like a human being and more like a god. It becomes awfully easy to fall in love with yourself — which, the best tragedians assure us, leads always to tears.

Compared to mechanical systems, human beings are something of a shambles. But the comparison fails of rigor. Rigor requires us to judge human beings as human beings. How do we do that? We scarcely know. We begin simply, naively: those who are taller, stronger, and smarter than others are judged superior. Almost immedidately, these supposedly better human beings quickly learn how to behave badly. We refine our criteria, but the result is always the same: superiority leads straight to wickedness of some kind. The only way to guard against wickedness is to suppose an essential equality: no one is superior.

And, indeed, no one is. To prize the strength of an individual is not much different from prizing a mechanical system. Human nature is not involved. The “human nature” aspect of every gifted individual’s gifts is nothing but luck or good fortune, for all gifts begin with inborn aptitude. To judge yourself superior because of your aptitudes (and the effort that you have applied in developing them) is to cut yourself off from human nature, and that in turns deprives you of the only available expertise: for no one knows how to live except as a human being. It makes much better sense to be humbly lucky.

Every so often, along comes something new, such as circumnavigation of the globe, or the iPhone, and at least some human beings envision changes to human nature. Instead, human nature, given more scope, intensifies. Circumnavigation leads to slavery, but has no impact whatever on human nature, except perhaps to show it up more clearly. I have found the iPhone to be handy to the extent that it has extended the range of convenience — but not increased the instance of it. It is what I bring to the iPhone experience, not what it brings to mine, that makes it useful.

It is certainly not too soon to challenge the engineers who want to try to monetize the mind.

Gotham Diary:
Du Calme
20 January 2015

Usually, the difficulty is that I have nothing much to say, nothing ready to pour over the lip of my mind and splash onto the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but when I find it difficult to begin an entry, that is the problem. But it is not the problem this morning. This morning, I am stricken.

I am stricken by the pealing reverberations of having read The Transit of Venus and, for the first time, having understood what was going on in that book, including the horrific, but even more sad than horrific, final moment.

I am stricken by Leon Wieseltier’s call to arms in The New York Times Book Review. I am stricken by it, and inclined to read it as a call to arms, because I can still hear Marilynne Robinson urging courage upon the Nation staffers who recorded a discussion with her.

I am as stricken by these things as so many people seemed to be by the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher killings two weeks ago.


The Robinson interviewit was actually a Q & A — at The Nation made for embarrassing listening. The staffers, only partially identified — I caught the name of Deputy Literary Editor Miriam Markowitz, and I presume that the “John” who kicked off the discussion was John Palattella, the Literary Editor — did not speak particularly well. The women, as so many women do these days, made statements that sounded like questions — almost like apologies. The men correspondingly mumbled, as if terrified of giving offense. These presumably bright and literate people spoke as if they had no very clear idea of what they wanted to ask Marilynne Robinson. At the same time, they could not keep an unpleasant note of challenge entirely out of their voices. The one thing they seemed sure of was that they would not be, could not be hoodwinked. At the same time, they sounded — the men especially — as insecure as the rankest undergraduates.

I don’t think that it would have been much different anywhere else — not, that is, without sounding like a performance. This is how well-educated literate people talk today. They feel themselves to be under siege. Is anybody still reading? Has anyone bought a book lately? Has anyone received a piece of email that it was actually a pleasure to read?

The staffers seemed to be genuinely surprised by the relish with which Robinson embraces being a liberal. Politically, it may be that they found themselves further to the left than any liberal might be, but that’s not quite what it sounded like. What surprised and almost embarrassed them was Robinson’s cockeyed optimism about the United States, her expectation that it might go on to do great things.

Robinson has schooled herself, I suspect, to say as little as possible about the American South; when she mentions it at all, it is to remind us that they owned slaves down there. Her South is a swamp whose atmosphere is poisoned by racist miasmas. She barely hints that these exhalations have wafted north. In the Nation discussion, she attributed the collapse of liberalism to a “backlash” against the Abolitionist Movement, but she did not dilate. Certainly, as Louis Menand pointed out in his 2001 study, The Metaphysical Club, there was a surge of anti-idealism in American thought in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Thoughtful Americans abandoned speculative philosophy for pragmatism. Jim Crow was the price, paid by the very men and women that the late war had been thought to enfranchise. Now the cost of this pragmatism is more generally spread upon all of us. Just the other day, Maureen Dowd was complaining that filmmaker Ava DuVernay knowingly misrepresents the positive role played by LBJ in the Selma moment.

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.

DuVernay told Rolling Stone that, originally, the script was more centered on the L.B.J.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.”

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” she said.

Could it be that the ever-unspooling curse of racism has tarnished the old ideal of an open, free society for men and women of all colors with the tinge of imperialist presumption?

Marilynne Robinson writes about her childhood, and about the personal point of view that developed out of that childhood, as though she had grown up in a pre-lapsarian, or at any rate pre-pragmatic America, as indeed her corner of the Northwest (in Idaho) might well have been. The legacy of the Civil War is in some ways thinnest in that part of the country. In others — the density of Mormons, the popularity of guns — it is very thick. But we must not romanticize the liberal New England that means so much to Robinson. In 1850, Harvard Medical School students staged an effective protest that overturned the admission of black men.


I don’t see anything in the past, including the American past, worth trying to recapture. Even the most glorious developments are founded on mistakes, and we almost always fix our mistakes with new mistakes. Our inability to encompass the complications of earthly life is a sad fact of the human condition. I do believe, however, that our understanding grows. Sometimes, it even grows too quickly, as it is doing today in connection with environmental matters. There seems to be no way of grasping the encroachments of environmental degradation without flying into panic or sinking into despair. And yet they were altogether unimagined by our great-grandparents. At the same time, human agency played no role in the advent of the ice ages, great and small, that human beings have survived. The best one can do is to pray: du calme.

Gotham Diary:
16 January 2015

Yesterday, the dermatologist took five biopsies, two from my back, two from my forehead, and one from my right arm. Five. I have never had more than two taken at one time, and it’s certainly not the case that it has been a while since my last exam. Today came the good news that only two of the five are a problem, and the even better news that the dermatologist herself will burn one of them off — next week, right before I head a few blocks further downtown to the Mohs surgeon’s office, where a growth will be removed from over a cheekbone. (We’ve known about that one for a while, but there was no hurry and I asked to wait until after the holidays.) Good news, as I say — but it doesn’t have the punch that good news used to have. I don’t dwell on it morbidly, but I cannot overlook the fact that bad news, really bad news, cannot be too far off. It may even come unannounced.

The awful truth is that I didn’t turn sixty-seven last week. I turned “practically seventy.”


In this week’s issue of The Nation, there is a review of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (by Roxana Robinson), followed by excerpts from an interview with the members of the magazine’s staff. The full interview can be heard at TheNation.com/robinson-interview, and I’ve just listened to it. It lasts a little over an hour, and so far as the first half of the discussion goes, the excerpts capture Robinson’s thinking more effectively than the more tentative recording. But then Robinson goes on to discuss things that don’t come up in the excerpts at all, such as the relative excellence of American higher education (compared with that of France and the UK, where she has taught), or the oblivion that has descended upon the history of integrated communities in the North prior to the Civil War, or the essential un-Christianity of insisting upon compliance with established Christian doctrines. She talks a lot about courage, too — often the subtextual subject of the essays in When I Was A Child I Read Books. Not battlefield, fireman courage, but what I would call simple, everyday courage — mindful of the paradox. For Robinson, this sort of courage is not unlike physical fitness. If you exercise it, you can depend upon it. You get into good shape. You worry less about offending other people with your thoughtful views on important matters, and, as a result, your views become more thoughtful. As in her nonfiction (and as is implied throughout the Gilead trilogy), the American experiment is held to be a success, something to be proud of. “Liberal” is a good word, conveying the biblical injunction to “open wide thy hand.”

The whole history of liberalism as a movement was lost because the name was removed from the file. Do you know what that is? It’s cowardice: “I’m afraid to say a word that somebody else will react to badly.” How insidious that is! Unbelievable, to me.

Indeed, the audio is studded with what sound very much like moments of stunned silence. And this, in the offices of The Nation! It’s reminiscent of a story that Robinson tells about “preaching” in a Unitarian Universalist church: she was informed even there that the world “liberal” is no longer used.

And yet, listening to Robinson hammer away at this point (with a lovable, grandmotherly insistence that would be very well played by, say, Lois Smith, whom Robinson somewhat resembles), I began to ask myself if it had not been necessary to put the word liberal away precisely because it had for so long represented a movement, a movement disliked by many Americans. Unless the liberal movement were retired from public discourse (at the liberals’ bidding!), would it have been possible to tinker as extensively as we have done, in the past thirty years, with the status of women, with the freedom of men and women to act according to their sexual preferences, and even with our requirements for a President (a black man may well be followed in office by a white woman)? I talk of tinkering deliberately — particularly with regard to changes on the sexual-preference front. There may have been a movement to provide persons formerly known as homosexuals with heterosexuals’ rights, but even its most ardent adherents — perhaps those adherents most of all — were surprised by the speed with which, say, same-sex marriage has been legitimated throughout the land. This happened, I propose, not because of movements or activists, but because people of generous disposition did everything they could do, on a person-by-person basis, to persuade their neighbors that gays and lesbians are also their neighbors. They were already there, right next door, living their lives, and wanting only to live them more happily. It was the opposite of a movement. It required countless, countless acts of Robinsonian courage, particularly on the part of men and women who risked their oldest attachments by telling their families about themselves.

I do think that Robinson’s suggestion (whether she makes it intentionally or not), that liberalism be seen as a mainstream Protestant tradition, every bit as American as Washington at Valley Forge, is a beautiful one — as beautiful as her novels. What makes me bristle a bit is a certain elusiveness on Robinson’s part regarding Calvin and Augustine. Robinson says that it is un-Christian to exclude fellow men and women (such as her wonderful Lila) because they do not fully or clearly subscribe to “doctrine,” but she still wants to claim Calvin and Augustine, both of whom relied upon state power to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy, and both of whom were willing to coerce unto death, as Christians — important Christians. I don’t see how organized Christianity can regain its original holiness without drawing a line against the Calvins and Augustines who people its maturity. I don’t insist on chucking them out altogether, but they cannot be held up as models. They are important historical figures, yes. But we need other models for our piety. My suspicion is that new models will have to come from fiction — fiction very much like Lila. No human being in the real world could be so intimately and widely known to others and yet retain Christian humility.

But Marilynne Robinson herself is right up there with John the Baptist. (It can’t, however, go without saying: mutatis mutandis.)

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Nearby But Far Away
15 January 2015

One thing leads to another. Packing the books before the move, I came across Shirley Hazzard’s first novel, The Evening of the Holiday, and decided to re-read it. At least, that’s what I remember. My book-reading records (a newly-revived aspiration) make no mention of this, but, as I say, it was during the move. I remember thinking about the book constantly, a few weeks later, while I was reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, a very different novel but one that bears a strong sibling resemblance. Thanks to Amazon, I came across People in Glass Houses, which I’d never heard of. (I wrote about that last week.) It led me to Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case. Which led me, finally (for the moment), to JD McClatchy’s Paris Review interview with Hazzard. I had been looking at Hazzard’s Wikipedia entry, wondering what it might tell me about the reception of the Waldheim book. Here is what Hazzard herself has to say about it (and her other work of UN nonfiction, The Defeat of an Ideal) in the Paris Review interview:

I saw that the truth would never be disclosed except by someone who had been present and was willing to testify. I knew that I could get a book published, and knew where to look for the documents. In all my UN writings, the UN vituperation against me has never challenged the scholarly apparatus appended to the two factual books, and has never questioned any of the evidence adduced.

She mentions something that comes up in Countenance of Truth as well: in connection with a revealing piece that Hazzard wrote in 1980, Kurt Waldheim and his minions threatened the writer and The New Republic with a libel suit that never materialized. Later, of course, Waldheim would say of these charges (about his Nazi past), “Who cares if they’re true?” But he was still Secretary-General at the time of the New Republic piece. That he didn’t follow through with the lawsuit is clarion proof not so much that Hazzard’s allegations were true but that Waldheim could be sure that neither the UN nor the United States would take any notice. Waldheim had been tapped for the top slot at the UN not despite his past but because of it.

Countenance of Truth is a very chilling book. (I should clear up the possibility of confusion by noting that Hazzard was not present at the UN when Waldheim was Secretary-General, or even when he was Austria’s Permanent Representative to the Organization. Four-odd years elapsed between her “separation” and his arrival.) It argues that the United States, not long after the UN was established, perverted the character of its civil service, which had been intended by the Charter to be impervious to political pressures from member nations. (The US, then in the throes of McCarthyism, insisted upon loyalty clearances for Americans attached to the Secretariat.) Countenance also argues that this perversion resulted in the desolation of the UN’s powers as a force for the good of mankind. Finally, it argues that Waldheim, to no one’s ultimate suprise, presided over the irreversible demoralization of the UN. I find these arguments persuasive, but I am aware that anyone of a “realistic” cast of mind, by nature unsympathetic to the very idea of a United Nations Organization in the first place, would be reduced to eye-rolling by Hazzard’s implacable, smouldering outrage. And, for all its marble-veined eloquence — Countenance seems more chiseled than penned — the arguments are not quite so effective at conveying the existential futility of UN operations as the tragicomic fiction of People in Glass Houses.

The Paris Review interview filled me with the oddest feeling. As nothing else ever has, it made me want to have my life to live over again. This was not a feeling of regret but, on the contrary, one of repletion: it was like sitting in a warmly lighted room while snow fell gently into the evening outside a window. It had nothing to do with the different things that I would do or the things that I would do differently — with one exception. In this second-chance of a life, everything would be the same except that I should know, from the very start, that I was a reader. That I should be storing up not so much the content of books as the many-splendored possibilities of the written word. I say “written,” but I should know, as a reader, to read, always, with my ear.


What are you looking to change when you revise?


It is mainly a question of the ear. If one has read a lot, and especially in poetry, all one’s life, one’s ear signals falsity, infelicity, banality. What one can do about it is another matter.

And with that I sank back, surprisingly content. “If one has read a lot…” No more than I can have my life to live over again can I have started the first one with a good ear. Well, I did have a good ear, for music as well as poetry and prose (and for voices — I fall in love with them), but not an informed one. Necessarily not. So, instead of pining after what cannot be, I shall urge every young reader as strenuously as I can to read deeply and to listen well. I’m not offering this as advice for becoming a good writer, although I don’t believe that anyone who follows it could ever become a bad one, but simply as a tip conducive to joy.

Whatever she is doing — writing fiction about Italy or fact about the United Nations; remembering the austere Australia of her childhood (“provincialissimo”) or the everyday blisses of her life with Francis Steegmuller — Shirley Hazzard persuades the reader that she has enjoyed the hell out of literacy. So have I — lately. How marvelous it would be to have had a life in which the pleasure of reading were never for a moment regarded as idle or pointless or “irrelevant” or — the worst — self-indulgent.

Here in my hand is the first edition of The Transit of Venus, which I bought when it came out in 1980. I shall tell you frankly that I did not understand it. I was never in the dark about what was going on, but I didn’t know why the story was being told: it was beyond me. If I had my life to live over again, I should never be or have been so callow.

Intellectual Note:
Having My Own Way
14 January 2015

In this morning’s Times, I read the obituary of Carl Degler, a Stanford historian who died at a great age. I was assigned his book, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, at prep school, fifty years ago. I did not read it then or afterward, but I carted it around with me for decades. I doubt that I still have it, but I can’t be sure without checking the shelves here and in storage. I was faintly surprised to read that Degler was an early advocate of affirmative action and feminism, because, it’s clear, I thought that he was much older than he was, or at least a lot more than thirty-odd years older than I was.

Out of Our Past was a large, thick paperback, unusual in those days, and I was put off by the jacket art, which featured a gigantic eagle frowning with righteous indignation. The image had clearly been lifted from a publication of the Civil War era, and I don’t think that anything could have been a bigger turn-off. I found the mere thought of the Nineteenth Century oppressive — all those black, hot, wrinkled clothes! All that untidy hair! (I was responding to old photographs; it would be a long time before I understood that earlier periods of history appealed to me because they had not been subjected to the scrutiny of photography.) And there was always something bogus about the Civil War. If it had indeed been the triumph of justice and freedom that teachers said it was, you certainly couldn’t tell that from looking at social arrangements on the ground. Black people tended to be poor. (Unless they were entertainers — a euphemism that one ran into. “There must be a lot of entertainers in your building,” said my mother-in-law to Kathleen in 1980.) They lived in unlovely places. They were conspicuously absent from my suburban hometown (which was popular with Southern expats). Triumph of hypocrisy would be more like it.

I should have liked my country better had the Cold War not, throughout my childhood, provided Blimpish fools with so many speaking opportunities.

If I find that I still have Degler’s book, I will give it some respectful attention, notwithstanding its lethal subtitle.


I’ve been trying to sort out two very tangled but clearly distinct strands of anti-bourgeois passion. The simpler one is the political-philosophical tradition presided over by Karl Marx. (Is it important to know what makes Marxists different from Marxians?) It is easy to see why this adherents of this tradition don’t like the middle classes, and it’s just as easy to see how wrong-headed (because of idealism) their understanding of human nature is. The more complex and far more insidious hatred of the intellectuals is more difficult to grasp. Intellectuals were frequently, perhaps even usually, socialists or communists, but, as John Carey explains in his wonderful study, The Intellectuals and the Masses, they feared and loathed the proletariat. They did not seriously believe that, shackles thrown off, means of production seized, workers would ever understand the superiority of — intellectuals. The intellectuals’ fear and loathing of the bourgeoisie was quite different. Almost all intellectuals, as their mere possession of educations betrayed, sprang from bourgeois origins. This they hastened to conceal with robust denunciations of their roots.

I could have been a classic intellectual. My parents were steady, sensible people (although my mother did have a greater than normal allotment of something that she was always attributing to me, “flair”), while I was a lazy daydreamer who wanted nothing so much as to talk about books. I ought to have grown up full of contempt for my parents’ materialism. Instead, I developed a contempt for the quality of their materialism, which wasn’t very high. They had no interest in fine art — and by fine art, here, I mean the courtly arts of ancien régime Europe. They had no time for history, which, even then, I understood to be the explanation of things, real things in the real world. (Why did practical steam engines first appear in the Eighteenth Century, and not at some other time? For the matter of that, what does “practical” really mean?) I was, in short, a great deal more materialistic than my parents. My critique of their views came, ultimately, from the right, not from the left.

Which made me interested in aristocrats, a category of persons sincerely detested (and, even more, mistrusted) by my Midwestern parents, both of whom had been relocated to the New York area in the Thirties. Aristocrats were, obviously, very interesting. But it was also clear that, as a class, they had failed. It was probably unwise, I concluded, to put so much emphasis on the chances of birth and parentage. So it would be better to say that some aristocrats were interesting — probably not very many. And, then, only at a distance: what made many aristocrats interesting was their terrible behavior. And that shatterproof self-satisfaction! I’ve got a grand example right here. I’m reading Moon Tiger, the Penelope Lively novel that won the Booker Prize in 1987. The title, I fear, is hardly better than The Forces That Shaped Modern America, but the novel is a great read. Here is the protagonist’s mother’s complacent complaint about what her daughter is going to do next:

“Claudia is going to Oxford,” says Mother. “Of course quite a lot of girls do now and she has always been one for getting her own way.” (139)

I barked with laughter when I read it; typing it out just now, I barked again. Mother will be saying next that Claudia is condescending to do Oxford a favor.

A lot of young people, I read, worry during adolescence that they will never grow up and become physically adult — that they will be stuck in an outgrown tail of childhood. What I wondered about was whether I would become an intellectual. First of all, I wasn’t sure that I was smart enough. Oh, I was very smart and all that, but so was everybody else who counted. It was like that line in the episode of Lewis (Season 7, I believe) where the beautiful scientist says, “This is Oxford. We’re all clever.” Beyond that, I felt that I was missing a key component required for the intellectual makeup. It was like worrying about being gay — I was almost certain that I missed this piece of equipment. Or perhaps I had another piece of equipment that would interfere with my becoming an intellectual.

I didn’t know what it was until quite recently — what it was that prevented me from becoming an intellectual. I’ll try to say it as neutrally as possible: I am unable to believe that any idea is more real, more true, or more vigorous than the meanest human being. The attraction of endowing ideals with an overriding significance that is lacking in shambling men and women is clear enough, but so is the horror, especially after the first half of the last century. Equally fraught is the positing of groups and the assignment of membership in those groups to people you don’t really know. The only groups that any of us halfway understand are the groups to which we think we belong, and to the extent that we’re comfortable with those identifications, we ought to regard them as deformations.

So much for the high-minded angle. I am also too attached to living in clean and comfortable places, surrounded by agreeable objects and regular meals. Too bourgeois.

Beauty Mark:
The Diderot Distortion
13 January 2015

A word about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I’ve been very confused about them — until today.

Today I came to understand that “free speech” has nothing, aside from the matter of provocation, to do with the slayings. Free speech, as a right guaranteed by modern democratic states, can be infringed only by the state. A disagreement between private persons, as the terrorists and their victims were here, does not become more than that simply because one party said things that the other didn’t like. The killers had no right to kill the journalists or the hostages — let me be perfectly clear: these horrific crimes were absolutely unjustifiable — but they would have had no more or less a right to kill anyone at all, had the cause of the dispute been one of the myriad things that breed feuding neighbors, or an affair of the heart, or professional jealousy, or — anything at all. The journalists do not move to a special class of victims because they were “speaking out,” any more than a trapeze artist who falls to her death suffers a thereby more momentous fate.

But when it is the state that violates its citizens’ rights, which are supposed to be guaranteed by that very state, a killing — or any other oppressive action — is darkened by an order of magnitude.

It is true that states vary the interest that they take in preventing likely crimes. Where victims are poor or members of a minority group, states can be very remiss indeed. Such was not the case here, however. One of the victims was a police officer detailed to watch over the journalists.

What if the terrorists had opened fire on some shoppers at the Galeries Lafayette, and taken others hostage? What sort of discussion would we be having then? Almost certainly there would be more critical interest in the environment from which the killers sprang. No one would be satisfied by the pat explanation that Muslims hate consumer capitalism (although the followers of Sayyid Qutb do hate it). Instead, there would be a repeated outbreak of hand-wringing over the economic plight of Mégrebins stuck in the banlieues, such as erupted several years ago when youths took to burning cars. There might even be a clearer recognition that it is fatuous, in today’s media climate, to expect people of any age to be content with dead-end lives. Bleak economic prospects, so at odds with reality-TV lifestyles, are fueling a massive social resentment along lines last seen in Paris in 1871 — but by no means just in France.

That is the kind of discussion that we ought to be having. It would put a very different construction on the solidarity of European leaders linking arms in the Champs Élysées.


On page 36 of Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist writes of Denis Diderot’s art criticism, “These writings marked the beginning of the understanding of exhibitions as publicly received events whose contents could be assessed in terms of newness, originality, and vitality.” The sentence implies, what nobody is likely to contest, that newness, originality, and vitality are virtues integral to art.

But in fact they are merely virtues integral to news. News was what Diderot was providing — news about the art world, but news.

Borrowing a page from DIY enthusiast Obrist, I shall here instruct the reader to supply a paragraph about the warping effect of journalism upon public affairs. Hint: this warping effect is almost entirely the result of paying journalists to make boring and/or complicated matters readily apprehensible to the casual reader. Challenge: write a must-read, 100-word paragraph about Géricault’s Scene of Shipwreck — better known as The Raft of the Medusa.

My own very rough estimate is that a well-grounded mind can devote no more than 20% of its attention to news. Too much news, and the mind becomes topheavy, and capsizes in a sea of incoherence. Happily, there is not enough real news to take up 20% of anybody’s time. Sadly, this fact is concealed behind a blaring pageant of bogus news. Today, bogus news is often concerned with the doings of celebrities. In the Nineteenth Century, there was a lot of bogus news about Progress. Progress was understood to be a semi-divine afflatus that, like a beneficent wind, propelled the nations of the modern West toward ever-greater peace and prosperity. (There were still wars, but domestic peace increased very greatly.) The cascade of new inventions and conveniences was far more exciting than our recent discovery of the Internet. As regrettably extreme as today’s income inequality is, it has not yet repeated the excesses of the Gilded Age. The first time around, spectators were dazzled and shocked by the leaping power of millionaires and superpowers — you might well say that they were electrified.

Progress, which began to be noticed toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, reached its torrential climax two hundred years later. After World War I, only Americans could be heard talking about it. Americans alone seemed to think that anything good had come from the carnage and its termination.

One of the flowers of progress was photography, and its relation to art on the one hand and to journalism on the other makes for fascinating juxtaposition. In one blow, photography obviated the “progress” that painting had been making since the dawn of the Renaissance. The object of this progress was the realization of pictorial illusion, but the reduction of art to a problem of progress — the growing misunderstanding of painting as an activity preoccupied by illusions, ever more expertly captured by painters but never quite so completely as it was captured by photographers — was the doing of journalism. Journalism, always interested in the new, is a natural promoter of progress. Modern journalism, ever since the Thirties, has understood that progress can lead in the “wrong” direction, as it did with the rise of Hitler (widely seen as a progressive figure, at least until the fighting began). But it is fixated on discovering that things are steadily progressing in one direction or the other. And it compounds the problem by struggling to envision this progress in terms that any semi-literate person can easily grasp. Journalism as practiced by the minions of Rupert Murdoch is journalism at its most natural.

Photography, tagged by journalists with the totally incorrect assertion that the camera never lies, quickly became as important to journalism as words, and, in the age of television, much more important. Meanwhile, painting was no longer associated with progress. This had a liberating effect on painters. So did the enormous changes in the nature of patronage that followed the collapse of the ancien régime in which the idea of art had been given its distinctively Western stamp. Painting and art — two different things, as we shall see.

Beauty Mark:
Curation I
12 January 2015

Am I in a dream? No — I’m too aware of being confused. In a dream, confusion is normal and unremarkable. In waking life, confusion is a pain, and something of a madness.

I’m confused because I can’t find a spot of terra firma from which to survey what I see. Is Hans Ulrich Obrist, author of Ways of Curating, crazy? Or is it “just me”? I can’t be sure, because I might be blind.

Blind or blinded or at least blinkered by the environment in which I was brought up, a bourgeois environment in which manners and discretion were tremendously important, if too often distorted by hypocrisy and pointlessness. I have thought through and reformed my manners and my discretion in an attempt to make them sincere and purposeful. But I remain troubled by the belief, which I do not share, that they are somehow unnecessary or damagingly artificial.

Something even more important in the bourgeois environment is making sense. Making sense is not as simple as it sounds, because the rules for making sense are fed to bourgeois children along with their cereal, and only rarely examined consciously. Basically, it is a matter of observing the law — the laws of men and the laws of physics. Pennies must add up to dollars, and behavior must comport with standards of the permissible. If I say, “This is my house,” I must be able to support the statement with deeds and mortgage instruments. If I cannot do that, I am not making sense, no matter how justified I feel.

The bourgeois mind is uncomfortable with the claims of philosophy, because quite often they do not make sense. They describe things that ought to be the case, perhaps, but that aren’t in fact the case. They are not backed up by documents and accounts. They are just words in the air. The bourgeois mind is wary of speculation — curiosity without rigor, or whose rigor is limited to the organization of words.


Hans Ulrich Obrist is a fortysomething Swiss fellow. He seems to be a well-intentioned person, highly intelligent if a bit wide-eyed and somewhat humorless. By humorless, I mean that he appears to be capable of keeping a straight face while writing the following description of an exhibition (so to speak) at Zurich’s sewage museum, the Stadtentwasserung.

Cloaca Maxima, as the resulting exhibition was called, addressed themes that affect everyone directly. There were many connections to the permanent collection of the Stadtentwasserung itself, though the point of departure was the video by Fischli and Weiss, which consisted of real-time photographs from observation cameras in the sewers. According to Dominique Laporte’s A History of Shit (1978), waste in Western societies has been gradually domesticated and, hence, banned from public view, the high point being the nineteenth-century hygienist movement. Laporte theorizes that the absolute division between the economy (as the site of filth) and the state (as the site of purity, with an all-filtering sewer) separated the private still further from the public, thereby reinforcing their borders.

Art, by contrast, situates itself within transitions and passages; it opens up opportunities for the public incursions into the private and vice versa. Excrement is freed of its negative connotations by being employed discursively. Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (small sealed cans, each said to contain 30 grams of the artist’s shit) plays with exactly this kind of alchemical transformation — reinforced by the fact that the price per can was comparable to the price for 30 grams of gold.

Whoa! You lost me at Laporte’s theorizing!

Ways of Curating abounds in statements of this kind. They are held, maddeningly, to be self-evident, in no need of argument. (This hermetic quality is reinforced by the reiteration of the names of certain artists and thinkers, some but not all of whom will be familiar to the general reader. They rather powerfully convey the sense that Obrist lives in a bubble.) The most shocking thing about Ways of Curating, however, is Obrist’s bland assumption that he is talking about Art.


Regular readers will be familiar with my contention that “conceptual art” is a contradiction in terms, and also with my frustration at failing to suggest a plausible replacement. Good news. Not only has reading Ways of Curating sharpened my grasp of the issue, but Obrist may even have helped me to find a better term. The term that I propose to take the place of “conceptual art” is “cultural fiction.” This new term underlines the one thing that I did know about “conceptual art,” which is that it is a branch of literature. Sooner or later, what’s called conceptual art comes down to a statement, in words, of the concept(s) involved in the work. Sometimes, the statement appears in the work itself; more often, it appears on an explanatory title card, or in a philosophical essay in the accompanying catalogue. In Obrist’s world, the statements come not only sooner than later but often in lieu of actual work. Among the handful of words that stud nearly every page of Ways of Curating toolbox (a deplorable vogue word that insults real craftsmen, plumbers included), laboratory, and interstices are three — the standout is conversation.

At a café in Paris one late morning in the spring of 1993, I was talking to the artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier. I was twenty-four. We were discussing a particular kind of art, one that had grown remarkably over the last century: art that included not only objects to be displayed, but instructions to be executed. This, we agreed, had challenged traditional understandings of creativity, authorship, and interpretation. Boltanski and Lavier had been interested in such practices since the early 1970s; both had made many works that presented directions for action to the viewer, who became the work’s performer as well as its observer. This kind of art, Lavier pointed out, gave the viewer a measure of power in the making of it. He added that the instructions also gave life to his works, in a very real sense: they provoked not silent contemplation, but movement and action, amongst the visitors to museums or galleries in which they were displayed. Boltanski saw the instructions for installations as analogous to musical scores, which go through countless repetitions as they are interpreted and executed by others.

Starting with Marcel Duchamp, we began to list instruction-based artworks that came up as we talked…

I don’t want you to think that I find the idea of “instruction-based artwork” silly — I don’t, even if it has nothing to do with art. But isn’t it clear here that the truly exciting thing is the conversation, the rush of ideas, the list of names? Can’t you feel the heady enthusiasm of what in my college days was called a bull session? The show that Obrist went on to design, do it, was structured so that such conversations would have to take place before its installation in another city: the design was deliberately incomplete. Everything that could be done to reduce an “art exhibition” to the ephemerality of a conversation was done. Permanence in time and space was scrupulously resisted. Obrist happens to be a conscientious archivist of his conversations, but the difference between having a conversation and reading a transcript of that conversation is almost precisely the difference between writing a novel and reading it. The writing of a novel is quite literally exhausted, emptied, evaporated when the manuscript is bundled off to the publisher. It can be remembered (by the author only) but never re-experienced. That is what Obrist prizes about his toil in the fields of art.

Another recurring motif in Ways of Curating is the chronicle of first meetings that Obrist has had with artists and other art-world figures. In many cases, these meetings took place when Obrist was still in his teens. He has been not only drinking but bottling this Kool-Aid for a very long time.

As the great actress says near the end of Being Julia, “Not remotely.”

Gotham Diary:
9 January 2015

I went to the Museum yesterday. I had to: I needed a desk calendar for 2015. Ordinarily, I order calendars for the coming year in the early summer, but I missed out on this year’s membership offer, if there was one, and in the crush of events from Labor Day on failed to stop in at the gift shop. I visited the Museum once during that time, in October, but I remember staying away from the gift shop, lest I be enticed to buy books.

I could have done an in-and-out at the gift shop without admission to the Museum proper, but the thought of my poor little passport — a small Field Notes notebook in which I paste admission stickers, as if saving up enough stickers would entitle me to the meiping vase that I’ve got my eye on — obliged me to start off the new year with a new sticker, and simple decency required me to put the sticker to use before pasting it in the passport. What to see, though? I was in the middle of running errands, not idling away the afterenoon. I scanned the posters for current shows, and decided on Thomas Struth.

Thomas Struth is a photographer who plays at being a conceptual artist. He takes stunning photographs, many in large format, and there is really no need to know anything about his subjects beyond gratifying the mortal itch to learn dates, locations, and perhaps the names of people. But the title cards on the wall are stuffed full of what lawyers call “surplusage” — no matter how interesting it might be, this information is irrelevant — irrelevant to the consideration of photographs, that is.

Take, for example, Struth’s photograph of a group of men and women standing in front of ranks of old-master paintings. The composition is still and grave but not without a certain winking wryness; the photograph could pass for a minor masterpiece by Irving Penn. We’re told that the people are art restorers, and that they’re shown in the old refectory of a monastery attached to the Italian cathedral in which the paintings normally hang. The restorers are not named, but we are also told — and this is where the surplusage begins — that Struth photographed only those restorers whom he had gotten to know, whatever that means. As I recall, the card blathered on to tell us that this personal familiarity with the people he shoots adds world-historical significance to his work.

You will have seen his large-format portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. I daresay Struth believes that he got to know them, too. To the extent that such a belief wasn’t fatuous — all good portraitists “get to know” their sitters, not in the way that you and I might know one another, but as visual expressions of character — it would be impertinent, as Her Majesty, qua queen, is not there to be known. Some viewers, her subjects among them, might regard her as the heir of minor German aristocrats who have been imposing themselves on the people of Britain for centuries — an old lady with astonishing pretensions. It is arguable that Thomas Struth might actually get to know this woman. But most of us see a long-reigning monarch, the visual expression of a very grand sense of duty. We will allow this exponent of regality to have a measure of private life, but we will define that private life as something that we can never see. As Helen Mirren said of The Queen, we’ll never know how Elizabeth and her family felt about the film — even if they all write about it in their private diaries. Elizabeth Windsor might keep a diary, but Elizabeth Regina does not and can not.

In the middle of the Struth exhibit, there is the arresting photograph of a body cinched to a gurney and tethered by a multitude of cables and tubes to a menacing block of equipment. The situation is presumably medical. The card tells us about the cancer that was oppressing the patient’s optic nerve, about the successful outcome of the surgery that took place after this photograph was taken, and it even assures us that Struth had the patient’s permission to take and to exhibit the photograph. The card adds that Struth was interested in showing the vulnerability of the body in modern medical environments, as though the danger were coming not from a tumor but from the equipment. It is true that equipment can malfunction and cause death, and that many medical procedures are plainly dangerous. But equipment is never attached, nor procedures undertaken, gratuitously. Medicine is our defense against illnesses that are no less dangerous.

Struth’s photograph necessarily misses this point. We don’t see the cancer. If the patient were bleeding, we might well conclude that the equipment had induced it, not some trauma experienced elsewhere. We can see that the patient is helpless, but we can’t tell why, not from the photograph. And that is what is wrong with this picture. Charité, Berlin (2013) is a fantasy image that exploits and renders sensational a moment that is not meant to be seen, just as the Queen is not meant to be known. What I mean by this is that the only people who are allowed to see patients in this patient’s circumstances are family members and medical personnel. The family members will not be seeing a helpless mass of flesh on a gurney, but a known and perhaps deeply loved human being about to undergo a perilous trial. The medical personnel, knowing what every wire and tube is there for, will see just the opposite: someone who, for the moment, is not in distress. The surgeons will probably not see the patient at all, but only a challenge. All of these people — wives, children, nurses, technicians, and surgeons — will be too heavily invested in the patient’s welfare to see what we, the museum-goers, see. The power of what we see, moreover, stems directly from our ignorance of all the things known to doctors and family members. All we see is a body.

Having been such a body myself, having passed through similar circumstances prior to neck surgery, I feel the utter meaninglessness of Struth’s photograph, and its borderline obscenity, very keenly.

At one end of the Struth show, there is a superlative photograph that, in its extraordinary clarity, precludes any need to peek at title cards. The photograph is large, but not as large as other by this artist. It shows a group of tourists standing in the Pantheon. More eloquently than any schematic diagram or architectural rendering, it illustrates the near-perfection of classical proportions. The height of the drum supporting the temple’s dome — a height that is given quasi-human expression by the pillars at the niches — is such that it exalts those who stand inside it, and does not overpower them. The Pantheon materializes the potential for greatness that we all feel inside ourselves; it does not, despite the building’s notional purpose, crush us with the power of extraterrestrial gods.

I have never set foot in the Pantheon, and although I should very much like to do so, it wouldn’t matter if I had a very different sort of experience in the event. I have seen Struth’s Pantheon, and it tells me something as wonderful as it is beautiful.

Bon weekend à tous!

Householding Twaddle:
Mr Wrayburn
8 January 2015

There is, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Cambridge novel, The Gate of Angels, an amusingly irritating character called Mr Wrayburn. Mr Wrayburn is a don, and so would his wife be, too, if the graduates of the women’s colleges were awarded degrees, which, in 1912, the year in which the novel is set, they were not. Mrs Wrayburn is not much of a housekeeper, but she keeps up appearances, and perhaps the most important appearance is indicated when Mr Wrayburn first comes on the scene.

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The context of this “worrying” is of course the world of household matters. Mr Wrayburn is surprised, and somewhat put out, to find that his wife has given shelter to two victims of a vehicular accident that occurred outside their suburban home. In fact, Mr Wrayburn does a lot of worrying; he is a worrywort. But what “worrying” means here is that he never has to make the beds or wash the dishes, or even to think about how beds might be made and dishes washed.

This was the secret of Victorian productivity. Men — dons and divines especially — were not to be disturbed from their high-minded work by so much as the idea of domestic travail. They wrote and researched, discussed and dissected, while such creature comforts as they desired were rolled before them, quite as if they were infants being looked after by a magic carpet. It is to be imagined that there must have been one or two things that they were forced to see to on their own. On the whole, though, their homes were little palaces, with at least one housemaid scurrying about with trays. Once a year, they would give their wives a certain sum of money, or inform them that such a sum was available at such and such a banker’s; and that would be that for their “worrying” about bills. No wonder the triple-decker novel and the multi-volume history flourished!

One thing I have never read about, however. I have never come across a scene or a passage in which one of these pampered gentlemen has to rearrange his library to accommodate new books. Perhaps new books were also part of the occluded worrying. Having been appointed to your more or less august post, you stopped the inflow of new books altogether, and simply enhanced your familiarity with the ones already on your shelves, the books that such a person as yourself ought already to own. New books might be disturbing. Mr Wrayburn certainly seems to be the kind of man who would not care to make surprising discoveries in later life. In any case, library management, like all matters of plumbing, goes unmentioned in the literature of the period.

As I say, Mrs Wrayburn is not very good at worrying, which means that she worries all the time instead of getting things done. “She looked at the sink, loaded down with  all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals in the house.” The contemplation of such drudgery is precisely what Mrs Wrayburn studied her way through Newnham to avoid. There follows a little catalogue aria of knickknacks (“knife-rests for knives, fork-rests for forks”) that I have seen quoted in toto at least twice. Although I had already decided against joining the party, I thought I’d have another look at the passage, which is full of stuff that I’d like to see (“cut glass blancmange dishes”), so I stood up to fetch the book. As I was getting up anyway, I took the bowl containing the dregs of this morning’s Purely O’s to the kitchen, where I soon found myself emptying the dishwasher. Almost everything belonged in the kitchen, but there were two pasta plates and, a leaf-shaped plate on which I’d served garlic toasts, that belonged in the dining ell, and I decided to put them away first. The moment I left the kitchen for the dining ell, I remembered that I was supposed to be writing, but when I came back to the desk I realized that I had forgotten to fetch The Gate of Angels, which, in the event, was on the writing table right behind me.

The writing table, as I mentioned yesterday, is in furious disarray. In the Victorian household, whose job would it be to tidy it up? Whose worry? I expect that there was always a handful of worthies gifted with intelligent spinster sisters-in-law who might be put to secretarial work. A sister-in-law would be better than a sister, I fancy, coming as she would under the yoke of matrimonial obedience; a sister might take an independent line. I wonder if there are any good, readable studies out there, applying sociology to literature, that canvas the domestic lives of prosperous scholarly men in the good old days.

The reason for the disarray on my desk — aside from the pile-up of minor negligences that precede and follow travel — is my decision to stop using Quicken to keep track of credit-card purchases. This sudden abandonment of software that I’ve been using for as long as I can remember was triggered by a nasty glitch, as the result of which I lost nearly a month’s inputs. The backup files were corrupted as well. Once again — as with saying sayonara to ReaderWare — I found that an application designed to “automate” everyday life was more trouble than it was worth. I shall continue to pay bills with checks printed by Quicken, but I’m going to keep track of the receipts in Evernote, just as soon as I decide how I want to do that. Meanwhile, the slips of paper pile up.

I accomplished yesterday’s job, to Kathleen’s satisfaction. I may now wrap up the Christmas tree in a plastic dropcloth and carry it down to the service elevator. Then I shall take a good broom to the carpet — no need to choke the vacuum cleaner with the bulk of the needles. By dinnertime, and without much fuss, the foyer will be back to normal. I’ll be having dinner by myself, actually, as Kathleen has one of her institutionary dinners.

No worries.

Reading Note:
7 January 2015

Normal life resumes today, but somewhat shakily. In order to celebrate my birthday at dinner last night, Kathleen had to work on a document until well past two in the morning; it was nearly three when we turned out the lights. Kathleen had had the good idea of ordering a car to take her into work, and she was out of bed at a quarter past eight. She threw herself together somehow and got out the door, leaving me to sink back into another three hours’ sleep. Not that anybody made me stay up late.

My job for the day is to remove the ornaments from the tree. Kathleen has already taken down the old and delicate ones, and she will check tonight to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. Tomorrow, I shall wrap the tree in a dropcloth and carry it down to the service elevator. The foyer will soon be set to rights — but that is tomorrow’s job. There is also a great deal of ironing to do. I sense that I have run out of resistance to this chore — as well as pressed napkins and handkerchiefs. My writing table is in great disorder, and I’ll have plenty of paperwork to attend to between now and Friday.

In the Times, I read that Mark Zuckerberg has launched a sort of book club, with his first title being The End of Power, by Moisés Naím. I haven’t determined whether this book addresses power from a perspective that will illuminate those mysteries of power that interest me most. These unexplained aspects cluster round two very different phenomena. The first is the problem of the powerful leader who, over time, shakes free of advisers who counsel moderation, who warn him (or her — Mrs Thatcher crossed this event horizon) against making shows of strength out of weaknesses of character, such as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is doing with his patriarchal comments on the place of women in society. Erdoğan fascinates me even more than he horrifies and disappoints me: he has been positively poisoned by power. He seems to have abandoned his checkered attempts at playing world statesman and taken up the more familiar but also more tiresome role of Tyrant of Turkey. Power has made him cease to care whether he is interesting.

The other locus of power that intrigues me is the much subtler exercise that this virtue gets in the realm of bureaucracy. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but bureaucracy was once upon a time a great improvement over previous arrangements, which tended toward the ad hoc and draconian. There have always been clerks, of course, at least wherever there has been money, but bureaucracy as we understand it is a modern invention with the most high-minded aims. Designed to minimize the impact of human caprice and to assure the realization of stated objectives, it has refashioned executive operations in every field. Unfortunately, it has failed to refashion its primary working material, which is human nature. Humans remain capricious, beset by common vices, and the history of bureaucracy is one of double subversion, first of those stated objectives (not the bridges and canals but the “abstractions,” justice and prosperity), and then of the bureaucracy itself. Like so many modern social reforms, bureaucracy harbors the hope that human beings might be induced to behave more like machines.

Would computers do a better job of running things? I’m not particularly worked up by anxieties over The Singularity, but I’m not keen on handing power over to machines, either, partly because they can be hacked but mostly because they are, after all, designed by human beings. What I think would be helpful is a new kind of Operating System, one that was not designed with somebody’s corporate profits in mind. Instead of offering blandly helpful friendliness, my proposed system would work like the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, except that it would not wait to be asked how things were going. Programmed to recognize instances of misjudgment, it would intone, perhaps in the voice of the late Alec Guinness, sympathetic but stern admonitions. You must promote the gifted staffer, not the one you’re cheating with. There would be no way to disable these lectures, which might go on for some time, as past, not necessarily related errors were itemized in scrupulous detail. My OS wouldn’t make us better people, but it would provide a corrective to our haphazard, often quite demented memories.

In addition, memoranda of these wisdom sessions would be delivered to all immediate subordinates.


For the time being, we must make do with novels. There are precious few good novels about bureaucracy, whether the vast and impersonal ones of Kafka’s nightmares or the intimate, chatty hardball court of Joshua Ferriss’ brilliant first novel, And Now We Come to the End. I just discovered another one the other day, and the most surprising thing about it was that I had never heard of it, even though I’ve read all of its author’s other fiction. I speak of Shirley Hazzard’s 1967 People in Glass Houses, a satire on the United Nations. (I would have been a little too young to read it with pleasure when it appeared, in different form, in The New Yorker.) Most satires exaggerate things that happen, but Hazzard does something else: she exaggerates the precision of normal attentiveness. Rarely have I been so viscerally reminded of a surgical theatre, but instead of blood everywhere, there are human failings of every shape and size and hue, most of them fairly venial.

People in Glass Houses is a sequence of eight self-contained stories, linked by recurring characters and the constant background of the Organization. The UN is never named, nor New York City or the East River, although both are described, at least as seen from the Organization campus. (The Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City becomes a plug for “Frosti-Cola.”) Hazzard isn’t being coy, or attempting the stunt of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (set in an unnamed but unmistakable Venice); rather, she’s locating her novel in a land of wishful thinking. The heart of the matter is laid out early in the first story, which, like the last, concerns the “separation” of a staff member.

The Organization had bred, out of a staff recruited from its hundred member nations, a peculiarly anonymous variety of public official, of recognizable aspect and manner. It is a type to be seen to this very day, anxiously carrying a full briefcase or fumbling for a laissez-passer in airports throughout the world. In tribute to the levelling powers of Organization life, it may be said that a staff member wearing a sari or kente was as recognizable as one in a dark suit, and that the face below the fez was as nervously, as conscientiously Organizational as that beneath the Borsalino. The nature … of the Organization was such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way or life, no marriage or involvement in war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves in the world. It was this process of subordination that was to be seen going on beneth the homburg or turban. And it was Algie’s inability to submit to this process that had delivered his dossier into the hands of Mr Bekkus at the Terminations Board.

The Organization, in short, has become preoccupied, like all large organizations, with the problem of operating itself. Its stated goals, the objectives that it was established to implement, necessarily fall to secondary status.

One of my favorite moments in the novel occurs in the sixth story, “Official Life.” Olaf Jaspersen, a moderately senior pooh-bah, encounters a Mr Nagashima, one of his subordinates, in the elevator.

Striking a personal note, Jaspersen inquired, “Your daughter at college now?”
“He’s at the university, yes.”
“I thought —”
“Yes, yes. Just the one son.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Humanities,” Nagashima nodded, smiling.
“Only the one play?” asked Jaspersen, who thought he had said “Eumenides.”
Nagashima beamed. “Yes. Yes.” The elevator stopped…

Moments later, Jaspersen is telling his Chief that Nagashima “was telling me about his daughter — turning into quite a classical scholar it seems.” My Operating System would be waiting for Olaf Jaspersen when he got back to his office.

Late Bloomer Note:
6 January 2015

Happy Birthday, old bean. I know for a fact that you never thought you’d make it this far. (While at the same time blithely sharing youth’s belief in immortality.)

This has long been my favorite picture of me. It captures how I feel when something interesting and exciting comes up — nowadays, generally, in a book. I want to read it aloud, share it with somebody. The image has been lost in layers of files transferred from one computer to another — and as to where the original snapshot is, who knows? I consider it an auspicious sign for the New Year that I made the effort to track this down and found it.

Run your cursor over the image to discover its title — which ought to embarrass me, but doesn’t; rather the reverse. By the time I was old enough to speak English, I was told that I had been an adorable baby. That my adorableness had regrettably evaporated since then seemed to be the implicit point of this praise.

And now, to find myself in the orbit of seventy! Dissonance in the music of the spheres: while the Times is full of obituaries marking lifetimes not so very much longer than mine to date, my conviction, as uncritical as this child’s eagerness, is that life is just beginning.

Or is it, perhaps, relief that the beginning is finally over? Now I really begin.


As we walked into the apartment last night, after my first time away from it, I was “shocked by its beauty.” (Hat tip to Lillian Roberts.) Hitherto, my idea of roughing it had been living at home. Now I thought: wow, all the comforts of hotel suite, plus being at home. Or vice versa.

Sadly, however, room service has not been introduced with the New Year. One remains reduced to restaurants. I’ve just taken our former/upstairs neighbor out to lunch at the Café d’Al, and then made a reservation for dinner at Demarchelier with Kathleen. I must nevertheless run across to Fairway for groceries. How I wish I could think of Fairway as a colorful local market that I visit every day in search of the best ingredients. Talk about pretty to think so! All that distinguishes Fairway from Times Square Station is grime and uneven lighting. On the plus side (for Times Square), subway riders usually know where they’re going and how to get there. This is probably the most sexist thing that I am ever going to say — indeed, I hope that it is — but the world would be a better place if women relied on the Internet and Fresh Direct, and left in-store shopping to men. Children requiring carriage ought to be banned. They were, informally, when I was a child, and Eisenhower was winning the Cold War. Exceptions will be made for infants who can demonstrate a desire to go shopping.

San Francisco was different this year — rather, it was back to being the same old strange place. Last year, Thanksgiving 2013, was so oddly disappointing; everything that made San Francisco unlike other American cities appeared to have evaporated, leaving only the terrain. It was probably a mistake to stay at the Fairmont, which had indeed become very ordinary in the fifty years since my previous visit. This time, we stayed at the St Francis, which my mother always looked down on. It had its motellian edges — the elevators, which required room-key cards, were kludgy, and there were no real doormen — but we were very comfortable, especially in bed, and the Oak Room, the hotel’s default restaurant, served rather good food in a richly-paneled dining room. Say what you like, but the hotels of the modern West have been our palaces of democracy, where anybody with sufficient simoleons could be king for a day. An astonishing number of modcons have made their first appearances at hotels, although don’t ask me, after my nice lunch, to list any. (Take, rather, the doubting-Thomas position of M le Neveu: “Egyptian beer? Pshaw!” Then see what happens.) The best hotels are still engines of advance, but not, I fear, on the old humane front of grandeur and comfort. Even if the grandeur is all but in ruins, the St Francis remains a monument to the advances of the past that gave us the “grand hotel.” There is even, for example, an occasionally-manned shoe-shine stand.

Right outside the door is Union Square, which is what such a square would be like if it were in front of the Museum, or, even better, the museum on the other side of the park, plus a lot of stores. As a central plaza it is hopeless, most of it hidden away on shrub-screened terraces, and the palm trees send the wrong message. (The underground parking lot, once so progressive, has become a monument to the folly of the last century.) Union Square seems imported from somewhere else, but then, so does ours here in New York. (A sardonic comment on what “union” really stood for? Secular, materialist commercialism?) It did when I first laid eyes on it fifty years ago. But it’s a convenient location.

We went shopping, twice. The first and far more serious round took us to Gump’s and to Rochester. Rochester, which sells quality clothes for men of my build (and bigger, much bigger), has a branch in Midtown Manhattan, and I’ve been meaning to get to it, what with the state of my belts and my sock drawer, but the branch in San Francisco is the first one that I patronized — I don’t think that they’d opened in New York back then — and it was somehow easier to get to (at Mission and Third) than 52nd Street (or is it 51st?). As it happened, the branch is about to close, not because the rent has gone up but because the building is coming down. Everything was 20% off. I bought a Calvin Klein topcoat and a Jack Victor sportsjacket. The salesman, appreciating my feeling for color, dug the jacket out of the back. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that it suggests a somewhat distant wooded hillside seen through a light fog at the peak of autumn, only with the sky blue mixed in with the colors of the leaves. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kathleen fell in love with it even quicker than I did. I also bought a Robert Talbot tie that will attract a lot of attention when I wear it to a cocktail party. How to say “flame stitch electric purple” without evoking the Seventies? Which I assure you it doesn’t.

At Gump’s, we went straight to the display of table lamps and found a salesman to sell us the small trophy lamp that we wanted to buy last time we were in town but didn’t. What we had done was to copy down all the numbers on the ticket, and a lot of good that did. While the lamp was being written up and the shipping address noted down, Kathleen found place mats. They were somewhat nicer versions of the place mats at the Oak Room that I had shortly before commented on at lunch. “Now, this is the sort of thing we need,” I’d said. Now we have eight of them. We took them with us.

The other shopping expedition was a quick tour up and down Grant Street. I shall have to describe the romance of Chinatown some other time; it is the romance of a memory. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find a marvelous little metal box featuring a woman in Chinese opera getup next to the words “Random CRAP from Here and There.” The box wouldn’t begin to hold all the random crap from here and there that’s in this house even after the move, but it’s coy enough to place in the living room, and a suitable container for the best of my random crap. It’s a start.

Gotham Diary:
2 January 2015

Here we are in the year P. Although I never believed that there would be a Y2K disaster, I wasn’t happy about all the zeroes that the new century was going to impose on filenames in YYMMDD format — as most of mine are. (Letters, photographs, and most other documents are filed by date, in appropriate subdirectories.) Bearing in mind my age, should I live to need the letter Z, I decided to turn to the alphabet instead.

Perhaps it is time to revert to conventional figuration: instead of being P0102, today might be 150102. Especially since I already tripped over the alphabet and named the photograph above “N0102,” as if the year N had never been. It is time, I conclude, to be conventional whenever being conventional is simpler. This conclusion prompted our decision not to paint the walls of the new apartment. They had just been painted, in what we both found to be a depressingly drab mushroom color when the apartment was empty, but that quickly revealed itself as a decorator’s miracle hue, subtly changing in different lights and borrowing (or complementing) the colors of nearby objects. The lease obliges the management to repaint the apartment every so often, but only in its chosen shades — which is how we went eighteen years without fresh paint in most of the apartment upstairs. No more of that, say we!

Sticking to conventions is also helpful when you’re tired, and we’re still very tired. Not as tired as we were yesterday, or on Wednesday night as we were packing. We’ve had a good night’s sleep in our comfortable hotel bed, and a lazy morning over room-service breakfast. But we’re tired, and it shows. I have not been quite lazy, actually; I have finally set up an account with Uber. This is something that I have meant to do since Thanksgiving 2013, because it is the only way to get a ride from Outer Sunset back to downtown San Francisco. Setting up the account and installing the app on the iPhone are more or less straightforward processes, but I encountered difficulties installing the app, because I could not remember my iTunes password. Only after a great deal of moaning and groaning did I remember where I might find it. Then I forgot the password that I had just used to set up the Uber account! With a little guesswork, I recaptured it, but this time I made a note of it where I found the iTunes password.

We shall give Uber a try when it’s time to go out to Sunset for dinner. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll take a taxi and I’ll get Megan or Ryan to show me what I’m doing wrong. Either way, the ride home will be on us. It felt pretty dreadful to have to ask Megan to arrange the ride last night.

We found everyone well, and a great deal more relaxed than we were. (You can’t relax if you’re really too tired, even though that’s exactly what you need to be doing.) Will blew out all the candles on his birthday cake in one go. (Because Megan was short of matches, we used a piece of uncoooked spaghetti to light them all.) Tomorrow, we’re going to go shopping to buy him the serious presents that he really wants. Superheroes are involved. Remind me to write about Megan’s fascinating thoughts about the importance of superheroes for the moral guidance of children Will’s age — I need a few days to let them sink in.


It’s a good thing to be in San Francisco, good both to be here and not to be there, at home in New York, if only for a weekend. We had reached a natural break time in settling in to the new apartment, and the coincidence of the year’s beginning contributes a symbolic oomph. Life in the hotel room, while comfortable enough, has a certain desert-island quality. Or perhaps the quality is monastic: few of the special comforts of home are on offer. I can’t make a fresh pot of tea at will — I could have one sent up, but it would be strange and expensive — and I haven’t got any music on hand, having decided not to lug iPods and their accoutrements for just a few days. There is also the simplicity of a retreat in the withdrawal of everyday routines. Laundry, grocery-shopping — they’re not there to forestall the encroachment of boredom, which in this case would be the inability to think about what I’ve got think about.

And what have I got to think about? Right now, it seems time to organize all the things that I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years, not only because all of them seem to be profoundly interrelated — the worrisome tell-tale sign, I’m aware, of the paranoid mind — but because the interrelationships occlude conventional standards of importance. In my new view, it is not always more important to think about art than it is to think about closets; moreover, there may well be a connection between the two. Books pose the most formidable example of widely distributed significance. The problem of finding shelf space for books seems mundane enough, but at a certain point in life it becomes anything but, by involving the very question of book ownership itself. Why have a personal library? And why have a personal library in what appears to be a new era of virtual books, which occupy so very little physical space that they seem to be positively immaterial? The worth of a personal library is very much an unexamined idea.

As I organize these newly-examined ideas, I have to decide on a rubric, and here, too, I range between the unglamorous particularity of “householding” and the intoxicating ether of “humanism.” From an academic standpoint — and it is still the academic standpoint that determines the worth of any serious discussion — householding utterly lacks the importance of humanism; but I have determined that this valuation is an uninformed prejudice, and there’s no doubt that my “subject” is the continuity that I find between everyday questions of household management and no less everyday questions about decency, self-respect, and generosity that, for me, comprise the interactions of human beings in a healthy world. As I sort my observations, which labels will be most helpful?

Bon weekend à tous!

Holiday Dispatches:
New Year, Indeed
24-29 December 2014

Gaspingly late, early Christmas morning

Our lovely tree doesn’t look like this anymore. It has been covered with ornaments, beautifully decorated by Kathleen and Ray Soleil. The tree looks so good, in fact, that I can only think that we must have a party, so that everyone we know can come to see it. But I know that that’s not what’s important for Kathleen.  She doesn’t need an audience.

We had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner. I was very ambitious. We began with a ravioli dish that would have been super had the ravioli been cooked enough; they were slightly underdone. The salmon mousse course was a complete success, perhaps because no cooking was involved. Then there was a break. I sent all the diners back out into the living room — Kathleen and Ray to decorate the tree, Fossil to do something undetermined with his smartphone — while I prepared the main course, Beef Stroganoff. A moderate success, I must say; no more. Then the bûche, about which the less said &c. A great Christmas dinner, however. Kathleen and Ray decorated the tree as though they’d grown up together.


Boxing Day

And that was all that I could manage to write, late Wednesday night. I composed it, as if out of stone blocks, while the dishwasher took care of the pots and pans. By the I gave up and left the book room, the dishwasher was ready for the china and glassware. I managed not to break anything.

Yesterday, I was not particularly capable. Without complaint, however, I got dressed and paid visits. On the way our friend who lives near Hunter College, I left my very nicest wool cab in the taxi. I’ve been trying out various means of tracking it down, but right off the bat I can tell you that the nice people at 311 don’t have the correct phone number for the company that owns the medallion attached to the cab in which I lost my personal property. Nor, armed with the company’s name, could I find a phone number on the Internet. I still haven’t decided whether to pay $50 to post an ad with a Web site that promises to help out with these problems. The hat is certainly worth more than — it comes from Paul Stuart. It’s worth more than twice that, which would cover a nice reward. But is the ad site legitimate?

I remembered to water the tree just now. Another thing that I had to remember was to take a Christmas envelope down to the doorman on duty. But he was off having lunch. I’ll try again in half an hour.

Shortly after darkness falls, Kathleen and I will make our way to a Boxing Day party in the Seventies.

This is not one of those holiday seasons when I feel so out of sorts that I wish I could simply sleep through it all. Nor is it quite one of those warm and lovely times that I’ll remember forever — although, come to think of it, I don’t remember the good times distinctly; they mash up together into a pleasant omnibus. This holiday, in fact, I may remember just for itself, because it has been neither awful nor transcendent. Our first Christmas in the new apartment, it has had a provisional feeling, but only around the edges. We had a real Christmas Eve dinner, just as at the best of times, and we have a lovely tree. We’ve listened to Messiah a dozen times at least (we’ve got several recordings), and we’re not yet sick of Christmas songs. We have yet to send out a single calendar (our version of a Christmas card — Kathleen chooses twelve of her best photographs and sends them off to Vista Print), but that will get taken care of on Monday. And of course there are still the fifteen boxes of books that settled into furniture-like configurations two weeks ago. I do wish we had curtains in the living room. Such are this year’s imperfections. Most people wouldn’t notice them.

On Wednesday, New Year’s Eve, we’ll have friends from Geneva to lunch, and then we’ll pack for our flight to San Francisco in the morning. The day before my birthday, we’ll be back at home. It turns out that my birthday, 6 January, is no longer the Feast of the Epiphany. Except occasionally. On the liturgical calendar, it has been shifted from the fixed date to the first Sunday after what used to be the Feast of the Circumcision, now the Feast of the Holy Family. At least, so I am told by our friend the deacon. I expect that this is an American, or Anglophone usage. The feast has long been a Holy Day of Obligation in Canada (where the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is not), and I’m told that Mexico also clings to the traditional date of Twelfth Night. Like so many practical American arrangements, the reassignment of the Epiphany has a strong odor of gimcrackery.


Time Passes

Suddenly, it is days later. Sunday evening, to be exact. What I’ve been up to is easily reported: a party on Friday, followed by dinner at Orsay, always very nice. We keep it special by pretending that it is more expensive than the restaurants closer to home. Perhaps it is, by a very small percentage. Kathleen did have Dover sole.

Yesterday, I did nothing. I cleaned up at some point, but I never got properly dressed, and I never made the bed. The day was entirely devoted to purging the holiday excesses.

Today was what yesterday ought to have been: a quiet afternoon of tidying up.

Throughout these days, I have been reading either Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, which I finished last night, or one of my books about Oxford. I had always known that Oscar Wilde said something about wishing that he could live up to his collection of “blue china” — blue and white, presumably — but I didn’t know, or shouldn’t have had a place to store the detail, that he said it whilst a student at Magdalen, and that the quip “went viral,” adding to the evidence that probably determined the masters of Oxford to refrain from offering Wilde anything like a permanent post at the University. “Later,” writes David Horan in Oxford: A Cultural and Literary History, “[Wilde] would boast that the Vicar of St Mary’s opened a sermon with:

When a young man says, not in polished banter but in solemn earnestness, that he finds it difficult to live up to the level of his blue china, there has crept into the cloistered shades a form of heathenism which it is our bounden duty to fight against and to crush out if possible.

Heathenism! What a delicious euphemism!

Wilde was, as usual, making an important, if, indeed, heathenish, point. For nearly two thousand years, the futility of Christ’s example as a practical matter had been demonstrated by nearly every life. Might it not be better — more practicable, more purposeful, more attainable — to emulate the standards set by rigorous craftsmen? Craftsmen aren’t so much as they do. Rather than trying to be perfect, as Jesus was, we ought to pursue perfection, as the artisans of the Kangxi period so evidently did. From the New Testament, we learn a lot about how hard it is to be good. But we’re not taught, in any meaningful sense of learning, how to be good. We’re told that following a set of rules isn’t enough — Jesus is very clear about that. There is no recipe or formula for goodness. Paul, who is much more forgiving, urges everyone to love everyone else, but this is not only difficult but unnatural: given some of the everyones out there, it seems hardly desirable to spread one’s love evenly. Nothing is said about the duty to make ourselves lovable. To be told that God loves us just the way we are is not helpful. God is not the problem.

The other day, Roger Cohen published an Op-Ed piece in the Times, complaining that everything is now the same everywhere.

I traveled several thousand miles recently from London to Singapore. There I found myself on Orchard Road, that vast temple dedicated to the worship of the global brand, a tropical and air-conditioned Oxford Street. I wondered why I had bothered. Nothing to be bought there in the Asian city-state was any different from what could be bought in the glittering streets of the British capital, where billionaires like to bivouac.

We travel within closed loops, taking our worlds with us on devices. If the deep absorption of place requires the setting aside of the place one has come from, it has grown infinitely rarer. That in turn means the diminishment of discovery, which demands the vigilance of the senses. Without discovery the spirit withers.

Cohen begins by trying to be shocking: he praises the smoky atmosphere of a hotel in Berlin where smoking is still permitted. What Cohen doesn’t see is the irony of his craving. Without discovery the spirit withers. That’s as may be, but the notion that travel ought to involve discovery is more arguable. It used to be unavoidable, and the discoveries were often unpleasant — sometimes even fatal! It’s hard to believe that a gentleman of 1850 would not have regarded the likeness of Orchard Road to Oxford Street as a triumph of civilization. As, in its awful way, it really is, for the idea once rather visionarily shared only by affluent Anglophones is now a universal: without outlets of Gucci and Prada, there can be no civilization!

The argument that the triumph here is one of imperialism is an empty one. Now that the expanses of the globe are no longer governed from a handful of European and American capitals, the intrinsic value of consumer society is starkly shown to be very high: everybody wants to be able to afford it. The intellectual heirs of those inspired Victorians have perhaps outgrown the initial objective, as I think Wilde foresaw. What we have to discover in this life is something to live up to.


Monday, Return to

I should have liked nothing better than to stay in today, partly for comfort and partly from fear. The comfort part, on a cold day, even a sunny one, at the cold nadir of the year, ought to be perfectly understandable (message to young’uns: it will be!), but the fear is something that even I have yet to work out. All I know is that it’s a combination of age, or the consciousness of ageing, and the persistent surprise, lined with disbelief, that I have landed in this apartment.

The consciousness of ageing is not personal. Last night, I put two things side-to-side for Kathleen. The first was a Pitkin Guide, Morse in Oxford. The second was the jewel box containing Season 8 of Lewis. Both show Kevin Whately making pretty much the same sort of face — a strange blend of unbending moral rigor and profound human sympathy — but this simply emphasizes the work of time. On the Pitkin cover, he is as smooth as a cupcake. On Season 8, it’s Laurence Fox who is smooth (though not as a cupcake); Whately can only be likened, in comparison to his younger self, to a toad. That sounds nasty, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather gloriously, in fact, the pair of photographs manifests an assured humility: Whately’s face is still the one that he was born with. He remains very much the man within, where comparisons to his younger self declare growth, not age.

When I was young, Katharine Hepburn looked middle-aged. In her movies from the late Thirties and the Forties, she seemed magically youthful — magically, because I hadn’t been there to see it. I’ve been watching Kevin Whately since A Murder Is Announced, in which he looked decidedly boyish. There is no magic in seeing that singular episode of Miss Marple now: I was there. And yet, even more time has elapsed.


The problem that I’m having with Penelope Fitzgerald’s late novels is that their excellence, their extraordinary agility, is almost ephemeral, because the books are so short. It took no time at all to read The Gate of Angels, which I loved while I was reading it but now have trouble remembering, only a few hours later. I have trouble remembering why I liked it. I still remember why I liked — loved — Innocence: I was captured by its insouciant but quite genuine Italian quality; the novel deserves an entry in that catalogue, Sprezzatura. The Beginning of Spring did not appeal to anything like the same extent. I felt, not without chuckling amusement, as though Ivy Compton-Burnett were taking over the translation of a Russian classic from Constance Garnett. If Innocence struck me as echt, The Beginning of Spring felt pastiche. This distinction is simply a reflection of my very different regard for things Italian and Russian. To me, Russia is a version of the Wild-West United States that hasn’t got the sense to use the Latin alphabet. My dislike of the prelates of Orthodoxy is unsurpassed, at least by other dislikes.

What did interest me about The Beginning of Spring was its strange echo of imperialism. The hero, Frank Reid, is British by background but Russian by birth. Frank was educated in Russia and speaks perfect Russian. Had the setting been India, this fluency would have been unlikely, as would have been the local education. The management of a printing works is an almost stereotypically imperial sort of business, but whatever its commercial activities might have been, Britain never subjected Russia to its yoke; on the contrary, Russia ran its own empire, and vied with Britain for mastery in Central Asia. All the clichés of empire — the alluring, the dangerous, the unintelligible, the backward — are present in The Beginning of Spring, but they are set in what in music would be called a remote key.

With its English setting — London and Cambridge, also in 1912 — The Gate of Angels is extremely familiar, more familiar than it might be if I hadn’t read all the mystery novels of Charles Todd last year. The fictional enterprise of creating a fictional Oxbridge college for the purposes of satire is as comfortable as my favorite napping blanket — and that’s a problem. This is where I think the novel undercuts itself: there is no need in this love story for the extremity of St Angelicus College, and the gratuitousness of the creation is highlighted at the finale, when Daisy Saunders, ever the capable conscientious nurse, violates the college’s male-only hygeine, explicitly likened to that of Mount Athos, in order to relieve the “syncope” of the blind master, whom she finds prostrate at the foot of the tiny quad’s solitary tree. The dons who cluck at her presence are ineffectual hens, and it turns out that Fred Fairly, the junior fellow whose passionate devotion to Daisy powers the plot, is not even on the premises. St Angelicus gives Fitzgerald the pretext for a delightful retelling of the synopsis of La Favorita, the opera about antipope Benedict XIII, only (tellingly) without the Favorite. But that’s about all it’s good for. The solidly stimulating writing about the (quite real) Cavendish Laboratory makes the imaginary college even flufflier.

Now that I’ve dissed The Gate of Angels, I remember, and like, it better.

Singularity Note:
The End of Philosophy
22 December 2014

Friday had its sunny moments. None since.

It’s rare that I read something and then wish I hadn’t. But that’s getting it wrong. I don’t actually wish that I hadn’t read Sam Frank’s piece in the current Harper’s. On the cover, it’s billed as “Power and Paranoia in Silicon Valley.” The proper title appears to be “Come With Us If You Want To Live.” Frank’s subject is a menagerie of dislocated visionaries. Perhaps it would be better to say they’re visionaries of dislocation. Some are preoccupied with “the Singularity,” which will occur when human and machine minds meld, and with preventing “bad AI” from running loose and destroying humanity. Some, like eschatologist Michael Vassar (what we used to call a kook), are watching multiple countdowns — to environmental catastrophe, to the encroachment of various “memeplexes.” They all not only hate politics but contrive to write it out of their visions. They appear to believe that politics can be made to Go Away. Where do they get that idea?

Michael Vassar puts his finger on something: “It is unfortunate that we are in a situation where our cultural heritage is possessed only by people who are extremely unappealing to most of the population.” Although “cultural heritage” seems to be the last thing that Frank’s interlocutors possess.

Geoff Anders, the founder of Leverage Research, a “meta-level nonprofit” funded by [Peter] Thiel, taught a class on goal factoring, a process of introspection that, after many tens of hours, maps out every one of your goals down to root-level motivations — the unchangeable “intrinsic goods,” around which you can rebuild your life. Goal factoring is an application of Connection Theory, Anders’s model of human psychology, which he developed as a Rutgers philosophy student disserting on Descartes, and Connection Theory is just the start of a universal renovation. Leverage Research has a master plan that, in the most recent public version, consists of nearly 300 steps. It begins from first principles and scales up from there. “Initiate a philosophical investigation of philosophical method”; “Discover a sufficiently good philosophical method”; have 2,000-plus “actively and stably benevolent people successfully seek enough power to be able to stably guide the world”; “People achieve their dultimate goals as far as possible without harming others”; “We have an optimal world”; “Done.”

How much of this “master plan” has actually yielded practicable measures is so unclear that it seems to be unimportant: what’s important is to have a vision. A good vision is a successful grant proposal.

Bear in mind that Peter Thiel is outspoken in his belief that freedom and democracy are incompatible.

Another story that I read over the weekend had a very different effect. Ginia Bellafante wrote a profile of Eduardo Vianna, a professor at LaGuardia Community College whose “constructivist” methods engage students who enter the classroom without the intellectual equipment that Ivy League colleges can take completely for granted. A heartwarming story — I can’t seem to find it online. But there was one line that would come back to me later, when I read Sam Frank’s piece.

But another [student], who had been fidgety and distracted much of the time, completed the course announcing that she saw no need for an understanding of history.

In the context, one might attribute this blinkered view to an underprivileged background, but it is implicit in almost every remark that Sam Frank quotes.


History: one damned thing after another. That’s what history seems like when you’re studying for a test.

History: the never-ending story. That’s what history seems like when the variety of human experience comes alive. In one sense, history ends now, at the moment of telling. But that moment never actually stops; it continues with every breath we draw. History is never-ending in a different sense as well. It is a story made up of countless stories, and few of these stories make a smooth fit in the overall picture. There is much that we don’t know and probably never will know. But we are always learning how to fit the stories better, and how to bring what appear to be very different stories closer together. In my lifetime, the scope of history has broadened immeasurably. It was still pretty much a tale of war and politics when I was a boy. I was reminded of that the other day, when I was shelving not one but two books that recount the history of restaurants. Restaurants! Nothing is too trivial for history nowadays.

History is nothing less than the story of human life on this planet, as accurately as we can tell it. Like Sam Frank’s report, it is full of visions. But it also tells us where, if anywhere, those visions actually led people. When we read history, we’re thinking,  What were they thinking? We might, too, be thinking We have an optimal world. Done. We might be thinking that Done is a possibility. That would be a mistake. History tells us, at great length, that so long as humanity is muddling along at all, Done is not on the menu.

Why would anyone want to be Done? For the same reason that philosophers hate history; for the same reason that many men prefer to break work down into tasks that can be completed. There is a longing — I doubt that it is inborn, but it is certainly culturally conditioned — to live now, and for now to be the best possible now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and absolutely not last year. Everything that does not exist now is irrelevant, and everything that exists now is to be understood as if it existed now only. Begin from first principles and scale up from there. History has a nasty way of obliterating first principles, because, in history, everything has antecedents. Similarly, there is no now in history. There is only the latest. And the latest cannot be understood in isolation — in isolation, that is, from all previous nows.

There is a longing for timelessness that makes history laugh. This longing has given us the body of speculations that, in the West, we call Philosophy, with a capital P, to distinguish it from less logically rigorous schools of wisdom that flourish wherever understanding human beings is more highly esteemed than creating the best model of how things work. After a great deal of contention, volcanic outpourings of hot air, and intellectual purging, Philosophy gave us Science, which does infer timeless principles from phenomena. From most phenomena, but not, as of yet, from the phenomena of human interaction. Philosophy and Science have nothing to tell us about human interaction beyond wishful thinking.

Politics — political activity — is merely a concentrated occurrence of significant things. There are no rules; it is not a game. Anything can happen. In moments of political crisis, there are so many nows that they cancel each other out. There is only watching, with bated breath, for what’s next.

This holiday season — I’ll be contributing to one baggy entry for the next two weeks — I intend to meditate on the unpopularity, if that’s what it is, of history. Pascal’s pensée comes to mind, the one that attributes all the miseries of human life to man’s inability to sit still in a room. I’d like to amend it: all the miseries in human affairs owe to man’s disinclination to sit still and learn history. Which surprises me, because I find history to be never-endingly interesting. And one of the most interesting things that history has to tell us is that nothing is quite so ruinous as the belief that history has come to an end, that men are capable of making a new beginning. There can be no new beginnings with the same old human beings. Which may be why history associates “new beginnings” with bloodshed.

The end of philosophy is the beginning of history.

Gotham Diary:
Wobbles or Spins?
19 December 2014

Christmas has come early. Anyone interested in watching the world turn can look for new spins, now that one of the last fronts of the Cold War has dissolved in diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Havana, and the Ponzi-esque futility of Vladimir Putin’s management schemes for Russia is expressing itself in the plunge of the ruble toward worthlessness. Neither of these developments marks the beginning or the end of anything, but rather a sharp plot twist in the middle. It’s more than a little depressing to hear that American businessmen are salivating at the prospect of developing markets in Cuba and to see that the Times regards this as newsworthy; it would have been nice to spend at least a week contemplating the non-commercial aspects of renewed relations between the tired old enemies. As for Russia, it’s very difficult not to wonder what the impact will be on Manhattan real-estate prices. Will the kleptocrats vamoose, and settle down in their pieds-à-terre, gradually becoming Americans? If so, we ought to call them Green Russians, for the color of their dollars. But what if there is a sell-off, as the Russians try to liquidate their assets? Could spell bust-o-rama for that tippy-tall tower next door to Kathleen’s office. I have no idea what to expect, which is of course what makes idle speculation so much fun.

Then, in The New York Review, I read with delight that Rupert Murdoch is finally Getting Old, as in maybe leaving us soon. In a postscript to the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes,

There are signs that Murdoch’s attention is flagging, and what might be politely called his increasing eccentricity is magnified by his addiction to Twitter — that device helpfully enabling people to write faster than they can think — with such effusions as “Why is Jewish owned press so consistently anti Israel in ever crisis?” or “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”

I wonder if the Powell Era is drawing to a close. The period in which businessmen and their professional advisers heeded the call of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Powell, made not long before he joined the Court, to repel the “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” shows signs of having played itself out. In a 1971 memorandum addressed to a friend at the US Chamber of Commerce, Powell essentially revived the axiom that what is good for American business is good for the United States — that commercial prosperity determines the welfare of American people, and that that’s all there is to it. Certainly there is no welfare without prosperity. But we have learned the hard way that business will not benefit the American people at all if it is not directed to do so. The American free enterprise system, to the extent that it is a system at all, must be subordinated to a more far-sighted system of social equity.

Does that sound like socialism to you? Socialism is in sore need of a major re-think. The theories of socialism that were developed in the Nineteenth Century are crude and useless, and it won’t do to lump every economic notion that is critical of capitalism under the “socialist” rubric. Capitalism, as none saw better than the observers of the Nineteenth Century, is vital to the launch of new businesses — new industries especially. Whether it continues to be necessary, however, for the sustaint established businesses, is much less certain. Today’s private equity racket, which generates lots of bankers’ fees and inflated asset trades but little in the way of real value and, what’s really intolerable, jobs, suggests that capitalism can be bogus, quite the opposite of creative. Indeed, much of what passes for “business” today isn’t business at all, but financial shuffling. There is good evidence that some capitalist maneuvers have become reflexive rather than purposeful.

And it is always to be borne in mind that the capitalist’s ideal number of employees is always zero. Like all ideals, zero is unattainable, but it does inspire the thought that, no matter how many employees are on the payroll, there could be fewer.

For about twenty years now, the populations of the Western World have been greatly distracted by the introduction of devices that have transfigured access to information. As these devices become more familiar, we can expect that more attention will be paid to the information, and less to the devices; and we can only hope that this will accompanied by increased concern for the quality of information. One cannot help imagining that more and more Americans are going to get a clearer picture of the country’s economy, not from television news, which is just another corporatized operation, but from ground-up reports on the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It must always be remembered that the conflagration in Bosnia was triggered, prior to the appearance of these devices, by radio broadcasts “informing” Christian Serbians that their Muslim Bosnian neighbors were about to murder them en masse. It is terrifying to imagine the unrest that a similar campaign of disinformation could cause via Twitter.


In the bedroom upstairs, we had a cabinet or case, made by the now out-of-business Sorice outfit, that held I don’t know how many pop CDs. Let’s say, somewhere between 150 and 200. These were, by and large, CDs that Kathleen liked to play, but also the classic bands that still appeal to me, such as Steely Dan and Blind Faith. That’s why I didn’t break them down, and store them more compactly in the bins the house the vast bulk of our discs. There was, however, no place to put this CD case in the new apartment. In our first or second week here, I emptied the case into a couple of large canvas tote bags, and stuck them behind my reading chair in the bedroom. The other day, after I opened the last of the non-book boxes, I found that I needed that corner behind my chair for other things, so the tote bags came out into the foyer, where they are not welcome, and I had to deal with them.

Which means I’ve had to get to work breaking them down. Here’s how: I take the CD itself out of the jewel box and slip it into a windowed sleeve (sold in boxes of 800 by Uline). Then I slip the little booklet that also serves as the CD cover on top of the sleeve. Now comes the hard part: removing the CD couch from the jewel box so that I can get the back matter, from which the spins are folded. I put the back matter on top of the booklet, making sure that everything is pointing in the right direction, and then insert this loose package into the proper place in the bins: “Ronettes” comes after “Rolling Stones.” The spine along the right edge of the back matter continues to serve the same purpose. If frequent access to the CDs were required, the spines would soon fall apart, but I kept my classical CDs in this way for nearly ten years now, with no signs of wear and tear. The point of the exercise, of course, is that the contents of a CD jewel box occupy, on their own, less than a third of the volume of the jewel box.

Now I find that the CD of The Nightfly, Donald Fagen’s first solo album, is missing. I have the jewel box and the paper, but not the disc itself. I uploaded the album onto my laptop computer some time ago, so I’ve got the music. I can’t remember what prompted this, but we were playing The Nightfly (on a Nano) and I noticed a bass riff that sounded a lot like something from “Spanish Dancer,” my favorite cut on Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver. Who was listening to whom? I had to get both albums to compare dates. Was the CD missing then? (I wouldn’t have opened the jewel box.) Where could it be? Astonishingly, the album is out of print.

I was looking for the jewel box last night, because I’d been listening to the music while breaking down CDs, and wondering where it was. Also, I wanted to know for sure that the word shouted out at the end of the first verse of “Walk Between the Raindrops,” preceded by a rising glissando roar, is “Miami!” But that must have been an improvisation, because nothing appears in the booklet.

Bon weekend à tous!

Oxford Note:
The Rock Garden
18 December 2014

Today, I am making a concerted effort to do nothing. Aside from writing here, of course. We’re nearing the end of our fifth week of residency, and already, but for curtains, the apartment is Done. I feel, at least half the time, as though this has been my home for a long time. The pictures and the furniture appear to have forgotten where they used to be. The pictures especially. Last night, Ray Soleil put up all the pictures that are going to hang in the bedroom — period. Eight photographs, some of Kathleen’s finest, are being reframed, as is a print that she is very fond of, and these all have designated spots on still-vacant walls. I’ve decided to mount a miscellany of the remaining pictures, crammed in tightly — a souvenir of upstairs — behind the door to the bookroom. But, as Ray likes to say, “we’re done here.” The pictures have bonded with their new rooms and new neighbors.

Now I have to make an effort to change the address on a host of subscriptions. (I just took care of The New Yorker.) But not today.


Later last night, I finished reading Jan Morris’s Oxford. I’m stumped as to what to say next. That Oxford is a great piece of travel writing, of cultural anthropology? That it is also a dish of treats, anecdotes wry and dry that flatter the reader’s sophistication? (Who’s going to read a book about a university town with a very long history?) That I had just about concluded, when I got to the end of the antepenultimate chapter (“Distant Trumpets” pivots on the unprecedented and decimating lurch toward military service in 1914 — and although Morris doesn’t make this point, I couldn’t help thinking that all those gallant young officers who went off to Flanders only to find mud and rot instead of glory were realizing, in a truly awful way, the ending of Max Beerbohm’s sardonic fancy, Zuleika Dobson), that Oxford is a feint, a book “about” Oxford that manages to keep all the important secrets, so that only those who study in its colleges will know what the place is all about — that, in short, I was feeling had? Or should I come right to the point: Morris saves the truth for last. For it is in the penultimate chapter, “The Heart of Things,” that we are finally told what it is that makes Oxford Oxford.

One of the perennial complaints of the English reformers is this dominance of Oxford in the affairs of the kingdom — Oxford bishops, Oxford politicians, Oxford publicists, Oxford lawyers: but it is likely to last, for there is no city in England where a young man may better get the feel of the State, tread in the footsteps of so many leaders, or more easily slip up the road to picket the party headquarters. (264)

Oxford is the home of many good schools, many of them not part of the University, and a great deal of serious scholarship in the humanities and research in the sciences hums in its libraries and laboratories. The density of clever minds, as the English would put it, is perhaps unparalleled anywhere on earth. But its institutional foundation, the bedrock of its well-preserved fabric of stone walls, garden lawns, and collected treasures is its function as the finishing school par excellence for the leaders of the British nation. It is the School of Politics, brilliantly conducting a curriculum that, from the University standpoint, is strictly extracurricular. While most undergraduates pursue a higher grade of what nonetheless remains an undergraduate education, a self-selecting few study the levers of political power. The Oxford Union is a luxury Parliament, compleat in every degree of procedural fuss, but delightfully free of hustings and constituents.

The standard explanation for the University’s refusal (under Roy Jenkins’s chancellorship) to grant Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree, in 1985, is that her policies concerning the funding of education were deplorable. A much better reason, I suspect, was that, as Margaret Roberts, Mrs Thatcher attended Oxford (Somerville) without knowing what it was for.

Reading chemistry for her degree, rather than history or PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) like most aspiring politicians, she was not exposed to the discipline of sampling the whole spectrum of political thought; she was free to read only what she was likely to agree with. … It was only retrospectively that she would like to claim an intellectual pedigree that was no part of her essential motivation. (John Campbell, The Iron Lady, 15)

In other words, the lady emerged from Oxford unfinished. You might almost have argued that the Prime Minister didn’t deserve the degree that she already had.

The Oxford that tourists visit, that the producers of Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour transform into a member of the cast, the Oxford of “dreaming spires” — that Oxford is a front, a gaudy camouflage. It has nothing to do with education; indeed, what it teaches, this burnished, medievalized rock garden, is abominable conceit. But so long as Britain is a parliamentary democracy, the rock garden will be kept spruce, and the education overall will be superior to that available anywhere else, except, arguably, at “the other place,” Cambridge. The front will be maintained.

Lest anyone imagine that this finishing-school-for-politicians role marks a degradation of Oxford’s greatness, it must be noted that it was precisely to civilize and polish the scions of wealthy and/or powerful families that European universities began admitting, five hundred years ago and more, students who had no intention of taking holy orders and remaining celibate. Long before the Germans overhauled the idea of the university, giving us the research model that still governs higher institutions of learning, universities taught their students about the ways of the world. There was nothing academic about the lessons. True to their name, universities were gathering places for smart people from everywhere.

Although I despise the notion that education can or ought to be “useful,” I am no believer in unworldly education, in ivory towers of “pure” learning. No matter how lacking in practical applications a branch of knowledge might be, it is to be studied in the perspective of human society. Everything that we learn conduces to our better understanding how our public affairs ought to be arranged. This, strictly speaking, is not a political matter, but pre-political; it must be worked out before political activity can begin. Each of us is engaged in the pursuit of a probably unattainable social consensus; those of us with good educations must do more to make our understanding available to those without. The politicians’ job is to harness society’s competing interests in the attempt to implement such consensus as has been reached and as much consensus as can be afforded.

I come away from Jan Morris’s Oxford all but convinced that it would be a very good thing if an Oxbridge background were a sine qua non for all political candidates. After all, we like our doctors to have gone to med school.

Gotham Diary:
17 December 2014

Yesterday, after hours spent unpacking the last of the non-book boxes and somehow finding new places for everything that had been stashed temporarily in the linen closet, I had an hour or two for reading, and I thought for a while that I would knock off a few chapters of Penelope Fitzgerald. I had five to go. Nearing the end of the first of these, “Innocence,” however, I realized that I must put the book down, and not pick it up again until I’d read Fitzgerald’s last four novels, one of which is the subject of each but the last of those chapters. It’s all very well, when you’re young, to read about things before you read the things themselves; but, as an old man, I look forward to the surprise of an unread novel. I’ll have heard something about it, something about what happens in it — but I’m talking about a more subtle kind of surprise.

Hermione Lee’s chapters about what she considers to be Fitzgerald’s most important work are essays in literary criticism. They’re more heavily accented with biographical associations than the usual literary essay is, but they’re also far more concerned with the novels than with Fitzgerald’s life, which has been dealt with in other chapters. These appreciations of Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower are clearly intended to demonstrate that Penelope Fitzgerald was not a minor English novelist but a great one, despite the somewhat unprepossessing cast of her life story. The books are examined closely, and their artistry subjected to lively analysis. Themes are teased out, and what is implicit in the stories Lee makes quite explicit. I’d like to have a crack at this sort of thing first. I don’t want to read the novels like a well-informed tourist, checking off the things that I’ve been told to look for. I want to be surprised, not by the novels themselves, but by Hermione Lee — by her telling me all the things that I missed.

So the novels were ordered; I don’t have three of the four. I thought about buying Innocence in the Kindle edition as well, so that I could get started right away, but then I took a look at my teetering book pile. There’s a new novel, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief, that I’ve yet to begin, as well as half a dozen books that I’m halfway through. While I attend to them, my thoughts about Fitzgerald, which are as murky as the muck into which her houseboat sank, will settle somewhat, or perhaps even sort themselves out.

What I find least congenial about Penelope Fitzgerald is the blend, in her character, of the traces of an austere evangelical family traditions with what, at second hand, I take to be an ungenerous disposition. She displays the habitual tendency to be disappointed by other people that is all too common among educated Britons. What saves this discontent from narcissism is that the self is its primary object of scorn (the evangelical influence), but it remains a habit, and, like all bad habits, it quickly becomes tiresome. Yes, we could all be better people; we could all do better. But harping on this, as Fitzgerald implicitly does when she focuses unlovingly on the foibles of people she encounters, is not encouraging. It is a cup of tea too bitter to drink, or at any rate enjoy. As I say, however, I have all this at second hand. I don’t believe that Lee has set out to stress the unattractive side of Fitzgerald’s personality; she seems if anything inclined to downplay it. But it emerges in extracts from Fitzgerald’s notes and letters.

I know nothing of Marilynne Robinson’s private life (her notes and letters), but I gather from her essays that the same sort of evangelical tradition works itself out in the context of a very different  — very generous — outlook. There would be worse ways to spend 2015 than in savoring the contrasts, the different faults and virtues, of the British novelist and the American.


On Monday afternoon, I baked two loaves of sourdough bread. Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked earlier this year, I’ve wanted to make sourdough baking a regular part of my life, but the undertaking has been thwarted, not least by my own lack of aptitude for regularity. Three times have I ordered sourdough starter from the King Arthur Flour website. The first time, I let the starter sit unopened for nearly two weeks. It never quite recovered from this neglect. The second time, I followed directions scrupulously and was all set to go, before I’d been home from Fire Island for a week — but I went to the hospital instead. By the time I was well enough to consider taking the crock of starter out of the refrigerator, what I found when I opened it was not pretty. The third time, I ordered the starter too soon after moving into the new apartment. Well, during the move. The starter has been in and out of the refrigerator a number of times, usually without my doing anything to it. But on Monday afternoon, it looked nicely bubbly, so I dove in.

Sourdough bread is easier to make than other breads, for the simple reason that the yeast is already active and rising. There’s no need to proof anything. And, at least in the recipe that I’m using, there’s no butter to melt and let cool. Everything gets tossed into the mixing bowl, boom boom boom, kneaded by the mixer, and then dumped into the rising bucket. I was a bit lazy, I’m afraid; I threw in the five cups of flour called for as if I were digging sand at the beach. I ought to have weighed the flour and reserved a portion of it for the last stage of kneading. Because I used too much flour, the loaves did not rise spectacularly, and the crumb was dense. But the bread still had a nice spring to it. It makes delicious toast. I’ll have finished off the loaf by next week, just in time to divide the starter again.

(I always try to give the second loaf away. If my upstairs neighbor weren’t traveling, I’d have taken it up to her. Instead, I sent it to the office with Kathleen. Things have been so hectic there that she couldn’t tell me how long it lasted, or indeed if anyone was even tempted to try it.)

Then, last night, I made a new chicken dish — new to me, anyway. Chicken Thighs Normande, I think it was called. I got the recipe out of Classic Home Cooking, one of the handful of cookbooks that I keep in the kitchen. Like sourdough bread, it’s very simple to make. You toss sliced leeks, smashed garlic, and diced Canadian bacon in a roasting pan, and put the thighs on top of them. Then you pour in a cup and a half of hard cider, season with thyme and salpep, and bake for twenty-five minutes. The cider is then reduced, and thickened with sour cream.

I didn’t have any hard cider, so I flamed half a cup of Applejack — I don’t really know why I didn’t use Calvados, although now I think of it it’s much more expensive — and poured it, still flaming, over the chicken, and then added a cup of water. When the chicken was supposedly done, it didn’t look cooked to me, so I put the thighs on a baking sheet and ran them under the broiler. From a culinary point of view, this was a very good idea. But then I botched the sauce. I neglected to reduce it before adding the sour cream. The recipe had pointedly said not to let the sauce boil after adding the sour cream. So I added some heavy cream as well, and turned up the heat. It thickened nicely. I spooned the leeks and whatnot into stew plates, topped them with chicken, and filled out the plates with miniature farfalle. The sauce I poured mostly over the chicken.

Somehow dinner got to the table in good form, despite a contretemps with the smoke alarm. I am still learning how to use the new stove, and the broiler feature is presenting me with a steepish learning curve. (It’s also the case that I removed the batteries from the smoke alarm upstairs.) Because I hadn’t really planned on broiling anything, because the decision to give the chicken some color by running it under the fire was made on the fly, I didn’t prepare for smoke. I left the kitchen doors open, and the kitchen window closed. When the alarm sounded, I rushed to fetch the ladder from the broom closet, to “reset” the alarm, and was instantly tangled in pratfalls also attributable to the unfamiliarity of our new arrangements (and to the extremely narrow broom closet in particular). The ladder caught on the legs of the ironing board, which opened, pinning the ladder in the closet as well as the ironing board itself, so that I had to grope blindly for the catch that would unlock the legs and allow them to close. There followed several moments of maximum fuss, and, long before I managed to restore order, the alarm fell silent. There was never any need for the ladder at all.

Is life too short?

Housekeeping Twaddle:
16 December 2014

The point of the photograph here is not the Headpiece of Ra effect bouncing off the building called The Georgica (indeed), but the demolition of the “hog house,” the subway workers’ administrative center. The second storey is long gone, and so is about a third of the ground floor. It is almost unspeakably gratifying to watch the disappearance of these artifacts that, while temporary, have been around for a long time. The return to normal is delicious.

What am I saying? I’m not even living in the same apartment. But it is becoming difficult to remember life in the old place. Who’d want to? It’s so much nicer downstairs! The closets may seem to be about half as spacious as the ones upstairs, and the bedroom and book room might be smaller than their upstairs counterparts (the book room smaller by half, it feels). But the pluses, the advantages, the improvements all smother my recollection of what we’ve lost. I don’t give the fabled view a thought; I may have to take up writing novels just to do something with the speculations that sprout in my head every time I look out the window. And don’t get me started on the Rear Window views from the bedroom and book room. Kathleen doesn’t care for them much, but I’m every bit the fan that I expected to be. Who wants to look at Queens?

(Another improvement: I treasure the Venetian blinds. For one thing, they conceal the hideous blackness of the window frames in the back rooms.)

Before the end of the year, we shall have at least placed an order for sheer, “glass” curtains for the front of the house, and we have chosen the fabric for the sham draperies that will hang, permanently open and purely for visual effect, at the wide window in the living room and the narrower ones in the dining ell. With these in place, we shall have absolutely moved.)

The Great Wall of Book Boxes disappeared much sooner than I expected it to. On Saturday, I opened ten boxes, bringing the remaining total down to seventeen. I don’t know what got into me. Perhaps it was a way of dealing with the suspense of waiting for Kathleen to come home from her second week Out West: I was beginning to wonder if she’d ever see what I’d done (with a lot of help from Ray Soleil) while she was away. In the event, she was somewhat underwhelmed. At least a dozen pictures had gone up on the walls, but she seemed to think that there were already plenty. And the Wall was still standing on Saturday night. It had moved somewhat, but only enough to make the dining ell look quite poorly arranged. Ray and I took care of that on Sunday morning. The wall was dispersed into three separate piles, two of six each, flanking the sideboard, which drifted 90 degrees to make a lot more room for the dining table, and a line-up of the remaining three on the dining ell side of the bench in the living room. Atop each the latter is an open box of pictures: regular, wide, and probationary. In most cases, “probationary” means that I no longer care enough for a picture to override Kathleen’s dislike of it.

There is shelf space in the book room for the contents of two, and perhaps almost three, of the remaining boxes of books. Two boxes will certainly go to the uptown storage unit. I may construct additional shelving in the dining ell. (Something like this.) I will stock it with sets of paperbacks — Penguins, Oxford World Classics, nyrbs, Eulenburg miniature scores, maybe even the Loebs. For all my adult sophistication, there is nothing that pleases me quite as much as a row of matching paperback spines.

Moving the sideboard changed everything. The entire public side of the apartment snapped into focus. I am dying to give a party. Valentine’s Day?

In further twaddle, I learned last night that I’ve lost five weeks of Quicken transactions. Why? Even JM can’t say. Somehow, the backup file was corrupted when the attempt to open the default file, itself corrupted, was terminated. New protocols will afford stiffer protection. I’ll save all the receipts until I’m sure that they have been backed up recoverably. (No more overwriting of files; I’ll have to delete backups periodically.) I’ll be able to re-enter December’s bills without too much fuss, as I print a report of them each month. But nothing like this has ever happened before in the more than fifteen years that I’ve been using Quicken. Coupled with the gremlins that made Kathleen’s edits of a hundred-page document inaccessible to her (the IT people at the firm recovered most of them), the Quicken glitch is spooky.

And, just to make things really ticklish, this week’s New Yorker arrived on Monday, as it ought to do but hardly ever does.


Over the weekend, Mark Bittman stepped forward from his accustomed food platform to publish an Op-Ed piece of global perspective, in which he argued that all the problems of today’s society are related, and that demonstrating against “the billionaire class” ought to be kept up until the “superrich” are appropriately taxed. The piece was flavored with more than a dollop of pungent late-Sixties extract, which is doubtless why I found myself protesting against almost every sentence, even though I am in complete accord with Bittman’s basics. I hate it when the prospect of Justice is made to smell like someone who needs a bath.

The only thing that could make American society worse than it already is would be a return to Sixties-style antagonism — which has already demonstrated its miserable track record. Bittman seems absolutely unaware that today’s dystopic tendencies have been willed into being by his rough contemporaries of the same sex, men who were boys back then, and who grew up with no intention whatsoever of raising their consciousness. These men, I expect, will die off without heirs of their own; their sons will not be so determined to avenge their fathers’ loss of hegemony. But it’s so much easier to blame things on undertaxed plutocrats, a vaguely insect, non-human class that crawls out from under the rocks when nobody is looking.

These “billionaires” are as fictional as the intellectuals’ “masses.” Sure, there are too many people out there in possession of nine-figure fortunes, but they don’t form a class except to the extent that they support legislation (or the lack of it) that will allow them to keep all their money. This money, it seems to me, has poured upon them from ever more capacious chutes, as changes in social patterns (such as the use of “devices” that didn’t exist twenty-five years ago) have caused the payment of certain kinds of rents to skyrocket. Punitive taxation isn’t the answer; income diversion, breaking up some of the grosser revenue streams, is a far more intelligent response.

I am also unhappy with the plan of encouraging young people to try to fix things, equipped with nothing but stamina and enthusiasm. I don’t understand how anyone even passingly acquainted with the Cultural Revolution in China can embrace such a program without shudders and nausea.

After all, it was the radical elements of Sixties counterculture who turned out the lights on the New Deal, dismissing it as not nearly good enough. It was the abandonment of the Postwar consensus by progressives that opened the way for right-wing predators.


It’s Beethoven’s birthday. (He’d be 244.) That means it’s okay to start playing Christmas carols. If you’ve waited until now, you won’t be sick of them until the last few days of the year.