On Friday evening, I watched Ex Machina. It was one of several movies that I wanted to see in the theatre last year but that I missed for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me. I ordered the DVD because I am very interested in the performances of Oscar Isaac. To me, he is one of the great actors of the day, capable of playing every kind of robust man. Sometimes, he’s a good guy; sometimes, he’s not; but his character’s relation to right and wrong is always complicated, and the complications are compelling. Isaac’s men don’t make trouble for the hell of it. Both as a screen presence and as an impersonator, Oscar Isaac is as serious as a heart attack. His best movie so far — it is also his biggest — is A Most Violent Year.
In Ex Machina, he plays a Silicon Valley bully called Nathan. He’s an insecure sadist masquerading as a smart, approachable guy, backed up with impressive hardware. Approachable, that is, upon invitation only: the pilot who ferries his few visitors to his mountain fastness must keep a distance of perhaps half a mile from the house. The house is a stylish, ecology-friendly hell, saturated in loneliness. Above ground, it offers plate-glass views of green wilderness; its subterranean quarters plaster minimalist chic on the architecture of a convention motel. (Think Cedar Rapids, without the bustle.) Nathan heads the world’s largest Internet company (a sort of Google), but he lives alone with his in-house slut, a strangely clumsy Asian woman who doesn’t speak.
Before we get to Nathan’s place, we visit the head office, presumably in California, where a reedy young coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) hunches over his computer in what might as well be a cubicle but is not. We never see what Caleb sees when he looks up from the screen; perhaps it has no real existence for him. Within the minute, we learn that Caleb has won a competition. The prize is a week in the mountain fastness with Nathan. Cool!
I had read enough of the movie’s reviews to know that this would not be cool. Caleb is terribly naïve, but he isn’t too stupid to play mouse and cat with Nathan. Nathan is surly, obnoxious, and faux-apologetic by turns; he also drinks too much, and we wonder what that is about. If I had to some extent stayed away from Ex Machina, that’s because it was presented as a something of a horror flick. But even the creepier moments are overshadowed by an air of intellectual mystery: the answer to the question why Nathan has chosen Caleb to be his guest sounds not in horror but in science. Nathan is conducting an experiment. What is it?
Nathan tells Caleb that it’s a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with a robot that he has built and endowed with artificial intelligence. Caleb is to judge the quality of the robot’s AI. When Nathan asks Caleb if he knows what a Turing Test is, Caleb gives the correct answer, and this tips us off, or ought to do, to the irregularity of Nathan’s proceedings. When Alan Turing proposed the AI test that bears his name, computers came in boxes, and interactions were text-based. The extent to which a computer could enact the circuitous associations made by the human mind in conversation, presented, so to speak, as lines of dialogue taken from a play, would be the mark of its success. It would be able to fool its human interlocutor, however, only because, as a necessary pre-condition, the human would not know whether he was dealing with a computer or another human being, somebody hidden in the box.
There is no human “control” in Nathan’s version of the test, and no box, either: his computer is a shapely robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a marvelous concoction of skin and gear that as of yet we can encounter, thanks to CGI, only in the movies. Her face, forearms and feet are covered with something that looks just like skin; the rest of her is prosthesis, except for a mesh-covered poitrine that will doubtless inspire a few nightie fashion shows. Separated by plate glass, Caleb and Ava talk about themselves. Caleb is very impressed at first. Then, puzzled, he asks Nathan why Ava has been designed as a pretty girl. Nathan replies with some hogwash about the hopeless interpenetration of intelligence and sexuality. It is at about this moment that Caleb stops judging Ava’s performance and starts trying to learn from it. Another way of putting this is that his interest shifts from the analytical to the romantic.
You can see all of this coming. You can even foresee that Nathan will never permit Caleb to return to the outside world alive. (The moment Caleb tells Ava that his parents were killed in a car crash when he was eight, you know that his goose is cooked.) But because Nathan is such a heavy, we’re distracted by the eeriness of Ava’s ability to flirt with Caleb; instead of cocking our brows, we sympathize What you don’t see coming is something that you needn’t worry about my revealing. I have said just enough, I hope, to whet your appetite when I conclude, in general terms, that Ex Machina poses a reverse Turing Test. Its implications are perhaps monstrous, but they are entirely conjectural, something to be mulled over after the movie; as for the climax and finale, they are unbelievably elegant.
Talking with my daughter, who is studying the application of artificial intelligence to environmental and agricultural problems, I learned that Alan Turing’s test is little more than a party trick nowadays. The object of AI research is no longer to fool human beings into thinking that they’re talking to another human being. It is to teach computers to teach themselves things that human beings are incapable of learning. I don’t really understand it well enough to say much more than that the objective seems to be the creation of algorithms that will allow computers to make sense of massively complex (and minute) data, and to decide for themselves what is important, ie a call for action of some kind. Yes, it is scary and controversial. Short of a vast reduction of human population, it may just save the world. In any case, it is unlikely to feature machines as fetching as Ava. But Ex Machina reminds us — and some of us, especially the many Calebs out there, urgently need reminding — that, whatever we create, we shall remain stubbornly human. There is no escape for us from that lot, except into sheer inhumanity.
This stern object lesson is hidden in a beautiful and suspenseful movie, so clever that you don’t see the cleverness until the last few minutes, a dreamy half-mile nature walk that gives you just enough time to recompute everything that you have just seen. Alex Garfield has written and directed a magnificent étude on artificial intelligence that doubles as an old-fashioned masterpiece of indirection.
After my week with Marilynne Robinson, I read the weekend’s newspapers with something like incredulity: why all this depravity! Can’t people see? The short answer, for everything from Trump and Cruz to sexism in academia, is the existentially-crazed determination of power élites to hold on to what they’ve got, and the resentment of those who feel that they have gotten gypped. Same old story. But the long answer is a sheer blank. That is because ambition and resentment lose their vigor over time. Power inevitably dissipates, and resentments, while not always forgotten, invariably lose emotional force. Although we are all caught up in the toils of current affairs, we are all potential historians, too, and, when we look back, and as we look back more closely and more often, we become inerrant arbiters of good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, worth and junk. History, as I have argued, is a crucial component of The World, that composite residue of human achievement that has piled up since the earliest and most primitive of persistent human artifacts, of which the historical record is the youngest. Meanwhile, of course, we have to live in the world, the everyday chaos that we have imposed upon our increasingly fragile biosphere. Most of that small-case world will be swept away without an identifiable trace, but future generations will add a few items to The World, to enhance contemplation of human weakness and possibility.
This explains, I think, my rough optimism. Like most students, I live more in The World than in the world. The past is no better than the present, but it is easier to understand, because evil has a way of starving itself to death, foolishness eventually provokes resistance, and rubbish falls apart. I believe in history because it teaches how we learn (and don’t). That we learn is beyond dispute: the American Constitution is the fruit of the rich understanding of political history that was shared by the gentlemen who composed it. (Now we must learn from its shortcomings.) More people enjoy health, freedom, and prosperity than earlier sages ever imagined; at the same time, however, we are experiencing a second Fall, for, in the space of my lifetime at least, we have learned that modern wonders come at a steep price. We need new sources of income, and for these we must look to our minds: to our minds working together.
Our great model for working together is the team. The best team is composed of variously-endowed men and women who share a common ability to pursue common goals with intelligent discretion, under the direction of a leader with the lightest touch and the greatest natural persuasiveness. I myself do not belong to a team. I have never thought that I’d be good at it. But perhaps my sense of teamwork is stunted, and, just as possibly, the importance of teamwork, and a sense of how it would work, hasn’t reached my neck of the woods. What, exactly, is our common goal?
When I think of The Hunger, a movie that I saw only once, on video, I don’t think of David Bowie. I know that he’s there, but I think about Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, and how unlikely it is that they were in a movie together (and yet, for that very reason, given those two actresses, how normal). I remember thinking, while I watched it that once, that The Hunger is about a certain urban glamour that I’d do anything to avoid. Or was it simply glamour of any kind, that sometimes lovely but always empty carapace? I think, if I watch it again, will I like it more than it frightens me? But I don’t watch it again. The ghosts of the actresses in their Forty-ish finery drift through my mind for a moment and then fade. David Bowie appears as a name, or as a supporting dancer, lifting the ballerinas. Thinking of The Hunger, I wonder how long a sense of vast loneliness would surround me if I found myself living in Queens. Queens has always been for me the place where people go to be lonely, just as Brooklyn is where you go for complete lack of privacy. It makes sense that vampires would live in Queens.
Whenever I see a picture of David Bowie, I think, WEIRD. Not “weird,” as in “spookily unusual,” and not “weirdo!,” as if I weren’t a bit weird myself. But declaratively, self-consciously abnormal. Which is weirder than merely weird, because I can’t really understand the willingness to put your misfitness out there, in front of everything else. To me, it is simply another way of saying, “I’m bored.” It’s like having a disease, but instead of seeking treatment for the disease, sitting in one of those lawn chairs in Times Square (do they still have them?) while wearing a placard that says, “Hypertension Victim.” “I’m not like you” is such an unsociable thing to say, why say anything?
The main thing is that I don’t associate David Bowie with music. I can’t recall a scrap of his singing. I know that I heard it, back in the Seventies, and that it failed to appeal. (It was never, as the anthems of Queen were for a brief but mortifying period, a guilty pleasure.) Since then, Bowie has only been a photograph in a newspaper or a magazine. And, of course, a vampire of some kind, that once.
A friend and I have a running argument. It comes to mind because this friend was one of many who posted a tribute to David Bowie at Facebook yesterday. My friend, who is a much better photographer than I am, is not tempted to take pictures in which people won’t figure, whereas for me the draw of a photograph is its deserted composition. There is always a man-made element. If I take a picture of a tree, it’s almost certainly a tree that was planted by a landscaper. I love ruins. We don’t have many good ruins in New York, but there are plenty of neglected things that have seen better days. My photographs are actually full of people; they’re just not around anymore. Sometimes, in what I think of as my best shots, you can just see them.
I finished The Fall of the Ottomans last night, and was surprised to enjoy the last chapter quite a lot. Better late than never, I suppose. As I’ve already noted, Eugene Rogan’s book is a military history of British engagement with Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, in the Levant and in Mesopotamia. (There is also a chapter about the Armenian Genocide.) But the actual fall of the Ottoman dynasty did not occur until the war was over — as Rogan makes clear in his Epilogue. When the war ended, the Turks gained some eastern provinces, but that was more a matter of Russian withdrawal from the war than of military prowess. On other fronts, the Dardanelles had been held, but the Arab territories were stripped away. And this was before the Peace Conference. By the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which dealt with Turkey, chunks of Anatolia itself were disposed to the Greeks, the French, and the Italians; Thrace also went to Greece. The eastern provinces were taken away. Then Mustafa Kemal, soon to be known as Atatürk (or “Father of Turks”), put together a rebel army in Ankara and led it to victory after victory, until Anatolia and the eastern provinces were entirely Turkish again. It was at this point that the Ottomans fell.
I should like to see a good, readable history of Europe from 1918 to, say, 1929, framing the reconstitution of Europe with the cycle of inflation and depression in which it took place. The new nations that were conjured into existence by the conference at Versailles took their first raucous breaths, displacing millions, during this time. Nowhere was the new order shakier than in Turkey. The Greeks were awarded Smyrna and its hinterland, and these new possessions were promptly awarded to Greek settlers. They didn’t stay long, though; they were driven out by Atatürk’s men by 1922. The diplomat who talked Versailles into this folly, Eleutherios Venizelos, is still remembered as the Father of (Modern) Greece, and is so highly regarded that a slick operator, born in 1957, assumed his name (or at least claimed a relationship) and became Treasury Secretary in one of Greece’s rackety, pre-crisis governments. Venizelos was out of power during the brief war with Turkey, and this is sometimes taken as the reason for Turkish victory. Which all goes to show that you can’t lose, even if you do.
Not that Eugene Rogan so much as mentions Venizelos. I learned about him in Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919. Rogan’s interest is limited to the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the British (with a chapter about the Armenians). I did learn one interesting if outlying fact: it was Trotsky, of all people, who made the Sykes-Picot agreement public. He was airing what Rogan calls the tsarists’ “dirtiest” linen.
I subscribe to Letters in the Mail, a publication (I suppose) of the Web site The Rumpus. For a few dollars, you receive a letter every three weeks or so. I signed up at the start, out of civic duty, as it were; I shouldn’t know about it now, because I hardly look at anybody else’s Web site anymore (about which I am regretful but not exactly sorry). The mail duly arrived and just as duly piled up; I didn’t open any until last spring. The letters are written by young people who are associated with The Rumpus, or known to it, but usually, the writers are not known to me. I find the letters to be breaths of fresh air, even when all they really do is remind me that, when I was young, I had nothing to say, and that that was my anguished subject.
I opened one over the weekend. It was written by Brandon Hicks, who announced at the start that, as a 21 year-old, he wasn’t familiar with writing letters. I was surprised that he was familiar with writing at all, at his age, but it turns out that he is really a graphic artist, and a pretty effective one, too, as the illuminations adorning his letter show. One strip illustrates some of the future selves that he dreads becoming, including “impotent” and “Canadian writer” — it’s both clever and sweet. As for the letter, Hicks quite wisely ducks by posing fifteen questions. The questions appear to cover a wide range of topics; Q3 solicits advice about tools (pens) from fellow-artists. But they are all the questions of somebody who is 21 and has yet to know enough about the world to have anything to say about it. This is in no way a failing.
How come most highly educated [people] are never actually “reading” anything? They’re always re-reading something. For you, what is the value of re-visiting something you have already read? (Q4)
Is anything as maddening as hearing that some smart friend or acquaintance is re-reading a classic that you haven’t even got round to reading the first time? When you’re young, I mean, and haven’t really had the time to read much of anything, and you haven’t really understood very much of what you have read. I remember thinking it nothing less than miraculous, a wonder of piety, that Cardinal Newman (it was said) read Mansfield Park every year! (Now that I’ve been around for a while, I can see that re-reading Mansfield Park every year would be Newman’s kind of stunt.) I don’t know how old I was when I first re-read something, and I don’t want to know, either, because if I was younger than thirty-five, I was showing off.
Why re-read? Well, if you’re like me, and have to know the ending of every story before you read it, books lose nothing the first time. There are no virgins. If Jane Austen makes you smile once, she’ll probably do it again, provided you don’t revisit too soon. That is the first reason for re-reading something. Good books remain good books.
The answer that most people will give, however, is, I suspect, that good books change. Well, of course, they don’t change, any more than the sun goes around the earth. You change. And it’s like kissing someone whom, in the dark, you thought was somebody else. You’re all ready for one experience but instead you get another, and it is intimately shocking. The language seems different, or the characters make different impressions. Or you get something that went over your head the first time. The book has been unfaithful to you, but this only makes you love it the more. Bear in mind, however, that this is not what happens when you read classics of adolescence such as The Catcher in the Rye. Such books do not tell you that you’ve changed. They tell you that you’ve grown up, that you’re too old for this playground.
Later on in life, good books manage to be both, the same and different. More the same than different, perhaps, but it’s the difference that keeps things fresh. I have learned rather recently that re-reading a good book is an excellent way of living through an ordeal. While the ordeal goes on, you tuck yourself into the book and are surprised by its reassurance. This, too, shall pass.
For me, it is the writing. Which is not “words for words’ sake.” Writing is sense made flesh. Which is pretty much my answer to this question:
You’re going to think I’m pretty ignorant for this one, but … Poetry. What’s the deal with it? I don’t understand what anybody is saying half the time. And I don’t enjoy words just for word’s sake enough to appriciate [sic] the aesthetic arrangement within a poem. How is it in any way preferable to prose? Please, no bullshitty “It’s a window into the soul”-type answers. (Q14)
Somebody, I can’t remember who, tipped me off, last year, to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. I didn’t know it, I’m ashamed to admit; I have yet to bear down on the Sonnets conscientiously. This one begins,
How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of your budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
O, what a scold this sonneteer can be. But the first two lines of what Helen Vendler would identify is Q3 (the third quatrain) dazzles me with a high-voltage thrill.
O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee
This is really pretty vituperative; I can imagine any number of dramatic dames of the stage spitting it forth, their contempt for the nonce blotting out their adoration. My advice to Brandon Hicks is to memorize a few sonnets — a few famous ones. Ask around. Sonnets 73 and 129 will come up a lot, along with 18 and 116. Memorize these now, while you’re still young, and then play with them. Speak them with funny voices. Try singing them. (It will add nothing; the Sonnets are already complete music.) In Sonnet 95, which I also recommend, notice how difficult it is to say “chose out thee” instead of “sought thee out.” The beauty part is that nobody with half a brain will think that it’s peculiar of you to memorize Shakespeare. Any other poet, and you’re declaring an interest; Shakespeare is too monumental for that. To recite Shakespeare is to convince other people that they ought to be able to do the same.
Eventually, after a decade or two, you will have an answer to your question about poetry, and you will fall to your knees and thank me. Treat your tongue well!
This afternoon, I’ve got an appointment with the dermatologist that has already been postponed twice. I’m very tempted to postpone it again. But as I really do have to go outside today, I might as well visit the doctor. I need a haircut, and the larder needs stocking. It’s very cold, so there won’t be any running across the street in shorts. I haven’t been out of the building since Friday.
I had two bad dreams. In both, the fact pattern of an administrative matter that is driving Kathleen crazy at the moment (at the office) was repurposed, once involving a book that gave faulty instructions, and, in the other, a dog that wouldn’t bark at the right barkees. These dreams were saturated with the air of inescapable workplace tedium that I took away from our conversation before dinner.
I am reading Hamlet, because Marilynne Robinson says that it is all about grace.
Hamlet’s madness is both feigned and real, and it consists in his descent into the reality of his circumstances. He cannot naturalize himself to this reality, and, consciously, at least, he cannot see his way beyond it — except, perhaps, in the thought of death. As prince, and as madman, he is flattered, manipulated, spied on. His world would compel him to an act of homicide that, thoroughly as he can rationalize it in the world’s terms, and despite continuing provocations of the darkest sort, he finally seems to have put out of mind. And when he does this, he is restored to himself. He will die because he is a generous, uncontriving man in a world where these virtues are fatal vulnerabilities. (The Givenness of Things, 43)
When I was young, Hamlet was taught as an object lesson in the futility of intellectual preoccupation. Teachers and critics were impatient with Hamlet’s reluctance to act. Robinson’s argument is precisely the opposite: Hamlet is prevented by his very virtue from descending, as she puts it, into the reality of his circumstances — a descent into something worse than hell (for in hell, the promise of humanity is altogether broken). Hamlet would rather be pursuing his studies at Wittenberg, which may seem distracted and unrealistic to the average American male but which nonetheless signifies a distaste for exercising power over others. The fact that his destiny is to be Prince of Denmark is the essence of his tragedy, not his propensity to weigh and consider. What he can do is forgive, or, as Robinson insists (what is more than forgiveness), he can free all faults. That is what she means by “grace.” It is not Hamlet who is futile. It is everyone else. (And everyone else dies, too.)
What kind of a dream is it to wonder what authority would be like if it could operate without power? That is indeed how authority works in the cultural affairs of liberal democracies. Authority does not compel, but it is there to inform the ignorant and to guide the wise. I often entertain a daydream of two political zones, one a city of enlightened cooperation and the other a wilderness of senseless self-interest. I see it as a Darwinian experiment, with the thugs eventually extinguishing themselves. Wishful thinking! The thugs would manage some rudimentary form of cooperation and so survive, while the enlightened would bore themselves to death. A truly improved humanity cannot really be imagined. It might happen spontaneously, but only without conscious planning.
That is not a counsel of despair. When I think of Shakespeare’s brain, I see a vat of gently simmering words, bubbling up in response to tacit associations. I don’t want to credit Shakespeare with automatic writing, but I know from my own experience that some of the happiest language emerges unbidden and unsought. If I were to go looking for felicitous constructions, I’d return empty-handed. If Shakespeare had to think of all the wonders that Helen Vendler finds in his sonnets, he wouldn’t have written so many, much less the thirty-odd plays. This is Hamlet’s problem, because he does have to think what to do when he “descends” into the court of Elsinore. Nothing comes naturally to him; he has to think everything through from scratch. But his philosophy, his thinking about humanity and life — well, it’s world-famous, isn’t it? The fluency of Hamlet’s soliloquies never fails to astonish. You can’t make this stuff up.
Shakespeare’s simmering brain was not a sport of nature, I am quite sure. A lot of reading was involved. That may be why we know so little about the man: he was always reading, so there is nothing to discover. On the evidence of his writing, he soaked up everything there was to know about the world. Those who trifle with the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays always argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the experience to know what he knew, but the experience that mattered for Shakespeare to be Shakespeare was an experience of words — written words. As Robinson points out in one of her many gleeful moments, those who doubt that Shakespeare could have known first-hand what life at court was like always overlook that what we know about life at court we know from Shakespeare.
The dermatologist, looking at my arms and scalp, said, “This looks great!” Then she said. “You have a lot of pre-cancers. I think we’d better try the blue lights again.” I used to use a very effective cream. Cheap, too. (The blue-lights sessions are not cheap.) But I got too sensitive. The cream inflamed my skin after three or four applications, and the inflammation took forever to die down. The cool thing about the blue lights is that you get a little portable fan. About the size of a prescription bottle, with three two-inch blades mounted at one end. A pocket windmill. The problem is keeping the fan intact. If you put it in your bag or backpack, it falls to the problem and the blades fall off. In one piece. That’s what happened to the fan I got last time. Also, I never once used it. Because the fan, while definitely cool, is not particularly cooling. I prefer old-fashioned fans, the folding ones that you snap open, if they’re any good. The paper fans from Pearl River are not very good at snapping open, but they do work. With minimal wrist action, they send up a nice breeze. Whether or not it cools you off or dries your sweat, it feels better than nothing.
It was good to get out of the house, I have to admit. In and of itself. My spirits lightened, just walking to the barber shop. Waiting in the barber shop. By the time I got to lunch, life seemed more or less normal. Home has become the place where I wait for Kathleen to come home, and where, when she comes home, we talk about her day at the office, very little of which can be discussed even with closest friends, much less here. The arrest of a partner sheds a wicked fallout. Almost every one of our friends has said something on the lines of, “We know that Kathleen has done nothing wrong, but human nature, being what it is…” The annoying thing is that everyone is so complacent about this sad truth. I’m not so fast to blame human nature. I think that the ethics of journalism (together with the exploitation of journalism by prosecutors) is a more proximate concern.
Thinking about Shakespeare as I was walking around, I dallied for about two minutes with connections between verbal fluency and “the unconscious.” Or (for ten seconds) “the half-conscious.” Suddenly I was peering over a familiar, if long-unvisited, abyss. I remembered the churning laundry cycle of puzzling out how Freud’s divisions of the mind functioned in the actual brain. How did the subconscious work? And, just as I was about to totter over the edge, I was saved by that superhero, Memory. We don’t know much about memory, but we do know that everything that we know is a memory of some kind. Sometimes we come up with new ideas (or associations) which, ipso facto, can’t be memories themselves; but they’re made out of memories and they quickly become memories themselves. Regardless of how the brain works, the mind is a bundle of memories. Some memories, as we all know, are more accessible than others. Some memories, as every senior knows, become inaccessible the moment you look for them. The same goes for verbal fluency. At least with the oblivion that clouds certain words from view just when we need them most — all we can grasp is that there’s a certain sound (the letter “o” at the start, or a Latinate root with “ion” at the end) — in such cases, we can turn to a thesaurus, where the word either will or will not stand out instantly. Retrieving names is nowhere near as easy.
(It seems that I haven’t written about this before, but my search engine may be letting me down: I was amused, a few months ago, to feel a cage of oblivion falling like a trap around the name of a very famous filmmaker. It was as though I could see it happening, but not quick enough to catch filmmaker’s name. I could remember the names of his movies, and also that of the famous film that he starred in but didn’t direct, but I was amused, as I say, by the phenomenon, enough to wait it out, instead of running to IMDb. I didn’t need to know. I wasn’t writing about him; I wasn’t even talking about him. It was a foretaste, or perhaps just a plain taste, of senility, and I was curious to see how long it would last. Now I can’t remember. It took more than a day, I do recall, for “Orson Welles” to ding like a bell. I could see him, in Touch of Evil and The Third Man, but I could not name him. I could name “Paul Masson,” but not Orson Welles. I almost felt that the name refused to present itself until my mind was certain that I’d forgotten the search. As I may have done, for a few minutes. It would be interesting to know what hidden subroutines, if any, were running in my brain for all that time. I don’t think that they were search subroutines, though. I think that they were oblivion subroutines, spinning a spell, keeping the shield up.)
I don’t know if it stands to reason, but experience suggests that it’s easier to remember things that come to mind often. Therefore — the moral of this story — it’s possible to manage your memory by keeping your attention on what used to be called worthwhile things. Not worthy things, but things of interest, items that spark curiosity. What’s especially potent is letting one thing lead to another, as Marilynne Robinson’s essays have led me to Hamlet. I hate to admit it, but in all my sixtysomething years, I’ve read Hamlet all the way through no more than three times, and I’ve never read it as carefully as I’m reading it now. I’m reading it carefully because I have a reason, a scent to follow — this thing that Robinson says about the role of grace in Hamlet’s progress through the play. Considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s sturdiest entry in the revenge-tragedy sweepstakes, it’s especially curious that the hero loses his interest in revenge somewhere in the second half of the play. And is saved by that, even if he dies. Human nature being what it is, Hamlet is able to triumph over it.
Today, I am in bed, with a cold. Officially. In fact, I am at my desk, and the bed has been made. I was awakened in the late morning by a dreadful nightmare, and then, having fallen back asleep, awakened again by the dream’s continuation. In the dream, I was being compelled to remain at a rented house by an extorting owner who somehow had the physical means (never put to the test) to detain me. How much he wanted for my freedom was also unknown. But the scenes were fearful and unpleasant. After a few hours of sitting up, I decided that I should not be going back to bed until bedtime.
We were up late last night, because Kathleen was working late, and, when she got home, we talked about her day, as I’ve noted we’ve been doing, only this time there was some sunshine in her report — some real sunshine. One heavy cloud had lifted and vanished; another showed signs of breaking up. The third instance of good news was not so much good news as the pre-emption of bad news: the cloud in this case was made to storm prematurely, before it had the force that it would have had in ten days. No outward harm was done, and embarrassments, which might have been dreadful, were minimized and duly forgotten. In this last matter, I may claim to have been the source of good advice, for which Kathleen, having taken it, warmly thanked me.
Yes, I think that last remark sounds like Polonius, too.
Hamlet and grace. What to make of Marilynne Robinson’s idea? Is Hamlet really Robinson’s “generous, uncontriving man”? How to reconcile such a description with Hamlet’s manipulation of the instructions carried by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to the King of England, a manipulation that will lead straight to their deaths? How to reconcile this with the fact that he actually does kill Claudius, finally — and deliberately? We can write both of these deeds off as impulsive, as is the killing of Polonius behind the arras. Hamlet does so explicitly, in connection with the counterfeited orders.
And praised be rashness for it — let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall (V.2.6-9)
But can these hotheaded moves be reconciled with grace? What sort of grace accommodates manslaughter?
And yet Hamlet does seem to have been changed by his time with the pirates, heading home to Denmark instead of on to England. His last words upon leaving were exhortatory:
O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! (IV.4.64-5)
When he reappears, by Ophelia’s grave (as yet unaware that it is hers), Hamlet muses abstractedly on death and dust without a thought for Claudius or revenge. Indeed, so unbloody are his thoughts that he seems already to have died, to have savored the vanity of human achievement. As he muses on the dead attorney’s documents, which in addition to doing the late conveyancer no good, would not so much as fill his coffin, he seems to have anticipated Claudius’s death as well as his own.
No sooner does Hamlet learn that the grave will be Ophelia’s than he tumbles into it to wrestle with Laertes, each claiming to have loved the drowned girl more. Is Robinson asking us to see this violence as gracious youthfulness? Thinking of John Ames’s quiet rhapsodies about baseball, in Gilead, I’m inclined to think that she is.
I myself do not believe that human achievements are vain. It is true that they do not prevent death, and it is also true that “you can’t take it with you” — but isn’t that a strange idea. Why should you want to? What would you do with it? Are we still beset by the relatively primitive idea, brought to an absurd high point by the Egyptians, that our corpses must fitted out for sustenance in the underworld? This idea seems to be commingled with a less primitive notion, which holds that certain things meant so much to the deceased that they ought to be taken out of circulation, and made to disappear from this world. But that is our doing, the doing of the living. The man who wants to take his wealth with him — is he conscious of any implication of denying it to those he leaves behind?
It is a very good thing that our achievements, so far as they leave positive material traces, do not die with us. Consider the doctor: the diseases that he has cured, the lives that he has (for a time) saved, the human happiness that he has added to the world, and that will stay, lingering in the air after the saved have passed away. The lawyer’s good works have made titles secure. Perhaps they have been secured to bad people, but their being secure minimizes litigation, encroachment, and even family resentment. The world is a better place because people have done well in it, morally if not materially. Human achievements, for good and ill, live on in buried roots. We are inescapably surrounded by the consequences of the past, amongst which our deeds will inevitably figure, even though we ourselves be forgotten.
I don’t know how long this is going to go on.
At the dermatologist’s office yesterday, I was asked for the phone number of my pharmacy. I had no idea, I said, but when they asked me where it was, I remembered that the number was probably on my mobile phone, so I dug it out and sure enough. Well, it was a number for Duane Reade. When I go back to the doctor next week, I’ll make sure that I have the number that’s printed on my prescription labels. Anyway, by the time this was taken care of, I was spooked again by The Bourne Legacy. Every time I pick up medications at the pharmacy counter, it happens. I feel like one of the Outcomes in Tony Gilroy’s movie, the Bourne episode that stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon. (Both actors are connected with future episodes at IMDb, but the Renner project is undated.) This almost instantly became my favorite, because it’s so monstrous. To close down a clandestine program, US security officials kill off everyone connected with it. (Stacey Keach plays a Cheney-like figure.) The Outcomes, or field agents — their mitochondrial DNA has been altered — are given new pills. Well, the South Korean agent is given new pills. But, the next thing you know, three Outcomes are on the ground, dead, with telltale nosebleeds. The Outcome played by Oscar Isaac is blown to smithereens by a drone bomb. Jeremy Renner’s character contrives to appear to be killed. Now it’s the turn of the doctors who developed the “science” that made the Outcomes possible. One of their number has been doped, and he shoots all the others in a horrific massacre at the lab. Only one doctor — played by Rachel Weisz — survives, and she’d be cooked soon if it weren’t for Outcome #5 (Renner), who shows up at her house in the nick of time. He’s looking for more meds. The doctor and her patient run for their lives.
Their adventure climaxes with a protracted chase through Manila, largely on motorcycle but also involving a dash of parkour. It is just bearable for someone like me; even my autonomic nervous system responds to the dangers of high speed. Up until then, though, the movie is a triumph of understatement. The murder of the three Outcomes who get “new meds” is particularly implicit. Everything is happening very fast — as fast as a cycle chase — but it’s happening all over the world and there is no noise. Outcome #6 (Rob Riley), built like a linebacker, pauses on a deck, surrounded by pleasure boats, then drops to his knees and, with a body-length spasm, falls on the planks. Outcome #1 is discovered on the streets of Karachi. Best of all is the death of Outcome #4. A subway pulls into a station, and as everyone gets off, you notice that three women are staring at someone whom you can’t see because of the exiting passengers. Then the camera pulls around, and you see the Korean agent who queried the change in pills. Her head is back against the window, and her eyes are open. There’s the nosebleed.
I don’t really wonder how I would meet my end if my meds were replaced with poison — I suspect that the agents’ new pills raised blood pressure to deadly levels — but I’m aware that it might happen every time I interface with someone about them. That’s because the scene in which the Korean agent gets her new pills is so banal. She’s curious about the switch, but she accepts the explanation that is given to her by the kindly but in fact diabolic security agent, who shows up as a deadly enabler in a later scene. You can’t trust anybody. You probably don’t even know who anybody really is.
Somewhere, in one of his prefaces to the reprints of his George Smiley novels, David Cornwell (John Le Carré) says that the Intelligence exercises of the Cold War, while murderous, were a waste of time, both foolish and feckless. They accomplished nothing. The truth is, they gave a lot of clever people something to do with their brains, a sort of three-dimension, real-life chess. I wish I’d known this; I stayed away from the Le Carré books because I thought that they glorified the spies and their “tradecraft.” (So does Cornwell, at least so far as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is concerned.) My suspicion that there was something seriously off about the Cold War didn’t take on any flesh until I read something that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about his time at the State Department: bright young men cultivated their sources for scandals that would attract the attention of the higher-ups. I don’t know how he put it exactly, but the upshot was that the bright young men on the South Asian desk made the most of instability in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and got all the attention. There’s no inside secret about this; Graham Greene made great fun of it in Our Man in Havana. But I had trouble accepting that grown men would spend real money and endanger real lives in the pursuit of such empty contests.
That they would bundle it all up as “patriotic,” and get away with it, is probably the worse smack in the face that Americans have ever sustained.
Show of hands: how many readers think that Donald Trump is the only American who admires Vladimir Putin? How many would be surprised if Putin showed up in Iowa, campaigning not for presidential nominee but for godfather? How many believe that Trump would have a hard time deciding whether to challenge the Russian or to settle for consigliere?
There’s a surprising photograph of Henry Kissinger in this week’s Nation. Taken in 1968, when he was about 45, it makes him look like Mike Nichols’s smart-ass brother. He’s standing to the side of someone, Richard Nixon probably, but because the photograph has been cropped, you can’t be sure about that, and what would have been an expression of happily admiring support is instead the very image of the cat that ate the canary. When he was younger, Kissinger tended to look wonky-dorky; in the prime of his international influence, which began not long after the picture in The Nation was taken, he tended to look pompous. But here, he looks kind of fantastic, but also untrustworthy. Or, as the review to which it is attached proclaims, he looks like an opportunist.
The thing about opportunists is that that’s what they look like to everyone but the source of their opportunities. Kissinger was a creature of the Rockefellers for a long time, but when it became clear that Nelson Rockefeller was never going to be President of the United States (even then, his positions were too centrist, and he would give his name to a political party that came to an end in the Sixties, the “Rockefeller Republicans”), Kissinger put himself up for auction. He wound up where he wanted to be, in the White House.
It’s surprising that this Harvard-educated German scholar of Metternich and Castlereigh turned out to be so simpatico with Nixon, but as the White House tapes that are quoted by Srinath Raghavan in his account of diplomatic and military responses to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, 1971, make uncomfortably clear, Kissinger could assume the persona of an avid football fan at the big game.
Kissinger: If the Soviets move against [the Chinese], and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.
Nixon: So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?
Kissinger: Well, if the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. If the Russians gete away with facing down the Chinese, and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis … we may be looking right down the gun barrel. (1971, 256)
In an earlier conversation, Kissinger urged action because “at least we’re coming off like men.” The upshot of this was to send an American fleet into the Bay of Bengal. What would have happened had it arrived before the ceasefire is not hard to guess. The point of all this posturing, by the way, was to prove to the Chinese, whom Nixon was courting, that Americans were tough.
In “The Opportunist,” British scholar David Milne reviews two books, and one of them is the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s study of Kissinger. Ferguson is a clever fool, capable of spinning persuasive illusions that banish inconvenient contradictions. He wants to see Kissinger, as his subtitle indicates, as an idealist. But, Milne writes, “the written evidence that Ferguson provides is both vast in quantity and slight in explanatory utility.” I can easily imagine that this is the case, and that Ferguson’s book would be a terrible slog to get through. In one paragraph alone, Milne provides a prospectus of what a more accurate, but also more nightmarishly entertaining book about Kissinger would look like.
Kissinger was consistently reckless, and Ferguson is blind to the pattern. Throughout his career, Kissinger was quick to detect potential humiliations for America — in withdrawing from Vietnam too quickly; in the coming to power of Salvador Allende in Chile; in allowing a dependable friend, Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, to lose a fight with India, led by the unreliable Indira Gandhi — and quick to recommend the deployment of US military resources (whether ground troops, bombing campaigns, covert destabilization programs, or military aid), all in the interests of US “credibility.” The responses he counseled as Nixon’s national-security adviser helped to create catastrophes in each of the regions they affected: the destabilization of Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot; the ousting of the democratically elected Allende government and the rise of the murderous Augusto Pinochet; a brutal war on the subcontinent during which Pakistan slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in what historian Gary Bass has described, in The Blood Telegram, as “a forgotten genocide.” Kissinger’s brutal policy advice did not stem from realism in any meaningful way, and it certainly wasn’t inspired by the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It was about demonstrating American power to the world, absent a moral core and a sense of proportion.
That is the legacy of Henry Kissinger, and some critics, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have been shouting it for years. Kissinger is a grand old man now, but I am confident that the historians will get him right within the next couple of decades.
Kissinger would contend, presumably, that Milne is wrong about the lack of a moral core: what could be more moral than America’s protection of the free world in the Cold War? But the Cold War was an imaginary war. The hot war that it was supposed to forestall never took place, but this happy outcome cannot be attributed to Cold War strategies. The Cold War oversaw a number of local hot wars, from Korea to the now difficult-to-imagine wars between China and Vietnam (forgot that one, didn’t you) and Iran and Iraq. Perhaps these conflicts protected the free world, but it is difficult to see how, except as distractions that gave military men something to do. The advantage of American wealth was undercut by the persistence of American cluelessness: what a record we racked up, during the Cold War, for backing tyrants! Ordinary Americans understood next to nothing about foreign affairs, and still do. American governments try to convince voters that certain actions must be taken (or avoided), but they never make the slightest attempt to remove the provincial blinkers. As a result the political scene has been prepared for little more than bluster. Looking right down the gun barrel, Kissinger was a pastmaster in that department. Unfortunately, his bluster was loaded with shrapnel.
I’m sorry that Milne doesn’t mention Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” with Israel.
Eventually, I got round to reading David Cole’s piece, “The Trouble at Yale,” in the NYRB, and it surprised me, because I expected it to provoke a world-going-to-the-dogs response. Instead, I went all plus-ça-change. Perhaps college disturbances are doomed always to be the same. Either one thing or the other. Student revolts at fee increases and silenced teachers have an ancient history. These essentially administrative squabbles are easy to understand. The other kind, the political uprising, goes back to the early days of nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. First, nationalism was, from the start, tied to literacy — literacy in native languages. And literacy is concentrated in schools. Second, students seem to have more free than everybody else. They can afford to go out into the street and throw stones.
There was no throwing of stones at Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. Father Hesburgh kept a very tight lid on protest: he declared that unwelcome protesters were trespassers on the campus, liable to eviction by the police. I found this a bit heavy-handed, because it wrote a script for would-be martyrs, but those martyrs never emerged. (Maybe one or two did.) Unrest at Notre Dame remained a matter of talk. This put it on a par with the university’s proper business, also a matter of non-violent expression.
When I was in college, I assumed that, in the event of revolution, I’d be one of the first to be taken to the guillotine. (I’d have been rather put out, otherwise.) It wasn’t so much my conservative political views — I was very much a liberal even then — as my personal resistance to all things new. I also believed in good manners, and the idea that good manners were a tool of social oppression made me laugh, because I had outgrown that very idea somewhere between the ages of nine and eleven. I did not see the advantage of being young, but only the disadvantage of being inexperienced and immature. And ignorant. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to be sure that what I learned was solid. So I signed up for Great Books, because it promised to be a safe place from novelty. (And it was.)
(When you are young, you cannot imagine the physical advantages of youth; you wake up to them only when they begin to slip away. This is the saddest fact of humanity, sadder by far than death.)
If I did let my hair grow a bit (an awful mistake, given my hair), I maintained and even raised my standards of hygiene and dress. This also doomed me.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I was a terrible student. I flunked nearly all of my electives, usually losing interest in mid-course. (And it was a great mistake to take a History of China course that met at eight in the morning.) I was no better than classmates who devoted themselves to thinking about social action instead of classwork; I simply indulged in different passions. A lot of it came very easily to me, but it was therefore something of a waste of time, because I wasn’t really learning. I drove the professors crazy with my shows of occasional, unreliable brilliance. But I did read the Great Books.
The overarching problem of any attempt to evaluate my younger days is trying decide whether to blame the environment or myself. If I was only rarely inspired to work hard, whose fault was that? I learned to work hard later, at the radio station. It had nothing to do with being on the radio and everything to do with scheduling the music programming and typing it up in time for the offset printer. This new skill saw me into and through law school. I passed the New York State Bar Exam, something that I think nobody does without a spell of hard work. But after that, I lost the sense of mission. There was no reason to work hard. (The idea of working hard just to make money has flitted through my mind, but never stuck round long enough to establish itself.) This dodgy profile, which suggests a life of failing to live up to capacities, is another reason for seeing myself in the tumbril.
Capacities for what, though? When I ask this question, I feel that I’m up the Orinoco. What if the time for my talents has not yet arrived?
So the hard work of my later life has been to look at the world as closely as I can and to write down what I see. Correction: to write down what I see that doesn’t seem quite right. I try to notice the mistakes. The things that the people around me seem to think, but that don’t seem to be the case to me. Unfortunately, I am not a trained examiner in many fields. Economics, for example. It has never been demonstrated to me that economic growth is essential to economic health. Am I stupid, or is this just (a) something that it suits businesspeople to believe or (b) a reasonably accurate summary of the past three centuries only? Shakespeare grew, then grew old, then died. But his work is still very much with us, and likely to remain so. Why can’t the economy be more like Shakespeare’s work and less like Shakespeare?
Why can’t people see how unattractive, how really stinky and blotchy, selfishness is? Perhaps because they can’t afford to? Kathleen has worked closely with a gifted paralegal for nearly thirty years, and the two women are good friends. The paralegal is great source of information about life on the other side of the professional divide. An associate may be all smiles and compliance with Kathleen, while treating the paralegal like a washerwoman. Not too long ago, the paralegal was carrying an immense pile of documents, and having a hard time getting her key out for the glass door at the elevator. (Modern security.) Through the glass, she could see a partner standing nearby, on the phone. He could see her. Instead of putting down the phone and opening the door for her, he turned his back and walked as far away as the cord would allow. Why? My presumption is that, having grown into the habit of treating lesser mortals with less respect, he can’t make exceptions: he is imprisoned by his own bad behavior, which will stand revealed as such if he ever corrects it. The paralegal got through the door eventually and is anything but condemned to carry a heavy weight through some circle of the Inferno. But she will never forget the partner’s turning away, and neither will Kathleen, and neither will I. And neither will you, although, unlike us, you don’t know who he is.
Bon week-end à tous!