Gotham Diary:
19 September 2014

It was good to read the news from Scotland in this morning’s Times. While not at all hostile to the idea of Scottish independence, I didn’t think that the details of the proposition, or lack of them, were very promising. Retaining the pound seemed a bad idea; at the same time, this doesn’t seem to be a propitious moment for launching a new currency.  (Joining the European Monetary Union would be the worst thing that could happen. I have become a foe of international currencies.) I understand that votes on this issue are decided by ever-closer margins, and that sooner or later they would come out the other way, but I hope that fans of independence will use this time to approach independence more hard-headedly, and less as fans.

The enthusiasm surrounding the party of Yes was on its face disturbing: nothing can be more grave in political life than the assertion of autonomy. I read a short piece by Alan Cumming (an American citizen born in Scotland) which was, not surprisingly, more performance than political analysis. Too many bright people, his age and younger, all around the world, believe that there is some sort of alternative to politics as we know it. On the contrary, the political history of the West tells the story of people slogging their way to the highly unpleasant business of coping with the realities of politics, which are always and everywhere an inevitable side-effect of human nature. The Twentieth Century was afflicted by waves of disenchanted masses (only recently enfranchised) who longed to reverse the march, and to set politics aside. The terrible consequences of this desire notwithstanding, the impulse remains alive. I expect that it is what motivated most youthful advocates of Scottish independence: escape from the sordors of Westminster.

It is not difficult, at least from my perch on the other side of the Atlantic, to imagine ways in which Scotland might part company with Westminster without abandoning the Crown in Parliament. The parliament in question might become the one in Edinburgh, endowed with ultimate responsibility for taxing and spending in the land of the thistle. Westminster would be cleared of Scottish MPs, and the Scottish exchequer would transfer an agreed-upon amount, or percentage of revenues, to British coffers, in the support of common defense. (I wasn’t keen about the creation of a Scottish military, either, by the way. Not because the Scots would make a hash of it, but because we’re passing through a time of military transition, and new models, while clearly under development, are not yet clear.) The main thing is that Scotland could indulge its support for increased social welfare, without the interference of the sons of Thatcher.

It might be a good idea for the royal family to donate Balmoral (and its extensive grounds) to the nation, meaning, effectively, to Scotland. Or, otherwise, in some meaningful way to make the retreat an official Palace. One or two rooms — a great hall, say — might be opened to the public during the the family’s very extensive absences. The monarchy has a Scottish seat in Holyrood House, but this rather diminutive building is no more a habitation than the old Town Hall — the official royal palace — in Amsterdam. What Scotland needs from the monarch is an official, but genuine, residence. The Prince of Wales, clueless twit that he so often seems to be, might be just the man to create it. One thing is certain: a newly semi-autonomous Scotland would have to see more of its king or queen. In winter especially.

The more boring the proposal sounds, the better it probably is. That’s politics. It’s boring.


Well, clearly not to everyone. But to most laymen, politics is as tedious as a legal document. The fluent reading of legal documents seems to require professional training, the instillation of a discipline that, for most students with an aptitude for the law, blossoms into something a good deal less medicinal. I expect that the training of a politically active citizen can be rather less rigorous and prolonged than that for a lawyer, but, still,  some training is required. And, if the Twentieth Century taught us anything — the lesson continues in the Twenty-First — it is that democracies cannot afford to leave politics to those with an aptitude for it. Because, as Neil Irwin wrote in yesterday’s Upshot column, this is what invariably happens:

When you get past the details of the Scottish independence referendum Thursday, there is a broader story underway, one that is also playing out in other advanced nations.

It is a crisis of the elites. Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction — one not ungrounded in reality — that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. The same discontent applies to varying degrees in the United States and, especially, the eurozone. It is, in many ways, a defining feature of our time.

The rise of Catalan would-be secessionists in Spain, the rise of parties of the far right in European countries as diverse as Greece and Sweden, and the Tea Party in the United States are all rooted in a sense that, having been granted vast control over the levers of power, the political elite across the advanced world have made a mess of things.

Voters may not understand complicated issues, but they can tell when the politicians aren’t doing their job. Politicians, however, living in a bubble of the like-minded (other politicians), cannot. Over time, any political elite, shouldering the hard, boring work of democracy, will develop something close to contempt for voters, who want all of the benefits and none of the burdens of good government.

This is what bothered Thomas Jefferson and Hannah Arendt about American democracy: there was no provision for roping the voter into the political process, above and beyond elections. They were not surprised that voters would regard these precious elections as magic bullets, guaranteed to make political promises bear fruit.

At this point, I might elaborate on what I once somewhat jocularly referred to as a proposed Committee on Public Manners, but have since taken to calling, still with a twinkle but with much great seriousness, the Yorkville Committee on Public Use of Mobile Telephones. But I’m still not quite ready to contend with that whale.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Yesterday Indeed
18 September 2014

Progress so speedy you can see it from day to day! The foundation of street-level structure has been largely surrounded by packed dirt — the new roadbed. I thought I’d never live to see it, and if it hadn’t been for antibiotics, I wouldn’t've.

The morning is my best time, and I gave yesterday morning to paying the bills. Shockingly late, to be sure, but, under the circumstances, more than understandable. I didn’t see to them the moment I got back from Fire Island because the apartment had developed an Augaean fringe. I thought I’d take care of bills on the Sunday after Labor Day, little reckoning that I might be spending that day in the hospital. When I came home, I paid three bills, one of them very important (Quicken prints three checks at a time). So there were only nine left to deal with yesterday. Sometime when we’ve all got nothing else to do, I’ll tell you why I don’t pay bills online. Yet.

Last night, for dinner, I had two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and I ate them without difficulty. Such are the banal, nursery-like steps of early convalescence. Which isn’t, properly speaking, convalescence at all, since it’s the antibiotics that I’m recovering from!


Sometime in midsummer, Ray Soleil heartily recommended Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, a classic “informal history” of the 1920s. I first heard about the book at prep school, where we read instead Allen’s Fords, Flappers and Fanatics, a companion volume (I suppose) that explores matters that are passed over in the first book. (At least, the fanatics are. Aimée Semple McPherson is mentioned only once.) Although I don’t remember how Ray and I came to be talking about it, his enthusiasm suggested that he had just read the book. In fact, he read it in high school. Which, as all people my age know, is only yesterday.

Allen can’t have known how apt his title was, because it applies to his book as tightly as it does to his topic. Here is Allen on the aftermath of the Florida land boom of 1925-6:

All through the decade, but especially during and immediately after the Florida fever, there was an epidemic of ambitious schemes hatched by promoters and boosters to bring prosperity to various American cities, towns, and resorts, by presenting each of them, in sumptuous advertisements, circulars, and press copy put out by hustling chambers of commerce, as the “center of a rising industrial empire” or as the “new playground of America’s rich.” Some of these ventures prospered; in California, for example, where the technic of boosting had been brought to poetic perfection long years previously, concerted campaigns brought industries, winter visitors, summer visitors, and good fortune for the business man and the hotel-keeper alike. It was estimated that a million people a year went to California “just to look and play” — and, of course, to spend money. But not all such ventures could prosper, the number of factories and of wealthy vacationists being unhappily limited. City after city, hoping to attract industries within its limits, eloquently pointed out its “advantages” and tried to “make its personality felt” and to “carry its constructive message to the American people”; but at length it began to dawn upon the boosters that attracting industries bore some resemblance to robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that if all of them were converted to boosting, each of them was as likely to find itself in the role of Peter as in that of Paul. And exactly as the developers of the tropical wonders of Florida had learned that there were more land-speculators able and willing to gamble in houses intended for the polo-playing rich than there were members of this class, so also those who carved out playgrounds for the rich in North Carolina or elsewhere learned to their ultimate sorrow that the rich could not play everywhere at once. And once more the downfall of their bright hopes had financial repercussions, as bankrupt developments led to the closing of bank after bank. (247)

Like so many of the short-sighted “business man” schemes and mass-society, “madness of crowds” phenomena that Allen considers throughout Only Yesterday, this sounds neither more ridiculous nor more fraudulent than the recent home-mortgage fever. But, more than that, the writing, as cant-free as E B White’s (if somewhat richer), lightly poached in the mordant sarcasm of S J Perelman, has not dated. It hasn’t, at any rate, dated for me. But then, I’m an old man; I can remember when this is what The New Yorker sounded like. (I have to look for the sarcasm, because the distress at human folly is so overwhelming. It’s no longer amusing to laugh at nonsense. I read about the Big Bull Market and the Crash, subjects of the last two chapters, on the edge of tears.) At no time did I feel that I was reading an “old” book. The most difficult thing to accept about Only Yesterday as I read was, in fact, nothing in the text at all.

[Hoover] was an able economist and an able leader of men in public crises; yet his attempts to lead business out of depression had come to conspicuous failure. (301)

Everybody knows that! But this is where Allen stops. He does not mention FDR and the New Deal,  or the introductions of safeguards such as Social Security and the Securities Act of 1933. (Or the late lamented Glass-Steagall Act, which preceded almost every other reform.) Allen doesn’t look forward to the repeal of Prohibition. He can’t. He is wrapping up his book for publication at the end of 1931. 1931! Only yesterday — he really meant it!

The publication date is obscured in the text by Allen’s stout-hearted determination to refrain any kind of hand-wringing. (Might it have been Perelman’s tonal influence that stayed his hand?) Only Yesterday is about America from the Armistice to the Crash, not about cleaning up the decade’s messes. Allen points to various problems (many of them worse than “problems”), shows how intractable many of them were, but never wails, or even asks, “What is to be done?” This must have called for a remarkable intestinal fortitude, grounded perhaps in the faith, which I find it difficult to share, that the American people sooner or later find their way out of every crisis.

I have for some time been in search of a seminal moment or time that would mark the beginning of modern America. Perhaps the association bias of being a Baby Boomer has always inclined me to look for it in the wake of World War II. I have also been aware that great swaths of the United States — rural ones, mostly — were touched only very lightly touched by the modernizations of the 1920s; the new mass culture would not mature for some time. But Allen has convinced me the Twenties are what I’m looking for, if only for the emergence of advertizing as we know it. The familiar symbiosis of business development and mindless public enthusiasm began then. The current crisis in professional football clearly springs from ground laid during the heyday of Dempsey and Tunney. One could go on.

Only Yesterday tempted me to believe that, after all,  the American public has learned a thing or two since the Twenties, in addition to submitting to generally wise legal and institutional restraints. Perhaps it has — but I remind myself that the lessons deal with old vicissitudes.  What would Allen have had to say about the legal and loosely-regulated private ownership of automatic weapons, something that Americans of his day only dreamed of in nightmares about gangsters in fast cars?

Gotham Diary:
On the Eve
16 September 2014

Whatever I expected David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism to be, I got a great deal more, although the book could not possibly be more concise. It’s the sort of study in which Surprise! is immediately followed by Of course! On page after page.

The British Empire — what a melancholy old ruin! In a way, not: the Empire itself has completely vanished, but its monumental remains, especially in England, are everywhere, as are the various equine rituals and parade uniforms that still surround the Royal Family. There are no actual ruins. But the hardy relics and the extinct politics dissolve in a faded notion of grander times. The worst part of the legacy is the suggestion that England — and I do mean England — saw its best days as the hub of a world-wide accumulation of highly various dependencies. This is rubbish. It’s true that England was more formidable, better-equipped than any other sovereignty to steer international currents in a preferred direction. At home, though, imperial England was a land of much wretchedness. Only a weak-minded nostalgiac would choose to live in England then rather than now.

Throughout the course of the Nineteenth Century, the English establishment underwent a series of temblors that weakened its foundations. The crown, for example, passed completely into the vapor of a parliamentary monarchy: indeed, today’s ruler is the Queen in Parliament. On a different schedule, the wealth and position of all but the greatest landowners suffered catastrophic dissipation. The old ruling class hung onto a few vestiges of authority after World War I, but the sequel finished them off. The House of Lords, as understood in Victoria’s day, no longer exists. As for the Church… You can look at all of this as decline, if you must, but it seems like peaceful evolution to me.

If it looks like decline, that is because of the Empire. The Empire was quite a show. That’s Cannadine’s point. While the old pomposities were dying out in England, new and much shinier ones were being developed in and for the Empire. It’s hard not to think of one of those science-fiction movies in which the last remnant of a tribe besieged by toxic conditions manages to escape, and to flourish anew, on another planet.

Most of Cannidine’s book sketches this dream of Empire, of old glories given new life. Only the final two chapters, “Limitations” and “Endings,” deal with the part that is now most familiar — the part most certain to be taught in schools. There was resistance to the imperial adventure from the beginning, and that is canker that Cannadine astutely keeps out of sight. Any well-read person today knows all about the enemies of Empire, the people who thought that it was unfair, pretentious, boring, bogus and shoddy. What is The Jewel in the Crown but the picture of a worm in the rose? But if we know that, the Empire builders did not, or were at least scrambling to prevent it, and it is their hopefulness, more than anything else, I think, that Cannadine wants us to understand. That would explain one ongoing surprise of Ornamentalism: Cannadine’s apparent willingness to the take Viceroys and the Lords-Lieutenant and their courts at face value, as if they really were the powerful grandees that they appeared to be. In fact, of course, their power was largely limited to the world of those who already believed in Empire, who had Gone Out to make something happen in Australia or India or Nigeria that could no longer be made to happen in the British Isles.

Another surprising point is the unity of the imperial system throughout that farrago of territories. To be sure, the Army was the same everywhere, and the bureaucracy followed a standardized model. At the same time, neither of these institutions was expressly or essential imperial. What was imperial was the elaborate array of honors that were created to reward the Empire’s higher servants. A profusion of medals and decorations bespangled the chests of men — British and native alike — who had done little to nothing by way of displaying military valor. These honors placed every significant player in the Dream of Empire not only within relation to everyone else but in subordination to the monarch, who was the fount of all honor. At the very moment when the folks back home were learning to venerate a figurehead, the Queen-Empress (Victoria) and the King-Emperors (her son, grandson, and great-grandson) occupied the center of a lively and highly personal court of honor in which, just as in the Middle Ages, the ruler and the bigwigs drew strength from mutual esteem.

Not to mention mutual credulity: they believed ardently in what they were doing. This was something that the critics of Empire could neither imagine nor support. As it happened, the critics wrote all the good books. Then again, that is what critics do:  they complain. But the Empire never made any sense in level prose. It expressed itself in rituals as formulaic as those of any great faith. If you wanted to read about the Empire from the inside, you would need some sort of liturgy. Ornamentalism gives us a very good idea of what it would look like.

The common understanding is that the Empire was allowed to wind down when it became insupportably expensive, or, rather, when England could no longer go on paying for it. I’m no longer so sure. I think of Churchill in his mid-Thirties “wilderness,” boring everyone to death with his arguments against Indian independence. Even his fellow conservatives, members of the party of Disraeli, who had made Victoria Queen-Empress in Parliament, would have nothing to do with him. That he genuinely believed in Empire cannot be doubted. Although unusually, extraordinarily gifted, Churchill was every inch an English aristocrat, so orgulous and full of himself that he really didn’t require his own peerage. He was alive to the linkages between the hierarchy of England and the constellation of God Calls Me Gods.


But the tide floods in the opposite direction. No more (hereditary) House of Lords; no more fox-hunting. The old ruling class of England has finally been as sidelined as those of its neighbors on the Continent. Now, Scotland. I take neither side in the debate about Scottish Independence, which may very well be settled on Thursday. But I’m haunted by the premonition that, if Scotland pulls away, the Queen will pass from this world without a successor. As I say: peaceful evolution.

Gotham Diary:
Not A Machine
15 September 2014

I don’t know why I’m feeling so much better today. It’s not just the Advil that I took to deal with my stiff and somewhat swollen knee — the result of disuse, walking back and forth to the bathroom, no more, and otherwise sitting, or stretched out in bed. I felt well enough to take the Advil, for one thing. Perhaps I have gotten used to the antibiotic, although I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s certainly stronger than anything I’ve ever taken before, and I’m taking a lot of it. My appetite has dropped to zero, creating the rather desperate problem of trying to eat enough to take the pills without forty minutes of heartburn. I thought that today would be the last day, but I counted out the pills, and I’ve got to go through tomorrow. The last dose will be one pill, not two.

The infection — cellulitis — has long since ceased to be manifest, and I pray that the antibiotic will have done its job. There is no reason to think that it hasn’t. But a recurrence will require a return to the hospital. Miserable as I often felt these past few days, I was very grateful to be suffering at home.

Cellulitis is a new one for me. I knew the word, but only that it mustn’t be thought to have anything to do with cellulite, whatever that really is. (The spell-checker doesn’t recognize it, either.) Cellulitis is a sneaky malady. Instead of festering at the wound, the staph and other opportunistic bacteria that hang out on the healthiest person’s skin spread throughout a subcutaneous level, where they grow at leisure. Kathleen and I thought that things were going fine: the cut (which I’ll explain some other time; suffice it to say that I bang my shins all the time, only to have the injury called to my attention by someone who notices the dripping blood), while deeper than ordinary, seemed to have healed nicely. Then, last Friday night, I noticed a certain stiffness around the ankle. By morning, the situation was clearly pathological. The outside of my right calf was swollen, red, and very hot. I let Kathleen sleep, while I toyed with denial. When she got up, and took a look at it, she confirmed what I dreaded: we should have to go the Emergency Room at New York Hospital.

Let’s not talk about my three nights (one of them in the ER) as an inpatient. The medical care was super, but the hospital’s rules were stifling. It was very noisy, especially in the ER of course, but later because of me, decked out with a heart monitor that flipped out so often that I was visited six or seven times by nurses and others who wanted to change the leads. Happily, the attending physician had left instructions to disable or remove the monitor, so I did get some sleep.

If the noise was unexpected — I can remember when hospitals were very quiet, before the Vietnam War made everything medical so exciting — Kathleen was allowed to come and go at any time, a real improvement over the old days. Being alone in the ER, for the hour that Kathleen had to leave me, was profoundly demoralizing. I managed better in the wards. By the time I left, on Tuesday afternoon, my leg looked fine. I felt pretty good, too. What I didn’t know was that the antibiotic hadn’t completed its work.

Beginning on Thursday, I couldn’t manage much beyond a liquid diet, and I felt terrible. I knew that I wasn’t really sick, and yet the breakdown of my digestion couldn’t have been more lowering. There was more to it than the toxic effect that stomach upsets have for me — I’m glad that they’re rare — but I shall draw a veil over the details.


Needless to say, I’ve done a lot of reading in the past week, and a lot of thinking as well. Clarity came unbidden. One train of thought was set by my circumstances. At some point during the first days of my homecoming, I was struck — cerebrally dinged — by the sense that the metaphor of the body as a machine is not only mistaken but dangerous. It is a very appealing idea, especially for Americans who have no only lived with machines somewhat more than anyone else, but who also have the habit of self-help when fixing is required. I believe that the body-as-machine figure underlies all diet fads — and the fact that diets are usually unsuccessful,  or otherwise ineffective, emphasizes one of my points, which is that we are all, however grossly similar, peculiarly distinct, and unlike almost everyone we know, when it comes to the intricacies of organic processes.

Examples of the body’s complexity, orders of magnitude beyond that of the most sophisticated machine, could be piled up to the heavens, but it takes only one observation to reduce the metaphor to dust: all the machines that have ever existed in the world were created by human beings, who, however, had nothing whatever to do with the design of the human body. “Design” is not the most apt word; I myself do not believe that the body was designed at all, by any agent. It evolved, by trial and error, by involuntary adaptations that either worked out or didn’t. The amazing advances that medical science has made in the treatment of disease, so compressed into less than a century of decades, oughtn’t to blind us to the incompleteness of accumulated wisdom. I should say that our triumphs have usually involved mechanical or pharmacological solutions (artificial hearts, antibiotics); only caution incites me to qualify that statement. As always in human affairs, the desire to know more is occasionally maddening enough to convince us that we do know more than we do. We give a deaf ear to scientific reservations; we have terrible weakness for good news and a positive outlook.

Meanwhile, the subway station! As you can see from the photograph above, which I took this afternoon, during a very short walk with a hospital cane that settled my mind about the stiffness in my knees, the work has begun to reach street level. The rectangular structure below the red patch has the look of the top of a ventilation shaft. Concrete poured around the entryway structure, on the other side of the driveway, has almost reached street level. Very heartening sights! And work on the railings of the balconies that overlook Second Avenue, the last phase of the project, is underway — not quite halfway done, but getting there. When the project is complete, the scaffolding will come down (as it already has, in front of the building — a variance, I expect,  required for the subway project), and life in these parts will be less suggestive of a checkpoint.


There may be setbacks in my recovery; tomorrow may not be comfortable enough to allow for writing. (Remind me to mention Nick Jenkins’s being stalled as a writer by the mere existence of the post-Munich Hitler.) But I hope to be here tomorrow. Here, I mean, on a screen in front of you.

Gotham Diary:
Thinking, Meaning, and Spirituality
5 September 2014

A very good friend of mine is in India at the moment, pursuing Oneness. That’s my way of putting it. We have surprisingly fertile conversations about living and being. They’re surprising to me — but not, it seems, to her — because I am and always have been unmoved by Asian ideas about humanity and the world, especially the ideas that have been tweaked for export to the West. I should have thought that that would make for rough seas, and the relegation of my friend’s pilgrimage — my word again — to a no-go zone, in which case our friendship would subside for the time being. I find, however, that not only am I able to set aside my judgment of abstract ideas generally, in order to hear what my friend has to say specifically, but, beyond that, I am no longer braced by the core idea of Western thought, a faith in reason.

What “reason” boils down to is the rule against contradictions, which holds that a thing either is or it isn’t; it can’t be both. This kind of reason is essential to the prosecution of scientific research. In the laboratory, the rule against contradictions has found its home. It need no longer burden human beings elsewhere. The modern humanist understands that, while we are indeed capable of reason, we are hardly the “rational animals” of Aristotelian formulation.

For nearly 2500 years (not a very long time, when you consider the recently excavated skeleton of the dreadnoughtus, but long enough), “reason” has served as a kind of intellectual skin color, undergirding a shifty racism. Men have been regarded as rational animals — women not. In the Age of Empire, Europeans were the reasonable people, while everyone else was “primitive.”

Boys attained the “age of reason” at about seven or eight years of age. I found myself thinking a lot about this while I was playing with Will last month. What would it mean for Will to attain the age of reason? He’s already pretty clever, and he is only four and a half. Kathleen and I don’t talk about it, because we don’t want to upset his parents, but we think that Will would make a pretty good lawyer, and not just because he’s resourceful and persistent. I don’t think that there is much in the way of reason that he has yet to learn. What I think will happen to him in first or second grade, if not sooner, is that he will accept that it is easier to cooperate with the way of the world than to challenge it. This is reason in the sense of the phrase, “I knew you’d see reason.” Our way or the highway.

This lesson has to be learned and unlearned throughout life. Adolescence is the dreadful passage that it is because teenagers have to do both: they must unlearn habits of conformity in order to discover themselves while at the same time learning that this new selfness equips them to hurt others as they would hate to be hurt themselves. Ten years later, most educated people undergo a third awakening, as they find themselves judging their friendships and associations in largely adult terms, and abandoning (or shelving) attachments that remain juvenile. No sooner is this process complete than intimations of mortality begin to sound, growing louder every year: We are all going to die, but we are each going to die alone. The world comes to an end for every one of us, but goes on undisturbed for everyone else.

These existential lessons have nothing to do with reason. Reason, in fact, is a handy tool that allows the user to concentrate on whichever side of the paradox is more appealing, and to forget about the other. I can agree and disagree with my friend, and, motivated by a reasonable concern for friendship, ignore the disagreement.

Anyway, reason is for scientists and circuitboards. It is not for human beings.


My friend recommended a book, and the book, promptly purchased, arrived yesterday. I will say more about it anon; for the moment, the only thing to say is that the bit of the book that I sampled raised, front and center, the concept of spirituality. My friend and I have already exchanged letters on this topic, and I’m sure that there will be more.

What is spirituality? I have no idea. For me, it has never been anything but a word that other people use. I exaggerate. I have a sense of spirituality akin to the sense of horror that can be kindled by a “haunted house.” You can imagine ghosts, but that doesn’t make them real. Spirituality, like horror, can be experienced as a transient emotional state. But for many people it is clearly a lot more than that. Just not for me.

Spirituality is often associated with the search for meaning. Once again, I’m stupid. I don’t understand the “search” part. Meaning, for me, is like a waterfall at whose foot I’m standing. Meaning is the ordering of the world, the incessant fitting together and coming apart of everything that is. To wax poetic, the sound of its thundering is the music of the spheres, and I can’t imagine not hearing it. But then, I’m an old man. I didn’t hear it when I was young. And I thought that meaning was something that people made up. Even then, I didn’t see the point of searching for it. To put it absolutely simply: “meaning” was something that I was not in any pressing need of.

What I say about meaning is an extension of what I’ve learned about thinking. The world means; I think. Thinking is simply the arrangement of the contents of my mind. Fitting together and coming apart, on a very small scale. It has little to do with syllogisms or puzzles. I don’t try to answer questions;  I try to understand them.

The world is complete, comprising everything that was, is, or will be. By comparison — well, there is no comparison: my mind is simply empty. But not utterly empty.

Writing about this to my friend yesterday, I remembered a curious problem from childhood.

To decorate the den in our first house, my mother bought — at Gimbel’s, I think — three ornamental maps. Much later — I still have them; they’re on the wall in the foyer — I realized that they must have come from a deluxe publication of the Second Empire or the early Third Republic. Each map portrays a département of France, its margins filled with what used to be called illustrative material. La Fontaine appears in one of them, while two peasants roll a cask of wine in another.

Because one of the departments was Finistère, whose peninsulas are a salient feature of the outline of France, I tried to arrange the maps of the other two — Aisne and Côte d’or — alongside it in a way that would complete the famous Hexagon. This couldn’t be done, of course. There must be other pieces to the puzzle. Slowly, I realized that I wasn’t missing a few pieces;  I was missing almost all of them. (There are nearly a hundred.)

That is how the mind is. We are missing almost all the pieces. But there are corners that we can try to fill in. It would be possible (in theory) to collect all the other maps from that old folio, but hardly necessary, as maps of the departments of France are easily found. The trick is to know that you haven’t got them, and then to look for them. This is what thinking is.

The other difference between meaning and thinking is that we think, when we think properly, in a shared language. Romantically-inclined people like to overlook the role of articulation in thought — an essential one. If you can’t say it, you haven’t thought it. Meaning, in contrast, we each perceive from a unique viewpoint, which we can share with no one. Meaning can, therefore, never be expressed in words. Only what we think about it. And thinking about meaning is not recommended. We can only think about the bits of meaning that we have assembled in our own minds. Our almost empty minds.


Two notes, both bearing on the law.

First, every judgment is a decision between two or more choices. In order to choose well, we rely partly on the principles of reason, but there is much more to it than that; judgment itself is rarely purely rational. Having made a judgment, however, we apply the rule against contradiction for practical purposes. In a court of law, you cannot be found guilty and not guilty. In Anglophone law, it’s worth noting, the ruling concept of reasonableness is almost openly at odds with that of rationality.

Second, Kathleen and I are not hoping that Will will grow up to be a lawyer. Kathleen is especially emphatic about this. For my part, speaking as someone who hasn’t practiced law in nearly thirty years, law school can serve as the crown of a humanist education. I’m inclined to think that everyone ought to go.


Daily Blague news update: Joys of Jihad.

Gotham Diary:
Books and Bait
4 September 2014

Kathleen flew home from London yesterday. For the first time in a month, we had been alone together in Ocean Beach last Thursday night, and in our Yorkville apartment on Friday night; then, off she went to London. In a new development, we talked across the Atlantic via cellphone. It was surprisingly convenient: I hadn’t imagined — I’d never thought about it — that there would no need for international dialing or country codes. When I made one of our scheduled calls (two a day), Kathleen almost always answered right away.It was assuring.

There was a bit of fracas on Monday, when we lost our connection in the middle of a chat, owing to “busy circuits,” it turned out. Before it turned out, I was plunged into a nightmare of anxiety by the recollection of Britain’s heightened terror alert. When I got through to reception at Kathleen’s boutique hotel in the City, a nice man there indulged me by running upstairs and tapping at Kathleen’s door. (I haven’t yet asked her why she didn’t pick up the house phone.) All was, of course, well.

The outbound traffic to Heathrow was so bad yesterday that Kathleen, a tad worried about making her flight, put off calling me until she reached the airport. (She did not, again I don’t know why, answer my call to her. [NB: Just one!] I expect she didn’t hear it. Kathleen hasn’t worked out the balance between creating as little disturbance with one’s phone as possible and setting ringtones at audible levels.) By then, I was ready to jump into Lake Havasu.

This wild fretfulness reminds me of Anthony Powell on love — something from his Writer’s Notebook, I think. Love is like seasickness, the misery of which you cannot remember as you walk the gangplank to dry land. Perhaps that is true of all miseries. It might also be true that miseries experienced repeatedly, but at widely-spaced intervals, become more intense with time, each recurrence accumulating all prior unhappiness. My wanting to know that Kathleen is all right when she is traveling did not come out of nowhere, but is the response to a trauma that occurred about twenty-five years ago. We were on opposite coasts, and the trauma was different for each of us — very different — but for me, the more passive observer, it was severe and unforgettable. A third postulate for this paragraph might be that miseries brought on by other people’s misery remain sharper than those that, like love or seasickness, well up in the course of events and then subside.

I was talking to my English friend yesterday. She is old enough to remember waiting for new installments of A Dance to the Music of Time, just as today’s readers are waiting for translations of Knausgaard, a writer who, intentionally or not, recapitulates Powell’s narrative dexterity, especially with respect to temporal shifts. These shifts, between a narrative “now” and variously-distanced narrative “thens,” are difficult to describe, because, if they’re well done, they go unnoticed, and the naive reader is left with the very mistaken impression of chronological order. When I say “go unnoticed,” I mean that the well-played shift fills in the story with a necessity — whether by providing information that it is now, and only now, important to reveal, or by shifting the focus in order to create a sense of depth and resonance — that resets all clocks to “now.” That’s why, I surmise, so many reviewers of My Struggle wrote as if Knausgaard began at the beginning and proceeded to tell you every damned thing that he’d ever done in his life. This was just as ridiculously inaccurate as the claim that there was felt to be a national need, in the Norwegian workplace, to declare “Knausgaard-free” days, so that people could get on with their work.

Anyway, my English friend said, “You’re the only who gets Powell over here.” How right or wrong was she to say that? To be fortuitously specific, how close a comparison might be made between English Anthony and American Dawn. Dawn Powell is always being rediscovered by literary readers, but she has never flown a banner to compare with Proust’s madeleine. Most people haven’t read Proust, but most people know a little something about his existence, if only the fact of it on the literary field. Is that as untrue of Anthony Powell as it is of Dawn? I know that it’s not true in England, where literary readers are more concentrated in certain localities and also somewhat more homogenous. (Homogenous in avoiding rubbish.) I should think that Anthony Powell is better known to American readers, literary and otherwise, than Dawn Powell, but is he?

And how would one go about finding out? How, for beginners, do you set up a Google search for an author that bypasses all the commercial links? I’ve been asking around, and getting a lot of shrugs.

I have reached Books Do Furnish a Room, the tenth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time. The title has an amusing explanation. A new character, the literary journalist Bagshaw, is said to have chilled the ardor of an adulterous lover by entering the library in which she awaited him, unclothed, by remarking, “Books do furnish a room.” This then became Bagshaw’s epithet, shortened to “Books.” Thus the stage is set for another amorous encounter in the world of books, the tumultuous, essentially rebarbative romance of the improvident but gifted writer, X Trapnel and Pamela Flitton, by now the wife of the “frog footman,” Kenneth Widmerpool. From the first reading, I have a dim recollection of personal belongings tossed into the canal at Little Venice, associated with somebody’s unhappy end. Neither Trapnel nor Pamela is an attractive person, and I found this book hard going last time. But now I am enjoying it, as a very black comedy.

Meanwhile, strange to say,  there are other books. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog is about to appear, as is the author himself at a downtown bookshop that I haven’t visited in a while; I shall have to show up for that. Brian Morton has a new book, too, and his appearance will be at the more convenient West Side Barnes & Noble. Mr Morton and I have exchanged notes over the years, with the occasional proposal of getting together (he teaches in the town where I grew up). Now, I hope, the matter will be arranged neutrally and effortlessly. I am too old to want to hunt down Ben Lerner, but of course I’ll be reading 10:04; I wonder if I ought to re-read Leaving the Atocha Station first.

I’ve just re-read what I had to say about reading Leaving the Atocha Station in 2012. Nothing very substantial!

Meanwhile, I’m wondering, in light of all of this, why I think that Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station are really good novels that everyone ought to read, even though they are so focused on individual male points of view that it’s hard to imagine Garth Risk Hallberg giving either of them the time of day. Is it just that they’re both superbly well-written? And what would that mean?

Talk about twaddle!


Daily Blague news update: The Human Case.

Gotham Diary:
London Bridge
3 September 2014

Gazing at the photograph above, which I took yesterday afternoon, and fixing particularly upon the orange marks that signify the level of the sidewalk that will be restored to us after years of cramped deprivation, my thoughts flew, as if through a course of quantum states, to London Bridge, in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Was it still there?

It’s still there, spanning the Colorado River. (How’s the river doing, though?) It seems to have fit right in with the planned community around it. A structure of bland neo-classical grace, it emits none of the contextual dissonance that disturbs so many of the fanciful recreations of the Old World on this side of the Atlantic. There is nothing particularly “London” about it; it is difficult to imagine that the British capital is poorer for its absence. Built in 1831 — nothing to do with the fantastically built-up medieval bridge of rhyme — it was worn out and destined for demolition when an American developer bought the cladding stones and had them shipped to his project in the desert. And why not? It seems hardly more remarkable — indeed, somewhat less — than the transformation of rubble from the London blitz, which was all that the besieged island offered in the way of ballast for supply ships returning to the United States, into landfill for Manhattan’s East River (FDR) Drive.

In the late Sixties, however, when the bridge was being dismantled and shipped across the ocean, I thought it was all the end of the world. London’s eponymous bridge — relocated in the middle of nowhere in Arizona! The mere word “Havasu” made my skin crawl. There was a cultural crime in there somewhere. Why didn’t the British authorities want to do what the American developer had in mind, only somewhere in Britain? Why weren’t they holding on to their heritage?

Mind you, I was asking these questions only a few years after learning — being told — that not everybody in England had a butler, went to Eton, &c. This isn’t to say that I was unaware of poor and working-class populations. But they didn’t matter. I meant all the “nice” people. Surely they had butlers — although, now I thought of it, their butlers probably didn’t have butlers. Where did butlers come from, anyway? This was a troubling question.

My fantasies of Gracious England were a reaction to the blatant plainness of American social life —a banality enlivened only by occasional eruptions of vulgarity (car fins, rock ‘n’ roll, Technicolor epics). Photographs of stately homes, royal coaches, soaring cathedrals, and seaside crescents provided me with an ideal matrix for the projection of my idea of an anti-America. (I already regretted the American Revolution — although I couldn’t imagine escaping to Canada. Canada was in the wrong direction.) There was nothing in the photographs to suggest that Britain, the Britain of my time, was tired, diminished, broke, and hopelessly stuck to a class system that no longer made any sense. For every reactionary like me, there were dozens of young men and women who longed for New World freedoms. But to me, freedom was a dangerous drug that was more abused than used, and that led to disaffection, carelessness, and, ultimately, cynical despair.

I knew, of course, that two horrible wars had been waged, but I thought that they had been won by the good guys. I didn’t know how right Clausewitz was about “other means.” “Post-war” was synonymous, or at least co-extensive, with “Cold War.” In many ways, the Second World War had ended in the same way as the First, with an Armistice. Germany, to be sure, was soundly defeated — this time, by bombs, not peace talks — but the increasingly hostile Allies, the United States and Russia, agreed to put down their weapons, and to conduct their hostilities by proxy. Capitalism and Communism brawled for thirty years, in as bloody a fight as abstractions can wrest. Guilt by association ruined reputations with a frequency and ferocity unthinkable today.

On the one hand, Material Prosperity. This was inarguable. Almost everybody owned a new something-or-other. Food got cheaper every day. (Modern medicine, however, had yet to show what it could do.) Cleaner, faster, safer, and now in color. What’s not to love?

On the other hand, Material Prosperity — how awful it was! How ugly, how brainless, how addictive, how empty! While it was difficult to argue that Marxism led to happiness, or to anything better than a very grey and very precarious semblance of stability, the intellectual opponents of capitalism developed another line of attack, and called it “existentialism.” This was not the existentialism of Heidegger and other interwar German philosophers, but a stylized, Francophone doctrine that was prepared to be at home with any kind of materialism involving sports cars, cafés, pretty girls, and cartons and cartons of cigarettes. Life was absurd: therefore, be bold! Drive into a tree!

The turbulence of the times swept the dueling ideologies into parallel disregard for history. History was whatever insanity had led to the outbreak of the Great War. There could be no thought of going back to that. Sell the damned bridge!


I did not want to go back, not sincerely. I gave candlelight a try, even though I was forbidden to have candles in my room. It was distracting as well as straining. That was the limit of my experiment in pre-modern living. A week has never gone by in which I was not flushed by gratitude for living with modern plumbing. I used to like electricity because it made listening to music possible; now, of course, my very mentality depends upon it. The older I got, the more aware I became that I really would never want to go back to the past even if it were possible. I feel certain that a time-machine experience of the past, even of a moment that “know all about” from readings in history, would be as perplexing to me as a visit to the future would be for any native of that past.

But then, history is not “going back.” It is knowing where you’ve been. And because you’re never in the same place for very long, where you’ve been changes, too. History is endless, not just in time, but in shifting details.

Even London Bridge isn’t — for me — what it used to be.


Daily Blague news update: Endorphins.

Gotham Diary:
Harmonized Dissonance
2 September 2014

This morning’s Times conveyed a strong impression that summer has come to an end with a bang. That’s an illusion, of course: Ferguson was very much an August affair. So it must be the lousy weather. It might even be the case that, after a series of delicious postponements, the dog days of summer are finally with us. Something has certainly bedeviled the editors of the newspaper. Los Angeles streets are collapsing as water mains rupture. White English girls are sold into sexual slavery by Pakistani gangs (a story that ought to give color to Britain’s “severe” terrorist alert). President Obama thinks out loud, with results so perniciously embarrassing that perhaps thinking out loud ought to be an impeachable offense. The only people with any zest in today’s world, David Brooks sighs, are the ones who want to tear things down. Even Frank Bruni can’t tell us what the president ought to have said.

On days like this — dispiriting news, stifling humidity — I have a very hard time carrying on. The Pakistani gangs in Britain and the zealots of ISIS probably see eye to eye about very little, but one thing I’ll bet they can agree on is the subordination of women to the will of men. They are by no means alone in this. All the so-called Abrahamic religions are unambiguously rooted in absolute sexism. As fundamentally practiced, these religions are deeply opposed to the cosmopolitan spirit of what we call Western Civilization, and what is Western Civilization but a world view that evolved from the Abrahamic religions — and then left them behind? You don’t need to wander into Mesopotamia to encounter stiff resistance to this evolution. Pope Francis is, by all accounts, a very good man, but he is still the chief of a confraternity of celibate males that regards non-members as lesser Catholics while denying entry to females altogether. We may excuse Francis from the charge of tearing things down, however, because his organization has consistently refused to participate in the building of Western Civilization.

It is tough, in the age of reality television and twittering media, to argue for glory of Western Civilization, because its principal feature is the high-functioning autonomy of men and women in a safe and democratic society that harmonizes high levels of dissonance. People agree to disagree. This is not to be confused with indifference; it is, rather, a sign of active respect. As well as a sign of trust. The civilized human being truly understands that civilization is the byproduct of chaotically different ways of life jogging along together, united by no more than a regard for the health and safety of neighbors, especially as affected by one’s own behavior.

In our cynical, mediacentric age, trust and respect can seem almost foolish. This is certainly true wherever it has been forgotten that the wellspring of respect for others is self-respect. Among the saddest things that I’ve seen in the course of lifetime is the degeneration of self-respect into entitlement. Self-respect calls for a lot of hard work — a lot of laundry and shoe-shining, proper eating and, for those gifted with exceptional brains, plenty of mental exercise. Self-respect is not self-sacrifice: the point is not the hard work itself but the satisfaction of taking an unembarrassed part in public life. We don’t invent our own private ideas of self-respect — they’re to a great extent culturally determined. But we clear our own path, and that path leads not to inner clarity but to outer engagement.

For me, this outer engagement is a very quiet business, and might easily be mistaken by an observer for the disengagement of a hermit. I spend most of my day alone. I keep my small talk with neighbors and shopkeepers very small. I avoid the telephone. But this is all for the sake of maximizing my engagement with other writers, especially writers who have taken up the questions of humanity in history. I want to know more about human beings. Because I want to know about them in their human totality, my curiosity is not scientific; indeed, I’ve lately come to understand that analysis of any kind is detrimental to the pursuit of humane learning. Breaking problems down into manageable parts may be vital to engineers, but it is fatal to humanists, because to regard a human being as a problem is to kill it — or, which comes near to the same thing, to wish it were dead. At any rate, for me, the best days are the ones on which nothing obliges me to think very much about myself.

“The humanities” is a term with many meanings. When the word began to attract my interest, about ten years ago, I was vexed to discover two mutually antipathetic camps of humanists, divided by the question of faith in God. One camp was, not surprisingly, very enthusiastic about God, but the other was, I thought, rather disproportionally engaged in discrediting God. For me, the humanities begin when all questions of deity have been set aside.

In other words, the humanities as I understand them date to the emergence of Western Civilization.


Unfortunately, humanists have been very slow to recognize the importance of economics as a specialized field of the study of human beings. As a result, economics, despite its roots in the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment, was abandoned to the analysts, the thinkers who break things down into problems and whose solutions are expressed in terms of engineered mechanism. If, then. Statistical studies suggest what most people will or will not do, but they can’t tell us what any particular individual will do. So, individual action, like friction in physics, gets discounted. Analytic economists are good at dismissing questions — especially little questions about little people — that their analytical equipment doesn’t process very well. The centerpiece of analytic economics is the idea of the free market society, in which all benefits and burdens are negotiable, not just the things for sale in shops.

It is no wonder that the triumph of the free market society model in Western politics has coincided with the recrudescence of religious fundamentalism. The one, with its endlessly tradable values, is totally free of true principle, while the other absolutely refuses to negotiate questions of principle. The two are made for each other! What used to be society becomes an empty market place.  What used to be personal engagement with society is now a private relationship with God. The earth may be a vale of tears, but this is a coalition of ideas that puts nothing in the way of piling up huge material fortunes.

Western Civilization cannot survive the coalition of free market economics and religious fundamentalism.


Daily Blague news update: Echoes.

Gotham Diary:
28 August 2014

Tomorrow, we go home. We will leave for town first thing in the morning. Of course we’d love to stay longer. Kathleen’s brother just left a few minutes ago, and it would have been nice to have more than one day just to ourselves. At the same time, I’m weary of cooking in someone else’s kitchen, without the resources of Fairway and, even more, Agata & Valentina, and I’ve begun to miss my pillows and my reading chair.

It’s great to be out here today, though, because of the invisible hurricane. Hundreds of miles out to sea, Hurrican Cristobal is spinning its way past Bermuda, past Nova Scotia. There is not a cloud in the sky, but the bay is choppy enough for a proper storm, and the wind is very high. The air feels so scrubbed that it is almost abrasive. And of course the surf is pounding like crazy: only a madman would go anywhere near the water. The beach has been paved hard and smooth by the sheets of water that have been swept ashore. I wish it were like that every day: great for walking!

I finished reading The Kindly Ones this morning. I remembered very little of it, which made me wonder whether I was paying attention when I read it in the Nineties. What I do remember is hating the next book, The Valley of Bones, almost until the end, when I suddenly understood the agony of Gwatkin. Dislike turned to love: I can’t wait to read it again. And indeed I may not.

The unseen storm, the prospect of packing and traveling, and the first stages of sorting through recollections of this fourth August in or around Ocean Beach have put me in a twaddlesome frame of mind. I’m inclined to write about the daily trivialities that I know I shall hate to read about later on. Every now and then, I manage to brace paragraphs of highly perishable fluff with a resonant girder, but when I fail, the result is so vacuous that, now mindful of the mortification, I’m averse to running the risk. I can’t write about what’s most on my mind, after four weeks of visits. Reflections on my grandson, his parents, my brother-in-law, and a clutch of old friends have been greatly intensified by the reading of Anthony Powell, but they have no place here and indeed I will reduce very few of them to writing of any kind. Most of my impressions will be folded into the ongoing conversation that I have been having with Kathleen for the past thirty-five years.

Half-seriously, I’m curious to know how Kant’s categorical imperative applies to the reading of novels — which of course implies the writing of novels. But bloviation on that interesting subject will have to be postponed. Kathleen has just returned from seeing her brother off, and she has presented me with this morning’s Times. Further twaddle forestalled, I wish

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
27 August 2014

In the middle of the afternoon, yesterday — more glorious weather — I found that I could not read another word. Not another word by anyone. Between David Cannadine and Anthony Powell, I was exhausted by the intake of highly literate English. If I didn’t want to read, though, I didn’t want to do anything else, either. I was at risk for being — shame of shames — bored.

The cure turned out to be homeopathic in nature. I remembered Friday’s crossword puzzle.

For a long time, I used to do the Times crossword puzzle every morning. I would do it on the Lex. Taking a seat in the first car of the subway, I would open and fold the newspaper and uncap a pen. I would finish the puzzle before the train reached my stop, at Bowling Green. It was a very standard sort of showing off; there were probably ten other people on the same train doing the same thing and meeting with the same success. The Times crossword puzzle was not very difficult, once you got the hang of the clues. Filling out the squares with a pen, and making no mistakes along the way, was the trick that never failed to excite the wonder of who didn’t exercise the knack. Even I was, now and then, weak-minded enough to be impressed.

Then there came a day when I could no longer be bothered to fill in “Ina” in response to the clue, “Actress Claire.” I had heard Risë Stevens sing, on the radio — her first name came up all the time, too, and she was a New Yorker, was she not? — but I had never seen a movie with Ina Claire, and, to the best of my knowledge, I still haven’t. The hang of the clues had finally asphyxiated my interest. I continued to work on the Sunday puzzle for a few years, but then along came Will Shortz.


It was Ray who started the puzzle, not long after he got out here, on Friday afternoon. He tried two clues before giving up. “I never do the crossword puzzle,” he said. “I can never get it.” I never did the crossword puzzle, either — anymore. But my appetite was whetted. I gave the puzzle a look. I couldn’t make head nor tail of most of the clues. For example, “Member of a ‘great’ quintet.” This gave me, I thought mistakenly, absolutely nothing to go on. A similar clue asked for the “Member of a Latin trio.” All I could think of was Tito Puente, which wouldn’t fit into four squares. After ten minutes or so, I folded the paper back up and set it aside in disgust.

I really do not want to write about Will Shortz and his leading role in the decline and fall of Western Civilization. The subject is too depressing. Suffice it to say that I remember the days when the crossword puzzle rewarded smart people for remembering things that they were supposed to have learned in school. Or at least to have bumped up against. Alas, poor Yorick, and all that. References to The Brady Bunch would have been infra dig. “Pop culture” was understood to be a seditious innovation spearheaded by Andy Warhol — if it was not an oxymoron, plain and simple. Wordplay for its own sake — especially of a punning nature — was felt to be grating and cheap.

But wordplay was already the motor of the infamously difficult Times of London puzzle, which was carried, as I recall, by New York Magazine. New York Magazine also played a leading role in the decline and fall. It started out as the Sunday supplement of the Herald Tribune, and was designed to compete not so much with the Times Magazine as with The New Yorker, which in the early Sixties was perceived as going through a patch of the fuddy-duddies. (New York’s tag line was “Consider the Alternative,” pointing a finger at Eustace Tilley.) Astringent new journalists such as Tom Wolfe said things that couldn’t be said, and New York made everyone sit up. When the Herald Tribune folded, the new magazine was established on its own footing. The critics were great. Alan Rich wrote about music; I read every word. When he announced that, like the Roman Catholic Mass, there ought to be, at any moment of the day, a performance of The Marriage of Figaro going on somewhere in the world, I felt that my cultural values had been pasted on a billboard. For a long time, New York Magazine was superb.

Then it became the magazine, as the joke had it, “for people desperately trying to survive in a thirty thousand dollar living room.” This would have been in the Eighties, when thirty thousand dollars was a lot of money to spend on the fittings of lounge. I wouldn’t have New York in the house. I had never liked that stupid old puzzle, anyway.


Yesterday, however, I was desperately trying to survive something, too, and the crossword puzzle seemed the only answer. I would rack my brains until they woke up. I would finish the damned thing if it killed me. Why, I would even cheat.

I hadn’t done a crossword puzzle since the advent of the Internet. I was shocked, really jolted, to discover that, if you type in the crossword puzzle clues verbatim, there are at least two sites that will provide you with answers.

Quite often, the attempted cheating was unavailing. I believed that Regulus A and Bellatrix were stars, but I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t racehorses, so I cheated. I did not find the answer, B Stars. I don’t know (or much care) what B stars might be, but the “b” was nailed by the answer to the lateral clue, which asked for “Something that goes from a pit to your stomach?”: BBQ sandwich. Cheating was helpful for refreshing “pop culture” references that I used to know before I stopped watching television (“Esther of ‘Good Times’” — Rolle) or for filling me in on developments since then (“‘Burn Notice’ grp.” — CIA). I avoided the Web sites that mainlined the answers, except for one of the last clues: “Masseur gratifier.” I should never have figured this one out in a million years, because I just don’t think in a way that would lead me to “Aah.” It’s embarrassing even to write down. But the “h” did help me out with another clue, “Parts of kingdoms.” I already had the first letter, “p,” and was worn out from trying to thing of geopolitical terms  that might fit, but the “h” steered me in the right direction immediately: phyla. As I say: wordplay.

I began to get the hang of the clues. The member of the Latin trio was Amat, while the member of the “great” quintet was Lake Ontario.

Long before I had filled in every square, I was feeling great. I had no idea that cheating could be such a shameless pleasure! Just the thing for vacation.

There was another clue even more maddening than the one about the masseur, and I went to for that one, too. “T.S. of literature,” in four letters, beginning with “g.” The answer was startling. John Irving — literature? I can remember when we thought so, but I was probably still watching television.

Gotham Diary:
26 August 2014

Last night, after dinner, I began reading The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. It is in this book that Powell recurs for the first time to his childhood home, a bungalow on a hill overlooking Aldershot, the army town near Windsor. It is the season before World War I, a time that seemed placid enough to those whose comforts were well-arranged, but that in fact was pregnant with menace, nowhere more so than in Britain, with crises on the Irish Question and trade union fronts threatening serious disorder — both averted by the greater but externalized catastrophe of the war — and the widespread vandalism of the suffragettes, ladies who acted like gorgons. Albert, the family cook in Nick Jenkins’s household, calls suffragettes “Virgin Marys,” and Powell muses on the similar instinct that led the ancient Greeks to speak of the Furies as the Eumenides, or Kindly Ones. I will be taking the measure of the title’s irony as I read.

Did I read this book as a teenager? I know that I owned a paperback copy; I can almost remember the cover art. At the time, The Kindly Ones was the end of the line. The Valley of Bones had been published in cloth, in Britain at least, and perhaps even The Soldier’s Art, but they would not appear in paper for some time, and, when they did, I was no longer interested. Somewhere in the neighborhood of At Lady Molly’s and Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the novel drifted over my head. From the very start, the cycle had been something of a disappointment: there was none of the jolly disaster of Decline and Fall and the other early novels of Evelyn Waugh. Powell’s writing was not only more richly upholstered but considerably more oblique, requiring, among other things, a greater familiarity with the mechanics of aristocracy than I possessed. I couldn’t seem to work out, for example, why Molly Jeavons was “Lady Molly,” while her sister Kathleen was “Lady Warminster.” I wasn’t sure that it mattered, either. For all the dense family interrelationships, there was little in the way of high-class high jinks.

I simply wasn’t old enough to appreciate the “small, violent drama” of the scene, in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (that most fabulous of titles!) in which Charles Stringham, drunk and determined to be drunker, is foiled by his benignant jailer, Tuffy Weedon; nor could I enjoy the fun of the mock-seduction scene that precedes it, in which Stringham accosts the rebarbative Mrs Maclintick as “Little Bo-Peep,” transforming her from a harridan into a party animal. It was all much too grown-up. At some length, and with many interruptions, Stringham, harping on the unhappiness of marriage, describes the “passive resistance” with which his wife, Peggy Stepney, used to greet him in the morning, rather stiffly disregarding his presence next to her in bed. He would run through all the possibilities of having given offense.

“Well, or course, in the end you discover that all this ill humour is nothing to do with yourself at all. In fact your wife is hardly aware that she is living in the same house with you. It was something that somebody said about her to someone who gossiped to somebody she knew when that somebody was having her hair done. Neither less nor more than that. All the same, it is you, her husband, who has to bear the brunt of these ill-chosen remarks by somebody about something. I’ve talked it all over with Ted Jeavons and he quite agrees.”

This was too bleak to tickle my adolescent sensibility. It wasn’t at all funny, and I wanted A Dance to the Music of Time to be funny. I doubt that I read as far as the scene that I have just mentioned; my hunch is that I had given up on waiting for the book to be funny. The subsequent volumes, with their air of military tedium, promised even less in the way of amusement. Thirty years later, it was, as it certainly ought to be, a different story.

Even now, I can be a little slow on the uptake. When I read the following passage yesterday (also from Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant), I had no idea what Widmerpool was talking about:

There was no doubt he was pleased about something. He seemed uncertain whether or not to reveal the reason for that. Then, suddenly, his gratification was explained.

“I have been moving in rather exalted circles lately,” he said, giving a very satisfied smile.


“No exactly royal — that is hardly the word yet … You understand me.”

“I think so.”

I didn’t. Not until the following chapter, when Nick runs into Chips Lovell in the tube, did I get it. Now I saw what Widmerpool means when he said to Nick,

“A new broom will soon get to work. I venture to hope that I may even myself participate in this healthier society to which we may look forward.”

“And you think we shall avoid war?”

“Certainly, I do. But I was speaking for once of society in its narrower sense — the fashionable world. There is much in the prospect before us that attracts me.”

Of course! Widmerpool has worked his way into the Fort Belvedere set, and convinced himself that the new king, Edward VIII, will  be permitted to marry the woman he loves and keep the throne. Widmerpool even foresees a place for himself at the new court! What a cluck. “Please do not press me for details,” says the ever would-be enigmatic Widmerpool — and Powell obliges, excising such key words as “Mrs Simpson” and “abdication.”


When Ray Soleil described the itinerary that we had worked out for his trip to England with Fossil Darling, I was virtually envious. It would be very nice to see the sights that they will see. But sightseeing has become somewhat tedious for me, because my neck is permanently stooped forward, and in order to see anything but the pavement on which I am walking I must come a complete stop and stretch my back rearwards. tilting at the hip. Given the diet of almost exclusively British prose that I’ve been digesting since the late winter, however, the regular reader might be forgiven for imagining that I would very much enjoy an English vacation.

But the English vacation that I am already enjoying involves something rather dearer to me than charming towns and bucolic landscapes — the English language. If only I could talk about this without invoking the noxious concept of “purity”!

Gotham Diary:
25 August 2014

Hobbling along into the final week of this year’s Fire Island sojourn, I am alarmed by new signs of decrepitude. The most worrisome is a tendency to get lost on my way back from the bathroom to the bed in the middle of the night. On two occasions, I walked in on guests before realizing where I was; happily no harm was done in either case. Last night, I came to on the sofa in the little television room. I knew where I was, and I scurried back to bed where I belonged, chilled to the bone by the damp seaside air. I dimly remembered the dreamed dismay of not being able to find a bed to lie down in. Oddly, this has never happened when I was alone in the house.

Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil came out for the weekend, but they left first thing yesterday morning. Early tomorrow morning, they’ll board a flight for a two-week junket in London and environs (including Paris for lunch). They’ll be attending several Proms concerts, and doing a lot of sightseeing: an English friend will drive them about the countryside to points from Bath to Rye, with Oxford, Blenheim, and Winchester between. Ray and Kathleen may even have lunch at some point. Kathleen will fly to London (for business) on Saturday, coming home Wednesday. She asked me if I’d like to come along, and even offered to upgrade to comfy seats, but I couldn’t possibly. The trip is too short, for one thing. More to the point, I’ve got the new season to begin.

There was a time when “the new season” meant concerts, plays, and parties. Now it means something more intimate and prosaic: establishing an order for everyday life that prioritizes and schedules various projects. There is the ever-loving problem of what to do with books: books in piles in the apartment, books at the back of shelves, books in the downtown storage unit, and so on. I am more keenly than ever aware that this book problem of mine is so peculiar to my time and socioeconomic niche that it will always be somewhat inexplicable; indeed, it is inexplicable to most people today. Ultimately, it is inexplicable even to me, for I really don’t know why I bought all those books — I don’t really know.

What was I thinking, for example, when I bought David Cannidine’s weighty tome, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy? Is it really an answer to say that I was thinking that I would read it — eventually? What reason did I have to think such a thing? It’s a scholarly survey, bristling with examples and percentages, that tells roughly the same story over and over again from slightly different perspectives. (Patrician participation in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Government are all treated separately, as are the erosions of landowning and local authority.) It’s not really my kind of book at all. Eventually, I read it because of my book problem: unless I read it, more or less right now, I am going to have to get rid of it.

When the book was new, twenty-odd years ago, I regarded it aspirationally: it would be a good thing for me to have read such a book. As a rule for distinguishing books to buy from those to leave in the shop, this is self-evidently pathetic. Nonetheless, I am glad to be reading it at last: I’m ready for it. What could be a gloomy dirge sparkles with donnish wit.

[I]f Curzon was in some ways disqualified [as a potential prime minister] by being a peer, he was even more disqualified by being Curzon. … For all his gifts, he was a slightly ridiculous anachronism; he was out of touch with post-war Britain; his oratory was stately but inaccessible; he was overbearing, rude, and inconsiderate; and he was totally unsuited to dealing with such figures as trade-union leaders. …

But as with Curzon, Halifax’s peerage was largely an excuse, a rationalization that concealed deeper explanations: for just as a titled landowner of Curzon’s temperament had been unsuitable for the job in the circumstances of 1923, so a titled landowner of Halifax’s characteristics was no more appropriate in the very different circumstances of 1940. He had spent most of his life as a decorative but essentially marginal figure in politics and in government, and the thought of real power, of great responsibility, of the grievous ordeal that lay before him and the nation, made him feel physically sick. He did not want the job, under these — or any? — circumstances. Like Curzon, it was not so much his peerage, as his temperament, that was the decisive and deciding factor. In this case, it seems clear, Halifax could have had the job for the asking, but he did not want it; he did not push his claims; and he gave his peerage as his excuse.

There might still be some notables in politics, but they conspicuously lacked the will, the temperament, the qualifications, the appetite, for the very highest office. Indeed, it was only the extraordinary events of 1940 and the peculiar qualities of leadership then deemed desirable, that could bring to the Premiership the first patrician since Balfour: a man virtually as anachronistic as Curzon, an isolated outsider almost as marginal to the politics of the thirties as the Cecils — Winston Churchill himself.

It may be yet another indication of decrepitude, but this passage makes me think of Barack Obama, who also seems to lack an appetite for leadership in crisis. While from some perspectives the president’s background might appear to be radically different from those of the gentlemen mentioned in the passage above, I believe that, in the ways that matter, it was essentially the same. As a bright young man endowed with a great cultural and not inconsiderable financial affluence, Barack Obama was taught to regard the world as his oyster. But like so many of his elite cohort (in which I certainly number myself as an undistinguished elderly member), he appears to have learned far more about optimizing his own opportunities than about the urgency of protecting the fragile world in which they arise.

Leadership in our time has come to seem to be a matter of telling people in other countries what to do. In fact, the United States has never more desperately needed a president capable of persuading his countrymen that their own bad behavior is more dangerous than any foreign tyrant’s. Americans have sunk into a lotus-land habit of expecting others to bear the burdens of maintaining a democracy. To claim that poverty is the fault of the poor, that market adversities are the result of inept regulation, that environmental degradation is a hoax perpetrated by anti-business interests, and to outsource all the unpleasant jobs to disenfranchised menials and corporate hacks — these are signs of civic depravity to rival anything in Suetonius or Gibbon. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and its readers have contracted an updated equivalent of the lead poisoning that drove wealthy ancient Romans mad.

And it must be acknowledged that to play golf on a day of mourning for the victim of a sadistic act of terrorism — it is arguably impious to do such a thing. It is unquestionably incompetent to be seen doing it.

Gotham Diary:
Et in Arcadia
22 August 2014

It seems to have rained rather heavily in the night, but I didn’t hear it, because, for once, I was really asleep, not dozing. After four or five skittery nights of catatonic consciousness — no tossing and turning, but no real rest, either; feeling rather like Madeline Usher — I was desperately tired yesterday. On my way to a quick dinner in the town last night I almost turned around at the end of the lane, and then again about fifty feet on. These second thoughts were warnings that I probably ought to have heeded, for the walk home afterward was disturbed by the horror of falling down — dare I call this the signature anxiety of old age? Had there been a bench, I’d have been tempted to sit down, although I should probably have resisted. Once or twice I felt dangerously lightheaded — or thought I did. In the clear light of morning, I suppose that there was nothing more to it than having set out for home a little too soon after wolfing down a cheeseburger.

I’d still be in bed but for two things, a tedious dream that was almost as discouraging as my walk home last night, and the metronomic drip of rainwater from a neighboring roof. I can assume that it was dripping water, now that I see the soaked decking. In bed, I could only worry that something was wrong somewhere, possibly in our house. Going back to sleep seemed both unattractive and unlikely, so I got up.

Thanks to the timing of the rain, I can say that I’ve enjoyed almost perfect weather during my five days of solitude. Sunny, clear, and cool, the air has been a gentle tonic. The only question is whether I’ve had enough.


Last Sunday night, after the ferry carried everyone else away, I began re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time. The extravagantly low-key opening, a tableau of ditch-diggers moving about a trench in a dark and wintry London street, is so potentially off-putting as to constitute a secret doorway to hell, not the dire hell of Dante but the modern hell of hapless egotism. Anthony Powell’s literary conceit is that, notwithstanding our unconscious preoccupation with self-importance, we are all bound in a mystical roundelay, crossing hands over and over again with familiar faces, changed by time in a way that is somehow unchanging. This recurrence has never seemed very realistic to me, but I can well imagine that it captures quite well the much more concentrated nature of the British elite, even at its most variegated. As for the egotism — the word comes up with a frequency that is almost dating — it seems exaggerated by the shock waves generated by Freudian theories. What distinguishes Dance from Powell’s earlier fiction is the intrusion of authorial asides in which laws of human behavior are proposed. These don’t strike me as very realistic, either. They seem to strain to connect contemporary anxiety with classical fatality. But the gesture is charming, even beautiful at times. Almost everything about A Dance to the Music of Time is — how else to put it? — lovely.

Even the gruesome bits, like this passage describing Nick Jenkins’s response to the revelation that his lover, Jean Duport, had an affair with her ex-brother-in-law, the oafish Jimmy Stripling, after her sister’s divorce (and long before intimacies with Nick).

She went white, as if she might be about to faint. I was myself overcome with a horrible feeling of nausea, as if one had suddenly woken from sleep and found oneself chained to a corpse. A desire to separate myself physically from her and the place we were in was linked with an overwhelming sensation that, more than ever, I wanted her for myself. To think of her as wife of Bob Duport was bad enough, but that she should also have been mistress of Jimmy Stripling was barely endurable. Yet it was hard to know how to frame a complaint regarding that matter even to myself. She had not been ‘unfaithful’ to me. This odious thing had happened at a time when I myself had no claim whatsoever over her. I tried to tranquillise myself by considering whether a liaison with some man, otherwise possible to like or admire, would have been preferable. In the face of such an alternative, I decided Stripling was on the whole better as he was: with all the nightmarish fantasies implicit in the situation. The mystery remained why she should choose that particular moment to reveal this experience of hers, making of it a kind of defiance.

When you are in love with someone, their life, past and present and future, becomes in a curious way part of your life; and yet, at the same time, since two separate human entities in fact remain, you merely carry your own prejudices into another person’s imagined existence; not even into their ‘real’ existence, because only they themselves can estimate what their ‘real’ existence has been. Indeed, the situation might be compared with that to be experienced in due course in the army where an officer is responsible for the conduct of troops stationed at a post too distant from him for the exercise of any effective control.

Not only was it painful enough to think of Jean giving herself to another man; the pain was intensified by supposing — what was, of course, not possible — that Stripling must appear to her in the same terms that he appeared to me. Yet clearly she had, once, at least, looked at Stripling with quite different eyes, or such a situation could never have arisen. Therefore, seeing Stripling as a man for whom it was evidently possible to feel at the very least a passing tendresse — perhaps even love — this incident, unforgettably horrible as it seemed to me at the time, would more rationally be regarded as a mere error of judgment. In love, however, there is no rationality. Besides, that she had seen him with eyes other than mine made things worse. In such ways one is bound, inescapably, to the actions of others.

This passage appears toward the end of the third novel in the cycle, The Acceptance World. This was, I am told, the novel that broke through to broad literary réclame, attracting a notice that the first two entries had not garnered. It is the most “Proustian” of the twelve: Nick’s agonized musings about love and eros will prove to be transitory as regards his own character; he will meet and settle down with Isobel Tolland presently. But the conception of love as one of the more intense manifestations of selfishness colors every romantic entanglement, especially those involving Kenneth Widmerpool. Time and time again, Jenkins will try and fail to imagine the possibility of feeling tenderness or love for Widmerpool, confounded by the evidence that women repeatedly do feel these things for his odd, ichthyomorphic schoolmate. There is no rationality in love. This is a very old Greek idea.

It’s curious to note what I remember and what I don’t. I’d forgotten entirely about Mildred Blaides, even though I dimly remembered General and Mrs Conyers (the women are sisters). Almost everything in the first three novels was familiar, but I don’t think I’d noticed that Pamela Flitton, the femme fatale of later developments, first appears as a seven year-old attendant at the wedding of Peggy Stepney and Charles Stringham. The first-time reader will easily grasp that Stringham’s marriage is not going to last very long, but, once recognized by the returning reader, little Pamela is as baleful as the wickedest fairy’s curse.

To hear me talk, you’d never know what fun A Dance to the Music of Time can be. So far, my favorite sentence, which really almost might be the motto of the entire set, concerns a character whom, like Widmerpool, I didn’t enjoy reading about, the first time through: Uncle Giles. Now I do.

His mastery of the hard-luck story was of a kind never achieved by persons not wholly concentrated on themselves.

Gotham Diary:
21 August 2014

More than halfway through this year’s stay on Fire Island, I’ve finally crossed the capricious line that separates real life from vacation. “Vacation,” of course, means “emptying out”; it referred originally to what happened at universities between terms. What needs to be emptied out during the vacations of today is that buffer of projects and responsibilities known as the to-do list. You’re not on vacation until you’ve lost the sense of having one.

Being me, I had a to-do list just for the vacation. It was really only a to-read list. I lugged a few heavyish books that needed, eventually, to be read. The heaviest was David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the English Aristocracy, published in 1990. I bought it when it came out, but I couldn’t read it, because it was just too depressing. Cannadine cleverly labels the world of aristocratic hegemony that preceded the decline and fall “Barset,” after Trollope’s imaginary shire. Barset was something of a dream even when Trollope created it, neater, better-ordered, and more virtuous than any actual county, and largely scrubbed clean of the grubbiness of the Industrial Revolution. I was not sufficiently grown-up in 1990 (aged 42) to watch with equanimity the crumpling of this dream by the pressures of political and economic change. I knew that it did crumple, certainly, and believed that, on balance, the crumpling was a good thing going forward; but, as John Fowles put it in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, there was probably never a more agreeable time to be a gentleman than the year 1850.

Now I can bear it. Having re-read George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England and Roy Jenkins’s biography of Winston Churchill, I’m familiar with many of the names that crop up in Cannadine’s text. Nobody is quite as admirable or benign as the nicer squires in Trollope. The grandees thrash about like doomed dinosaurs, slow to grasp the growing advantages of liquid over landed assets. Their supercilious eogtism makes it difficult to feel very sorry for them, and the gracious way of life that depended entirely on the labor of underpaid servants now seems somewhat inhuman. The political and economic changes that transformed English society in the century after 1870, however grey and plodding, no longer strike me as sordid or regrettable.

I also brought out the first two movements of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I was tempted to bring only one; although not as heavy as Decline and Fall, the Powells are substantial, and I wondered if I would actually get to the second movement, or set of three novels. I can report today that it is extremely unlikely that I shan’t. I’m barreling through The Acceptance World, the third novel in the first movement.

I have read the entire Dance once before, but this is a third reading of the first two movements, all of which had come out in paper in the middle of the Sixites. They weren’t what I wanted them to be. Although I couldn’t have put it so simply at the time, I wanted more Stringham and less Widmerpool. Much less Widmerpool. I still felt this way when the University of Chicago edition appeared in the Nineties. But now, just as I have matured sufficiently to listen to what David Cannadine has to say without dabbing my eye with a handkerchief, I understand that Kenneth Widmerpool is the whole point of A Dance to the Music of Time: he is the nightmarish doppelgänger of Powell’s stand-in, Nick Jenkins. As for Charles Stringham, he is no longer a disappointment on the score of not showing up in the narrative with greater frequency. He is, rather, what Powell understood him to be, merely a disappointment.


But before I survey Powell’s charms, I’d like to unscramble an anecdote that caused me a great deal of discomfort earlier this summer. We were having dinner with an old friend of Kathleen’s, a man whose charitable intentions are somewhat undercut by a formidably egotistical constitution. Voluble enough as a conversationalist, he does not put enough effort into pruning from his remarks implications that might embarrass or irritate his companions. Sometimes, he does not listen very carefully. When I said that I was thinking of re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time later in the summer, out at Fire Island — assuming, perhaps unreasonably, that, as Kathleen’s good friend, he would know that this trip to Fire Island would be in the nature of a family reunion — he fairly barked, “Oh! I could never go back there, to all that irresponsibility. That was thirty years ago!”

It’s perfectly clear to me what the man meant by this — now. But I was befuddled at the time, because it betrayed a misunderstanding so gross that I couldn’t acknowledge it. I could not imagine that he was talking about Fire Island, because how could he think that Kathleen or I would go back with our grandson in tow? So I tried to fit what he said to Powell’s book, which while it made even less sense was free of insulting repercussions.

For Kathleen’s friend, “Fire Island” is little more than “Fire Island Pines,” one of the two predominantly gay communities to the east of Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach does not exist for Kathleen’s friend. It does not exist for most New Yorkers. There is nothing chic about it, and most of the homeowners seem to hail from the mainland of Long Island. Although a youthful bar scene sprouts up on weekend nights, Ocean Beach is, emphatically, a family resort. Someday, I have no doubt, a gay family or two will take up residence (if this has not already happened), because Ocean Beach is a much more appropriate place for children than the Pines or Cherry Grove. After a burp or two, life will go on.

It is true that Megan spent a week in the Pines when she was eight going on nine. It was the time of the royal wedding, Charles and Diana. Kathleen and I had a half share in a house put together by Fossil Darling; our participation made the rental possible — technically. (We were so impecunious that Fossil floated us.) We came out every other weekend. Kathleen had known a very different Fire Island as a girl; her parents had rented and then owned a house in Dunewood, three or four communities to the west of Ocean Beach, and one of the last to be developed before the National Seashore designation, which saved Fire Island from Robert Moses’s plans for a highway to the Hamptons, put a moratorium on building. But she was game to give the Pines a try. Needless to say, once was enough. The novelty of Pine Clones — brawny fellows in flannel shirts, cutoffs, and what we used to call combat boots walking tiny dogs — wore off pretty fast. One day, we took a water taxi to Saltaire, near the western end of the island, and walked all the way back as far as Ocean Beach, which was, in 1981, no two words about it, a dump.

A few years later, one of our Pines housemates died of AIDS, and the summer of 1981 took on the aspect of a bad dream. It took thirty years for us to think about coming back to Fire Island, and it was Megan who led us back to Ocean Beach. Through an old college roommate who was also in New York, she found herself spending occasional weekends out here in the late Nineties. When, about ten years later, we were all thinking of where to take Will to the beach, it was an Ocean Beach realtor whom Megan had met that Kathleen contacted.

Kathleen’s old friend had also sojourned in the Pines. Later, he decided that the Pines life style was incompatible with his religion.

You will recall, however, that Anthony Powell’s book, not the habitable sand bar by the sea, was the subject of my sentence. I was thinking of reading A Dance to the Music of Time while out at Ocean Beach, although I didn’t say “Ocean Beach” because that wouldn’t have meant anything to Kathleen’s friend. Unfortunately, “Fire Island” meant so much (in its truncated sense) that it swamped what I’d meant to say.

The muddle was compounded by Kathleen’s misunderstanding me to be talking of Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran’s lapidary novel about A-list gay New Yorkers in the late Seventies. Dancer climaxes with a bonfire of alligator shirts on the beach at the Pines. One character walks into the sea, too jaded to go on living, while another perishes, back in Manhattan, in a bathhouse fire. It turned out that Kathleen knew nothing of Anthony Powell’s cycle. So, when I gave up trying to fit her friend’s comment to A Dance to the Music of Time, I found that it made somewhat more sense with reference to Holleran’s book.

It took about three weeks to snap out of all this confusion and to understand that Kathleen’s friend was under the impression, reprovingly enough, that we would be having a family vacation at the Pines, that we would be going back to all that irresponsibility, as he put it, something that he would never do. No longer mystified, I was furious. It’s a good thing that I didn’t understand him when we were having drinks before dinner at his house. Maybe it’s a good thing that, if I’m a thin-skinned old coot, I’m also a thick-headed one.

Gotham Diary:
In Relation, cont’d
20 August 2014

If last winter made an old man of me, this summer has not had much of a rejuvenating effect. On my afternoon walks on the beach, of which there have been only two, I made it no further than Atlantique, two communities to the east. I used to walk twice as far, all the way to Lonelyville.

It is not that I am too tired to walk further, just too bored. I used to find the walks relaxing; I felt that they cleared my mind somewhat. Now I just worry about being knocked over by a rogue wave. Yesterday’s waves were about what you’d expect on a moderately stormy day on Lake Michigan. They broke pitifully near the shoreline, but they sent up sheets of water that were now and then forceful enough to make me worry about losing my balance. The walkable, firm part of the beach was very narrow, and I had a hard time keeping to it. I found that the only way to proceed straight ahead, and avoid heading into the ocean, was to bend my steps ever so slightly to the right. Walking on the beach has become a challenge.

Walking into the little town, I’m more able to let my mind wander where it will, especially when there are few passers-by. Presently I arrive at my destination, oblivious.

Thinking is more than ever something that takes place while my fingers scurry over the keyboard — or, rather, when my eyes glance over the trail that they have left behind. Yesterday, I wrote a thinking-out-loud letter to an indulgent friend. I had been piqued by what seemed to me to be an illiterate but increasingly common way of speaking about cultural life. I mulled the usage over at the back of my mind for weeks if not months. Then, last week, I suddenly understood what people using this phrase were trying to say, and what the phrase betrayed about their understanding of culture. Interestingly, this new understanding on my part raised further questions. For a few days (as I mentioned earlier) I had the idea of sketching my thinking on a piece of paper. In the end, however, the thinking-out-loud letter did the job.

When I was through thinking out loud, I went back and rewrote the letter. I replaced the thinking with the thought. I saved both drafts in one Evernote. Polishing up the letter to my friend — it was now a reasonably clear sequence of paragraphs setting forth a relation between the phenomena of novelty, familiarity, and renewal — I was appalled to find that my missive was a tissue of obvious statements already known to anyone who has ever thought about art, literature, or just about anything. I could only hope that the relation of the statements brought something new to the matter.


For years, whenever people would ask me what I wrote about “on my blog,” I would blithely reply that I was still finding that out. Not having a very clear idea of what I was doing or of where I was going was part of the fun of writing here. At some point in the past twelve months, however, that vagueness has become somewhat intolerable. It’s not that I feel obliged to declare a major, as it were. The imperative is internal: I need, not so much to know what I’m doing, as to learn how to talk about it. There are two large difficulties. The first is to develop a way of writing that, while it might sound philosophical to some ears, is clearly not philosophy. The other is to make a case for the humanities that will compel not the admiration but the aspiration of my well-educated readers.

Why have I got such an aversion to philosophy? Because philosophers have always sought to learn about the world by thinking about it. Modern scientists began protesting against this outlook centuries ago. Scientists didn’t just think about the world, they measured it and experimented with it. They put it under the microscope and boiled it over the Bunsen burner. Eventually, the philosophers were left with nothing but moral problems. Here their lack of basic humanity was finally revealed in all its starkness. Just as they had once attempted to grasp the “out there” questions of astronomy and physics by consulting “in here” notions of what ought to be the case in a world presumed to be intelligently designed, so they now continued to project moral wisdom onto an external, objective sphere that could be probed by ratiocination. But morality is the most human of human concerns, and each of us carries everything that there is to know about it. What we need is articulateness, not analysis.

When I try to put the things that people think and then say in relation, I am not trying to erect a system that explains human society. I leave systems to the engineers. When I talk about the world, I am talking about the way we talk about it, with a view to discovering better ways of thinking and talking about it.

I believe that there is only one thing that we can learn about the world (especially the world morally considered) by thinking about it, and that is how human beings talk about the world. What do we say? What do we think we mean? How do our statements stand up together? I am not interested in logic or syntax. I am interested in the findings of cognitive science only to the extent that they show up inadequate speech patterns. I am interested in educated ways of talking. Where do they fall short? What do they consistently miss? How cunningly do they oversimplify?

I’m still stumbling, as you can see, toward an understanding of all of this that can be expressed in one or two clear sentences. When and if I get there, I’ll wonder what took me so long.

Gotham Diary:
In Relation
19 August 2014

One of the books that I’ve been re-reading this summer is John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. It’s an appealing book, but it disappoints. Nothing so strenuous as remaking transpires in its numerous brief chapters. What we get instead is a lovely sermon, replete with Matthew Arnold’s sweetness and light. We are exhorted to be our best selves, and to develop high-quality relationships with people and things of merit. Civilization is not only the best thing we’ve got, but a kind of mutual-aid operation. While it protects us from our grosser inclinations, we protect it from the ravages of time and ignorance. I agree with almost every positive statement that Armstrong makes. But I cannot imagine that his book would inspire anyone habituated to television as a pastime to turn off the set and improve his or her personal cultivation. While In Search of Civilization cheers on those of us who already appreciate the finer things in life, it does not outline a method for acquiring such appreciation.

How is the man in the couch supposed to begin? Armstrong recalls leading a group of tourists through Florence.

My tour group wanted to be there but did not have a clue what to do with the pictures, statues, buildings and histories on which the reputation of the place rests.

Armstrong quite rightly faults the people who do have a clue for failing to enlighten the public, but, again, he doesn’t propose a scheme for enlightenment. How do you make complex thought apprehendible to people with little experience of it — people for whom anything “serious” is likely to be boring? How do you configure a diet that introduces worthwhile sustenance at the right time? Serve it too early, and it’s cabbage. Withhold it too long, and it’s tepid tea. No wonder those with a taste for nectar devote themselves to cultivating their own gardens.

Having no better ideas myself, I can’t fault Armstrong. But I’m piqued by a thread that runs through his book: the idea that he is working up a philosophy of civilization. At the beginning, he describes a conversation on this very topic.

My friend at lunch was trying to saddle me with the task of discovering what other people have thought about civilization. Whereas what motivates me is something more personal. What do I think? To put it another way, I want to move from asking the historical question about how people happen to have defined civilization to the philosophical question about how we ought to define it.

I applaud Armstrong’s determination to keep things personal; indeed, one of the nicest things about In Search of Civilization is its resemblance to the Web log that I have been looking for for years but never found. But I disagree with the “other way” in which Armstrong states his mission. I don’t believe that a distinction can be made between the historical question and the definitional decision. I suspect that Armstrong wants to spare the reader, and perhaps himself as well, the trouble of sorting through attics of thought before coming to any decisions about what to keep and what to dump. But the replacement of history by philosophy is a mistake of ancient vintage. Plato was an early victim. Instead of inquiring into what is the case, and what has been the case before, Plato proposed to study what ought to be the case, for the simple reason that what ought to be the case must be the case. Centuries of scientific rigor have freed our natural inquiries from this distracting delusion, but the premise lingers on, particular in the purlieus of moral thought.


History is an awful jumble, incomparably messier than “one damned thing after another.” But civilization as we know it is the residue of history. If we don’t know it, then civilization is just so much rubbish taking up space in dusty museums. So we must begin by knowing it as the residue of history. Where did the artefacts of civilization come from? What are the origins of civilized behavior? We cannot hope to grasp the totality of history’s object — everything that has ever happened — but we can try to explain the history of what remains. We can edit and refine, correct and polish the explanations offered by those who have gone before us. The root of my personal optimism is the faith, perhaps inborn, that we can always understand things a little better, a little more completely.

Philosophy, with its notions of how things ought to be, is the last thing we need when trying to explain civilization. We need to stick to what has actually happened, so far as we can make it out. We need to set things out in relation to other things. There are thinkers who believe that the American Revolution was driven by high-minded ideals. There are other thinkers who trace it back to economic opportunism. The role of slavery in the foundation of the new sovereignty casts doubt on both propositions. (In the end, slavery makes no economic sense.) The historian’s job is to lay out the evidence in a way that reduces its complication — its tendency to contradict other evidence — to a complexity that is capable of accommodating inconsistency. For that’s what the American Revolution, like all  ambitious human enterprises, was: inconsistent.

History is empirical and skeptical; it concerns itself with material evidence. Until the Nineteenth Century, most of that evidence was coextensive with the remains of Mediterranean civilization — the temples, the antique histories, the Roman roads — that survived the convulsive gestation of modern Europe. History was philosophical in nature, prone to tell us what ought to have happened. Then historians began consulting bureaucratic archives. These documents were not created with any thought of history in mind, and that unselfconsciousness not only made them more trustworthy but created a counterweight to the wishful thinking of Mediterranean history. History as practiced in modern Europe now became the critical study that it remains today, a pursuit of ongoing and endless, ever more comprehensive reassessment.

History is the central discipline of the humanities because it weighs and considers men and women as they are and have been. It  rejects what ought to have been, so that we may see more clearly what we might become.

Gotham Diary:
18 August 2014

The only surprise about taking two weeks off from writing here every weekday was the absence of qualms. I wasn’t for a moment troubled by doubts that I might be making a mistake of some kind, staying away for so long, more or less without notice.

It was certainly the right thing to do — to give, that is, my undivided attention to my daughter and her family. This isn’t to say that I was with them every minute; hardly that. But I was always as available, mentally as well as personally, as I could be. It was only the other day, on Friday, that my mind began — resumed — operating on its own, and over the weekend I found myself wanting to take a piece of Megan’s drawing paper and sketch out an idea, something that I don’t usually do. Alas, I never got round to asking for the paper — a measure of my eagerness to smooth over personal issues that weren’t imperative.

Now I have a bundle of memories, most which I shall write out elsewhere. It was an intimate visit. On the whole, my time with Will was something richer but other than mere fun. When he sealed a thoughtful observation with the glance of his big brown eyes, or dissolved into a fit of helpless giggling, he transported me to another dimension, one in which childhood is troubled not by the accidents and pretences that characterized my own as by the plain limitations of the human condition.  To put it another way, Will’s life seems natural in a way that mine never was. I am inclined to resist the impulse to write about what he is like. Generalizations of that kind seem inappropriate to a subject who is four and a half years old. I’d rather collect a few good stories  —and I’d better collect them soon, before my memory plays tricks with me.

Today, however, I’m keen to get back to work.


There is plenty to get through. On the first of the month, after writing the last entry here, I went to the Whitney Museum, to see the Jeff Koons retrospective. For the moment, its enough to say that I was shocked by what I saw at the Whitney — so shocked that I couldn’t have written about it for days anyway.

While I was mulling over the moral failure of art critics to evaluate Koons’s productions in a fully adult manner, a separate but not unrelated crisis in public criticism came to light, in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, Missouri. Sad to say, there was nothing very distinctive about the death of Michael Brown. Brown appears to have been the victim of yet one more unnecessary, arguably wrongful killing in the annals of American racism. The unrest provoked by the official response to the shooting wasn’t new, either, at least to those of us who could remember the riots of the late Sixties. The novelty driving the Ferguson story was the pseudo-military tomfoolery of the police. It was the image of civil policemen confronting American citizens in Army drag that ignited national outrage. But there was nothing new about this, either — not really. The truly awful thing about Ferguson turns out to be that there is nothing new about it. As the background stories tumbled out, Ferguson took on the distinct air of plus ça change… Photographs taken by Danny Lyons in the early Sixties were arrayed alongside images from Missouri, illustrating the lack of alteration in hostility between white law enforcers and black protesters. We learned about the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, which gifts municipal police forces with retired arms and armor on the sole and astounding condition that these weapons be deployed within the year. But the 1033 Program has been active for over a decade. Ross Douthat mentioned “Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book,” The Rise of the Warrior Cop. But 2013 was last year, not last week. Where was there news?

Even the news that Captain Ronald Johnson, the black chief of the Missouri Highway Patrol and a man who grew up in the Ferguson area, has been unable to stop the criminal violence that the clash has unleashed isn’t really news. Insofar as it is news to the young users of Twitter who seem to have propelled the events in Ferguson into the national forum, our American History teachers haven’t been doing a very good job.

Once again, I find myself landing in the helplessness, or moral bankruptcy, of David Carr’s Media Equation report. I don’t expect ordinary men and women to keep abreast of developments in public affairs. But I do expect professional journalists and commentators to transcend the demands of media entertainment by fashioning a serious world view that engages public attention. It is not enough, to follow stories. I don’t mean that journalists ought to fabricate their own stories, but rather that they ought to lead ongoing stories into general discussion. If they can’t figure out how to do that, it’s hard to see what they’re good for.

In David Carr’s view, the Ferguson story began in Ferguson.

On Thursday, after the chaos, there was a huge in-migration of news media. Perhaps even absent the conflagration on Twitter, journalists would have shown up. Perhaps cable news would have turned hard toward the story, and the kind of coverage that eventually drew the attention of the president and the governor of Missouri would have taken place. Perhaps all the things that led to the security situation in Ferguson being handed over to cooler heads would have ensued. But nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.

But the Ferguson story began with, among other things, the implementation of the 1033 Program. Twitter was the ideal vehicle for propagating images of the armored car topped by sharpshooters, but no one would have turned to a social media site to follow the path taken by that “tank” from a war zone to an American suburb. Until Ferguson, the use of military resources by ordinary policemen was largely limited to drug raids and hostage situations that were unlikely to provoke public indignation. Nobody got excited about warrior cops until the cops themselves played the bad guys’ part — as they were sure to do, eventually, but as they would not have been in a position to do, had knowledgeable and influential Americans put a quick stop to the 1033 Program by effectively shaming it.

How did American journalism ever become so passive? How much longer are we going to have to take our chances with stories that play well on Twitter?

Time Out
1 August 2014

Two thoughts left over from Wednesday night’s Mostly Mozart concert:

If it had been up to me, I’d have nicknamed Mozart’s last symphony after Apollo, not Zeus. The work is the epitome of classic grandeur, but it is not mighty — there is something crude about might. I suppose that the fugato section at the end puts some listeners in mind of thunderbolts hurled from on high, but surely the dazzling of the sun comes to mind as well. But it’s too late, now.

As Louis Langrée took his first bow, I thought, here is a Frenchman in August, taking up his work instead of putting it down. (Most of Mosztly takes place between now and Labor Day.) I doubt that spending the month in New York constitutes any kind of vacation. When does M Langrée take his August?


Will and his parents will spend a week with us out on Fire Island — we head out a week from Monday — but they’ll also be spending next week with us here in New York, camping out in the apartment. Will is four-and-a-half now, and this will be his first visit to New York since he left it last fall. I’m curious to see how much he remembers. I wonder, for example, if he remembers the “dinner store,” the diner across the street (now under new management) where, on an outing alone with me, he hid himself under the table while I went to pay the check. He was two-something at the time, but already an accomplished scamp. Remembering my return to the table and not seeing Will, checking out the rest rooms, peering into the kitchen — this is worse than it actually was, because in the event I was so shocked that I didn’t feel anything. I do remember the moment of recognition, when I recalled that I was dealing with Will, and not some poor wandering babe. In that very instant I directed my gaze under the table, and there he was, grinning.

By now, he has probably moved on to Tube Alloys.

I’m racing through Roy Jenkins’s Churchill, so that it’s out of the way before everyone arrives. I’m thinking of taking A Dance to the Music of Time out to Fire Island. I’m also thinking, but that’s four hefty books. Re-reading entries from three years ago, I was reminded of being completely gripped by The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography/study of Robert Moses, a Big Book that I had put off reading for thirty years. It would be nice to have another book like that to dive into, but the only such volume that I’ve got on hand is the one volume abridgment of Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. I was never a great fan of Thatcher — quite the contrary — but I thought that it might be annealing to read another big book about recent British politics while the names and dates were still fresh from Campbell’s biography of Jenkins.

In Churchill, I’ve reached the final chapter concerned with World War II, and I am really rather depressed. I had thought, going in, that the trajectory of the War story would be just the opposite of what in fact it was. I thought that the story would begin with the dark near-despair of 1940 and end in triumph. Well, that’s not what happened at all, and certainly not to Churchill. He might have been regarded as the only man who could save Britain, but once it appeared that Britain was saved, the nation turned its back on him. Actually, I oughtn’t to say that; I haven’t got that far. Almost, but not quite. Whatever Churchill’s standing in Britain, however, it was greater than his standing among his allies, Roosevelt and Stalin, men to whom Britain, at the end of the war, was no longer a mighty, world-spanning empire but a smallish island in the North Sea. Churchill himself made it all much worse, or at least less gratifying, than it needed to be. His bulldog manner made him look, indeed, like something of a pet. He made a lot of noise, but he was generally ignored. His determination to preserve Greece from Communist rebels was just about the only one of his post-1942 initiatives that met with endorsement and success. Addicted to summits that meant much less to his hosts (and he was never allowed to play host) than they did to him, he traveled too much and neglected the home front. Instead of being the grand old man, gratefully welcoming American aid and focusing on the well-being of his countrymen, Churchill wore himself out on junkets and abandoned government to his colleagues. He became a tired old man.

He was who he was. Impossible for the most part; the utterly indispensable man for two or three years. He was a first-class orator, but an amateur statesman — perhaps because he saw politics and government as a kind of game. Games were all about his winning them. (I didn’t know that he was a crack polo player as a young man.) I used to wonder about the good judgment of a governing class that preferred to keep him at arm’s length, if not at some further distance. Now I’m amazed that Churchill was ever allowed to stand for a second election. He was, for the most part, a great nuisance.

Until he wasn’t.

The upshot is that Roy Jenkins appears, through the pages of his biography of Churchill, as the better man. The better man and the better statesman. Fortune denied Jenkins the opportunities that would have showcased his gifts in the way that Hitler’s encroachments showcased Churchill’s. Jenkins was on the wrong side of the war that would subvert his career. Just as he was launching the Social Democratic Party, creating a “Third Way” that would appeal intelligently to the vast British center, the jingoistic current generated by the Falklands War caused widespread stupidization. By the end of the Eighties, Jenkins ought to have been the Prime Minister, leading a popular new party,  but, thanks to contrary tides all round, he was not even in Parliament. Jenkins and Churchill therefore make an extremely interesting pair. The careers of both men highlight the role of chance, especially the chance of contemporaries. Politicians are made and broken by the people among whom they are placed, according to the accidents of time and place.

At the same time, Jenkins was probably right to assess himself as lacking the ruthlessness required to reach the top of the greasy pole. I can’t fault him for that; he accomplished many good things — and, what’s more, set a fine example — from such heights as he did attain.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
31 July 2014

Last night, we went to Mostly Mozart, and I came out feeling almost as pepped-up as I am by a Remicade infusion. I needed that! It had been a little too long since I’d taken a seat in a concert hall.

Good to know. My “retirement from the audience” was never intended to be total, but by letting my subscriptions lapse I lost the convenience of regularly-scheduled events. (Which had become an inconvenience: there were too many events.) Now I have to plan ahead and purchase tickets online. This is no longer the ordeal that it used to be. Now I know that two months, in the summer, is too long a break. I need to sit in a big room with a lot of other quiet people and listen to good music, well-performed. There’s plenty of that in New York, but I’m picky.

Many picky people are looking for the unusual, but my pickiness operates on a different plane. I’m not drawn by programs of seldom-heard compositions performed by musicians I’ve never heard of. I want to hear music that I know, but played as if I’ve never heard it before.

I got what I was looking for last night. Louis Langrée, who has just renewed his contract as Mostly Mozart’s music director, sprang through the Jupiter Symphony with an energetic grace that was truly Olympian. The pace and the volume of the music seemed to be physical symptoms of the conductor’s gift for music, as if Mozart, instead of writing his music on paper, had taken the more divine route of imparting it directly to Mr Langrée’s mind. The fact that I knew where every note belonged did not at all detract from the urgency of the performance. The thrill lies in the microscopic but cumulatively exciting differences between knowing what ought to happen and hearing what actually does happen. When I was new to concert music, I regarded these differences as mistakes. They certainly can be. (Wrong notes are always wrong.) But I learned that concerts were more interesting if I allowed the conductor try to persuade me that he knew better than I, or that, in any case, his alternative to my “correct” idea might be well worth hearing. More, as Ray Soleil says, for me.

Do you want to hear what the best bits were? I don’t really see any reason to add to Anthony Tommasini’s brisk paragraph of praise, except to note that the repeats were taken in the first two movements, making for a more substantial performance. People who don’t want to sit through repeats often argue that recordings have made them unnecessary; we all know this music now, and don’t need to hear the basic exposition twice in order to appreciate how the composer develops it. To this I can only reply that if I love a piece of music enough to pay money to cross town and take a chance on a performance, and the performance turns out to be a good one, I am only too happy to have two helpings.

Everything that I have said about last night’s Jupiter performance could be said just as well of any other performance, anywhere or anytime, merely altering the reference to the newspaper review as appropriate. All I can do is find new ways of saying it. That’s worthwhile, every so often. But doesn’t make for a viable routine. Whether from age or wisdom, I have discovered not only what I like but why, and these seem no more likely to change than the color of my eyes.

Although I paid close attention to the Jupiter, my mind drifted throughout the performance of Mozart’s Twenty-Third Piano Concerto that preceded the interval. Richard Goode was the pianist, and his imperturbably ego-free manner suited the music so well that I fell into a complete funk, trying to describe it as I listened. The word “genial” came to me, just as it did to Anthony Tommasini. But there’s a mystery to this concerto. It is neither as exciting nor as dramatic as its neighbors in Mozart’s oeuvre, and yet it stands, in comparison with the four concertos that begin with an identical dotted rhythm (the Sixteenth through the Nineteenth) as a work of stupefying sophistication. It’s as though by not trying to make a particular point, but just noodling his way through a clutch of pretty tunes, Mozart burst through the temporal bounds of style and created something that might, here and there, be taken for a counterfeit piece of neoclassicalism, perhaps of Edwardian vintage.

Complicating my reverie was the profound familiarity of the music. I won’t say that I can’t remember not knowing it. But I associate it with the pussy willows and damp air of the spring of 1967 — a long time ago. In other words, it brings back the willowy and damp sentiments of late adolescence, of feeling that I was growing up at last and that this music by Mozart sounded the note, melancholy at heart, of my distinction. Here I may refer to the allusion made in last night’s program notes (written by David Wright), to Chopin. When I was nineteen, Chopin was somewhat too “emotional” for me, so I put Mozart in his place and heard Mozart as Chopin. That’s how he sounded last night as well.

What I couldn’t quite figure out was why the music didn’t sound simply bland. It can indeed sound very bland, especially when summer orchestras relax and coast through it. Mr Langrée’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was no relaxed summer band, to be sure. And Mr Goode, while certainly relaxed, wasn’t coasting. He was poring, perusing — everything right up to but stopping short of probing. This is not music to probe, but music to play. Let it not be overlooked that he was playing.

And now I’ve gone and devoted my daily budget of words to a topic that I was going to glance over. Earlier yesterday, I spent several hours reading DBR entries from August, September, and October of 2011. I have gotten that far in my review of the site from its beginnings in 2010. The August entries were mostly brief missives from Fire Island, and of no interest to me now. What interests me now is more the solid stuff that I hope to gather up, prune and edit, and at least warn me away from repetition, when I set ought to order my thoughts on a somewhat larger scale. I’ve been tickled to read a few entries that look like molecules custom-designed for the embrace of what some readers doubtless regard as the pathogenic ideas of Hannah Arendt. There was none of that pleasure yesterday, though. I came away from the review pretty much sick of the sound of my own voice.

As I read, I copy each entry’s link into an Evernote note, and follow it with a telegraphic abstract and perhaps a quotation. The word that comes up most often in the abstracts, sadly, is “twaddle”: “Housekeeping twaddle”; “Photography twaddle”; “Blogging twaddle”; “Culinary twaddle.” As Pat Buckley once said in answer to her son’s questions about fashion, “Does anybody really want to read about this stuff?” That was the rather red-faced impression that I took from yesterday’s batch of old entries. I’m afraid that, when I get round to the third quarter of 2014, this entry will be summed up as “Concert twaddle.”

Daily Blague news update: Hole in the Mold.

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem V
30 July 2014

With this entry, I intend to wrap up this very preliminary discussion of the problem of the humanities in the modern West — how what was beautiful has become broccoli.

As I argued at the start, the pursuit of sensuous beauty by the artists of the early modern West was a response to the appropriation, by ruling princes, of the legacy of the antique world, both the “real” and the “mythical” (Hercules as well as Caesar). The stories of antiquity were centered on gods, goddesses, and mortal heroes who were conceived — particularly the heroes and the younger goddesses — as suitable for pictorial representation as nudes. At the same time, those stories were recycled by contemporary poets and writers in such a way that antique lore could become the shibboleth of entrée to princely courts. Only those who were seen to be familiar with this material were recognized as courtiers.

The relation between princes pursuing enhanced state power and artists pursuing association with princes characterized the art world of the West until the end of the Eighteenth Century. It was in terms of that relationship that the Western eye for beauty was developed. Inevitably, however, the humanist questions of classical antiquity were revived alongside the old stories. These questions — what does it mean to be mortal? what does it mean to love, and to be rejected? — had been asked by the ancients, but their attempts at answers had been superseded by Christian explanations. In the early modern courts, there was a shift away from answering questions in terms of divine love and immortal souls toward answering them in terms of aesthetic harmony. Just as Plato had called upon astronomers to explain the movements of celestial bodies in terms of uniform circular motion, so the growth of the humanities in the modern west always prioritized beauty.

The difference between Plato’s astronomy and the Western humanities is that Plato’s disciples weren’t creating anything. They were merely attempting explanations. The Western humanities, in contrast, created the countless galleries of art, libraries of books, public buildings and sculptures that were recognized, until the last century, as a matchless cultural achievement.

From the moment that young men who had no intention of taking holy orders began spending time in Europe’s universities, initially as little more than finishing schools, the Scholarly Humanities that I talked about yesterday were adapted for Honourable Humanist purposes. From the young aristocrats at Oxford and Heidelberg to the children of immigrants who made up the student body at the once-great Erasmus Hall high school in Brooklyn, liberal education transformed humanist questions into a humanizing project, the object of which was to impart a consciousness of problems and possibilities beyond the satisfaction of gross bodily demands for sustenance and comfort.

The touchstones of this project were the arts of the West. The humanist questions were materialized, as it were, in Old Master paintings and sonnets by Shakespeare and Donne. As the lessons percolated down through socio-economic layers that had never been offered education before, the focus on the courtly origins of beauty in the West were muted if not altogether extinguished, and artefacts deemed to be merely “pompous” were ignored. But it was believed in earnest that the instillation of a sense of beauty makes a major contribution to the richness of life.

Such faith began to fray when I was a student. The constellation of Western humanism was widely regarded as “irrelevant.” It reflected a bygone way of life whose values had been crushed in the course of two world wars and the onslaught of several totalitarian regimes, two of which were still in power. Critics argued that Western art in all its forms was little more than an instrument of social control, as if art were nothing more than the shibboleth that it had been at princely courts. The humanities were also seen as having been displaced by the sciences. Instead of asking armchair questions about love and death, scientists would hook people up to laboratory experiments and get some answers. The contribution of the humanities degenerated into something “good for you” — broccoli.

Fifty years on, this rejection of Honourable Humanism — the humanism pursued by educated men and women in the course of their domestic and professional lives — has yielded shallow generations of smart people with no perspective for evaluating human affairs. Everything of importance has, it is felt, yet to happen, but the novelties of the future are naively regarded as issuing from that future, and not from work done in the past. The history of every device begins, in popular understanding, with its launch, but in fact we are still living in the shadow of Xerox PARC, that long-shuttered corporate laboratory of now-unimaginable largesse. Western technology has a history — a history that explains much of its regrettable impact on the environment. Technology is not quite as non-humanist as many believe. That is because it is still produced by human beings.

Western humanism is much too multifarious and supple not to outgrow its dependence on the princely courts that gave birth to it, but it is important to understand the roots of humanism in order to shape it for present purposes. Beyond that, the centrality of beauty in Western humanism is what opens the universe to the common sense that the meaning of life is greater than our grasp. Without the sense of a world beyond, we despair: is this all there is?

The aesthetic of today appears to be inspired by a sense of the extra-terrestrial, the world that lies beyond our World, in which no human being could survive for an instant without massive (and somewhat dehumanizing) insulation. There is an impatience with our mortal frames that strikes me as the final exasperation of an empty-headed consumer society. I am convinced that this engenders a contempt for humanity, among the expressions of which are the horrific mass shootings that remind us so stringently that we remain earthbound organisms comprised largely of soft, semi-liquid tissue. How many young men must wish that they were not themselves but their hard and shiny smartphones!

The sense of beauty, once it has established itself in the human mind, is no longer something “good for you.” It is a source of delight and joy that reconciles us, ineffably, to our human limitations. It is up to you, as a member of the Honourable Elite, to remember this, and to look for pleasure where it may be found.

Daily Blague news update: Escape Hatch?