Gotham Diary:
Once Upon a Time
21 April 2014

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I wished that everything scheduled for the weekend could be postponed until next weekend. It had become clear that the rheumatologist was right to put me down for an infusion eight weeks after the preceding one (not that I ever disagreed with him). Kathleen noticed a day-by-day recession that couldn’t be attributed entirely to my immersion in Hannah Arendt, and on Friday I was actually in a bit of pain owing to the kind of spontaneous inflammation that would be my lot without Remicade. By next weekend, I should have the infusion behind me (I’m on for tomorrow morning at 11:30, just confirmed), and I’d be in better spirits for the festivities of Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday.

But Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday could not be postponed, so I rose to the occasion, and found that it was not very difficult to do so. Now I am trying to deal with the slight malaise that always follows a bit of having too much of a good time.

The cuisine at La Grenouille, the last but also the greatest of the grand French restaurants in New York, is superb — of course it is! But it is also something of an excuse, giving the patrons something to do while they sit in this corner of heaven. For me, the experience is rendered slightly peculiar by my spinal immobility. I can hear the people at the adjacent tables, but I cannot, without calling a great deal of attention to what I’m doing, get a look at them. Meanwhile, I can’t hear a thing that the people ranged along the opposite wall are saying. What with the famously immense arrangements of budding boughs and flowers, the brocade wall hangings, and the thick carpet, the restaurant is not noisy, and yet the atmosphere is very lively. The bustle of the staff — the maître d’, the headwaiters, and the waiters, in dark suits and bright ties; the white-jacketed servers and busboys — is ceaseless, but not at all agitated. The purr of discreet voices and the flash of sparkling jewelry, the ectoplasmic delight of all that good food — I have never experienced a more refined degree of exhilarating jollity. Kathleen, as (almost) always, had the Dover sole, and it made for a very happy birthday.

We were addressed by name as we walked in. We were reminded that it had been a long time since our last visit (four years!), but without a trace of scolding. Kathleen chalked our welcome up to my lavish tipping practices, and I’m sure that smiles might have been a shade brighter for that, but no, such crassness is inconceivable. La Grenouille is simply but extraordinarily a very pleasant place, much too relaxed for its comforts to be an illusion.

Asked by her granddaughter about the array of silverware at each place, the matron sitting to the left of Kathleen advised beginning with the pieces farthest from the plate and working in, “as they do on Downton Abbey.” That, and a lot of other things that the old lady had to say, brought a muffled laugh to my lips and Kathleen’s elbow to my ribs. Whenever we dine in high style, Kathleen and I shamelessly violate the categorical imperative. Aside from the sporadic exchange of muttered commentary, we say almost nothing to one another, offering nothing to be overheard. Talking would distract us from the feast of eavesdropping.

***

Meanwhile, a very different scene was plying out only yards away, out on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue — Fifth Avenue in midtown, that is — is a memory to me; it hasn’t existed for decades. The people who now patrol it prevent its revival. What they’re doing there, I’ve no idea. Calling them “tourists” seems overconfident; they almost make one believe in zombies. New Yorkers themselves, and snappier visitors from out of town, have recreated something of what Fifth Avenue used to be in Soho, especially along Broadway. Down there, pedestrians are stylish — and they’re shopping. The parade on today’s Fifth Avenue’s sidewalks is inexplicable. It is a horde of colorless, shapeless people who exude no sense of destination. They are merely moving along in great blobs of unconvincing humanity. Seeing them from the car as we waited for an opening through which to turn into Fifty-Second Street, I felt that I was confronted by Mass Man, that bogey of 1950s. This is what Communism looked like — shapeless, colorless, pointless, and astonishingly indistinguishable. This was why we must win the Cold War. What an ironic taste of our victory it is to witness such a massive display of the lack of self-respect.

Kathleen said, “You don’t get to midtown much. I see this every day.” That might explain why I don’t go to midtown much.

Once upon a time, the pedestrians on Fifth Avenue wanted to look as much like the patrons of La Grenouille as possible, and they dressed accordingly. You might say that the times we live in are more relaxed, but I don’t. La Grenouille is relaxed. The pedestrians are manifestly demoralized. Thank you, commercial broadcasting.

Gotham Diary:
Xanadu
18 April 2014

The other day, I pulled out the big Everyman edition of Joan Didion’s nonfiction, having been inspired to re-read “Goodbye to All That” by Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Last night, I got round to it. I remembered the great story about “new faces” (“… there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men..”) but I had forgotten the profound, ab initio alienation.

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and I knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there — but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.

Later, she puts on a seesaw some suggestive names that are also very specific, familiar to those brought up “in the East” (at that time: FAO Schwarz, Best & Co, the Biltmore clock, and Lester Lanin) and the suggestive terms that are complete abstractions, having figured in her Sacramento dreams of New York  (Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue: “Money,” “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters.”). To her,

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane: one does not “live” at Xanadu.

Nevertheless, she kept putting off leaving, and was almost done in by the place. The sojourn, intended to last just a few months, went on for eight years. Didion finally did leave when her new husband, John Gregory Dunne, decided to relocate to Los Angeles. It’s hard not to think that he rescued her, because she was reduced to spending days in her underfurnished apartment, incapacitated.

I had never before understood what “despair” meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year.

I felt something very like this in Houston, and at about the same age. My solution was law school, in a faraway place. I have not been to Houston since Megan’s graduation from high school, in 1991, and I have no plans to pay another visit in this life. That’s by way of saying that I understand the roots of Joan Didion’s despair to have been her living in the wrong place, an unreal place, a place too imaginary for genuine responsibility.

I went to Houston not because I had ever dreamed of it but because it was convenient: my parents lived there when I graduated from college. I meant to stay only a short while, but I got a job at the radio station right away, and only left the job to which I was promoted when I left for law school all those years later. In between, there was marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and, for a while, despair. I never think about it unprompted. Some of the people whom I knew during that time have, in becoming Facebook friends, ceased to be people whom I knew during that time.

Nobody knows what it is like to live in any town without having actually lived there; but it helps to arrive without the baggage of romantic expectations. Every time I see Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, I understand how hard this must have been, and might still be, for some people.

***

Something from The Attack of the Blob that seems well worth savoring (and Guess Who isn’t mentioned): of Carol Gilligan, Hannah Fenichel Pitkin writes,

Gilligan speaks accordingly of two competing “voices” in morality: one emphasizing general principles, the other emphasizing personal attention and care, the former more frequent among men, the latter among women. Although it is easy to jump to the conclusion — as numerous interpreters have — that the feminine tendency is more moral, the masculine tendency ruthless or hypocritical, Gilligan holds that a mature morality is the same for all, regardless of gender, that it requires combining principled impartiality with sensitive attention to particular persons and cases. What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality. Morally immature men tend to a defensive, macho pretense at objectivity and impersonal authority, immature women to a reluctance to judge, take a principled stand, or defend their own views in the face of opposition. Reaching morality by different psychic routes, the two genders characteristically find themselves in different places along the way: men too coldly abstracted, women too abjectly adjustable.

This is wonderful. “What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality.” It’s precisely what I mean when I say that there is no important difference between men and women.

***

Inevitably, The Attack of the Blob has led me to question the meaning of “society,” as applied to a mass of people. Romans invented the word (societas) to describe groups of people who got together to deal with a particular matter, and this sense survives in the names of the Royal Society and the ASPCA. The members of this kind of society can be made known to the society’s leadership, and possibly to all other members as well. There can be no such familiarity among members of “society” in the broad sense. Suddenly, the term seems to me to be worse than useless, because to talk about it is to animate an abstraction.

“Civil society,” however, is an extremely useful idea. It connotes the specific groups that recognize and share conventions and mores. People who live on Manhattan Island — not the same as the group of people who ride the subways in New York City. People who fly in commercial airliners. People who live in a gated community. Even incarcerated people. The conventions and mores of any group develop over time, and when they break down, because too many members disregard them, that particular branch of civil society stops functioning — something only very young people are likely to regard as a favorable development. You learn the rules of a given civil society by paying attention to how its members behave — how they act, that is, when they are doing everyday things to which they may not be paying much attention at all. Every now and then, you will run into a scold, someone who overtly calls attention to someone else’s breach of the rules, but civil society is hostile to few things more than it is hostile to violence of any kind, so the scolds themselves are usually in breach as well, and not only of civil society’s rules. The foundation of civil society is the belief that no one is in charge of it. What looks to one person like an infraction may simply be the way of the future. Civil society does not exist to act.

Everything that you do in civil society sets an example to other members. Setting a good example was highly esteemed among Victorian gentlemen, but they didn’t get it quite right, and moderns were quick to abandon the practice as empty hypocrisy. Setting an example works only if you set out to set an example to yourself, an honestly good example. You may be grateful that “nobody noticed” a lapse on your part, but you may never be relieved.

Gotham Diary:
Housework of the Literary Persuasion
17 April 2014

The dishwasher is on the blink again, and I ought to be in a state, so I’m wondering how long this strange calm will last. I did have a bad moment when I discovered the problem, but the bad moment was quiet and contained. It did not take long to find the receipt from the repairman’s last visit (I couldn’t believe that it was where it belonged), and now I’m scheduled for a visit on Monday.

By the time the first stage of the dishwasher crisis was taken care of, my phone was ringing an alarm: time to call Jazz at Lincoln Center! The last day to renew our “Visionary Voices” series seats (and they’re very good ones) was last Friday. I called on Monday, but it was after hours. I did nothing on Tuesday. I thought about it several times yesterday, and almost went to the phone at one point, or toward it, but I was distracted on the way, and forgot about it until too late in the day. That’s when I set the alarm. The seats were still available. I used the charge card that I reserve for purchases in this price range.

There had been some loose talk about having lunch with Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil — Fossil is making a four-day weekend out of the holiday — but I’ve had my excitement for the day.

***

What to make of Lydia Davis? She’s fun to read, in a dark, scraping sort of way. By that I mean that many of her stories are satisfying in the way that taking a brush to a Le Creuset casserole and swooshing out the stuck-on bits is satisfying. There is a feeling of accomplishment rather than of achievement. There will be more pots to scrub and more stories to read — lots and lots of (very short) stories. It is as though Davis figured out how to bottle housework; rather than writing about it, which she does from time to time but often with reference to the other people who are actually doing it, she has instead captured the thing itself and transmuted it into prose. Here, in the entirety of its single sentence, is “The Cornmeal”:

This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.

Just to think about this quietly dynamic tale is to do housework. Like most housework, it is largely undiscussable — more tedious than analyzing jokes.

At the same time, the stories are aimed at sophisticated readers. Consumers of vernacular material won’t get very far before tossing the book aside, with an exasperated WTF? On the page facing “The Cornmeal” is “Letter to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer,” a story that I can imagine making certain male readers actually angry. The letter to the manufacturer complains that the color of green used on the frozen-pea package is misleading because it is so much less attractive than the green of the peas inside. This is housework, too: not so much the thinking about the color of green on a package, or the judgment that the complaint is absurd in some way (if not in several), but the appraisal of the care with which the letter has been written. The premise of the story may be funny, but letter itself is not. The letter is reasonable and painstaking. There is nothing in its composition to make the reader laugh; indeed, effort has been made to prevent laughter. As the letter approaches its end, it flattens out in statements of the painfully obvious.

Most food manufacturers depict food on their packaging that is more attractive than the food inside and therefore deceptive. You are doing the opposite:

[Yes, you already told us!]

you are falsely representing your peas as less attractive than they actually are.

Finally, a statement of grievance and a demand for improvement:

We enjoy your peas and so not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.

Instead of a laugh line, Davis delivers an echo of Rilke.

These stories come from her new collection, Can’t and Won’t. (The title story has a different title: “Can’t and Won’t.”) Shortly before it came out, I bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which contains all or most of her earlier short fiction. The story that I find most striking is “Jury Duty,” a stunt of sorts in which the Q part of a Q&A, or interview, is omitted. We’re given only the answers. A woman is being asked about jury duty. In order to make sense of her replies, we have to imagine the questions. This is not difficult — not for anyone who has read interviews that follow the Q&A format. (Interviews that “degenerate” into discussions between two well-matched voices are more interesting precisely because they have discarded the formula.) But the ease with which we fill in the blanks is somewhat discomfiting. Why would we read such an interview, if we know what the questions are and where they are likely to lead? Haven’t we solemnly sworn never to pick up a copy of People? And yet the interviewer’s silence throws the answers into higher relief. The interviewee is a bland and ordinary sort of person, and there is some sense that she is being hung out to dry. But we don’t laugh at her. We don’t even look down on her. Rather, we look into her, into the fine grain of her expressed self. The look is long and slow, but not critical. We are not distracted by the interviewer; on their contrary, our attention is heightened by the interviewer’s absence. I flagged one response the first time I read it:

Yes, I thought of the word patient. But it wasn’t that. Patience is something you need in a strained situation, a situation in which you have to put up with something uncomfortable or difficult. This wasn’t difficult. That’s what I’m trying to say: we had to be there, and so it relieved us of all personal responsibility. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it. Then you have to add on to that the spaciousness of the room. Imagine if it had been a small, crowded room with a low ceiling. Or if people had been noisy, talkative. Or if the people in charge had been confused, or rude.

This is not exactly “revealing,” but it is certainly suggestive. But I sense that it is suggestive only to people who read a lot and who also do housework.

The kind of housework that Lydia Davis specializes in, I believe, is called “teaching.”

And that’s what I’m making of Lydia Davis right now.

Gotham Diary:
Position Papers
16 April 2014

Hannah Arendt everywhere…

Even at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at the Museum, which I took in at a “preview” last night. (The show has already opened to the public.) I felt her presence beside me, respectful and very much prepared to discover something remarkable, but also somewhat impatient, as I was, to be done with it.

Lost Kingdoms gathers objects — statuary mostly, but also architectural elements — excavated from sites in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, that reflect the spread of Indian religions to those regions a long time ago. Most of the objects date from the Sixth to the Ninth Century, and most were locally produced. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Vishnus and Shivas, in sandstone and copper alloy. (The works in stone are large, but badly weathered; the works in metal are small, but in pretty good shape.) The religions that these images represent were taken up, not very systematically one imagines, by the rulers of long-vanished kingdoms, and their wealthier subjects. One of the pieces that sticks in my mind is the head of a “male devotee” of one or another of the gods. With his intriguing turban, his “earplug” ornament, and his pleased expression — he smiles like a child who is about to be given an ice-cream cone — he has a lot more going for him than the bland divinities. I don’t know why I kept imagining the bloody slaughter of the defeated in the temples where these statues once stood.

Lost Kingdoms is no display of Yankee loot. Almost every wall card named a museum from one of the Southeast Asian nations as the owner. Perhaps because I was simply underwhelmed by the exhibition itself, I began to see it as the wing of a diplomatic stunt of some kind. After all, the United States has been on very bad terms if not actually at war with half of the contributing countries. And in my lifetime, too.

As usual, the postcards were disappointing. Museum postcards go for the timeless and avoid the quirky. Quirkier than anything in the Lost Kingdoms show are the makara, or “aquatic monsters,” that grace the ends of lintels. These creatures are all jaw, studded with big, blunt teeth. Seen in profile, they show one enormous eye, and they seem to rest on one foot, but that is all there is too them: they exist solely to devour. But they look very jolly, and I’m sure that Will would be tickled, not frightened, by them. But I am not going to buy the catalogue just to get a picture of them.

I thought of the worlds for which these objects were created, worlds of meaning, culture, architecture, government, and so on — all of them, like most human worlds, incomplete worlds, by Arendt’s standards, because they lacked any kind of political space — any forum for political action, discussed by equals and launched by courageous individuals. When The Human Condition came out, in 1958, many readers felt that Arendt had succumbed to nostalgia for The Glory That Was Greece. Her relentless but not analytical references to “the polis” and to its free, but slave-owning, citizens could indeed at times take on the “inspiring” quality of a mural in a public building. But for Arendt, the polis was the first attempt in human history at her political ideal, the republic, and, as a thinker making use of history, but not actually a historian (except, of course, of thought itself), Arendt was free to treat the polis as an ideal — as if it had actually been realized and sustained.

One of the many things that I am stewing over is Arendt’s understanding of power. Power is a problem that, like poverty, has always been with us, but perhaps, again like poverty, a problem that we might continually shrink. Almost everything that goes wrong in government can be attributed to the unwillingness of human beings to relinquish power. (Government, I say; not politics.) I have always tended to regard power as a kind of energy source, not very unlike electricity, over which people in power — whether elected or appointed (or self-appointed) — have control. Arendt has already shown me how stupid this is. Power is not something “out there” that some people are allowed to harness. No: power comes from people themselves, and its manifestations are as different as people themselves. Power is a manifestation of the plurality of human beings: when we say that X is a powerful man, “powerful” is just as general and non-specific, as devoid of comparative detail, as is the predicate in X is a human being.

Then there is the apparent paradox inherent in Montesquieu’s understanding of balanced powers.

Power can be stopped and still kept intact only by power, so that the principle of the separation of power not only provides a guarantee against the monopolization of power by one part of the government but actually provides a kind of mechanism, built into the very heart of government, through which new power is constantly generated, without, however, being able to overgrow and expand to the detriment of other centres or sources of power. (On Revolution, 142-3)

Arendt writes here as if power were indeed a current; Montesquieu almost certainly saw it in the Newtonian terms that were so glamorous in his day. But what I’m puzzling over is whether the quoted passage supports the idea that power can be created to arrest abuses of power. (Only abuses of power involve actual violence.) I think that it does. And I think that the best generator of power-checking power is the local council.

What local council, you ask — quite rightly. Local councils are at present a negligible force in representative democracies. Where they exist, it is usually to sound and express a consensus regarding local affairs. As such, they are far from uninfluential, but their operations are of no general interest. But why should there not be a plethora of local councils devoted to the consideration of such extreme if occult sources of power as the rules by which our two federal legislative chambers govern themselves? These councils would not have the power to alter those rules directly, but I surmise that they might well develop the power to persuade that changes be made.

I can imagine a council for everything, in one or more of which everyone possessed of at least normal intelligence participates.

And I imagine that, a few social gatherings of these councils aside (so as to put faces on names — and so much more that is important about shaking someone’s hand), the business of these councils would be conducted online. Online, not because of the relative convenience, but because the product of every council’s deliberations would be a position paper, modeled perhaps on the Declaration of Independence. (The discussion of the position would be conducted as a series of annotated drafts.) Conclusions and resolutions would be stated clearly, as unambiguously as possible, and in as friendly a spirit as possible (and by “friendly” I do not mean “nice.”). Then they would be circulated to other councils undertaking similar deliberations.  The endorsement of and amendment by every council of any such statement would increase its power — the power, that is, of all its supporters. A point to stress is that these ongoing councils would not resemble popular demonstrations or protest marches. Councils would be myriad and endless, interesting but rarely exciting. They would largely replace “political news,” and certainly wipe away the disgrace of political advertising.

There is nothing in the federal constitution, by the way, that would prohibit the “election” of representatives in this manner.

I myself am considering the establishment of a Committee on Public Manners, whose first position paper would cover the use of handheld electronic devices in public. Not only is there a need for such a manifesto, but the its composition would impel the spread of that expanded consciousness that Arendt is always thanking Kant for discussing: the ability to see things from the point of view of someone else.

Gotham Diary:
Everywhere
15 April 2014

I was done with Dept of Speculation, yesterday, by the end of lunch. I liked it, really, because, even if the protagonist aroused my disapproval, she did so in an interesting way. She also seemed to be learning, by the end, to be a less self-centered person, thus freeing her attention for dealing with unconsidered prejudices. (Her husband’s background — he comes from “Ohio,” and his family is a “whole blond band” — excites both her envy and her contempt.) But it was a line from the Acknowledgments page that arrested me somewhat more than even the most startling statements in the novel proper:

Thanks to my agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, who stood by me all these years and knew just when to wrench this thing out of my hands…

That is the narrator/wife in a nutshell: someone who needs to have something wrenched out of her hands.

My surmise is that Dept of Speculation is a hit — with the critics, at least — because it folds beautifully narrated vignettes into a matrix of stand-up comedy. It is not difficult to imagine an adaptation for the stage.

So, now: back to Hannah Arendt. The state of play so far: I have read five major works (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, The Human Condition, and On Revolution) and one book of commentary, Margaret Canovan’s Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought, which tops everybody’s list of must-reads, alongside Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of The World (which I have not read). It was Canovan’s book that I had in mind when I compared reading about Arendt to flying (reading Arendt herself is like crawling).

And this is the state of why — why the obsession with Hannah Arendt?: When I read Eichmann in Jerusalem last year, which I did because the fiftieth anniversary of the controversial book’s publication was something of a chattering-class event, nothing more eggheady than that, I found Arendt’s insistence upon the importance of thinking — not systematic thinking, or reasoning, really, but, as she puts in The Human Condition, “thinking what we do” — truly admirable, and I wanted to give her kind of thinking another try. I had been somewhat bewildered by The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I read about nine years ago (I had thought that it was longer ago than that), and discouraged by the book’s leftish critique of imperialism, which I agreed with overall but which struck me as somewhat doctrinaire — a reaction to which I’m prone whenever Karl Marx is mentioned. Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have a far more cogent grasp of the catastrophe that motivated Origins. In between these two books, of course, Arendt wrote the three others that I’ve now read, in which she worked her way out of Marx. Indeed, they take the place of a book that she planned but never wrote on the totalitarian aspects of Marxism.

What I discovered, as I read Arendt, was that nobody else even approaches her compellingly articulate analysis of the political problems facing the United States right now. And, make no mistake, the United States never had a more passionately devoted citizen.

You will not be surprised to hear that I am seeing references to Hannah Arendt everywhere. There are two, or at least there appear to be two, in Dept of Speculation itself. The first occurs on page 6.

Life equals structure plus activity.

Can this be mistaken for anything but a vernacular expression of the Arendtian idea (note well that I’m not actually quoting) that “humanity occurs in a world of institutions that support political action”? And then, on page 56,

It seems to me a useful but impressive phrase along the lines of “The Human Condition” or “The Life of the Mind.”

Those are both the titles of books by Arendt.

And then, on the front page of yesterday’s Times, there was a story by  Jason Horowitz, “Obama Effect Inspiring Few to Take Office.”

“If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “That opportunity has been lost.” He said the youth who came of voting age around the time of the 2008 election have since lost interest in electoral politics, and pointed to a survey he conducted last year among 18- to 29-year-olds. Although 70 percent said they considered community service an honorable endeavor, only 35 percent said the same about running for office.

“We’re seeing the younger cohort is even less connected with him generally, with his policies, as well as politics generally,” Mr. Della Volpe added, referring to Mr. Obama. Sergio Bendixen, who worked as a pollster for Mr. Obama, blamed a social media-addled generation accustomed to instant gratification for the drop-off. After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, he said, “They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.”

It was electrifying to read this within days of digesting the passages in Arendt’s On Revolution in which she shares Jefferson’s concern that there was no space in post-revolutionary America for most Americans to exercise their political freedom, and her endorsement of the third president’s call for a return to the “ward system” that preceded the Revolution — the network of town meetings that not only elected provincial legislators but also oversaw the bulk of local government. Mr Della Volpe’s survey’s figures for community service and running for office suggest that young people are vitally aware of the loss of power that polarizing party politics has inflicted on established government institutions. I would suggest to Mr Bendixen that he is barking up an empty tree. Arendt would have rejoiced to learn that “the generation” is not “all that ideological.” She loathed ideology.

***

When I came home from lunch, there was a package that I didn’t even have to open to know what it contained. The return address named the “Friends of the Santa Fe Library.” The Friends, it seems, decided to de-acquisition its copy (can the library have possessed more than one?) of  Hannah Fenichel Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, and I happened to be in the market when they were selling. I was both impressed that the Santa Fe Library owned such a book and dismayed that it wanted to get rid of it. I suppose that what happened was that, somewhere along the line, a librarian neglected to read the subtitle, and acquired the book thinking that it was a pop-culture title, only to find out that it is so not. Or that it is about pop culture, but very, very obliquely.

“The Blob” is Pitkin’s name for the strands of inconsistent thoughts that Arendt packed together and labeled “the social,” or, sometimes, “society.” What was worse, Arendt invested this mass with the very same monstrous and deterministic powers that she chided other thinkers for dreaming up. Arendt asserted that “the social” was devouring both the public and the private spheres of life almost as if it were an alien from outer space, and she offered no suggestions about how to stop it. Pitkin believes that The Blob comprises genuine social problems, not just a bundle of notions that Arendt failed to work out, and her book is an attempt to clarify and deal with those problems. So far, it is, like almost everything that I’ve read about Arendt, comfortably lucid.

It’s important to clear up The Blob as part of understanding Arendt’s thinking because it took the place of a confrontation with economic matters for which Arendt had little but contempt. It was still possible, in the middle of the last century, to omit from political discussion any more extensive consideration of the economy than the assertion of the general right to home ownership. That is no longer the case; as Arendt herself feared might happen, the economic has swallowed the political. What do we do now? How can we put down organized money and revive the republic? I’m curious to see if Pitkin is right, and that the clues will be found in the anatomy of The Blob.

Gotham Diary:
Happiness
14 April 2014

The darling novel of the moment is Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, and I am nearly halfway through. It’s an agreeable read, but I am looking forward to being done with it.

I am looking forward to being done with it because I have taken a dislike to the narrator — the first-person narrator who, I’ve been told by all the reviews (which have also previewed many of the novel’s more trenchant passages), will soon disappear into the third person. “Dislike” may be the wrong word. What I’m feeling as I read is more like impatient disapproval.

The narrator is a thirty-something woman is unhappy with herself. This unhappiness is never really discussed, but it is woven into every sentence. Here, in a passage that refers to her husband and her daughter, is a throbbing instance of her unhappiness:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it. (44)

Nothing can straighten our hearts, but we must come to terms with them on our own. Here’s how I read the second sentence: “I had thought needing two people so badly would straighten it.” And of course that’s the wrong way round. The only thing that it is at all proper to need from another person (emergencies aside) is inspiration — the inspiration to be a better, happier person than you are. Ideally, you wait to meet an inspiring person before falling in love. Meanwhile, you must prepare yourself for inspiration. You can’t be happier until you find something that makes you happy to begin with, and you must find this for yourself.  Once you have found it, however, the search is over; what follows is the hard, interior work of making yourself more apt at whatever it is that makes you happy, together with nurturing the faith that your happiness is important — that you must, out of self-respect, take care of it.

“Happiness” is a much-abused term, and I wish I didn’t have to use it, but no other word captures the delight-in-the-world that is the most important characteristic of happiness — what distinguishes it, sharply, from the idea of pleasure. Pleasure has been regarded as dangerous since people started writing things down, but it is only rather recently — since the abatement of religious strife in the Seventeenth Century — that happiness was discovered to be safe. Happiness involves pleasure, to be sure; but it turns its back on it, as it were, in order to make the world a more pleasant place. Adult happiness is the state of being pleased to give pleasure.

None of this appears to have occurred to our narrator, and I have to wonder if that’s because she is too sophisticated for happiness — too hip, perhaps. She certainly does not seem inclined to believe in anything. She trusts her husband, but that is not the same thing as believing in him. Belief is a kind of happiness that reaches far beyond contractual trust. The narrator loves her husband, but he does not really make her happy — nothing does — because she has not prepared herself for happiness.

In this she is like countless young people (who eventually become not-so-young) who come to New York in search of something. But there is nothing in New York except a handful of monuments and millions of other people. Aside from the monuments and the millions, New York is just like anywhere else, so there is no point to coming here to find something that can be found anywhere. The people who will succeed in New York already know upon arrival what that something is, and they have reason to believe that the sheer plurality of the city will encourage them.

***

The difference between reading Hannah Arendt and reading about Hannah Arendt is the difference between crawling over the Rocky Mountains on your hands and knees and flying over them in a jet plane. Although fast, easy, and comfortable, however, I’m not sure that there would be much of a point to the flight if it weren’t a return trip. That is all that I am going to say about Arendt today.

Except also this: reading about Hannah Arendt has given me the impression that I treasure her because she is a lapsed philosopher.

Responses:
Because
13 April 2014

Although there is no commenting utility at this site, I am happy to publish articulate responses from readers. Please do take a minute! You’ll find the address at the bottom of the page.

***

In response to the entry entitled “XX” and dated 7 April, Walter Wade writes,

Why did this succinct and so to the point observation not find a wider audience?

In other words, what had happened in colonial America prior to the Revolution (and what had happened in no other part of the world, neither in the old countries nor in the new colonies) was, theoretically speaking, that action had led to the formation of power and that power was kept in existence by the then newly discovered means of promise and consent. The force of this power, engendered by action and kept by promises, came to the fore when, to the great surprise of all the great powers, the colonies, namely, the townships and the provinces, the counties and the cities, their numerous differences amongst themselves notwithstanding, won the war against England. But this victory was a surprise only for the Old World; the colonists themselves, with a hundred and fifty years of covenant-making behind them, rising out of a country which was articulated from top to bottom — from provinces or states down to cities and districts, townships, villages, and counties — into duly constituted bodies, each a commonwealth of its own, with representatives “freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours,” each, moreover, designed “for increase” as it rested on the mutual promises of those who were “cohabiting” and who, when they “conjoyned [them] selves to be as one Publike State or Commonwealth,” had planned not only for their “successors” but even for “such as shall be adioyned to [them] in any tyme hereafter” — the men who out of the uninterrupted strength of this tradition “bid a final adieu to Britain” knew their chances from the beginning; they knew of the enormous power potential that arises when men “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] Fortunes and their sacred Honour.

Because she was a woman and men did not listen to, much less hear, women back then.

Because, while cultural antisemitism was on the wane, that was still an Eastern phenomenon and in any case, no group of WASP men likes to learn the essential truism of their nation from an outsider.

Because, when a society is in chaos, as the 60′s was, conservative Pablum trumps reasoned truth, especially when the message is from a perceived representative of a group (liberal, cultured Jews) who at the time were closely identified as championing the dangerous new freedoms that were roiling the nation; the message was lost for want of an acceptable messenger.

Had she been a middle-aged, white male from an Ivy background, her laser beam precision might have been hailed by the nation’s educators and her work used to strip away, without destroying completely, the saccharine sentimentalism that had grown to enshrine the Founding Fathers.  That sentimentalism was appropriate for an earlier nation of relatively unlettered citizens who needed history, patriotism and the idea of a national identity fed to them in small, pre-digested bites, in much the same way as the Catholic Church taught it’s tenets to the great unwashed immigrants in the New World, and elsewhere.  It is a shame that Ms. Arendt’s work did not reach its intended audience, high-school and college students who had rejected the myths but had nothing at hand with which to replace it, without jettisoning the concept altogether.

Gotham Diary:
Plenty
11 April 2014

This evening, we’re having a small dinner party, six à table, including the lovely lady who, like our neighbor the suicide, has lived in her apartment for longer than we’ve been in ours. I am hoping that she arrives early, or that I run into her in the hall beforehand, so that we can get the tsk-tsking out of the way.

Owing to another recent death — that the very opposite of suicide: prolonged, with multiple illnesses and ever more alarming signs of failing health, in an agony lasting several years — there are now only three people living on the floor who were already here when we arrived. Owing to shifts that occurred not long after we moved in, and that led to a pattern of shifting, we became old-timers on the early side. Four apartments have turned over so often that we’ve never gotten to know the tenants, and it seems that they’re being joined by a fifth. One apartment has been vacant since the holidays; another, next door to us, has not been regularly inhabited for decades, but sublet, on who knows what terms, from time to time, with no one staying for more than a year. (One of the subletters, inspired by a spell of fine weather to make cell phone calls from his balcony, had to be told that I could hear everything that he said everywhere in my apartment.) Another apartment houses a nice woman who moved in when her son was a baby; he’s got to be nine or ten by now, so I suppose that his mother is entitled to think of herself as an old-timer, too. These are the people whom I have in mind when I speak of “our neighbor,” although of course she was known to people living on other floors, and, you bet, to all the doormen.

The manager of the package room told me that he couldn’t remember what our neighbor the suicide looked like. This was so hard for me to imagine — not knowing what she looked like — that I blurted out, rather inconsequently, that he’d remember her if he heard her, because she was always complaining. He looked at me keenly and replied, “That’s what everybody says.”

That’s what everybody says. What an epitaph: She Was Always Complaining.

Always.

Here I ought to mention something so obvious to those of us who knew our neighbor that it might well go unremarked, creating unnecessary mystification in others. Our neighbor was not at all a “hateful” person — her manner, until she opened her mouth, was quite pleasant. Her characteristic expression might be compared to the archaic smile of old Greek statues, pleasant but not non-committal. She walked through this mortal bourne of ours with a sweet complacency that was undoubtedly the quality that protected her from real rudeness on the part of others. She spoke in a tone of resignation that only over the long term proved to be misleading — for the only thing that our neighbor was resigned to was the fact that she would spend it whining. It took years for me to stop being surprised when whatever it was that she had to say established itself as a grievance (just as it took forever to note the impatience behind that smile), for her bearing promised something so much closer to intelligent conversation. She was not stupid, our neighbor; she shared all the prejudices of the good Yorkville progressives who teem in our ark. But it was hard for her to escape the gravitational pull of her own disappointments, which often concerned matters that the rest of us regarded as things that “big children” overlook. We all agreed that the elevators were slow and not entirely reliable — but our agreement was (and is) implicit; having it pointed out to us by our tirelessly dissatisfied neighbor did not make life any easier.

Indeed, the more I remembered what our neighbor looked like — how, for example, she passed our booth in the diner across the street on weekend mornings and said “hi” (with a querulousness that was not immediately apparent) — because, after all, dying the way she did brought to mind the horror of her falling through the air to her death, which it seems a young tenant caught sight of — the less I remembered the sound of her voice, to the point that, about two hours after I first heard the news, I was overtaken by the creepy conviction that I had made it all up, or perhaps had a dream. I knew that this was a delusion, but, just to be sure (and to loiter about, eavesdropping, in the lobby), I went downstairs and asked the doorman who had just come on duty if it was true. I cannot say that he smirked when he assured me that it was, but his eyes crinkled with glee. They really did.

Had our neighbor died what is called a natural death, no one would have said much about her, because nobody wants to speak ill of the dead. People aren’t saying very much as it is, but the atmosphere is positively constipated. Normally — well, who am I to say what’s normal about such cases, happily rare as they are. But I imagine that the normal suicide elicits not only shock (somebody jumped!) but surprise (who knew?). The surprise is what’s missing here, not because anybody was expecting the suicide, but because speculations about our neighbor’s state of mind are drowned out by the the intense recollection that she was always complaining. We knew plenty about her state of mind.

Given this notorious disposition, it is not surprising that our neighbor had few visitors; in addition, there never seemed to be any close family. Her mother used to live in Lincoln Towers, across town, and that was a source of complaint — getting there, getting home, &c — that we all shared, because crossing town is the Trail of Tears in Manhattan. Then her mother died, and that sympathetic topic dried up. I seem to recall her mentioning relatives in Toronto. Now there is talk of a niece. (There always seems to be a niece, doubtless because I read too many novels.) No notice has appeared in the lobby, as is usual when a long-term tenant passes away, announcing the fact of the death and the date of a memorial service. Perhaps it’s too soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

This makes me uncomfortable. It occurred to me this afternoon that our neighbor, perhaps improperly medicated, alone and without a sounding board, and probably not in full possession of her faculties, intended her fall from the eighteenth floor to send a message to the rest of us, a mixed bag of people who were however of one mind about her: you are always complaining. I don’t really believe that our neighbor intended any such thing, but the hypothesis underlines the fact that what she left behind was confusion. Her lurid act makes it strangely urgent to find out why she was always complaining. Is there anybody who knew her well enough to be able to tell us?

For our neighbor’s legacy (at the moment) has a double senselessness. Suicide usually seems selfless, certainly when there is no note or “explanation.” But the way our neighbor lived in the world was also senseless, at least to the extent that such habitual discontent needs an explanation, too.

How bizarre and almost inhuman this blend of familiarity and ignorance, this everyday contact devoid of involuntary intimacy, must seem to those who don’t make Manhattan their home!

Gotham Diary:
A Shock
10 April 2014

In the lobby yesterday afternoon, the doorman who has always addressed me as “Mr Moriarty” approached me with shocking news. A neighbor down the hall, already here when we moved into our apartment more than thirty years ago, had killed herself in the morning, at about 8:20. She had let herself drop from her balcony, onto the courtyard at the back of the building.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. I hadn’t seen her in some time. It seems that she had been hospitalized (presumably with depression), and that she came home, in all probability, prematurely, and in a state that the mail deliverer described as “confused.” Her copy of the Times had had, for a week or so, a way of lingering at her doorstop until well into the afternoon, but the newspapers never piled up. Even before that, during the holidays or thereabouts, I noticed a change in her behavior toward me. It was as though she had finally accepted the fact that I found her to be an unpleasant nuisance (something that I never expressed in words but that must, over all those years, have leaked out), and that she would simply disregard my token greetings. It was as if she didn’t see me.

None of this foretold suicide, of course, but it put change in the air.

Our neighbor was a persistently discontented person who seemed to open her mouth only to bemoan the weather and to whine about the building — about declining services, minuscule rent hikes, that sort of thing — and several times she rang my doorbell to say, “You’re a lawyer aren’t you…?” I finally did give her the card of a lawyer who might know how to help her, but I’ve never heard that she contacted him. The very fact that she complained about the MCIs indicated to me that she was not likely to run up bills with an attorney.

I remember that, for three or four years, some time ago, she seemed happy. The complaints dried up, and were replaced with smiles. She would talk about now nice the weather was. The alteration in her commentary was too stark not to be attributable to medication, and it ended just as abruptly. Once again, the weather was mentioned only if it was terrible, or about to be terrible.

She did not permit casual conversations to end gracefully. She would talk for as long as she had my attention, repeating herself like a circling airplane. Sooner, or sooner than sooner, I would have to cut her off with some formulaic excuse. On one of her doorbell-ringing visitations, I interrupted her lawyer question by saying that this was not a good time, and closing the door with apologetic urgency. If I could not hide my unwillingness to hear her out, she could not hide her unvarnished desire for attention.

She had been, I believe, a librarian in the public school system. Occasionally, she would ask me what I was reading (because she would see me reading; I always carry a book when running local errands, partly as a defense), but my answers never seemed to mean anything to her. I never saw her read anything. She would always go through the books that I began leaving in the window embrasure by the elevator, a custom that other neighbors have since followed. She rarely took one, and, when she did, it reappeared in a day or so. The idea that she had been a gatekeeper to books and literature with whom children must deal made me grit my teeth.

I hated being rude to her, even though I was never rude rude. I don’t have to be on good terms with everyone, but I like my enemies to show some self-respect, and our neighbor was lost in a maze of low-grade self-pity. I knew that her life must be very unsatisfactory to her — I knew it as well as we can know anything about someone else. I should be very surprised indeed to learn that she led a secret life of fun, and I shouldn’t be happy to hear it, either, because she must have in that case been working very hard to keep it a secret from me. Whenever I wasn’t in the actual train of avoiding her, I felt sorry for her, very sorry.

And when I told Kathleen about our neighbor’s death, on the phone, and Kathleen said that she felt very sorry for our neighbor, I said that I had felt sorry for her for years — “I know,” said Kathleen — and that now I could stop feeling sorry for her.

If I had cared for her, and really known the cause of her suffering, I might, perhaps, stop feeling sorry for her. I might be happy for her, knowing that she was out of her misery. But I didn’t know her well enough to care for her, and the assumption that she has found relief in death feels heartless. So, nothing has changed. I still feel sorry for her.

The awful truth is that our neighbor is remembered by almost everyone in this building (and, by “almost,” I am marking just one exception) as “the lady who was always complaining.” Had she died quietly in bed, the legacy would have been the same, although certainly more lighthearted. Most people would have said nothing, and soon forgotten her. But dying as she died — how does one really describe a 76 year-old woman traversing a balcony railing and then letting go (an awkward business, but — perhaps not!)? — she insured, intentionally or not, that everyone would remember her as the lady who was always complaining. Who was always complaining and who jumped off her balcony.

And her complaints, I hasten to to note, were the opposite of the kind of warnings that prompt people to sit up and take notice of a problem. Our neighbor’s complaints were embalmed in a scent that made them her complaints alone — even when, as sometimes happened, we actually shared them.

There is nothing simple to say or to think about our late neighbor. Sorry, of course: God rest her soul. I don’t believe in God,but I believe in that hope. Call me human.

It’s too early to say whether I’ll miss ducking our neighbor. I don’t expect to, but you never know, with shocks like this.

Gotham Diary:
The Courtly Hiatus
9 April 2014

It is probably somewhat premature, in the course of my tutelage, to object to this or that point in Hannah Arendt’s writing, but all that I’ve learned in my longish life is to begin with such observations. The objections themselves flow on regardless. There aren’t many; in fact, there are only three. They have been provoked not by Arendt’s passing remarks but by views to which she has recurred in the three meaty books that I’ve read this year, The Human Condition, On Revolution, and Between Past and Future. (Proof of prematurity: I haven’t quite finished the middle title.)

First of all, there is the problem of Arendt’s ideas about “society” — something that, to her mind, warrants a ten-foot pole to deal with. She hates “society.” I can see why, having digested her comments, but I remain puzzled by her de-validization of a concept that is generally thought to be quite basic. Puzzled enough to jump at the discovery of a brilliantly titled book, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, by Hannah Fenichel Pitkin. I found the book, “new” (sold by the Friends of the Santa Fe Library), at Amazon, and was able to take a peek at its opening.

This book traces the career of one problematic concept in the thought of one major political theorist of our time. The concept merits attention not because the theorist got it right and used it to teach an important truth, but quite the contrary, because the concept was confused and her way of deploying it radically at odds with her most central and valuable teaching. If studying it is nevertheless worthwhile, that is because its significance transcends the technicalities of textual interpretation and the critique of a particular thinker’s work. If the concept was a mistake, that mistake was not just idiosyncratic or careless, and the problem that the concept was intended to address remains problematic.

The thinker is Hannah Arendt, arguably the greatest and most original political theorist of the mid-twentieth century, the concept is what she called “the social.”

I ordered it immediately. I can only hope that it lives up to this exordium. Even more, I hope that Pitkin restores the words “society” and “social” to me; Arendt has put them in detention.

Another matter that strikes me, the more I read Arendt, as ever more undigested, not properly worked out, has to do with Arendt’s statement, repeated in all three books, that political power comes into being when men come together to work for a common purpose, and it ends when they disperse. I agree, heartily; but the thought is sidelined in On Revolution whenever Arendt falls into one of her raptures (as they must be called, although to do so is hardly meant to cheapen her thinking) about the Founding of the American Republic. She insistently takes the view that the Founding was irreversible, that it could not be undone no matter what circumstances might prevail subsequently. This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, and it has been the view of all established scholars of the subject. I do not agree with it, and I believe that Arendt was inconsistent to do so. It seems contrary to her understanding of political power to hold that the failure of men to join in common cause represents any kind of power at all. I can well understand that a woman in her position, stateless for more than a decade and quite at home in the country that granted her both asylum and citizenship, would be inclined to assert the paramountcy of her government. But her position on the Civil War — a crisis not, so far as I know, confronted directly in her writing; the position is nevertheless implicit in what she says about the Founding — remains inconsistent with her articulated ideas of political power.

The larger point in which my objection rests is something to which Arendt repeatedly attested: the death of the old traditions in the paroxysms of the last century. It was a strange death, because traditions don’t just die. They lose authority. Arendt devotes an essay in Between Past and Future to this problem, but it is more descriptive than prescriptive. It does not end by locating a source of contemporary authority — as I recall. (As I say, I intend to review this topic with rigor; right now, I wish merely to flag it.) Her failure to do so does not surprise me, given the time in which she was writing.

The first inkling that I had of where authority might rest in today’s world was presented by David Denby’s wonderful book, Great Books (1996). This is the account of a middle-aged journalist who returns to his alma mater, Columbia University, to audit a course that he was required to take for credit as an undergraduate. What he discovered, of course, was that the books had changed. Their titles were the same, but they resonated very differently, proving that Denby had grown since graduation — something that few college graduates manage, in my experience, to do. The point about authority is almost an aside, but it knocked me over the moment I read it, because it was made in reference to a writer who is certainly the most sacred of my sacred cows, Jane Austen. In the course of talking about one of her novels (I forget which), Denby asserted that each generation must rediscover and reclaim the masterpieces of the past — it must reauthenticate them, as it were. Now, it’s clear that the role of teachers is to help students with this task, and also that it is forgivable if teachers inculcate their own preferences. If a teacher is persuasive, that’s authority. But the teacher cannot simply say, “this is a book that you must not only read, but respect, and if you don’t respect it, you’re a dummy.” That,  I’m afraid, was the ethic of all education prior to World War II; teachers saw students not as future teachers but as inferior human beings. They didn’t have time for student preferences. Nor do I. But I saw the truth of Denby’s assertion instantly, no matter that it meant putting Jane Herself on probation even for an instant.

This idea, that standards must be passed on from generation to generation persuasively, is an exact fit with Arendt’s understanding, repeated again and again in The Human Condition, that political power in the polis — the Greek unit of government — operates not by violence or any other kind of coercion, but by persuasion. And it spreads from Denby’s discussion of the study of the humanities to the center of the political arena. Every political decision must be ratified by every generation, and so must every Founding — even if the bar for testing a Founding necessarily be raised significantly higher.

The third point is the case about which, I am certain, Arendt wrote more out of prejudice than from understanding, and that is the rottenness of the French royal court in the last centuries of the ancien régime. This contemptuous view was an easy winner among smart people from the Second Empire (and perhaps earlier) to the day before yesterday. In a paragraph close to the end of her chapter on “The Social Question,” in On Revolution, Arendt writes,

The Reign of Terror, we should remember, followed upon the period when all political developments had fallen under the influence of Louis XVI’s ill-fated cabals and intrigues. The violence of terror, at least to a certain extent, was the reaction to a series of broken oaths and unkept promises that were the perfect political equivalent of the customary intrigues of Court society, except that these wilfully corrupted manners, which Louis XIV still knew how to keep apart from the style in which he conducted affairs of state, had by now reached the monarch as well. Promises and oaths were nothing but a rather awkwardly construed frontage with which to cover up, and win time for, an even more inept intrigue contrived toward the breaking of all promises and all oaths. And though in this instance the king promised to the extent that he feared, and broke his promises to the extent that he hoped, one cannot but marvel at the precise appositeness of La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism. The widespread opinion that the most successful modes of political action are intrigue, falsehood, and machination, if they are not outright violence, goes back to these experiences, and it is therefore no accident that we find this sort of Realpolitik today chiefly among those who rose to statesmanship out of the revolutionary tradition. Wherever society was permitted to invade, and eventually to absorb the political realm, it imposed its own mores and “moral” standards, the intrigues of the perfidies of high society, to which the lower strata responded by violence and brutality.

It will be seen that this case, as I put it, overlaps the first one that I mentioned, but I don’t think that it does so to the point of identity. The heart of the case is not society but high society, the “Court society” instituted by the Bourbon kings of France and their two most eminent ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Court society was perfected by Louis XIV, in the building of Versailles, its palatial habitat. The wickedness of this society and the monstrosity of its palace were taken for granted by almost all thinking people in the later Nineteenth Century.

What interests me isn’t so much that Arendt shares this commonplace outlook, and even manages to incorporate it into the structure of her argument about the failure of the French Revolution (doomed from the start by the perfidy of “high society”!), but rather that, in order to do so, she must overlook two historical matters, both linked in a much longer-termed revolution in human manners. Just as she identifies the “wandering in the wildnerness” periods that separate “then” from “now” in the two foundation legends that were known to classical antiquity — the Hebrews, led by Moses, out of Egypt, and the Trojans, led by Aeneas, into Rome — so she might have seen that court society constitutes just such a hiatus between the brutal “then” of medieval society and the peaceable “now” of modern Western life — a “now,” moreover, in which a woman such as Hannah Arendt might speak out and be heard, respected even. Such a woman would have been burned as a witch in the medieval “then.”

It was within the framework of court society that the transition occurred. The rulers of France, determined to put an end to all unofficial violence, relied only partially on official violence or coercion to achieve this aim. They also offered an alternative way of life, lavishly accoutered and, for favored subscribers (courtiers), materially rewarding. Why spend money beating up your aristocratic neighbor when you can show him up by making money at court? Concealing the impulse to fight behind the wreaths of courtly smiles inevitably encouraged a culture of hypocrisy, but, over the long term, pretense in many instances was transformed into sincerity, as witnessed in the orgy of renunciation on 4 August 1789.

Although it can hardly have been a conscious objective of the reforming Bourbons, the alternative way of life that they developed also created a growing space for the autonomous woman. Women had always graced royal courts, but now they did more, as we see in the miraculously long career of Mme de Pompadour (cut short only by her illness and death). The abatement of violence conduced to the safety of women, by which I mean that men were transformed from the weaklings who in semitic societies can so expect to be undone by the slightest display of female allure that women must be covered up whenever in public into self-controlled individuals prepared to regard women as human beings and to negotiate, not to compel, sexual favors. Court society created opportunities for women to express themselves, and the quite different salons that arose after the death of Louis XIV, led by women, became nurseries of social equality to the extent that aristocratic titles were obviated by urbane appearance.

The transformation of the elite — Arendt’s “high society” — was complete by 1789. This was manifest in the American Revolution. True, women’s suffrage would wait another century or more, but the most important precondition of women’s suffrage was firmly in place: women were safe in good society.

The problem that arose when the courtly hiatus came to an end was, precisely, one of extending the abstention from violence and the respect for women to the previously shackled masses, who now, for the first time, were free to be as violent and as misogynistic as they liked.

As always, Arendt’s silence on anything to do with the position of women in the world is fascinating.

Gotham Diary:
The Prowst Problem, cont’d
8 April 2014

Speechless!

Well, I say that, but of course I never am.

Frank Bruni writes about a class that he is teaching at Princeton — he doesn’t say what he is teaching, and he doesn’t specify “Princeton University,” so perhaps this is just a test-cramming course on the Upper West Side.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

Oops! I was wrong. He does specify Princeton University.

Can anybody tell me what Princeton University is for, if it accepts students who know so little of the world into which they were born — who seem to know almost nothing that happened before they were born? This would appear to put Princeton in the position of a high school — and not a very good one.

I don’t blame the students. I look at Mr Bruni and his colleagues, because it’s they who are the problem. Confronted by minds deprived of perspective, not so much by the “plethora” of “media choices” as by a shocking want of juvenile discipline, they throw up their hands.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

“The Age of Fracture” sounds like a problem. I can think of only one solution. (American Studies, indeed!) It’s called History.

History is not just the names and dates of battles, kings, empires, and all that. It is far more dense. The masterpieces of art that are housed in our museums make full sense only when their roots in particular times and places are grasped as the springboard of their timeless universality.

The whole point of the United States of America, its very reason for being, cannot be comprehended without a familiarity with the history of classical antiquity (“Greece and Rome”), together with everything in between. Most of modern literature, from the Eighteenth Century on, is incomprehensible without a solid understanding of the rise of the bourgeoisie.

(You might say that our current muddle owes to the triumph of the bourgeoisie, a class with its sights fixed ever upward. Now there is no one to look up to.)

Capitalism has a history. It’s important to know that all the social sciences have been deformed, from their inception, by “physics envy,” the urge to find invariable laws in human behavior. Economics is arguably the most deformed of the social sciences — don’t be fooled by the veneer of mathematics!

History is nothing but The World So Far, and it is all that. Nobody can be expected to know very much of it in detail, but the outlines are assimilable, and a well-educated mind is a mind that is able to relate, roughly, any two pieces of information about it, and to relate what happened to what’s happening. Think of history not as an avalanche of facts but rather as a tree. This tree grows in the mind, with the mind, but it does not produce its own foliage. Leaves are furnished by familiarity with The World. The well-educated mind knows, as I say, where to put what it knows on this tree, and the more knowledge that’s arranged on any part of the tree, the bigger it grows.

The English language has a history. It used to be quite different. Chaucer’s verse is no longer intelligible to untrained listeners. Shakespeare becomes more difficult every decade. The point of university education is to cultivate a class of students (ideally, all young men and women) who are made familiar with History at a time when their minds are developing. Let me put it another way: university education has no other point. The familiarization with History is supposed to occur at the high-school level. Why isn’t Princeton insisting on properly educated students — instead of looking for “well-rounded” achievers? A lot of good “meditations on more focused themes” are going to do terminally myopic students!

Why are the people in education walking away from their jobs — but not their paychecks?

Remembering the daunting Regents Exams that were so feared in my day, I turn to Wikipedia and find the following depressing tidbit:

In April 2012 the Board of Regents decided to formally consider a proposal that would eliminate Regents Examination in Global History and Geography as a graduation requirement for some students beginning September 2013. Global History and Geography is the most frequently failed examination.

That’s just great. If students fail examinations, drop the course. The one course that really matters.

Whatever happened to teachers?

Perhaps Mr Bruni doesn’t see the importance of the problem. After all, he titles his column, “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” — a frivolous reduction of higher education to the dimensions of mass entertainment.

Now I really am speechless.

Gotham Diary:
XX
7 April 2014

Three sentences.

In other words, what had happened in colonial America prior to the Revolution (and what had happened in no other part of the world, neither in the old countries nor in the new colonies) was, theoretically speaking, that action had led to the formation of power and that power was kept in existence by the then newly discovered means of promise and consent. The force of this power, engendered by action and kept by promises, came to the fore when, to the great surprise of all the great powers, the colonies, namely, the townships and the provinces, the counties and the cities, their numerous differences amongst themselves notwithstanding, won the war against England. But this victory was a surprise only for the Old World; the colonists themselves, with a hundred and fifty years of covenant-making behind them, rising out of a country which was articulated from top to bottom — from provinces or states down to cities and districts, townships, villages, and counties — into duly constituted bodies, each a commonwealth of its own, with representatives “freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours,” each, moreover, designed “for increase” as it rested on the mutual promises of those who were “cohabiting” and who, when they “conjoyned [them] selves to be as one Publike State or Commonwealth,” had planned not only for their “successors” but even for “such as shall be adioyned to [them] in any tyme hereafter” — the men who out of the uninterrupted strength of this tradition “bid a final adieu to Britain” knew their chances from the beginning; they knew of the enormous power potential that arises when men “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] Fortunes and their sacred Honour.”

Never have I read a more powerful paean to the United States of America as constituted in 1789. It astonishes me that the words that I have just extracted were not taught to me in school, and taught again and again. Had this passage formed part of the backbone of elite education in the middle of the last century, I am quite sure that the troglodyte, conservative sentimentalism about “the Founders” spouted by the likes of Antonin Scalia would be far more broadly dismissed as the bunkum that it is.

Why wasn’t it? I asked Kathleen, having been almost swept away by reading it to her.

Could it be the title of the book in which Hannah Arendt published this oratorical gem? On Revolution. Not the happiest title in 1963, what with Cuba &c. Revolutions were “bad things” in those days, for the simple reason that, as Arendt herself pointed out repeatedly, no revolution except the American had been a “good thing.”

Kathleen thought it might be that Arendt was Jewish. I disagreed. While social antisemitism was still virulent in the early Sixties, academic and “cultural” antisemitism had been dismantled for some time.

Could it have been the distinction that Arendt makes between a republic and a democracy, as in the following perhaps too-brainy passage?

The American revolutionary insistence on the distinction between a republic and a democracy or majority rule hinges on the radical separation of law and power, with clearly recognized different origins, different legitimations, and different spheres of application.

In Arendt’s view, the USA was a republic, and not a democracy. It was certainly more of a republic in 1789, with the indirect election of the Senate.

Could it have been Arendt’s erudite humanism, so at odds with the American enthusiasm for guts? She roots the success of the American Revolution in a dense matting of civil compacts, not in battlefield heroism. This might well have been found unappealing.

I felt that we were getting closer to an explanation that stood up. In the end, however, we shook our heads irresolutely. The best explanation that we could come up with was so dumb, so stupid, and so piggish, that it was hard to credit.

Hannah Arendt was a woman.

***

TK

Gotham Diary:
Vacation
4 April 2014

On Revolution arrived yesterday. At the moment, it appears to be the last “big” book by Hannah Arendt that I’ll be reading; after this, I’ve got some books about her to read. The adventure so far has carried me much further than anything I dreamed of when I read Eichmann in Jerusalem (because it was fifty years old and people were talking about it). I’ve never had an intellectual experience remotely like this one, half of it a struggle with a fiercely independent, self-directed thinker who was, at the same time, deeply versed in tradition; the other half a deeply satisfying resolution, a bringing into focus of ideas that I’ve been nursing for years. It is as if Arendt had handed me a pair of glasses that at the same time corrected my vision, making every detail crisp, and intensified the three-dimensionality of the world. I have never known a philosopher to deepen my awareness of things.

I’m beginning, though, to look forward to writing without mentioning her: I can already see just how far she is going to take me, the point from which I shall have to continue on my own, or with someone else’s help. I don’t see it very clearly now, but I know that it is the portal beneath which totalitarian probabilities drop their world-historical pretensions and assume, instead, the skimpier garb of market totalism. Market totalism is the drive to put a price tag on everything, and to reduce all human activity to productivity. We’re in the thick of it now. When I say that Arendt will take me so far and no further, I’m not talking about events to come. The events are already at hand. The point that I refer to is the one at which I will be putting to full use everything that Arendt has taught me, as I try to understand the catastrophe-in-process.

Three stories are swimming together in my brain right now: GM’s ignition-switch mess, the McCutcheon decision, and Amazon’s Fire TV. What to they have in common? The elite’s capitulation to the values of mass entertainment. We have allowed mass entertainment to take the place of civil, democratic discourse, so that anything that doesn’t fit the parameters of mass entertainment is ipso facto intolerably pointless and boring. Would GM be able to pretend that no individual is personally responsible for the Cobalt fiasco if educated Americans (a) repudiated the notion that an artificial person can commit a criminal act or (b) were less willing to “liquidate” damages in financial settlements?  Would McCutcheon matter at all if educated Americans set the example of doing their own political homework, or if American institutions supported clear and distinct ideas about political honesty? Would Amazon, a huge online emporium, be permitted to engage in media distribution if the spirit of human-sized modesty that underlies all US trade regulation were enforced? If Americans — the elite included — were not, as the late Neil Postman put it, entertaining themselves to death, would any of these stories even exist?

I don’t bother to object to mass entertainment itself, not least because I know that it would be quite different if the elite withdrew its attention and pursued humane culture instead. It’s the crazy misapprehension of leisure currently prevailing among the elite that makes me sea-sick. Here is a “little list” of ersatz leisure activities that affluent and degree-carrying Americans expect friends, not without warrant, to want to hear about:

  • Short-term travel to exotic regions, with no hope of personal engagement with the people of those regions. Bucket lists.
  • Real-estate prices — considered as awesome natural phenomena.
  • Collections of comic books and other quondam ephemera. Downton Abbey, in season.
  • Spectator sports. Children’s sports.
  • Automobiles and their “recreational” use.
  • Privileged access to celebrities.

The best that can be said of these topics is that they refer to forms of vacation. Vacation is vital: prolonged effort requires periods of relaxation. Today’s elite, however, perverts vacation by making it strenuous or at least rushed wherever possible. What ought to be relaxed hours are as pressed as worktime. Without the moderating and cohering — steadying — influence of thought, varied pastimes melt into miscellaneous occupation.

What’s worse, vacation ought to be a private matter, with little or nothing to be said about it. (Golf!!!) By devoting masses of free time to what ought to be occasional pastimes, the elite leaves itself with nothing better to talk about. It’s as though the decision had been taken that it’s all right to leave the house in your underwear.

It will be imagined that I am calling for more “high-minded” conversation. No — just “minded.”

Gotham Diary:
Ronde de printemps
3 April 2014

Last night, I watched Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller, Frantic, with Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner. There were a couple curious things. First, I remembered only two scenes clearly, the rooftop cliffhanger (in which Mr Ford’s character gets rid of his shoes and socks) and the finale; but only the rooftop business did I remember before the movie began; the ending, I had completely forgotten until it was there before me, and then I remembered it all. Funny. Second, I liked the movie. I didn’t like it the first time, when it was new. I think I can see why: it’s a movie about dread, not excitement. It’s not so much, Where’s my wife and how can I find her as What if I never see her again? When I bought the DVD a few days ago, I surmised that Frantic was a template for at least two of the big hits that Liam Neeson has enjoyed in his maturity, Taken and Unknown, and Frantic bore this out, but only as to story and complication; the earlier movie is, still, a lot less exciting. But: Paris. It’s rare to see an Anglophone movie that captures the City of Light as well as any good French picture does. But of course Mr Polanski hails from Poland, not California.

The most curious thing, however, was the sense of the passing of time. I watch old movies as a matter of course, without feeling any remoteness, but Frantic made me unusually conscious of the thick pile of years that have passed since it was made. Because Harrison Ford is one of the great action movie stars, Frantic is thoroughly compelling, especially for viewers who have outgrown the need for raw excitement, and it is almost amusing to watch him huff and puff and make things look difficult (always a trademark of his action style) twenty-five years ago. More! His unlined face and leonine head of hair seem almost comical — as if there were a style of commedia dell’arte so sophisticated that Harrison Ford himself was a stock character, requiring only a few bits of costume.

Being older (and knowing that she would soon disappear), I paid a lot of attention to the kidnapped wife at the beginning. She’s played by Betty Buckley, who is so good that you understand why she has to be removed from the action: it would never happen if she were in charge. And yet that’s completely wrong, because it is her decision to respond to the phone call from the lobby in person that triggers the plot. Back in 1988, I probably thought that Ms Buckley seemed so much older and wiser than Mr Ford that it was hard to believe that he really appreciated her, and even last night she looked, well, older. But that’s Hollywood for you; he was born in 1942 and she in 1947 — the most normal difference imaginable for a married couple. But Ms Buckley is very unlike, almost the opposite of, Selah Ward (born 1956), who plays the trophy wife opposite Mr Ford in The Fugitive. Betty Buckley’s character not only knows more about Paris than her husband but has seen more of life itself. From the beginning, then, Frantic had, last night, the air of a catch-up game.

***

Watching Frantic was all I was good for, after a ronde de printemps that ought to have left me staggering — Ray Soleil will know what I mean by that. He was with me the whole time, from the visit to the florist to the rest stop at Penrose. In between, lunch at Demarchelier, Crawford Doyle, the Museum, and an urban nightmare. About the florist, the restaurant, and the bookshop, I need say nothing, except that I was grateful to the point of stupefaction to find them all still there in the spring. Of course I’d been to them all during the winter, now and then, but always under the psychic carapace of hibernation that protects us from the cold. As on Tuesday, I could not get over how nice it was to be outside, doing things.

About the Museum: we went to look at the Carpeaux, and then (a first for Ray) the Marville. The work of both artists struck me by its ties to the Eighteenth Century; both Carpeaux (for all his “romanticism”) and Marville are fundamentally ancien régime artists with Second-Empire accents. (The Marville show catalogues have sold out— bravo! The Museum hopes to have another printing by May. I cursed myself for not wanting to carry the book around after prior visits.) One thing is for sure: there will be no more talk about Atget without an awareness of his far more objective predecessor. Marville doesn’t deprecate Atget, but he does make us realize that, Berenice Abbott’s modernist admiration notwithstanding, Atget was an inspired loony.

The urban nightmare was occasioned by a demonstration on Park Avenue mounted by the “residential workers” — the doormen, porters, handymen and others who make Manhattan’s larger buildings habitable. Their union’s contract is up for negotiation this month, and there’s the possibility of a strike at the end, right after Easter. Why Park Avenue is the spot for a rally I have no idea, but by the time Ray and I left the Museum, traffic on Fifth and Madison Avenues had been halted by the police, as was downtown traffic on Park Avenue. Making this nuisance truly impossible was the clatter of a helicopter parked overhead. Oh, for a drone! The security state is one thing, but Boys with Toys are quite another, and, by the way, I caught a fire truck using its sirens on Second Avenue yesterday simply to get into 85th Street and expedite its return to the firehouse. For shame!

The want of taxis resulting from the brouhaha made it necessary to stop at Penrose. Mrs NOLA had told me about it, not perhaps thinking that greybeards might not be the favored clientele. It’s a perfectly nice bar — it calls itself a “local” — and we couldn’t have been more nicely treated. But, perhaps because I sat facing the door, and it was the beginning of Happy Hour, I was brought to a state near enchantment by the look on the faces of people — men and women both, but especially men — as they came in. They looked so hopeful. There was a happiness about this look that I hasten to note — nothing needy or “experienced” about it. You might have thought that a new route to romantic bliss had been announced in Time Out. By the time we left, my reasons for feeling that I didn’t belong there had nothing to do with my age.

At home, there were bags from the florist to unpack, and boxes as well, including one from Amazon that contained On Revolution — as yummy as the box of dark chocolates from See’s Candies. (I miss calling it “Mrs See’s.” The old lady is still on the box, in a Betty Crocker sort of way.) I made a pot of much-needed tea, and Ray and I fell into talk about old movies. When he spoke highly of some Elvis Presley numbers, I threatened to tie him down to make him watch Bedtime Story, the utterly unfunny original of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Soon, however, I was at the computer, ordering away, and, any day now, my film library will include Midnight Lace and Rome Adventure. Ray is very persuasive, but he also has a stellar track record — as long as you don’t listen to him on the subject of Elvis. I told him that I’m willing to forgive the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire her infatuation with the master of Graceland; and that I won’t be indulging his until he boasts a title just as grand.

I’m still trying to figure out, though, why I ordered Disney’s Planes. Will is in San Francisco!

Gotham Diary:
Just So
2 April 2014

At the bottom of this entry, you will find another photograph. Both images were shot from the same spot, looking in opposite directions. I wanted to celebrate my return to Carl Schurz Park by explaining how it came to be what it is today.

Robert Moses, Grand Pooh Bah (it didn’t really matter which title he was wearing), had a flat at One Gracie Square, the building more or less in the center, above. It’s the last near building on the left. (More distant structures are on Roosevelt Island and in Queens.) Every day, when Moses left his apartment, what he saw across the street was the wilderness of the abandoned Gracie Estate. At the far end of this property stood Gracie Mansion. That’s the yellow house in the picture at the bottom. That’s where Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, lives with his family.

Thanks to Robert Moses’s bright idea.

Moses liked to maintain close contact with the mayor of the city, whoever that might be; he generally nabbed the first appointment in the mayor’s daily calendar.

It occurred to Moses that he might walk to this appointment — if the mayor lived in Gracie Mansion. So he persuaded the mayor of the moment, Fiorello LaGuardia — who, no Michael Blumberg he, lived in a Greenwich Village walkup — to move into the renovated house. The grounds of the estate were magically transformed into Carl Schurz Park, arguably the most multifaceted park (per acre) in Manhattan.

The new East River Drive (today’s FDR — its landfill foundations consisting of rubble from the London blitz, brought over as ballast in otherwise empty freighters) was topped by a riverside promenade. In a matter of minutes, Moses could stroll from his apartment to the mayor’s office. So much more convenient! If he wanted a change, he could follow one of the park’s many intriguing paths, getting plenty of exercise on the abundant flights of steps. He could cross the pretty little bridge from which I took my pictures. The bridge traverses a little walk that slopes down through the plantations until it reaches a small, round plaza, with a statue of Peter Pan in the center. You would never guess, standing there, how close, as the worm burrows, the roaring FDR traffic is. The plaza and the bridge are about as pointlessly decorative as you can get without actually building a monument to something.

***

It’s a lovely story, and I made a lot of it up. Not everything, but so much, frankly, that, if I were you, I would corroborate every detail myself. The real story — well, it’s not a story, for one thing. It’s a complicated sequence of greater and lesser alterations (that’s how the city changes) that, were I to begin to relate it, would have you begging me to say a few (more) words about Hannah Arendt instead.

I did not make up the bit about the rubble of the blitz, though. That would have been unseemly. The rubble was just about all that Britain could spare as cargo for ships returning to the United States for urgently-needed supplies.

But, oh! To be in the park! How long has it been? Certainly I had not been to the park since the New Year, and almost certainly not for months prior to that, either. The park had a spare, windswept feel to it, owing partly to the complete lack of arboreal leafage but also to the quiet, unbelieving happiness of the people sitting on the benches, rediscovering the delight of sitting outside for pleasure. Lately quite unimaginable!

Tomorrow, I am going to visit the florist’s over on Lexington Avenue, to see what, if anything, they’ve got for the balcony. (If they having nothing at all, I won’t be surprised.) I want something to fuss over out there, and if need be will repot the spider plant that I’ve had rooting by the kitchen sink. The ivy in the large tub looks dead, although Ray Soleil assures me that it isn’t; the much smaller-leaved varicolored ivy that I planted by the wall seems to be doing well, and I have high hopes of its climbing a couple of inches of trellis this year. Everything else of a vegetable nature is extinct. Everything not vegetable is filthy. So there’s plenty to do.

Outside! What a concept.

***

Regular readers will not be surprised that my light reading, lately, has been the correspondence that Hannah Arendt kept up with Mary McCarthy from 1949 until her death, in 1975. Carol Brightman’s edition of the letters, Between Friends, has been a treasure of my library since it was published, in 1995. I can’t remember just what the attraction was back then, but it may simply have been the back-and-forth between two writers.

The pace of the correspondence picked up in 1959, I forget why. McCarthy was about to settle down with her last husband, James West, a Foreign Service officer attached to the OECD, and Arendt was instrumental in expediting her divorce from Bowden Broadwater. Flipping through the book to ascertain all of this — no more inventions! — I came across the following bonbon. Hannah to Mary, 20 June 1960.

I was away from New York, an idiotic affair at Baltimore, honorary degrees together with Margaret Mead, a monster, and Marianne Moore, an angel. Only one nice thing to report: we were talking about being taken to college next morning and being fetched separately, each one by her department. I said non-committally: nice of them to bother, or something to that effect. Whereupon Mead (one better call her only by her second name, not because she is a man, but because she certainly is not a woman) launched into a diatribe [about] how much all these people enjoy being with US — celebrities, etc. Before I could even get properly mad, Marianne Moore: “My, my, I can only hope we will be enjoyable.” And that was that.

I’d like to know more about why Arendt thought what she did about “Mead.”

I thought that I had read Between Friends through quite conscientiously when I bought it, but I had no recollection whatever — and surely I’d not have forgotten! — of W H Auden’s turning up at Arendt’s door with an offer of marriage, quite indecently soon after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, in 1970. She turned him down — she and McCarthy both state that to do otherwise would have been “suicide” — but she gathered that Auden was so bitterly disappointed about not getting a chair at Oxford, or somesuch, that his fallback was to propose to a number of ladies, and she felt very sorry for him, which only made things worse.

I don’t know what to do. When he left he was completely drunk, staggering into the elevator. I did not go with him. I hate, am afraid of pity, always have been, and I think I never knew anybody who aroused my pity to this extent.

It turned out that Stephen Spender had already sounded out McCarthy about this proposal, on Auden’s behalf. “Are you mad?” she replied. In her letter to Arendt, she went on,

Anyway, of course I shall say nothing to Spender when I see him again. It’s typical of a homosexual — I mean Spender — to have been married for twenty years and know so little about marriage that he could venture such a thought.

Comble!

Gotham Diary:
The Trouble with Productivity
1 April 2014

Late yesterday afternoon, I watched Hannah Arendt for the second time. It struck me even more forcefully than it did the first time as an extraordinarily good movie with some extraordinarily regrettable lapses. Almost all of the latter concern the representation of America, either as landscape (mostly faked with obviously German stand-ins) or as  society. The problem with the movie’s picture of American society is that nearly every American in the film is a caricature. Whether this reflects an agenda on Margarethe von Trotta’s part or simply a fumble in communication between a Continental director and an Anglophone cast, I can’t say, but every time a braying or strident American interrupts the velvet flow of German, I want to stop my ears.

However: extraordinarily good, that’s the thing to bear in mind. As a movie about a thinking human being, Hannah Arendt is unparalleled. Thinking, of course, cannot be shown on screen — just the face of someone who is thinking. At this, Barbara Sukowa is as convincing as anyone. But she is supported by a superb screenplay, superbly photographed.

Hannah Arendt tells the story of how Arendt came to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, and how her book was received when it was serially published in The New Yorker. A very great deal of the movie is taken up with Ms Sukowa’s Arendt reacting to what she hears, both silently and in speech, and these reactions reveal thought in the same way that a powdering of snow reveals the Invisible Man. Arendt’s first reactions are to Adolf Eichmann himself. She is shocked, surprised. The man is a mediocrity, a nobody. He doesn’t boast or bluster; he just yammers on about swearing oaths and obeying orders. (That the man is physically so unprepossessing — not an accountant but the file clerk to an accountant — is also jarring.) You might think that the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which dilates on the relentlessness with which totalitarians destroy the humanity not only of their victims but of themselves as well, would be prepared for the moral cypher that Eichmann became, but she wasn’t. At one point, she calls him a ghost. Isn’t that what her earlier book would have foretold? Only in hindsight, it seems.

When she has considered Eichmann at length, she finds it difficult if not impossible to get any of her Israeli friends to hear her out. They can’t hear her out, because her mockery of Eichmann makes a mockery of the Holocaust. They can’t or won’t follow her into this classic instance, this actual case, of totalitarian annihilation. For them, the only victims are the shot and the gassed. To annihilate the humanity of the functionaries who managed the killing is to dismiss the criminality of the Holocaust itself, an inadmissable conclusion. But that was precisely Arendt’s conclusion, already reached, in theory as it were, in Origins, and now from experience, watching Eichmann. Totalitarianism is radically evil because it annihilates humanity and, with it, all meaningful conception of law. You can punish totalitarians, but you cannot judge them. Morally, they are already dead. That is what makes them banal.

To compare Hitler (or even Eichmann) to Satan is an insult to Satan. Satan is a fallen angel, a rebel against God. No one is more expert at parsing good and bad. Hitler taught us, I’m afraid, that we have outgrown Satan. But Satan is very familiar and we are attached to the very familiar. In the movie, Hannah Arendt has a hard time, understandably, making the case that Satan is passé. It has perhaps required the passage of fifty years for the case to become even presentable.

***

As a young woman, Hannah Arendt was a distinctly apolitical philosophy student, but she was still young when she learned that ignorance of political affairs can be very foolish. She became a political thinker, somebody who thought endlessly about politics — more precisely, about the environmental factors that must be in place for politics to occur — against the grain of her studies. I don’t know when she hit on her most elemental discovery, which is that all you need to understand politics is the ability to think, but she probably did not pick it up from her teacher, Martin Heidegger, who opportunistically/naively went along with the Nazis at a fairly early point. I don’t know how long it took her to see how destructive Plato had been when he advised philosophers to dismiss politics, but in fact she wrote very little between her exile to France (when her conventional academic career came to an end) and the end of the War (by which time she was in New York). She had been trained, as a thinker, to avoid thinking about politics, but over the course of her mature life, she taught herself how (to use one of her favorite phrases) to turn that on its head. While all the ingredients of her discussion were the familiar monuments of Western intellectual history, she rearranged them even more strenuously than Karl Marx did. (She certainly rearranged him.) In my (admittedly besotted) view, this rearrangement amounted to a reinvention.

To the end of later editions of Origins, Arendt appended an essay, “Ideology and Terror.” Initially, the essay was an attempt to classify totalitarianism among the forms of government à la manière de Montesquieu. This project led Arendt to a startling realization: once Plato started daydreaming about philosopher-kings, political philosophy was launched on a course that deliberately ignored politics — in Arendt’s terms, the free action of plural men. (The plurality and the natality of men — unique individuals are born every day, and grow up, some of them, to lead public affairs — is the second most-important idea in Arendt’s armory. There never has been and never will be any such thing as “mankind” — only a god, she says, would know what that was.) Plato, as exasperated by politics as we all are, decided to dispense with it by handing over the government directly to a ruler, and from then on, political philosophy was concerned with the different forms of rule.

In a republic, however, rule, or law, must be preceded by some sort of popular resolution, however you define “popular.” That is what politics is — not rule. No American ought to have any difficulty understanding this; it’s built into the Constitution. We elect legislators to make laws and a president to execute them. And yet — even the Founders didn’t understand politics, which they called “Faction.” Political parties, born less than a century earlier in England, still, in the 1780s, seemed a somewhat adventitious, accidental imperfection in an ever-improving design. I have yet to read Arendt on parties per se, if indeed she ever wrote about them, but I expect that she would have regarded them as imperfect necessities. (I also expect to learn more in this area from On Revolutions, which is in the mail.)

Somewhere in an interview, Arendt told the correspondent that, when it came time to write things down, she was always ready because she knew what she thought and she simply wrote that. Allowing for exaggeration, we must nevertheless admit that this spontaneity shows, in ways that make reading Arendt fascinating and hugely rewarding but also maddening. Arendt is an anti-journalist. She seems to be completely innocent of all the low-grade rhetorical cunning that was drilled into us in high school. Remember the rule about beginning an essay with a funnel (lots of broad statements at the beginning, narrowing down bit by bit until, voilà, the “topic sentence” at the end of the first or second paragraph)? Arendt begins in media res. You plunge into the deep end — there is no shallow — and swim as best you can. Every sentence is clear and reasonable-sounding, but its connection to its neighbors is sometimes invisible: it’s something that you, the reader, have to work out for yourself. This would have consigned the work of a lesser thinker to oblivion.

Not that there is anything heedless or macho about Arendt’s writing. Rather it reminds me of  a venerable “Catholic joke.” An old lady is in the middle of praying to the Virgin when she’s interrupted by Jesus Himself. He tries to tell her who He is, and to let her be the first to know about the Second Coming, but she dismisses Him unceremoniously: “Shut up, I’m talking to Your mother.” Substitute you, the reader accustomed to being persuaded, for Jesus, and the urgency of avoiding another outbreak of totalitarianism for the Virgin, and the old lady becomes Hannah Arendt.

That Hannah Arendt was a woman, whose books were written by a woman, seems significant not because the books display any “womanly” characteristics but because she and her work are free of two defects that beset the work of brainy males. The first of these weaknesses is what would be called “playfulness,” if you thought of what goes on between cats and mice as “play.” Although the disciplines underpinning systematic philosophy and multiplayer video games differ widely, I regard them as variant methods of scratching the same itch. The second weakness, which you might expect to cancel out the first, is the urge to conclude. But winning the game quite often requires continuing to play. Arendt never stops, either, but, even at her most thunderingly authoritative, she never offers propositions on a scale that would put her inquiry to rest. She is not trying to win a game. She is trying to make sure that no important questions have been overlooked.

(Decency requires me to mention that Albert Hirschmann, last spring’s crush, was, although a very brainy male, singularly free of the “besetting defects.” There are a few good men out there, to be sure.)

Hannah Arendt’s enemy was not intellectual or virtual, but dreadfully, catastrophically incarnate (even if also dead), and it can be said without stretching the facts that she dedicated her survival of the Holocaust to understanding it. She applied her skills as a crack intellectual analyst to shedding light on the evasive murk of anti-political impulses.

***

Every once in a while, a friend interrupts my rattling on about Hannah Arendt to ask if I’m afraid of a totalitarian outbreak anytime soon. The answer to that is “no.” But what does worry me is a misunderstanding about labor that might make such an outbreak more likely, and Arendt has taught me to phrase it that way. “Misunderstanding about labor” — am I talking about jobs? Yes, but not the ones you think. Marx, by misunderstanding labor — he seems to have regarded it simply as the opposite of idleness or unproductive activity — privileged the one kind of doing that human beings share with other animals: the labor, the ceaseless round, of trying to stay alive. The valorization of productivity for its own sake, as common among capitalists as it ever was for the Stakhanovites, has reduced almost all forms of work to the status of labor: job-holding. People worried about keeping their jobs, in a society that proclaims “grow or die,” are workers only nominally: the manufacture of tables and trust documents (work, in Arendt’s view) becomes a byproduct of the dire need to assure an uninterrupted flow of paychecks — labor. Everybody is working too hard and laboring too much, but the worst of it is that it’s the best and the brightest (and I don’t mean CEOs here — they’re the jokers in the pack) who are wasting their intelligence not on “careers” but on jobs. Leisure, the basis of meaningful political reflection, is lost, because “nobody has the time.” That’s why politics in America has become so polarized. It has been abandoned to the players.

If the graduates of our best schools and the recipients of our highest professional salaries can’t figure out how to organize their lives to their own satisfaction (which, by the wonderful geometry of humanity, correlates over the long run to the general satisfaction), we have a problem, Houston, don’t we? Before Arendt, I’d have said that the problem is that there’s not enough reflection in modern society. Now, thanks to her, I know why that’s the case — and I’m really worried.

Gotham Diary:
“This Just In”
31 March 2014

Last Saturday, not this past Saturday but the one on which 22 March fell, we spent the day at Lincoln Center, enjoying two Paul Taylor Dance Company programs. We saw six dances altogether, three of them familiar, three new to us, and one a première.* More than ever before, our pilgrimage served as the rite of spring.

We had originally intended to see much more than we did, but then, as the winter set in, with its aches and complications, it began to seem that we wouldn’t go at all. Aside from two plays in the fall and a jazz concert on Valentine’s Day, we didn’t go out this season, not even for dinner, and that was fine with me. I was as delighted by my evenings at home as I am not to need to own a car. Much as I wanted to see some Paul Taylor, I shrank from making decisions as to which, and the hassle of purchasing tickets put me off even more.

But I rallied, ten days before the performance, spurred by the enthusiasm of a friend with whom I had lunch. She was going that very evening to a Paul Taylor preview. A sudden horror hit me: what if Michael Trusnovec retired after this season? He has been the company’s senior dancer since we started going, six years ago, and he joined in 1996, which is pushing twenty years. I hate to call him the star of the company, because I’m mad about at least five of the other dancers, all of whom do things that  Mr Trusnovec doesn’t (sometimes because they’re women), but there’s no getting round his Apollonian magnificence. Michael Trusnovec is the embodiment of strength stripped of all brutality. He appears to create both the air and the gravity in which he moves. If I were to miss his final New York season with the company, I should need a very good excuse.

Not having one, I bought the four Saturday tickets, quite painlessly, choosing precisely the seats that I wanted, online. Why didn’t I do this sooner? Let’s just say that buying tickets online hasn’t always been easy, and I still carry scars from the early days. (Or fancy I do.)

So, we went, and it was great. A favorite moment that still lingers was the pas de deux for two men, in Sunset, that Mr Trusnovec dances with Robert Kleinendorst, his Dionysian opposite in character but a dancer not a whit less in control. You can see some of it on this clip at YouTube. (Although the men wear the red berets that are part of the dance, the rehearsal is not in costume.) We were especially delighted by Funny Papers, a crowd-pleaser that we’ve somehow managed to miss.

***

And that’s all for now. From the very beginning, friends would say, “I love it when you review things. It’s almost as good as being in New York.” This always made me feel like Woody Allen’s character in Stardust Memories, whose fans tell him that they especially like his “earlier, funny” movies. I’m not going to say anything crude, such as “I hate writing reviews,” but I have to say that I have come to find reviews too problematic to write. There is something wrong about fitting the report of any “cultural event” into the mold of journalism.

And to tell you what it is, I’m going refer to last Thursday’s entry, in which I mentioned Cicero’s conception of the cultivated mind. Hannah Arendt writes (in the essay to which I alluded),

[Cicero] speaks of excolere animum, of cultivating the mind, and of cultura animi in the same sense in which we speak even today of a cultured mind, only that we are no longer aware of the full metaphorical content  of this usage. For as far as Roman usage is concerned, the chief point always was the connection of culture with nature; culture originally meant agriculture, which was held in very high regard in Rome in opposition to the poetic and fabricating arts. … It was in the midst of a primarily agricultural people that the concept of culture first appeared, and the artistic connotations which might have been connected with this culture concerned the incomparably close relationship of the Latin people to nature, the creation of the famous Italian landscape. According to the Romans, art was supposed to rise as naturally as the countryside; it ought to be tended nature; and the spring of all poetry was seen in “the song which the leaves sing to themselves in the green solitude of the woods.” But though this may be an eminently poetic thought, it is not likely that great art would ever have sprung from it. It is hardly the mentality of gardeners which produces art.

I completely disagree with Arendt on the last point, but that’s no matter: it is not art that is under discussion but the cultivated mind. It is in the cultivated mind that culture begins, and it is from the discussions of cultured minds that culture emerges into the light. Actual cultural events take place in and among minds, not in theatres, concert halls, or museums. Culture lies not in works of art but in the seasoned responses of men and women to works of art. An empty museum is absolutely devoid of culture, and merely to write about what happened at a concert or what was displayed in a gallery is, very possibly, to avoid cultural significance altogether.

The journalistic review came into existence with the rise of the bourgeoisie, who had to be told, in those early days, what was what. In the absence of higher education or, more importantly, swell friends, the rising merchant or aspiring barrister needed a guide to the finer things in life, among which, of course, the fine arts figured most prominently; and newspaper critics were happy to help. The very premise of the journalistic review, unchanged to this day, is that the reader is him- or herself less fitted than the journalist, if not wholly unable, to judge a picture or a performance. But today this premise rests on the shakiest foundation: it is no longer the critic’s judgment that is special, but rather his access to events: he sees them, as a rule, before everybody else, or he sees everything of their kind. He is in an excellent position to deliver the latest news about art. But this news is not at all inherently cultural.

I’m not claiming that journalistic reviews are wholly devoid of cultural comment. On the contrary, it’s the odd bit of really substantive comment that sparks my awareness of its rarity. Alistair Macaulay stuffs his Times reviews with genuinely cultural insight, but the pieces themselves are stunted and constrained by the obligation to highlight the dances that the critic has just seen. Writing about Paul Taylor, moreover, Macaulay harps on how great Taylor used to be. This point gets much more coverage, as it were, than Macaulay’s frequent but fleeting references to the astonishing performances that his dancers deliver, and the choreographic characteristics that distinguish any Paul Taylor dance go almost unmentioned. Refreshment is a vital part of the cultivation of the mind — that is why it is so important to re-read great books — but the journalistic review tends not to refresh but to overwrite. Macaulay’s regrets about Paul Taylor’s apparent dotage (“Though he’s certainly a master, it’s been decades since he seemed any kind of pioneer“) betray a conviction that the latest instance of anything is also the most significant. That’s the déformation professionelle of a journalist. It has almost nothing to do with culture.

So we have to figure out another way to talk about art, one in which “news” values are subordinated to accord with their limited cultural importance. I hope to be closer to a solution by the time next year’s Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center season begins. One thing’s for sure: I’ll order my tickets online and early.

* Familiar: Cloven Kingdom, Sunset, and Gossamer Gallants; New to us: Funny Papers, Dante Variations; Première: Marathon Cadenzas.

Daily Blague news item: The Skills Gap

Gotham Diary:
“They should learn”
27 March 2014

It turned out to be very helpful to read The Human Condition, even though, while I was plowing through it, especially through the outer chapters, which I barely understood (couldn’t see the need for), I worried that I’d made an awful mistake about Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem had shown me a writer of keen intelligence and reportorial diligence, with a seriousness leavened by blow-dart sarcasm. In Between Past and Future, the water was a lot deeper, but the philosophical tone was not too choppy. (I still don’t know how I came to read Between Past and Future “next” — a complete lack of plan is probably the best answer.) I knew that I should have to re-read the book, or at least parts of it, if I were to get my brain’s worth, but the occasional wisecracks refreshed my enthusiasm. Arendt talked about the most important things, but there was a comfortable familiarity in her tone of voice, as though the most important things were the things that we talk about most often.

The Human Condition seemed written by a different Arendt, all work and no play. Worse, it appeared to be an exercise in phenomenological philosophy, a discipline that it would be late in the day for me to be learning, much less assessing! I nearly lost my nerve in the final chapter, which portrays a world in which no one has recovered from the shock of Galileo’s discoveries (the earth really does orbit the sun!) and Descartes’s deflationary ideas. I didn’t recognize this world at all; either Arendt had let herself get carried away or I was somewhat dim. I skimmed a bit, something I never do.

When I went back to read the essay about art and culture in Between Past and Future, however, I saw pretty quickly that The Human Condition had been worth the trouble. I’ll get to that; first, let me take a minute to sketch the aspect of The Human Condition that I found enlightening. The bulk of this work is given over to a painstaking distinction between labor, work, and action. This analysis, although firmly rooted in the Western intellectual tradition from Plato to Marx, is all Arendt’s own. (Well, distinguishing work from labor was her idea, inspired by the fact that all Western languages have two words, such as “labor” and “work,” for activities that the Greeks bundled together.) This breakdown of the “vita activa” provides a very useful tool, I believe, for thinking about what it is that we are doing when we do anything. To put it very simply:

  • Labor is drudgery. Marx called it man’s metabolic relation to nature. Labor keeps human beings alive, and, as such, it is endlessly repetitive. Arendt uses the term animal laborans to highlight the point that, although it makes use of faculties that other animals lack, labor is not peculiarly human. Having consigned labor to slaves, the Greeks didn’t give it another thought.
  • Work involves means and ends: raw materials, tools, and human effort are consumed, not in the cyclical drudgery of labor, but in the production of lasting objects, which may be either  use-objects (a table or a chair — or a tool) or works of art (such as a sculpture). Mastery of the skill (τέχνη) to produce lasting goods transforms the laborer into a worker.
  • Action is political action: speech and deeds intended to persuade fellow-citizens.

The purpose of these categories, as I see it, is not to provide pigeonholes for every kind of human activity but to consider the nature of what we do. The range of work has expanded hugely since classical antiquity, and now includes the professions. But the number of workers appears to be set on a downward course, as the effort involved in work is increasingly outsourced to robots and laborers. Already in the mid-Fifties, Arendt was concerned about a world in which labor was no longer required of human beings — leaving them with nothing to do. This development has become vastly more worrisome in the ensuing decades, but few politicians — most of whom seem prudentially opposed to taking any kind of real action — dare to stare at the dawn of this ironic utopia.

Industrial labor, of course, did not exist in the ancient world; it has been a significant social factor for less than three centuries. But it is wise to see factory workers for what they are: laborers, not workers. Most factory work is endlessly repetitive, and in fact much of it regards overseeing the labor of machines. When politicians talk about “upgrading the work force” by teaching “workers” new skills, they are confusing laborers with workers. There is little current demand for a vastly enlarged work force, however — even if most laborers possessed the intelligence required to master genuine skills, a real question. The consolidation of business corporations invariably produces cuts in the demand for labor. The larger the operation, the more efficiently it can produce the same output — “efficiently” meaning “with less human labor.” What is good for investors and a bonanza for CEOs is terrible for ordinary laborers. The industrialization of work is terrible for workers. Arendt muses on “the consumer society,” in which cheaply-made use-objects replace the production of workers. (Think IKEA — unknown to her, of course, but clearly foreseen by her.)

There were no business organizations in the ancient world, and it is almost impossible to know where to place economists, marketers, consultants, human-resources specialists, and the ranks of other now common creatures on Arendt’s schema. Perhaps it is not important to do so, but I believe the case can be made that none of them are doing anything.

***

Art and culture. You think that’s bad, get a load of this: “The Crisis in Culture: its Social and its Political Significance.” Makes you look round for a fainting couch, doesn’t it. When it came to titles, the Fifties were fairly humorless.

The essay is so stuffed with ideas that I’m going to do little more than mention it now. There are two parts. The first considers the manifestations of “mass culture.” The second explores the relation between artists and politicians and concludes that aesthetic taste is a political faculty. Yes! Strange as it sounds, Arendt makes her case. I liked it the first time, but having ground my nose into the detail of The Human Condition, I love it now. It is tempting to type out the last three paragraphs, although they’re very long, but I don’t think that they can be excerpted — they constitute a grande finale that doesn’t make much sense (just a lot of noise) if you haven’t heard the symphony.

There is, however, one moderately-sized idea that I’d like to pass on, and that is Arendt’s discussion of culture. She does this authoritatively, by locating Cicero as the first person to speak of it and to speculate on “the cultivated mind.” Arendt shows that Cicero was building a metaphor on the field of agriculture, that the cultivated mind was for him the correlative of a well-worked farm. Productive farms don’t yield crops overnight or without a great deal of attentive care; nor do minds yield beautiful or useful ideas without intelligent management. If there is any idea in the world that I consider fundamental, elemental, paramount and core, it is this. I wrote that it is moderately-sized so as not to daunt, but it is the most important idea ever.

I learned it myself, years ago, from gardening. I knew nothing about gardening when we bought our house in the country, and much of what I taught myself could not be implemented amidst heavily-wooded properties. But what I was really teaching myself was how to build a model for growing a mind. Arendt has helped me to articulate this model, and I feel more confident than ever about insisting that the uncultivated mind is an outrageous waste of humanity that anyone possessed of a college degree ought to be ashamed of. (At the very least, demand a tuition refund!)

Have you seen Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt yet? Most of it is in German, but my favorite moment is in English. Arendt is going over Eichmann in Jerusalem with New Yorker editor William Shawn. It goes something like this.

Shawn (pediatrically): I see, Miss Arendt, that you begin with an epigraph in Greek. Now, many of our readers don’t read Greek.
Arendt (briskly): They should learn.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who dismisses Arendt’s retort as “arrogant” is no better than a laborer — and not necessarily a human laborer, either.

Gotham Diary:
What is she doing in the picture?
26 March 2014


The Wallace Collection

Raise your hand if you have seen this picture before.

I’m going to assume that you know who the four men are. (Yes, that child in skirts is a little boy.) But do you know (a) who painted the picture (b) when? And (c) do you know who the lady is?

I knew who the lady was. Her name stuck in my mind when I learned it, because it is not the name that I assumed at first. “At first” being when I was thirteen, and reading Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King for the first time. The picture, slightly cropped, is given a double spread (or truck) toward the end of the book, with a portrait of the man in red’s wife on the reverse of one page and a picture of peasants by Louis le Nain on the reverse of the other. The painting is attributed to Nicolas de Largillière, and the lady is identified as the duchesse de Ventadour. “Who’s she?” I wondered. Surely it ought to have been Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s secret wife — so I thought in my infancy.

And indeed it ought to have been that pious lady — which is why it wasn’t (because it couldn’t be), and why the picture is an astonishing fake.

***

I have been reading an historical novel. It’s in French. I don’t read historical novels in English, because they go in for a realism that does terrible things to the language — call it atrocity by anachronism. The French approach is (as usual) far more sensible. The overall narrative is precisely the sort of amiable recital of facts that Mitford made so entertaining — as nonfiction, mind. It is punctuated by occasional but always well-timed bursts of romance-fiction transport. French may not be the language of love, but it is the language of literary romance: there is a way to write about a pretty girl falling in love with a handsome young man, or vice versa, and, having mastered this art at about the time the Abbé Prévost published Manon Lescaut (1731), the French don’t fiddle with the formula. Chantal Thomas, in L’échange des princesses (2013) a novel about the marriages of two princesses, one French and one Spanish, performed by proxy in 1721 — displays a genius for the genre. She quotes extensively from the plentiful documentary sources, orthographic irregularities intact, but she manages to inflect their stiffness with a certain irony, largely by having already told us what her characters, all of them based on actual people, really felt. It reads like history, but as told by Vanity Fair, if there were such a thing as Vanity Fair in French. You learn dozens of things on every page, but you’re much too engrossed to mind.

I am tempted to quote some of the lovey bits, but I resist. Some other time, perhaps. I want to stick with the painting, which, in answer to question (a), is no longer attributed to Nicolas de Largillière. The Wallace Collection, which ought to know, pins the label “French School” where the artist’s name ought to be. Painter unknown! This is not what makes the painting a fake, but it certainly indicates that it is!

The duchesse de Ventadour figures prominently in L’échange des princesses. The action begins about twelve years after the scene depicted in the painting might have occurred (fake!), but Mme de Ventadour, we are told, is “encore belle.” Now, I didn’t think that she was “belle” to begin with, but I’m willing to go along with the conceits of French romance. The duchesse accompanies one princess, twelve year-old Louise Élisabeth, daughter of the Regent, from Paris to the Spanish border (on an island in a river somewhere between St Jean de Luz and San Sebastián), where the girl is exchanged for the Infanta Maria Anna Victoria of Spain, daughter of Philip V and his “viperine” second wife, Elizabeth Farnese (as we call her), and a child not yet four years of age.

Setting out on the journey, Mme de Ventadour assures herself that there is no danger of falling in love a second time, but in this she is mistaken, for the little infanta immediately captures her heart. I suppose that this is why the lady is “beautiful”: her romance is not carnal but maternal. She has already raised the king of France, twelve year-old Louis XV, and had him snatched away when the time came for men to take over the education of the prince. Duchesse and king have been heartsick ever since!

Just as operatic love scenes work best in Italian, so it is with their prose equivalents in French. I wouldn’t dream of translating the scene in which the infanta, greeting her already very handsome future husband for the first time, immediately falls in love with him, while the king, who can tell at a glance that his “Maman Ventadour” has given her heart to her young charge, is paralyzed by jealousy. The music that lifts you out of your chair would be lost — it’s built into the language. In English, the scene would risk implausibility.

Suffice it to say that, until I began reading L’échange des princesses, I hadn’t given Mme de Ventadour much thought. But now I felt the hot knife of curiosity pressing against my neck. What was she doing in that picture?

Put it like this: find me another portrait of Louis XIV or any member of his family which features someone who is not. I have never seen, for instance, a portrait of Louis with any of his mistresses. Such a picture would have violated the rules not only of propriety but of portraiture: the portrait was an ideal representation from which all accidents, save those of fashion, were banished. Royalty could not be adulterated by the presence of non-royals.

In The Sun King, the picture is identified as “Louis XIV, with the Grand Dauphin, the Duc de Bourgogne and (supposedly) his second son, and the Duchesse de Ventadour.”

Here’s its title at the Wallace Collection: “Madame de Ventadour with Portraits of Louis XIV and his Heirs.”

As for the date of the painting: “1715-1720.”

Of course! Louis XIV died in 1715. His son, the Grand Dauphin, died in 1711. The Grand Dauphin’s son, the duc de Bourgogne, died in 1712, as did his wife and his elder son, all of measles. The younger son, the future Louis XV, was also infected, but he pulled through, under the care of “Maman Ventadour.” After the old king died, the duchesse must have felt at liberty to have her role in the preservation of the senior Bourbon line commemorated in fine style. The new king was too young to object, and his guardian, the reprobate duc d’Orléans, wouldn’t care. The result is more a conversation piece (a genre that would become wildly popular in England later in the century) than a court portrait — another giveaway.

If, dear reader, you happen to be a student of French history under the age of forty, you will probably have been laughing at me all the while, wondering how I could have been hoodwinked by this bald imposture. I can only reply that the day will come when you discover that some of the things that you learned in school were and are not true.

As for Madame de Maintenon, not only would she not have been shown in a painting with her secret husband, but she would have been guarding a quite different, and much older, child, a young man by this time — Louis’s adored but feckless bastard, the duc du Maine. That is another story.

Postscript

Ray Soleil, when he read the foregoing, asked, “What got you going?” What was it that brought what I facetiously called “the hot knife of curiosity” to my neck? As this seems to be the most interesting thing about my “discovery,” I thought that it deserved mention, and here, not in some other entry.

What made me look into the background of the picture was a strange combination of familiarity and experience. The picture it self really could not be more familiar. I cannot say that I memorized it, but when I remark that, before I got to the computer to start checking things out, I imagined Mme de Ventadour to be standing between the king’s chair and the duc de Bourgogne (and facing the opposite direction), that will only underscore how present the elements of the picture were to my mind. I cannot recall not knowing it. From the first moment of contact, it stood as an emblem of the ancien régime, perhaps the emblem. Here were four generations of Bourbons, at ease in their opulence, one of them on a leash held by a lady in long kid gloves. When I saw it for the first time, I was more familiar with the look of the Eighteenth Century than a healthy child of my age ought to have been, but I was innocent of all power of discrimination. I swallowed the painting as evidence.

Which, as we have seen, it is not; it is a confection. (I should like to have been a fly on the wall when the duchesse riffled through her old gowns, looking for something that said “1710.”) My acquaintance with a lot of other paintings from the period, alongside a great deal of writing about it, have built up in the more than fifty years since I saw this picture into a mass of experience. As I read Chantal Thomas’s book, the frequency of the name “Ventadour” elicited a certain sparking flash from this mass, an irritation, an interference, a sense not unlike the one produced by a frame’s hanging askew. Something was wrong. Presently this sense crystallized into the words with which I headed this entry. I realized that I had never seen another painting like Mme de Ventadour’s. The image no longer made sense, and indeed it turned out to be a fake: the picture, not of something that never happened, but of something that would never have been depicted with the consent of the powerful man who sits in the chair.

The authority of Madame de Ventadour’s fake, owing simply to its seniority in my experience, was immense, but not, I’m happy to say, fixed.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of “Mondegreens.” I’d herewith like to propose the term “Ventadour” for the experience of finding out the truth about something that was misunderstood long ago, when one was too young to appreciate it.

Gotham Diary:
Different Point of View
25 March 2014

Writing to a friend last night, on the subject of current perplexities, I went to search for something that I read last week but failed to note at the time. A blue-collar worker from the hinterland was quoted as saying that “you can’t take away a guy’s right to be stupid” — something like that. I was shocked, but also exquisitely delighted, when the Google search attributed a similar statement to a far more prominent speaker, Secretary of State John Kerry. The Reuters headline: “Kerry defends liberties, says Americans have “right to be stupid.”

“The reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be,” he said, prompting laughter. “And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

“And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for,” he added. “The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view.”

Exquisite delight? I must have been looking for a casus belli.

***

Certainly, in America, you have the right to say whatever you want to say, so long as it does not disturb the peace. But that is not only where the “right” stops, but where a moral obligation begins. What moral obligation? The moral obligation imposed on every citizen in a democracy (where citizens do the ruling) to be as attentive and intelligent — to be as smart — as possible.

(Quite often, this imperative leads to the conclusion that the best exercise of your right to free speech is to remain silent.)

I ask myself if it is necessary to argue this point, to demonstrate logically that such a moral obligation exists. I decide that it is not. Anyone genuinely in need of the argument would probably not be inclined to follow it, and I am abundantly confident that my readers need no more than a gentle reminder — unless of course they have been so demoralized by contemporary discourse that they no longer believe that any moral obligations exist. I have nothing to say to such depraved hopelessness.

Most smart people don’t need a sense of moral obligation to keep their smarts in good shape. The difficulty lies in the conduct of civil discourse. What do you do when other people aren’t so smart? Do you just nod your head and say, “You can have a different point of view?” I hope not. Nor, however, can you simply tell people that they are being stupid. What you have to do is to move as quickly as possible to identify the differences in opinion that make persuasion impossible. If, for example, you believe that women are in any significant way inferior to men, then I cannot expect to converse with you on a very broad range of topics, because not only is my belief to the contrary fundamental to most of the ideas that I entertain but it is also derived from a working assumption that women, and not men, are the measure of humanity; if anything, it is men who are inferior. If I haven’t been more disappointed by the men I have known, it is because I have expected less of most of them. Women have rarely disappointed.

(It is entirely likely that my experience has been shaped by living among the elite at a time when women worked very hard to demonstrate their abilities, and men not so much.)

The moral obligation to be as intelligent as possible, however, has a social dimension that I have just ignored, by rattling on about men and women. I meant to offer an example of the kind of difference that might make civil discourse impossible, but then I went on, rather uncivilly, to mount a preliminary defense of my point of view — arguing the inarguable. We all tend to do this, but that doesn’t make it right. We ought to take great pains to avoid being obnoxious to anyone who might be thinking, “You’re so smart, I’ll never be able to keep up. Leave me alone!” Such defeated resentment is socially toxic. It leads to the desperate assertion that stupidity is okay. Smart people have a moral obligation to avoid creating the impression that other people are stupid.

Except.

Except when those other people are embedded in the elite. When they have been to the best schools, lived in relative comfort, and achieved prominent positions. When, for example, they have become the United States Secretary of State. Then, I believe, it is not only acceptable but obligatory to call a spade a spade. To my mind, the right word for John Kerry’s remark is “foolish,” but foolishness is a kind of stupidity. If Mr Kerry is trying to send a message of Democratic Party tolerance and even approval to supporters of the Tea Party  or believers in “intelligent design,” I wish he wouldn’t. Such outreach is not only unseemly but also, I hope, ingenuine. I do wish that President Obama would swiftly demand the Secretary’s resignation.