Skeptical Note:
One Reality Fits All
1 October 2014

Norbert Elias, The Court Society (1984):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mirror, Mirror:
Morbid
30 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I say, morbid.

Reading Note:
Florence Gordon
29 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned with pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a magnificent girl, Florence thought.

But did not, of course, say.

Gotham Diary:
Taste Itself
26 September 2014

Taste: the mental faculty that enables aesthetic experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
With Time (Discrimination)
25 September 2014

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

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

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

***

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

So I am talking about adults.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
“Too Depressing!”
24 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Egotism
23 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Taste
22 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Stirling
19 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Yesterday Indeed
18 September 2014

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
On the Eve
16 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Gotham Diary:
Not A Machine
15 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Two notes, both bearing on the law.

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

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

_________________________

Daily Blague news update: Joys of Jihad.

Gotham Diary:
Books and Bait
4 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about twaddle!

_________________________

Daily Blague news update: The Human Case.

Gotham Diary:
London Bridge
3 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

_________________________

Daily Blague news update: Endorphins.

Gotham Diary:
Harmonized Dissonance
2 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

______________________________

Daily Blague news update: Echoes.

Gotham Diary:
Twaddlesome
28 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Aah
27 August 2014

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Bo-Peep
26 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed?”

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

“I think so.”

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

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

“And you think we shall avoid war?”

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

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

***

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Burdens
25 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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