20, 21, 23, and 24 June
All weekend, I pondered the reality behind a paragraph in the New York Times Book Review. The book under review was Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir; the reviewer was Dayna Tortorici.
Valenti’s commitment to holding the line for a certain common-denominator feminism in hostile territory is admirable. This is thankless work, and after more than a decade of it she is clearly tired. “I know I’m meant to be the bigger person,” she writes in “Sex Object,” her latest, addressing the anonymous men who flood her inbox with threats and insults. “I know you’re not supposed to hate people because hate is bad for your soul.” But so is knowing that “whatever you work on, whoever you are, the nameless horde of random people who go home at night and kiss their wives and children would like for you to disappear.” Likewise, of the men who approach her after speaking engagements: “I have become too exhausted with men online to interact with well-meaning information seekers in real life.” Of putting on a brave face and laughing off offenses: “This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore.”
In last week’s New Yorker (I am not changing the subject), there’s a cartoon in which a doctor shows his patient an X-ray and says, “That’s the racist bone in your body you claimed you didn’t have.” The doctor might just as easily have said to the man (for the patient is, as almost always, a man), “That’s the misogynist bone in your body…” The sad truth behind the joke is that there are no such X-rays. There is no way to tell, no doctor to consult, if you’re worried about hidden contempt for or hostility toward different kinds of people — different from you, the straight white male. How can you be sure that you’re not fooling yourself? Happily, the answer — You can’t — is the answer to almost every search for certainty about what’s going on in your mind. So, what you have to do instead is to listen to those different people, and to try very hard to hear them clearly. Stop there. Only in rare cases — invitation-only, probably — is it a good idea to stand up as a well-meaning information seeker. You ought to remain silent, if only to make up for the jerks who write insulting, abusive, and anonymous comments online.
In any case, I wasn’t thinking about Valenti or the many other women who have been subjected to mindless vitriol. I was thinking about the sources of that vitriol. What motivates men to write such things? I can barely imagine phrasing them, but even if I did, I’m certain that I shouldn’t write them down and post them in a comment, hiding behind an opaque screen name. There can be no justification at all for gratuitous offensiveness that splutters with hatred, nearly devoid of true criticism. If it makes you feel better to get this kind of thing off your chest, see a priest or a doctor.
Being targeted by nasty trolls is, I suppose, preferable to being dragged out into the market square and burned as a witch. That’s my way of saying that there might be nothing really new in this online ugliness. But it does seem new. It seems to be a weird way of combining the invisibility of merging with a crowd and the privacy of pornographic fantasy. In fact, it just now occurs to me that many of these commenters might be masturbating after posting. That, sadly, would explain a lot. Everybody else may have already figured this out, but I haven’t heard anyone say so.
Oh, dear. Little did I foresee that this is where my meditation might lead me. My solution to the practical problem, anyway — how to stop such behavior, if not the impulse behind hit — is to work to narrow the availability of Internet anonymity to the few areas where it is necessary.
Meanwhile, the Donald. (I am not changing the subject.) Last week, I was shaking in my boots, worried that he’d make his way to the White House. Over the weekend, I was assaulted by reassurances that this will never happen, that, now that he has no one to fight but Hillary Clinton, Trump is merely flailing. There is still room for him to maneuver as the scourge of the Republican Party, which in turn has not quite accepted the fait accompli of the primaries. But he cannot expose Clinton as he exposed his Republican rivals. There is nothing to expose, except possibly some further venial sins for which Clinton has characteristically refused to apologise. If anything, the T-shirt slogan, “Trump the Bitch,” exposes the unattractive nastiness in which the Trumpsters almost helplessly indulge. Nevertheless, I refuse to relax into complacency.
The Republican response appears to be divided between those who believe that Trump can be tamed and led and those who know that he cannot. This really is objectively reiterative of Hitler’s rise to power. The army, the plutocracy, the shreds of the aristocracy — all these right-leaning nabobs thought that taking charge of an uneducated rube from the poorest part of Austria would be a walk in the park. In their defense, there was little history to work with. Trump, in contrast, has been seducing and abandoning investors for decades, and charging them handsomely for the right to be impoverished by him. (Perhaps he anticipated the hedge fund’s two-and-twenty: he used everyone’s money but his own to fund his projects, and he collected handsome managerial fees — all the way to bankruptcy.) He has never submitted to any kind of second-fiddle role. He imagines himself (as I think Hitler did) to be the entire orchestra. The rest of us, including the Republican senators who expect to guide him, have only to listen.
On Friday night, we watched Gorky Park, mildly astonished all the way through to bear in mind that the movie was released thirty-three years ago, in 1983. To us, it still looks fresh. It may be set in those days, but the language of its filmmaking hasn’t dated very much. But then, how should we know? How can we sure to distinguish low-budget features from a style that might strike twentysomethings as antiquated?
Back in 1983, I still regarded Soviet Russia as a drab, repressive society in which everybody was miserable. I see things a bit differently now, and Gorky Park looked different accordingly. The state security system (whether KBG or otherwise) could be ferociously brutal on occasion, certainly, but it was for most people, most of the time, an irritating inconvenience, not a dread of midnight knocks at the door. And I saw more clearly that Gorky Park‘s background is the profound internal corruption that within a decade would spell the end of the régime. If there’s a lot of murder in Gorky Park, it’s because of the unimaginable financial stakes of breaking the Russian monopoly on sable fur. (A monopoly that appears to be somewhat factitious, as wild sables, who produce the most valuable pelts, seem not to flourish outside of Siberia.) Dreary, Russia might have been, but then so were (and are) vast parts of New York’s metropolitan area.
I used to find the ending very sad. Poor Arkady Renko, having solved the case and cleared out the bad guys, has to “go back,” in order to guarantee Irina Asanova’s “escape” to the West. But it is difficult to imagine Arkady’s finding contentment in the Europe or America that is thumbnailed by the American villain, Jack Osborne, as a place where everybody enjoys a pre-luncheon apéritif at a gracious restaurant. Irina will probably find that this is all too not true. We might have suspected as much in 1983, but now we can be certain.
I don’t mean to get sentimental about the Communist experiment in Russia. But it seems that the experiment didn’t do much more to Russia, in any permanent way, than Prohibition did to the United States. We forget that Russia and the United States were yoked in a competition by the Western European imagination in the Nineteenth Century, as both countries grew at a fantastic pace. One of the new giants represented the future; the other, the past. If it were possible to develop an American level of wealth while retaining what was already for Europe a pre-modern autocracy, then the future of liberal democracy would have appeared to be less robust. The termination of the Communist experiment, far from “winning the Cold War” for America, has revived this old competition. It does not seem to be the case that Russia is flourishing any more under the autocrat Putin than it did under the autocrats Romanov, but once again there is a luster, or at least a bling, that is anything but drab. Liberal democracy does not seem, at the moment, to be secure anywhere.
Charles Wheelan’s book, Naked Economics, arrived over the weekend, and I learned something from the back cover that would have stilled my hand from clicking on “Add to cart” had I known it then: Wheelan is a former “Midwest correspondent” for The Economist. I subscribed to The Economist for years. It cost the earth, was almost as boring as US News and World Report to look at, and mindlessly pro-business. On the good side, its coverage of foreign affairs was far more acute than that at the Times, and it was also less Yanko-centric. In the end, however, I concluded that the newspaper’s party line made it impossible for Economist contributors to register unorthodox developments. To put it another way, this party line held that the global economy entered a new phase, a new world order, with the Industrial Revolution, and that this era would last as long as any that preceded it. I don’t agree. I haven’t read his work, but I’m inclined to agree with what I hear about Northwestern’s Robert Gordon, that what we have seen in the past two centuries is comparable to the huge inflation that troubled the later Sixteenth Century, caused by the influx of the New World’s gold and, mostly, silver resources. The inflation was real, but it was the punctuation between two eras, not an era unto itself. So it is with the mechanical transformation of the Western economy, in which (reversing the earlier inflation, as it were) goods became ever more affordable. To take one example: indoor plumbing has become a default amenity in the West. Nobody thinks of building a house without a bathroom or a kitchen. But the economic growth that produced this amenity may be over, may no longer be necessary. When every house has a bathroom, there is nowhere to grow.
In characteristic fashion, I picked up Naked Economics and began reading in the middle. The chapter on “Human Capital” is lucid but implicitly retrospective. It simply is no longer true that college education provides the ten-percent return-on-investment that Wheelan posits. Once upon a time, yes, but no longer. Even if a degree still led to better jobs as a matter of course, that would change if the majority of shirkers changed there ways. “The poverty rate for high school dropouts is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates.” What would happen to the absolute poverty rate, though, if nobody dropped out of high school? What would happen if college degrees ceased to be scarce? I think that we’re already seeing what happens, and yet Wheelan begins his discussion of human capital by pinning its value to scarcities. He cites Bill Gates as a monument of human capital. This is perhaps an unwise choice, not only because Gates dropped out of Harvard — and what, pray, is The Economist‘s view of Thiel Fellows? — but because Gates’s unusual access to powerful mainframe computers during his high-school career was lubricated by his parents’ prestige. Bill Gates may be more like the Sultan Brunei, cited by Wheelan for being rich arguably without human capital of any kind, than Wheelan supposes. Indeed, to increase human capital in any significant way, at least in the developed countries, would seem to require a scarcity of people.
For a couple of hundred years, it certainly seemed that an economy that nurtured individual self-interest, encouraging everyone to make money any legal whichway, would lead, overall, to widespread prosperity. There might be occasional turbulence, but even in the Crash the economy did not actually crash. It now seems, however, that more than markets are at stake. Growth and self-interest have produced environmental hazards: the economy’s use of petrochemicals alone may have doomed life on this planet. As I never tire of pointing out, in planetary, or even evolutionary time the Industrial Revolution occurred last week, and we still don’t understand it. There’s much more to fear than the proponents of command economics.
Gorky Park deploys its Soviet setting as window-dressing; its story really concerns the combat of a man of principle with an opportunist. The opportunist is suave and self-assured — is it conceivable, by the way, that Gorky Park would have been made without Lee Marvin’s participation (as Osborne)? — while the man of principle (played by the then somewhat new William Hurt) is sallow and undernourished. The opportunist mocks the man of principle, but the man of principle seems to welcome the mockery, if only as an intensification of their struggle: mockery itself is a kind of weakness, perhaps a sign of fear of failure. (Even if Osborne’s mockery is extremely understated, it is still there.) In the end, Osborne does not kill Arkady, and neither does Arkady kill Osborne; the battle is settled by a third party, Irina, when she surprises Osborne with shots from a revolver. But the man of principle is also the best policeman in Moscow, and his survival may simply stand for the proposition that crime doesn’t pay, at least when the cops are doing their job.
In 1983, Kathleen and I thought that Joanna Pacula, who plays Irina, was just another pretty face. The other night, she struck as exceptionally beautiful. Is this just a sign that we’re getting old?
The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s second novel, sat in my fiction pile for several months. I did not look forward to reading it, because I was sure that I should dislike it. Everything that I knew about it broke one or another of my rules of decorum about fiction — a protocol that has carved itself out of decades of reading. No historical fiction, for one. I read too much plain history, involving too many period documents, not to find that the dialogue in historical fiction is unbearably anachronistic, not only littering the page with unlikely language but stuffing impossible thoughts into characters’ heads. You may hear Thomas Cromwell, but I hear Florence Foster Jenkins. No opera fantasies. Ever since James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, this genre, of which I think Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case was the last that I read, has provoked an allergic reaction that used to make me tear through books in a fury, because I always finished what I started, and couldn’t wait to be done. (I am wiser now.) No dabbling in the occult. I shan’t stoop to explain that one.
Every review of The Queen of the Night promised a slew of violations, together with an impression that the steam of carnal passion would be rising from every page. In short, I was led to expect an overwritten, stilted, and sordid travesty of grand opera, “loosely based” on the story of Jenny Lind. You may be asking why I bought the book. The simple answer is that Alexander Chee is a Facebook friend, our link established long ago in the mists of social networking, not long after I read, and was impressed by, his contribution to an anthology called Boys to Men. I also read his first novel, Edinburgh. For years, I read status updates on the book’s progress; a lot of research went into getting things right. By the time The Queen of the Night was was published, I felt bound by honor to buy it. But I didn’t want to read it.
And now I have just read it, just finished it this morning. I did not dislike it, not at all. Well, there were two things that bothered me. Chee’s use of personal pronouns in his first-person narrative was occasionally ungrammatical. I’m a stickler about that. It’s okay for a character to be quoted as saying, “It’s me” to another character, but I prefer that characters not think it. The other bother was the novel’s Paris, in which everything — the Bois de Boulogne, the Marais, the Jardin des Plantes, and the various palaces — seemed to be only a few steps from everything else, and the Seine could be crossed without comment. In my Paris, no one ever crosses the Seine without comment. Like the Thames, it is a monumental cultural marker, and the heart of the city that it divides is nevertheless on one side only, not the other. There you have it, my calendar of complaints.
This is where I’m supposed to complete my surprise at not hating the book by claiming that, in fact, I loved it. But I didn’t love it, either. My positive response was milder than that, something close to beguilement. You might say that I was enchanted by it, if you meant it very literally, for indeed I read it as if the rules didn’t matter, even when I could hear them snapping underfoot. I can only think that the spell was cast by the well-aged patina of Chee’s prose. Although the subject matter is cosmopolitan and quite adult, the tone is that of a classic book for children, written in the days when publishers were expect to provide “improving” texts for young readers, and when a certain distance from the vernacular was the surest way of establishing a setting in illo tempore, the sense of another time and place not quite contiguous with our own. The Queen of the Night opens in 1882, and then goes back to the American Civil War, and Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie, appear in it, as do Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, and Pauline García-Viardot and her two husbands. Don’t forget George Sand! But historical events and personages, however accurately described, seem to be breathing the air of another world — the world of stories. The Queen of the Night is not a historical novel, after all, because it is not trying to tell us how things really were back then. If the details are sedulously correct, that is only to prevent the knowledgeable reader from stubbing his toe against a blunder — and waking up.
Chee cannot resist the conceit that his novel is in fact the opera, Le Cirque du Monde Déchu, that has been written as a vehicle for the soprano who is the novel’s narrator. Or at least its scenario. As I see it, the opera and the novel are as unlike as two art forms taking time to experience could be. Novels are baggy; even mediocre operas are well-tailored. I propose a compromise: tapestry. Alexander Chee has digested a great deal of information (and affect, if that is not also information) about Parisian high life in the Nineteenth Century, and then, like Keith Jarrett at Cologne, sat down to weave a tapestry of magnificent consistency.
The period covered by the novel witnessed the birth of celebrity — of people famous for being famous. There is a highly polished example of the birth of a celebrity in the novel. It appears in the eleventh “scene” of the fourth “act” of The Queen of the Night. After her début as Amina, in La Sonnambula, enthusiastic admirers unharness her coach horses with a view to pulling it through the streets themselves, something that actually happened to Verdi after the première of Macbeth. Instead, there is pandemonium, and the soprano, from girlhood in Minnesota an accomplished equestrienne, mounts one of the horses herself. As she gallops along, her trademark, a general’s overcoat, billows out behind her, as does the train of her gown. A caricature of the event appears in next day’s paper: La générale et la légion. I can’t believe that Chee didn’t consider this as a possible title, which I hope is what the novel will be called in a French translation.
(Yes: that’s the note I’m looking for. The Queen of the Night reads like a translation. This is not to say that its English is inept, but only that it hints at things that can’t quite be translated, tiny mysteries that we accept when we read foreign fiction in translation.)
Musicians were among the first celebrities. At first, they were freaks just like all the other momentarily notable. Did you know that the violinist who first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, an immortal masterpiece superior to every one of his symphonies, interpolated a little sonata of his own after the first movement — a sonata for violin played upside-down? As the century progressed, the circus atmosphere was left behind; music became an art form to be appreciated in silence. But Chee has reversed this progress. Le Cirque du Monde Déchu is, after all, an opera about a circus, with a heroine who does acrobatic tricks while singing and riding a pony. It’s as though the Barnum era followed that of the Palais Garnier, and the sleight of hand is carried off so well that it doesn’t seem to be a fiction. Or do I mean, a fantasy?
Female singers were certainly the first women to make public spectacles of themselves (and not their crowns), and they quickly learned to dress in a manner that the aristocracy, had it the wherewithal, would seek to imitate. There are a lot of dresses in The Queen of the Night. The very first, a gown by the House of Worth, is a disappointment to the woman wearing it, so she contrives an ingenious way of disembarrassing herself of it (a pair of dueling Dukes have a fetish for reducing flounces to shreds with their sabres) and she reappears in the second, a creation of the dressmaker Félix, a creation of Chee’s. In the third act of the novel, our heroine is a grisette in the service of Empress Eugénie, and she gets to handle a lot of imperial apparel, all of it lovingly described. Chee writes about clothes and fabric very well, by which I may simply means that he knows when to stop for the likes of me. It is not that he brings the dresses to life, but rather the attentiveness with which they are made. That was the point of haute couture in the Nineteenth Century: expensive women ventured forth covered with virtual banners announcing their awareness of this or that favored detail. There was nothing about a high-end dress that was “just a dress.”
There are a handful of aristocratic ladies in The Queen of the Night, but none of them is French. The Empress sets a rather low bar. There is also the intriguing Comtesse de Castiglione, who can shift from being a Good Fairy to a Bad one at the speed of light. Mostly, there are demimondaines, filles en carte — courtesans and prostitutes. This is the fluid world of the Belle Époque at night. There are revels at the maisons closes, balls, nights at the opera, and even offstage hunts, all of them presented with a blur that conjures the self-defeating longing of children who are staying up far past their bedtimes and trying to glimpse the grown-ups through the banisters. Indeed, nothing comes across as so pleasurable as a good sleep.
The men are — men. The ones we see up close are very good-looking, but their regard for women is nothing if not objectifying. Only poor old Turgenev seems to know what love is — and maybe Verdi, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Here I want to tread very carefully. The Queen of the Night favors women, but it presents them with something of the self-importance of men. It’s the difference, slight perhaps, between saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because it’s important [to be aware],” and saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because I’m important [just being me].” The heroine mixes this up nicely. She doesn’t think that she is important. But then, she must be, because she has invited the anger, or the luck, of the gods. Fates and curses are mentioned almost as often as fabrics. Somehow, Chee manages not to be melodramatic about this. The vividness of his heroine’s life, beginning with an early, despairing orphanhood, proceeding through “such like circumstances” worthy of the Lord High Executioner, and culminating in murder, is damped by the pursuit of her vocal artistry, itself an inexplicable gift. The delight of singing opera beautifully — not just listening to it — is beautifully described. Chee deserves a special award for presenting, as one of the most dangerous of the plot’s points, the singing of the Queen of the Night’s first aria: the music lies outside the singer’s Fach, and we are carefully prepared to grasp this esoteric, if quite fatal, risk.
At times, The Queen of the Night feels like a puzzle, or perhaps a cypher, that might be decoded given the proper insight. I myself, however, wasted no time trying to interpret the tale in other terms. Chee writes in an afterword that “this novel is meant as a reinvention” of The Magic Flute, and I’m glad that I read that before sinking my teeth into the novel, because nothing is sillier than trying to explain the peripeties of Mozart’s opera. If I haven’t said much about the plot, or even told you the heroine’s name (which it isn’t) — why, I haven’t even mentioned “the tenor” (also nameless)! — it’s because these are all elements of the ineffable tapestry; and it’s important to say only that Chee has a clear idea of what he wants you to know. He explains things just as the great storybooks do, so that even if you know all about the opera mentioned, or the political events in the background, you won’t object to reading what he has to say about them. If you ask me, The Queen of the Night is a reinvention of Consuelo, the novel that George Sand is said to have written about Pauline Viardot. I wish it were easier for Anglophone readers to assess the weight of that compliment.
This weekend, I was more than a little amused to see that, in her favorable Book Review review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Penelope Lively touched on the very paragraph that I quoted in full when I wrote about the book last week. Even better, though, she wrought from it a small but invaluable teaching lesson.
I must confess, though, that I did get a touch irritated with Joy at a certain point, frustrated by her inability to do anything about an apartment apparently awash in papers, with files marked URGENT, with unopened letters and so forth. Come on, Joy, it’s just a matter of gritting your teeth and getting down to it! And here I can speak with a certain authority, being myself an octogenarian. But I am my own sort of octogenarian, and that is the whole point. Old people do have certain collective features — mostly the age-related disabilities — but otherwise we’re as distinct from one another as are people of any age.
As are readers: “that is the whole point.” I admire Lively’s native personal optimism, which shines through her fiction and memoirs; I can only wish that I shared it. I try to grit my teeth and open the mail as it comes in, but it’s a gruesome business, because I always expect the bill to be much higher than it is (or, conversely, find that I was wrong to expect it to be lower). I shudder every time the land-line rings: what fresh hell? And an unexpected knock at the door makes my heart pound audibly. That’s just who I am, or whom I have become after a life of low-grade, restless irresponsibility. (Vissi d’arte.) Considering Aaron’s serial bankruptcies, Joy’s horror of opening envelopes is perfectly understandable to me. But so is Lively’s impatience. And, what’s important, Lively has the sense to recognize Joy as someone else, and not to expect her to be a character with whom Lively might have the dubious pleasure of identifying.
This is the difference between youth and age. A young person is a bundle of physical attributes with only a few instances of initiative to recall. The young person’s life is a history of following instructions more or less well. On the cusp of adulthood, it is understandably pressing to know how to sort oneself in the world, and fiction has been found to ease the agony of this puzzle by providing the comforts of what we call “identification.” Girls indulge it more readily than boys, probably because bluff and bluster play much smaller roles in the lives of women. What literate girl has not identified with Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre — despite colossal differences in circumstances? It’s easy to “identify” with fictional heroines, however, only because there is no real identity to get in the young reader’s way. In the end, boys and girls aren’t very different after all; both are looking for exemplars to imitate.
It is the aged who have identities — even as they’re on the point of losing them. It is the elderly who have piled up successes and failures, victories and defeats, escapes and losses, and, unless they are very foolish, they do not seek to identify with anyone else. Proud of their achievements, ashamed of their lapses, they do not wish to share pride or shame with anyone. They are willing instead to acknowledge the experiences that they have shared, roughly, with others. Of course there are old people who have not learned much from their experience, and who are as annoyed as any ten year-old by the exasperating habit people have of being different. But wisdom begins with the understanding that everybody is different, really and truly, and that however well we observe the conventions that make it possible for us to work, live, and love together, we are fiercely unique. Each of us lives alone in his or her own body, and that is that, no matter what expectations of the afterlife might be.
In this world of chaotic, multibillionic diversity, it is the job of fiction to persuade us that the differences of others can be borne, sometimes with amusement, so long as different people share one’s commitment to the basics of “humanity” (what I call humanism). No killing, things like that.
During our short stay on Fire Island two weeks ago, I read the books that I’d brought with me. The two big books, Peter Ward Fay’s history of the first Opium War and (as mentioned) the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, took me to the eve of the last full day. Then I had to cast about for books in the house. I found Camus’s The Stranger, which I had never read — it turned out to be a different sort of book from what I expected, a curious failure of my antennae — and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s great story, also for the first time. It was like being in high school. Then I turned to the book on the nightstand at my side of the bed, Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage. I liked this so much that I ordered a copy of my own the moment I got home.
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir was assembled, after Broyard’s death, by his widow, Alexandra, from material that he had been working on during his illness. The book, she tell us, was to end with the death of Broyard’s father, and how it brought Broyard “back down to earth.” Broyard never got to that part. The book ends, instead, with a chapter that becomes more amazing every time I read it: clearly, there is much to absorb. At the end of a collection of chapters about the romantic and intellectual experiences of a fairly rootless young man (his daughter, Bliss, would later write a book, One Drop, that offered a persuasive explanation of this rootlessness), filled with vivid portraits and jazzy excitements, Broyard settles down to tell us how disappointing it all was, because the two never mixed — romance and argument. Like Augustine centuries before him, but quite without Augustine’s piety, Broyard loved his male interlocutors but had nothing to say to the women he slept with. Broyard had the advantage, at least, of finding out how it might have been different, when the old Augustinian settlement (sex is okay as long as you’re trying to have children, but not otherwise) finally began to crumble in the 1960s, with the advent of The Pill.
“To someone who hasn’t lived through it, it’s almost impossible to describe the sexual atmosphere of 1947.” This sentence doesn’t say very much, but it announces a possibility of which most people are unaware: sex changes. I don’t mean the physical side, varied as that always is, but the emotional side, the human context in which sexual acts take place. For Broyard, this context was always frustrating, and I’m talking about after sex, because he “hadn’t yet learned how to just be with girls, to exist alongside them, to make friends — and so once my desire was satisfied, I was bored.” He had the redeeming decency to feel guilty about this, but he wasn’t helped much by the girls, either, who for their part had been brought up to listen.
Men and women hadn’t yet learned to talk to one another in a natural way. Girls were trained to listen. They were waiting for history to give them permission to speak. They led waiting lives — waiting for men to ask them out, for them to have an orgasm, to marry or leave them. Their silence was another form of virginity. (145)
Broyard would learn this later. We all would. (Now, perhaps, my recollection of college bull sessions in which the mere existence of the female intellect was disputed will not seem so improbable.) There must have been young, sophisticated people who knew how to talk, but there can’t have been many of them, and almost by definition they would have known well enough to keep their intimacies to themselves. Most girls — and Broyard is talking about “nice” girls — were brought up to be virgins forever. The only scrap of information that married women gained with their new status was that men are truly bestial. (Or not bestial enough.) The only way to be truly married is to share a lot more than the bed of a spouse. Again, those lucky few who were truly married had every reason to keep their good fortunes to themselves; they would not have been envied. They would have been denounced as depraved.
In this regard, Broyard’s 1947 stands for the end of a very long era in human history. Or the beginning of the end. Sometimes I fear that it is still winding down. If women aren’t quite the listeners that they used to be, men haven’t taken up the slack. But it’s deeply comforting to read proof of one man’s growth.
On a very gentle tangent, I should like to say something about Jill Lepore’s short piece, in the current New Yorker, about women and the Republican Party, but the piece is too condensed for me to say much. There’s a lot of learning in those pages, and most of it makes very interesting connections. One thing stands out, however: the pivotal role of Phyllis Schlafly in driving women away from the Republican Party, the party to which they flocked for so long. Schlafly’s successful fight to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified by thirty-eight states required for passage (thirty-five ratified it, not counting the five states that rescinded ratification) not only divided but confused long-standing features of political life, and, worse, it continues to inhibit political advance. There ought to be a name for women like Phyllis Schlafly: educated, attractive, comfortable, and free to do just about anything they they like, but utterly opposed to extending their freedom to other women. Perhaps there is: “Schlafly.”
In Lepore’s penultimate paragraph, the string of historical observations is suddenly punctuated by a cry of pain.
With the end of the ERA, whose chance at ratification expired in 1982, both parties abandoned a political settlement necessary to the stability of the republic. The entrance of women into politics on terms that are, fundamentally and constitutionally, unequal to men’s has produced a politics of interminable division, infused with misplaced and dreadful moralism. (The New Yorker, 27 June 20016, page 26)
I realized when I read this that I had gotten so used to the status quo that I no longer saw the problem clearly: inequality produces instability, and this instability has been mounting in recent decades because the Republican Party has no raison d’être other than to maintain inequality. The moralism, as Lepore tries to show in her extremely concentrated capsule, was introduced by women, on behalf of themselves and of slaves, and it was a force for the good until, as I was just saying, the old Augustianian dispensation broke down. The moral voice in American politics was split by this rupture; some used to advocate equality (as women always had), while others used it to preserve a moral order that earlier women never thought of questioning — not in public, anyway. Since most people prefer what they already know, the moral order has attained a value far exceeding that of speculative equality. It’s hard to argue against stable families; whatever its long-term effects, the end of the Augustianian order certainly produced a lot of miserable children, torn by divorce. It’s hard to ague that children don’t flourish in the light of their mothers’ undivided attention. It’s hard to see how reproductive polarization can be reconciled with gender equality. It may not be impossible, but it is hard, and voices like Schlafly’s have been emphasizing the difficulties. Not to mention the fact that the moral order being defended fits in so well with the corporate order. Many Americans behave as if they wished that it were still 1947.
The other day, there were three interesting obituaries on the same page of the Times. I had never heard of the deceased, which simplified the interest; there was no pang of regret for people of whom I’d known when they were alive. It’s just possible that I did hear of Bill Berkson, once or twice, long ago, but I have completely forgotten it if so, and I usually don’t forget. (I tend to confuse.) Berkson, who died at 76, in San Francisco, of a heart attack, was the son of two people in the news business. His father was the publisher of the Journal-American, the Hearst organ in New York, and his mother was Eleanor Lambert, the creator and curator of the Best-Dressed lists. Frequent guest at his parents’ many cocktail parties, Berkson grew up knowing everyone worth knowing. His epitaph might well be his own claim to be the only person who attended both Woodstock and the Black-and-White Ball. Something tells me he wasn’t, but the claim is still a reasonable one.
In later life, Berkson moved from the New York Schools of art and poetry — his “scatter” style was inspired by Frank O’Hara — to the Bay Area, where he continued to write verse and criticism. A 1957 graduate of Lawrenceville, he seems to have avoided the Draft.
Among the bold-faced names appearing in the obituary, which was written by William Grimes, were two that fascinated me when I was a kid: Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. Imagine being called “Jinx Falkenberg”! She was a tall drink of pulchritude who, with her husband, hosted radio and TV shows. I was grateful for the mention, because I worry sometimes that I have made Jinx up.
At the top of the page, the death of a slightly younger person was announced: that of Lorna Kelly, who died here in town, of a stroke, at 70. (It would better to say that she was even more slightly older than I — two years or less.) There was a good reason for me not to have heard of Kelly: in 1980, the year of my return from the heartland, she “parted company” from Sotheby’s, where she had served as a colorful auctioneer, specializing in netsuke. Born in Isleworth, London, Kelly came to this country as an au pair and worked her way up. When the chance to take the rostrum at Sotheby’s arose, she stopped drinking and divorced her husband. Four years later, she had had enough (I suppose), and, after leaving Sotheby’s, she went to India, like Woody Allen’s Alice, to work with Mother Theresa. She continued to “work with” AIDS victims in Manhattan and death-row inmates in Texas.
Margalit Fox concludes with a flounce worthy of the Telegraph:
Of all the rigors she faced in her work overseas, it was a domestic undertaking that, for the voluble Ms Kelly, very likely proved the keenest test of her spiritual commitment.
As the Times reported in a 1991 profile, she once traveled to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York, where she spent the next 100 days in complete silence.
At the bottom, Kimiko Freytas-Tamura sends off Benoîte Groult, “French Feminist and Writer Whose Books Explored Women’s Liberation.” We’re always hearing that they don’t have women’s liberation in France, possibly because of their famous expertise with traditional arrangements. Whether love always has something to do with it or not, there do seem to be far, far fewer unattractive or even plain women on the streets of Paris than there are on New York’s. In a picture dating from 1993, Groult certainly looks charming enough. She died, at Hyères, where Edith Wharton had her winter quarters, complete with a now-ruined garden overlooking the Mediterranean, at the age of 96. (No cause is stated; when you’re very old, you’re permitted to die of refusing to go to the hospital, which is how I hope it was for Groult.) Her mother was a niece of couturier Paul Poiret; her godmother was Marie Laurencin. Groult married four times. The first two husbands died in office. The third gave her two daughters (or vice versa), and the fourth a third.
I’m afraid that I must rap the obituarist’s knuckles.
She was 55 when her book “Ainsi Soit-Elle” (loosely translated as “As She Is”) was published in 1975. It became an instant best-seller in France (it was never published in English) and sealed Ms Groult’s reputation as a leading feminist.
No doubt; but the book’s title would be better translated as a gendered take on the formula into which the Hebrew “amen” is translated in French. Ah, women!
Call me terrible, but going through the paper and finding this kind of a lineup is almost as good as a great Op-Ed page. I have to say that I dislike reading about deaths sooner than eighty. Poor Anton Yelchin! I didn’t see him in Star Wars (it ought to go without saying), but I admired him in The House of D and Fierce People. For a Jewish kid from Petrograd, he certainly looked like a Brooks Brothers preppie. I was appalled to learn of his demise, but part of me wonders what else can you expect of those Los Angeles canyons? Having grown up in Bronxville, which bears resemblances to LA in this regard, I should never buy a house with a steeply-graded driveway. Even if it doesn’t snow out there. Sic transit!
Speaking of love, I remember being frustrated as a young person by the inevitability of love as a subject — the subject — of opera and lyric verse. Why did everything have to be a love story? Is that all people are interested in?
It’s easier to explain why poets and composers are. Love is unique among human experiences in being available to everybody. Sure, there are birth and death, and almost everybody has a mother, but aside from the love story that pops up the moment you propose to separate a mother from her child, or to confuse mother and child about one another’s identifies, there’s not much to carry one away. Lots of people never fall in love. Denis de Rougement all but argued that love is a Western invention, but he was talking about a certain kind of love: the love that takes place outside of marriage. This sort of love is not to be confused with mere infidelities or “affairs.” According to Rougemont, Love in the Western World is gripping and tragic. Somebody has to die. Certainly there must be plenty of misery. In the beginning, only aristocrats had time for this sort of thing, but by degrees, “romantic love” came to be heard of by everyone, culminating with the folly (in Rougemont’s eyes) of trying to conflate love with bourgeois marriage.
Along the way, poets and composers discovered that, at least among poetry readers and opera audiences, the understanding of love is universal. Everyone already knows all about it. If you write an opera about work, say, you have to spend the first act just describing the job. Boring! With love, you can start right away — most famously with the Marschallin and Octavian in bed together. That wouldn’t be very interesting, of course, if we did not know that Octavian is destined to fall in love with someone else in the second act, but it certainly is gorgeous. And then the first act does end with a quarrel and a misunderstanding, so there’s hope even before the Presentation of the Rose. The point is: love has a lot of problems, and almost everybody knows all about them.
To put it another way, if love is your subject, then you don’t have to worry about “meaning.” What’s it about, whines the lout. The first thing that any literate person learns is that “What’s it about?” is a stupid question for many reasons, most of them rooted in laziness or category mistakes. But the secret behind this condescension is that, where love is the subject, it is never the subject. It is merely the gateway.
These thoughts are inspired by a month or so browsing more deeply than usual through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with the inestimable assistance of Helen Vendler. I have owned The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets since it appeared, in 1997, but only recently have I learned how to read it. First lesson: begin with the Introduction. I tend to regard Introductions as Afterthoughts, but that is a mistake where Vendler is concerned. In her Introductions, she sets forth her goals, which she does not repeat later on. She tells you what she is going to do and why, and usually this generalized information is not only important but prerequisite to whatever follows. If she is writing about Wallace Stevens (On Extended Wings, her first book), then you must begin with the Introduction, which discusses the nature of Stevens’s “longer poems.” In her Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, she explains what she is not going to do. Among others, she is not going to search for their meaning.
However important “meaning” may be to a theological hermeneutic practice eager to convey accurately the Word of God, it cannot have that importance in lyric. Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of “meaning” at all, in our ordinary sense of the word. “I have insomnia because I am far away from you” is the gist of one sonnet; “Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death” is the “meaning” of another. These are not taxing or original ideas… Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels. (13)
She goes on to dismiss the ideas that the 126 sonnets to the “young man” are meant to code homosexual behavior, or that Shakespeare hates the dark lady of the remaining 28. Whether Shakespeare was gay or drawn only to women who had slept with lots of other men is simply not the point of these poems, because “the feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feelings attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essential feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric.” (16) Vendler announces that what interests her is summed up by the phrase “arrangement of statement.”
Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed.(14)
It is much more than good to know this before tackling her commentaries of the individual sonnets.
Somewhere in the Introduction (I think), Vendler refers to Sonnet 75 as having an unusual structure. Most of Shakespeares sonnets consist of a series of three quatrains, followed by a couplet. There are also sonnets built on Petrarchan lines: an opening octave (eight lines), followed by a sestet (six). Sonnet 75 is an outlier: an opening quatrain, then six lines of alternative experiences, followed by a quatrain that is really a return to the opening statement, with the usual couplet sendoff at the end. I was piqued by this and immediately turned to the sonnet, and was captured by it even though Vendler says that she considers it “otherwise [than as to structure] unremarkable.” Here it is:
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found.
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.
I have inserted spacing to make the structure more apparent. The conceit is the relation between a miser and his treasure, which is troubled by conflicting desires to protect and to adveritise. It is the pair of images expressed in the ninth and tenth lines that knocks me out: “clean starvèd for a look” has a punch that vaporizes the poem’s distance in time from 2016. It is the best way of putting the thing, of describing the feeling, or contrast of feelings, that I can imagine. One day I wear myself out staring at you; the next, I despair of seeing you at all. I should go a little further, and read in the implication that, having basked in your attention, I am now dying because you won’t look at me. This particular conundrum of desire is very familiar to me; it describes all the successive agonies of my adolescence.
Having pronounced the sonnet unremarkable, Vendler proceeds to show how wily it is, how persistently self-correcting. For, if a miser possesses treasure, the same cannot be said of the poet’s relation to his young man. The tip-off is in the first two lines, which mention organic necessities that, far from piling up, never cease to be necessities. In fact, the poet has no control whatever over the young man. The self-correction is most explicit in line 11: “Possessing or pursuing…” This is followed by a return to organic notions: pining and surfeiting, of “gluttoning” and starving. I call this having your cake and eating it — not the poet and his young man, not the miser and his wealth, but Shakespeare and his words. Sonnet 75 consists of two poems written in parallel. Which is, like almost every one of the sonnets in its own way, a neat trick.
Bon week-end à tous!