Library Note:
Get Packing
17 October 2014

As a rule, I keep my mornings clear, because that’s the best time for writing. The rule has been hard to keep, and sometimes impossible, in the face of the impending house move. There are often things that have to be taken care of first thing, and once I’ve taken care of them I find my head cluttered with everyday questions that make thinking quite impossible. I wish that I could grasp this problem more intelligently, and claim a better understanding of why some kinds of mental activity make others difficult or impossible, and quite beyond the reach of “will power.”

I’ve become very fond of Hannah Arendt’s homely way of referring to her “trains of thought,” but it has become clear to me that this imagery, while very useful for sorting out different strains of ideas, must never be allowed to suggest that there is anything like track involved. Trains of thoughts are much more like all-terrain vehicles than reliable passenger lines. They make no scheduled stops at specified stations but plunge unpredictably into what, at the risk of exciting terrible groans, I must call terra incognata. The relationship between a developing sentence — a cluster of half-realized clauses that will require certain syntactical resolutions regardless of “intellectual content” — and a new idea is as earthy and intimate and I daresay carnal as a cerebral event can be, and just as difficult to describe. Like other earthy relationships, it doesn’t flourish in bustling, public places. All I can say is that writing in the morning has become as magical, or potentially magical, as making love used to be, a very long time ago, when my head was as green and spongy as a new twig.

Yesterday, I began putting books into boxes. I filled ten of them before running out of steam, and almost out of strapping tape. These are book boxes, sixteen by twelve by twelve, small but heavy when filled. We ordered fifty, and I’m sure that I’ll fill them all.

I was working on the part of a larger bookcase that I had organized quite recently, a process that involved a good deal of culling then. The books on the shelves were keepers, for the most part. I took stern looks at some fattish tomes — a Taschen picture album about Alchemy seemed particularly stinky — and left them behind, at least for the moment, but I did not question, as I might have done, paperbacks with esteemed imprints, such as Penguin and NYRB, that I had shelved together. There are books in these groups that I ought to weed out; I’ll probably never read them, or even re-read the books that led me to them. But I prefer to treat these uniform editions as libraries within my library, possessed of an occult integrity that does reflect, however dimly, overarching editorial outlooks. Unlike many of the books still on my shelves, they are not miscellaneous. So, among many other things, the translation of Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel that I put down twenty years ago and never picked up again, will be following me to the new apartment.

I console myself, at least with regard to my poor score for culling, that other shelves will yield many dispensable volumes. I try not to think about how sound this consolation is likely to prove. At the same time, I wish I had time to re-read certain writers, as a way of judging their continued membership in my collection. What about George Steiner, for example. Have I ever really thought about George Steiner? I’ve accepted him on the strength of his reputation, which was, I can’t help noticing, much brighter when he was still alive. Now he seems pious — if not a pious fraud, exactly, then certainly something of an asserter of the received ideas of the better sort of senior commons room. Like so many intellectuals after World War II, Steiner was mesmerized by the horror of that great old oxymoron, mass culture. He did not see how this insidious growth was going to attack the republic of letters; he thought that jeremiads might be effective. They never have been, not since the time of Jeremiah himself. But I’m making all of this up out of dim recollections; I haven’t read Steiner in years. His books certainly lend an Augustan tone to the line-up of spines, and they scream to any half-literate visitor that I am a Serious Person (if not at all a Theorist), but I’m not sure that there is much connection anymore between Steiner’s essays and my thinking. I wish there were time to revisit the matter. I must make time.

I pulled down Chris Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion the other day. I’ve had it since it came out, but not read it. The book begins with a horrified review of several “reality TV” shows. Hedges is dismayed that so many ordinary Americans seem to share the values implicit in these productions — much as, I suppose, George Steiner would have been. I’ve come round to the view that it is a waste of time to fault uneducated people for their viewing habits. My concern is for the mere existence of educated people. Are there any? Of course there are — but they’re in hiding. It is so not cool to be educated. And there are good reasons for that — as well as bad ones.

What I wouldn’t give to have Nora Webster to read— afresh, that is, as if I hadn’t already read it. Colm Tóibín remarked somewhere that his fiction comes from “a place of silence,” and Nora Webster is a demonstration of this paradox. Nora, a youngish widow whose unguarded moments were devoted entirely to her late husband, finds herself without meaningful contact with the world. She has plenty of responsibilities, and in her world (Ireland in the years around 1970), that is enough for a woman and a mother. But Nora is no more likely to immure herself in her family now than she was when her husband was alive. Her discovery of a new life, however, is necessarily not only accidental but inarticulate. She discusses it with no one, not even herself. From Hemingway, Tóibín learned a literary frugality that is formidable precisely because it never leaves one hungry;  and, from Henry James, a corresponding representational frugality that presents wholly plausible characters without ever resorting to the commonplaces of psychology. The existence of Nora Webster is as implacable as that of an ancient Greek deity.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Emotional Support
16 October 2014

There’s nothing like a good laugh, and it was about time that The New Yorker prompted one. The magazine has been very dull lately, as if commandeered by morose young puritans in pursuit of a transcendental hip. At last, in this week’s issue, there is a page by Paul Rudnick, who can certainly be very funny, but also “funny” in the way that raises a strained smile: you long for the days when you (and only you?) thought that Libby Gelman-Waxner was the real-life wife of an orthodontist (wasn’t it?). It can’t be easy being Paul Rudnick; the prospect of satirizing a college-application letter must have inspired a search for very large barrels and very small handguns. There was one deathless crack, though, near the beginning.

Although, of course, as a biracial child, I wasn’t sure if higher education would even be an option for me. And, when I say biracial, I mean that my father went to Harvard and my mother attended Oberlin. When I was young, this situation tore me apart, because I never knew which world I belonged in. Should I follow my dad and become hugely successful and condescending to everyone, or should I dream of becoming every bit as creative yet talentless as my mom? I still don’t know the answer, but maybe not knowing is my greatest strength.

The Oberlin zinger caught my breath a tad more stringently than it might have done because of a friend who not only attended the school but got a degree: he used to refer to Oberlin as “a crypto-Maoist institution,” or words to that effect. But Rudnick captures the uneasy fact that one hears much more about Oberlin students than about Oberlin grads. It’s not that nobody graduates, but what do they do? Where is their distinctive mark upon American society? (In Brian Morton’s new book, Florence Gordon, Emily, the budding granddaughter, has put Oberlin behind her after little more than a year, and is looking for another school.) “Creative yet talentless” has an ouchy-sticky feel. I hope that my friend wasn’t stung by it. It’s one thing to make fun of one’s school, quite another to have Paul Rudnick single it out for a highly-intended shaft of invective.

Then there was Patricia Marx’s even funnier piece about Emotional Support Animals, which also made me think of my Oberlin friend, because the very idea (and then the reality!) of taking a turkey on the Hampton Jitney or strolling through the galleries of the Frick Collection with a tortoise clutched to one’s bosom is — I surmise — symptomatic, in his view, of the peculiar madness, or lack of judgment, that corrupts today’s fashion for personal development. Marx, every inch the agent provocateur, was astonished that so few New Yorkers were actually provoked. You had to applaud the lone maître d’ who refused to seat Marx when she was wearing a milk snake called Augustus.

“But it’s a companion animal,” I said. “It’s against the law not to let me in.”

“I understand,” he said. “But I need you to take that out.”

It is not, in fact, against the law to bar animal-toting individuals from restaurants — except, of course, in the case of service animals. Service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind, are highly-trained and well-disciplined aides. There are no service turkeys or service milk snakes or service pot-bellied pigs.

Marx mentions in passing that more American households have pets than have children, and that eighty-three percent of pet owners think of themselves as moms and dads vis-à-vis their non-human dependents. Here in New York, real-estate prices have been somewhat displaced in the competition for outlandish extravagance by the price of cancer treatment for cats and dogs. I like to joke that dogs have been breeding human beings for fifteen thousand years or more, but pet MRIs suggest that the experiment is in the hands of the sorcerer’s apprentice. I grew up with dogs — a fine-coated black lab with a touch of Weimeraner in her, especially — and I used to have no qualms about pets. Didn’t everybody have them? When we came to New York, I wanted a dog, but Kathleen doesn’t like dogs. I wanted a cat, but Kathleen said that a cat would have to be de-clawed, and that that was cruel. So, no pets for me.

Over time, the imagined fun that I would have playing with a pet was eclipsed by the imagined tedium of various but inescapable clean-up chores. And then the pet clinics began sprouting on Yorkville’s side streets. They looked only slightly more casual than real-people clinics — and only slightly less expensive. When I heard about the agony (for the owner!) of submitting a dog to a round of chemotherapy, I snapped.

No more pets, was the grim line that emerged from the smoke and the hulkification. No more pets in the city. That was years ago. The vogue, if that’s what it is, for emotional support animals is all the proof I need that people ought to have listened to me.

I understand that some people are lonely. But people who are lonely in a city of millions of other people have a problem that it is unfair to expect a dumb animal to fix.

The next time I give a big party, I must remember to note in the lower left-hand corner, “No Support Animals.” I don’t want a repeat of the unexpected shiba inu who took a discreet dump on the turkey carpet. We very nearly didn’t see it.

***

On Tuesday evening, after work,  Ray Soleil came up to the apartment to help me empty out a closet. It took most of yesterday to process (throw away,  mostly) the things that came out of the closet, but I now had room for clothes that were stored in a dresser that I wanted to get rid of. Empty, the dresser could be carted down to the room with the service elevator, where the handymen would deal with it in their fashion. The floor-space occupied by the dresser would be available for stacks of boxes of packed books.  One thing was leading to another quite nicely.

But the dresser did not in fact go the way of the handymen. It went across the hall, into a neighbor’s apartment. We loved the dresser, which Kathleen bought for our country house, and were sorry about seeing it taken away to an unknown fate. At the last minute, we were spared that sorrow. The dresser has found a new and happy home. Of the five large pieces of furniture that we have decided to unload, it was the only one that we cared about. When I told Kathleen the good news — she is on a business trip at the moment — she cooed with delight.

And for the first time, the impending move seemed very real.

China Note:
Mao Turns in His Grave
14 October 2014

Here is a mystery of literature: why, within five minutes of picking up Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, did I feel that I had entered a new moment of life? I wasn’t just reading a book. When I lifted my eyes from the text to attend to something else, I remained in a bubble that there would be no leaving anytime soon. This wasn’t like the magnetic field that books of crime and suspense create. It was far more immediate, as if I had swallowed a sense-altering drug that took instant effect. I only appeared to be here in my Yorkville apartment. In fact, I  had stepped out of a noisy, crowded street and into a hushed, scrubbed interior, stern and repressive in appearance but lambent and expressive in feeling. Leaving only the husk of myself in cosmopolitan Manhattan, my spirit had traveled back fifty years or so, to a provincial town behind the Cassock Curtain, where the mere admission of an emotion is a declaration of depravity. This bygone world ought to repel me; I ought to be fighting to escape it. Instead, I am flooded with the deepest satisfaction. The air crackles and smoulders with the author’s titanic rage, refracted in the vessel of one of his mutinous women. Nora Webster is a good person, but there is nothing that she might not be driven to do.

It doesn’t matter that I’m deeply perplexed by a sense of déjà vu. The reference to Brooklyn near the beginning is clear, but where else have I read about the farming out of children to relatives while a healthy parent gives her undivided attention to caring for a dying one? I have the feeling that I’ve read that story, in different guises, several times in Tóibín’s work, in fiction and in memoir. I’m not going to try to track those stories down now. Not being sure where I’ve read them before heightens the intensity of the dream. If Nora Webster was a minor character in Brooklyn, or some other book, I’ll find out later.

Where else have I read about doctors who won’t prescribe enough pain medicine to comfort their dying patients, precisely because, behind the Cassock Curtain, suffering is good for immortal souls? It doesn’t matter. Here is Nora, months after her husband’s death, in her banked fury:

This was what no one had told her about. She could not have ordinary feelings, ordinary desires. Catherine [her sister] saw this, she thought, and she had no idea how to deal with it, and this made things worse. As Nora walked down the drive towards the road she felt a rage that she could not control. But she would have to control it, she knew. It made no sense to think that she would not come back here again, to feel a rage against her sister that up to now she had directed solely at the doctor who controlled the ward where Maurice lay in the last days of his life, a rage that caused her to write letters to him in her mind, letters she imagined herself signing and posting, letters that were abusive or coldly factual, letters threatening him that she would let people who wherever he went what he had done when her husband was dying, that he had refused to deal with the pain that caused Maurice to moan. She had sought out the doctor several times, having asked the nurses over and over if they could do anything. All of the nurses had come back with her to the bed and nodded and agreed with her that something would have to be done. But the doctor — the very thought of him made her walk faster and become even more indifferent to the clouds that were gathering overhead — had not come with her to the bed, but had told her that her husband was very sick, that his heart was weak, and so he did not want to prescribe anything to alleviate pain that might affect his heart.

This passage is a tour de force. The doctor’s heartless judgment is reserved for the final word, where it only confirms the coruscatingly impatient anger that fills the preceding sentences. Controlled the ward. Abusive or coldly factual. What he had done when her husband was dying. Over and over. The very thought of him. The outrage is contagious, because Tóibín  convinces us that Nora’s rage must have a reasonable explanation, as indeed, in the last lines, we find out that it does. He prepares us to learn that the doctor’s inhumanity embodies the fascist otherworldliness that controlled all of the Irish Republic in those days.

The death of Maurice Webster was an atrocity. How does his widow live with that?

All this scribbling is premature, because I haven’t quite reached the midpoint of Nora Webster. But that is my husk speaking. The novel has in fact no midpoint, neither beginning nor end. It is an eternity of righteous, silently screaming witness, a hurricane of rectitude that howls beyond the divine.

***

Something else that I can’t be bothered to look up is the number of occasions on which I have rather loosely asserted that the leaders of today’s China are refashioning the foundations of their power in harmony with the traditions of Chinese political culture — the very culture that Mao Zedong sought tirelessly but vainly to eradicate. Over the weekend, there appeared an article in the Times that seems all but designed to give support to my statements. I knew that I was right, but now I don’t have to leave it at that. According to Chris Buckley (an Australian journalist who has been denied entry into China, always a badge of distinction), Party leader Xi Jinping is engaged in a “restoration of tradition” that serves “to inoculate citizens against Western liberal ideas, which are deemed a decadent recipe for chaos.” It is not hard to imagine that Marxist-Leninism itself, already more a matter of style than one of dogma, might one day be included in the portfolio of dangerous Western ideas. What makes China incomparable, as I think I wrote the other day, is its integral longevity. Confucius has been at the heart of Chinese thought, setting not only its propositions but its very rhythms, for two and a half millennia, a matchless span of influence.

Chinese political culture has a conception of human rights that will never be reconciled with that of the liberal West, because its linchpin is the elimination of dissidence. Here, in the late Simon Leys’s rendering, is the heart of the matter (note how civil order is envisioned in terms of musical (and possibly choreographic) harmony):

If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. Then punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand.

When you understand that dissidence is the practice of calling things by incorrect names (eg, claiming that Party leaders are tyrants), the cascade of disorder makes great internal sense. When the people do not know where they stand, there ensues the chaos that Chinese rulers have rightly dreaded for thousands of years. It is easy to understand that, from a Chinese viewpoint, nothing justifies running the risk of unleashing this chaos.

Neither the continuity of Chinese tradition nor the violence of China’s periodic upheavals has, as I say, any counterpart in the history of the modern Western nations or their medieval and classical forebears. Without counterpart in China is the West’s habit of judging itself by its elite achievements — its triumphs in the arts and sciences, the power of its literature, the glories of its courts, and the ever-finer dispassion of its justice. In Chinese eyes, these are trifles in comparison to the welfare of the people. Truth be told, the West has only recently — the day before yesterday, on a Chinese scale — taken an interest in the welfare of the people. Even the gospels of Jesus were distorted by an aristocratic establishment that ruled the Roman Church for the better part of two thousand years.

In Chinese eyes — and I can only surmise here — the value that Western liberalism places on outspoken, individualistic critics of authority might well seem like yet another idle frivolity.

From a Chinese viewpoint, it may well seem that Americans and Europeans have no business whatever talking about human rights. They don’t seem to know the first thing about it.

Do I agree with the Chinese? No. But I cannot quite disagree with them, either. They have too much to teach us about our own failings. Such is the weakmindedness of the Western intellectual.

Reading Note:
No One Is Responsible
13 October 2014

Kathleen has always claimed that, of all the rocky times that she has been through — and she has had more than her fair share — one of the very worst was the first semester of law school. She could not overcome the impression that her brain was being invaded and undermined by aliens infected with a strange and horrifying view of the universe; in fact, her innocence about the way things work in our Anglophone world was being crushed. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were disappearing behind murky frontiers of liability, not only for meats, loaves, and lighting equipment but for the condition of the sidewalks in front of their shops and for the actions of their employees. There was nothing for which someone, somewhere was not responsible, and the whole purpose of practicing law, it seemed, was to make sure that your client was not, to the extent possible, that someone. Kathleen insists that she never recovered.

She ought to read The Dog, the long-awaited but generally disappointing successor to Joseph O’Neill’s critically admired Netherland. I myself was not disappointed by The Dog, but I have to admit that I was determined to like it. This turned out to be easy for me, but I could see that the novel would not appeal to everyone. In fact, it seemed unlikely to appeal to anyone who — who couldn’t remember what law school was like. I almost said, “to anyone who wasn’t a lawyer,” but I suspect that many lawyers, especially successful ones who have put law-school traumas far behind them, would find The Dog irritating if not boring. The fellow does go on so — and nothing happens. Nothing happens, and yet the menace of disaster looms ever blacker and taller. The Dog recapitulates the agony of law school.

The Dog is set in Dubai, which is almost as remote from life-as-most-of-us-know-it as law school. Aside from the native population, it is filled with fellow ex-pats,  Westerners who, like X, the otherwise unnamed narrator of The Dog, are taking time out from “real life” to make a lot of money. That’s something like law school, too. The money in law school is entirely prospective, of course, but there is a curious resemblance between the summary de-personalization that can befall anyone who runs afoul of Emirati protocol, on the one hand, and failure to pass the bar exam (particularly the New York State bar exam), on the other. In both cases, there is an immense risk of losing all for nothing.

Daily life in Dubai, like daily life in law school, consists of stretches of “work” punctuated by evenings of dissipation. While the carousings of law students rarely involve jeroboams of Veuve Clicquot, the idea is the same, and needs no glossing here. It’s the “work” that bemuses. What is this work? If X is any guide, work is an endless, fruitless attempt to limit liability. X is the “agent” of several family trusts controlled by a wealthy Lebanese family. X authorizes transactions that come to his desk for authorization, some of them documented in languages that X cannot read. He does his job: he signs off. (If he has questions, they go unanswered by his employers.) But he is understandably uncomfortable about the implications of his authorizations. He seeks to narrow the scope of his responsibility, and to trumpet the “pro-forma” nature of his signature, by stamping his paperwork with seals that refer to a Web site in which the fine print of X’s claimed freedom from liability is spelled out. The madness of his enterprise will be immediately apparent to any attorney who has read so much as a page of Kafka. Like Kafka, X talks a fine game, but all he’s really saying is, and I quote,

PLEASE DON’T HURT ME BECAUSE I’M SIGNING THIS.

A lot of good it does.

The absurdity of X’s situation is not philosophical. It does not involve questions about the meaning of life or the nature of existence. X is not troubled — or troubled only as a diversion — by doubts about how we know what we know. But he is as preoccupied by the moral futility of human life as any existentialist. Unlike the existentialist, however, he resists rather than embracing this uncertainty. He tries to ward it off, using the magical powers of legal reasoning. On a few occasions, the reasoning is formal and pedantic, and almost certain to repel lay (non-lawyer) readers, just as all legal documents repel normal people. Mostly, though, X’s reasoning is a kind of low-grade, unstoppable viral frenzy. He is especially unable to resist post-mortems of his very unhappy relationship with a colleague in New York, where he once worked for a large law firm. These attempts to explain What Went Wrong With Jenn are devoid of romantic poignance; rather, they seem to describe the gestation of a still-born contract. One might easily wonder, on the basis of The Dog, whether it is really possible for two young associates working at the same law firm to fall in love. I myself have always doubted it.

Looking back at the opening passages of the novel for early signs of X’s ratiocinative tics, I found them on the first page, but the following paragraph seemed most pregnant:

The striking thing about him was his American accent. Few Americans move here, the usual explanation being that we must pay federal taxes on worldwide income and will benefit relatively little from the fiscal advantages the United Arab Emirates offers its denizens. This theory is, I think, only partly right. A further fraction of the answer [fraction!] must be that the typical American candidate for expatriation to the gulf, who might without disparagement be described as the mediocre office worker, has little instinct for emigration. To put it another way, a person usually needs a special incentive to be here — or, perhaps more accurately, to not be elsewhere — and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis. Either way, fortune will play its expected role. I suppose I say all this from personal experience.

By the end of The Dog, this habit of mind luxuriates in hair-splitting kudzu that drains the life from everything it touches, leaving only ghostly giggles:

(The Jenn Rule provides: It is wrong to Google a person who does not want to be Googled by you. As the name implies, the Rule was promulgated by me to me, in response to my incessant Googling of Jenn, an exhausting but irrepressible habit that did nothing to advance my understanding of how she was doing, if that was in fact my purpose. It dawned on me, after about a year of banging my head against a rigid superficies of data, that Jenn would not want me peering into and sniffing around her life; and it followed that I shouldn’t. I would not want her to shadow me online, that’s for sure. Once I had established, or discovered, the Jenn Rule, I saw no valid reason to limit its scope to Jenn. Thus, it applied to Mrs Wilson because she would likewise not want me to Google her. (Note, however, that the Rule does not apply to cases where A, the searcher, is unknown to B, the searchee, who by definition cannot want not to be Googled by A. (Confession: my observation of the Jenn Rule is not really attributable to any uprightness in my character. I broke the J-Rule many times. It was only when a “Jennifer Horschel” search consistently yielded only third party Jennifer Horschels (a few do exist) and it came to me that my Jenn had become unsearchable by me — it was only then that I stopped Googling her and found myself in compliance with the Rule. (I was of course terrified by Jenn’s sudden virtual absence, but I calmed down when I saw that nothing online or anywhere else pointed to her death. I could and can only conclude that she broke her own rule against getting married and in the process completely shed her maiden name, of which she also had no great fondness. (I did briefly re-break the Rule in order to track her down under her new identity, and I found out, by checking out the relevant photographs, that no Jennifer still working at my old firm was Jenn. Clearly she had also made a professional move. (I stopped my prying thtere, which again was hardly laudable. To refrain from making tricky investigative phone calls is not exactly a triumph of abnegation. (Is Jenn a mother now? I hope so. I she she happy? I hope so.))))))

Now you know why I’ve never been amused by nerds and geeks. First, they’re re-needlessly reinventing the galaxy of inter-referential epicycles that is already spinning so proudly at the heart of our legal system, and, second, they lack the rich vocabulary, the terms of art, and the gnomic afflatus of Law French that give lawyers their air of sophistication and bon ton. Computer trolls seem like unwashed children by comparison, members of a club in which comfortable seating is not to be found.

In the end, The Dog is a rigorous but drily hilarious fable about the overgrowth in modern affairs of a yearning to escape responsibility for everything. We see it all around us, in disclaimers nailed to every wall, and we can read about it in every day’s newspaper. (Today’s doozy is a story about a company that produces dangerous guard rails for American highways.) But a leisured, attentive study of The Dog will concentrate the mind upon the problem. In the past forty or fifty years, elites of all kind have paid lawyers to relieve them of the liabilities that they naturally incur and that they can shoulder far more robustly than the poor and uneducated upon whom so much “responsibility,” in the form of bad luck, now devolves. We shake off responsibility without thinking about it: it’s what everybody we know is doing. Not just the dogs.

I almost forgot. Joseph O’Neill started out as a lawyer, at one point working out of chambers in the Temple. You can read all about it, if you can get your hands on Granta 72, in his essay (clearly of great importance to the background of Netherland), “The Ascent of Man.”

Gotham Diary:
No One Tells Me Anything
10 October 2014

It’s Friday, and it feels like an ordinary day. An ordinary day! How wonderful that would be. I don’t dare trust it.

Besides, it can’t be all that ordinary. There’s packing to see to, and my head is perfectly empty. I was thinking, earlier, about the insult of the coming Congressional election, implicit in the fact that a few relatively underpopulated states will determine the political cast of the Senate for the next two years. The rest of us are chopped liver? It’s yet another example of how badly the idea of the American state (as in “New York State,” an entity about which I have never heard a single human being express either zeal or pride) has let down the reality of American politics. It made sense, arguably, to treat small but urbanized and economically integrated entities such as Rhode Island and Delaware as the senatorial equals of larger and richer states, but awarding the same privilege to vast Western wildernesses devoid of everything that is vibrant and attractive about civil society was a terrible mistake. It was assumed, when these territories were admitted as states, that they would fill up and prosper; the fifty years after the Civil War was the great age of boosters. But Wyoming and the Dakotas did not fill up, and now they run extractive economies rather like those of the underdeveloped world, only with shinier corporate outposts. It seems to me that any state with fewer people than the least populous borough of New York City ought not to be allowed to participate in national elections at all.

There’s little more to be said about that, though, except to ask, where are the leaders who will do something about it? They’re still young men and women, I expect. They’re currently under the impression that technology will solve our political problems.  Give them ten years to be disabused of that idea, and hope that we really have the ten years to give.

Meanwhile, an ordinary day.

Who knew about Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing? Everybody but me? Lessing, who it seems took Diski in as a delinquent schoolgirl (and nuthouse alumna), is not even mentioned in Diski’s memoir, The Sixties. Is this autobiographical nugget something that Jenny Diski has decided to share along with her new cancer diary? I keep The Sixties right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education, salt and pepper even if I don’t know which is which. What they have in common — well, what An Education has in common with the disclosure of Doris Lessing’s “protection” that Diski has made in the current issue of the LRB is the revelation of somewhat shocking secrets about the modern world, just as I remember it, before the gravitational force of respectability, the only thing holding that world together, began to dissipate irreversibly. We’re only now finding out how many surprising things went on before the cultural revolution. The only thing that’s not surprising about them is how discreet everyone was.

Sometimes, revelations are so astonishing that they create the need for phantom revelations that would be even more amazing. Such as: Doris Lessing was willing to take on Jenny Diski, with all her problems, because of an earlier, and very rewarding, experience doing the same thing with Mary-Kay Wilmers. Why do wingnuts get to have all the fun conspiracies?

Still a very ordinary day. Il faut vider le lave-vaiselle. (Ça se dit comme ça?)

Yesterday, at the endoscopy clinic, I began reading The Dog, the new novel by Joseph O’Neill that nobody seems to like. I’ve read none of the reviews all the way through, but the general discontent has been hard to miss. Everyone must have wanted another Netherland. And the kernel of O’Neill’s story is pretty much that of Dave Eggers’s recent A Hologram for the King, a comparison that does not immediately work in O’Neill’s favor because Eggers’s story is marinated in a very anxious despair. There’s something contradictory about anxious despair: anxiety betrays at least a measure of hope. It’s something like picking up two closely-spaced radio stations while driving across some basin-and-range state popluated exclusively by two senators, their families, and their retainers.

The Dog strikes an entirely different note. I would say that it is the note of Julie Hecht, only without the self-consciousness. The note of Julie Hecht, even without qualifications, is very hard to describe, and I shall not attempt it, except to say, perhaps, “Kafka in Nassau County.” O’Neill’s  new narrator, who disguises himself as”G Pardew,” is strongly reminiscent of the anti-hero of the novelist’s first book, This Is the Life. The Dog belongs to the literature of corporate screw-ups. There is none of the mordant surrealism of George Saunders (pardon the non-sequitur) because, really, isn’t Dubai already surrealistic enough? I’m having a fine old time, anyway, or at least I was for most of yesterday, before a cloud of impending menace began to threaten “the dog’s” continued enjoyment of his Pasha massage chair.

After The Dog,  I’ve got Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. Irishmen in New York — the authors, I mean. Nothing extraordinary about that. Do they meet?

A friend writes to tell me the harrowing story of being locked out of her apartment. I have no choice but to scroll and scroll and keep scrolling until I reach the end, which finds her safely ensconced at home. Now I have to go back and be re-harrrowed. Something,  it seems, went wrong with the batteries in the lock on the door. Yes — one of these newfangled electronic locks that Kathleen, for one, would expect to fail. But until the problem is solved, and in the process analyzed, one is left with the modern nightmare of suddenly, without any warning at all, becoming a non-person. Access to home or to credit is denied, just like that. Everyone else says, surely you must have done something wrong. It is horrible!

Ordinary days exist primarily to lull one into a complacency from which unexpected shocks can tear one limb by limb.

Anxious despair: Joseph O’Neill’s new novel might not be saturated with it, but I’m afraid that I might be.

Note from the Doctor:
Starving, but Robust
9 October 2014

In the old days, I’d have posted a note yesterday saying that I was too distracted by fasting for a colonoscopy to think very clearly. I should have felt it remiss not to acknowledge the reason for my absence by, in fact, being present, however limited the basis. Without feeling the slightest diminishing of my professional commitment to this Web site, however, I recognize that I have outgrown a great many bureaucratic, t-crossing concerns. At the same time, I have never more scrupulously proofread each entry before letting it stand. You might say that I have put all my editorial eggs into that basket.

Anyway, it will be a long time before I regard Jell-O, not only as a food, but even as a substitute for food. Yesterday’s fast came perhaps too close on the heels of the dietary upheaval wrought by last month’s dose of monster antibiotics. Once again, I was hungry all the time, but could eat nothing — except Jell-O, and other liquidy things. The only difference was that I’d have been happy to eat anything. Last month, Jell-O served as a key ballast for the gigantic pills that I had to take three times a day, and that burned a terrible hole in my stomach if it was empty, even as they made food itself thoroughly unappetizing. Yesterday, Jell-O itself quickly became unappetizing, and I drew my sustenance from the laxative solution that I drank by the tumbler for about nine hours. That product has improved almost immeasurably in the more than twenty years that I’ve been taking it, but it still rather quickly becomes too much of a not-so-good thing. As bedtime drew near, I turned to Chablis for nourishment, and not in vain.

The colonoscopy itself went very smoothly. (I’d willingly undergo the procedure two or three times in a row if doing so would spare me the fasting.) So, here I am, with nothing much on my mind except the odd word “triathlete,” understandably unfamiliar in these precincts. Even by metaphorical stretch, I’m not entitled to the “tri,” but only to “duo.” Still, I think that it’s somewhat robust of me to have undergone not only a colonoscopy in the morning but an echocardiogram in the afternoon — in the early afternoon, at that. Aes duplex if not triplex. That’s it for intense doctoring for a while; although, when I got home from the cardiologist’s, there was a reminder from the dermatologist that I have to see her, presumably about the wasting condition of my scalp, which is being eaten alive by pre-cancerous cells. Unless, that is, the blue lights have been effective.

I have reached the stage at which each procedure is somewhat hedged in by, or required to be mindful of, all the others, and it is easy to foresee the time when I or my doctors will have to choose one procedure over another. Which is not to say that it will come to that. But I often think, lately, of the very sick old man with whom I shared the room on the telemetry (cardio) floor of New York Hospital. He was basically too ill for the heart treatment that he needed; all sorts of other things, including a urinary problem that would have maddened me, had to be dealt with first. Deep into his eighties, the man’s grasp of English seemed to be shaky — Polish was his native tongue, and the hospital rustled up, at one point, a nurse who spoke Russian to translate — but I gathered from this and that that the patient understood more than he let on. At one point, I had to sit by in foolish helplessness while he ate a meal that ought not to have been served him, because it foreclosed a procedure that required fasting. I remembered listening to the utterly brainless things that ECT patients would say when asked why, contrary to all orders, they had eaten breakfast before coming in for treatment. They would have to be sent home without it, of course. At the same time, I believe that the medical profession, considered en bloc, and not as a matter of individual technicians and doctors, often treats patients so callously that they have no humane option but to fight back, however impotently and self-destructively.

***

What with constant flights to the bathroom, it took a while to see all of Emmanuelle Bercot’s 2013 film, Elle s’en va, starring Catherine Deneuve. One has come to love the old Deneuve — and why not call her that, if she’s was all but seventy when she made the movie, and will turn 71 later this month? She has made the wise decision to get a bit plump, for this has preserved the soft beauty of her amazing face. She’s lovelier than ever, really, because she’s more human than ever. When she made films like Repulsion and Belle de Jour, she often looked as if she were made out of plastic, which suited the aesthetic of the Sixties but now looks pretty repellent. One has come to love the way Deneuve lets herself go, in movies like Place Vendôme and La Potiche. I’m happy to say, though, that she has outdone herself in Elle s’en va. Never has she played such a fundamentally ordinary woman. It’s true that Bettie, as her character is called, was a beauty-contest winner in her teens, rising to Miss Bretagne and favored for Miss France. But in this film, a pretty face is just a pretty face. Bettie herself has gotten very little out of her good looks. There’s a wonderful moment, early on, when, being flirted with by a young man barely a third her age, Bettie trembles with naked insecurity, as though, were she to take this fellow at his word, she be laughed out of the bar. (What is she doing in a bar, come to that?) Ordinarily, Deneuve trails something of the impassivity of the great diva that she is in real life, always capable of staring someone into giving her at least part of what she wants. That’s completely missing here, and it’s frightening. Even Deneuve is mortal! It’s as though we couldn’t be sure until now.

It goes without saying that the English title, On My Way, is completely wrong. Bettie hasn’t got a clue about what her way might be. If she’s entitled to the film’s mildly sentimental happy ending, that’s because she has come to terms with this cluelessness. The vagaries of life will probably do a better job of guiding her steps than the empty and hypocritical propriety that has dictated her life so far.

This is not to say that Elle s’en va entirely lacks the Deneuve magic. It certainly doesn’t. When Bettie’s grandson expresses shock at learning that Bettie lives in the house she grew up in, with her mother, he exclaims, “You have a mother?” Bien sûr, comes the answer. And why wouldn’t Catherine Deneuve, still very much the regina Cnidus Paphique, not have a living mother?

Gotham Diary:
Fair Share
7 October 2014

In Power and Civility, Norbert Elias tells the story of Louis VI (the Fat), who “ruled” what is now France from 1108 to 1137. In the manner of a bedtime tale, Elias simplifies his material. Louis has only one problem: clearing the road between his two urban centers, Paris and Orléans. In the middle, more or less, stands the fortress of Montlhéry. Louis’s father, Philip I, devoted his life to subduing this castle, enfeoffed by Robert I to a loyal servant whose descendents had their own ideas, but it is Louis who completes the task. Also, Louis has to overcome the nuisance of rival claims to power made by other families in the Orléans area. It’s a pretty modest story. The extent of Louis’s domain is pretty much limited to the Ile-de-France. But from his consolidated territory, modern France would grow, and the Capetian “kings” of Francia would indeed become the powerful kings of France, among which Louis figures as one of the first.

The story is quickly read. It is followed by a generalizing section on the “sociogenesis of monopoly formation.” This, I did not recall reading before, but my jaw dropped as I took it in, glancing through the book yesterday. True to his title, Elias really was setting forth a theory of power. Assuming a condition of free competition among many small, roughly equal parties, competition itself along with the vagaries of good and bad fortune affecting the individual competitors will naturally conduce to a trend in which stronger competitors vanquish weaker ones, and on and on until a top competitor emerges: the monopolist. For a while, this victor may do as he pleases, but he will soon discover that, in order to maintain his monopoly, he must do a few things to keep his new dependents happy. Eventually, the monopolist will become as fettered by obligations are the people who work for him — his loyal soldiers in the medieval example, his castellans, his cooks and bottle-washers, and even the womenfolk. In The  Court Society, Elias shows how the interdependence of various “ruling classes,” monolithic when seen from a distance but highly differentiated upon close inspection, eventually brings about an immovable arrangement in which no one’s power, not even the king’s, can be extended so much as an inch. All privilege has been claimed and solemnized. Such stasis quickly turns brittle, largely because political reality is never still, and privileged social structures with origins in defunct power structures cease to make political sense.

Thus we fly from Louis VI, trying to cobble a unified state out of a core province of France, to Louis XVI, who had no idea at all of how to adapt his throne to the bourgeois insurrection  that erupted in 1789. He was powerless to move it this way or that, and he himself rebelled in pious frustration when the Revolution went after the Church.

But Elias is way ahead of us. Having shown how the bourgeois Revolution preserved the royal monopoly on death and taxation and bestowed it on a series of more or less “democratic” governments in the name of the people, Elias reminds us, in case we’d forgotten our recent history, how, no sooner had the field been cleared of violence and extortion than the entire monopoly game started up again, only this time in commercial terms. In the course of a century, a field of small-time entrepreneurs was consolidated into the massive trusts forged by Rockefeller and Morgan. The “sociogenesis of monopoly strutures” persists in today’s business mantra: grow or die.

Since Elias wrote, however (Power and Civility, originally entitled State Formation and Civilization, appeared in German in 1939), the “monopolists” — the people who run big businesses — have developed a few new tricks that challenge Elias’s model. They have learned to avoid the direct employment of many of the workers who make their products or perform their services. They have learned to farm the actual work out to independent contractors, often in other countries. Keeping dependents happy is no longer, or not at the moment, a matter of much concern to these tycoons. There is a long-term problem here, however, because large corporations still hold the monopoly on jobs: that’s why so many Americans can’t find one. Let’s remember the role of “sociogenesis” here: these monopoly structures arise in a social setting. It is human beings who compete, not robots or “forces.” The structure works well only if every human being has a place in it. What happened in France was that power structures remained rooted in feudal concepts of warlike service, while the economic power of modern times was overlooked. The holders of economic power (as distinct from holders of wealth derived from economic power who were willing to trade their money for titles) had no place in the French power structure. The power structure itself, locked and immobile as we have seen it to be, could not make room for the economically powerful. The smash was inevitable.

Today’s unemployed are hardly possessed of economic power. But they retain enormous political power, should they wish to make use of it (and to learn how to do so). They also possess a terrifying mob power, should they come together in opposition to the massive inequalities in property holdings that inevitably flow from income inequality. We desperately need leaders who can shepherd the relatively disadvantaged away from anarchy and toward political reform. Even more, we need business leaders who can see beyond the next quarter. Above all, we need a revolution in our “business schools.”

Meanwhile, I’m fascinated — somewhere between fascinated and stunned — by the thought that the very social mechanisms that produced the modern nation state, with its core monopolies over violence and taxation, have also produced the array of large business organizations. No wonder the modern executive suite so closely resembles (in power distribution, not style) the old princely courts!

***

Elias’s work seems to stand for the proposition that competition is self-destructive, tending inevitably to create monopolies. We see the same pattern in tournaments. Wherever there is “a winner,” there is a monopoly, a single-handed control of something, even if it is only a trophy. This seems to be human nature. But a lot of undesirable outcomes can be described as “human nature.” Take crime passionnel, for example. The private settling of marital vendettas is no longer tolerated, and has become uncommon. The notion that men somehow own the bodies of their wives has been challenged to death. Human nature is not to be thought of us as bony hard tissue. There is a lot soft tissue in human nature as well.

Couldn’t it be that our inordinate interest in athletic playoffs betrays a longing to shunt winning and losing out of the everyday world, in order to make it easier for everyone to have a fair share?

Gotham Diary:
Packing China
6 October 2014

For some reason, I find myself sunk this morning in a meditation on China. Why? Why not. China is almost always in the news, for some reason or other, and the serious lay periodicals, The New Yorker and the two Reviews of Books, pour forth a constant stream of commentary. The story in the foreground right now, at least so far as The New York Times is concerned, is the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. But when it passes (as it will), there will still be China’s antics in the South China Sea, the government’s attempt to control the Internet, or breakaway movements on the far fringes of a sovereignty that has traditionally sought to incorporate, and then eradicate, its opponents, instead of expelling them. (The banishment of individual members of the elite, also traditional, is quite something else.) The economic relationship between China and the United States, which is almost something new under the sun, has too many moving parts for anyone to understand, but perhaps it only seems that way because no one seems interested in learning from it.

Mostly, I think about how old China is, how continuously long-lived the idea of it. Who else goes back as far? Bear in mind that China is still, fundamentally, a “Confucian” civilization. China misreads the dickens out of Confucius when it suits, and periodically makes a great fuss about rejecting Confucius’s influence root and branch, but it is difficult to read a passage from the Analects and a recent Party pronouncement without discerning a strong authoritarian resemblance.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that “India” carries as much millennial baggage as China does, but India is a patchwork, a subcontinental unit only at the highest levels of organization — where educated people speak English as the common language. India remains culturally fractured by the intrusion of Islam six-odd centuries ago — that recently. I’m willing to concede that Indian civilization is as old as China’s. But it far more pluralistic and nowhere near so conceptually organized.

China has a way of changing with the times that ends up changing the times more than changing China. Periodic upheavals mark the history of China with a planetary regularity in the range of two to three hundred years. China collapses almost as a matter of course. Then it stands up, dusts itself off, and resumes being China — wearing, perhaps, a new kind of hat. Next to China, the nations of Western Europe are yesterday’s kittens, and the United States little more than an unproven and arguably crazy experiment. I don’t know how willing today’s Chinese are to acknowledge that they lost their lead in technology at about the time of the European Renaissance, but I doubt that they much care. As a traditional rather than an historically-minded people, they are happy to appropriate Western inventions and to make them their own. Dazzled by a belief in its own superiority, China has a hard time learning from others. This is where the occasional collapse comes in handy. Instead of a new hat, China might well emerge from one of its breakdowns carrying a new handheld device.

One thing that China is unlikely to learn is how not to be China, and yet this is the fondest dream of Western pundits. Well — the second-fondest dream. The fondest dream, which always makes me giggle, is that China will become a mass market for Western products, made either in the West or in China. This delusion fails to note that China is very, very good at filling its markets with Chinese products. China is not interested in imports. Well, who is? We call countries that are interested in imports “underdeveloped.” Everyone with a brain wants to export. And China, as every American has reason to rue, is a master exporter. The American dreamers who envision expanded markets for American goods are outnumbered by the American realists who are thinking of nothing but keeping costs down. China is there to help them.

Democracy in China is not to be ruled out — eventually, as Manuel says in Fawlty Towers — but without question it will be a Chinese version of democracy, one that probably disregards the Western touchstones of “free elections” and “free speech.” We ought to be taking a closer took at these touchstones ourselves. Our obsession with free elections has withered all other forms of citizen-based democratic action, and, quite astonishingly really, free speech has taken us to Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. If I could have one purely political wish, it would be that the West would stop trying to export democracy until it knows how to make it work at home, instead of dumbing down the standards and whiting a lot of sepulchers.

***

Over the weekend, I forced myself to go through a large tote bag full of old Christmas cards. These had been culled, along with post cards and a few letters, from earlier masses, but they needed culling again. Optimistically, I’d say that I discarded twice as much as I held onto. I spent about an hour at it on Saturday, but much more than that yesterday, and the longer session almost did me in. What’s more churning than a clutch of greetings from people who have entirely dropped out of one’s life?

As I went through what already seemed to be the relics of another life, I sensed two things very deeply. The first is that, since the death of her dear friend and Smith roommate, Julie Reynolds Shaw, nearly ten years ago, Kathleen has been in a kind of mourning for friendship itself. She keeps up with a handful or two of friends who have been determined not to let her slip away, but the initiative is rarely hers. More recently, in the wake of another partial loss, Kathleen expressed a bitter doubt that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Second, I understand more clearly than before that I grew up hoping to make the best of any social situation without expecting any return beyond the absence of grief and shame. Quite often, this meant simply keeping my head down, but even in more congenial situations I seem to have learned how to entertain, not how to befriend. I rarely ask people questions about themselves, for example, not because I’m indifferent, but because, in the world I grew up in, quite simple questions might easily be taken as impertinent, and the appearance of prying was to be assiduously avoided. Having just re-read Norbert Elias’s The Court Society, I’m more aware than ever that I grew up in the modern-day equivalent of old Versailles — the world of corporate executives.

This courtliness, in turn, made it very difficult for me to get to know intellectually-inclined people, and it gave them no interest at all in getting to know me. I thought that they were rude and rather tone-deaf about other people, which they certainly were, and they thought I was a vacuous preppie, which is what I had been brought up to look like. The number of intellectually sympathetic friendships that I have enjoyed in my life can be counted on one hand. An additional but accidental hamper, it is true, was the persistence, throughout the first half of my life, of Marxian leftism as the thinking person’s tic, with its accompanying dismissal of history and its artifacts. My own prejudices, while not at all politically conservative, ran in just the opposite direction. Only recently, and then thanks to Hannah Arendt, have I been willing to admit that Marx might not have been a completely woolly barbarian. And my preoccupation with understanding the history of the human world has become more insistent, as well as, I hope, more articulate.

Many of the cards that went into the discard pile reminded me that I’ve known a lot of bright people who “knew better” than to grow their brains for unremunerated pleasures.

Gotham Diary:
Evil? What about Indecency?
3 October 2014

There’s an editorial in today’s Times about the the moral horror of ISIS, and, on the facing page, a column by David Brooks about the futility of pragmatism. Both pieces exhort readers to feel passionately engaged in the struggle against evil in the world. This is not time for liberal aloofness and impartiality, or for taking the time to see both sides — so goes this latest variation on one of the oldest themes in human history, older than the Hebrew Bible, in which, among many other dreadful things, you can still read about the ISIS-like conduct of Joshua’s armies in Canaan. As far as I can tell, appeals to combat evil have always fallen on deaf ears until it is “too late,” or almost.

Which makes you wonder: is there something defective about the concept of evil?

I’m agnostic about the existence of evil. I don’t doubt the existence of malignity, but, unlike evil, malignity can be almost always be explained, and could presumably be explained in every instance if we knew more about the nature of things. We must certainly respond firmly to malign acts and intentions, but we must also acknowledge that, in the ordinary course of affairs, malignity is uncommon. Only a small fraction of those who are convicted of drug offenses, I am quite sure, could be charged with the desire to inflict harm, as distinct from the willingness to do whatever it takes (but no more than that) in the pursuit of a criminal course of action.

Call me naive, but I see something in our midst that is at least as bad as evil is cracked up to be, and that is indecency — the failure to treat our neighbors, including the strangers among them, according to our sense of right and wrong. What’s more, I don’t understood how evil, whatever it is, can spread throughout a society without countless individual failures of decency, lapses of individual moral integrity. Whether the Hitlers of the world are dismissed as nut cases (as Hitler himself initially was) or brought to power depends, at least in our modern democracies, on the decisions of countless men and women. Our own United States has been eaten alive by the indecency of legions of bankers and traders, men and women (but largely men) who, in the course of financializing everything over the past thirty years, have replaced principles with values, and paid top dollar to prioritize their own highly liquid values. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been reduced to stunted economic conditions as a result. The talking heads who attribute this shift to technological change and the need for better-educated workers carry their indecency to levels that I am happy to decry as wicked.

If you can read this, then it is indecent of you not to be aware of the specific perniciousness to which so-called private-equity operations are prone. Human nature is extremely conservative: we still expect raping and pillaging to be accompanied by bloodshed, and tend not to notice it when all we see are balance sheets. But financialization is raping and pillaging all the same, and you would see that quite clearly if you looked into the matter, and never forgot that the pricelessness of each human life means that it can have no negotiable value at all.

Then we might discuss what to do about it — if only. The gravest indecency of modern society is its structural preference for judgments arrived at by individuals in purely private and independent terms. As a result, we have lost the skill of civil discourse,  which is all too easily ruined by narcissistic bores whom no one can be bothered to shout down. We have lost the knack for qualifying the difference between intelligent positions and stupid ones. We have abandoned political life to moral zombies whose only ambition is to maintain and increase personal power.

The indecency of television, coupled with the indecency of indiscriminately watching it (by which I mean to include the watching of advertisements of any kind), is simply beyond comment. There are many things in our society that need to be worked on and brought back to repair, but of television the decent man can only say, Stop watching. Now.

When I was a boy, nobody would have used the word “indecency” as broadly as I have used it here; indecency meant pretty much one thing. But the word is available for repurposing precisely because it has fallen out of civil discourse, knocked down by the long-swelling onslaught of depravity of widespread personal immodesty. Is depravity evil? I don’t see the need for the question.  Depravity, which is the willingness to perform inhuman acts in order to indulge a weakness for physical pleasure or for money, is quite bad enough as it is. In a current video campaign, attractive young people tease viewers by lowering zippers and otherwise seeming to disrobe. It is not the teasing that is so bad; it is, rather, the commercial, mediated setting. The viewer will never enjoy the company of these models, but it is suggested that the purchase of advertized products might cure that defect. It is grossly indecent not to be offended by such a marketing campaign, on one’s own behalf no less than for the sake of children who ought to be protected from such images.

When Hitler was coming to power, there were plenty of observers who declared that he must be stopped. But their attempt to demonize him as evil was almost completely ineffective. Had Winston Churchill not been on the scene in 1940, it is likely that England would have capitulated to Naziism just as France had done. Was it evil of France to yield? Charles DeGaulle does not appear to have tied himself up trying to answer that question. But it was certainly indecent. The greatness of Churchill and DeGaulle inhered in their ruthless, ironbound decency. They had to be heroes, too, of course, but they were driven not by virtue but by the common sense of right and wrong that is the essence of decency.

We ought to have the common decency to work on righting wrongs at home before charging distant enemies with evil. I can think of no more powerful way to recommend the principles of liberal democracy to the rest of the world.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Purge
2 October 2014

As we were coming home from Ocean Beach in August, I said, semi-jocularly, “I wonder what will happen this year. Something always happens after Fire Island.” There was a hurricane one year, and then the dishwasher motor broke the following September, and, last year, Will and his parents moved to California. We saw that one coming, of course, but we didn’t know how it would hit. The winter that followed made an old man of me.

So much has happened this fall that I feel as though I’ve spent a few weeks in a large tumble dryer. There is still much to happen: next month, we leave this apartment, after thirty-one years. I have a good idea where we’ll be going, but I’m too superstitious to go into details here. That can wait until it’s all over. Meanwhile, though, my head is something of a beehive.

I came to a momentous decision the other day: I’m not going to try to maintain a computer catalogue of my library anymore. I suddenly saw that it was more trouble than it was worth, and that a far better way of library management is to reduce the size of the library. By at least half. That sounds radical, I know, but the clarity which with the new rule of thumb has emerged is even more convincing than it is surprising. Very simply, it’s time to let go of merely aspirational books. How to tell? Tick one:

  • I’d like to learn something about that someday.
  • I’d like to learn more about that,  sooner rather than later.

Books described by the first statement must go. So must most curiosities. Example? A (cheap) facsimile edition of Mrs Beeton’s tome on household management. Very amusing, in its way; then again, not. It’s amusing until you read a bit of it, and then you begin to gasp for air. The heavy fustian of Victorian respectability (at bargain prices) blocks out all light and air. The heavy dinners! The dodgy servants! The dark, over-upholstered rooms! I’m glad to have spent some time with the book over the years, and I’m not sorry that I owned it, but it’s of no further use to me. My household management problems are beyond Mrs Beeton’s imagining.

Speaking of upholstery, I am not sorry to be saying goodbye to the draperies in the living room. They were always slightly ostentatious (“window treatments”), and now they are pretty dirty. Dirt may in fact what is holding them together. That’s what happens when you live in a place for decades on end. The services that used to come and take such things away for cleaning are fewer and farther between, and it is much more difficult to get them in and out of the building. (Homeland Security at home.) Much better to buy reasonably-priced ready-mades, and replace them after a few years. Fabric is not forever. Slipcovers are your friend. Although, now I think of it, the gent who made the newest slipcovers that we have was so old that, although still expert at his craft, he had to be guided to and from the apartment by one of his sons, a middle-aged man who was not otherwise going to follow in his father’s footsteps.

We used to look down our noses at white walls. There hasn’t been a white wall in this apartment since we moved in. Even the ceilings are painted light shades of the color on the walls — they look white, but aren’t. I have enjoyed the colors of this apartment very much. But it is time to settle for ease and convenience. And light. The blue room is actually very dark, which is charming by night, but not so much by day.

Everything in the apartments that we’ve looked at is so new and clean! How I look forward to using a spacious kitchen — complete with window — that does not suggest the slightly updated corner of some very dingy apartment photographed over a century ago by Eugène Atget. I’m mildly astonished, and have been for some time, than anyone who has ever seen it was willing to sit down at the dining table and eat, as it were, from it.

I know that friends will look back and say, “That was such a great apartment!” I’ll nod, perhaps a bit absently, trying not to think of the gyres of dust, or the ingrained filth of the parquet floors peeping up between the carpets. Some people say that this apartment is “cozy.” Others, less sentimental, pronounce it “cluttered.” Even though everything has its place and there are no unsightly piles of newspapers and magazines or battalions of knick-knacks, there is still too far much stuff. Surfaces tend to sprout objects, usually quite useless objects. The solution is not to have emptier tables, but fewer tables.

When I was in my forties, I formulated my design scheme as that of an exiled landowner who had managed to take only a few of the best things with him — enough, say, for only one ballroom. My new design scheme is somewhat simpler: Assisted Living. Something tells me that the new apartment will fall short of this ideal, or, rather, much, much further.

***

I don’t know how many times I’ve consulted my internist since I got out of the hospital last month, but in all our conversations I completely forgot to mention that I needed a new prescription for my sleeping tablets. I didn’t  mention it because I failed to check the number of refills on the label. The other day, I discovered that the number of refills was “No.” No refills. I called the internist’s office yesterday and asked that the prescription be held for to pick it up today. No problem, I’m happy to say. I took a taxi to the doctor’s office, and walked home, via my favorite restaurant for club sandwiches midway. I used to indulge in a Manhattan or two whenever I had lunch there, but those days are over. I like the way my clothes are falling off me and would like to continue in the same direction. Liquor is of course no good for anybody, beyond that sacred daily glass of red wine that I never drink, but abstinence is the last thing on my mind. It’s my weight that I want to bring down, almost as earnestly as I want to slim my library. I’ve already been watering the plonk that I drink out of a box (one part water to four parts wine) for several months, and, to tell you the truth, I can’t tell the difference, except, on rare occasions, the next morning.

I embrace the lesson that I learned, in adverse circumstances, at the hospital: I now live a very quiet life. I think that I have put my adolescence entirely behind me. It’s always hard to tell, in this country.

Skeptical Note:
One Reality Fits All
1 October 2014

Norbert Elias, The Court Society (1984):

On this level of self-consciousness where people, when thinking about their thought processes, can already detach themselves enough from these processes to perceive objects as something independent of themselves, and especially from their affects, and in this sense as autonomous, but where they cannot yet distance themselves sufficiently from themselves and their own thought processes to include the structure of this distancing as itself a basic element in their conception of the subject-object relationship, such questions are ultimately insoluble. (254)

“Such questions” include the doubts, familiar since the time of Descartes, about the reality of everything outside the mind. All of modern skeptical philosophy, in short, together with the bone-chilling alienation that has afflicted artists and intellectuals for more than two hundred years.

Norbert Elias was a German sociologist who believed something very unusual: that human consciousness is altered by changes in social structures. The passage that I’ve quoted, which, I admit, is not the easiest reading in the world, is embedded in Elias’s discussion of the internalization of social imperatives — learning to do the proper thing without being told to do it, a process sometimes called “socialization” — that swept through European elites in the wake of Renaissance state-formation and the convulsions of the  Reformation, and that has since become unconsciously familiar to most inhabitants of the nations of Europe, North America, and other European outposts.

Prior to the “distancing” that set in with the Renaissance — more about that in a minute — human beings naively projected their feelings about things directly onto those things. If you disliked something, it must be bad (or, if the something in question were virtuous, you must be mad). Behavior was generally spontaneous, as we can see in the records from Genesis and Homer to Livy and Suetonius,  even to Augustine, and beyond, into the medieval legends of warrior knights. After the Renaissance, men and women, at least those with much to lose, learned to play their cards closer to their chests, and violence gave way to disputation. A friendly courtier might have ulterior motives — indeed, he almost certainly did. Low-grade suspicion became the hallmark of intelligence. The new scientists taught the same lesson on a cosmic plane: the sun did not, as it appeared to do, revolve around the earth. On the contrary!

What Elias is writing about in the quoted passage is the stage in the development of human consciousness (now quite tediously familiar to one and all) in which it is generally understood that things are not always what they seem to be — but in which it is not understood, generally or otherwise, is that the apparent abyss that opens up when I regard the world with skepticism, the distance between my closed-up mind, locked in its skull, and what is really going on in the world, that this structural hiatus is itself no more actual than my impressions of the world. It is a statement about me, not about how things are; it is the condition of my consciousness. Unaware that this is the case — unaware that my alienation from the world is a feature not of the world or of its reality but only of my consciousness — I labor in vain to distinguish the true from the misleadingly apparent. If I’m really rigorous, I retreat to Descartes’s tiny corner, and confess that I know no more than that I am conscious. The rest I leave, as Descartes did, up to God, who may not exist but who better had.

There are signs, fugitive enough, that David Hume was one of the first men to reach the next step of consciousness, in which skepticism itself is understood to be a phenomenon like any other, and not a marker of some essential difference between ourselves and everything else. For we learn, in this new stage, that we are in fact, just like everything else, not always what we seem to be. Secrets aside, we don’t really understand ourselves, in any natural way, any better than we understand anything else. This is the relentless trumpet flourish of the cognitive revolution. Daniel Kahneman is here to tell us that most of our “reasonable” conclusions about things are actually irrational, that the premises from which we reason are not axioms and fundamental truths but dogs’ breakfasts of prejudices and misinformation. We now understand socialization to be not the tyrannical oppression of the natural, unspoiled self but the self-discipline necessary to ensure a minimum of social cooperation and to prevent the collapse into anarchy, than which there is no greater human horror.

Well, some of us understand this. It can’t be denied that many ostensibly educated people remain locked in the conundrum that Elias describes in the passage above. Permit me to try a more colloquial rendering:

The undertaking to distinguish truth from “mere appearance” is doomed to vanity so long as the faculty of judgment is believed to occupy a different plane of reality from that of the things being judged. Judgment is no more (and no less) real than a tree or a rainbow or a lover’s smile. We are still obliged to make judgments, but we must be aware that we have no special, privileged toolkit for judgment. Everything comes down to experience and practice. Nothing is for sure, but experience and practice tend to lead us toward the more likely.

***

Don’t ask me why, but I hear the scurrying of mice in the background — the vermin of something called relativism. Relativism, to hear people talk of it, is a failing that only other people are afflicted by. The critic who denounces relativism knows better (says he or she). What is relativism? It is the delusion, which quickly follows the loss of respect for the absolute truth of some revelation or other, that the good and evil in things is a relative matter that depends on the circumstances. For example, a relativist might hold  that it is not as bad for a starving man to steal a crust of bread as it is for an accountant to indulge in a course of insider trading. A relativist might even believe that it is perfectly okay for the poor man to steal the crust of bread! Absolutists know better. They know — doesn’t it say so in Scripture? — that it is right for the poor to suffer on earth and await their heavenly reward. Absolutists of certain denominations also know that some superior people are entitled to an earthly reward as well, and that their property interest in this reward is sacred, not to be interfered with by the state or by the less fortunate.

Absolutists are not skeptics, of course, but they share the skeptic’s eagerness to distinguish the truth from the merely plausible amidst the complications of mortal reality — from which they are, however, just as cut off, “distanced,” as the toughest skeptic.

Mirror, Mirror:
Morbid
30 September 2014

Remicade infusion this afternoon. I’d thought it was scheduled for tomorrow, but the Infusion Therapy Unit called yesterday to confirm an appointment for today. So much the better! Of course, I’m riddled with morbid fears that something will come up to interfere. I had the same anxieties yesterday, at the cardiologist’s. Never was I so happy to see a doctor walk into the examining room (when the examining was over) with a prescription pad. This meant that I should not be going to the hospital. Going to the hospital has become a lively fear, to which I respond with the credulity of a child to the menace of the bogey-man. There is nothing wrong with the hospital, except that it is hellishly, maddeningly noisy.

The real fun comes next week, with a routine colonoscopy. I don’t mind the procedure at all, especially in its current state of evolution (with what I think they call “twilight” anaesthesia: you don’t fall asleep but you don’t remember anything). But the day before is a bore: all that fasting on chicken broth and light-colored Jell-O.

On Friday, I had moments of feeling really normal. With a few qualifications, I feel normal most of the time now. I’m still somewhat weak, not having eaten very well in three weeks (but, oh, the lost weight!), and my GI tract isn’t what it would be without the antibiotics — but then, what my GI tract would be without the antibiotics is dead, along with the rest of me. The medicine that the cardiologist prescribed yesterday, one of the oldest in the pharmacopeia, ought to settle my racing heart, and calm me down in the process — putting an end, if not to my anxieties, then to their morbid excessiveness. (Where “thinking positive” becomes the most potent of all jinxes.)

More and more, though, I feel that this bout of illness and steeply slow recovery has left some scars. Without intending to, I’ve been confronted by a lot of my old sins, and they seem more deplorable than they used to do. This is another way of saying that I haven’t really come to terms with or atoned for them. I had developed a rather rosy picture of myself, one that rested heavily on improvements (not by any means imaginary) while squinting at lapses. Many of these sins are quite familiar; they’ve simply taken on a further measure of culpability as my moral sensibility has sharpened. But some have emerged from the mists of oblivion for the first time. “Rosy” is just not on.

Last night at dinner, for example, I was having a hard time finishing the refried beans that came with my cheese enchiladas. Thinking that the beans would be more nourishing in the long term, I worked on them instead of trying the second enchilada. I had to put my fork down between bites. Kathleen and I agreed that this sort of difficulty eating was utterly unlike me; except for the occasional spot of stomach flu (to which I not prone), I always ate with relish. And this had been gone on for weeks. I was reminded of my sister, who as a child had very hard time getting through dinner. Eventually, my mother would have to sit down and feed her, a terrible humiliation. Only now, though, did I understand what a misery it must have been to eat without appetite. Kathleen asked if I ever surreptitiously swiped bits of her food, to help her out. I could not remember ever having done so.

Never, in my childhood, do I recall sticking up for my little sister, or even sensing any protective urges. I’ve always attributed this want of feeling to “the adoption,” a multi-layered trauma that began, so far as my consciousness is concerned, with finding out that my sister and I were not in fact brother and sister, nor our parents’ children, and that eventually grew into an understanding of the resentment that I must have felt when she sashayed into our lives, not as a sleeping infant but as a nine month-old cutie, sitting up and laughing and competing full time for adult attention. There was no period of adjustment for me, just a sort of magic act in which the charming personality of my sister was produced as from a top hat. No wonder I didn’t feel protective.

Last night, though, these convenient and plausible explanations disappeared just like the smoke with which surprising objects are produced from top hats. Poof! Where was the decency? Where was the fellow-feeling? I don’t mean to beat myself up, but, heavens, I must have been pretty warped to have sat complacently across the table while my sister suffered. Did I try to help once, and get caught? All I remember is a dreadful smugness. I could eat; therefore I must be better than my sister. At something. I was better in school, too — much better. But making friends was always hard for me, not because nobody liked me but because I liked nobody, a matter that I’ll explore some other time. And, outside of school, my brains were clearly a liability. My cleverness seemed best suited for getting me into trouble, with misfiring, even cruel practical jokes and sarcastic comments that were never funny enough to obscure their nastiness. So I sat at the table and did nothing, holding tight to one small measure of superiority. I could eat.

Later, I will say in my defense, I did stand up for my sister, by arguing to my parents that they didn’t understand her strengths. (It was always energizing to tell my parents that they didn’t understand things, and it still is, because if there was anything that I had no idea of, it is how right I was.) They didn’t want to understand that she would never be strong academically; it simply wasn’t the cast of her mind. But she was by no means stupid. Being told that she was, over and over again (but not by me, after a certain age), naturally induced a resentment that, having lived close it, I now understand to be quite broadly distributed among the American public. So many people have been mistreated just as my sister was, by an establishment that refused to accept the exceptional — unusual — nature of the scholarly mind, toward the development of which education was still, in those days, keyed — if in an utterly half-assed way. I do believe that, had my sister been encouraged to take up some kind of animal studies, she would have been motivated to learn enough dry material in order to pass examinations and qualify for a useful and meaningful profession. But that was no more likely in the Bronxville of that time than Marie-Antoinette’s becoming a proper French queen.

This is all very well: I grew up and got better. Story of my life. But there was a lot to get better than, continents of room for improvement. Looking back, I see an endless regression of markers — call them milestones, call them tombstones — signifying acts of thoughtless egotism or fearful meanness. I’ve always known that most of them were there, but the old rationalizations, no matter how convincing, are no longer at all emollient. And some, like the memory of sitting across from my sister in what ought to have been a fury of impatience for her to finish, but what was instead a cloud of dim satisfaction, are new.

These involuntary reviews culminate in an awful unpleasantness: How, I always end up asking myself, has Kathleen put up with me for all these years? The only explanation that stands is that she hasn’t really grasped, even yet, what a ghastly human being I am. Sooner or later, she’ll see the light, and then I’ll get what I deserve.

Like I say, morbid.

Reading Note:
Florence Gordon
29 September 2014

Not since Wotan and Siegfried, I think, have I seen such a magnificently single-minded fight as the one that builds to its oblique but resonating climax in Florence Gordon, the new novel by Brian Morton.

For a few days after it arrived, I regarded Florence Gordon with trepidation. I wasn’t feeling well, and in fact was sunk in a depressed fug that might make the novel unpalatable, just as it did almost any kind of food put in front of me. I brandished this fear as a good reason for not picking up Florence Gordon straight away. But there was a deeper fear: what if I didn’t like it? What if it didn’t stand up to Morton’s three other great novels, Starting Out in the Evening, A Window Across the River, and, for me the greatest of them all, Unbreakable You?

Fairly soon, the fear of a reading mind soured by depression was obliged to dissipate: I felt tired, but basically normal. I had just galloped through Pride and Prejudice — you’d have thought that I hadn’t read it (many times) before and didn’t know how it came out. Of course, it’s knowing precisely how “it comes out” that makes the long (but briskly paced) ride from pride and prejudice to love and marriage so exquisitely suspenseful: I was savoring the obstacles strewn in front of Lizzie and Darcy at the same time that I wanted to sweep them away. When an almost Arcadian resolution threatened to end the story in the early chapters of the third volume, I was perversely delighted that the course of high romance was about to be diverted into the white-water rapids of Lydia’s elopement. I wanted to be out of breath when Darcy renewed his proposal, within pages of the end, and Jane Austen did not disappoint. I have never enjoyed Pride and Prejudice half as much, nor read it with such breathless speed.

I was particularly struck by the virtuosity of the chapter in which Lizzie, having read it, considers Darcy’s self-exculpating letter, and reconsiders all her old prejudices. This cascade of epiphanies might easily have been either tedious or histrionic, but Austen’s construction, with realization leading to realization, is a triumph of narrated reflection.

For the matter of that, Pride and Prejudice might have been a very hard act to follow.

Swallowing deeply, I opened Florence Gordon. The first chapter, which didn’t even fill a page, was a reminder that frankness in women is likely to be dismissed as strident and shrill — wry, but familiar. The second chapter,  however (not quite three times longer than the first), ended thus:

So she was a strong proud independent-minded woman who accepted being old but nevertheless felt essentially young.

She was also, in the opinion of many who knew her, even in the opinion of many who loved her, a complete pain in the neck.

I grinned with pleasure.

The woman in question is, of course, Florence Gordon, a formidable 75 year-old feminist who basically “wants to be left alone to read, write, and think.” (That won my vote, and I’m still in my sixties.) We discover her on the verge of finding a way to write her memoirs, the kind of distinctive viewpoint that alone will save her efforts from tumbling into an accretion of names and dates. She is happy; she is alone in her apartment — but her old friend Vanessa keeps calling. Florence, beginning to worry about Vanessa, takes the sixth call. One thing leads to another, but quickly, and by the end of the fourth chapter, Florence has done something that in another person might be denounced as intolerably rude. Instead, it is Florence at her worst best. After the brief interruption, Florence returns to her laptop and her memoirs, relieved to find that she has not lost the precious thread. Young people who read this book will howl indignantly at Florence’s apparently anti-social behavior, but perhaps they will learn from their discussions that, for an older person, a pleasant surprise is not sufficiently different from an unpleasant one to warrant the “thoughtful” and “well-meant” efforts.

Florence Gordon is not, however, about Florence Gordon only. Among the several narrative strands, there is one that does indeed focus solely on Florence, but it has nothing to do with her memoirs or her writing career or her personal history or a burst of sudden fame. Instead, it is ominously signaled early on: “There was something wrong with her balance. Her left foot kept flapping or flopping or something.” As Florence learns more about this apparent disorder, she ever more resolutely determines to keep it to herself, and in this, although much besieged toward the end of the novel, she is successful. There is a gleaming heroism in Florence’s stubbornness. I should never think of emulating it myself, but I’m convinced that it makes sense for her — that it is, indeed, her only viable option. Morton is to be commended for his humane treatment of this material, treating it as lightly as if it were pie crust.

As I say, though, Florence Gordon has a larger story to tell. It is a story familiar from Morton’s other “Upper West Side” novels, but treated, as before, in an entirely new way. The familiar aspect of the story is simply this: people who grow up to be fiercely independent and curmudgeonly intellectuals often turn out to have been ordinary enough in youth to marry and to have children. These children naturally grow up with an understandable resentment that takes the intellectual life, with its books and ideas and blithe disregard for the inner lives of others, as its target. In Florence’s case, the child is Daniel, now 47 and a “cop.” An experimental poet in adolescence, Daniel found the courage to sign up for the army, and after that unpleasant experience (from which he learned, however, that all men might indeed be equal, no matter how smart they were or how well-read), he became a policeman in Seattle, eventually settingly into a Crisis Intervention unit — a social worker with a badge, in most real cops’ view. Daniel is thinking of retiring and taking up some other line of work.

A partial catalyst for change is the grant that his wife, Janine, has received. This takes Janine to Columbia University for a stint in a psychology lab headed by a student of Walter Mischel, the man who devised the famous “marshmallow” test. Janine, who grew up in the suburbs of New York, soon finds that she might not be able to leave, so strong is the spell of Gotham life. Before we learn what Janine does for a living, we’re told that she was an ardent fan of Florence Gordon in college, reading much of her work with awe. When, on their third date, she discovered that Florence was Daniel’s mother, “she couldn’t believe it.” This phrase is repeated on the next page; it conveys a certain stunned response that Janine as never quite overcome. Needless to say, Florence has never encouraged her daughter-in-law’s enthusiasm. In a very funny passage, she (privately) makes savage fun of the detailed questions with which, in the early days of their acquaintance, Janine pestered her mother-in-law. Janine has come to understand that spending time with Florence is always unpleasant, if always in a new and unexpected way.

Janine and Daniel are both, then, adrift in a confusion that is somewhere between “up in the air” and full-blown mid-life crisis. The counterpoint of Florence Gordon plays the aimlessness of the middle-aged parents against the growing clarity gained by their ageing mother and their maturing daughter. Janine and Daniel don’t know what they really want; they have outgrown their youthful dreams. Florence and her granddaughter, in contrast, not only know what they want but are sharp students of how to get it.

This granddaughter is Emily, a bright and curious woman who knows very little about the world beyond what she has been taught in school or shown on television. Emily has discontentedly dropped out of Oberlin College and come to live with her mother, while she works at a bookshop and tries to sort out her future. It does not take long for Florence to enlist Emily as a research assistant; the surprise is that Florence really does treat Emily as if she were a complete stranger, but one to be watched for exploiting her family relationship to take liberties. Florence’s expressions of gratitude for Emily’s more-than-competent work are rare and bizarrely oblique. It will  take Emily years to see them for what they were.

Here, alas, I must stop. I should love nothing more than to type out and share the extraordinary final passages of Florence Gordon, but nothing could induce me to spoil the pleasure of discovering it in context. I will confine my gush to pointing out that the presentation of the novel in short chapters — 111 of them in 306 pages — makes for a fine weave that greatly enhances the social nature of the Gordon family; and to quoting two lines that will underscore the point with which I began this entry.

Emily looked enraged. She had the light of battle in her eyes.

What a magnificent girl, Florence thought.

But did not, of course, say.

Gotham Diary:
Taste Itself
26 September 2014

Taste: the mental faculty that enables aesthetic experience.

We will not be talking about good or bad taste. To do so would suggest some sort of frontier, or no-man’s-land, between the two, and I don’t believe that any such thing exists, except in the minds of people who want to puff themselves up and bring others down — surely not a matter of aesthetic experience at all.

Instead, we will talk about some of the factors that develop taste over time, not by signalling better choices of experience — that would be discrimination, as we saw yesterday — but by making taste more personal and comprehensive. Taste becomes more comprehensive when it has been seasoned by a wider variety of experiences, and when it accommodates this range of experience, not necessarily all at one moment, but with a ready agility to summon past experiences of the same kind. When I look at a painting at the Museum, for example, I try to see it in isolation, as a kind of resistance to the natural flood of other paintings that it calls to mind. Sometimes, what is called to mind is not another painting but a film or a piece of music. The more associations that bubble up in response to any given direct aesthetic experience, the more articulate (in a non-verbal way) the taste that does the filtering.

Taste also becomes more personal over time. The proverb that tells us that there is no arguing with taste applies very fittingly to developed, long-seasoned taste. Applying it to people whose aesthetic experiences are neither numerous nor comprehensive, however, is poplulist nonsense. Any such ignorant person who waves the flag of non disputandum is announcing no more than the desire to preserve such taste as is possessed in a state of stuntedness. No possessor of developed taste will be heard to sigh contentedly, “I know what I like.” While it is certainly pleasant to know what you like, it is not particularly interesting. What’s interesting is to know that there is a lot more out there to get to know. (And then we’ll see whether we like it or not.)

Again, unlike the shrill populist, the possessor of a developed taste will only rarely be heard making unflattering remarks about the things that he or she doesn’t like. These are ignored, as potential failures of the aesthetic imagination.

— Although, I’m reminded that I really must get round to airing my stupefied but intensely unfavorable response to the productions with which Jeff Koons has been allowed to fill the Whitney Museum, and the horror of the strangely genial American enthusiasm that has drawn crowds to the museum, not to mention the wildly dystopian cast of the art critics’ support. —

The developed taste does not take account of dislikes. What would be the purpose? If the function of taste is to open the window of aesthetic experience, then anything that might close this window, even by a little bit, ought to be dealt with by another part of the mind. Besides, nothing keeps the faculty of taste busier than the things that we don’t really like about the things that we love.

Developed taste is experienced — it has seen much — and attentive — it has paid attention to what it has seen. If I were mathematically confident, I should say that both experience and attentiveness grow exponentially, not just because, the more you see, the easier it is to see still more, but because the web of aesthetic associations thickens by an ever more extremely multiplied number of strands. It is not necessary to add to the gross number of aesthetic experiences to make the web even more dense. A great deal of aesthetic life doesn’t involve fresh aesthetic experiences at all, but takes place entirely in the mind, from which it eventually forces discrimination to make experiences available. When I listen attentively to one of Mozart’s piano quartets, for example, a new experience is laid atop an old one.

***

The other day, I wrote that it is taste that enables the artist to balance the disparate factors that any serious artwork embodies. For example, a piece of music may be sublime, pointed achingly at something beyond human experience, but it cannot be called serious if untutored listeners can grasp no part of it. Great artists are aware of human limitations, and they work hard to ask for as much as they can, without asking too much. (Art that appeals to cognoscenti only is unworthy of discussion.) Some artists — Verdi,  to my mind, is the supreme example of this — so successfully cloak their demands that sophisticated listeners (yes, even possessors of highly developed taste) mistakenly assume that none are being made.

In the end, however, I can’t say much about the taste of the artist — I’m not an artist myself. I can only say that the artists’ taste is an important element in my aesthetic experience. If I find Keith Jarrett’s performances of Handel’s keyboard suites — works of which Sir Isaac Newton complained that he could hear nothing but the flashy execution — a triumph of taste in art, I am really talking about my taste, and about the jolt that the performances sent through my taste when I first heard them. It was my taste that allowed me to relish the obvious exhilaration with which Jarrett negotiated the suites’ profoundly opposed pulls, toward bravura exhibition on the one hand and primly ostentatious classicism on the other. Handel also had an uncommon ability to position snatches of demotic melody in stately settings, as if doing the hornpipe in front of Greenwich Hospital.

For all his Italian operas and purely instrumental compositions, Handel managed, with a handful of religious or ceremonial settings of English texts, to become not just English but the pillar of English music. His importance in Britain appears never to have dimmed. At a fine performance of Messiah, it is still with choked-up exaltation that I stand for the Hallelujah Chorus. My only consolation for being singed by a burnish bush is that my tears don’t have far to fall before they disappear into my beard.

Most of all, the faculty of taste is a faculty of pleasure. Pleasure is the sunlight that feeds it. Your pleasure. Your evolving, ever-widening pleasure in the world. Please begin with that.

Gotham Diary:
With Time (Discrimination)
25 September 2014

Today, I want to look into something closely related to taste — a matter that I touched on very lightly a few days ago, and that needs fuller treatment in due course — and that is discrimination.

“Discrimination” is not the happiest of words in America. Everything fine about it was blunted by what I take to have been an originally euphemistic misappropriation intended to make a virtue of what was really going on, dehumanization. It is hard now to see the difference between the Nuremberg Laws and Jim Crow; what difference there was between the two cultures was that the world of Jim Crow still had an economic use for black Americans, and preferred exploitation to extermination. “Discrimination” was supposed to make it sound as though bigoted Southerners were making a principled decision about ordering their social world, which, in their view, black Americans were inadequately well-bred to join. “Discrimination” was supposed to be the impulse behind delicate housewives’ building bathrooms in their garages, for the use of black maids and nannies. A woman who didn’t “discriminate” had no self-respect.

Despite this odious outlook, for which we white Americans can never entirely expiate our shame (we shall have always had it in us to do such terrible things), the word itself remains tied to its original denotation, which named the act of choosing among things and selecting the better. Now more than ever we need to be skilled discriminators; it is our only hope against drowning in a sludge of toxic banality.

***

The first thing to be said about discrimination, at least in adults, is that it is purely personal and private. Young people ought to be encouraged to talk about discrimination with any older people whom they might know well enough for candid,  somewhat intimate discussion, while older people ought to make sure that their young listeners hear about the missteps that unavoidably occur in the development of true discrimination — the unfortunate choices, the immoderate enthusiasms, and the principled mistakes that, like Seventies hair, we should all like to forget. Mistakes must be made! But they must be made in youth and learned from. Also, for young people the idea of private discrimination is almost anti-social. They are busy learning about almost everything from each other.

So I am talking about adults.

For decades, it seems, the importance of learning new things, of “pushing one’s boundaries” and “going beyond one’s comfort zone,” has been shouted with Orwellian relentlessness. To the extent that “new things” must be strange and, at least initially, uncomfortable, I find the admonition to novelty highly dubious. What’s important is to bear in mind is that new and different things are out there, and that one’s likes and dislikes are far from comprehensive. I find it productive to pay as little attention as possible to my dislikes. This makes me vulnerable to surprise attacks from dislikes that I’m finally ready to reassess. For, at bottom, dislikes are simply failures of imagination. With time, and the greater pressure of time that comes with time, dislikes give way to also-rans, which one might have enjoyed had one only the time.

Also with time, discrimination becomes less a matter of preferring this print to that one and more a matter of choosing the print that goes best (whatever “best” means for you) with the myriad other choices that you have already made. The proof of sound discrimination is harmony, and this harmony is largely private. Even the best friend cant keep track of all your discriminations. No one else can ever fully know why you prefer this recording of Eroica to that one. They can know only what you can tell them — the tip of the iceberg.

The root of discrimination is quasi-erotic: it begins with what you happen to like. You can accustom yourself to something that you don’t like, and every now and then find that you haven’t just gotten used to it but have come quite genuinely to like it, but you can never force yourself to like anything. With time, what you like will be conditioned by what you know, but what you know cannot be allowed to take over. For the truly discriminating mind, “fashion dictates” are tissues of no consequence.

***

In recent decades, and earlier too, probably, men have not gone in for discrimination to the extent that women have done. To the extent that men regard living like a slob as an essential marker of masculinity, this is not only stunted but tragic; it is also very stupid. There are also men who regard “home” as the abode of their mothers, and this is very irresponsible, because mother is not going to live forever. (You can’t begin to hope that she will outlive you — what a terrible curse!) Another way to avoid making one’s personal base of operations more than a utility locker room is to invest one’s discriminatory impulses in collections: comic books, model trains, telephone pole insulators, whatever. Absorbing as such items might be, they none of them have an impact on how your body inhabits intimate space. That requires a minimum of interior design — which is nothing but an engagement with intimate space. After the engineering essentials of a sound sense of spatial organization, discrimination (your personal choice!) makes the most important contribution to meaningful interior design. It ought to be noted that utility is not an aesthetic.

So much for choosing sofas and framed artworks. (After the first round, the starter house or flat, you don’t just go with the first thing that looks good.) Such choices are, or ought to be, uncommon, arising every ten years or so at the most.

Where discrimination must be exercised almost constantly is in the choice of books.

It is not the sign of a discriminating mind to decide that what one really likes best is military history, and then to read nothing else. Ditto thrillers, true-crime books, or the biographies of heroes. This is rather the sign of discrimination forsaken. Discrimination is easily regarded as a ruling-out, but it is no less a force for increasing the variety of different kinds of things among which to make individual choices. You do not discriminate, for example, between Victorian and modern fiction. You discriminate among the examples of both.

Discrimination has something of the look of an Internet tournament: one is forever forced to choose between items of equal merit. I find consolation in knowing (from experience) that the rejected item is likely to come up again, and that the fact of having rejected it (regretfully) will tip the scales in its favor. In the realm of discrimination, no decision is really final.

Fine discrimination produces, as I say, harmony, but it also gives taste the widest range in which to play. More on taste to come.

Gotham Diary:
“Too Depressing!”
24 September 2014

My bedtime reading these days has been rather lurid: Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. I am currently inching my way through the disastrous reign of Edward II (1307-1327) — inching by two little Kindle pages at a go, before I drop off to sleep. Jones’s book is perfect for bedtime. I already know the story, but not from Jones’s point of view, which is considerably more vivid and dramatic than that taken by the contributors to the great old Oxford History of England.

If I have one complaint with Dan Jones, a complaint that might make me seem to look down on his book, academically and snobbishly, from the finer atmospheres of my ivory tower, it is that he rubs the sharp edges off the enormous differences in mindset and even, I believe, higher consciousness between men and women of the Middle Ages and ourselves. The old kings and queens, despite their different costumes and pastimes, were just like me, and if they walked into the room, we could all have a nice chat. (Being dead, they’ve given up putting on airs.) The complaint is notional, because I knew that it would be there to be made when I bought the book, and indeed bought the book in spite of it, bearing in mind that I was looking for bedtime reading, not institutional history. If Jones’s historical perspective, which flattens the distance between then and now, is not interfering in the least with my enjoyment, it is, however, worth bearing in mind.

I have nothing but praise, however, for Jones’s briskly literate style, which should give the younger readers for whom this sort of book was once intended no example of cant or solecism. I can only wish that more non-fiction writers aiming at popular audiences would write so correctly. Jones shows again and again that there is nothing about Standard English to be afraid of.

Edward {II} was accused by the chronicler Ranulph Higden of preferring the company of “jesters, singers, actors, carriage drivers, diggers, oarsmen, [and] sailors” to fraternizing with nobles and knights, and indeed sailors, bargemasters and carpenters were recorded dining in the king’s chamber at times during the reign. “If only he had given to arms the attention that he expended on rustic pursuits he would have raised England on high,” bemoaned the anonymous author of The Life of Edward II, a contemporary history of the king’s reign. A royal messenger once said that the king preferred thatching and ditching (countryside hobbies better suited to lower-class craftsmen than to princes of the blood) to hearing Mass. Although other evidence suggests that Edward was conventionally pious and could hold his own in battle, he did not enjoy or hold tournaments, nor did he sponsor great chivalric occasions such as the Feast of the Swans at which his father had belted him as a knight. This lack of interest in the proper conduct of kingship eventually reduced him to a figure of popular derision.

Edward also had a reputation for favoritism, and this was a great deal more damaging. He spent his entire adult life under the shadow of cronies with whom he fostered unhealthy obsessions. “The king dishonoured the good people of his land and honoured its enemies, such as flatterers, false counsellors and wrongdoers, who gave him advice contrary to his royal estates and the common profit of the land, and he held them very dear,” wrote the Anonimalle chronicler. There were several such favorites during Edward’s lifetime, but only one for whom his passion ran highest of all. From as early as 1300 Edward was dominated by one notorious individual in particular, Piers Gaveston.

Good stuff, no? Jones treats contemporary chroniclers very much as the salty commentators that they intended to be, and he knows just when to cut them off.

Never let it be said that I didn’t glean any nuggets of insight from Dan Jones. Jones explicitly opens the door on reading the downfall of Edward II for hints as to what the reign of his direct descendant, Edward VIII, might have been like had it been allowed to continue. The later Duke of Windsor was another king with a weakness for favorites and a belief that kings get to do what they like in their spare time.

Alas, Edward was unable to perceive this. He saw Gaveston’s exile as a personal attack on the man he loved rather than as a political act undertaken for the good of the realm.

Makes you sit up, that one does. The strongest evidence that Edward was gay or had sex with Gaveston and others is in the end nothing more than the intense massing of baffles, built up over the centuries by officials and academics, to stifle discussion of the matter. When I was in school, it was “obvious” that Edward was a queer, because historians were so constipated about the details of those “unhealthy obsessions.” But all we know for certain is that Edward fathered Edward III, a guaranteed manly man. There were lots of reasons aside from difference in gender for the king’s lack of interest in his French queen.

In David Hume’s highly eccentric account of the reign, Edward II was an enlightened monarch whose taste for favorites in fact adumbrated the cabinet system, which had only just come into being in Hume’s day. The historical consensus, however, firmly holds Edward to have been an irresponsible man without any political imagination at all. His father and son, both very strong kings, might bluster all they liked about royal prerogative, but they took care to make sure that their position (as distinct from particular policies) had broad support among the military and ecclesiastical establishments. They were always, at least until the debilitations of old age, highly respected kings. Edward, it seems clear, did not know the meaning of respect.

As I read along, the words of Roger de Bris, in The Producers, keep coming to mind: “We’ll have to change the story. They’re losing the war! It’s too depressing!”

Gotham Diary:
Egotism
23 September 2014

It is undoubtedly owing to the weakness of convalescing from a serious blow, but my days are strewn with moments of remorse. Remorse is not the right word: these moments are thoughtful and reflective, not pained or shamed. But as with remorse, I find myself wishing I hadn’t done things when I was younger. More often, I find myself wishing that I hadn’t been the person I was — without knowing it. Nobody ever knew Pope’s line about self-knowledge, to less overall effect, than I. I thought that I was an introspective young thinker. That is what I wanted to be, and I knew that I had to do a lot of reading to improve the quality of the thinking. It was this particular aspect of my life that held my interest. The persona that I projected for other people to see was a nuisance. I knew that it was flawed, but I couldn’t be bothered to work on it. So far as social life went, I coasted.

That might sound unobtrusive and low-impact, but we get a better picture if we remember that I was a sturdy giant of six feet, four inches, and that I was coasting downhill. I honestly believed that, if I asked nicely, I could have almost anything I wanted. I didn’t want crazy things; I didn’t even want a lot of things. But when I wanted a small favor or a cup of tea or special access to which I wasn’t quite entitled, I expected a smile and a pleasant manner to get them for me. They almost invariably did. How would you deal with a big, flying object?

Every once in a while, a friend, or, more usually, a woman whom I admired, and wanted to know better, would take me aside and tell me what murder I was getting away with. I would be prostrated by guilt for a few days, until the shock wore off. Pretty soon, it was back to murder — and oblivion.

It was Anthony Trollope who first brought me to heel. In about 1975, I was reading his Autobiography on the Westheimer bus — Yes! I took the bus in Houston! I didn’t own a car! I was often the only white passenger on the bus! Wasn’t I admirable? — when something very unpleasant hit the pit of my stomach. I have never been able to find the passage, but I must have been ready for it. Trollope told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a gentleman, and that I was not behaving like a gentleman. I knew instantly that he was right. This was mortification from within. It had nothing to do with being found out. Not long after, I set out on the tedious and somewhat humiliating path to law school. A similar vanity offense was (unwittingly) launched by Barbara Ehrenreich in 1983, when, in an essay on “The New Man,” she pointed out that the new man regarded smoking with disdain, as “blue collar.” I saw at once that I completely agreed. I stopped smoking almost immediately, and never slipped back.

Sadly, that sort of thing didn’t happen more often. By the time I was approaching forty, my little vices were all pretty sui generis. I even rationalized the bouts of heavy drinking as self-medication for a condition that was beyond the scope of modern medicine and psychotherapy. Common or rare, however, my problems were all matters of a pervasive egotism so deep-seated that I should have used every tool in my brain to argue against its presence. (Thanks to this experience, I can imagine how easy it is to settle into doubtful disregard for claims about global warming.)

That we are all egotists seems to be a proposition that many people (men mostly) are prepared to accept. But I am not, even with my own unattractive record. I don’t think  I could bear it. That, I suppose, is why I’m experiencing these moments of regret. Not for crimes and misdemeanors punishment for which I might have ducked long ago, but little, “harmless” things, not even so wicked as stepping on toes. Many of these egotistical decisions didn’t involve other people at all. They simply filled my head with ideas about the sort of apartment, the sort of country house that I ought to have. (“Country house,” my foot. We had a typical New England lake house, slightly more substantial than a shack.) I spent a lot of the early Nineties dreaming about a better life instead of doing anything about it (beyond spending money), and it is difficult to resist telling you where I now think my head was.

In my defense, I can only say that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I can add that I lacked any sort of genuine purpose  — one that originated truly from within — until the Internet began to take off, in 1996. Nearly twenty years later, those sketchy beginnings have developed into what, to myself, at least, I call my professional life.

***

One aspect of this professional life — far more integral than a mere side-effect — is my increasingly quiet life. Among many others, the quiet life has the advantage of curtailing opportunities for inadvertently egotistical behavior. It has also counseled a rather lawyerly habit of considering the discretion of what I want to say before I say it. The process works very quickly, and it has already transformed my social conduct. At dinner parties, I’ve gone from Mr Never Shuts Up to being someone you might almost mistake for shy. I have already thought through and dismissed to my satisfaction most of the points that other people make about issues of the day; sometimes they’re just wrong, but more often their perspective is too shallow. Instead of arguing, I listen for the odd thing that anybody might say, a possible clue to better understanding. I enjoy myself far more, and I drink far less. The next day, I suffer neither kind of hangover, the worse hangover being the one characterized by roaring disgust at having filled rooms with the sound of my own voice.

If you want to know what I mean by “shallow perspective,” let me just venture this word of advice. To the extent that the other day’s march about climate change was intended just to “heighten awareness” of the environmental crisis, it was, in my view, a pointless exercise. What every one of those marchers (two of them very dear friends) needs to do next is to proselytize among ordinary, lower-middle-class, not so-well educated Americans who by and large have dismissed “global warming” as a hobby for privileged collegians. What they saw in the media coverage was a carnival of well-fed, optimistic bohemians — kids who could afford to live in New York City, for the love of Mike! These people must be persuaded to think differently and to vote accordingly. Without their assent, nothing will come of climate reform, except, possibly, highly disruptive uprisings.

Gotham Diary:
Taste
22 September 2014

Today’s anecdote can be filed under “Instances of Critical Diminishment Resulting from 40 Years of Shambolic Education at the Highest Levels (Also known as ‘Mao’s Cultural Revolution in America’).”

Somebody at the New York Times Book Review had the bright idea (not) of asking James Parker and Adam Kirsch to give short answers to the question, “When Discussing Books, What Does Taste Have to Do With It?” As I have carefully read neither of the replies — how on earth could I continue after Parker’s opening salvo, occasioned perhaps by T replacement, “My thoughts about taste — taste, what a nasty word”? He finished the sentence by admitting that his thoughts were confused, which could only mean that he had opened his mouth before he’d done his homework. Ahem. As I have carefully read neither of the replies, I won’t be commenting on them.

My first train of thought was about what I mean by the word “taste.” I will get to it anon.

But when was the last time you heard anybody talk about taste, or good taste, in ordinary conversation? Even “bad taste” has been swallowed by a superior usage, “inappropriate.” That’s what say now when somebody makes a joke or an observation that, whatever its merits, has not been made the right time or place. The occasions for this negative judgment have shifted, too. It used to be “bad taste” to mention anything about the toilet and its uses except to doctors and very close intimates, and then always with a note of worry. We are not so squeamish anymore; during my lifetime, perfectly nice people have accepted the universality of various toilet troubles and passing mention, where not totally irrelevant, is understood to be acceptable. (But, again, no casual or gratuitous references. Those are for boys my grandson’s age, who, it seems, have seized upon the knock-knock joke, which they don’t properly understand, as a template for dirty talk. “Who’s there?” “Peanut butter poop.” The little darlings.) There is also a new register of complaint, having little to do with old canons of “good taste”: Too Much Information! TMI! New parameters for social discourse are always in the works, and good taste is no longer even passé.

“Good taste” has never been an academic criterion, and by the  end of World War I, if not sooner, serious criticism for the lay reader adhered to academic ideas of worth. I cannot remember a time when educated people did not frown at the mention of good taste, and rightly so:  good taste was wholly derivative. Its canons, drawn from guide books which misleadingly claimed to capture the behavior of the upper classes, were all  aspirational: observe them and you would be fit for tea with Edith Wharton. So it was thought.

When you’ve finished thinking about that, try to find a book review or suchlike, written within the past forty years, in which “good taste” is explicitly mentioned either to (a) praise the work under review or (b) regret the lack of good taste in the modern world. Sources are to be limited to those publications, organs so serious in intent and adult in tone, that they make the Book Review look like a pulpit for the propagation of the wrong-headedness that good taste has actually evolved into, political correctness. PS: Ironic references cannot be counted.

Once has to ask, Which particular literary morgue had the poser of this weekend’s question been visiting?

In the body of the text, immediately before James Parker’s answer, the question was rephrased:

Facing the deluge, don’t we need our discernment — everything of civilization that survives in our poor Facebook-rotted brains?

“Discernment” is something like the opposite of good taste. Good taste knows in advance what is good. Discernment takes a deeper look, and judges for itself. Discernment is good. Far more interesting, not to say literate, answers might have been forthcoming had “good taste” been dumped.

***

Good taste, then, as a faculty of judgment possessed by observer of art and literature, will thus be conceded to be wholly bogus, unworthy of further remark.

I am not given to epiphanies, but I can claim that the shock of recognition jolted me twice, during the Nineties, and spurred me on to an understanding of “taste” that I had read about, but never believed in, never having experienced it myself. The first messenger was Cecilia Bartoli’s recital of Rossini songs. (I gather that this is no longer available.) It was given to me as a gift. I kept my moue to myself. There are many things in late Rossini that I adore, but they’re mostly part-songs. Aside from whirlwind chestnuts like “La Danza,” his solos are saddled with soppy lyrics that he is prone to repeat and repeat. When I listened to the CD, however, I fell in love with it. It was Bartoli’s performance, which was not  just musically perfect. There was something more, but what?

The second messenger was Keith Jarrett’s recording of five or six of Handel’s keyboard suites. For this recording, Jarrett chose the more expressive piano. I thought, maybe a jazz man can bring some life to these cookie-cutter ditties. It turned out that the life that Jarrett brought to the suites was profoundly “classical.” He seemed to have gone to the bottom of the score and brought up everything that could be found. Again, there was much more to it than polished execution.

What was this something extra? I didn’t have to give the matter much thought. In a final stroke of recognition (produced by the other two and completing the recognition), I saw what writers like Charles Burney, exponents of eighteenth-century aesthetic outlook, were talking about. This was taste.

Taste, which, if bad, is better described as absent, is the art of balancing and blending the multiple lines of melody and meaning, the shifts in direction and tone, that are to be found in any piece of interesting music. It is the one gift that composers and performers share. Nothing too much — but everything as much as possible, within the discipline of taste. Taste is the sense of limits that a composer or artist requires into order to express many things at the same time while avoiding chaos and tedium. It is what the conductor requires, too, to balance the claims of the instrumentalists gathered before him, each of whom is naturally inclined to see his or her part from a musically egotistical point of view. The conductor must also pace every bar. Equal in the score, bars are not equally important in performance. And so on.

The listener must develop this kind of taste as well, but discussion of that will have to wait.

Gotham Diary:
Stirling
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?