Oxford Note:
The Rock Garden
18 December 2014

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Brevis?
17 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is life too short?

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Boxic
16 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Gotham Diary:
Home Scary Home
15 December 2014

Whenever I find myself near the living room window, I am startled by the passers-by on the other side of 87th Street, many of whom, like this young man with his device and his mug, are not quite passing by. 87th Street is a side street, not a thoroughfare like 86th, and a great deal of what can only be called loitering takes place on it. Also, the people close enough to be appreciated. From the bedroom upstairs, we could see pedestrians at the northeast corner of First and 87th, by they were distant, indistinguishable creatures, notable only for the occasional sporty umbrella. From the living room down here, it is impossible not be intrigued by the view from what momentarily feels exactly like a box in the theatre.

As for the view inside the apartment, that has undergone a startling change, too: the Great Wall of Books has disappeared. But more about that some other time.

***

I have never been so keenly aware of the biographer’s art as I am while reading Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald. That’s another way of saying that I feel, intensely, the very different stories that might have been told by other, less sympathetic historians; while, at the same time, I sense as never before, the complications of perspective that are encompassed by any life, certainly any interesting one. Lee manages to tell at least two stories herself. One of her Fitzgeralds is a novelist with a glittering academic past, about whom one might say that she did not begin to write books of any kind, much less novels, until she caught the sound that would make her voice distinct from all those that she had encountered as a literary scholar. The other Fitzgerald is a woman beset by domestic adversities that, although all too familiar to working-class women everywhere, took this scion of the materially austere but nonetheless elite Knox family by surprise. Twice in her life, she was evicted by bailiffs (or by the threat of their imminent appearance), and after losing a third home to the Thames — her houseboat in Chelsea Reach sank — she spent over a decade in a council estate. It would be easy to put the entire blame for these catastrophes on her feckless husband, but to do so is to reduce Fitzgerald to a passive, hopelessly helpless female.

Another woman might have reflected upon her life as a woman, coming to maturity when she did, but I suspect that Fitzgerald found this subject not only humiliating but, worse, uninteresting — just as I suspect that it was her lack of interest in the foundations of housekeeping that exposed her to the vagaries of uncertain fortune. I am by no means looking down; my familiarity with the embarrassing irregularities that Lee retails (as delicately as possible) is far more extensive than I care to admit. I certainly took no interest in the foundations of housekeeping when I first set out to keep house. I am still far more concerned about the appealing appearance of a room than I am with its actual cleanliness; and, instead of budgeting, I try to spend as little as possible, an effort that from time to time seems to justify outbursts of irresponsibility. I get better at it, I believe, but at my age this is no sterling accomplishment. I am, moreover, a man: I have been able to choose to take on the duties and cares of keeping house. I have not had to raise children, either; my daughter’s daily care was almost exclusively her mother’s concern shortly after she passed her first birthday. Fitzgerald, as a matter of everyday life, was a “devoted mother.” Her efforts to secure the educations of her three children, all of whom followed her to Oxford, were unceasing. By that very token, however, it is not surprising that all three left home at a tender age. And it is difficult to forgive Fitzgerald the priggish blindness that made her refuse to visit her daughter, Tina, while she was living in Muswell Hill out of wedlock, with the man whom she would marry. Photographs appear to confirm one’s judgment that Penelope Fitzgerald never tried to make a home.

In the world in which Fitzgerald grew up, there were servants and maiden aunts to see to what Hannah Arendt calls, in The Human Condition, the labor of domestic life. Like Arendt, Fitzgerald never seriously considered undertaking this labor, even when money was very tight. Both women would have considered housework a shocking waste of mind, and both contrived to avoid it as doggedly as I avoided studying Latin. I lived to regret the early drilling in Latin, but I don’t think that Arendt or Fitzgerald understood what they had missed on the home front. And I don’t fault them for it: they belonged to the first generation of which intelligent people no longer entertained the notion that the minds of women were inferior. Housework would almost certainly have been the waste of a chance to enjoy parity of intellect. I expect that neither ever doubted that housework ought to be done for servants, and that one ought to try to make enough money to pay them, rather than taking it on themselves.

We still live in a world where loving homes are thought to be maintained, or at least overseen, by selfless women, even though selfless women have all but passed from the face of the earth, along with domestic servants. Housekeeping still looks like a mousetrap to intelligent women; no bait in the world could merit the loss of personal autonomy that engagement with housekeeping seems to require. I know this, because smart women often tell me so, and in whispers, as if the very mention of the subject were dangerous. I know many devoted mothers who are raising children in what seems like an improvised camping ground, rather like living in a fun circus without the dangerous animals or the shady characters. The idea, which certainly reigned chez Fitzgerald, is to grow up and go out into the real world as soon and as successfully as possible. You’re not leaving home if you’ve never had a proper one.

The idea that attachments to people are the only important ones strikes me as naive. We are all needy creatures, and it seems healthier to work out some of this neediness on things — possessions. Home is a possession shared by two or more people and owned by none. We talk about the importance of good homes for children, but good homes are never very precisely described. Men, by and large, don’t know anything about them — but who is to enlighten them? Many of the women — most? — who would dearly love to have a home are too poor to make one, and the men in their lives aren’t ready to help them. As for the smart women, they have “better things to do.”

I hope that it won’t be long before well-educated women stop being afraid of home.

Gotham Diary:
Free Company
12 December 2014

A few weeks ago, I placed a photograph of the book room taken from this angle at the bottom of an entry. I had the idea of posting an image each Friday, to show how the moving in was coming along. The following Friday, however, was the day on which Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil did something special, and I was distracted. Ray had already applied a coat of paint, mixed with glaze, to the bookcases. One coat. That was all it took. With sunlight streaming into the room, you can tell that one bookcase used to be bright green, while the other two were dark blue, but you have to be looking for this. A casual glance suggests that all the bookcases are a bronze brown. I was never so impressed in my life. One coat!

This photograph nicely fails to suggest the extent of disorder on the bookshelves, but there are plenty of hints. Perhaps in another three weeks I’ll post another photograph. Perhaps not — I’ll be in San Francisco. (Yikes.)

***

David Brooks’s column in today’s Times has fallen into my lap. “In Praise of Small Miracles” retails anecdotes about how behavioral economics is being used to make life less awful for people around the world. In Kenya, iron boxes encourage savings, and heckling bad drivers reduces automobile casualties. Sugar cane farmers in India are invited to make important decisions (about choice of fertilizer and schools) after they receive their annual payment, not before, when they tend to score ten points lower on IQ tests. Bonuses are awarded to teachers on the understanding that they must be returned if quotas are not met. The gist of all these stories is the importance of understanding that we are generally far more motivated to avoid some things than we are to achieve some others, and I don’t think I could find a more eloquent expression of the little formula that I inserted into an entry the other day (less awful more better). It’s a mistake to try to work with a scale that ranges from bad things to good things, because the two are not continuous in our minds. It’s a mistake to exhort people to do good things so that bad things won’t happen, because we think about good things and bad things with different parts of our minds. If you want to focus on making bad things less bad, it’s better not to muddle the picture with talk of improvement. It’s enough to show ways in which bad things can be made less awful. And this is something that institutions of all sizes can do.

Does this mean that human engineering works? No. Human engineering envisions improved human beings. Behavioral economics is more modest. It doesn’t seek to straighten the crooked timber of humanity, but only to accept it — to work with its grain instead of against it. Brooks’s small miracles are no more (and no less) miraculous than raising a happy child. What’s new is the understanding that informed, humanist concern for the welfare of others is the first principle of social policy, just as it is of successful parenting.

It’s because of this focus on safety and soundness — making life as little awful as possible — that parents and institutions do best to leave the positive pursuit of happiness to others, to contributions of the individual’s peers — to colleagues, neighbors, friends, and lovers.

The parent who has created a safe and loving environment has done enough. It’s a mistake to proceed to fill up a child’s life with extracurricular activities. Similarly, it is useless for universities to pay any attention whatsoever to those extracurricular activities when deciding which applicants to admit. Parents and schools are charged not with turning out well-rounded adults but with seeing to it that adults are not ill-equipped to live in the world — in the same way that they are not malnourished or unclothed. It is the responsibility of parents and schools to teach young people the conventions of social intercourse and the principles of political government. It is the generosity of teachers and lovers that inspires our lives with the visions of happiness that make the hard work and mortal failing of life more than worth the trouble. We pursue happiness in the free company of peers.

(Teachers as peers? I’m using “teacher” in a special sense, the one that marks our recollection of teachers who “made a difference” to us. The difference made in such cases is an understanding of the world, and it is not taught but delivered, by one mind to another. When this “difference” is being “made,” the teacher is, momentarily, not an authority figure, but a guide, as Virgil was to Dante.)

***

Coming home from the Remicade infusion yesterday, I finally got to sit in one of the new taxis with a sunroof. It was a great treat, even in the dark. As we drove up First Avenue, I watched as the tops of tall buildings floated by. I can never see anything much from the sedan windows of a taxi, and I can’t see much more when I’m walking; to glimpse the top of a building across the street, I might very well have to stretch out on the sidewalk. The view through the sunroof of so many lighted apartments reminded me forcibly that I live in a very big city full of a lot of people. That this immense population is neither crowded nor oppressive amazes me. (NB: If you are reading this close upon a return from the Fairway in my neighborhood, please give the sentence fifteen minutes of deep breathing to achieve plausibility.) All those rooms, stacked in columns twenty or thirty tall, each kitted out differently, each trailing a unique bundle of stories. Comparisons to anthills would be blind and stupid.

And then we pulled into the driveway of my building. I am already beginning to forget how long we couldn’t use it.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Dragon School
11 December 2014

Kathleen is now in San Francisco. She flew there from Phoenix yesterday morning. Last night, she took a taxi out to Sunset and saw Megan, Ryan, and Will, and also Ryan’s parents, who have been paying a visit from their new home in Riverside County. She had a very good time. I stayed up late, in order to chat with her afterward. What a difference an hour makes! The two-hour jump between the Eastern and Mountain Time Zones is psychologically manageable — it doesn’t seem to amount to very much. The third hour, between Eastern and Pacific, makes it much more difficult to reconcile schedules. I call it a phase change, although I don’t know what that means.

I slept neither well nor poorly. I got up earlier than I thought I would. Although I read several stories in the Times, I can’t remember a single one, except for Charles Isherwood’s review of the revival of Electra in London, with Kristin Scott Thomas, whose outbursts of rage struck the critic as “monotonous.”

Then I called Kathleen, who doesn’t have anything to do today but draft documents and, this evening, attend a dinner. She gladly accepted my offer to call her back in an hour.

In the middle of the afternoon, I’ve got a Remicade infusion at the Hospital for Special Surgery. I was going to try to do a few other things while I was out, such as getting a haircut, but I’ve abandoned those ambitions. Getting myself to the hospital and back will be plenty beaucoup for this cold, grey day. At some point, I have to install a new answering machine. Now that JM has normalized our land-line situation, I’ve taken calls from friends who didn’t have my cell phone number. One of them said, “Ah, your phone is working again.” What he meant by that was that I had picked up the phone before his call could be shunted to the voicemail box to which, not knowing the password and not being able to set a new one, we don’t have access.

Between washing the dishes, after dinner with Ms NOLA and Mr ED, and Kathleen’s phone call two hours later, I read Jan Morris’s Oxford. But is it? Oxford came out in 1965, when Jan was still very much James, and the book betrays, on almost every page, an insider’s familiarity with the place that, in those days, only a man would possess. (A woman, no matter how much of an insider herself, would certainly have complained about the male entitlement that was still the great sea of privilege on which the University floated.) But authorial metamorphosis is not the twistiest thing about Oxford. Fifty years on, how accurate is it? In the chapter on “College Spirit,” Morris predicts that the autonomy (and peculiarity) of the thirty-odd colleges can’t last, that, if nothing else, state funding, new at that time, will eventually transform the fabric. (In fact, however, there are three more colleges today than there were in 1965, a move, it would seem, away from homogenization.) Can the High Steward still oversee trials for treason?

It doesn’t much matter, really; I’m reading the book for its impressions, as well-written as Morris’s always are, and for a sense of the once and future university, which rises from countless statutory provisions and traditional routines to caper like a dragon in one’s moist imagination, impossible to capture.

Do I wish I’d gone to Oxford, instead of to Notre Dame? Do you have to ask? But I’m too old for regrets of such highly speculative nature. Notre Dame was good enough for me, and I have heard of only two or three other American schools where I fancy I might have done as well for myself. That’s to say: where I shouldn’t have come to grief. I needed a demanding curriculum but easygoing professors. Arguing in seminars was instructive, but writing papers was more important. I was convinced that nobody really knew anything, that the older professors who actually did know something had stopped learning, as a response to the apparently huge changes in everything. My totem, a figure too invested with dread and dismay to serve as an idol or a patron saint, was Cassiodorus, the sixth-century patrician who institutionalized the preservation of a written culture that had already sustained severe losses. I regarded my contemporaries as Ostrogothic barbarians looting the libraries. And I still do.

My intellectual community is a world of silent exchange, of writings passing back and forth and onward. The division is not between the living and the dead but between the distant and the near, and my intellectual companions are all distant; they are at any rate never in this apartment. My life is not at all monastic — I’m unabashedly hungry for dozens of small pleasures — but the pace of my thinking is set by the demands of reading and writing, not those of debate, which rather horrifies me. The meaningful discussion of almost anything is too complex for conversation; talk just complicates. Silence can indeed be golden.

This is not to say that conversation is unimportant. Far from it; without the stimulation of smarty-pants badinage, I should go on thinking the same old things indefinitely. But the thinking, when it happens, takes place in my fingers, not on my tongue.

I often think of that pensée of Pascal’s that I can never quite locate in satisfactory form, in which he attributes all the unhappiness in the world to the inability of men to sit quietly in a room. I substitute confusion for unhappiness, and I also argue that no one can be expected to sit quietly in a room without sooner or later reading or writing, both forms of engagement with the world.

I don’t know how much of this I should have learned earlier in life had I sojourned in an Oxford college. I doubt that it would have made much of a difference. Oxford is, after all, a society in which young people compete whether they’re asked to or not, and I have never understood the value of intellectual competition. I want to get closer to the truth, yes, but this doesn’t mean that I want to get closer to the truth than anyone else. What’s the good of that? I’m left alone with the truth. I’d rather work toward it in peaceful and quiet collaboration with other readers and writers. I’m not above showing off, but I’m aware that showing off is, or can easily become, ridiculous and pathetic. Not to mention distracting.

For the next couple of days, you’ll find me in Jan Morris’s Oxford.

New Humanism Note:
Three Cautionary Axioms
10 December 2014

Most people, when they get on a train for the first time, know where they’re going. The destination is not what makes the journey interesting. What’s interesting is what’s seen in passing. Hills, farms, towns, rivers — and let’s not forget the backs of factories. Trees up close whiz by; trees far away can almost be contemplated. But the train does not stop to permit further investigation of these phenomena, nor does it shift onto tracks that will take it to a different terminal. You can enjoy the ride, but you cannot direct it.

That’s perhaps why the phrase “train of thought” never meant much to me as a figure of speech. It seemed unintelligent, because I took it too literally. But reading Hannah Arendt, who was very fond of the phrase, taught me to loosen up a bit, to forget about destinations. Trains of thought make stops wherever you want them to, and they work their way to junctions of which you hadn’t an inkling at the outset.

For some time now, also as a result of reading Hannah Arendt, I’ve been deeply interested in the idea of humanism. I’ve used the word a lot, and, almost as often, its close cousin, humane. But what does it mean? Something new, I believe. I saw last night, from a train of thought that I happened to be riding, that humanism in the Twenty-First century embraces a respect for the multiplicity of human idiosyncrasies, and honors every individual idiosyncratic human being, in ways that were not characteristic of the humanist outlook of earlier times, such as classical antiquity or the Renaissance. In fact, this respect and this honor are now the heart of humanism.

The old humanism taught that every human being has a soul that is beloved by the Creator, and it insisted on the sanctity of every individual life. But it also taught that the things that distinguish any two people are accidents, the non-essential results of chance — and therefore not very important. The very thing that all human beings shared and that was held to make every life as important as every other, was also the thing that made the differences between people trivial. I might be tall, and you short; you might be rich, and I poor. But none of this sort of thing mattered in the long run, for the long run was a matter of souls.

So there was nothing in the old humanism to protect humanity from the many bright ideas that were spawned by what is usually called the Industrial Revolution but which would be more clearly grasped as a Mechanical Revolution.

There had always been machines, but they were as varied as the men who made them. Toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, craftsmen developed a knack for the production of precise instruments that repeated operations exactly. This meant that the parts of machines could be made the same, so that two machines could also be the same. One machine might be in Newcastle, the other in Bristol, but they would both spit out the same widget.

At the same time, the concept of civil engineering emerged. Hitherto, engineers had been military men, the designers and operators of weapons and fortifications. Engineering was one of the arts of war. Now it became an art of peace as well, an art of improvement. Civil engineers drained marshes, dug canals, and built bridges without any military or even political objectives. They put the steam engine to a thousand uses. They made life more productive and convenient, and, eventually, safer.

Unfortunately, there was nothing in the old humanism to refute the idea that human beings might also be improved by engineering, by a mechanical analysis of human behavior that would routinize human operations and iron out the quirks that make people different, unpredictable, and annoying. Everyone would be the same, and live together in perfect harmony. Failing that — and, even in the most intoxicated throes of this utopian daydreaming, it was fairly clear that everybody would never be the same — a ruling class of smart people would govern a mass of interchangeable human units.

It sounds ridiculous, but the history of the period 1750-1950 is stuffed with horrific attempts to realize variations on this theme. From slavery in the American South to the Final Solution and the gulags in Europe, and to the Cultural Revolution in China, we find nightmare after nightmare in the glaring light of day.

Today’s humanism begins with a cautionary axiom: Every human being alive is driven crazy by at least one other human being. This cannot be corrected without making things truly crazy for everybody. In most cases, you can teach yourself not to be driven crazy, and life can be grand.

***

I never quite saw this before, but my obstinate objection and resistance to self-help books and New-Age schemes for the realization of human potential are rooted in the belief that people cannot be engineered. (I also have a rather wonderful faith that, in the event that we ever do learn how to engineer ourselves, we’ll no longer want to.) The only way that you can make a human being conform for sure is to kill it, and this can take the violent form of inducing actual death, or it can take the nominally milder form of draining the human being’s life of meaning. Human beings cannot be engineered, but they can be degraded. (That sounds like a candidate for the second cautionary axiom of humanism.) Torture and ethnic cleansing are ancient examples of the application of military engineering to human beings. Standardized testing and television advertizing represent the newer, civil side.

Every happy human being (and here I should equate success with happiness) is the artisanal product, a complete one-off, of manifold acts of generosity. There are no shortcuts. There’s much that we can do to make life less awful for large numbers of people, but happiness is an individualized project: every human being aims for a peculiar kind of happiness that is not quite like anybody else’s. (Third caution: “less awful” ≠ “more better”.) The pursuit of happiness would be a maddeningly inefficient project, if it could not be assisted by a handful of loving and friendly helpers.

Householding Twaddle:
Privacy
9 December 2014

Growing up, I hated Venetian blinds. Back then, there was nothing stylish about them. They were the default setting for soulless housing. Like the blinds in the photograph, they were usually metal — in the bedroom, we have wood — but they came in unattractive shades of white, cream, and grey. The tapes were cheesy. When we moved into this building, the first thing I did was to get rid of the blinds. Three times I did this. The fourth apartment came without them, and I couldn’t wait for the blinds that I was obliged to pay for myself to arrive and to be installed. That’s what thirty years will do to you. Thirty years, and a complete reversal of taste.

It would be interesting to know how much of its prosperity the firm of Smith and Noble owes to the 1981 adaptation of Double Indemnity, Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. As I recall, the glass walls in Hurt’s character’s law office are shaded by blinds. Not the itsy-bitsy ones that were common at the time, but wide, woody blinds that were reminiscent of an earlier decade. It was a feeble attempt, I always thought, to explain all that sweat on the bodies of modern-day Floridians. It was as if air conditioning hadn’t come in yet. Sort of a cake and eat it problem. Anyway, the blinds were super; everybody noticed them. Everyone said, blinds — hmm. (Well, not everybody.) Now you can order up the Body Heat look online. I actually did that — for the blue room upstairs. Having done it, I didn’t want to do it again. Let there be light.

Although: the blinds will make it possible for me to remain in the book room in the middle of clear days, when the sun pours down like molten ore.

In other developments: thanks to the tireless efforts of JM, Tech God, we now have regular land-line phone service in the bedroom and the book room. Hitherto, we have depended on a battery-powered phone plugged into a jack in one of Kathleen’s closets. We have also discovered that we’re signed up for a Verizon voicemail option that we never knew about. It picks up calls on the fourth ring — but slightly later than our old answering machine did. We have no idea how to access this voicemail. For three weeks, it has been taking messages, and who knows what awaits us when Kathleen finally manages to unlock the mailbox.

Also, the book-box count is down to 34. I emptied three boxes, though, not two. One box had almost become part of the furniture. It was marked to indicate books from the living room, but it was full of treatises on needlecraft, and there was no dealing with it when I discovered the error. (There was at that time no furniture in the bedroom.) The box was overlooked in later counts. Among the duly counted boxes, I came across a one that was actually marked “Trollope,” and I set it aside. I’ll open it later, take out what’s not Trollope (if anything), and top it off with other books for storage. I haven’t mentioned my Trollope problem recently, have I? Two summers ago, out at Fire Island, I re-read Orley Farm, and quite liked it, but Kathleen and I were reading Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels at the time, so the air was thick with context. And the young-persons romance in Orley Farm is about as recessed as it can be.

Next summer, perhaps I’ll read The Small House at Allington again. I loved that book the first time I read it. I wasn’t yet onto Trollope’s penchant for lockjaw female monogamy. Now, whenever I read Trollope, it’s like a bad smell, as of virgin immolations in a neighboring park.

More of a boost than that from emptying the three boxes was gained from clearing the clutter on and around Great Wall Island. When we were moving in, the Wall was a very convenient dump for things that didn’t seem to belong anywhere. For a long time, I didn’t even see the mess, because the Wall itself was so formidable. Now that it has been vastly reduced, the Wall and its purlieus must be kept neat and tidy, dusted and swept, and they are. I could simply call it all an Installation and be done with it. Untitled: The Artist’s Library #34. But we know how I’d feel about that.

***

Like everybody else (well, maybe not everybody), I’m reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve read three or four novels by Fitzgerald, and I think that I read them while she was still alive. I have not read The Blue Flower, but I have a copy. It’s an odd edition — QPBC, perhaps? — that couples The Blue Flower with The Bookshop, which I did read. I’ve also read At Freddie’s and Offshore. I can’t say that I’m a great fan of Fitzgerald, but then I’ve just confessed to not having read anything since the year 2000. (That can’t be right, surely?) It doesn’t matter. Hermione Lee writes superb biographies. I wouldn’t say that she could write a fascinating book about just anybody, but then, neither would she. In Fitzgerald, she has an intriguingly late-blooming subject who belonged to a family, the Knoxes, that was practically its own Bloomsbury group. (And both of her grandfathers were bishops!) I haven’t forgotten how Lee made Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf new and desperately interesting figures, despite all that one had read before, and I’m afraid that I’m reading Penelope Fitzgerald as if it were a novel. Pure pleasure; I’m not learning anything.

At night, when I’ve got ready for bed but am not about to get into it, I sit at the end of the living room that I call the boudoir and inhabit it. I sit in my corner chair, which pivots easily for different views. It is very quiet, but I can imagine parties so easily that they almost materialize. One of my favorite sounds is the burble of a good cocktail party, heard from an adjacent room (such as the kitchen). This tells you something about my childhood, I suppose. Although we went to Mass every Sunday, cocktail parties (much less frequent) were the big events in our household. They were, quite literally, productions, and they were always successful, in that most of the guests/audience were glad that they had bothered to show up. I like to think that I have a somewhat higher caliber of acquaintance. I put drinks on the bar and food on the table, and everything’s tasty, but largely I stand out of the way and let my friends entertain each other, which they rarely fail to do. The “production” part is all in what used to be called the Rolodex.

Library Note:
Networking
8 December 2014

They’re gone. Here we see a couple of trucks engaged in remounting the bishop’s-crook lampposts. The next day, they were gone, along with all the orange cones and whatnot. The street was clear to traffic. There were even parked cars along the curb! The foundations of the station entrances are bound in hurricane fencing, but that is the only sign of work under construction. There are no workers now. Other workers, under another contract, will complete the entrances.

So much for 86th Street. Second Avenue is still a mess. Which is ironic, in that much of the inconvenience attending this project was caused by the failure to block the avenue as a throroughfare at 96th and 61st Streets. Instead, the sidewalks were narrowed, to make room for the traffic and the construction zone. This bad decision severely reduced pedestrian traffic and put a lot of shops and restaurants out of business. Traffic on Second seems worse than ever, perhaps because of developments at the other end of the 86th Street Station, at 83rd Street.

I noticed last night that the lampposts have not been hooked up. Something to look forward to.

***

It’s very cold and very grey, and Kathleen is very far away, in Phoenix. On Wednesday, she flies to San Francisco, where she hopes to see the younger branch of the family, and she comes home to New York on Saturday. Aside from a Remicade infusion on Thursday, my calendar is blank. So I’ll be able to spend plenty of quality time with the Great Wall of Book Boxes. I brought the number of boxes down from 44 to 36 yesterday. There is still plenty of shelf space, although little of it is what I’d call premium.

The Great Wall stands right next to the dining table, so the sensible thing seems to be to empty the boxes onto that. If I set up the card table in the foyer, I’ll have somewhere to put books that have for one reason or another lost their place in the book room — presumably to make room for a newly-unpacked book that has a better claim to that place. At a certain point, I shall stop breaking down empty boxes, and start filling them up with books found for the storage unit uptown. The contents of each box will be listed in an Evernote, and a copy of the list will  be packed with each box. (The label of each Evernote will be inscribed on the box.) I wonder if the Christmas tree will have come and gone, and our New Year’s visit to San Francisco will be behind us, before I have finished deciding between which books to put into storage and which to give away. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, by the end of this week, the remnants of the Great Wall will have melted into something like a console, standing alongside the Lutyens bench — I almost said “behind it,” but the bench is backless — masquerading as a clunky piece of furniture that can be lived with for the time being. Four or maybe even five boxes can be slipped beneath the bench, too.

I ought to have foreseen that the move itself would crystallize changes in my thinking about my personal library even more powerfully than the prospect of the move. I say my personal library because I’ve stopped thinking about personal libraries in general and what they might or ought to be. That’s an aspirational outlook, suitable to a young person setting out to build a library. A characteristic of library-in-general is that it ought to be well-rounded, whatever that means. Unless, of course, it is going to be specialist, full of books on two or three topics. I would say that somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of my books are aspirational in this way, acquired pursuant to some imaginary rule. That’s why I have Gibbon in a box. That’s why I used to have several histories of mathematics.

I now see the library as a network. I am at the center of the network, of course, but most books are also related to some, or even many, of their neighbors on the shelves. The importance of most (but not all) books is determined nodally, by the thickness of connections to other books. In the case of fiction, the most important books are those whose authors are represented by five or more titles (although I’m thinking of slimming down my massive Trollope collection, by sending most of it to storage). A singleton, an only-book-by-a-given-author, is probably going to be discarded. So are books about small-tail subjects. I’ll try to collect examples as I cull.

Is this process of moving in taking too long? It doesn’t seem so, but we have had access to the apartment for more than four weeks. And yet, as I wrote last week, the move is done. What remains to be done is all in the nature of improvements that we might well have made to the old apartment. And, briefly interrupting the writing of this entry, my favorite handyman (and I don’t mean Ray Soleil) has installed blinds in the bedroom and the bookroom. Privacy at last! I know that we can’t have curtains by Christmas, but it’s a pleasant dream anyway. Maybe sheers on the living room window.

***

Reading John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?, I see that modernism is an aesthetic that we both dislike but that we sidestep differently. Carey is happy to go with what I call the weedy definition: just as a weed is any plant that’s growing where you don’t want it to be, so art is anything that anybody regards as art. This solves the philosophical problem, “What is a work of art,” by stabbing philosophy in the heart, but the solution is absolutely uninteresting. Why even bother having the word “art”?

My solution is to proceed in the opposite direction. Like Arthur Danto, I believe that a work of art must be intended as a work of art, but, unlike him, I don’t have to deal with his famous necktie conundrum — Picasso and a five year-old both paint neckties that, when they’re done, are indistinguishable; but Picasso’s is a work of art because he meant it to be one, while the child’s is not — because intention isn’t the whole story. Like John Carey, I, too, ignore philosophy’s search for the invisible qualities that distinguish art from other kinds of things. I insist on the very distinct and obvious adherence to a specifically Western tradition of art. This tradition is still very much alive and well, with many practitioners, among them my friend Devin Cecil-Wishing, and as soon as the “art world” and its attendant journalists see modernism and its sequelae as the branches of literature, not art, that they are, the tradition will return to the foreground.

Gotham Diary:
Kant Never Did Anything
5 December 2014

It is not a good day for taking pictures, so I simply removed the garish construction colors from this view of the entrance to the new subway station. At the bottom, I presume, is the mezzanine level, where the token booth and the turnstiles will be — beyond which a further course of escalators will descend to the tube level, which is about seven storeys down.

As you can see, I might easily have passed through the plywood panels and popped down the steep metal stairs. That’s how close you can get to the entry structures. They are surrounded by tightly-pinned hurricane fencing, but otherwise they stand in the middle of open sidewalk. The construction zone is receding quickly — at the moment. It seems to be disappearing from the other side of 86th Street as well. The southeast corner, which I mentioned the other day as being notoriously awkward, has been almost entirely opened up. The northwest corner, where the barricaded perimeter of a big hole in the ground diverts normal patterns, is still a mess, with concrete traffic barriers taking the place of curbs and creating inadvertent bottlenecks for pedestrians who are not waiting to cross the street. The sidewalk pavement at the southwest corner, alone of the four, is still raised above the roadway, but there isn’t much of it, as sidewalks in both directions were long ago sharply narrowed to make room for vehicles. All in all, the intersection of Second Avenue and Eighty-Sixth Street remains one to avoid.

This morning, I ran errands on the early side, because I was both behind schedule and hungry. I wanted particularly to go down to Agata & Valentina, at 79th and First. I ought to have stopped in there yesterday, on my way home from a pre-Remicade infusion exam, but I was too comfortable in the taxi that I managed to snag right at the hospital’s front door. So off I went today. I was thinking about making a chicken stew.

It was coq au vin to start with, but for some reason the name of the dish insisted on being understood. Coq au vin calls for a cock, a grown chicken that has not been castrated. I don’t think that such a bird can be had in today’s world, or would be wanted if it were available. It would be tougher and gamier, and much less meaty, than a capon or a hen. It would require long cooking. The chicken that we use for coq au vin doesn’t need, or even benefit from, such treatment. So although I’m going to use the usual ingredients (pearl onions and mushrooms), I’m going to adjust the method. First, I’ll lightly brown a handful of mirepoix in some butter. Then I’ll brown the chicken, and, after that, the onions and the mushrooms. Then I’ll pour in a combination of broth and pinot noir, bring the stew to the boil, and then simmer it slowly on the stove. The chicken — thighs and drumsticks — ought to be done in about half an hour. I’ll strain the sauce and reduce it to a rich, syrupy thickness, perhaps with the help of some heavy cream.

I want to make a soup, too. Once again, I’ll begin with mirepoix. Agata is now selling little tubs containing layers of roughly chopped onion, celery, and carrot. A little more chopping will make this indispensable mixture perfect. When the aromatics are fragrant, I’ll chop and add a butternut squash, a parsnip, and an apple. When the fruit and vegetables are soft, I’ll purée them: voilà! It’s just the sort of weather for such a soup, which will also stretch the stew, which I’m hoping to serve tomorrow night as well, if Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil manage to cross town. Fossil is on the edge of a cold — I could hear it in his voice this morning. Kathleen, unfortunately, is here for one night only. She returned from Dana Point late last night, and she leaves for Phoenix tomorrow afternoon. I hope that she’ll really like the stew.

Before we got up this morning, I asked her if there was anything particular that she wanted for dinner. As usual, she replied that she can’t think about food when she’s not hungry — it’s too abstract. That’s of course the only time that I can think about it; when I’m hungry, I can’t think about anything. I was taught, not by my mother, who did everything that she could think of to discourage my culinary inclinations, but by the young women among whom I lived during and after college, never to go grocery shopping when hungry, and I have found this to be a good rule. Everything looks good when you’re hungry, and not only good but easy to cook.

***

After reading his memoir, The Unexpected Professor, I ordered two other books by John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are the Arts? In the first book (which is also the earlier), Carey retails the history of the creation, by so-called intellectuals, of “the masses,” a subhuman goo incapable of education or other improvement. Some intellectuals believed that only by rising up against the capitalists and seizing the means of production could the masses discover their own humanity, but more were inclined toward modernism, as it came to be called in English. Carey is very good about modernism; he shows how distinctly and persistently opposed to humanism it is.

One of Carey’s chapters is entitled “Natural Aristocrats,” and I found myself wondering where those so-called intellectuals got the idea that they were the natural aristocrats. Who died and made them king? In What Good Are the Arts, Carey provides the answer: Immanuel Kant. Writing at the climax of the self-conscious awakening to the idea of art that swept Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century, Kant weighed in on the newly-invented subject of aesthetics, even though he had little taste for art and none for music. The point to be made here is that Kant identified the greatest artists as “geniuses,” because, as Carey says, they had access to the “‘supersensible’ realm in which the moral and the aesthetic are bound together.” This endowed art with the strange prestige that it still possesses, while also transforming appreciation of the arts into the best credentials of the highest minds. A thinker like Nietzsche may not have created any art, but he certainly threw himself into polishing those credentials.

And this is where the link between the two books ought to be found — or so I’m thinking at the moment, a mere two dozen pages into What Good Are the Arts? The whole business of intellectual contempt for ordinary human beings beings, in Carey’s earlier account, with Nietzsche, who of course conceived of the übermensch, or superman. It’s clear to me now that Nietzsche was merely inserting his own personal plug into a socket powered by Kant’s idea of genius. Schopenhauer, also very much plugged in to that source — what German thinker of the time was not? — carried Kant a bit further by insisting that, if art required geniuses to create it, then it demanded at the very least a superior type of person to appreciate it, not, as Carey quotes, “that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day.” What followed inevitably from this kind of puffery was a program designed to prove the point, by serving up work that ordinary people were sure to hate. The fact that ordinary people didn’t appreciate modernist art would demonstrate their inferiority. It was an awful racket.

The Intellectuals and the Masses convinced me that modern, or more properly modernist, art cannot be worthwhile insofar as it is merely modernist. (It may well, as I wrote the other day, be beautiful, even though the modernist aesthetic forbids beauty.) And by “modernist” here I mean, simply, anti-humanist, work that is designed not so much to pass over the heads of ordinary people as to repel them.

So I was surprised, in the very first pages of What Good Are the Arts?, to find Carey willing to include Piero Manzoni’s The Artist’s Shit under the rubric of art. He may by the end of his chapter, “What is a work of art?”, retract that judgment, but I’m impatient with any willingness to allow “the art world” to decide what is and what is not art.

Meanwhile, what is the etymology of “decoration”? I haven’t unpacked the OED yet.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Matters of Senior Moment
4 December 2014

The mornings are difficult, fearful, especially when the weather is grey.  My first feeling every morning is one of intense vulnerability. It isn’t just the new apartment, though, or the lack of Venetian blinds on the bedroom window. Nor is it altogether personal: I feel that everyone on the planet is vulnerable. And this is true. I needn’t sketch a list of dangers. The odds may be against anything bad’s happening, but they’re only odds. There is nothing unreasonable about feeling vulnerable, first thing in the morning or at any other time. But we believe that if the feeling becomes disabling, if it hampers, say, one’s desire or ability to get out of bed, then that is not healthy.

When I want to stay in bed, and never get up, not because I’m tired or plain lazy, but because I feel vulnerable — to disease (and the low steps of ageing all feel at first like illness), to social or economic catastrophe, to the loss of loved ones, to a fire in the apartment next door, to a shot fired by some local Adam Lanza, to a mine disaster in the new subway station, to a meteor plunging into New York harbor — if worrying is what’s keeping me in bed, then staying in bed becomes uncomfortable. Getting up and doing something — picking up the Times at the door, replenishing the ice in my water bottle — provides the relief of physical distraction. Reading the Times is almost medically reassuring. Nearly every story involves some sort of upheaval — to put it mildly, the disturbance of someone’s tranquility — and yet the newspaper remains unaffected. It looks just like yesterday’s paper. The sections are all in order. It’s Thursday: Styles and Home. The rich and famous, I know, are as vulnerable as anybody else, but they sure don’t look it.

Then I find myself here, writing. Writing begins with looking for a photograph to head the day’s entry. The business of selecting an image (which sometimes entails creating one), naming it, formatting it, and uploading it is almost always tedious. It intensifies my desire to be getting on with things. And waiting for calamitous apocalypse is even more boring than the tiresomeness of PhotoShop.

But this recent wave of vulnerability — I wonder if it isn’t a kind of spiritual morning sickness, the harbinger of a new look at life. Was it just an accident that I happened to be reading Marilynne Robinson while moving house?

In the best case such a China will overshadow the dear old West in important ways, presumably. In the worst case, it will become another adversary, and the potential for desperate and devastating great power frictions will be realized, testing the endurance of the habitable world yet again, and more severely. I would like to see the cost of these contests monetized, as they say. I know I speak very hypothetically when I say that nuclear plants might be built on the cheap, designed to operate for thirty years and built to last until their shoddiness is a problem that can no longer be ignored. A great deal of money changes hands, industries hum for a while. And what is the long-term cost when things go wrong? These reactors might, again hypothetically, be built in countries eager to take their place among the producers of export products that must, by every means, be made competitive — that is, far cheaper than they ought to be.

I choose this paragraph from “Austerity as Ideology” not quite at random. It captures the essay’s wild sobriety. The topic is the unsustainability of current economic policies), and Robinson moves among jarringly varied registers. The bit about China at the start strikes the admonitory tone of a deliberate sermon, and this ought to make the sarcasm of the remarks about nuclear reactors out of place, but it somehow doesn’t. At the end, we’re scolded, in a near-non-sequitur, about the competitive flood of underpriced goods. And, in the middle of everything, there’s the unexplained demand that we “monetize these things.” If we did, would we decide that war is impracticably expensive? Or rather, on the contrary, that it enriched many parties? I’m not sure. With the rest of the essay in mind, I conclude that Robinson is mocking “monetization” itself, the bad habit of putting a pricetag on everything, up to and including human lives. But it’s not entirely clear.

The very next paragraph reminds me that this essay’s enormous appeal for me is not disinterested: Robinson is saying many of the same things that I’ve been saying.

How should we reckon cost? And how to we reckon debt? Iowa, my adopted state, has a relatively small population and an economy based on agriculture. This has described the place for as long as it has been a name on a map. Iowa also has a fine system of public universities, which represent many generations of support from the people of Iowa, now more often called the taxpayers, so schooled have we been lately in thinking of our investments as exactions. Especially in the Midwest, state universities are flagship institutions, sources of pride and identity. They are virtual city-states, distinctive and autonomous. They carry on every kind of scholarship and research at the highest levels. Historically they have offered education at modest cost to the people whose support has created them and have opened their formidable resources to the public freely. Someone seems to have noticed that this sort of thing is not, under the strict new definition, capitalist. Something so valuable as education should be commodified, parceled up, and sold. The inefficiency of profit should be added, as a sort of tribute to this economic truth. The word “elite,” or “elitist,” has currency these days. Its connotations are bitterly negative in some circles. Universities and those who are associated with them are considered elitist, and this somehow disqualifies them morally for positions of public trust. But the whole point of the land grant system has been to create an elite so large the name no longer serves, to create a ruling class that is more or less identical with the population. To raise tuitions and exclude on economic grounds is the kind of “reform” that will create elitism of the very worst kind.

But I have lacked the genius to mention the inefficiency of profit. From the businessman’s point of view, efficiencies prove themselves as such by increasing profits: quite naturally, profit stands at the center of the businessman’s thinking. Sounding almost Marxian, Robinson turns this viewpoint inside out, putting human beings at the center of things, from which perspective profit is a fifth wheel grinding to a different gear.

Why aren’t we as generous as the Iowans who built and maintained their state universities? The answer always seems simple to me. The Iowans were being generous to Iowans, a class of white people that excluded Afro- and Latin-Americans — or that treated them as second-class citizens. The category also excluded most working women, especially the ones competing for jobs that men had thought to be reserved for themselves. How we define what it means to be Iowan or American determines the vibrancy of our public spirit.

Which rather platitudinous observation sparked a very dark thought: what if it was the lack of public spirit that allowed the legalization of same-sex marriage to spread throughout half the country unopposed?

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Ostentatious Display
3 December 2014

My most prized possession in the new apartment is the vacant space over the carpet in the foyer. It is going to stay empty — except, of course (and I can hardly wait), when we have big, ask-em-all parties. The bar is to the left.

In the shower, this morning, I realized that I don’t have an appointment with the dermatologist this afternoon. The appointment in my calendar was indeed scheduled, but later, at the doctor’s insistence, it was moved forward — very far forward. On our first Wednesday in the new apartment, I was supposed to see her, so that she could look at my scalp, but I could not get out of bed, so tired was I after the thrust of the move. So I called and said that I was very sorry but that I wasn’t feeling well, and that’s when I made the appointment for today. The office called back about half an hour later. No, no: I must come in as scheduled. But I couldn’t! So we compromised on the next day, which was a day short of two weeks ago. I forgot to strike out the later date.

It came to me in the shower because that’s what showers are for. I was suddenly aware that there had been none of the usual confirmation routine. The dermatologist’s office seeks confirmation by phone and by email. You only have to confirm one way or the other, but the request comes at you from two angles. But not when you’ve neglected to correct your calendar.

So my primary reason for going out today has evaporated. But a small host of secondary missions has attached itself to the phantom appointment. I have to get money for S, who cleans the bathrooms and the kitchen every two weeks. I have to have my favorite eyeglasses repaired — a screw fell out as I was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at One If By Land. I have to return Amadeus to the Video Room. I could call for a pickup for the DVD, but a cache of home videos (and even home movies, on 35-millimeter film) surfaced in the move, and I want to have them transferred to disc.

Besides, I want to go out. I stayed in yesterday. Tuesday is developing as my housekeeping day. Most of what I did around the house was only incidental to the move. I’d have had to do it anyway. Polishing the silver, for example. Not all of it by any means, but just the pieces that are out all the time. For example, that tray on the bar. It’s easier to clean, now that I’ve got a much deeper sink, and I could see that there were bits that haven’t been properly attended to in years. I opened up the last two of the non-book boxes, which counts as “moving,” but my subsequent dealings with the linen closet were plain old housekeeping.

The sideboard is too fat for the dining area, and I think that I’m going to have to get rid of it. This surmise would have astonished me as recently as a month ago, and I’d have stoutly argued against it, but Kathleen agrees. I grew up calling the piece “the buffet,” and it stood in the dining room opposite “the breakfront.” The bottom of the latter piece is now the bar. Ray had a piece of marble cut for it when we took off the top part, which was glass-fronted.

When I was growing up, the top part was full of nothing but silver, all of it kept sparkling by a succession of cleaning ladies. It was loot from my parents’ wedding, mostly, and used only at holidays. When I inherited the breakfront and the silver, I maintained the setup, but only for a little while. It didn’t take long for me to see that, in my house at least, the display was in questionable taste. So I tacked pieces of fabric on the insides of the vitrine doors — a half measure that also revealed itself to be dubious. Later, I shelved books in the breakfront, which, after all, was modeled on a kind of secretary desk. The front of the top drawer could be unlatched and dropped to create a tiny, unusable really, writing surface, and there were cubbyholes and stationery drawers. Well, there still are. But the hardware is not in very good shape, and the drawer is not worth repairing. So it stays shut — and useless. At this point, Ray’s piece of marble is all that’s keeping what remains of the breakfront in my possession.

And to think that, when I was a child, I thought that the breakfront and the buffet were very grand, even after my mother decided to have them “antiqued,” or painted her favorite color, turquoise. I could not imagine that I would ever own them — I could not imagine being grand enough myself. I realized eons ago that they’re just fairly respectable products of the long-gone Grand Rapids furniture industry, and that I’m far grander in every way.

My sister and I got in trouble once for divvying up the silver. We were home alone, and we weren’t expecting the parents to return when they did. So my mother caught us in the dining room, with all the silver clumped at either end of the dining room table. (That’s what it was, not the dining table, and that’s what it still is, I imagine, wherever there are still dining rooms.) What we had done was very, very wrong, not just because we oughtn’t to have so much as opened the glass-fronted drawers, much less pawed the gleaming silver, but because our little game was tantamount to compassing the death of the monarch. When monarch did eventually die, my sister, it turned out, wanted none of the silver. And because I was too sophisticated to use the breakfront, which she also didn’t want, to show it all off in, I didn’t have a place for the silver. I still don’t. I’ve given much of it away and am prepared to give away more. Unless, of course, Will asks for it. Earlier this year, my grandson sidled up to his father and asked, “When you die, can I have your money?” He can have my mother’s silver right now, if he wants it.

Reading Note:
Modern Hygiene
2 December 2014

What is the structure in this picture? A block of cement, topped by two pairs of I-beams, in between which — what? Why was it built? More to the point: how long will it take to demolish? It fills at least two lanes of Second Avenue. Presumably they won’t finish it with ramps at the short ends. The curious thing is that the cement part looks brand-new, while the metal bits show signs of severe wear and tear. What purpose did the yellow railings serve? Was there a third? What is this thing?

The last bit of repaving the sidewalk in front of the building is taking a while. First, it seems, the workmen must jackhammer out of existence the narrow strip of walkway that we had to live with for several years (or so it seems), and keep on digging down to a depth of three feet or so. Why? One branch of the driveway was properly paved today; it may be in use tomorrow or Wednesday. Then it will be the turn of the other branch, which was very roughly paved a while ago.

Soon, it seems, the work will be done — around the driveway and the substructures of the station entries, two elongated U-shaped walls of cement, about a yard high, opening out in opposite directions away from the driveway. There remains the corner of 86th and Second, the most degraded patch of pavement that I have ever seen in Manhattan. There is no curbing; the boundary between road and sidewalk shifts from time to time. Actually, the opposite corner, outside Gracie’s on Second (the former Viand), is worse, because pedestrians are forced into narrow areas in which they are put at cross purposes. People trying to cross 86th Street get stuck behind a mass of other people backed up to cross Second Avenue. Moms texting while pushing prams make for extra delight. In the process of restoring all four corners of the intersection, pedestrians will be tortured into abattoir-like pens — I’m sure of it. And then the two roads will have to be repaved. Such fun.

You won’t be surprised to learn that older locals are often heard to swear that they will never use the new subway. Never never never, not after all the inconvenience. You won’t hear me saying that. I’m going to use the damned thing as much as I can.

***

I’ve come back to Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books. When the book arrived, I opened it to the title essay (actually entitled “When I Was a Child”), which begins on page 85, about halfway through. When I got to the end, I took up John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, which I finished last week. By Thanksgiving, I had consumed more food for thought than my up-in-the-air housekeeping could handle. It wasn’t until this morning that the prospect of further intake did not oppress my cogitive digestion. So I resumed Robinson, at the beginning.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s the only way I can begin to make sense of the deep concord that I sense between Robinson and Carey — or, perhaps, that I project upon them. They don’t write about the same things, and they don’t score the same points, or even the same kind of points. And yet they strike me as writers exploring two phases of the same argument. It’s an important argument against modernism. Both are aware that objecting to modernism in this day and age makes the objector look either stupid or reactionary or both. But they are not making the kind of argument that was attempted when modernism was new, exciting, and unknown. They’re not alarmed by the modernist dismissal of the classical rules of harmony. The only thing that alarms them is that so many smart people appear to be unaware that modernism is an elitist stinkbomb, largely intended to repel the uninitiated, and to convince them of their ineligibility to participate in cultural deliberations.

This is not to say that everything created under the aegis of the modernism aesthetic is depraved or worthless. Some artists can’t help creating beauty no matter what intellectual program they’ve subscribed to. Rothko and Twombly, Pollock and Still all discovered paths to the beauty of brooding. But it remains slightly improper to talk about the beauty of their work. Say anything but that! Modernism is supposed to be rebarbative, or at least to make you think. (This intellectual emphasis on the unpleasant, I see now clearly, is the only way that so-called conceptual art could ever be considered as art.) But the modernist aesthetic is not exciting anymore; its function as a means of oppression is only too familiar. We have seen the end of modernism’s rainbow, and instead of a pot of gold we find the black hole of Mein Kampf. (Carey’s most bracing pages, at the finale of The Intellectuals and the Masses, insist that we regard Hitler as a full-fledged modernist. However corny the pictorialism of his “art,” his political ideas were austere.) Perhaps there is an alternative understanding, having nothing to do with modernism, that explains, say, the success of Cézanne or Klee. And if there is, I’ll bet that it depends on perceptions of sheer beauty.

It would probably be more accurate to regard modernism as an anaesthetic, a deadener of feeling. At this point in my entry, I’m aware, I ought to regurgitate the passages in Carey (and in Robinson) that support the assertion that I have just made. But I should prefer to leave it stark, “obviously” wrong-headed. Irritating readers into examining their feelings about modernism — not their thoughts, but their feelings — might be the only way of snapping them out of the trance of modernism hegemony.

Modernism began as affliction of the arts. Then, having wasted that host, it moved to politics, provoking totalitarian regimes and a Cold War that corrupted the political vitality of both contenders. Now it rules from the folly of free-market economics. Its devastations in all three fields share an identical contempt for individual human variety. Its undying objective is the reduction of the multitude of egos in the world to a bestial, undifferentiated mass. But while this objective can bring about unimaginable harm, it can never succeed.

It will be objected that my preference for feeling over thought is anti-intellectual. In the narrow sense of John Carey’s title, I am indeed anti-intellectual. I should prefer, however, to declare that what I’m opposed to is ideology, the imposition of systematic constraints upon the lively human mind. I should like to reclaim the notion of the “intellectual” for the working of happier minds.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
After the Move
1 December 2014

I’m no good with a camera early in the morning. But, like the gentleman above, I’m a great admirer of City Hall, which was arguably the last handsome building to be erected anywhere. This large image fills an alcove in what used to be the DMV, on Worth Street. Now people go there for marriage licenses and civil weddings. On Friday, two very good friends got up  early in the morning so that they could be first in line. Kathleen and I managed to show up at the last minute. Then there was a period of waiting. At last, we were ushered into a chamber. At the climax, I was wondering how the officiant would replace, “You may now kiss the bride.” Elegantly: “You may now celebrate your marriage.” Or something like that. It was way before my bedtime, and I was busy taking lousy pictures with my iPhone.

***

Then we came home and went back to bed. For the first time in my life, I rested. Lying in bed in the middle of the day without feeling sick was an absolutely novel experience. I read for a bit, fell asleep for a few hours, read some more, and slept for another hour. It was bliss.

Then I woke up, and got back to work on the move, which, I decided last night, is now over. Done.

There’s still a lot to do, and about fifty boxes of books remain to be unpacked. But since when is my library not in some sort of crisis? With significantly less shelving for books than I had upstairs — and a determination to reject, as long as possible, any schemes for adding more — I’m going to have to cull my collection much more aggressively than I did while I was packing, and I’m going to do it while I unpack. If this means that we’ll be living with boxes of books for a while, so be it. The apartment is fully habitable, or will be so as soon as the Venetian blinds arrive and are installed. Dozens of pictures remain, either to be hung on the wall or disposed of. Doubtless there will be adjustments, but I do believe that, but for the dining area, and setting aside the armoir that Kathleen talks about having made for her side of the bedroom, the apartment is fully furnished, and everything has been placed where it belongs. So I can stop thinking about all of that. I can try to turn off the inner computer that, from the very first walk-through, registered a clear impression of how the space would work for us — how well it would work. I don’t know where the gift comes from, but I came wired that way.

But moving house is a kind of crisis, and I’m worn out by that aspect of the business. Also, Kathleen is out of town. She’s not actually out of town yet — I just spoke to her at the office — but she’s leaving for Dana Point, California, early this afternoon. She’ll be home on Thursday, but she’ll turn around on Saturday and head to Phoenix, after which she’ll stop in San Francisco for two days. She won’t return for good until the following Saturday. It’s probably not worth the trouble to spell out why her being absent means that I have to be rooted, but Donne comes to mind:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’other do.

Since I can’t be moving in two directions at once, I must be at home, and no longer in transit.

Another indication that the move is over is the pile-up of doctors’ appointments. I see the Mohs surgeon this afternoon about a nasty growth over my cheekbone. Then, on Wednesday, the dermatologist again. On Thursday, the rheumatologist will give me a pre-Remicade exam, and I’ll have the infusion itself next week. All these appointments were postponed or scheduled as if postponed, until after the move. After the move must therefore have arrived.

Finally, there was tea. Ms NOLA, her husband, and her parents came to tea yesterday. I had meant to join them for a tour of the Museum, but, looking ahead, I saw all those appointments, and I didn’t want to overdo the running around. So I stayed home and, preparing for their visit, I cleared up a few pockets of disorder here and there. This was largely a matter of putting books on shelves where they don’t belong. More crucially, I made a batch of madeleines — the first baking that I’ve done in the new kitchen. And what a pleasure it was. I had plenty of room, and I knew where everything was. I polished my grandmother’s silver teapot, which had been neglected. I don’t know where I’m going to put it when I’m not pouring tea for what my mother used to call company (not that I ever saw her pouring tea), but this is not a problem related to the move. The sad fact is that I had stashed the teapot, along with all the other pieces of “hollow ware,” in a desperate, inappropriate place. I must think of something better. Provisionally, I have ordered two zippered “silver bags,” made of cloth treated with a sulfur resistant.

One of these days, I shall write an entry about silver — not the knives and forks but the serving pieces that have come down to me, most of them from no more ancient date than my parents’ wedding in 1942. I sometimes think that silver is still something that I have to get over, or outgrow, and I consider getting rid of the lot of it — everything, that is, except that teapot, which is shaped like a jolly pumpkin, and the coffee pot and sugar bowl and cream pitcher that go with it. I’ll be holding on to those.

So long as I’m holding onto anything. In the paper this morning, I read the obituary for Frank Yablans, the movie man who, among other things, produced Mommie Dearest. He was only 79. (How’s this for curious: “His son Edward, who confirmed the death, said that Mr. Yablans had been in declining health but that he did not know the precise cause.”) I’m not nearly as far from 79 as this death notice made me wish I were.

Ms NOLA’s mother mentioned that she’d looked through the Times for an announcement of the wedding that we attended on Friday. Of course she found nothing. Our friends, now spouses (or spice, as we say), were very quiet about tying the knot, and some family members were not told until the deed was done. I had actually expected them to run off alone together, and to enlist a volunteer witness at the DMV, so great was their determination to avoid any kind of show. But they elected not to enlist a volunteer, asking an old friend instead, and in the event they were attended by a party of five. They treated us to a wedding breakfast afterward, five chilly blocks away, on Hudson Street.

So, now our friends are married, and we are very happy for them, because we believe that, if you can find the right person, marriage is a happy estate. But it will be a while before I stop mulling over the changes that made marriage more equitably available. The shift was certainly for the best, but I rather envy the young people who won’t have to go through it — who won’t remember the bad old days when sexual preferences were everybody’s business.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Boxed Brain
26 November 2014

A few minutes ago, it was snowing. Well, it sort of still is, but you have to squint to see it. A nuisance outdoors without any indoors charm. What’s more, there’s no daylight. The cloud cover is so thick that lamps must be lighted. I had been hoping to see what Ray Soleil’s paint job looked like by day. Last night, after work, he applied a wizardly mix of paint and glaze to the two lesser bookcases, and one coat over that old, dead blue was all that was needed. Astoundingly similar results were obtained on one wing of the breakfront bookcase, the one that I had foolishly painted in Loeb Greek Classics green. When you stand close to the cases, the underlying color peeks through, but from a distance, all is a warm, understated brown, verging on bronze, that suits the book room perfectly. Later this afternoon, I’ll start unpacking books. Yikes!

Yesterday, I unpacked the ornaments — a category that includes everything that doesn’t belong (a) on a shelf with other books or in a drawer with other discs and (b) in the kitchen or about the dining table. There were seven such boxes, and I got rid of five of them. The writing table in the living room — in the part of the living room near the window, which I’ve already taken to calling “the boudoir,” is laden with currently homeless knickknacks. As all the furniture is in place, it’s hard to see how that homelessness is going to be addressed. What to do with the holloware silver is particularly perplexing. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to buy something to put it in, a cupboard of some kind. Or I may just polish it all the time and keep it out. If you actually use silver, you don’t have to polish it very often. There’s a moral there somewhere.

Now the foyer was clear for me to set up the card table, onto which I loaded all the stuff that had been carelessly thrown onto the bookcases in the ten days since the move. When I bought the card table, both Kathleen and Ray cocked their eyebrows, and when I said that a folding table would be very useful in many ways, they fell back on “where will you put it.” Don’t worry: I always find a place for things that need to be squirreled away — sometimes in plain sight. Kathleen and Ray don’t have to put up with those rickety tray tables that don’t hold a proper load. And when Kathleen goes off to a convention, I’ll set up the table in the foyer (which, even when furnished, is about the size of a small but decent dance floor) and work on a jigsaw puzzle. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Ray will be here shortly after lunch — his shop knocks off early today, in view of the holiday — and I’ve no doubt that he’ll finish the job in a breeze. Also on the schedule is a bit of course correction: fractions of an inch have to be shaved from the bottoms of the closet doors, which are now catching on the rugs; also, Kathleen requires additional poles in her closets. Someone is going to take care of those problems, someone referred to us (and to whom we were referred) by our former upstairs neighbor. I’ll have nothing to do but stare out the window, squinting to see the snow.

Time for another coat of off-white.

***

It was  more than a little shocking this morning to learn that St Thomas More, the church where Kathleen and I were married, and her parish church for almost all of her life, may be shuttered in August, presumably so that the land can be sold to raise some of the gazillions that are being poured into the renovation of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The word had been that St Thomas More was “safe,” safe from the rash of mergers and closings that were announced earlier this month. Kathleen knew all about from our friend the deacon. When I read the news at Huff Post — one of Kathleen’s cousins had linked to it at Facebook, but also sent me a note via Gmail — I didn’t know whether to mention it Kathleen at all. She is very tired, having been working long hours lately, and of course having been dislocated by the move. (Having been doing the actual relocating, I have fared better.) She woke from a dreadful nightmare this morning with an awful headache. Selfishly, I wanted to get the moment over with, so I told her. She was really too low to take it very badly, and, if anything, it seemed to make her cross, which is a good response.

Curiously, Facebook can’t find the “Save St. Thomas More — Manhattan” page that Huff Post reporter Joe Peyronnin mentions. And our friend the deacon is in Europe.

***

Meanwhile, my closet door now opens and closes just as it ought to do — without my having to give the rug a thought. And the breakfront bookcase is actually disappearing into the book room. I was tempted to photograph the transformation, but it can’t be done. If there’s one thing that individual photographs fail to do well, it’s to suggest change. So, when you see the picture of a half-painted bookcase, you see disorder and mess. You don’t see anything happening. You had to be here. Even I, who was here, wouldn’t get anything out of pictures taken while Ray worked his magic. So I didn’t bother.

Instead, I prowled about the Great Wall of Books, hoping to find a box with a D or an E label, indicating the contents of the lesser bookcases. But the top boxes were all labeled A, B or C — the three ranges of the breakfront. I’ll have to go digging if I want to find a box to unpack. So I shred instead. That stack of tipped milk crates was just about to make contact with the breakfront bookcase when I began transferring their contents to banker’s boxes. The bulk of a very thick wad of old bills turned to be too old to warrant keeping, and, in a related brainwave, I realized that the place for the shredder is the kitchen, because it makes a kitchen-style mess and works best on a counter. So: I’ll keep it in a dishpan under the sink, and we’ll see how that works.

The closet work is done, and the man who did it will be happy to install the Venetian blinds when they arrive. Sono contentissimo but it’s probably just fatigue. Ray Soleil’s heroic paint job is drying. There’s nothing to do and no end of stuff to be done. What I need is another brainwave: what to do with all those pandan shirt boxes?

***

What am I cooking for Thanksgiving dinner? Nothing — we’re going out. The moment he heard about the impending move, Fossil Darling made a reservation at a favorite spot in the Village. Before heading downtown, we’ll visit some friends on the Upper West Side.

Here’s hoping for a warm and happy Thanksgiving for all my readers, their families, and their friends.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
There He Goes Again, On About His Cooking
25 November 2014

At long last, I took a day off from moving. As noted at the end of yesterday’s entry, I spent most of the day writing it. Then, for about an hour, I considered making a mad dash for several move-related errands. During that time, I became aware of being very, very tired. So I sat down at the computer in the bookroom — midday sun had forced me to set up the laptop on the dining table, at the north end of the apartment, and I’d stayed there all afternoon — and wrote a long letter. Then I ordered stuff from The Container Store. Tote bags arrived from LL Bean: both large, both the same two colors of green, but reversed, with the color of one’s handles covering the other’s body. And both monogrammed, impishly I thought, with varsity lettering. The totes are going to be my bureau drawers for bulky items, and they’ll be stowed on the floor of my rather small closet.

Kathleen won’t be home too late, and we’ll order Chinese. We had an impromptu little dinner party last night. On Friday, I had to borrow an article of domestic utility from our old neighbor on the higher floor. At her door, I asked her to tea on Sunday. On Sunday, I called and revised that to dinner. So our neighbor arrived shortly after seven. Dinner was on the table by eight, and I even remembered to take the Camembert out of the refrigerator, although, with the weather we’ve been having, room temperature isn’t warm enough to make the cheese runny. I sautéed rounds of tenderloin to what turned out to be perfection, and I made a mental note of time and heat setting. What I had taken, at Fairway, to be a sweet potato or yam turned out to be some new variety of regular potato with a greenish tinge — nobody liked it much, but how could I have known? That and a pot of my old microwave macédoine of mixed vegetables, which I hadn’t made for years, having exchanged the microwave for a second regular oven (a mistake). The new apartment comes with! So I cut up zucchini and summer squash and shallot and cherry tomato — this is my basic version — and toss the pieces in olive oil, vinegar, oregano, and salpep. (“Salpep” was an abbreviation that I used to use on Microsoft Word; it would display salt & pepper. Why not just call for salpep?) I pour everything into a covered dish or a compote, depending on the quantity, and cook it for four or five minutes in the microwave.

There was nothing special about this menu, and, but for the nice cabernet that I opened, it was just another everyday dinner. (Well, the Camembert was special.) Our neighbor surprised us with dessert: the most delicious éclairs that I’ve ever had, from the new French bakery around the corner on Third Avenue, Maison Kayser (too new for the Web site!). Shortly before ten, our neighbor went back upstairs, and by half-past ten, we were watching the Lewis episode with Juliet Stevenson.

What was different about this “first dinner” was the ease and pleasure of putting dinner on the table. It’s a pleasure to be in my kitchen, and the dining table is just through a side door. I can leave the table without leaving the conversation. I felt last night that I was getting off to a good start.

My ideas about cooking have slimmed down in the thirty years since we set up a hardwood table in the blue room upstairs. In those days, I was still fairly ambitious, by which I mean that I wanted to follow a lot of recipes for the first time. It’s a useful phase for any home cook, because the experience teaches how to deal with surprise and how to improvise, largely but not entirely the same thing, and both crucial skills. Another takeaway is the ability to get different dishes freshly to the table at the same time: this is the point on which many new cooks falter. And of course there are the techniques and flavors that would not be encountered in the same-old routine. I’m still on the lookout for new recipes — Marcella Hazan’s buttery tomato sauce became a staple immediately, and I try to have the three ingredients on hand at all times. (They are: butter — most of a stick — canned crushed tomatoes, and a sweet onion.) But I’m no longer remotely ambitious. My interest has shifted entirely, away from the cooking, which merely has to be good enough to serve, and toward the pleasure of my own company at the table. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for so many years now that I am genuinely befuddled when awarded praise. It’s like being thanked for reading a book — but then, I suppose not.

I suppose not. I think of all the women I know who don’t like to cook, or who like to cook like men — rarely. I think of Kathleen, who enters the kitchen about as often as Louis XIV, but who is much more grateful for this privilege. I remember how unusual I am — something that really has to change. There was a time when I considered putting together a collection of recipes under the title Cooking For Mashers, and sharing the insight that the way to a woman’s… I’ll let you fill in the rest. But as I didn’t teach myself how to cook as an accessory to seduction, it might be inauthentic and misleading to assume the voice of a wizened Lothario.

***

Whilst watching episodes of Lewis, I keep handy my three Pitkin Guides to Oxford. Two of them are recent purchases — Oxford Colleges and Morse in Oxford. The third I found when I unpacked the books for the living room. As it’s in the other room, and I’m (see above) very tired, I’m going to paraphrase its title as Oxford Town and Gown. It belonged to my mother-in-law, and tucked into it is the itinerary for a ladies’ club tour of Oxford in 1984. Aside from lunch and a bit of leisurely loitering at Merton, the ladies kept up a mad pace, running through colleges in fifteen or twenty minutes apiece. If I were a genius like Alan Bennett, I’d use the schedule to construct a comic play. The women — ladies — who would set out to “do” Oxford in a day would never get any closer to it, academically, than Cheltenham College.

I ordered Oxford Colleges when I saw, on its cover, the edifice that kept catching my eye in the pans that open so many episodes of Morse and Lewis. It caught my eye because of a certain bogus quality. And I was right: All Souls’, with its symmetrical rectilinear spires, topped by what I call, variously, “haircuts” or “product,” is not even as medieval as Christ’s Church. It’s pure Gothic Revival, the work of the excellent Nicholas Hawksmoor, the architect of the bell towers of Westminster Abbey, if you please, and it dates from the first half of the Eighteenth Century (Hawksmoor died in 1736). The long look that a Pitkin guide affords makes it obvious that the whole building is a gigantic fake, Middle-Ages-wise, but I doubt that Hawksmoor or his clients thought of it as such. They were interested in applying the “Gothick” style, like a coat of paint, to a building of modern spaciousness and convenience. All Souls’ would have seemed an improvement, and not at all intended to fool anybody.

Pitkin Guides — we don’t have anything like them over here. If I were Alan Bennett, I should know how to present these introductions to Ye Olde England as the trashy little luxuries that they are. (There is, apparently, a Guide devoted to the six wives of Henry VIII.) Glossy and succinct, Pitkin Guides capture the spirit of efficient but tasteful tourism — it’s their very tastefulness that makes them trashy, which is really my regrettable way of saying that nobody familiar with the subject of a Guide would own it, except in secret and in a spirit of mockery. Also, abominable conceit.

***

And I wrote this, too.

Worldly Note:
Expansify
24 November 2014

On Sunday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published “the column I never wanted to write,” about the newspaper’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. This coverage upsets a lot of people on both sides of the conflict, and Sullivan gets a lot of mail accusing the Times of favoring the complainer’s opponent. She writes wrenchingly well about the difficulties of trying to couch news stories in appropriate contexts, and the awkward (and irrelevant) demands of political correctness.

It wasn’t a column that I’d have expected to read. I pay as little attention to the actual fighting as possible. Since I have no palpable stake in it, the warfare is simply stupid. (This is not to say that one side or the other ought to stop fighting. But warfare as such is always stupid, and that’s the best thing that can be said about it.) As for the political argument, there is little real engagement between the parties. But the problem of adequate coverage caught my attention. It is a problem here in New York, not in Jerusalem or Ramallah. I hadn’t grasped the meaning of that.

A curious asymmetry infects the coverage problem. Whereas most of Israel’s supporters appear to be Jews, few of the Palestinians’ supporters even speak Arabic, much less claim tribal ties. (The Times does not deploy a reporter fluent in Arabic, which is rather shocking.) And the problem has to be worked out in the cosmopolitan setting of New York City, which nobody identifies as the center of a national or religious culture. The annoying but vibrant persistence of this problem, which will last as long as the fighting, together with its locus in Margaret Sullivan’s office, indicate that the contenders — the people complaining about the Times’s coverage — all inhabit the same world.

As the Israelis and the Palestinians do not. They may inhabit the same territory, but they argue, violently, about the right to inhabit it, and no world can contain disagreement on that subject. The world of Margaret Sullivan’s correspondents, in contrast, is centered on the shared understanding that the newspaper speaks to and for “the other side.” The fact that nobody asserts a better right to address the Times signifies that nobody asserts a better right to live in New York.

The problem of adequate coverage is a conundrum about “objectivity.” Objectivity supposes a neutral observer who simply describes what he sees. It is generally conceded by intelligent people that objectivity is a chimera, for no truly neutral observer can exist. The uninterested observer will not pay enough attention, while the disinterested observer, being only human, will inevitably discover an affinity for one side or the other. Nevertheless, objectivity remains the goal of serious journalism, if only as a vanishing point.

But let’s unpack another implication of objectivity: it objectifies. Objectivity transforms fluid life into a fixed form. When I objectify a group of human beings, I force every member of that group to possess the same characteristics, while at the same time reducing every member to the sum of those characteristics. To use force in support of any objectification is the essence of domination. It is a kind of killing that sometimes leads to real killing.

So we ought to be grateful that Margaret Sullivan does not seek an objective solution to the coverage problem. She wants an expansive one. “Include more,” she says.

As coinage goes, “expansify” is not very attractive, but it might be useful. To expansify something would be to bear in mind not only that it is larger and more complex than we need to think it is in order to manipulate it, but that it exists in its own time frame, subject to alternative objectification by others, including those others who have not yet been born. To expansify something would be to respect its essential otherness. (I want to say “otherliness.”)

Respect might be the word that I’m looking for, if it were not quite so tired, and if it more powerfully suggested the enlargement of the world.

The world is a complex thing. It consists of artifacts, such as buildings or texts, that embody human significance, and it also consists of human beings and the principles that they share. It consists of history, the story that people tell about their past; to a very great extent, the quality of the world is determined by the quality of this story. We now understand that the world consists of a concern for the well-being of human beings to come.

The world is always bigger than we think it is. There is only one world, and each of us sees a small part of it. The refusal or inability to recognize that the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary are completely the same (and only incompletely different) is tantamount to destroying the world.

***

As I write these small essays on making a better world, I become more painfully aware that my ideas presuppose and depend upon a condition of material affluence and a freedom from pervasive anxiety that are unseen in most of the world, and in practically all of history. They require patience and peace. (They also mirror the ever-quieting temperament of an ageing man.) Readers in another era may regretfully have reason to think me colossally naive. But I write in a world where many enjoy greater health, wealth, and safety than has ever been known to man. I write from the conviction that it is these very ideas that justify the pursuit of peace and prosperity. Without them, we’re liable to fall into a boring materialism that is not worth saving.

When I began writing for the Internet, nearly fifteen years ago, I assumed a conventional posture, and blithely pointed out the ills of the world to my readers. Gradually, and perhaps unwisely, I have shifted my attention to the ills of my readers, which are making the world a worse place. My readers are educated and thoughtful, but if they’re at all typical of the educated, thoughtful people I see when I look around, they’re doubtful of the efficacy of generosity and decency, seeing them as well-meaning aspects of polite behavior, and not as animating spirits of great power; and they take far better care of their bodies than they do of their minds, appearing almost to believe that rude physical health will straighten the crude tangles of mortal mentality. Yet how difficult it is to pay attention!

This entry was particularly difficult to write. It’s true that I drank too much cabernet at dinner. But it’s also true that in the final stages of moving house. Beyond the wear and tear of toting boxes of potential mess, there are constant encounters with the shape of a younger self, an undisciplined fellow beset by a barely-contained wildness. No brooding, romantic charmer, this former me was obstinate, impulsive, and scary, and I am amazed that he survived the torment of his demons. At the same time, I know how he did it: he wrote. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote, until, no longer young, he began making sense to himself.

Still, he was very lucky. I hate to think how lucky. But then, we all do.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Paint
21 November 2014

Last night, we had an impromptu housewarming — although we shall have to have another, as Kathleen couldn’t join us. Ms NOLA had been offering to help out with the move by cooking dinner chez moi, and I accepted as soon as the new kitchen was organized. We made a date for last night, but when I went to confirm it with Kathleen, she told me that there was a birthday dinner for a friend that she must attend. Ordinarily, I’d have postponed the gift of dinner in my own home, but as I felt the need of it more keenly, I let things stand. When Ms NOLA learned that Ray Soleil would be dropping by to hang pictures, she said that there would be more than enough dinner for him and for Fossil Darling, should Fossil care to come.  So we were five at dinner. It was a riotous assembly. I was surprised that nobody called the doorman to complain.

I was out for most of the afternoon, on a run of errands built around a visit to the dermatologist — the doctor whom, thanks to my fine Irish skin, I see more often than all the other doctors together — so nothing much got done on the moving-in front. But while Ray hung pictures, I took two larges boxes out of the dining area and emptied the third, which was packed with platters. This eliminated a tight squeeze around the table, and made seating five far easier and more comfortable than it would have been otherwise. Plus I gained an empty box to fill up with discarded bubble wrap. I love getting rid of boxes.

Ray hung four pictures: one painting in the book room, two in the bedroom, and a print in the book room. He measured for two other prints, and wanted very much to drive in the nails, but I forbade it, because it was just after six, and I wanted to establish, to anyone itching to complain to the doorman, that my bangings would never be prolonged. No one did complain, which was heaven. Fossil arrived and we all had a drink. It was grand, not having to worry about getting dinner ready.

Soon Ms NOLA and Mr ED blew in. The night before, Mr ED had made the main dish, a casserole of sausage and polenta that we all first had at their rehearsal dinner at Franny’s last year, versions of which both E and I have taught ourselves to make. So he joined us in the living room while Ms NOLA got to work on the salad and the vegetables. It was wildly retro, the four men sitting drinking while the lone woman slaved in the kitchen, and everyone felt a twinge of discomfort. E and I were quick on our feet to give Ms NOLA occasional assists.

At the real housewarming, of course, there will be no great wall of books, and it will not be necessary to access the dining area through the kitchen.

In order to put a dent in that wall, I am going to spend the rest of today painting bookcases.

A few hours, anyway. What wearying work. The wood drinks up the paint, and the result is a very mottled look. Not that it matters much. I’m painting the insides of the bookcases, not the outsides. Ray Soleil thinks I’m crazy, but I don’t want the parrot green (the closest match to Loeb Classics Greek dust jackets that I could find — top that for frivolous pretention!) or the dour blue peeping through the books. A few coats of off-white latex will kill the glare. Ray will paint the outside parts, after the books are in the case. He knows what he’s doing. I’m not only not very good at painting but physically incapable, a lot of the time, of even seeing what I’m doing.

I’ve tackled the hardest part, the projecting section of the breakfront case. Some of its shelves and partitions are fixed, so there are plenty of awkward corners. I also took a stab at one of the side cases — much easier. I didn’t make a lot of progress, but I didn’t make a mess, either. The great wall of books is going to come down slowly. And there’s a lovely surprise at the end: figuring out what to do with the bookcase formerly known by the letter G. We still have it, but it’s in the living room, and it contains all the art books that used to be in a bookcase that we no longer own. I could see that there would be no room for one of the two cases, and our neighbor was happy to take the one that I chose to give away. The books, however — the books I still have. Not all of them, to be sure. I did give away a lot of books. But I don’t think that I gave away enough books to empty out a bookcase.

I can’t say how many books I gave away, because I kept no records. Almost the first decision that I made when the move became certain was that I was no longer going to use ReaderWare, the only library database manager, it seems, that’s “right for me.” I’m not going to complain about ReaderWare. I’m just sorry that there isn’t a handy application for managing a moderately large private library. “Moderately large” means “too large for its owner to know where everything is,” and “private” means “limited to bookshelves of varying heights,” thus requiring a preliminary sorting by the distinctly illiterate quality of size. Neither ReaderWare nor any other database manager that I’ve seen features a data field for “Location,” which is just about the only information about any book that I need to have, along with its title. You can add the field yourself. You can do a lot of things yourself with ReaderWare. I no longer have the time. What I have is hope that Evernote will eventually come to the rescue.

Anyone betting on whether I’ll replace those milk crates before the stack topples over?

Bon weekend à tous!

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Picture This
20 November 2014

Ray Soleil came straight from work yesterday and got to work hanging pictures. Roughly an hour later, the house phone rang. The doorman on duty reluctantly reported that a neighbor “on your floor” had complained about the “banging.” So we stopped hanging pictures right away. The call left me feeling wretched — wounded, even (when was the last time a neighbor complained? How many decades ago?) — and worried. How will we ever get all the pictures up on the walls? Ray will come again tonight, and we’ll see how far we can get by six o’clock.

The sad truth is that there is no way that “all the pictures” are going to be hung in this apartment. The happy truth is that there is no reason to hang so many. The walls of the old apartment were plastered with pictures because, in several corners, the walls were so disfigured by nails and cracked nail-holes that they had to be covered up. In the eighteen years since the last paint job, furniture had been moved, with pictures necessarily following. The proper thing to do — removing all the old nails, touching up the plaster, and repainting the walls — was by no means impossible, but it was certainly beyond me. I dreamed of making a project of repainting the apartment bit by bit, which is what I should have done when I was younger, but I not only lack the energy for such an undertaking but, even more, have a clear sense, rather lacking in my youth, of what I ought to be doing with my time, and large-scale housekeeping campaigns are not on the list. Ultimately, it was he fact that more was involved than repainting that forestalled any attempt at renovation. The carpets needed to be replaced: how to do that without evacuating each room? (The downside of wall-to-wall, which we are trying to avoid in the new place.) The draperies in the living room and the bedroom, designed in a moment of regrettable pretentiousness and, worse, never really necessary, were filthy, but difficult to take down — and was the outfit that cleaned them last time still in business?

So. A combination of dark (or intense) colors and lavish clutter whited the sepulcher. Which we have now left behind.

A large part of the clutter was pictorial, and each picture was framed with great care. I spent a small fortune at the fine local framer’s shop, choosing mats and frames and dimensions as thoughtfully as if I were naming a child. The most whimsical items, including a postcard designed and signed by Roz Chast — very small — and, also signed, Edward Koren’s poster for Books & Co — rather large — have been hung in the long entry corridor here, where they can be seen up close. My favorite is a lovely thank-you letter from a little girl who was in the early stages of learning to think ahead. It begins, in grand letters,

Dear Kath-
leen

Owing to the configuration of the walls, there is less real estate for pictures in the new apartment. (Also, the book room is significantly smaller than the blue room, and the bookcases almost completely line the walls.) But even if the apartment were twice as big, the evolution of my taste would prevent a repetition of Soanesque display. This shift took root a few years ago, when we did repaint the foyer, or entry hall, of the apartment upstairs. Walls previously hidden by CD shelving were decorated with a handful of well-spaced photographs. The new look was only relatively austere, but it did mean that I was no longer going to hang pictures just because I had them, and might as well get out the hammer and nails.

Tonight, Ray will hang two paintings, in the book room. And perhaps the one remaining painting in the bedroom. That will get all the paintings off the floor.

***

The other day, a couple of books arrived from England, books by John Carey, author of The Unexpected Professor, a memoir that I hugely enjoyed a few weeks ago. The new titles are What Good Are the Arts?, which I haven’t looked at, and The Intellectuals and the Masses, which I’m finding to be incredibly apposite to the thinking that Marilynne Robinson has been inspiring. About Professor Carey’s sociopolitical views I shall only say that they are those of someone who, when young, was a man of the left. More precise labeling would conduce to imprecision. Carey’s conception of “the masses” indicates the sophistication of his thought: he doesn’t believe in the existence of any masses. Neither, as I hope is clear to regular readers, do I.

Because I don’t believe in the masses, I am not afraid that they will damage Western civilization and culture, as a long line of artists and intellectuals has been since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. I have only just, since digesting Hannah Arendt’s essay, ““The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” made the connection between the masses and what Carey reminds is only in English called modernism. Carey fleshes out this connection in the opening chapter of his book, which is all that I’ve read. It has been an object lesson in the jump from understanding something to understanding something so much better that understanding seems previously to have been lacking altogether.

Take Nietzsche. When I was a student, it was great fun to read Nietzsche, but it was essentially childish fun: Nietzsche was a sort of intellectualized Captain Hook. As I grew older, I was disturbed to see that many intelligent writers took Nietzsche seriously as a thinker. To me, he was always incipiently the mad man that he eventually became, as well as a fountain of toxic notions. (Carey quotes his ghastly warning to “frequent women” well-armed with whips.) Similarly, I’ve always been unimpressed by modernism. For a long time, I took this as a sign of my own stupidity, at least in the darkness of night alone. As I say, I only recently came to understand that modernism is somewhat misanthropic. But now I know that modernism is simply contrary to humanism: it is inhumane. Corey makes thiis perfectly clear, and then concludes,

I would suggest, then, that the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity.

Which if nothing else is rendered pointless by the non-existence of any “masses.” It’s not the masses that I fear, but the intellectuals who have, in order to thwart an imaginary ogre, all but wrecked civilization with modernism.

Advisory Note:
What do you think?
19 November 2014

Two things in this morning’s Times — delivered to our new door this morning — seem worth thinking about.

The first is Lori Tharps’s Op-Ed piece, “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” which calls for Black American instead of black American. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I can’t think why any physical characteristic merits the highlight of capitalization. At the end of her essay, Ms Tharps writes, “We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe.” This seems doubtful to me, but it is certainly arguable. If it is true, then the name of that race or tribe must be unique to it, not an adjective denoting skin color — more exactly, a very broad range of skin colors that stands in politely for distinguishing facial features, much as Asian saves us from slant-eyed. A further objection relates to the gross bifurcation of people of African background into those carried off into slavery and those left behind. I don’t see what binds an African-American and a Nigerian beyond humanity and vulnerability to stupid white prejudice — insufficient basis, surely, for tribal association.

A name for the tribe that Ms Tharps seems to me to be describing did occur to me, one along the lines of the Eumenides, replete with grim irony: the Middle Passengers. I don’t recommend its adoption, except perhaps by poets.

The second item is a news story that appears on the first page, below the fold, about the windfall royalties that will greatly enrich a charitable organization as a result of “venture philanthropy.” The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation made a grant of $150 million to a biotechnology firm that developed a drug that treats the cause of the disease, not its symptoms. Selling the rights to this drug to a pharmaceutical company will yield the Foundation $3.3 billion. Critics worry that, its judgment clouded by the prospect of enrichment, the Foundation did not do more to reduce the projected annual cost of treatment, $300,000. This is not very constructive criticism.

It seems obvious that the Foundation has an obligation to figure out a way to use the bulk of its windfall to subsidize treatments. It probably won’t be easy, and it will probably take a while to figure out the most equitable arrangement. But the story is certainly one template for the development of new medications.

Ought these arrangements be left entirely to the discretion of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation? I don’t think so, but that’s as far as thinking takes me. Legislation on the subject ought to be strenuously avoided. The court of informed public opinion ought to prevail, and for its judges I once again call for the creation of collegial organizations to provide soft but disinterested regulation of public affairs — and the Foundation’s windfall unquestionably falls within the category of public affairs. I shall save prolonged discussion of my ideas about the membership of these colleges for another occasion, but I should want it to be both diverse and well-informed, as well as disinterested. This means, roughly, including

  • Executives who have retired from service at related organizations, whether or not run for profit, including civil servants
  • Academics who study the application of humanistic principles to civil life, and
  • Procedural lawyers.

I should also exclude anyone under forty. I pile on the last qualification quite seriously and for many reasons, some of which are comprised by the principle that membership in a college of this kind ought to be the last job (other than self-employment or work in an entirely unrelated area) that anyone ought to have. Membership, in other words, ought to have no future. Even more important is experience, which nobody under forty really has. The modern West’s campaign to liberate civil society from the tyranny of greybeards has backfired on many fronts, and nowhere worse than in advisory regulation.

For now, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will have to find its way to equity. All that the rest of us can do is to pay attention.

***

I had reached the end of my remarks about advisory colleges when the sun became intolerable and I postponed finishing this entry until after a round of errands. I do miss the warmer weather, when I could run out in my houseclothes (short-sleeved sports shirt and Bermuda shorts). Until a few years ago, I would do so even on the coldest days, but increasing decrepitude made me feel not just ridiculous but pitiable.

The repaving of 86th Street in front of our building has begun in earnest. It took more than a week to fill up the hole (between the top of the subway station mezzanine and ground level) with dirt that Ray Soleil believes to be the same dirt that was dug up two or three years ago, however long it has been. “Dirt’s expensive,” Ray says. I suppose it is, at least here in the center of a very built-up region. I’m happy to report that it has disappeared beneath concrete once again.

Meanwhile, the apartment looks ever more suitable for habitation. There is still a great wall of boxed books between the living and dining areas, and the now-reassembled bookcases have to be repainted before restocking, but the litter of miscellaneous bags and totes is abating. In the kitchen and the bedroom, I have held firm, allowing no mess, but there is still a stack, about four feet long, of framed pictures jutting out from beneath the bedroom window, and a certain amount of disorder must be tolerated between Kathleen’s side of the bed and her bathroom.

One of the big changes resulting from the move is that the book room and the bedroom are separated by nothing more than the short corridor that runs from the foyer to my bathroom. In the old apartment, the bedroom and the blue room stood on either side of the living room, like different wings, and were reached by longer hallways. Now it’s as though we enjoyed a master suite. The view from my side of the bed looks through the two doors and onto the right wing of the breakfront bookcase, suggesting the enfiladed rooms of a grand house. Suggesting, I say. There is no illusion of spaciousness. But I’m not feeling cramped, either.

Last night, I roasted a chicken, which introduced me to the new oven, and we got along fine. I cleared the dining table of stuff and straightened up the sideboard, so that when we sat down dinner the improvista atmosphere that can be so charming in the early stages of a move, but that so rapidly sours, was cleared off. We had only to pretend that the great wall of books was a design element.

Which it is not.