Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
May 2016 (I)

2, 3. 5 May

Monday 2nd

In the Sunday Review section of the Times, there was this, by Gerald Marzorati:

Most of us got good early on at something that took time and devotion. For me it was reading. My mother, a blue-collar homemaker, saw that I liked looking through books and began teaching me how to read before I turned 4; I entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level. I had a sixth-grade English teacher I wanted to please, which meant hours and hours of conjugation drills. I was placed in advanced-reading classes in high school, where I was forced to articulate what I comprehended; majored in English in college, where I learned the theoretical aspects of reading; and always had a book on my night stand. I went on to spend nearly 40 years as an editor, reading and reading. I loved it, still do. But I doubt I improved at it much after college. (I probably peaked trying to unravel “Finnegans Wake” in my James Joyce seminar.) I suspect you are not unlike me, whatever you’ve done with your life. The gradual, continuous improvement petered out before you reached midlife.

I know that this is what usually happens, but why? And how do we change it? (And what are the “theoretical aspects of reading”?) The bulk of Marzorati’s essay concerns the new life that he has discovered by making a commitment to improving his tennis game. He does not expect to become any kind of champion — he’s beyond proving himself to other people. He finds the challenge, the exercise, the whatnot rejuvenating. He hopes that the endeavor will prolong his life, not by months but by years. If nothing else, “Better Aging…” made me feel sublimely wise about never having tried to enter the world of publishing and journalism. I have yet to begin petering out.

I doubt I improved at it much after college. I shudder. I know that people thought I was pretty smart when I got out of college — that I’d read a lot, knew a lot — but I was just beginning. For me, college was a preparation for a life of the mind. That is what it is supposed to be but so rarely is in our ill-conceived economy. In fact, I knew next to nothing in 1970, and a lot of what I did know was wrong. I don’t want to consider the nullity of my grasp of anything at the age of twenty-two. But I had made a commitment to keeping my mind alive — no, that sounds too noble. My mind had made a commitment to staying alive, dammit, and somehow it survived the decades of carousing that followed.

The night before reading Marzorati’s piece, I had been shaken to my bones by Helen Vendler. I mentioned her book about Wallace Stevens, On Extended Wings, last week. I’ve since begun to read it. Oh, I did the usual thing when I bought it, ages ago. I wanted some insight into “Credences of Summer,” so I jumped into the chapter devoted to that poem — and jumped right out. It is a bad idea to pick up one of Vendler’s books in the middle. She builds her work carefully, and every page is prerequisite to the next. I set On Extended Wings aside. Until last week.

As I read the book now, a dismal through-bass sounds: On Extended Wings was published in 1969, when I was still an undergraduate. Vendler, about fifteen years older than I am, was not yet forty. And yet she writes as if she had been dipped into the marinade of Stevens’s poetry fifty years before he started writing it. She knows it better than he did. As I read Vendler’s discussion of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” I thought to myself, my life is nearly over, and yet I am only now learning this. By which I mean that what Vendler has to say strikes me as, literally, elementary: it’s stuff that you have to know if you’re going to get anywhere in thought. Her authority is immensely persuasive.

I had not read “The Comedian as the Letter C,” so I spent a half hour glancing through it. I didn’t not try to understand it, or even respond to it; I simply wanted the lay of the land. I noticed a curious onrushing quality in the blank verse, as line ran to line after line, narrating an account that, personally, I should prefer to have had in prose.

His western voyage ended and began.
The torment of fastidious thought grew slack,
Another, still more bellicose, came on.
He, therefore, wrote his prolegomena,
And, being full of the caprice, inscribed
Commingled souvenirs and prophecies.

I always hear Hiawatha in the background when poets go on in this way — Hiawatha in the counting-house, calculating meters. But I liked the canto about the four daughters; it reminded me, in a jolly way, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that is always fun when you don’t have to look at it. Then, when I had read the whole thing, I returned to Vendler. The jolly daughters soured and curdled. I’ve since recovered from the shock; now, two days later, what she has to say seems obvious and refreshing. But on Saturday night I had not conceived the possibility of giving Wallace Stevens a dressing down.

Stevens’ resolute attempts to make himself into a ribald poet of boisterous devotion to the gaudy, the gusty, and the burly are a direct consequence of a depressing irony in respect to the self he was born with and an equally depressing delusion about the extent to which this self could be changed. These ribaldries take two stylistic forms in Harmonium — the willed and artificial primitivism of poems like “Earthy Anecdote” and “Ploughing on Sunday,” and so on, and the verbal mimetic reproduction, persistent only in the Comedian, of the actual density of the physical world. Neither is destined to become Stevens’ persistent mode. Stevens as ironist never fades entirely … but the corrosive deflations of the Comedian are nowhere else so relentless. (52)

By “corrosive deflations,” Vendler means, I think, “mistakes.”

A page or two earlier, Vendler ascribes to Stevens

the vantage point of the man for whom the senses do not provide transcendent moments, who is repelled as the provocations of the senses reach excess, who is almost indifferent by temperament to any world except an arranged or speculative one — and who nevertheless “knows” that this world is all there is, that this is the unique item of ecstasy. (50)

This was an electrifying line, for I felt that Vendler was talking, somewhat, about me. Not me now, but the younger me who struggled to experience all sorts of things that he had read about. Real life, this younger me believed, was something that everyone else seemed to understand much better than he. He “needed to get out more.” But when he got out, he discovered only that his “comfort zone” — the thing that we’re all exhorted to leave in order to discover the richness of life — was not only not a plush fainting couch on which to daydream but the very portal to thought and understanding, a portal through which, on his best days, he passed quickly and surely, entering another zone that was too cosmic for comfort.

There is a moment in the film A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is beguiled by the flashing of lighted panels, in which he detects, or thinks he detects, occult patterns. I am never deluded by the majesty of inexpressible harmonies; if I can’t write something down, it doesn’t exist, except as a phantasmic scrap of neuronal goo. But I often feel Nash’s thrill. My ecstasies are also interior.

I’ve just read “Ploughing on Sunday” for the first time.

Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday.
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!

For years, I was beset by the occasional urge to sing this kind of song, but it always came out as Stevens’s next lines,


I ought to say right now that I have yet to read most of Wallace Stevens’s poems for the first time. When I was young, instead of being roused by adolescent yearning, I preferred childish play with words, so I liked Pope and Sitwell best. I’ve been ashamed of that preference, but now I understand that I was only listening — listening, that is, for music, rhythm, pulse, antiphon and response. I didn’t care what poetry said, if anything; I wanted an armature for my prose. Once I had built one, I could read the real thing, but I was too old to be exhaustive. I have not yet got over the embarrassment that flushes through me whenever I read a great poem for the first time and think, oh dear, I ought to have known this a long time ago, and I wonder if I ever shall.


I mentioned “the life of the mind.” In most cases, this phrase is a richly-upholstered pipe-dream, signifying not much. The life of the mind is like any modern life: it has its beginning (ignorance), its education (training, or, in the much better French term, formation), and its career (thinking critically about the world). Its career, unlike Gerald Marzorati’s, apparently, is the real workout. I do not understand why or how Marzorati failed to apply the zeal that he is bringing gratuitously to tennis to the work that he did for a living. Is there, as many artists have believed, something dulling about negotiating — exchanging — one’s work for a salary? Does the figure on a check surreptitiously take the place of less liquid criteria? I don’t think so. The problem is collegiality. Anybody who is great at anything needs to spend a lot of time alone, and solitude is heavily discouraged by modern economy. Modern economy likes to have people show up in a certain place at a certain time; it wants them to produce a certain amount of something in a certain number of hours. Modern economy would prefer to gather a number of workers together for a perfectly pointless meeting — modern economy regards meetings as essentially productive — than allow individual to wander off into their own minds. Modern economy is preoccupied by common denominators. Participants in modern economy are at risk of being degraded by the infection of common ideas.

No two lives of the mind are the same. Each mind must create tools for evaluating its own performance. This is to say that everyone must develop a personal style of writing, for it is only in writing that thinking is manifest. The quality of writing reveals the quality of the life of the writer’s mind. Anything that the writer does not write down is almost a kind of madness, a private, unanchored wildness, the incoherence of which, if approached too closely, is terrifying. I’m thinking of what John Nash thought but could never express.

I wish I knew more people to talk to about the things on my mind, but after a lifetime of banging my head against a wall I see that this is like wanting to win the lottery. It is difficult to understand why one won’t win the lottery, because winning is so easily envisioned. Even though we know perfectly well that the numbers are stacked against us — massively against us — we think that we know just what it would be like to win. Such excitement! such pleasure! All we’re doing is enlarging small moments of good luck that we have actually experienced. So it is with important conversations. Their likelihood is very small. The interlocutors must be strangers, at least in the sense that friends are not, and yet they must share certain familiarities in order to be mutually comprehensible. They must have read much of the same sort of thing but each must have read certain unexpectedly important things that the other has not. And, at the risk of sounding new-agey, I’d venture that important conversations can occur only when two bodies are biorhythmically in some kind of synch.

That’s why writing is so much better — any kind of published writing. You send things out: that is your contribution to the conversation, a conversation which may not begin in earnest until after you are dead. The life of the mind has at its disposal everything ever written down by anyone, everything that survives to be read.

The world’s maladies can be remedied by two things only: acts of generosity and the expressions of lively minds.


Tuesday 3

I should like to write an entry about something without ever using the word that serves as its label.

After work and lunch yesterday, I hoped to spend some time with various kitchen papers, to make up a list of common weeknight and weekend dinners for two and divide the ingredients into “fresh” and “staple” categories, the better to organize my shopping. It’s the old problem: on any given day, I’ve got no idea what to make for dinner. What do I want for dinner is countered by what did we have last night and the night before that; less often, I’ve got to consider a dinner that’s coming up. How hard to I want to work at it is, in its turn, countered by what do you mean by ‘hard’? Pretty soon my mind a blank, with epicycles turning on epicycles, and the idea of lying down almost overpowers me. Yesterday, I thought, a bit of overview might help. What are the dishes in my current repertoire?

Well, that didn’t happen. I sat there with the LRB, which I’d been reading at lunch, and just continued to sit there. I read Jacqueline Rose’s very long piece, “Who do you think you are?” If I quote the article’s subtitle, I shall be obliged to use the word that I want to avoid.

Rose writes, with a comprehensiveness that outdoes even Andrew Solomon on the same subject (although his work is more penetrating), about confusion and clarity in matters of sex and gender. We can agree, for present purposed, that “sex” is an absolutely flesh-and-bone issue: your body presents your sex, which is almost always either male or female, at birth. For most people, the clarity of that presentation remains unproblematic. (I gather that some of the people about whom Rose writes — Susan Stryker, for example — might contest this assumption.) We can also agree that “gender” is less clear, more fluid. Gender, it is commonly thought in advanced circles, is socially constructed. Your sex may be male, but for your gender to be male as well there are things that you have to do. You must learn a body language — a way to stand, a manner with unoccupied arms, a tilt of the head — or at least exclude from your body language those gestures that are commonly associated with the female gender. You must walk and talk like a man. You must have at least a few of the skills that are strongly associated with men (even if there are plenty of strong women who demonstrate those skills as well or better). You must respect certain taboos; you must profess not to notice certain things. I remember finding it very funny, once, that a marriage announcement in the Times told readers the name of the fabric out of which the bride’s gown was constructed (peau de soie) before it revealed the name of the man whom the bride married. A woman standing nearby eyed me with anxious disapproval. A real man, I could tell she thought, simply wouldn’t have seen “peau de soie” on the page. And a clever man would have kept it to himself.

Gender does, of course, find sexual expression. Jacqueline Rose quotes Jennifer Finney Boylan: “it is not about who you want to go to bed with, it’s who you want to go to bed as.” In general, however, gender manifests itself in everyday behavior that everybody can see; it has little to do with caresses. Kathleen and I have been leading, for thirty-five years in October, lives that defy one of the key gender markers: Kathleen goes to the office, while I stay home and keep house. I do the cooking; Kathleen closes deals. But the confusion, if that’s what it is, is pretty confined to that one swap. In her free time, Kathleen knits and beads, while I read the classics and bloviate about social problems. But just as we are well-matched in opinions and outlook (and the ability to express them), we are, as a couple, really bad at wedding presents: each one thinks that the other ought to choose them. In short, there are matters in which we observe gender conventions, matters in which we defy them to the point of negation, and matters — our conversation, for example — in which we ignore difference altogether.

If people think that Kathleen and I are doing something wrong — something even remotely immoral — by spending our respective days where we do, she at the office and I at home, then we are utterly unaware of it. There must be people who do, but we don’t know them, or they don’t speak their complaints. I’m sure that my father-in-law has wondered what the hell is wrong with me, that I don’t earn a living, but he is more inclined to express gratitude that I take good care of his daughter. Kathleen and I grew up in an affluent, highly-educated world (which both of us nevertheless regarded as provincial, its “sophistication” but the merest of veneers), and we live in that world still. We have a great deal more personal freedom than do people at the other end of the socio-economic scale, freedom that we have done nothing to deserve. I believe that it is this freedom that has spared us the doubt that we might have been born with bodies of the wrong sex. Kathleen does not want to be a male, and she does not want me to be a female. And vice versa. Each of us is quite comfortable with the sex situation in our household. I can be a male and a good cook. My father-in-law, in his early nineties, fully approves — he used to be a good cook himself. For my mother, however, my culinary interests were always a worry. Her ideas about the alignment of sex and gender were rigid. The fact that I noticed the mention of peau de soie because I’m a reader and a writer would have meant nothing to her, either. But she died forty years ago next year. Things have changed a lot since 1977.

Reading Jacqueline Rose prodded me with an observation that I had also gleaned from Andrew Solomon’s chapter on this subject, in Far From the Tree: few of the witnesses come from backgrounds like the one that Kathleen and I share. Few of those who have undergone what I am going to call sex-alteration procedures of any kind (I include cross-dressing) seem to have enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom as children. A great many seem to have been physically abused, and a great many seem to have been bullied, a complementary form of abuse. Rose wonders if many young people who seek sex-alteration procedures do so under pressure from parents and other adult advisers who seek the arguable protections of clarity, as if a sissy’s problems will be solved by uncomplicated femininity. Most of all, sex-alteration procedures appear to be undertaken with a view to bringing sex into alignment with gender. As a complete reversal of the cruelties of the traditional priority, which has always rather brutally subordinated gender to sex, this sounds like a good thing, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt the wisdom of trying to solve a broad miscellany of gender problems, about which there is, by the way, no overarching consensus, by playing Frankenstein with the body. I take the reference to Victor Frankenstein from Susan Stryker, who loudly proclaims the unnatural state of her sex-altered, stitched-over body.

Jacqueline Rose winds up her long essay with a thought that chimes with my own judgment, but before quoting it I shall break my restraint in order to suggest that my “problem” with the “transsexual” is very largely an aesthetic rejection of the term itself. Almost all the words ending in “-sexual” are more or less revolting to me. They pretend to give a mere fact (genital endowment, “sexual” preference) as much weight as fully human possibilities, whereas humanity begins where the facts of the human body and its inborn or unconscious proclivities stop (by having expressed themselves as inexorable). I always stumble in the middle of sentences that begin, “I’ve been reading about transsexual —” Transsexual what? “Transsexualism”? If there is a word with a more retrograde redolence, then please don’t tell me what it is.

On the other hand, I would tentatively suggest that we are witnessing the first signs that the category of the transsexual might one day, as the ultimate act of emancipation, abolish itself. In “Woman’s Time” (1981), Julia Kristeva argued that feminism, and indeed the whole world, would enter a third stage in relation to sexual difference: after the demand for equal rights and then the celebration of femininity as other than the norm, a time will come when the distinction between woman and man will finally disappear, a metaphysical relic of a bygone age. In the second Transgender Reader, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade call for a trans and queer movement which would set its sights above all on a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates inequality, consolidates state authority and increases the number of incarcerated people across the globe.

I’ll vote for that. It seems obvious to me that sex-alteration is, fundamentally, a form of political protest, even if — hell, especially if — the politics at stake are utterly local. (Those particular bullies are to stop abusing this particular child.) To the extent that a scalpel can enhance human happiness, I cannot object to the procedure. But to the extent that it is raised as a proxy for prison reform, I can only hope that our pursuit of clarity will advance beyond uncertainties about the sex and gender of individuals.


In the same issue of the LRB — the first to appear (here) since the death of Jenny Diski; perhaps not the first to carry an ad for a book by Jenny Diski but nothing by her name in the list of articles — there is a review, by Alice Sprawls, of a show, or installation, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, celebrating the centenary of “Brogue,” or British Vogue. More than a review, Sprawls’s piece is a capsule history of the magazine, which was inaugurated when U-boats interfered with transatlantic shipping. According to Sprawls, the NPG show attains nothing like the success of recent photography exhibitions about Lee Miller (at the Imperial War Museum) and Horst (at the V&A), but the catalogue is a must. Sprawls herself is full of fun stuff. For example, owing to paper shortages during World War II, Vogue’s subscription list had to be limited, so that the only way a new subscriber could get a copy was for an old subscriber to die. (I’m not sure that I really believe this, or that it was a policy in force for more than a fortnight, but it’s certainly fun.) Also fun: it was the robust market for Vogue patterns that kept Condé Nast financially afloat after the Crash wiped out his extensive speculations. I see that Vogue patterns still exist, but at a web page belong to McCall’s. During the past thirty years, has Anna Wintour been in the same room with one?

Sprawls does not mention Wintour, which must mean something. She glides from Beatrix Miller to Alexandra Schulman, overlooking the chance to deploy “Nuclear Wintour,” which is also fun, if pretty predictable, given The Devil Wears Prada. Coming home last night in a taxi, Kathleen, who has quite given up looking at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and wonders why they still appear on the coffee table, got stuck in the traffic created around the Museum by limousines ferrying guests to the Met Gala at the Anna Wintour Costume Center. In the Times online today, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her “Hamilton look.” The theme of this year’s gala, as it has been for every season since Wintour took the gala under her wing, is “Commerce By Night.” I’d like to know what Anna Wintour thinks about Germaine Greer’s opinion of MTF transsexuals, which Jacqueline Rose cites at almost incredulous length. It appears that Greer does not recognize sex alteration, at least in cases involving a body born as male. To her, these former males are “pantomime dames,” imperialists for the masculine cause trying out a new gambit. My suspicion is that Wintour agrees, but doesn’t mind.

I don’t know what the alternative to Brogue is, but I prefer Harper’s Bazaar, which always seems to have been more literary than fashionable (and I’m talking about the staff, not the paid outsiders). Diana Vreeland was much cleverer at the Bazaar than she was at Vogue, or perhaps I mean much less; I am still waiting for someone to publish the compleat Why don’t you…” The only other point that needs to be made about the superiority of Bazaar to Vogue is that it is an issue of the former that Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is really reading at the end of Rear Window. Paid product placement, perhaps, but still — Grace Kelly.


Thursday 5th

What is to be thought? About a week after proposing Carly Fiorina as his running mate, Ted Cruz has folded his tents and departed. So has John Kasich. The improbable Donald Trump alone remains, a genuinely popular candidate, at least among Republican Party voters. Already, the Times is helping us to imagine what Trump’s first hundred days in office will be like.

In a series of recent interviews, he sketched out plans that include showdowns with business leaders over jobs and key roles for military generals, executives and possibly even family members in advising him about running the country.

Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, President-elect Trump and his vice president — most likely a governor or member of Congress — would begin interviewing candidates for the open Supreme Court seat and quickly settle on a nominee in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia.

It sounds like a movie. Which is why I repeat the question: what is to be thought? How much conviction are we to invest in this prospect? How earnestly ought we to prepare for change in the political culture of a magnitude not seen since Andrew Jackson’s day?

Many think that the White House now belongs to Hillary Clinton. I’m not so sure. Which is more reason to be thinking. Thinking — but not concluding. Conclusions are premature. What has ended is the scrimmage on the right. The horse race there is over. There may be an insurrection, forcing Trump to run as a third-party candidate. Now that the voters have spoken, how will the Party establishment settle its stomach? There are so many problems with Trump, problems on different levels. There is the burlesque aspect of his demeanor, which some people see and others don’t. He is a clown to many. He is also a tyro, incapable of speaking articulately about anything, but probably not because of stupidity. No, probably because articulateness means little to his supporters. If Trump wins the election in November, his mandate will be to tear down the house. Coherent policy statements will mean nothing in the smoke and dust. How eager are Republican mandarins, and the organized money behind them, to participate in the pillage?

Is it possible that there will be no pillage? If Trump has a truly “presidential” mien up his sleeve, he is probably not going to display it until after the election.

All this must be thought about. What must not be thought about is “how this ever happened.” We’ll leave that question to the historians; with their longer perspective, they’ll see things that we cannot. I myself have been mildly surprised by the extent of Trump’s success, but the success itself does not surprise me at all. What surprises me — and it oughtn’t — is the shock and awe that seems to have been dealt to political commentators. For too many of the men and women who tell us what to think, Trump’s advance has made Aleppos of their workspace. They cannot function without saying panicky things. A Times editorial yesterday castigated the Republican Party for allowing Trump to happen. Not so fast! I would bet that a big chunk of Trump’s supporters either used to be Democrats or are the children of people who were Democrats until the Civil Rights/Nixon disaster.

I hope that Hillary Clinton and her supporters will not embark on a wild vilification of Donald Trump. Without doing much to recognize Trump’s existence, the Democrats need to create a welcoming but realistic political atmosphere that will draw every conceivable voter to the polls, while conferring by implication the air of a sideshow monstrosity on Trump’s berserkers. I have my doubts about Clinton’s ability to oversee a project of this kind; her character is marred by a profound arrogance that seems to me to be pregnant with tragic possibilities.

Here’s what I think: if Donald Trump is able to present himself as the more generous candidate, more sincerely committed to the welfare of the American voters of today than his Democratic rival, then he will win in November. Other issues pale to insignificance beside this one.


It may be that generosity is much on my mind anyway. Thinking, late last night, about Mavis Gallant’s novel, A Fairly Good Time, I was tickled by the ease with which I could dissolve every scene, every confrontation, and every plot point in a colloid of understanding and generosity. “Understanding” is generally another word for “sympathy,” but not in Gallant’s world. Again and again, the heroine, a twenty-something called Shirley, runs up against generosity withheld by people who claim to understand her, while she herself is generous without understanding.

Because the novel is set in Paris, in the early Sixties — still the late Forties, in other words, in all but the most superficial appearances — the dissonance between understanding and generosity might easily be seen as a comic take on French cynicism. Gallant certainly plays this card. The two principal men in the story, Philippe, Shirley’s vanishing husband, and Papa Maurel, the unhappy patriarch of a discordant family, treat Shirley with a contempt bordering on sadism; they are virtuosos in turning her arguments of self-defense against her. As a disheveled North American of undeveloped habits, Shirley lacks the ideal personality profile for would-be Parisian expats. But she runs into much the same hard-heartedness in fellow North Americans, such as her quondam friend Renata and her touring godmother, Mrs Cat Castle. The only truly gentle people in the book, aside from the rackety heroine herself, are the Higginses, Mr and Mrs and their son, Pete. Shirley was married to Pete, briefly. Gallant makes you wonder about the “why” behind the “briefly,” but then discloses the history in the tumorously outsized, seventy-page twelfth chapter: Pete died in a stupid vehicular accident. The sweetness of the Higginses is a small cloud of dust in the bedlam of Shirley’s protracted apology. The Higgenses belong to the relatively distant past, and they are completely effaced by such supporting characters as Madame Roux, the inexplicably malignant shopkeeper on the ground floor of Shirley’s apartment house.

Speaking of “generosity,” I do not have money in mind. Shirley is not rich by any means, but she is not needy, either. Shirley is not turning to people for financial help. She is looking for friends, for people who will make sense of her life in Paris. Too often, she is told that bad things will happen to her, and the warnings are not meant in a friendly or generous way. Here are two passages, a page apart, taken from Shirley’s recollection of her first dinner with Philippe.

All these rude questions have a reason [says Philippe], and you are certainly as conscious of it as I am. Otherwise you would not have bothered to see me again. I have another question — I hope not the last. Between the time I met you and today, and I have been asking other questions about you. Your friends tell me that you give everything away. Why do you give everything away? It sounds like a kind of imbalance. Has anyone ever tried to stop you? (240)

He spooned two strawberries on to my plate and insisted I taste them. I wondered if he had been raised to think that women need to be coaxed. It seemed to me an extraordinary physical gesture, as if we were already lovers. I didn’t know then that we could not be friends. I don’t know why, but we never became friends. (241)

One is reminded of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal: a novel that begins with the disappearance of a husband climaxes with the insight of a first date observed. We never became friends. By page 241, the reader is well aware of this; the reader has known it from the start, when Shirley, alone in the apartment, goes through Philippe’s desk drawers and reads bits of the strange novel that a female friend, somehow not a mistress (she is perhaps not physically robust), hopes that Philippe will be able to publish. Philippe holds this woman in higher regard than he does his wife. Looking back from page 241, we may nod: Geneviève Deschranes and Philippe are friends, just as Philippe and Shirley are not. Shirley claims to love Philippe, but she never says anything about liking him. This may be the failure of her generosity: it is indiscriminate. She gives everything away, to anybody. And she does not understand that, for that and other reasons, she and Philippe could never be friends.

A tangential encounter that no one of ordinary discretion would allow to blow out of proportion thrusts Shirley into the bosom of the Maurel family. If Shirley fits in with the Maurels, that’s because the family is already running a substantial friendship deficit within itself. The force of bourgeois custom is all that holds the Maurels together. Papa, a thinnish man who closes his eyes in frequent exasperation and who forbids what he cannot ignore, was bought by Maman Maurel’s rich father. When the marriage didn’t work out, Papa moved in with his rich uncle. But Maman’s father was a friend of Papa’s uncle, and Papa was sent back to Maman, whereupon they actually became the parents of two girls, eight years apart. Marie-Thérèse, the elder, is stern and correct, the mother of four boys of her own. (Maman, a delicate eater, loathes the Alsatian in-laws with whom Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Gérald, has brought her into contact.) Claudie, the younger daughter, is something of a wild child. She has borne a child out of wedlock; Papa and Maman are raising little Alain as their own (they moved to a new neighborhood to avoid the disgrace). I never did decide what was wrong with Claudie, but something was. Something involving the imbalance of a strong will in a weak mind.

The Maurel’s live in Boulogne-Billancourt, far away from Shirley’s flat in the 6ième, but Shirley seems to spend every free minute with them, at least for a while.

The Maurel family were still trying to overtake their first failed invitation. Shirley had now sat down to four meals in their dining room, each a disaster. The Maurels quarreled so violently that no one save Gérald had time to swallow. Only Shirley seemed to be distressed by it; to the Maurels, normal conversation was either a whine or a scream. Except for Papa, who never looked at her, and Marie-Thérèse, who mistrusted Shirley with all her heart, Shirley had become everyone’s tutelary saint. (141)

Giving it all away yet again.

A Fairly Good Time is itself marked by the tension between understanding and generosity. A famous and highly-accomplished short-story writer, long published in The New Yorker, Gallant wrote only two novels; this one is the second. When short-story writers produce novels with odd shapes and strange focus, it is difficult to distinguish the experimental from the incompetent. A Fairly Good Time is certainly not an incompetent novel; its very irregularities (and these are considerable) are engrossing. They reproduce, without annoying insistence, the irregularities of twenty-something life, when overwhelming possibility engenders limitless procrastination. It is hard to tell who one’s friends are. What I mean by raising the idea of incompetence is the uncertainty, betrayed by the tale’s unexpected emphases, of affect attempted and achieved.

The title is taken from Edith Wharton: “If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” I don’t think that I’ve ever read a more characteristic line: the bleak irony behind Wharton’s decision to let beauty stand in for joy infuses all her work. But I am not aware that Shirley has made up her mind about being happy, or about much of anything else. Shirley accepts that, as a plain woman, she is not entitled to top-drawer treatment, but her search for personal satisfaction does not suggest that happiness has been crossed off her list. Does she have a fairly good time, amidst all the disaster of a novel that, while set in Paris, is chilled by the frontier gusts of empty west Canada? Gallant is replete with understanding; like Diane Johnson after her, Gallant delights in showing us the French bourgeoisie at home, with its rabbity misgivings and its mindless disdain for Americans. (There are good reasons for looking down on Americans, but these little people are not in possession of them.) Gallant is not criticizing the French so much as warning Anglophones against trying to be chummy. She does this best by inflicting the Maurel’s chumminess on Shirley.

But, perhaps haunted by modernist fashions, Gallant doesn’t want to tell us too much about Shirley. In an almost slavish adherence to fictional modes of the Sixties, she allows Shirley to say goodbye to everything in the story that she has just lived, but tells us not a thing about what’s next for her heroine. Shirley leaves her old apartment for the last time; she posts a hastily-improvised letter to Philippe that could mean anything. “She supposed that they would see each other again in time, in dreams and recollections.” We are allowed to follow Shirley no further. This is an arguably stingy way to end a story about a woman who gives everything away.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (IV)

25, 26, 28, 29 April

Monday 25th

In the final pages of In altre parole (In Other Words), Jhumpa Lahiri mentions her last book, Lowland. Except that, writing in Italian, she calls it La Moglie (The Wife). That is the title of the Italian translation by M F Oddera. Presumably, Lahiri was involved in the decision to give Lowland a different title for Italian readers. But it is nevertheless surprising to hear the unauthorized title from the writer’s mouth.

Does Jhumpa Lahiri still exist? As a woman of flesh and blood — or flesh and bone, as Lahiri has learned in Italian (carne ed ossa) — the answer is “yes”; but, existentially, as a writer, the answer is, possibly, “no.” Existentially, at least, there is another woman going by the same name. She is another woman because she thinks, reads, and writes in another language — if, that is, she still does, now that she is no longer living in Italy. Lahiri ends the book in a state of doubt. What will she do? She is honest enough to say that she doesn’t know. How quixotic will it be, in America, to go on avoiding English texts — newspapers and magazines along with books, not to mention panel discussions and whatnot — and to continue to write in a language that she is unwilling to translate?

Lahiri mentions a writer whom I’ve never heard of, Agota Kristóf, or Kristof as I shall refer to her, as that’s how her name appears on the cover of her books. Kristof’s books are written in French, not her native language. Her native language was Hungarian. Kristof, who died in 2011, escaped from Hungary in 1956, after the suppressed revolt against the Communist régime, and settled in Switzerland — in Neuchâtel, the Francophone town on the lake of the same name. There, she reinvented herself as a writer in French. According to Lahiri, Kristof never felt fluent in French; she could not write without a foreigner’s dependence upon dictionaries. The alternative would have been to write in Hungarian, a language hardly spoken outside the very country that would prohibit publication of her work. In effect, Kristof decided to become her own translator into French.

Existentially, Kristof never existed as a Hungarian writer. As a woman of flesh and blood, she was obliged to leave her native land in order to survive. Lahiri points out these differences from her own case. Everything about Lahiri’s foray into Italian has been voluntary. And, no doubt because of her gender, even Lahiri wonders if this foray might not be somewhat frivolous. Other writers, she tells us, often regard her decision to write in Italian with disapproval, wondering if such a project can ever be more than superficial. She is heartened by the example of Agota Kristof, but one must ask (as Lahiri begins to do) if Kristof’s example is genuinely available to her. My own opinion is that Lahiri has not quite earned the right.

I say this because In altre parole reads like a translation from the English, even though it was written by the author in Italian and translated into English by someone else (Ann Goldstein). I can’t guess how foreign Lahiri’s text might seem to native readers of Italian; I fear that they might find it brave but elementary. I don’t mean to fault Lahiri’s Italian, which seems sound enough. It is her thinking that I question. For example, I question her use of the word “approccio.” This word appears in my Cassell’s, but only in the Italian-to-English section, where it seems limited to use in diplomatic usage, not unlike the French “tentative.” “Approccio” does not appear in the English-to-Italian half of the dictionary. I sense that it is simply “not Italian” to think, as we do in English, of approaching a problem in a certain way. There is another way to put it, one that reflects a different way of thinking about it.

Perhaps In altre parole reads like a translation because it is, as Lahiri claims, her first genuinely autobiographical work. She is writing, throughout, about herself, and as a matter of fact she is an American writer. Who would think in English more pervasively than a writer in English? Moreover, Lahiri is writing about reading and writing. (Scrivo, scrivo, scrivo! One gets rather tired of that word.) In one amusing chapter, her husband comes into the picture. Her husband is the beguilingly-named former deputy editor of Time Latin America, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. Whatever his background, he speaks Spanish. He speaks Italian as if it were Spanish. And yet, everywhere they go, his Italian is hailed as perfect, unaccented, even; while Lahiri’s Italian, which really is much more correct than her husband’s, never makes the grade. Lahiri is exasperated by this: do Italians hear with their eyes? And yet I suspect that her husband’s Italian is closer to the real thing because his Spanish is so much closer to Italian. He already thinks the right way.

The way to learn a foreign language is to parrot a good native speaker. Don’t say anything that you haven’t heard that native speaker say. Don’t, in other words, even think of expressing yourself until you have mastered the parrotting and no longer have to think about it. Then you may express yourself — if you still have anything to say. I wonder just how well Lahiri has expressed herself in Italian. I’ll never really know, not unless some highly literate Italian who is also fluent in English writes a critical essay that addresses this very question. I expect that Lahiri has used Italian to show Italians how Anglophones think, just as Francesca Marciano does the opposite, in The Other Language — a work that, sadly, has not appeared in Italian. I suspect that Marciano has a more proficient approccio.

Scrivo, all’inizio, per occultarmi. “I wrote, in the beginning, to hide myself.” That’s my translation. Goldstein puts it thus: “In the beginning, I wrote in order to conceal myself.” I do give Lahiri points for not beginning the sentence with “In the beginning,” natural though it is in English. “To conceal” is indeed the first choice, in Cassell’s, as a translation of occultare, but I think that I should have gone with the third, “to keep secret.” In the beginning, I wrote as a way of keeping myself secret. No matter how you phrase it, this is an intriguing statement, because it raises the specter of the writer who is her only reader: the true diarist. In the beginning, Lahiri wrote what she could not say. Why couldn’t she say it? And how did her problem with saying things, and her intention to write in secret, propel her into this engagement with Italian?


These questions play in my mind as I consider this week’s new word, oikophobia. It looks like Greek, because it is composed of Greek elements, but to Plato and Aristotle it could only have connoted madness, for to be afraid, or seized with a violent dislike, of one’s home couldn’t be anything but crazy. Perhaps that is precisely what Roger Scruton thought when he coined the word, nearly fifteen years ago. But I think that he had something else on his mind. “Oik” sounds pretty much like what an English oikophobe would want to flee: the people who say “Oi!” for “Hey!”: common-law Brits.

For further enlightenment on the subject, I turn to James Taranto, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, who in 2010 was weighing in on the kerfuffle caused by plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, within a few blocks of Ground Zero, here in Manhattan. Needless to say, Taranto’s opinion was that the élitist proponents of the center, in their unwillingness to respect the widespread but vernacular opposition to such propinquity, manifested oikophobia, which he explained as follows:

The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.

In truth, oikophobia functions elegantly as a disapproving alternative to an already perfectly handy word, cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan people have long deplored the provinciality of hoi polloi. Thanks to Scruton, the people can just as easily deplore the sophistication of cosmopolitans. For it is indeed true that educated people tend to have more in common with educated people from anywhere than with their own uneducated neighbors. That is, among other things, the whole point of education. Scruton has turned up the heat a bit, or at least Taranto has done so: élitists (another word for “cosmopolitans”) take the other side and denigrate their own “customs, culture, and institutions.” In truth, cosmopolitans are rarely so strenuous.

As someone who likes to think of himself as cosmopolitan, I agreed with the opponents of the placement of the Islamic center. I didn’t share their feelings at all, but those feelings struck me as perfectly understandable. The discomfort of regular people from the boroughs would obviously — obviously — be real enough, and I do not believe in overlooking popular discomfort. There seemed no real need to place the center so close to Ground Zero, or in Lower Manhattan at all. Not far from where I live, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York stands on the corner of 96th Street and Third Avenue. That’s completely out of my small orbit, and I have no idea how lively it is; nor do I understand why a second cultural center was planned. (I may have forgotten.) The ICCNY is the oldest mosque in the city, although the current structure dates to the Eighties. Even then, the construction was controversial. I am not aware of any appreciable local Islamic population. Being a cosmopolitan, I’m not personally troubled by that. But I cock an eyebrow. Everybody knows that Islam flourishes in Queens.

Along with the mosque squabble, Taranto borrows from Charles Krauthammer another oikophobic issue, opposition to opposition to same-sex marriage. Here we must note that Taranto is writing in 2010, a long time ago so far as this question is concerned. If touristic and corporate responses to recent legislation in North Carolina and Alabama are any indication, same-sex marriage can no longer be claimed as an American bugaboo; its opponents do look more and more like bigots. Certainly same-sex marriage cannot be viewed as a pill that élitists are forcing an unwilling population to swallow.

Closer to Scruton’s area of concern, my cosmopolitan outlook leads me to conclude that the Eurocrats in Brussels must be stopped, or at least saved from themselves. They accent cooperation at the expense of respecting local differences. Local differences are not going to go away, certainly not as the result of Eurocrat wishful thinking, and there is no real reason to wish that they would do so.


My real quarrel with Roger Scruton is that he believes in “the tribe” as the basis of culture. From Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern culture:

The core of common culture is religion. Tribes survive and flourish because they have gods, who fuse the many wills into a single will, and demand and reward the sacrifices on which social life depends. (5)

As the statement of a late-twentieth-century onetime Oxbridge don, this is fantastical stuff. What on earth does Scruton know, what can he know, about gods forging many wills into one, demanding and rewarding sacrifices? Nothing that he didn’t read in a book is what. Nothing that hasn’t been filtered into his consciousness by the more or less biased observers of either the earth’s few remaining actual tribes or the more numerous surviving texts that require an indeterminate degree of interpretation. One thing that Scruton downplays is the involuntary nature of membership in tribes. I find no mention in Scruton’s discussion of the person who wants to leave the tribe. The person who wants to change it is charged with sacrilege, but the person who wants to leave, perhaps to join a distant tribe, is not imagined. Scruton makes an interesting but, to my mind dubious, claim for the importance of membership in a tribe.

Modern people long for membership; but membership exists only among people who long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the fact of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man. (11)

It is quite easy to infer from this the existence of oikophobes. Imagine living, as one of them, among people immersed in a value structure that you deplore! It is not hard for me to do so; and, what is more, it is altogether too easy for me to feel proud of myself, according to one undoubtable aspect of the “ethical vision of man,” for resisting immersion. I grew up in a town that immersed itself in the idea of excluding Jews and blacks from its resident population. Jews and blacks could run the shops and clean the bathrooms, but they could not live within the Holy Square Mile.

And yet I am no oikophobe. I shouldn’t want to live in Bronxville, certainly, but I’m uncomfortable about calling attention to its sometime viciousness. It is not my problem; it is not really anybody’s problem. I cannot see Bronxville’s anti-Semitism as more than a foolishness: it harms only those who stew in it. As a cosmopolitan, I have no complaint. As a memoirist, I am forced to recognize it as a factor in my repudiation of the naive belief that community values are benign and worthy of being cherished. I knew the lesson of “The Lottery” long before I read Shirley Jackson’s story.

Up to now, in the novels that she claims are not autobiographical, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about the dislocation of leaving a tribe behind. In the new book, she addresses the much less familiar side of that dislocation. How do you join a tribe? How do you become a writer in Italian? Her tongue and her pen have mastered their part of the task. What’s left is for her mind to do the same. Is it even possible?


Tuesday 26th

When I find Roger Scruton’s remarks on oikophobia — I expect that his invention is well-cushioned in thoughtful verbiage — I may very well find him saying what everybody knows, which is that teenagers suffer severe bouts of the disease. Indeed, oikophobia is a healthy side-effect of adolescence. It’s part of the self-defining process that consists of differentiation from everything that’s familiar, too familiar to have been learned, so familiar that it has always been taken for granted.

On the basis of In altre parole, I should say that Jhumpa Lahiri suffered a variant of the stable child’s oikophobia. It started much earlier and went much deeper. The annoying superficial aspects of it were outgrown in the regular way, but a restlessness with language persisted, as if language were an overfamiliar nanny who overstayed her term of duty. Lahiri wasn’t entirely eager for the nanny to leave, because the nanny was her access to achievement in the country that remained strange to her parents.

The nanny was English.

It’s an interesting story, and I wish that Lahiri had lingered over it, or at any rate that she will do so in future, in English or Italian as she likes. She doesn’t tell us very much in In altre parole (although she does repeat more than a few things, as one does in successive pieces of journalism, and as one does when one is struggling to say things in a new language), but what she tells us, in the context of this Italian book out of the blue, suggests that the roots of her infatuation with the language of Dante and Ginzburg run all the way down to her beginnings.

Although born in London, she arrived in Rhode Island at the age of two; her father is a university librarian. Lahiri’s parents came to England and America from Kolkata. At home, her mother did everything possible to maintain a Bengali way of life. Bengali was spoken at home, never English. This is an almost universal immigrant experience, but for Lahiri it must have had an aspect of perversity, owing to her father’s profession. He was not a laborer. He and his wife were actually fluent in English, at least in understanding it. The choice to maintain Bengali customs was highly self-conscious.

I saw the consequences of not speaking English perfectly, of speaking with a foreign accent. I saw the wall that my parents faced in America almost every day. It was a persistent insecurity for them. Sometimes I had to explain the meaning of certain terms, as if I were the parent. Sometimes I spoke for them. In shops the salespeople tended to address me, simply because my English didn’t have a foreign accent. As if my father and mother, with their accent, couldn’t understand. I hated the attitude of those salespeople toward my parents. I wanted to defend them. I would have liked to protest: “They understand everything you say, while you don’t understand even a word of Bengali or any other language in the world.” And yet it annoyed me as well when my parents mispronounced an English word. I corrected them, impertinently. I didn’t want them to be vulnerable, I didn’t like my advantage, their disadvantage. I would have liked them to speak English as I did. (151-2)

Countless immigrant children have felt these conflicting resentments. But most of their parents did not understand English very well. Few were knowledge workers whose everyday office language was English. What did Lahiri’s parents think they were doing? Did they plan to raise children who would to return to Calcutta? This is only one of a dozen questions that come to mind. Lahiri has answered many of them fictionally, hypothetically, in her earlier books. But she has not given us, pure and simple, her parents’ answers. Her answers.

One consequence is that Lahiri’s English, while perfectly tuned, is at the same time muffled, because it served her in childhood as a utility. The real language, the language of hearth and home, was something else, something that inspired Lahiri to set much of her fiction in India, and in a fictional India that existed before she was born: the Bengal of her parents. At the end of In altre parole, she acknowledges a recent discovery:

Today, I no longer feel bound to restore a lost country to my parents. It took me a long time to realize that my writing have to assume that responsibility. (221)

To some extent, Lahiri’s writing has always been in translation. In altre parole is, indeed, her first book. There is something about English that she has not taken seriously, something that she assumed she knew. She is a born writer, and she certainly knows how to tell stories. But although her prose is recognizably American, it is not a particular kind of English. The French would say that elle vient de nulle part — her tongue/language/accent comes from nowhere. If she had grown up in India, her English might even have a more specific weight. Instead, she grew up in Suburbia, which IS nulle part. I strongly suspect that Lahiri believes that nothing worth writing about occurs entirely within the frame of the United States. When I consider the lengths to which a writer like George Saunders is obliged to exercise his imagination in order to bring Suburbia to life — how marvelous it is, and what an achievement on his part, that he isn’t regarded as a science fiction writer — I believe that she would be right.

I don’t mean to be oikophobic there. The failure of America to be interesting might well be its greatest achievement. Perhaps. The argument can certainly made that peace and stability are more nourishing than magic and drama. The Chinese curse about interesting times makes a good point. But much of American blandness owes to negative factors: to rootlessness (too much moving around), to projection (shopping malls and the fantasies that drive us to them), to vicariousness (the colossal but powdery edifice of celebrity). Multitasking makes people awake but not alert. And the ignorance, the sheer Dunning-Kruger ignorance. Only in America would “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” be considered a joke.


Speaking of jokes: Lady Elizabeth Anson, party-planner to HM the Queen, indulged a Times reporter with a bit of tittle-tattle, and we are holding our breath, hoping that Her Majesty is now just too old to do the wrath thing.

During a discussion about the lost art of conversation because of cellphones, she took her incessantly ringing land line off the hook, letting the receiver dangle at her stockinged feet, and leaned in, saying: “I think I can tell this. It’s a bit about the royal family.”

She described how the queen had had her grandchildren over for dinner. “And she said to me that she found it really difficult,” Lady Elizabeth said, “because they didn’t really know how to talk each other. And she said, ‘I suppose it’s because they’re always getting up and down and helping somebody and putting something in a dishwasher or whatever they’re doing, because they don’t have enough staff.’”

This is really horribly funny. There sits poor granny while her twenty- and thirty-something grandchildren peer surreptitiously at their phones under the table, decide to take this or that call, and pretend to take a plate into the kitchen. All right, it’s just horrible. One wants desperately to think that Elizabeth is pulling the other Elizabeth’s leg, with her explanation of all the “up and down.” One fears not. One suspects a nasty game that only spoiled brats would play. If they don’t know how to talk to each other, it’s probably because they all hate each other. It’s the Queen’s fault that they’re related! One blushes for shame: one oughtn’t even to know this story. Presently one feels better: it occurs to one that the late Queen Mum would have had her own mobile, and not bothered to get up and leave the table to use it, either. Anyway, would you tell her? And I don’t mean the Queen Mum.

And who doesn’t have enough staff?


Michael Kinsley’s new book about falling apart, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, was favorably reviewed by Philip Lopate in this weekend’s Book Review. I don’t intend to read it, because it would just make me more high-strung than I already am. Books like Old Age are warnings about the inevitable, and I have already had mine. I hope for a peaceful, moderately uncomfortable, and very inexpensive death, but I don’t fill in the details of that pretty picture. It will fill itself in without any help from me. I get through the day knowing that I may die at any time, and hoping that the specifics of the surprise aren’t too unpleasant. I worry more about the short-term future of civilization, which may be dying, too, but, unlike me, not necessarily.

Having already dealt with most of the material discussed in the review, I was free to be amazed by something I’d never heard put quite this way:

Still, the book refuses to wallow in self-pity or offer triumphalist narratives of overcoming victimhood. Rather, Kinsley is intent on being wryly realistic about coping with illness and the terminal prospects ahead. He makes fun of a fellow boomer, Larry Ellison, the C.E.O. of Oracle, who has spent millions in a quest for eternal life, and who was quoted as saying, “Death has never made any sense to me.” Kinsley quips: “Actually the question is not whether death makes sense to Larry Ellison but whether Larry Ellison makes sense to death. And I’m afraid he does.”

Chuckle, chuckle. It’s nice to know that Ellison is spending his money on worthwhile causes. Who knows what scientists will learn, while looking for something that can’t be found? “Death doesn’t make sense,” however, doesn’t make sense. Death is the secret of life. The death of the individual underpins the survival of the species.

We ought to want to die, just for the good health of it. Maybe someday, we shall. Maybe someday, all the resources currently being poured into cryogenics and reprints of Atlas Shrugged will make it routine for people to die because they’re tired of living. Healthy old people, in their nineties and later, begin to stop paying attention. They’ve heard everything already. They have no reason to learn anything new. They enjoy life but they prefer it to be peaceful and quiet. Eventually, they simply don’t wake up in the morning. There would still be idiots like Ellison demanding Permanent Ego Status, but if this pattern were generalized throughout the population, instead of being limited to a very lucky few, most people just might lose the fear of death. Knowing that death would be preceded by a relaxed stage of withdrawal, they would be happy to hand over the responsibilities and the headaches to their children and grandchildren.

It would be wrong to say that death makes evolution possible — I think. But death certainly makes evolution bearable. Imagine being condemned to live through a few centuries of recent history. Imagine having lived for the nearly two hundred thousand years of recognizably human experience. Death makes evolution bearable because evolution would be utterly unbearable otherwise.

As we grow up, somewhere between our late teens and our early thirties, we organize ourselves by putting faith in a certain arrangement of affairs. Today, for example, a young man with good business prospects plans, unasked, to buy a house with a mortgage. But wait: perhaps this commitment, so common when I was young, is on the way out now. Geezer moment! Young people may well be making commitments to new arrangements that I might find it difficult, after forty years of dealing with mine, to adapt to. We sensible elders may regret the overuse of mobile phones, but nothing we say is going to have any effect; young people will sort it out for themselves. That is how a healthy society functions: young people sort things out, and then they make their contributions of work and children. And then they die, to make room for new younger people, whom they welcome without quite being able to regard them as Hannah Arendt did: as invaders. The world — the natural world as well, but I’m thinking of the world of human beings — is in a state of constant invasion by newborns who know nothing about the world. Happily, most of them eventually learn more about it than Larry Ellison seems to have done.


Thursday 28th

Not gifted at dreaming up catchy names or slogans, I usually manage to stifle the impulse. But the impulse is strong today. I want to name the pixie who has taken to haunting the darker corners of the book room. She darts about like Tinkerbelle, but she has the face and long, straight hair of Marie Kondo (as she is known in the West). She does not advise me on the dispersal of old papers or the folding of socks, both of which could keep her busy in here. (The book room is also what might be called my dressing room.) Instead, she hides in the bookshelves, appearing only when I am looking for a book that just might be shelved behind another book. As I scan the spines in the rear, she whispers, That one. She taps a book with her magic wand. Are you ever going to re-read that one? The preliminary answer is almost always “no” — how did she know that? I take the book in my hand, look at it severely, try to remember reading it, and flip to the Table of Contents. I read a paragraph at random. Sometimes, the next thing that happens is that I slip the book into the discards pile. Just as often, however, I deposit the book upon the stack of books to read.

I’d like a name for this pixie so that I could blame her for unexpected turns in my reading. TinkerKon? Good grief, no. Konbelle? No — but there are possibilities there. Kondobella? Condobella looks nicer, and, besides, loosening the connection to the world-famous author of a treatise on how to get rid of stuff is probably in order, because I wouldn’t want to make the pixie’s namesake look incompetent. KonMari (as she is known in her book) would be very disappointed by my attachment to old books that I haven’t read or even looked at in forty years, books that are out of date in some way or other, books that I really haven’t got time to re-read. Condobella is more of a challenger. She’s not trying to make me get rid of books. She is simply daring me to justifying giving them house room.

Such a book is Edward Crankshaw’s In the Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917, which I believe I read when it came out, in 1976. It’s possible, I suppose, that all the John le Carré that I’ve been reading in the past six months has made Russia look interesting again, or at any rate less dismally nightmarish. To me, Russia has come to be an embodiment of hopelessness. The good things that people profess to find in its culture — the warm durability of the people, the forgiving majesty of the Church, the searing lyricism of the poets — are invisible to me, at least as advantages. All I see is brutality on a grand scale. I’m not saying that things are any better when I am, in the land of banality, frivolity, and thoughtlessness. But I’m used to those. American inhumanity is a rather negative affair — Americans are too distracted by other things to give humanism a thought. In Russia, where high human hopes seem to be talked about all the time, people get beaten up and thrown in jail rather a lot, and they used to be worked to death. There are too many beefy security types who would do almost anything rather than relate to you man-to-man. But what do I know?

In the Shadow of the Winter Palace begins with a study in futility. That is how I should characterize what I have read since the book was pointed out to me the other day. The first eight chapters, out of a total of twenty-two, cover the reign of Nicholas I. I knew that Nicholas I was a reactionary autocrat, but I didn’t realize — and here we must bear in mind that the statements, “I read this book forty years ago” and “I have never read this book” are often frighteningly equivalent — that Nicholas was politically impotent! I don’t mean that he was incapable or incompetent, although he was indeed both of these things. I mean that he spent his reign, as Crankshaw somewhat zealously reminds us, in a state of fear. His determination to brook no insubordination was couched in terms that betrayed the expectation of insubordination — or worse.

Why, if his power was absolute, if he was truly an autocrat, was he afraid? The answer, quite simply, was that he feared the fate of so many of his forebears, of his own father, the Emperor Paul, the fate that seemed about to claim him on the very day of his accession: death at the hands of his own Guards. (80)

The absolute power of the Tsar was a myth. Perhaps it had always been a myth, but now it was a myth that made no sense. A man of parts might have seen his way to introducing quiet innovations that might lead to more open social and economic conditions, but Nicholas was conspicuously lacking in parts. To the historian, that is, the lack has been conspicuous. Contemporaries saw a robust, handsome man who embodied autocracy, at least until he opened his mouth.

As he saw it, Nicholas had one job: he must make sure that everybody in Russia stayed on the same page. The chorale had been written, and it needed only to be sung — properly. Those who could not carry a tune, or who wished to sing something else, were removed from the choir. The mission of Russia was to go on being Russia. Crankshaw captures what he calls the “fatuity” of this mission in a statement that Nicholas made about the serfs.

There is no doubt that serfdom in its present form is a flagrant evil which everyone realises; yet to attempt to remedy it now would be, of course, an evil even more disastrous. (81)

Nothing could be changed without queering the pitch of the empire. But change could not be avoided; it could only be ignored. Count Kankrin, Nicholas’s minister of finance, opposed the construction of railroads. Nicholas overruled him, and a railroad was built connecting Petersburg with Moscow. But there was no money, and not much more will, to build a line to Ukraine; so that armies had to march all the way to Sevastopol to relieve Menshikov’s forces in the triumph of dunderheadedness that we call the Crimean War. Industrialization was mishandled in much the same way. A penchant for militarism encouraged the housing of workers in vast barracks, detached from their families. (This set-up has been adopted in crypto-capitalist China.) Had the authorities set out to create a deracinated, disaffected proletariat, they could not have done better. Given the circumstances to which the Russian worker was subjected, it is no surprise at all that Marxism met its first success in what was only numerically the least industrialized country in Europe.

The foundations of Soviet management, moreover, were laid by the Romanovs. It is always interesting to read a good history that has itself passed into history. In the Shadow of the Winter Palace was written in the latter days of the Cold War, and Crankshaw never shrinks from scolding the Russians for failing to grasp the inevitable virtue of the Western way of doing business — a failing that is shown to have its roots in the absolutism, itself quite doomed, that Peter the Great learned from the Bourbon example.

Thus there were no guilds of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen to combine in pressure groups and build up middle-class power. Peter brought industry to Russia, but he did nothing to encourage the establishment of the relatively open society which was the pre-requisite for the organic growth of Western capitalism, operating through countless small enterprises in furious competition with one another. Peter’s mills and factories, and the mills and factories of favoured private entrepreneurs, were thus organised not as the materialization of the personal dreams, ambitions and greed of countless individuals seeking to better themselves, or seized with the love of power or riches, or the sheer delight in making things work, but rather as extensions of the central government, as sources of supply for the central power. (74)

It’s almost an effort to remember that, when this was written, it was much less fashionable than it has since become. Freedom was everything, in those days, and Business was beneath serious discussion. It’s easy, now, to spot Crankshaw’s propaganda as such, but I sense that Crankshaw was not only criticizing the ancien régime in Russia but articulating a new self-consciousness for the home team.


Denied conventional outlets, educated Russians took to the life of the mind, producing masterpieces of melancholy and despair from Lermontov to Chekhov. This is the aspect of tsarist Russia with which we are most familiar. At a certain point in Crankshaw’s text, I conceived the desire to read The Idiot. I read the second of Dostoevsky’s four great novels after I had read the other three, in college — all in the Penguin translation by David Magarshack — and I understood it least of all. The only thing I remembered was that things didn’t work out very well for Prince Myshkin (and what kind of a name is Aglaya?). I acquired the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (2001) several years ago, and it was surprisingly easy to find, without any interference from Condobella. Worn out for the nonce by Nicholas I, I began the novel, and was presently swept up in the comic spirit that may or may not have been intentional. The scene in the Ivolgins’ sitting room reminds me of the second-act finale of Le Nozze di Figaro, and when the prince opened the door to Nastasya Filippovna, I burst out laughing — I couldn’t help it. Then Rogozhin and his entourage showed up! The melancholy and despair are certainly there, folded into the draperies, but the patina of commedia dell’arte is sparkling. I don’t expect it to last much longer.

The torture in Dostoevsky is a matter of never being able to decide whether the author is trying to tell us how hopeless Russia is (which would imply that things could be better) or how hopeless the human condition is (in which case not). There is a visionary quality, but there is also another quality, and this quality is visionary as well. Usually, “visionary” suggests an arrangement excitingly superior to the existing one; Dostoevsky’s other vision lacks not only excitement but all other emotions; it is a quiet, living death. Two or three characters will have a conversation about ultimate things, in a cold, dark room in the middle of the night. In the morning, someone will go off to get shot or arrested — c’est la vie. Like Henry James, Dostoevsky is gifted at composing elaborate, utterly novel dramas. His novels are encrusted in decades of Famous Reputation, but this gunk falls away as soon as a leading lady makes her appearance, if not sooner. I’m reading The Idiot as if it had just been published.


As I was walking home from the Hospital for Special Surgery yesterday, after a Remicade infusion, it occurred to me to have a look at The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, by James Billington. I’ve had this for a long time, but I suspect that my copy is a replacement, and not the one that I read in the early Seventies. In all ways but one, it’s in great condition, bearing none of the traces of my youthful attentions. (Tucked into an early page is the stub of an opera ticket dated 22 November 1985.) The problem is that even a thirty year-old Vintage paperback is bound to fall apart when read, because the paper is not acid-free. The pages are richly honeyed at the edges, and the binding is stiff. I’ve been reading some fascinating stuff about de Maistre — I didn’t know that he was a Savoyard — but I can’t quote it here because I dare not pin the book open. I am not sure what Condobella will advise, especially as the Kindle edition is more expensive than the paperback.

Not having walked by the river in some time, I saw for the first time that the great flight of steps running up from the embankment to the Finley Walk is under reconstruction. This is a good thing, for the old staircase was pretty crumbly. Everything seems to have been removed, except for a tall supporting slab that may actually be new. The mind boggles, though: what about replacing the Finley Walk? The Finley Walk is in fact the rooftop of a structure whose two lower floors are the uptown and downtown lanes of the FDR Drive. What a fracas rebuilding all of that will be!


Friday 29th

Jenny Diski died yesterday. Ever since she began her “cancer diary” in the London Review of Books, two years ago, I have been in denial. I have hung onto my crazy hopes in the teeth of her steadfast indicatives of dying. Misdiagnosis, miracle cures, remission — something would save her. I have been unwilling to accept the imminent mortality of a writer whose sensibility, despite everything, I have come to find profoundly sympathetic. I almost wrote “simpatico,” but that would have been dishonest: too cool, too jolly. I am not, in fact, given to feeling simpatico. On the contrary, I’m predisposed to the narcissism of small differences. Perhaps that was the secret of my romance with Jenny Diski’s writing: there was no way we would have been friends when we were younger. (Under fifty, anyway.) The differences were not small. I could cherish her work without feeling the need to alter my own.

Her honesty, her determination to get it right, was hugely encouraging. Honesty wasn’t a matter of making embarrassing confessions. Embarrassing confessions were a matter of course. Honesty was a matter of not accepting plausible explanations and just-so stories. She knew that we had been very naïve, and she wanted to know why and how — because we’d been so clever, right?

What the American and British baby boomers, who inhabited the Sixties as if they were building a new planet, have in common is that we watched the radicalism we thought we understood and embodied turn into a radicalism we (ignorantly and naively) never dreamed of. Perhaps all the hope and disappointment hung on a simple definition of a word or two. The big idea we had — though heaven knows it wasn’t new — was freedom, liberty, permission, a great enlarging of human possibilities beyond the old politenesses and restrictions. But it was an idea we failed to think through. It was a failure of thought essentially, rather than a failure of imagination. We were completely wrong-footed when the Sixties turned inexorably into the Eighties. With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan presiding, our favourite words — freedom, liberty, permission — were bandied about anew and dressed in clothes that made them unrecognisable to us. But even back then, in the Sixties, while we used the word “liberty” there were others who also used it, sometimes varying it to “libertarian,” who meant something quite different from what we intended, and we nodded and smiled, taking them to our bosom, and completely failing to understand that they meant a world that was diametrically opposed to the one we intended to inhabit.

We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit. But perhaps that is only to be expected. It’s possible after all that we were simply young, and now we are simply old and looking back as every generation does nostalgically to our best of times. Perphaps the Sixties are an idea that has had its day and lingers long after its time. Except, of course, for the music.

So ends the introduction to Diski’s memoir, The Sixties, a book that I shelve right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education, because both slim volumes are about the same small size and easily lost amid the larger ones. If they have more in common, beyond the obvious shared things (native city, gender, age), I’m unaware of it. For a good laugh, I imagine Jenny Diski working for (and almost idolizing, as Barbour does) Bob Guccione.

I’d have liked to ask Jenny Diski one thing. You’ve heard that movie-star mantra, Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. I understand it, but I would never believe it, no matter how great I looked. But forget about food; I’m thinking about money. Like everybody, I like having enough money. But I don’t feel the charm of making money — I don’t get that at all. My father might say, “There isn’t any charm,” but I don’t believe that, either. There seem to be people for whom making money is more fun than having or spending it. They will never feel rich — rich enough to be rich. They will simply go on intensifying their feeling of not being poor. Feeding this perverted hunger, they have infested everything with the bacterial kudzu of “financialization.” This was the disaster, these were the people, that we didn’t see coming. Was this really not a failure of the imagination?

I always expected to learn about Jenny Diski’s death (in my honest moments) in the pages of the LRB, but there she was, in the Times this morning. Very respectable notice, with a nice picture. Note to the inner narcissist: I’m not the only one who’s going to miss her.


There’s a new biography of Wallace Stevens out, by Paul Mariani. It’s called The Whole Harmonium. Paul Elie, in the Book Review, hated it; Peter Schjeldahl, at The New Yorker, loves it. But Elie’s complaints sound very much like ones that I should make.

Key parallels are left undrawn. When we learn, in reference to a 1943 lecture that Stevens gave at Mount Holyoke, that “for the past 40 years Coleridge as both poet and philosopher had been one of Stevens’s mainstays,” the comment comes 40 years too late. Introduced earlier, a comparison of the 20th century’s great poet of mind to the 19th century’s great poet of mind would have opened up a deep channel of insight into Stevens’s sense of himself.

So I can’t decide what to do. I shall have to see the book, certainly. In the meantime, I’ve got On Extended Wings, Helen Vendler’s 1969 study of Stevens’s longer poems. Ever since I acquired a cassette tape of Stevens reading “Credences of Summer,” that has been my favorite poem in the world, but it’s all because of Stevens’s voice, his intonation, accent, and all-round transcendent poohbahderie. He reads “The Idea of Order at Key West,” too, and I love it, but it’s so short. “Credences of Summer” rolls along like a book of prophecy.

Three times the concentred self takes hold, three times
The thrice concentred self, having possessed

The object, grips it in savage scrutiny,
Once to make captive, once to subjugate
Or yield to subjugation, once to proclaim
The meaning of the capture, this hard prize,
Fully made, fully apparent, fully found.

Don’t ask me what this means; at the same time, don’t think that meaning doesn’t matter. I suppose it means what it says. What is the object? Read the poem. Better, listen to it. Stevens’s way with “grips it in savage scrutiny” makes it easy to believe, as Mariani seems to be surprising everyone with the news, that the poet broke his hand in a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway in Key West. (Elie is upset, rightly in my view, that Mariani never tells us whether Stevens read Hemingway, or “any new fiction at all.”)

I copied those lines from On Extended Wings, in which Vendler describes them as “a procession of infinitives of purpose,” the point being that, while the self does actually grip the object, the making captive, the subjugation, and the proclamation don’t actually happen. Her opening chapter, “The Pensive Man: The Pensive Style,” demonstrates Stevens’s aversion to the present indicative. Things might be, they must be, they intend to be (“Once to make captive…”), but it is not established that they are. This is the sort of insight that one expects from Vendler, even if it always comes as a surprise that knocks you down a bit.

“Must” is not a word of faith but a word of doubt, implying as it does an unbearable alternative. (21)

It took a while for me to pick myself up after that one; I had to read the sentence to Kathleen. We realized, instantly, but without ever having thought about it before, that “must” is never used in legal writing; “shall” takes its place. I’ll be honest: I turn to books like On Extended Wings for skeleton keys. I get what I deserve. In her introduction, Vendler writes, “Stevens’ [sic] imagery is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: it is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation. I assume here a familiarity with its special meanings.” (9) Meaning: I taught you all of that last semester. So, instead of a cheat sheet, I’m given a way of reading Stevens’s verbs that seems meaningful. I do understand Stevens better for reading Vendler, but I can’t tell you what that better understanding amounts to, what comprises it. I’m fairly certain that it ought to remain unexpressed, except in Vendler’s terms. Vendler is not unapproachable, but she is a mandarin.


One of the saddest things in the world is that “mandarin” is not only not a Chinese word but also not even much of a Chinese concept. It appears to have come into English, via Portuguese, from a Malay term. In other words, it reflects a Malaysian attempt to make sense of Chinese culture, which has long been present in the peninsula. Foreignness, a sense of the exotic, is built into “mandarin.” Back at home, in the Central Country, there are other words, but they are neutral, without affect — none of the pantomime humbug. What we call “Mandarin Chinese” goes by just about the opposite in China: “Ordinary Speech.” Of course, it isn’t ordinary; it’s still the shibboleth of an educated man or woman. It used to be called “official speech,” which is certainly more accurate — but the distance between “mandarin” and “official,” in English, is too great for relation. “Mandarin” conjures up scholars in Chinese outfits (with special hats), distracted from their highly esoteric studies by problems of local civic administration.”Mandarin” conjures all the great Chinese poets who flunked the exam.

It has been a long time since I last thought about “China’s examination hell,” the ordeal, lasting three days or so, to which would-be mandarins were subjected. It was a sort of New York State Bar exam, but worse, because examinees were confined to a military encampment, where they slept in little huts and scribbled away all day out in the broiling sun or pouring rain. Something like that. What were the questions? Who were the graders? I’ve forgotten almost everything that I ever knew — just as the world has done, as regards the mandarin exam. I don’t mean that the world has forgotten the exams, but it is no longer interested in the knowledge that was tested by the exam. Likening it to the Scholastic philosophers’ question about angels dancing on the heads of pins is probably lazy.

The point is that China conducted a long and exhaustive experiment with meritocratic testing, and, in the end, it did not save the régime. Whatever it was the mandarins had to know, it wasn’t readily applicable to the business of running China. The experiment came to an end, along with its sponsoring empire, at just about the time that meritocratic testing fully took hold in the West. We, too, shall discover that there is no efficient way of evaluating people whom we don’t know.


This week’s culinary note must be about branzino filets. Agata & Valentina’s fish counter has taken to piling them up in a bin, ready to flour and sauté. Nothing simpler! I buy a couple, and toss the package into the freezer. When fish is what I want for dinner, I take the package out and thaw the filets in a dish of seasoned milk — don’t forget the pinch of cayenne. Having been floured, the filets go into the fridge for a spell, to set the coating. Then, they’re cooked in butter, over medium-high heat, three minutes per side. Maybe two extra minutes, if the filet seems thick. Keep adding bits of butter, so that there is a sauce, and during those final minutes, toss in a handful of slivered almonds. Serve with frenched green beans and rice. Splendid!

Cooked this way, branzino tastes a lot like trout. Trout was the first fish that I honestly liked, and I should cook it if I could find it. But I never see it in the shops. Branzino is a firm fish that does not fall apart in the skillet. It has a crisp, savory flavor that goes with its crisp, savory skin.

Of course, we wonder where it comes from. When branzino, which no one had ever heard of, began showing up, about fifteen years ago was it, we were told that it comes from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Really, we said. (We would ask an Italian-American.) But there’s no way that bins of trawled branzino are being flown to New York and sold at a very reasonable price. Is there? We wonder where the farms are. In Europe, apparently. Container ships? Oh, dear.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
At the PizzaPlex
April 2016 (III)

Monday 18th

Comes now Parag Khanna, a think-tanker from Singapore, with a better map of the United States — better, because the States disappear. One quibbles with the details. But the important thing is to come up with a plausible way of getting rid of the states. My own utterly shameless solution is to pension off the governors and the legislators. Throw money at them! At least extract a promise from each of the fifty statehouses that no opposition will be mounted to new arrangements. To the imposition of new taxes, or, better, the diversion of old ones, to fund, say, infrastructure projects undertaken by new regional authorities. Urban-centric planning, with high-speed rail phasing out the use of Interstate Highways. First-class public hospitals. That sort of thing.

As for Washington, part of the statehouse bribes ought to include a provision that each state will return, in addition to its two senators, only one representative. This sole representative would reflect the presumption that the states, as such, were henceforth unpopulated. These congressmen would assist the president in establishing foreign policy and military procurement. Taxes would be raised in the old states to fund these projects. There would be no other federal programs. Sorry: just one. Wildnerness Management.

This brings me back to the quibbles. Although the lines that I should draw are very close to Khanna’s, I think it better to prevent shared regional boundaries, by the establishment of wildnerness areas. The entire Appalachian range, for example, is a natural buffer between the Northeast and the near Midwest. Wildnernesses would serve a number of purposes. Military reservations would occupy large tracts of this land, alongside nature and water preserves. Civilian settlement would be neither encouraged nor prohibited by the federal government, but large-scale enterprises of any kind would be forbidden. In the wilderness, gun-control laws would be what they are in the United States today, or possibly even looser.

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll simply urge readers to weigh and consider Parag Khanna’s argument for overhauling the nation’s political geography, which is, understandably, an economic one.

The problem is that while the economic reality goes one way, the 50-state model means that federal and state resources are concentrated in a state capital — often a small, isolated city itself — and allocated with little sense of the larger whole. Not only does this keep back our largest cities, but smaller American cities are increasingly cut off from the national agenda, destined to become low-cost immigrant and retirement colonies, or simply to be abandoned.

It is obviously easier for a region to prioritize its economic health than it is for a state. Khanna proposes an alliance, involving Kentucky and Tennessee primarily, to focus the prosperity of today’s automobile industry.

It is going to be a struggle between common sense and vested interests. How great it would be if human possessed the intellectual equipment to distinguish, at a glance, personal ownership from rent-seeking.


Yet another one of Kathleen’s school reunions left me home alone on Saturday night, so after a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara — about the best I’ve ever made — I set up the ironing board and watched Facing Windows (La finestra di fronte), which the Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek released in 2003 (that long ago!). I wanted to test my comprehension of Italian, and perhaps the ironing helped — I’m a much better listener when my hands are occupied. I understood rather more than expected. I caught two words that I have learned once and for all, “mistake” (sbaglio) and “lost” (perso), the latter several times. I heard the word essere (“to be”) said, more than once, with a firm accent on the first syllable. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been fooling around with Italian, sometimes quite earnestly, for more than fifty years without any consciousness whatsoever of the sdrucciolo thing, but there you are.

And maybe my hearing was helped by a complete engagement in the film itself. I don’t know how I discovered it, but I’ve loved Facing Windows for years. From the first, it made me regard the star, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Marion Cotillard’s beautiful sister. There is a scene comprised of two-shots in which she plays opposite Massimo Girotti. Girotti, who died, I gather, before the film came out, looks like one of those powerful old ruins painted by Mantegna or Piero; his youthful good looks have been ravaged by the carbuncles of age. For her part, Mezzogiorno is pure Botticelli, as fresh and unlined (and beautiful) as the newborn Venus. I had the feeling of standing between two paintings in the Uffizi — easy to imagine, since I’ve never been.

Mezzogiorno’s character, also called Giovanna, is at the center of one story and on the edge of another. Her marriage to Filippo (Filippo Nigro) has hit a rough patch, and she is distracted by the handsome young man who lives in the apartment across the way. It turns out that he, Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), has been distracted by her as well, to the point of following her around. What brings them together is the other story, which centers on Girotto’s character. He’s an old man who has lost his memory. At first, he can’t remember his name, and the name that he subsequently does remember is not his own, but that of his lover, who was rounded up in the Nazi sweep of Rome in 1943. Davide — that’s who our old man really is — got wind of the roundup and managed to run to the ghetto to warn people, but he had to choose which street to follow, and instead of saving his lover, he saved a lot of children. In the scene that I just mentioned, Giovanna discovers a numerical tatoo on Davide’s arm. So he, too, went to the camps — but he survived. This isn’t gone into in the film.

After the war, Davide became the best pastry-cook in Rome, famous throughout Europe. In a fairy-tale touch, Giovanna dreams of becoming a pastry-cook herself; she is already pretty good at it. She is startled when Davide, who hasn’t said much of anything, advises her not to smoke when she bakes and, more important, to taste the water before using it as an ingredient. When she asks him how he comes by this knowledge, he demurs: maybe in the past he knew someone who knew such things. A sharp one, Giovanna applauds the return of his memory. She doesn’t like having him in the house; Filippo’s outburst of charity is something new for them to fight about. In due course, and with Lorenzo at her side, Giovanna will begin to learn Davide’s story.

Kathleen came home early. The film had about twenty minutes to go. Even though Kathleen wasn’t paying attention — she was poring over eBay screens — I felt a shift in my response to the film. I’ve mentioned this effect before: watching a film that I know well with someone who has never seen it before can be a bit of a shock. I see it through the other person’s eyes. And suddenly, much that was moving about Facing Windows seemed a bit sappy and even more contrived. When Davide opened the door on the table full of gorgeous cakes, in a scene near the end, I thought of the lamest Hollywood romances, although the association would never have occurred to me had I been alone. When it comes to movies, Kathleen’s sensibilities are robustly American. She has no time for the “foreign film” aesthetic of Bergman and Antonioni. She sniffs at more conventional dramas as if they were soap operas. I’m convinced by Facing Windows because the register of Italian emotional responses does not seem unnatural to me. It seems — Italian.

The last scene of Facing Windows, which may well have been shot after Girotti died, is a single take of Giovanna walking around a small park, a park where, decades earlier, Davide and his lover used to leave notes, in the base of the fountain. It was in this park that Giovanna kissed Lorenzo. As she strolls, her voice addresses a news update to Davide, who has “left us forever.” She’s doing well in her job as a pastry-cook; she and Filippo are getting along better. She says that can hardly remember Lorenzo’s face, but she still wonders whom he’s smiling at now. For the rest, she talks about how he, Davide, is still with her; she can feel him in her gestures. If it is true, she surmises, that people leave something of themselves behind, then she feels safer; she knows that she will never be alone. In other words, it will in the company of Davide, not that of her husband or children or best friend (the salty Serra Yilmaz), that Giovanna spends the rest of her life. With this strange observation, the actress turns toward the camera, which pulls up to her until her eyes fill the frame, and it stays there, running for what feels like hours.

I had to watch this again just now, because I remembered only the bits about the new career and Filippo. Did she mention Lorenzo? And what made this final scene feel so momentous? Eyewash — because that’s what Kathleen would probably have made of it. Watching it just now, alone once again, I was very moved by it. I felt that Giovanna was not looking at me, nor that Giovanna Mezzogiorno was seeing the camera. I felt that Davide had been brought back to life. Along with my unabashedly Italian self.


Over the weekend, I read a story by Natalia Ginzburg. It is a very famous story, I believe, because it is collected not only in the book of five novellas that just arrived from Italy but also in the first issue of Penguin’s Italian Short Stories, edited by Raleigh Trevelyan, which I’ve had for a thousand years. It has held aspirational status for all this time; I’ve never got round to reading it. But I thought that I should read “La Madre” in the Penguin, and take advantage of the facing translation when necessary.

The success of this story depends on its ironies, which are concealed not so much from the reader as from the schoolboy brothers from whose point of view everything is told. We not only see from their point of view but hear what they understand. Being adults ourselves, we can figure out what is going on beyond their observation and comprehension, but we stick with them, because Ginzburg makes their inner life quite real. They’re nothing special, just boys; but their concerns are insisted upon. In an early, shocking passage, they say that their mother is not important. Almost everyone else is important, because everyone else is good at permitting and forbidding. What’s important, to a ten-year-old, is the exercise of authority; knowing what to expect in this line makes life simpler. The mother does not exercise authority with any consistency; she’s moody, and she is not at all focused on them.

At the very outset, we’re told that the boys are stupefied by their classmates’ mothers, all of whom are old and fat. Their own mother is still young and thin. She dresses like a young woman, too. She makes up her face carefully, first thing every morning. After seeing the boys to school, she mounts her bicycle and whizzes off, presumably to the office where she works. We learn that she goes out at night, ostensibly with “a friend,” to see movies. Several times, she comes home so late that her father, prowling around the apartment in which she herself grew up, starts a fight with her the minute she walks in the door. (The boys, of course, are awakened by the ruckus.) By now, we’re beginning to see a picture that the boys cannot. Although they can understand, sort of, that she might be prostitute — without their meaning to do so, that is the impression that is conveyed to us — they cannot grasp that she is simply a woman who is holding on to her youth. She will not wear a widow’s black clothes and let her figure go. She wants another chance at romance.

One day, on a long walk with their priest, the boys spot their mother in a café, holding hands with a man and smiling. Later, when her parents are away and the housemaid has gone to her people as well, this man comes to dinner. The mother can’t cook, but she buys some appetizing prepared food and only burns the sauce a bit. For what seems like the first time, the boys have a good time in her company. The man has sojourned in Africa, where he owned a monkey. He left the monkey in Africa, because he didn’t think that it would do well on the steamship that brought him home. When they never see the man again, the boys wonder if he went back to Africa, to take care of his monkey. It is all perfectly told, and heartbreaking.

You see what utterly conventional Italian men the boys are going to grow up to be. It never once occurs to them to stand up for “the mother”; the only feeling that she inspires in them is embarrassed disgust. You understand that the tragedy of the mother’s life is a familiar one, but Ginzburg refreshes it by occluding it. The labor of inferring her feelings and her fate from what the boys say makes her plight far more harrowing than she herself could ever make it. There is no room in the world that Ginzburg creates for widows who cling to their youth, who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives without kisses or embraces. The men who are available for such pleasures come from Africa and return to Africa. The mother is living in the wrong place at the wrong time. She would have done better to take up prostitution.

The centrality of mothers in Italian life is legendary. Every man worships his mother. The terms and conditions of this worship are implicit; people don’t talk about them. Ginzburg writes a story about them, and it is shocking, because nobody wants to think of the sacrifices that the mother must make in order to earn that worship, without which she is simply a non-person, worse than an old maid. (In one of the most delicate ironies, one day, while she’s walking them to school, the mother tells her sons about a teacher she had, an old maid who tried to hold onto her youth. This teacher, in other words, was merely ridiculous. The mother herself is vulnerable to much worse than ridicule.) The mother in Ginzburg’s story does not want to be a mother. She wants to go to the office, where she types letters and translates foreign languages. There may be pockets of sophistication in Italy where this would be possible, but the mother does not inhabit one of them.

I’m suddenly reminded of Io sono l’amore, in which the mother, played by Tilda Swinton, carries things much further: she has an affair with the friend of her son. It is not her son’s worship that she wants. When the son finds out what’s going on — and how he finds out is a masterpiece of storytelling — he is so shocked that he falls down, hits his head, and dies. Just like that! It is beyond the unspeakable. But if you think that it is contrived…


Tuesday 19th

Today is Kathleen’s sixty-third birthday, and, by way of a present, the Wall Street Journal has published a profile-cum-update of her career so far. The paywall is abrupt, but you can see a nice photograph of Kathleen. Leslie Josephs’s article will appear in print tomorrow, I’m told.


So, now I have read Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society twice. I know Early Europe in much finer detail than I did in the mid-Nineties, when I read the book for the first time. Golly, to think that I was in my late forties before I knew much of anything about the period. I had avoided it because of its reputation as a Dark Age. So depressing! But somehow, a copy of Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change had come into my hands, and suddenly, where there had been dark, there was at least an early dawn. When did I get hold of Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book that I am always trying to understand better? It’s because I was re-reading Reynolds that I picked up Bloch for another look. Now I’m going to try to figure out why Reynolds was so bothered by Bloch’s outlook.

Feudalism was discovered, and in many ways invented, by French lawyers in the Sixteenth Century. Never mind why; the point is that it was hundreds of years before anyone else took a closer look at anything but the old charters (so many of which, as Bloch would demonstrate, were fakes — and yet none the less legitimate for that). The Gothic Revival, as a picturesque state of mind, had pretty much run its course by the time academic historians applied their new and “more scientific” techniques to the records and other remains of the period, replacing venerable narratives. which had come down from generation to generation without much scrutiny, with accounts that valued accuracy over excitement. Thus the problem that the student of Early Europe faces is twofold: the records are scarce and fragmentary, and rarely reliable on their face. One thing that really distinguishes Early Europe, between the withdrawal of the Romans and the initiation of the Crusades, from the régimes that preceded and followed it is the relative absence of bureaucracy. For a number of reasons — especially professional literacy, and stationary institutions such as cathedrals and monasteries — only the ecclesiastics kept good records. Kings and other great men were almost always on the move, carrying their belongings in their train. It is no wonder that things got lost; but, like any nomads, authorities on the move strove not to accumulate things that weren’t liquid assets. So there is relatively little to work with. In some ways the more intimidating problem is the briary of legends and just-so stories in which Early Europe, a/k/a “the Middle Ages” (a term worthy of George RR Martin), is mythically embedded. The student has to chop her way through the thorns of Disney versions, only to find that there is little of any value at the center.

Even Bloch is occasionally susceptible to a regrettable essentialism. His chapter on the “Peace of God” movement of the late Tenth and early Eleventh Centuries blandly includes the following:

Finally, violence was an element in manners. Medieval men had little control over their immediate impulses; they were emotionally insensitive to the spectacle of pain, and they had small regard for human life, which they saw only as a transitory state before Eternity; moreover, they were very prone to make it a point of honour to display their physical strength in an almost animal way. (411)

When I read this, I bristled with questions. How did violence come to be an element in manners? Why the impulse issues? Is is true — and how do we know such a thing — that “they saw” life “only” as a tryout for Paradise? Finally, the comparison to animals is ambiguous, as most such comparisons usually are. I don’t mean to say that Bloch is wrong; but this kind of writing as better at dismissing phenomena than it is at explaining them.

It is never made quite clear enough, by Bloch or anyone else, that Early Europe was new. It was built on Roman foundations only where those foundations existed. Much of the territory was inhabited by human beings for the first time, or at least for the first time in centuries. Most of the farmland was of fairly recent clearance. Towns were small, and almost all structures were built of wood. Roads were terrible. This wasn’t because the Roman Empire had collapsed and left everything in ruins. It was because everything was improvised and roughed out, like a path across a field. And then there were the invaders.

The invaders who afflicted the Early Europeans were not very numerous, but their attacks persisted for years. Comparison with the settlement of the American West might be illuminating. In America, the Europeans invaders wanted only one thing that the natives possessed: land. In Early Europe, this was, at least initially, the last thing the invaders wanted. They were attracted by the prosperity of the new settlers: they wanted their jewels and they wanted their gold and silver. The Roman Empire had had to deal with the same sort of problem on its borders, but for a long time it was massively more powerful than the troublesome barbarians. The Early Europeans followed the opposite trajectory: they started out weak and got stronger. They did this, however, without the complex equipment carried by American settlers in the western territories. They had little in the way of the institutional arrangements that by the Nineteenth Century were taken, if anything, too much for granted. They had none of the technological backup — railroads, telegraphs — that cemented the pioneers’ achievements. The rough and tumble of early settlements in the American West was very quickly replaced by the lawfulness and conventionality that characterized the other parts of the country. In two generations, the offspring of gunmen became bankers and shopkeepers. The Early Europeans, in contrast could not import sturdy civil institutions from elsewhere. Elsewhere was too far away.

So they adapted arrangements that had been initiated by the Carolingians on the fly, transforming them sometimes out of all recognition. Charlemagne’s grants of “benefices” — rent or other money paid by monasteries to the king’s soldiers — were intended not to be permanent, and the counts whom he disposed over far-flung territories were supposed to be his agents, appointed at will, and they had no property rights whatsoever in their offices. These attributes were metamorphosed into their opposites by the pressures of the invasions. The idea of “freedom,” so central to Frankish self-regard, went through a degrading transformation; almost every man was free at the beginning of Early Europe; by the Thirteenth Century, most men were not, and they would continue in their servitude for another five hundred years.

As I see it, the lack of impulse control exhibited by Early Europeans was a straightforward result of trauma. Seemingly endless invasions reduced men already governed by a warlike ethos to hysterical fighters. The warlike ethos does not explain feudal violence by itself. Only the repeated invasions could break down the hierarchies that contained warfare during the Carolingian heyday. I am trying to develop an idea of humanism that begins with an awareness of genuine human limitations. Instead of regarding people as failed angels — that’s the kind of spurious human limitation that has governed so much thinking since antiquity — I accept their tendency to be damaged by violence and instability: you cannot expect human beings to behave very well if they are subjected to protracted, unpredictable attacks. That is why civil society, with its (one hopes) ever more accommodating conventions, is a sine qua non of human flourishing.

Feudalism, with its obsessive appeal to gratitude and loyalty on the smallest possible personal scale — between two men — is the measure of Early Europe’s instability. I think that Reynolds is right to argue that there never was a feudal period because the feudal project, so to speak, never actually worked according to plan. It was as though the personal, feudal bond could be entered into only under conditions of extreme inebriation, from which the parties subsequently awoke with something like buyers’ remorse. The weakness of the feudal bond was always a function of distance: one man swore to submit to another man who could not see what he was up to. What the lords and vassals quickly discovered, or would have discovered if they had not regarded faithlessness as aberrant, was that intimate relationships cannot be put to use unless they are so deep that there is no need to mention them.


The copy of Cassell’s Italian-English/English-Italian dictionary that I ordered arrived yesterday, and it passed the Ginzburg-Dante test. In one paragraph of the novella Sagittario, I found a word and a term that did not appear in the Webster’s New World Italian &c dictionary. The term was sbocco di sangue. I could figure out what it meant — spitting of blood — and I was intrigued to learn that sbocco is used to refer to commercial sales outlets. The word was tosone — il ragazzo dal tosone biondo. It might have hit me after a while that this was the Italian version of toison, as in toison d’or, the golden fleece that used to symbolize the chivalric order of the same name and that now adorns the Brooks Brothers trademark. But I found the word on the Internet. Then, in the first canto of Inferno, I came across grame, also omitted by Webster’s. I’m half of the opinion that every word in the Commedia Divina ought to be in the dictionary, but then, you know me. Even Cassell’s doesn’t list it. But Cassell’s does list gramaglia, “mourning,” and that meets the sense of Dante’s verse.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novella keeps making me laugh. How do I know it’s funny? My Italian isn’t that good, or at any rate I have no right to expect it to be. Sagittario is as funny as “La Madre” is grim. Once again, there is an unconventional mother, but this one has resources as well as independence. Let’s see what I can do: here’s the fourth paragraph of the story.

To pay for this house in town, my mother had sold some land that she owned, between Dronero and San Felice; she had argued with her relatives, all of whom were opposed to the division of the property. My mother had been cherishing the prospect of leaving Dronero for several years; she got the idea after my father died, and she told everyone she met about her plans, writing letter after letter to her sisters in town, asking them to help her to find a place to live. My mother’s sisters, who had lived in the town for a long time and who owned a little shop where they sold porcelain, were not very happy to hear about this project, because they feared that they would have to lend her money. Avaricious and timid, my mother’s sisters were caused bitter suffering by this thought, but they felt that they would not have the stamina to refuse the loan. As for a place to live, my mother found the house herself, in an afternoon, and as soon as she acquired it, she charged like a wild boar into the shop and asked her sisters for a loan, because the money that she got from the sale of the land was not enough. My mother, when she wanted to ask a favor, assumed a rough, distracted air. So the sisters were cowed into disbursing a sum of money that they knew they would never see again.

And I can’t resist the continuation.

My mother’s sisters were also troubled by another fear: that my mother, having moved herself into town, would get the idea of helping out in the shop. And this, too, happened right away.

For a while, I wondered what this year’s spring thing would be. I know that there are readers who have not recovered from my infatuation with Hannah Arendt — a sincere and profound engagement with her thinking that continues to my profit, but that I no longer have the urge to discuss as such. Last year, it was Penelope Fitzgerald, just as, a few years before, it was Elizabeth Taylor (both novelists). When was Albert O Hirschman? As I say, I was wondering. All the time, it was getting obviouser and obviouser that this year’s spring thing is going to be Italian, with a minor in Gilbert & Sullivan. I promise to keep actual Italian words and texts to a minimum, and instead to try to translate what appeals to me, with a view not to accuracy so much as to capturing the fun that I’ve gotten out of it.

Prendeva un fare ruvido e distratto: I can’t decide how to translate this. “Rough, distracted air” is a mere stab in the dark. Going by the dictionary, I could just as well say, “crude, absent-minded manner.” I haven’t encountered the word ruvido often enough to have any sense of its weight in Italian. I can just get a vague picture of how the mother behaves — she talks as though the money were by the way, an incidental thing that she shouldn’t have to bring up, while at the same time seeming to blame her sisters for making the discussion necessary. I suppose that, in English, this might be described as “bluff impatience.” “When she wanted to ask a favor, her attitude became bluff and impatient.”

I haven’t got very far in Sagittario. Maybe it won’t stay funny for long.


Thursday 21st

But maintaining discipline is more difficult than hiring new aides. Even some of Mr. Trump’s allies privately doubt that he can control his outbursts. And some Republicans believe that his adjustments are too late, that he is destined to lose at a convention because of a long litany of missteps and political trespasses earlier in the campaign.

Such is the state of play at this moment in Donald Trump’s career among the pundits. It hasn’t changed very much since Trump launched his campaign last summer; the dialectic has always been simple. At first, Trump would say something that the pundits would dismiss, along with Trump himself, as “outrageous.” As today’s observation, reported by Jonathan Martin in the Times, indicates, the scrimmage has moved to the institutional realities of running for president. Because Trump hasn’t done his political homework, the delegates who are bound to vote for him on the first ballot can vote for someone else on the second. Ted Cruz, who plays politics with the passion of a true gamer, has sewn up a lot of these delegates, resulting in a process that Trump calls “rigged.” (An allegation that he would never make if he thought that things were rigged in his favor.) The political tide, however, has tended to back Trump, bearing him ever closer to victory. Those outbursts, those missteps and trespasses — they don’t seem to do him any lasting harm. What is it that the pundits are missing?

Perhaps the pundits have forgotten that they are but a small sideshow on the media juggernaut. Pundits are charged with explaining political events to educated viewers who are aware that politics is a game with rules, but who fear that they don’t know the rules as well as they ought to do. Thus are the pundits identified with the rules. If the pundits were referees, they could enforce those rules. But pundits have no real authority. The most that they can do is get steamed up about outrages and outbursts. Pundits are useless in a revolution.

If you detach the pundits, if you drop a big black tablecloth over the lot of them, it’s much easier to see that the media juggernaut is not only enthusiastic about Trump but hopeful about using him to overthrow the rules of the political game as we know them, because the current rules, let’s face it, are boring. The media juggernaut prefers a president who swaggers from catastrophe to catastrophe, pointing fingers, and screaming like Don Rickles or mocking like Phyllis Diller. Such a playbook would make for great television. The media and Donald Trump have been playing nice together, mostly in New York, for more than thirty years, and both sides — well, why speak of “sides”? From the viewpoint of a cameraman or a news producer, Donald Trump is simply “content” of almost ideal purity. And he gives it away for free!

I wish that Neil Postman were still with us, not because I can’t imagine perfectly well what he would have to say about the nightmare of the Trump campaign, but because he might relish tasting the fulfillment of his prophecies. (Then again, maybe not.) Here is how his Wikipedia page summarizes Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking: 1985):

[The book] warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argues that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning.

Now, the Wikipedia page is flagged with many calls for cites and verifications, and, if I can find my copy, I’ll try to provide a few — some other time. But that these lines capture the gist of Postman’s argument is clear enough to anyone who has read the book. They also capture an anxiety that Donald Trump’s candidacy has borne out. The pundits themselves might not have accused Trump of “demeaning and undermining political discourse” &c in so many words, but that remains the burden of their outrage. Calling for the erection of a wall on our Mexican border, to be paid for by Mexico, is not “political discourse.” It is superficial imagery. Superficial imagery is exactly the drug to which television viewers are addicted. That is what plays on the screens that people turn on when they come home from work, what superimposes the illusion of connection upon isolated lives. Postman most remarkably noted that it is impossible to present the act of thinking on television. I wrote about this a few years ago, but the passage is well worth repeating.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impossible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas. … At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (90-91)

(“Some other time” arrived sooner than expected. I found my copy, and the quote as well, which I’ve now more properly cited.)

So, if you are mystified by the rise of Trump in American politics, you will find that the mystery was explained in a thirty year-old book.

And remember: pundits were invented to give the new medium of television gravitas and legitimacy. They have become the ritual Foo dogs of what is more than ever the Boob Tube. The Donald has the good sense not to appear alongside them. He phones himself in.

When you try to “think” about this campaign season, try to guess how it will play out; when you try to answer the question, Who do you think’s gonna win?, the tendency is to go with the pundits, because that’s where “thinking” leads. The pundits know how the game is played, and they know that Ted Cruz knows how the game is played, and that he is playing it very well. But if you look back on the campaign so far, it seems that Trump is right: the game is “rigged.” That is: the rules of the game are irritating.

If people watched television seriously — if they cherished the medium — the rules of politics, as well as all other rules, would be part of the pleasure. On the arts, rules are there to be broken, but only in such a way as to reinforce them. The rules aren’t really broken at all; rather, exceptions to the rules are recognized as such, and, as such, add to the richness of the rules. But television gave up on being an art form almost immediately: there wasn’t enough money to support such a use of its expensive technology. By the Eighties, television had become an armature for unavoidable commercial announcements. To prevent ads from striking an obnoxious tone, everything else was retuned.

The problem with the rule of no rules is the drift toward shapeless repetition. Therefore everything shown on television must be, to whatever microscopic degree, a novelty. And what is Donald Trump if not a piñata of novelties? As an impresario of real-estate put-ons — literally! he puts his name on buildings that others have paid for — with new casinos, new golf-courses, new wives, and new apprentices, Trump is the compleat representative of the television viewer; for, as to all subjects but himself, Trump bores easily. You can just imagine how exciting his foreign policy would be! So many opportunities for doing new, undreamed of things! How’s this for a reality show: Trump and Putin agree to a list of enemies. Then they try to outdo one another, taking out these unfortunates — with nuclear submarines! Don’t worry about the bombs! They won’t explode! They’ll just humiliate, with tar and feathers — while simultaneously emptying bank accounts. Such fun! The spectacle will be so engrossing that productivity will drop to zero — justifying the maintenance of an impoverished worker class that wouldn’t have the free time to watch even if it could afford access.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism,” which she describes as “a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither.”

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Solnit doesn’t link naive cynicism to macho self-puffery, but I couldn’t help seeing a very strong connection, at least to the phenomenon of the hipster. Women have so many more things to work with when it comes to projecting an image. All that distinguishes the men from the boys in our world is the man’s savvy: experience has taught him not to take the world at face value. Every actual man must ask whether this is true of himself. To avoid the possibility of being bamboozled — again, a favorite line from Radio Days: “Dana Andrews is a man.” “She is?” — a man might choose to adopt an all-purpose doubtfulness. Solnit’s point is that this habit precludes paying attention. Why pay attention if you “already know” that something is bogus?

Naïve cynicism loves itself more than the world: it defends itself in lieu of the world.

I couldn’t agree more, but I might tweak the judgment by substituting “fears for” for “loves.” Naive cynicism is, after all, as old as Europe’s peasant class; it is the uninquisitive conservatism that values staying out of trouble above all other satisfactions. It is also the outlook that generally operates behind the façade thought by others to be “cool.” J E Lighter, in his tragically incomplete Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says something very interesting about the use of “cool” to mean “under control.” In Standard English, he says (in words that I am not going to quote, because I already put the book away), “cool” has been used in this sense since Beowulf, but always in comparison to the hypothetical alternative of hot-headedness. Only after World War II did the black American use of the word to mean “good” instill cool with its absolute quality. To say that somebody is cool is to say that he couldn’t possibly be anything else, because cool is who he is.

That’s the kind of cool that the naive cynic has in mind: cool is who he is, and it doesn’t matter what happens. Pretending to be a man whose experience has taught him what’s what, he has in fact learned nothing from experience.

Another connection that Solnit doesn’t make — or, to put it more generously, one that she allows her readers to draw on their own — is between naive cynicism and journalism. Actually, her piece is infused by an implicit connection. The examples that she cites almost all have to do with media put-downs of the Occupy movement, of opposition to the Keystone pipeline, of the idea that revelations about Exxon’s duplicity, with regard to its awareness of the climate-changing consequences of burning fossil fuels, constituted news. Journalists who specialize in assessing the grist for their professional mill, as distinct from journalists who are plain old investigative reporters, are particularly prone to put amour-propre in front of information. And this lands them in a strange bind, doesn’t it? After all, their way of writing about the news involves a fundamental denial that there is any news to report. Nothing may be new under the sun sub specie aeternitatis, but we’re presumably not paying pundits to tell us that everything is still the same. Are we?


Friday 22nd

The other day, when I was out for lunch, my curiosity was drawn to a party of four men who were seated at a nearby table. I was instantly aware that they were not American, but the more I looked at them, the more they looked like solid citizens of the American heartland. But that was one bit of proof that they weren’t. You don’t see four such men together at a table, not in New York. They were substantial without being fat. With one exception, the men could have been dressed by L L Bean, and their clothes looked like personal default settings for everyday attire. They did not look like people who worked indoors. They seemed always to be smiling small smiles of self-satisfaction, but they did not strike me as unattractively smug. Had I been looking for the answer, I might have asked them what was the secret of the good life.

Instead, I asked them — one of them — what language they were speaking, for this was the more obvious indicator of their foreignness. I couldn’t make out a word: not only could I not understand the bits that I heard, but I couldn’t place them in any known language. I hear incomprehensible languages all the time on the elevators in our apartment building, and quite often, in addition to being incomprehensible, such as Hebrew, they are unrecognizable, which Hebrew is not. As someone whose interest in foreign languages is primarily literary, and whose mother tongue is arguably the world’s most widely-spoken second language, I’ve learned that there are many languages the knowledge of which is confined almost wholly to native speakers. (They don’t make a lot of movies in Tajikistan or Brunei.) It didn’t seem odd at all that I couldn’t tell what language the four men were speaking, but I was dying to find out.

The man whose attention I caught was very pleasant about it. “Finnish,” he said. “It sounds like Italian.” It had sounded to me, if anything, rather more like Spanish, although it very clearly wasn’t. But that’s a narcissism-of-small-differences thing. Although my knowledge of Italian (and French, to a lesser extent) permits me to bluff my way through Spanish texts, I can’t think of two languages that sound less alike — Italian, with its rolling sea-swells occasionally cresting in a whitecap; Spanish, with its impatiently curtailing staccato. In the end, what the men were speaking didn’t sound like either. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. I’ve known Finnish-Americans, but their Finnish was all but completely lost. The language itself has no close relatives.

When I told this story to a friend who came to dinner, he said, “And to think that Finnish is a language that was not written down until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.” I nodded vaguely, then disagreed. How, if this were correct, could Longfellow have derived the rhythm of Hiawatha from the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala? My friend took out his phone and mused his beard. Like a game show host, he said, “The Kalevala was first written published in — .” I thought for a moment. I came up with a year for Longfellow, 1845; don’t ask me how. I took ten years off, to give someone the time to translate the epic. “1835,” I said. My friend almost got up and left the room. Never be afraid to bluff! But never be afraid to ask, either.


My friend lives in Geneva, with his lovely wife and new daughter. He had thought that it would be a good idea to visit New York, which he loves, before his daughter could walk. He and his wife were kind enough to come uptown to our apartment and brave enough trust me to feed them. I’m not sure that I did the right thing. I made three pizzas. It struck me that a regular dinner, sitting at table with several courses, would not be compatible with the presence of a child not yet five months old. We were friends, after all, not family. I thought that it would be simpler and more agreeable to sit on the love seats in the living room and eat with our hands. Our get-together was not intended to be, primarily, a culinary experience. This all seemed obvious in advance. Now, looking back, I’m not so sure. But my reservations owe less to the quality of the idea than to the quality of the execution.

I had never made more than one pizza at a time, and I had never made two of the pizzas that I planned to offer. Complicating everything was a crisis at the office. No sooner did Kathleen get home (late) than she had to call the lawyer who has been working with her on an unpleasant problem. Sitting in the living room, our friends and I could hear highly uncharacteristic outbursts from the bedroom. Eventually, Kathleen came out and joined us. By then, I had cooked the first pizza.

By then, I had assembled all the pizzas. This took longer than I thought it would. Oh, I had cut everything up that needed cutting up, long before the time for assembly; I had little bowls of things everywhere in the kitchen. But what with putting flowers in a vase, getting our visitors something to drink, putting a towel on the bed so that the baby’s diaper could be changed in complete safety, and just talking to friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, I couldn’t quite focus on what went where. The pizza that I cooked first was not a problem; it was our default pizza — fennel sausage, mushrooms, my own tomato sauce (new!), and mozzarella. I made it not because it was familiar but because I wasn’t sure that Kathleen would like either of the other two.

Now that I have pretty much satisfied the pizza-parlor urge, I’ve moved on to recreating a pizza that I used to love at a pizzeria on Third Avenue called Loui Loui. It was a very gracious place, and the menu was not limited to pizza. Atmospherically, Loui Loui was a chic Italian bar. I forget the name of the pizza that I used to order, but it had basil and prosciutto, and I think that it was a pizza bianca — no tomato sauce. But there must have been more to it than prosciutto and basil, because my first attempt was nothing like it. I should have made it before, but Kathleen dislikes basil, and I was shamelessly taking advantage of having other mouths to feed.

Kathleen did like the third pizza, which it felt very daring to make. Which is why I made it. If you’re going to serve pizza to people who have crossed the Atlantic for dinner, you have to offer something a bit off the beaten track. So I followed a recipe (from Truly Madly Pizza) for a combination of fennel, sardines, and breadcrumbs, with mozzarella but without sauce. The recipe also called for fresh thyme, but I missed that when I was making my shopping list — just as I completely forgot to buy a dessert. (I blame Agata & Valentina for that. In order to stand at the pastry counter, you have to obstruct, at least partially, the checkout queue.) I also forgot to make my pizza dough with a blend of white flour and semolina. I forgot to set the timer for one of the pizzas — our friend gently reminded me. She, I have learned since my friend first introduced me to her, is someone who misses nothing. Somehow all the pizzas got made. Each was cut into four slices, and there was only one slice remaining when our friends left and Kathleen retired to the bedroom. It was a piece of the basil-and-prosciutto pizza, and to mark my great disappointment with it, I threw it away.

Going in, I had no sense of production time. This is something that you learn for every dish in your repertoire. If I’m going to make spaghetti alla carbonara, when do I have to start? Are there points along the way when I can pause, and, if so, can I pause indefinitely? How much of those dishes that are cooked at the last minute can be prepared in advance? I’ve always regarded production time as the key problem of cooking. Ours has not been a household in which meals are served at set times. Meals are served when Kathleen is ready to eat them, and there is often no knowing that in advance.

Pizza involves leavened bread — dough with yeast. It can’t just sit around. Except, I’m finding, it can. I don’t know why. My pizza dough recipe calls from a much higher proportion of yeast than any of my bread recipes. But then, it also calls for a higher proportion of salt, and salt retards the action of yeast. In any case, the three crusts were rolled out on pieces of parchment long before anybody arrived. The toppings were in their little bowls. I know now that I could have gone ahead and assembled the pizzas in advance. That would have made me a much more effective host.

In his kind thank-you note, my friend noted that he didn’t know when we’d see each other again — a perfectly reasonable remark. Trips to New York are thrown away on children who are not capable of walking, talking, and minding the gap. Our new little friend is going to spend a lot more time on ski slopes than on sidewalks, and her parents, I know, are not going to take pleasure trips without her. Nevertheless, even with all this sensible knowledge in my head, I felt that pizza in the love seats had perhaps been a tad too casual. My own provincial outlook still associates pizza, no matter how artisanal, with prepared food that comes out of a box or a can. The convenience of the host is inversely proportional to the welcome of the guests. (Not that making three pizzas from scratch was all that convenient!) There are times when I wish I were French. If I were French, it would never occur to me to do unusual things. And dinner would appear at seven, every day without fail.


David Bowie was almost exactly a year older than I am. Prince was nearly ten years younger, but, like Bowie, he made me feel much older. Like any rock musician. Nothing makes me feel older than rock ‘n’ roll, even though in was in first grade when Elvis was singing about hound dogs.

I clearly being being totally repelled by Elvis Presley. He sounded louche and unseemly, like someone who would never be welcome in my house. From the beginning, my reaction to rock ‘n’ roll and the kind of movements that it inspired was allergic. At best, I thought that it was ridiculous. Mostly, it seemed casually violent, and it made me feel unsafe. Not me personally, but us, the men and women and children in the street.

I had no idea of its black roots. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as black roots. My closest contact with black America was Ethel Waters’s Beulah, a very proper lady even if she was a housemaid. I didn’t know what “rhythm and blues,” that strange juke-box category meant until I was in college, and I think I found out from reading. To me, rock ‘n’ roll was a zit that erupted on lily-white skin. It was misbehavior.

There are some great artworks that demand complete attention, but most do not. The base line of the European or Western aesthetic has always been the atmosphere of the princely court, and our artists have developed an unsung knack for creating work that, even though it warrants the keenest analysis and appreciation, can be ignored by people who are having a conversation. I’m talking about the kind of people who can have a conversation without disturbing their neighbors, another Western art form not often encountered in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Outside Voice. What I mean is that, with a Vermeer print on the wall, and while playing a recording of a Mozart quartet, it is possible to marshal one’s thoughts well enough to contribute to a rich conversation. The freedom to shift registers of attention is one of the prizes of Western civilization. You can be bowled over by a sculpture one day, and on the next you can walk right by it on your way to dinner. There is very little ritual to the experience of art in the West.

And those great artworks that do demand complete attention — Mahler’s symphonies, for example — are conversations of a sort about the the things that cultured people in the West talk about, but raised to a higher pitch. We have developed a convention, unknown to the princely courts in which they were born, of observing silence in the presence of performing arts. Sometimes, it seems to me, the silence is carried to ritualistic extremes, and I’ve become a passionate clapper after roof-raising first movements. But the point of the experience of art, as Kathleen puts it, is to talk about it later. Art in the West, at least until the irruption of Modernism, has always been profoundly social.

Given this mindset, I won’t surprise anyone by saying that, if it has been a while since my last exposure to rock, my first thought upon hearing it involves The Lord of the Flies. I am never reminded of black culture.

I ought to confess, I suppose, that I never cared for being young as such, and rather hated being a child. I wasn’t born at forty; I was born at sixty. Which may be why my brain finally seems to be working.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (II)

Monday 11th

On the front page of the Times this morning, an article about Hamilton. I read over the weekend that you can’t get tickets for this show for a date earlier than January 2017. Kathleen and I have not seen it, and we have no intention of seeing it. Reason n+1 for my staying away appears at the end of this morning’s first paragraph: “… not to mention the way Mr. Miranda’s dazzling rap lyrics pull off rhymes like ‘line of credit’ and ‘financial diuretic.’” I might be able to sit through two or three examples of that sort of prosody. Then I should be on my feet, leaving the theatre. In the twenty-odd years since rap began to impinge, my loathing of it has become too upsetting to contemplate. Not all the cleverness in the world can conceal its degrading belligerence.

Jennifer Schuessler’s piece is about the complaints that some historians have registered about the historical accuracy of the show. On the whole, I don’t expect literary adaptations of historical events to get all the little details right. The idea of an improper relationship between Don Carlos and his stepmother, the Queen of Spain, might be laughable, but Schiller and Verdi make it a worthy fiction. Sometimes, the fiction is unworthy, as in, notoriously, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but I have no reason — beyond the rap — to believe that Hamilton does a disservice to Hamilton. I daresay that few in the audience, even among those with Ivy League degrees, know much more about Hamilton than his death in a duel, his desire for a central bank, and, possibly, his Caribbean birth, which barred him from presidential aspirations.

I’ve thought about downloading the album and giving the songs a listen. As I said the other day, I don’t like disliking things. Especially very popular things. I’d like to be wrong about Hamilton. Ideally, I’d find it forgettable, somewhat amusing but disposable. But I don’t want to experiment badly enough to sit through what promises to be, for me, a grating unpleasantness. The fact that I couldn’t in any case is a relief. I’d have at least nine months to accumulate more indirect information about the show. Everyone Kathleen has talked to who has seen it has loved it. That seems to be all that Kathleen has heard: Loved it. Further particulars are not offered. I overheard a man of about my age praising it to the barber recently. Great show, he said — leaving it there. The message I got was that he had actually been to see it, no mean achievement, and that he was still young enough at heart to like it. Great show perhaps — but it was all about him.

Hamilton may be unusually successful, but I doubt that it is unusually bad. Those songs that I haven’t heard — I can easily imagine them, in all their songlessness. This has something to do with rap, but much more to do with the legacy of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is an immensely cultured, sophisticated writer. But I don’t think that he is genuinely musical. He seems to me to regard music as a self-important distraction from the beauty of well-wrought lyrics — much like the Poet in Strauss’s opera about opera, Capriccio. At his best, I grudgingly suppose, he can turn the music down so that the sentiment glows through. I never cared for it, but I appreciate its literary polish. Unfortunately, Sondheim opened the door to a turgidity that swamped and drowned real music.

I remember the night that we saw The Phantom of the Opera. Fortunately, not all of it. We weren’t in a theatre; we had just had dinner with twelve hundred other people, in a vast chain of brutalist ballrooms at a hotel disguised as a parking garage in Palm Desert. Our host was a major accounting firm. A partner of the firm was sitting at our table, so we felt that we could not leave. A chamber version of the show, which was still running on Broadway at the time, and not yet touring, had been fashioned for a handful of performers, and the run-time cut down to forty-five minutes. (I assume that the producers of the show were clients of the accountants.) The Phantom of the Opera was every bit as bad as we expected it be. Where there ought to have been music, there was sugary lamentation. The melodrama was triteness made up to look like camp. It wasn’t inadvertently funny; it was just awful. I have never been able to decide whether works of this ilk are incompetent or cynical. Kathleen and I were bored to sobs.

Yes, but how do you know the show is terrible if you’ve never seen it. The older you get, the more you know. You can tell a great deal about a show from a photograph, and even more from a lot of photographs. (Hamilton might have had a much better chance with me had its costumes actually reflected the sensibility of fusion that is implicit in its lyrics, but instead, they’re a mixture, a miscellany of then and now. Whatever it’s supposed to do, Hamilton oughtn’t to look like a third-rate provincial production of Figaro.) You hear a snatch of the singing on a passing screen. You ponder “financial diuretic.” You know.

Nevertheless, whatever my feelings about the show, I should normally feel constrained to keep them to myself, because they are indeed a matter of surmise, and not of experience; beyond that, I am on record as someone who doesn’t see the point of unfavorable criticism. Let silence be eloquent. Consider this passage as a response merely to the phenomenon of Hamilton‘s financial success.

I’m aware, by the way, that rap is political statement, and I am sure that it has been empowering. For this very reason, it can have no structural place in the arts, which consider human limitations in a grain too fine for political action. Magna Carta and our Declaration of Independence are not works of literature, either.


My reading pile has a wetlands feel to it. The same books are there every day; the bookmarks are just a little further along, if they’ve moved at all. I’ve been reading a good deal on the Kindle — two Brunetti novels by Donna Leon and, now, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted. Volume I of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society has given way to Volume II, and the French original has appeared. (Wondering what inspired L A Manyon to write “cosy” in his translation, I discovered Bloch’s “odeur de pain de ménage.”) Eyeless in Gaza promises to be eternal. The other night, I read a most stupefying chapter about “the proper use of the self.” I couldn’t tell if I had no idea what Huxley was talking about or if I wanted to keep it that way.

I am in no hurry whatsoever to finish Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole, but regard it as a box of very nice chocolates. Reading it is most gratifying. Of course, it’s not really Italian. Lahiri writes in idiomatic Italian, but she does not think in it. Her trains of thought are all perfectly Anglophone, and if there is a note of genuine Italian sensibility in her short story, “Lo Scambio,” it is only a note, a scent. I think that the story reads better in Italian, but the very fact that I have no difficulty reaching that conclusion makes it somewhat suspect.

Last week, I thought I had better get my hands on some recent Italian fiction. The obvious choice would be Elsa Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy (also granslated by Ann Goldstein), but a little voice warns me that either it’s not for me or I’m not ready for it. So I perused the pages of Amazon’s Italian site. Just reading about the books on offer called for a a greater command of Italian than In altre parole does. Every language, and especially the literary patois of every language, has its own manner of thinking, or façon de penser, which as a matter of course can never be translated. It can only be learned, as painstakingly and as tentatively as the Rosetta stone was deciphered. While one door opens on ways of looking at the world that are all but unknown to your native language, another door closes on other ways, very familiar to you, that are unknown to the language that you are learning. Whether it’s a tragedy or not, translation is fundamentally impossible. The consolation is that relatively few works are so important that their original idiosyncrasies really must be mastered. The real problem is that quite a few of those important works are among the earliest instances of European literature, and they’re also in Italian. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio — I haven’t spent a lot of time with Petrach, but I can vouch that the other two become either freeze-dried or artificially sweetened in translation. In the end, the value of translations of Dante and Boccaccio is as meditations on originals, not as transmissions of those originals. The mind boggles: how many languages can a literate person expect to master?

Well, many more, if language were taught as literature, not as everyday conversation. The nonsense of the conversational approach is demonstrated by the tremendous difficulty, experienced by almost everybody, of rattling off utterly banal remarks in a foreign language. “Where do you come from?” “Would you like to see the Rubens or the Rembrandt?” “How much does this lamp cost?” Memorizing the lyrics of a Mozart aria by Lorenzo da Ponte would provide a great deal more personal satisfaction.

When the two books that I bought arrive from Italy, I’ll have more to say. My choice was somewhat limited by the flabbergasting expense of “literature” over there. A book of Calvino novellas: fifty-one Euros. That seemed to be the rule, not the exception. I can think of several explanations for these prices, but I can’t settle on any one of them. Meanwhile, In altre parole pleasantly lulls me into thinking that my grasp of Italian is much greater than it is.

I spent some time yesterday sorting through the book room. Ever since we moved into this apartment, the book room has served as something of an attic, and before I got to work yesterday, the floor was littered with small shopping bags containing things that had nothing to do with books. These turned out to be much easier to deal with than the stacks of books that were about to topple in all directions. I amassed quite a few of them in a pile that will go into shopping bags and then be toted to Housing Works.

The book at the bottom of my reading pile is Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. I read, somewhere, a review of this novel, newly translated for the first time from the Irish into English, and decided immediately not to read it. What is it about? It is about dead people buried in a cemetery, dead people who never shut up. When I saw the book at Crawford Doyle, I was drawn to it as if to an irresistible sin. Once home, I read a few pages, then closed the book, as if it were radioactive. I still can’t tell if buying it was a mistake. Its view of the afterlife as a matter of lying in the dark while nursing old grudges is, as I hope this statement makes clear, horrifying. But Ó Cadhain draws you in nevertheless, and that is why I closed the book. I wasn’t quite ready. But I find that I look at the book not with a sigh of duty but with a wary curiosity.

Then there were those document boxes to deal with. One contained all the remaining personal reminders of my seven years in the law, first as a paralegal clerk at the Stock Exchange (even though I was a licensed attorney), and then as a proper attorney at E F Hutton. I glanced through the papers, and perused a spiral-bound log of sorts that I kept for nine months at Hutton. Calls, letters, updates: none of it even remotely refreshed my memory. But I was impressed by the appearance of diligence. Inclined to regard myself as a dreamer who never gets anything done, I am always surprised by evidence to the contrary — more surprised than pleased, even.

Or, if not a dreamer, then a rogue who gets away with things. If I think of myself as someone who gets away with things, might that not be because it takes more effort to get away with things than to simply buckle down and take care of what’s in front of you? Criminals work much harder than honest people — they have to; the world is not designed to make life easy for thieves. Even then, most people don’t get away with it. I don’t know why I think I get away with things; more abominable conceit, probably.


Tuesday 12th

After a spell of cold, wet weather, and then a sunny, rather springlike day, it is raining again, but not so cold. I read the Times and went straight back to bed. It took a while to fall asleep, but I was warm and comfortable. More than that, I felt safe. When I woke up from the murky dream that ensued, however, I did not feel safe. A strapping blonde wearing glasses was saying. “Howard. Susan Howard.” Ah — she was introducing herself. “Are you here, reorganized, too?” I already knew that I was in a house or an apartment where at least one tall guy felt that I didn’t belong, and by this point in the dream I had accrued a feeling of overstaying my welcome. Being asked whether I was or had been “reorganized” was so disconcerting that it woke me up. I did not feel safe, but I still felt very comfortable — too comfortable to move. I thought, as I always do now whenever I am in bed but not reading, about the next entry that I should write here, the entry that in fact I ought to have been writing instead of sleeping. (But I’ve learned it’s no use, if my forehead feels leaden.) The topics that came to mind were immediately swept aside, in view of a new editorial policy that calls for more lighthearted, ephemeral entries on Friday. On Friday, I shall write about Joyce-Wadler-meets-Marie-Kondo (a very funny piece in the Times over the weekend), and about how, after a year of making pizzas at home, I finally got it right by taking one simple step. But as for today?

The book that I was reading before I fell back to sleep, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted, is funny and horrifying at the same time. I can easily imagine how Lyons would rewrite Kafka: I had always been curious about insects, but not this curious. The scary thing is that Dan Lyons could probably make death camps funny. Where other people have a button labeled “Solemn,” he has one labeled “Wiseacre.” You can complain all you like, but he has you laughing. Dan Lyons is perhaps the writer for our time: deliciously inappropriate. Do you want to know just how inappropriate?

My heart sinks. I’m not angry. I’m disappointed. I realize that there probably is a legitimate business to be made from churning out crappy content. But that is not something you hire the former technology of Newsweek to write for you.

So — he thinks he’s better than everybody else, does he?

In their mind, HubSpot belongs to them, not to these interlopers and outsiders who are now storming into the place and writing memos and telling everybody how they should be doing their jobs. Many of these people have never worked anywhere else. A lot of them aren’t very good. But here, they’re in charge. And I’m stuck working under them.

This is my lifelong nightmare. I have never not been afraid of working for, or in any way dealing with, “them.” This is why I was terrified, throughout childhood, of military service. I knew how the sergeants would take to the likes of me. (Nobody told me that, if I just managed to survive basic training, I’d be whisked into a typing pool. Smart as I was, I wasn’t smart enough to see that the Army is loaded with opportunities for desk-bound bureaucrats.) I’m still afraid of stupid people — by which I mean, of course, the Dunning-Kruger types, who don’t know how incompetent they are. I admire Dan Lyons enormously, because, stuck in my nightmare, he stuck it out, long enough to gather material for his terrific book about the mind-killing impact of hierarchies. I don’t know what’s going to happen to HubSpot — according to Google, it’s still there, preaching “inbound marketing” — but while it would be very satisfying to watch the enterprise crash and burn, its founders in handcuffs, the story will be more sobering still if it carries on, providing jobs for people who aren’t very good at what they do, which itself isn’t any good at all. Because that is the world that we have to fix.

One passage caught my attention.

I wrack my brain trying to figure out how this has happened. Why did Halligan hire me, if they were just going to stick me over here, doing this? My theory is that Halligan wanted to hire me but he didn’t want to manage me, so he passed me off to Cranium, but Cranium wanted nothing to do with me, so he handed me off to Wingman, and Wingman realized that Craniun didn’t consider me important, so he stuck me in the content factory working under Zack and hoped I would just go away.

This is precisely how I came to analyse the situation behind the trouble that a friend was having getting a job at a major tech company. The company had a policy of promoting the candidacy of applicants who were recommended by employees. But this policy was not acted upon, because the people in charge of HR, I surmised, were too remote from the policy makers, and the policy makers, like Halligan, simply wanted to put something that sounded good out there. Once they had done that, they lost interest. The HR people continued to insist on the alums of the same old narrow band of schools and/or an equally narrow band of previous employers. Nobody ever returned the calls of my friend, despite the recommendation of a star executive. As Dan Lyons shows, the cogs of bureaucracy can become rigid in no time at all: HubSpot, during his term there, was only about five years old.

We’re familiar with the powerful man who won’t give up his power. But we ought not overlook the property interest that most quite powerless people take in their jobs. Most of them behave like property owners, too: they take care of their property. They get up in the morning and slog through the day, doing the best they can. That’s how the real world works, they tell themselves. And it does — if you consider inertia “work.”

I’d like to sign off now and return to Lyons’s book: the very next chapter is called “The Bozo Explosion” — a phrase that Lyons got from Steve Jobs.


Reading Disrupted, I wonder, perhaps a little too idly, if there is a nice way to scold people into turning off the TV and learning to read a foreign language. Surely I mean, not to scold, but to inspire? No, I mean to scold. Inspiration is not enough. We are all inspired to do good things. Sometimes we actually do them. But when it comes to the literacy of the élite, “sometimes” is not an option. All the time is the only hope.

In the third of last year’s October entries, I made light of calling myself, as I actually still do, a “scourge of the élites.” That was long before the primary season began. That was before Donald Trump shocked the American establishment by failing to collapse of his own ridiculousness. Whatever happens to Trump, he has certainly demonstrated that the American élite needs to reform itself, and for the most old-fashioned of reasons: to set a good example to the ordinary folk. (The folk who would never ever be the technology editor of Newsweek.) There was a time when I thought the world would be a better place — yes! even I! — if people in responsible positions were more thoughtful and broadly-read. Now I’m worried that the world just won’t make it otherwise, better place or not.

For example. Bono’s Op-Ed piece in today’s Times. It’s an example of what I’m talking about because, while the singer so eloquently makes the humanitarian case for helping refugees to maintain their personal dignity (which would include meaningful occupation), he fails to make the warranted case for reparations. The West ought to help out, sure, but it must help out because it created the problem. Almost all of today’s refugees in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing the consequences of incompetent Western imperialism. They are trying to escape the long-term effects of meaningless boundary lines and opportunistic political manipulation. (You get one guess as to why the long-dormant incompatibility of Shia and Sunni has flared up in recent times.) Only rarely do I get the impression that journalists covering the refugees and the wars from which they are running understand how shallow the roots of the crises are — or, how European.

And what, if anything, is being done to enlighten refugees, whether in camps or in urban slums, with a Muslim ethos that does not regard the West as inherently inimical? This may be the moment for saying that while the West must pay for the damage, it cannot make the actual repairs. That must be done by the Muslim élite — an élite fostered by the West to counteract the Wahhabism that the Saudi Arabians support. This would not be not the propaganda effort that it might seem, for there are already plenty of would-be Muslim reformers. These reformers ought to be enlisted not just in the project of reconciling Islam with the global human rights consensus but in even more urgent job of redrawing the map of the Middle East.

Please don’t suppose that I believe that I have really good answers for today’s problems. About that, I have no idea. What I do have, though, is questions, and for the most part the questions came from reading an assortment of history books. If you read enough history, you notice a few basic persistencies. Foreign occupation, for example, is always and everywhere resented, and in the modern world (given our techologies), it elicits terrorism. “Foreign occupation” might seem easy to define, but we see instances in the United States of local people regarding “Washington” as a foreign power. (If no other evidence of the cluelessness of the American élite were available, this alone would be convincing.) “Foreign occupation” extends to “foreign interference,” which is what makes it inadvisable for Westerners to try to fix what they have broken.


Over the weekend, I read yet another review of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. I have not read it, nor do I plan to, so long as I can argue its importance without doing so. The upsetting reviews alone have intensified my conviction that mixed housing is really the only answer. Not “affordable housing,” much less “low-income housing.” People who don’t make a lot of money ought not to be sequestered, if only for the sake of their children, who need exposure to affluence in order to grow. (By the same token, it is a terrible thing to allow affluent people to sequester their children.) I wish I were a billionaire, so that I could experiment with medium-density mixed housing, right here in New York.

My idea comes from Second-Empire Paris. You design a six- or seven-story apartment building to include shops on the ground floor, a large and comfortable but not necessarily luxurious apartment on the first floor, a somewhat more modest apartment on top of that, and, proceeding through further gradations on the remaining floors, a garret at the top. Some garrets might be what we call studio apartments, meant for one tenant, while others would house families. All the garrets would be decent, and might be reached by elevators. You line the sides of a city block with such buildings, and, treating them as a unit (which, structurally, they might very well be), provide both private gardens and a residential park in the center. Beneath the parks (on the ground floor, that is), there would be delivery facilities for the shops and, for the time being, parking lots. I’m saying just enough to give you a picture of this urban ideal, with all but the superrich and the absolutely destitute living together.

There would be lots of room, it’s clear, for small-scale intimidation and exploitation. The folks in the top floors would be expected to observe most of the domestic habits of the wealthier tenants beneath them. They would also provide a stock of nannies and baby-sitters. They would have first call on the cast-offs from downstairs. I’m not sure how oppressive this would be in the long run. I’d like to see someone on staff whose job it was to put a lid on snooty superiority, especially in the more pampered kids.

And did I say that this block of buildings would be owned by a not-for-profit corporation, staffed and maintained by credentialed managers?


Thursday 14th

Rereading that chapter — buried in that over-long, chronologically jumbled novel — I am struck by how much Aldous and Maria must have seen and interpreted at that time. (334)

This is Sybille Bedford, referring to Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, a chapter from which horrified her when it came out (she read it in 1937). Huxley had taken an anecdote — the word will serve — from the darker moments of Bedford’s mother’s addiction to morphine, at a time when the Huxley’s were not only neighbors but rescuers. Having read the chapter in question (the twenty-first), I understand Bedford’s shock, which must have caused her to re-experience some highly-spiced unpleasantness; but I don’t have the sense of violated confidences, because nothing else — nothing but the locked door with its lower panel knocked out, providing a sort of pet hatch through which an addicted women crawls in search of privacy in her filthy bedroom, and escapes from a housekeeper too stout to follow her — points in Bedford’s direction. It’s not only that “Mary Amberley is no more, or less, my mother than she is the other one or two women Aldous was supposed by critics, friends and gossips to have used as a model for her character and conduct.” Helen Amberley herself, Mary’s daughter, could never be mistaken for a character modeled on Sybille Bedford. Or so I thought: all I have is a couple of books to go on.

Now I have read all the chapters of Eyeless in Gaza, which I picked up only because of the quality of Bedford’s mention of it. I did not expect to like the novel, and, for the most part, I didn’t like it. It is certainly “over-long.” There is a great deal of twaddle in it, most of it appearing in the protagonist’s diary entries after an enlightening encounter with a Quaker physician in Mexico, but some of it in the form of regurgitated conversations about the Meaning of Life and Is This All There Is? — bright young questions that have staled very badly. It would easy, I think, to strike through all this sententiousness and produce a far more readable book. Even then, the pace is slow to quicken, and it takes even longer to see the point of the chronological manipulations. But the last two hundred pages (out of nearly five hundred) fairly gallop along, and I read them so intently that I did not have to stay up late to finish a book that I could not put down.

Even the twaddle has its moments. Chapter 35, for example, addresses several problems that I have posed here. My manner of thinking is very unlike Huxley’s, and I suppose you could read the chapter without seeing much in common with this Web site. But by the time I finished its four pages, I felt that Huxley had been reading over my shoulder. The essential problem is what I call the right to be stupid — a right that the men of the Enlightenment could not imagine anyone’s wishing to claim. The current electoral season has shown its pervasiveness in American society, and we have abundant evidence of its appeal in Europe as well.

There is no remedy except to become aware of one’s interests as a human being, and, having become aware, to learn to act on that awareness. Which means learning to use the self and learning to direct the mind. (343)

The problem, of course, is that this “becoming aware” is not easy, and not even appealing — it’s not a fun project. (And there’s that “use of the self” again!) Developing a conscious, authentic sense of self — not, who would you like to be, but who ARE you? — is arduous, unpleasant work, or at any rate much of it is, and it requires habits of thought that can only be acquired with genuine will. It’s not like a gym. Going to the gym, you can entrust the trainer to tell you what to do to build a buff body. The trainer will take your body as far as it can go; there is no need for you to learn how he does it. But to be truly self-aware, you have to become your own trainer. Or, in my parlance, a humanist: you have to learn what to expect of human nature (which you share), and then you have to learn your deviations from the norm. Nobody can help you unless you truly want to be helped — very much like saying the same thing to an addict with regard to staying clean. Like avoiding a relapse, humanism is a never-ending inquiry. The moment you let it slide, you revert to being a person who understands nothing.

It would all be much easier if most people were self-aware, if you found yourself living in a conducive atmosphere. But almost everything about the surface of American life is not conducive. Let me get right to one thing that is conducive: a default decency that you can usually count on if you’re in a scrape. It’s not much of a help, because we usually manage to lead our lives away from scrapes, and therefore have no need of that decency; but keeping it in mind even when you don’t need it is a thought to grow upon. One of the big differences between Huxley and myself is that he sees a binary conflict between systems and individuals. I am not particularly interested in individuals as such; I’m interested in human beings in all their engagements, as lovers, parents, children, friends, cousins, teachers, counselors, acquaintances, strangers, or, in other words — one other word — society. Society is the true opposite of the system, and decency, countless, mostly small, acts of decency are what hold it together — not laws or policemen.

I have not read Brave New World. I wonder if, in that book, Huxley observes that the basic problem with systems is that they are, for lack of anything better to work with, operated by individuals, mere men and women who flatter themselves that they are acting with more than human wisdom, and who believe that the systems that they embody (as it were) are proof against the caprices and vagaries of human nature. There is, however, no way of escaping those caprices and vagaries, except by maintaining a general watchfulness, they way our ancestral tribes watched for dangerous animals. You can’t count on the system to wake you up in case of emergency, because the system is nothing but other people like yourself. People have always wanted to be mechanical — you can see the desire burn brightly in Plato’s dialogues. After a lifetime of meditating on mechanization, I have concluded that our interest in machines, which reached such a climax in the Nineteenth Century, reflects a dream of expanding humanity’s powers by limiting its complications. The nightmares of the Twentieth Century were brought about by attempting to realize this objective in political terms.

In Chapter 35, Huxley connects systems to their underlying principles.

A principle is, by definition, right; a plan [or system], for the good of the people. Axioms from which it logically follows that those who disagree with you and won’t help to realize your plan are enemies of goodness and humanity, fiends incarnate. Killing men and women is wrong, but killing fiends is a duty. Hence the Holy Office, hence Robespierre and the Ogpu [a predecessor of the KGB]. Men with strong religious and revolutionary faith, men with well-thought-out plans for improving the lot of their fellows, whether in this world or the next, have been more systematically and cold-bloodedly cruel than any others. (342)

This is terribly true. But if, as Huxley believes, you can’t simply “higgle,” or muddle through, because modern economies can no longer be counted upon to regulate themselves, then either you have to have a plan, or you have to have a society of grown-ups. This is where the right to be stupid rears its monstrous head.

It’s true that you don’t see parades of people waving banners in support of stupidity. Stupidity tends to be a small-scale, even solitary affair. To express it more politely, it asserts the right to believe in dark and inscrutable conspiracies on the basis of vague, circumstantial evidence. To put it crudely, it insists on the axioms of peasant conservatism. Needless to say, it rejects the claims of liberal education out of hand. It regards reasonable analysis with suspicion; it has a dread, admittedly not entirely unwarranted, of cleverness.

The men of the Enlightenment were wrong when they assumed that intelligent men would jump at the chance to put the stupidities of the ancien régime behind them. It turned out that intelligent men were satisfied by nothing more profound than the application of new labels to old institutions. It takes my breath away to consider how rapidly the United States has reproduced the jurisdictional sclerosis of late-medieval Europe (a paradise of diversity, by the way, if there ever was one). Even worse, this sclerosis condemns us to depend on a failing infrastructure that can’t seem to be fixed.

Peasant axioms have been around for a long time. In the Muslim world, they are on the upswing. Even in the United States, extremely anti-peasant axioms, such as those concerning racial- and gender-neutral civil rights, are not secure, if only because they have not been in place for very long. Innovations are easily swept away. (Consider Prohibition.)

Huxley closes his chapter with a sigh:

It’s almost wearisome, the way one always comes back to the same point. Wouldn’t it be nice, for a change, if there were another way out of our difficulties! A short cut. A method requiring no greater personal effort than recording a vote or ordering some “enemy of society” to be shot. A salvation from outside, like a dose of calomel.

It is not entirely clear in whose voice Huxley is speaking here. Is it the voice of the man in the street? Or the voice of the man who would rather not plan for the benefit of the man in the street, the man who would like to go back to muddling through? In the latter case, I know what the American élite would sigh today. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to set an example. Meaning: wouldn’t it be nice to binge-watch, as Clive James advocates in the current issue of The New Yorker, Game of Thrones. With all due respect, James may be entitled to do as he likes: he is dying, if by degrees, of cancer. But he sets a terrible example.


If Eyeless in Gaza fails as a novel, it is not because it is too long or too hard to follow. It is that it allows a compounded moral crime to slip away unatoned and unforgiven. I don’t mean that Anthony Beavis “gets away” with the terrible thing that he does to his friend, Brian Foxe, or his destruction of the evidence of that crime after it destroys Brian, but rather that Huxley gives us little or no indication that Anthony sees the need for atonement.

By the same token, if Eyeless in Gaza succeeds as a novel, it is because Huxley has so acutely compassed the crime, embedding it in Anthony’s bad faith. I don’t want to say too much about this awfulness, because its slow-motion unfurling, which Anthony strains to present as a trifling thing that got out of hand and, among other regrettable consequences, embarrassed him into blacker bad faith, is a great part of its horror. Something like it happens in many lives. An ill-considered action sets off a chain of reactions for which the initial perpetrator is ever less directly responsible. In this case, what Anthony did did not by itself compel Joan and Brian to doing what they did; each of them could have responded, certainly, with greater self-control. The key word is “embarrassment.” Kissing Joan was not a bad thing. But Anthony yielded to the embarrassment of having done it, and of remembering why he had done it — what had made the carnal impulse so irresistible — such that avoiding even greater embarrassment became his true crime. There was nothing that he would not do, or would not refrain from doing, in order to minimize the possibility of being seen by his friends in an unflattering light — all the while blaming Joan and Brian and Mrs Foxe and anyone else he could think of for his predicament. It is a classic instance of small-mindedness, and it could not be better told. And yet, with time, Anthony gets over it.

As we all do — which is, I’m afraid, Huxley’s implicit message. Not for him the hero whose vitals are eaten away by decades of remorse! I recognize that it could be argued that Huxley does mean to attach Anthony’s approach to possible immolation, at the very end of the novel, to the idea of atoning for his sin against Brian and Joan, the dénouement of which, having taken place twenty years earlier, appears in roughly adjacent chapters. But it is not explicit enough for me, and I look back on the acreage of Anthony’s diary entries without finding any sprouts of shame. Regardless of Huxley’s use of these entries as a pulpit for expounding his own enlightenment, from the standpoint of the novel, Anthony’s silence discredits everything he says. But I have to admit that there’s an excitement even in that.


Friday 15th

About a year ago, I began to make pizza regularly. Ever since, we have had pizza for dinner at least once almost every week. For a long time, I focused on production — making a crust, and getting it into and out of the oven. I meant to tackle the sauce next, but it was so easy to use something out of a bottle that I procrastinated. It wasn’t until Agata & Valentina ran out of its own arrabbiata sauce that I resolved to find a good tomato sauce recipe and make it myself. That was nearly two months ago. I found a recipe — at Serious Eats — and made it, as mentioned here last week.

Meanwhile, we had been eating the same pizza over and over. A little bit of sauce spread over the dough. Then a sprinkling of cooked sausage and mushroomed, chopped up along with six or eight pitted oil-cured olives. Then a grating of fresh mozzarella. For a long time, the result was very tasty, much better than what Kathleen and I called “pizza parlor” pizza. Over time, however, that’s exactly what I hankered for — pizza parlor pizza. What had made my own pizza seem superior now became a defect. At bottom, you see, I believed that I couldn’t really make superior pizza unless I could make pizza parlor pizza.

My basics came from a pizza cookbook. The book was full of fancy variations; I tried exactly one. But I followed the book’s recipe for crust. I made the dough as instructed (and I still do), and I cooked the pizza, as directed, for twelve minutes in a 475º oven.

Now, here’s the crazy thing. The very first time that I made a pizza with my own sauce — last Friday — I knew that the pizza was seriously overcooked. Bingo! It was so clear, so obvious, that I couldn’t wait to make another pizza. I would cook it for ten minutes. In the event, I left it in the oven for nine minutes — and I’m thinking of cutting back to eight. I made a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and if it was still much better than a pizza parlor pizza, it had all the good qualities of one. The crust was not so rigid; if you picked up a slice, you had to fold it a bit to maintain the cantilever. (It also didn’t taste like a cracker.) The pizza was bubbling when it came out of the oven, another good sign. Finally, the pizza tasted cooked. It did not taste roasted. Roasted! I had been roasting pizzas for a year!

I still don’t understand why I woke up when I did, why using my own sauce (which — thanks, Serious Eats! — was indeed better than anything storebought) made such a difference that I could see in a flash what it was that I didn’t like about my pizzas. I have a dim idea of how this happened, but I can’t seem to write it down. Clearly, I had been drawing a false conclusion, blaming the “off” quality of my pizzas on the various sauces that I was using. This was doubly stupid, because the “off” quality never varied with the sauce. Why didn’t it occur to me six months ago that I was overcooking the pizzas?

The short answer may be that, for a long time, I was amazed to be able to turn out any kind of pizza at all. I assumed that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought in terms of ingredients, not technique. Twelve minutes didn’t seem so very long to be cooking dough. I did experiment with raw toppings, but while this produced an authentic amount of grease, it (obviously) didn’t do anything about the roasted taste, which I still didn’t recognize as such, of the crust and the sauce. Not to mention the mozzarella. I learned from Serious Eats not to use fresh mozzarella. What I needed, I was told, was “low-moisture” mozzarella. This is what comes in the plastic bags at the dairy section. Using low-moisture mozzarella made a big difference, too, although not one as big as the reduced cooking time. I wonder if you can grate fresh mozzarella and let it dry out a bit (wrapped in paper towels?) in the refrigerator. The packaged, pre-grated cheese is, after all, highly processed.

I haven’t named the book from which I learned the basics because, well, two reasons. First, ovens are notoriously different. Although Julia Child is absolutely reliable in most ways, I generally find that things don’t cook in the oven as quickly as she tells me to expect. And I’ve had to re-learn a lot of timings with the move from one apartment to another — I’m still not sure about broiling a good steak. Second, I haven’t looked at the pizza cookbook in nearly a year, and the chances are that I have misremembered something. In any case, I absolve the author of any responsibility for my long slog to a quality breakthrough.

I will say that it’s very nice that this particular breakthrough involves nothing more complicated than a small number. I have the rest of pizza-making down pat, so much so that I don’t even need the dough recipe anymore.

And I thank Kathleen for having said, week in and week out, that she liked my pizza.


I have just been distracted by the discovery of a marvelous old map, online (at Wikipedia, natch). It’s French, and it dates from the Nineteenth Century. It is entitled, “Empire de Charlemagne/et son démembrement/au Traité de Verdun/843.” Now, I always get the Treaty of Verdun mixed up with the Oaths of Strasbourg, probably because the Oaths are only a year older. The Oaths are famous primarily for providing the first written evidence of a distinctive French. (The texts also appear in Latin and in an early German.) It is also true that the whole point of the Oaths was upset by the Treaty.

The issue was the partition of Charlemagne’s empire after the reign of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son. At his death in 840, Louis left three sons (a fourth having predeceased him), Louis the German, Lothar, and Charles the Bald. Lothar regarded himself as Louis’s sole successor; for a brief period in the 830s, he had replaced his father. Now, however, his brothers contested his claim, swearing their oath of mutual aid against him in 842. The following year, the civil unrest came to an end, with the Treaty. The empire was divided into three pieces, which might as well be regarded as three strips, for that is very much what the piece in the middle was. The western piece became France, and eastern piece became Germany, and the strip in the middle — Lotharingia, stretching from modern Nederland to deep into Italy — became a zone of contest, for Lotharingia did not long outlast Lothar. Its component parts, the Low Countries, Lorraine, Burgundy, much of Switzerland, Provence, Savoy, Lombardy and Tuscany, were shuffled back and forth, with most of them settling in the Empire that German kings revived in the Tenth Century, and some of them, such as Burgundy, holding on to a measure of autonomy. The great Valois Dukes of Burgundy (1361-1477) would launch the most plausible attempt to re-unite the northern part of Lotharingia; they were allied with the enemies of France, and they petitioned the Emperor to raise their patrimony to the status of a kingdom. The scheme fell apart when the last duke died without leaving a son. All the French parts of this expanded “Burgundy” were seized by Louis XI. The rest went into the Hapsburg pocket, when Maximilian married the last duke’s daughter.

The last duke, Charles the Rash, died in battle, attempting to subdue the Swiss. I don’t believe that his effort was repeated, and the Swiss Confederation was duly recognized as an independent country in 1648. Savoy, rather improbably, became the cradle of the dynasty that oversaw the Unification of Italy in 1871, but not before its territory on the far side of the Alps fell to the French.

And these are just the notable moves. To this day, the remnants of Lotharingia float between the French and the Germans, neither one nor other, whichever language is spoken. Thanks to a strategic decision by Charles V, upon the division of his vast possessions between his brother and his son, in 1556, the language that we call Dutch survives; all of the other low-German dialects were stamped out by progressive education within the territories of the old Empire, from which the Low Countries were detached in order to provide Philip II of Spain with a second front from which to attack England.

It’s all there in the map. France is pink, Germany is yellow, and Lotharingia is green. Towns that did not exist in 843 do not appear. (There are only two Nederlander cities, Utrecht and Deventer.) If you look at the map as long as I’ve been doing, you will get a headache, not just because of vanished Lotharingia but because substantial bits of the pink parts are no longer French, but Belgian or Spanish, while some of the yellow parts have become Switzerland and Austria. Brittany is not part of France, while Brandenburg and Saxony lie beyond the German frontier. If you are not already familiar with the political geography of Europe, this map may do bad things to your brain. It is doubtful, however, that anyone unfamiliar with Europe would give the map a second glance.

Did I mention, recently, my proposal that we stop talking about “the Middle Ages” and talk instead of “Early Europe”? (Searching the site would be cumbersome for a Friday.) Following my own advice, I’ve been pleased by the change of air. For one thing, “Early Europe” sounds so much younger. It doesn’t make me think of now-ancient cathedrals; it takes me back to long before those magnificent structures were dreamed of. For another, there was always the awkward “between what?” problem. By now, you have to be a moron to think of the ten centuries from Clovis to François Premier as an interlude between the Roman Empire and Modern Times. I’ve bracketed the period with the mention of two French kings, but the novelty of modern Europe was, of course, the Germans, also known as the Franks, because they believed that every able-bodied man was, somehow, free. The Germans were, like everybody else, impressed and even a little bit intimidated by the Romans, but — and I hesitate to attribute this to their being German — they were also stuck in their ways. It took a long time to sort out the Roman and the German contributions to European life; that is what the development of Early Europe is about.

From the beginning, then, Europe had a cosmopolitan nature, even if no one was very happy about the confusion. Into this mixup came a band of Scandinavian marauders, themselves only distantly related to the Germans (or Franks). No sooner did they settle down in Normandy than their French-speaking leader invaded England, and became its king. You get the picture: tradition becomes a desperate, always somewhat fake attempt to mask adulteration and compromise. And those mysterious Bavarians — they’re really Slavs, aren’t they?

It’s for this reason that I set the end-date of Early Europe not in the Renaissance, or in 1648, or even in 1789, but in 1945. Just in time for an age of refugees.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (I)

Monday 4th

There are words that I don’t know, of course. When I encounter one, I look it up in the dictionary. But there are also things of which I never knew, things for which there turn out to be words that I have never bumped into, so that the new word, instead of screwing in comfortably with all the others, continues to thrum with unfamiliarity. Such is the Italian word sdrucciolo, which I ran into yesterday.

Now, most Italian words correspond to English words that I know as well as you do. Sdrucciolare — sdroo-cho-LAR-ay — means “to slip.” Sdrucciolo, however, which is derived from this verb, does not mean “slippery.” The word for “slippery” is sdrucciolevole — sdroo-cho-LAY-vo-lay. According to my dictionary, sdrucciolo — SDROO-cho-lo — means two things, one of them a chemical, the other “trisyllabic verse.” Neither of these has anything to do with what I learned yesterday.

The default accent in any Italian word is on the penultimate syllable. Remember those adjectives from last week? ScorRETTo, ImbarraZANte? That’s normal. But there are some words that are accented on the antepenultimate syllable, and you just pick them up as you learn the language. BruTISSimo — again from last week. CAmera (room), FAcile (easy), PosSIbile (possible). Sometimes I’m not sure, and, when I’m reading aloud, I make lots of mistakes. I’m certain that I’ve said “FaCIle.” Another thing that I didn’t know until yesterday is that it is customary, when dubbing a foreign film into Italian, to indicate stupid characters — eg, The Three Stooges — by having them get their accents wrong. I’ve always been aware of a vague uncertainty about some words, though, mostly verbs, verbs in their infinitive and third-person plural forms. I know enough Italian to know that a lot of these particular forms are spoken with the accent on the antepenult. But I didn’t look into it until yesterday.

Yesterday, you see, I was reading on in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole (In Other Words), and the uncertainty that I just mentioned ceased to be vague, and became annoyingly insistent. Two words that appear with great frequency in Lahiri’s book are leggere (to read) and scrivere (to write). Although I was not reading aloud, my confusion about where to place the accent on these words was disruptive. I was pretty sure that the accent fell on the first syllable in both words, but LeGEre sounded right, too.

For a good reason. If you accent the second syllable of leggere, you say the word for “light,” as in “lightweight.” Leggerevole can mean “somewhat” or “slightly.” In the infinitive of the verb “to read,” however, the accent does indeed fall on the first syllable. Leggere and scrivere belong to a class of infinitives, all of them ending in -ere. They do not end in -are (parlare, amare) or -ire (partire, empire). The word for these -ere infinitives, and all the other words with an accent on the antepenult, is — yes! — sdrucciolo. These words have un accento sdrucciolo.

And you just have to learn them. It is a testament to my haphazard way of going about things, or of having gone about them in my wasted youth, that I have been fooling around with Italian for fifty years or more, and even taken a course or two, without ever having had the faintest suspicion of sdrucciolo. Yes, I was uncertain about accenting certain words, but it never occurred to me that they formed a class, with its own label. I never saw a list of sdrucciolo words.

Not until yesterday, that is. I found a very handy cheat sheet yesterday, in response to the last of about five Google searches. I thought about copying it into an Evernote and having it on my phone, but I decided to print it out, and to keep it handy while I’m reading In altre parole, and who-knows-what I’ll read in Italian next.

I suppose that this sdrucciolo thing is also testament to how surprisingly easy it is for me to read Italian, after years and years of practically no effort. Having the English on a facing page certainly makes things easier, but as I’ve gotten further into the book I’ve made a greater effort to work things out for myself. The result is that I’m bothered not by meanings but by accents. But I’m only talking about reading Italian. Not speaking or writing in it.

Lahiri tells of how, one day, in a library where she never felt comfortable, she suddenly had the idea for a story. She wrote half of it then and there, and then came back the next day and finished it. Then —

I don’t know how to read the story. [As in standard Italian, Lahiri writes about the ongoing past in the present tense. I'm not sure that Ann Goldstein was right to translate so literally.] I don’t know what to think about it. I don’t know if it works. I don’t have the critical skills to judge it. Although it came from me, it doesn’t seem completely mine. I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written in English. (65)

So when, in the very next chapter, she gives us the story, “Lo scambio” — The Exchange — I read it with this in mind: not only how “Italian” it sounded (and what kind of judge am I of that?), but also how “not-English.” I decided to take Lahiri at her word: she wouldn’t have written it in English. It’s not that the story doesn’t work in English; it’s just not the sort of thing that you’d expect Lahiri to write, going on her work so far (all of it in English). It is hard to imagine her even dreaming of the story in English. But it is Italian to this extent: it reminds me of The Other Language, the collection of short stories in English by Francesca Marciano, stories that struck me as having been designed to capture an Italian sensibility in English.

Lo Scambio” reads, frankly, like the scenario for a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. A woman who is a professional translator is disturbed by the conviction that everything that she remembers about her life could have been better. (Ogni volta che aveva un qualsiasi ricordo della sua vita passata, era convinta che un’altra versione sarebbe stata migliora. —  66) She is too fond of life to consider suicide, so she decides to vacate her circumstances instead. She says good-bye to everybody and gives everything away, except for a little black sweater.

In the strange city where she knows no one, she walks everywhere. Her life is very simple, but it is the simplicity of an Armani suit. It is a very affluent simplicity, buying a nice piece of fruit and then enjoying it on a pleasant park bench. Nobody writes this way in English; in English, this sort of thing seems weightless and inconsequential. (Needless to say, the translator is unnamed.) It can even seem to be precious. And perhaps it’s no longer stylish in Italian. (Why, though, did I just now think of early Paul Auster?) Be that as it may, the central event in the story has a fairy tale quality that fits perfectly. Standing under a cornice in the rain, the translator notices that women are entering and leaving the palazzo across the street. She decides to follow them. She rings and is admitted. She walks through a courtyard and up a grand staircase. No, I made that up: it’s “dark stairway, the steps slightly uneven.” The translator climbs the stairs, leaves her purse along with the others’ on a table in the hallway, and enters a large living room.

The tone becomes even more dreamlike at this point, not because odd things happen — not at all — but because the fact that the translator has gatecrashed what is essentially a trunk show held at a designer’s home is never announced, as it certainly would be in English. Instead, we gather as much from an accumulation of details — the rack of clothes against the far wall, the three-screen mirror.

Some women were already undressed, and were trying on clothes, asking the others for their opinions. They were a collection of arms, legs, hips, waists. Unceasing variations. They all seemed to know each other. (73)

The translator undresses, too, and tries on a lot of outfits — “all the garments in her size.”

She studied her own image. But she was distracted by the presence of another woman behind the mirror, at the end of the hall. She was different from the others. She was working at a table, with an iron, a needle in her mouth. She had tired eyes, a sorrowful face.

The clothes were elegant, well made. Even though they suited her, the translator didn’t like them. After trying the last thing she decided to leave. She didn’t feel like herself in those clothes. She didn’t want to acquire or accumulate anything more. (73)

The crisis is that the translator cannot find her little black sweater. A search of the premises turns up something that looks rather like it, but isn’t — its material is rougher, and it doesn’t quite fit. The translator actually finds it revolting. By now, the translator is the only woman in the apartment, aside from the owner and the woman with the iron. In search of the sweater, the designer calls up each of her clients, but nobody took it home by mistake. (The idea that someone might have stolen it out of spite does not occur.) The translator, feeling defeated, leaves with the substitute sweater. Her certainty that it is not hers is overwhelmed by an uncertainty about everything.

In the morning, a transformation. The black sweater both is and is not the garment that the translator brought with her to this new city. The alien aspect of the sweater is no longer revolting. “In fact, when she put it on, she preferred it. [...] Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.” (81)

The end. Now let’s go back to the end of the previous chapter, in which the story was written.

Odio analizzare ciò che scrivo. Ma qualche mese dopo, un mattino mentre corro in villa Doria Pamphilj, mi viene in mente, tutto a un tratto, il significato di questo strano racconto: il golfino è la lingua. (64)

I hate analyzing what I write. But one morning a few months later, when I’m running in the park of villa Doria Pamphili, the meaning of this strange story suddenly comes to me: the sweater is language. (65)

You might wonder if Lahiri had better kept that interpretative key to herself until the reader had a chance to read the story. But what I find telling is that the critical experience occurs in a context that is unfamiliar to Lahiri’s writing (so far as I recall it): fashion. Fashion, that is, at one of its pinnacles. Not the brand-name “couturiers” but rather designers like the one in the story, who have a little list of women who look good in her clothes and who can afford them. Every now and then, she opens her doors and sells what she has. It is very discreet. The clothes are designed for women who travel; they can be washed in cold water by hand. They don’t wrinkle. Lahiri could be describing the dresses that Kathleen hunted down in an out-of-the-way corner of Hong Kong, twenty-odd years ago. That such an event should occur, convincingly, at the heart of a Lahiri story is proof that she has at least left New York behind. Her New York, that is — we have trunk shows like that, too. But in New York, writers do not “do” fashion. They do not do “girly” things. (A great deal of Joan Didion’s enigmatic aura owes to the fact that, as a writer, she almost completely suppresses her lively interest in womanly things, such as buying clothes and shopping for dinner. The Joan Didion known to her women friends would not, at least until recently, have been respected by male writers.) In “Lo Scambio,” there is an utter lack of the irony with which an American writer would treat the designer and her clients.


When I sat down this morning, this Italian note was going to be short, and then I was going to write about Vladimir Putin as a gangster. Over the weekend, I read yet another review of the Owen Report, which is based on an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with polonium in 2006, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. As it so happens, I was also getting into John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, which I’m reading not in continuation of my Cornwell craze but because a filmed adaptation, starring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, and Stellan Skarsgård, is going to appear in the not-too-distant future. And the novel gave me an idea. How do you go after a gangster? You hire a better gangster.

It’s not really much of an idea. The Litvinenko murder took forever to “clear up,” if that’s what the Owen Report means, because Litvinenko was more or less a nobody. If you took out Putin, you’d be killing the top public official in Russia. The Russians could hardly respond to such an assassination in gang-war terms. But maybe the better gangster could make life — gangster life — more difficult for Putin, perhaps not worth living. Putin’s henchmen could begin disappearing, instead of just his enemies.

The way things are going, defecting Russian millionaires and billionaires may indeed be investing in the development of such a gangsteer, one to rival not Putin’s thugs but Putin himself. One thing seems clear: you do not go after gangster heads of state in the United Nations, or by any other combination of conventional diplomacy followed by war. We learned that in the Thirties.

The problem with gangster heads of state is that they’re always appealing at the beginning, because they maintain a semblance of law and order. Order, anyway. Mussolini, Hitler, Erdoğan, Putin all seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. With Stalin, it was more the peace of the sepulcher, but even he had his gets-things-done fans. One has to wonder about Donald Trump in this line-up. Trump talks like a gangster, or rather he speaks with a gangland accent, but he talks too much to be mistaken for a gangster. Way too much.

And, say you got rid of Putin? Then what?


Tuesday 5th

On Saturday, I saw Paul Taylor’s Spindrift for the first time. The dance made a great and immediate impression. I recognized not only that it belongs to the grand tier of Taylor dances, but that this tier carries the label, “Sublime.” Other Sublime dances include Cloven Kingdom, Arden Court, and that old favorite, Esplanade. I’d be inclined to include Roses, if it weren’t for the relative monotony of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; the other dances in this class draw their music from multi-movement compositions with their roots in the Baroque, meaning that fast and lively music alternates with grave and solemn music. There are tears and there are smiles. Every now and then, a laugh. If the dances are death-haunted, they are all about being alive, with a comprehensiveness that seems exhaustive. That comprehensiveness is an illusion, of course, but the power of the illusion is what makes the dances Sublime. The power is generated by the choreographer’s skill at forging an organic whole out of a miscellany.

I say this, and yet I remember nothing of the particular movements of Spindrift. I saw that Michael Trusnovec had the leading role (no surprise), but I can’t retail his interactions with the other members of the company, as I can with Beloved Renegade, which was presented a little later. Performances of Beloved Renegade, which was new when Kathleen and I discovered Paul Taylor, had always eluded us. It was always appearing on an adjacent bill, not the one for which we’d shown up. I was relieved finally to see it. I’m sure that there are many who would include it among Paul Taylor’s Sublime dances, if they were to recognize the category. But I wouldn’t. Having seen Beloved Renegade, I needn’t see it again. It is an elegy for the company’s senior dancer, now in his eighteenth year with Paul Taylor. It also seemed to be an elegy for Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney; like Michael Trusnovec, they’re fortyish. These men, magnificent as they are, cannot go on doing this much longer. I was annoyed with myself for noticing an AIDS connection, mediated no doubt by the program’s explicit references to Walt Whitman, who so famously nursed wounded soldiers in Washington, during the Civil War. In the dance itself, there was a passage in which Trusnovec appeared to be succoring wounded men; I remember thinking that it was full of grace.

But I remember nothing from Spindrift. Once I had recognized its greatness, it slipped through my fingers. So I hope to see it again.

We did our weekend thing. On Saturdays, during its three weeks at Lincoln Center, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presents afternoon and evening programs. Generally, each program features the performance of three dances. On Saturday, however, the first segment was given to two short works, separated by a brief pause. First, we had Snow White, which is no end of fun. I have never seen a British pantomime, and I have trouble even imagining what it might be like, but Paul Taylor’s Snow White can’t be so very different. It is, briefly, a burlesque of Walt Disney’s version: the title character (danced adorably by Parisa Khobdeh) wears the same little red bow in her hair. The mean old queen stomps about in her voluminous cloak, clacking her blood-red fingernails and panting for wickedness; I quickly discerned that Sean Mahoney was dancing the part. He was much more obviously also dancing the part of the Prince. “Dancing” is an exaggeration. The Prince paces solemnly, one arm raised in conciliation, the other placed across this breast. From time to time, he frowns, and, with placid gravity, switches hands. It is very witty.

There is a nonstop, vixenish Bad Apple (Heather McGinley), and of course a passel of dwarves — but only five. Robert Kleinendorst was one of them, and as he and the others crouched through their acrobatics, I was reminded of an interview that he gave last year (I think it was) in which he complained of not being able to get a full night’s sleep, such was his back pain. I tried not to dwell on this. I tried to remember what Snow White was reminding me of, but I didn’t figure that out until just now (the elaborate curtain call in Lend Me a Tenor, which recapitulates the entire comedy in less than a minute). The whole dance is very witty: look, it says, at how clever our romping can be. Paul Taylor can get away with this, probably because he resorts to it sparingly.

Nothing could have been less like fun than what followed the pause: Profiles, a dance to scratchy and dissonant string-quartet playing. If I had to categorize Profiles, I should call it Sixties Serious, but you could probably do better. Bodies in Space? The four dancers (Michael Trusnovec, Eran Bugge, Laura Halzack, and Michael Novak — to list them, as the company is scrupulous to do, in order of seniority) are costumed in skintight outfits that I gathered must be stepped into, as there was a conspicuous lack of zippers. The intention behind this aesthetic, once so ubiquitous, seems to be half salacious (nudies!) and half despoiling (stripping away our bogus disguises &c &c). It also makes possible a sort of architectural treatment of the body, as if anatomy could be bent into structure. I was reminded of the days of my youth, when art went out of its way to be anhedonic.

Just how far we’ve come from those days was measured by Offenbach Overtures, which closed the afternoon program. The music consists of bits and pieces taken from the title’s sources, and the tone is therefore somewhere between ooh-la-la and Swan Lake. The costumes are cherry red, with black accents. For the ladies, low heels, cloth hair ornaments, bloomers, and can-can skirts. For the gentlemen: tank tops, tights, and boots, with hats suggesting either army or navy. Oh, and moustaches, lovely waxed curlicue moustaches, rendering the men indistinguishable, at least at first. The note of burlesque was struck again, this time by Parisa Khobdeh as an intoxicated chorine, vaguely reminiscent of Rosalind Russell, and by Laura Halzack, as a vamp who is rattled by the missteps of her partner (George Smallwood). In the middle of the dance, there is a duel scene, with Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney indulging in a dance-off instead of a shoot-out, and of course falling in love in the process, while their seconds, Robert Kleinendorst and Francisco Graciano, descend into partisan fisticuffs. You really don’t know where to look, because each couple is doing a perfect job of upstaging the other. Offenbach Overtures became an immediate favorite. I may have made it sound somewhat more jocular than it is, for the prevailing mood (the duel aside) is sweetly reminiscent of classical ballet. Glazounov on the sly.

In the middle third, we had Three Dubious Memories, which we’ve seen before. It, too, is recent, dating from 2010, when I suppose we saw it the first time.There is a man in green (Mr Kleinendorst), a man in blue (Mr Mahoney), a woman in a red dress (Eran Bugge), and a “choir,” led by a choirmaster (James Samson), in grey. In each of the first two of the dance’s four sections, the woman in red is coupled with one of the men, and the couple is interrupted by the other man, who tears the woman in red away. In the third section, the two men are the couple, and the woman in red is vexed. Then there is a “threnody,” which wraps things up. The choir, as Kathleen remarked afterward, has a much bigger role than you remember. Is it true that, whenever two people fall in love, they make a third person miserable? Not “whenever,” but often, and perhaps more often in New York than elsewhere. With the lightest possible hand, Three Dubious Memories highlights the selfishness of happy couples.

I’ve already described two of the ballet on the evening program. In between, we had Sullivaniana, which is new this year. The music consists of the overtures to Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience, played back to back in that order. There is more fabric in each man’s outfit than is worn by the entire quartet of Profiles. Frock coats in a loud check, vests in a the same check, but on the bias, solid trousers, shoes, and bowler hats. The colors are very vivid; I’d wear them (especially the green and the mauve), but most men wouldn’t. The ladies wear plain tops and tartan skirts with seductive little bustles. The look, like the music, is pert. I’d have to see the dance again to say anything about the choreography, which was pleasant enough but not (as I recall) pointed in any direction. At one point, there was sort of a group-grope pile-up on the floor. I could imagine Sullivan peeking at it through his fingers, shocked but approving, while Gilbert, fuming, telephoned his solicitor. The bowler hats made the men even less distinguishable than the curlicued moustaches. It took me forever to recognize Michael Novak.

Michael Novak seemed to be guided by a single thought all day. He danced as beautifully as ever, but as if determined to avoid giving the impression that we don’t have to worry about what will happen when Michael Trusnovec retires, because he’ll be there to step into the shoes of Apollo. Now, that’s artistry.

I wish we’d seen more Paul Taylor; of course I do. But I didn’t get round to buying tickets until early last month, and I wanted to be safe, not sorry — not to miss anything on a weeknight because something kept Kathleen at the office or I was worn out for one reason or another. And there were no boffo programs; there are quite a few Paul Taylor dances that we don’t want to see, such as Promethean Fire. Aside from Esplanade, none of the other Sublime dances was given this season. I shall hope for more encounters next year. As for this season, I feel unusually obliged to mention the dancers whom I have passed over. The ones that I’ve mentioned are all superb. Parisa Khobdeh impressed me more than ever, and I finally had a sense of Eran Bugge’s artistry; she was no longer eclipsed, in Three Dubious Memories, by the three men. (I already knew all about them, as it were.) George Smallwood is a very important asset, if a still-undeveloped one. What I mean by this is that every great Paul Taylor dancer is a fine dancer from the start, but becomes great by growing not only better as a dancer but more peculiarly him- or herself. I have not yet seen this in Jamie Rae Walker, and her immediate junior in seniority, Michael Apuzzo, has left me with the impression of a grinning strongman; I am always waiting for a dropped dumbbell to wipe the Da-DA! off his face. I ought to have mentioned Christina Lynch Markham, for her fine work in Beloved Renegade. And Michelle Fleet appeared in a brief solo in Offenbach Overtures that reminded us, instantly, who she is. This year’s newbie, Madelyn Ho, made a particularly strong debut, and, I noticed, was given plenty of room in which to do so. Among other things, she was paired with Michael Trusnovec in Offenbach Overtures. For the moment, however, she is just another pretty and talented former Harvard Medical School student.


To return to Gilbert & Sullivan: Until just the other day, more or less, I regarded The Gondoliers as a sort of cuckoo in the Savoyard nest, grandiose, empty, and, most of all, bogus. The music I found flashy rather than beautiful, the book both perfunctory and unfunny. Then, quite recently, the four root notes of the repeated dominant seventh chords that begin the tarantella in the overture somehow pierced my skin, and I was infused by a work that got lovelier and laughtier every time I listened to it. At the same time, I was reading more about the Savoy operas, and what I was hearing about The Gondoliers was invariably a confirmation of my former views. Oh, everyone admitted that The Gondoliers is radiant and sunny, deliciously appealing; but beyond such generalities the tone became more critical. Sullivan’s music, however pleasing, is set at such a pace that most numbers come off as unintelligible patter songs. Gilbert’s text is certainly regarded as a disappointment. The prosody is not up to the almost Shakespearean standard of the earlier works (or at least the great four in the middle, Patience to Mikado), and everybody — everybody — hates Marco’s line (in the barcarole, “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes”) about the “tender little hand fringed with dainty fingerettes.” “Dainty fingerettes” is off-putting; it makes me think of lobsters. But I kind of like it anyway, just because it’s so awful. I’m in that giddy moment of discovery, when everything that’s good about Gondoliers is great, and everything that’s awful about it is great, too. It took a while for that nautically protracted “Ah” in the finale to stop causing horripilation, and for the sugar shock of “List and Learn” to wear off. I know that they’re both dreadful Italian clichés — but they’re kind of wonderful. I have clearly fallen off the gondola into one of the deeper stretches of the lagoon.

The music is much more than pleasing. It’s as though the other Savoy operas had been written by somebody else, somebody somewhat inferior to Sullivan, and now Sullivan were going to show us how it ought to be done. I don’t mean that The Gondoliers sounds better than the others, not at all. But it sounds different, as if it included a critique of the whole general idea of Topsy Turvy. It’s a matter of countless little moments, such as the low clarinets that now and then carry the Duke and the Duchess through “Small Titles and Orders.” Or the strange chords that lead into the reprise of the dance that follows “I Am a Courtier Grave and Serious.” Or the big, dumb “Oh!” in the refrain of “Rising Early in the Morning.”

I could go on and on. But it won’t, this infatuation. It will come to an end. It must. For an entire year, within the past ten, I went without listening to any opera other than Bellini’s I Puritani. For a year, it was not only the perfect opera, it was the only opera. I have not entirely recovered; if I listen to one thing from the opera, I have to listen to the next, and the next, and then start at the beginning. (I am devoted to the Riccardo Muti recording.) That’s how it is with the second act of The Gondoliers now. If possible.


Thursday 17th

The response to being named in the Panama Papers, which broke a few days ago, has been shame, denial, or silence — so far. We can be glad about that. We can take some comfort in the fact that members of the global élite do not want their names in the papers in connection with this story. How long they will continue to react in this way seems to me to be a function of the ongoing power of the state.

And, by “state” here, I mean the somewhat abstract institution that is believed to represent the will of most of its citizens. I mean, not Russia, which increasingly looks like the personal property of Vladimir Putin.

Now, Putin has rolled out the usual denials. That a few chums of his appear to have been clients of Mossack Fonseca, the “boutique” Panama City law firm (with a staff of five hundred) that specializes in shell companies, is, according to Putin, a lie concocted by the West (meaning the United States), out of sheer disappointment that he is making Russia so happy and prosperous. This tale is for domestic consumption only; no one else is expected to believe it. Perhaps even the Russians aren’t expected to believe it: Putin’s explanation is merely a facet of their happy prosperity. There is indeed something worrisome about the brazenness of the lie. It could be taken to mean, “So what?”

That’s what Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson might be saying when he insists that he has not stepped down, but only stepped aside, after it became impossible to ignore the clamor calling for his resignation. Gunnlaugsson was an investor in a fund that is currently suing Iceland’s banks for massive losses in that country’s notorious financial meltdown in 2008. As prime minister, he is participating in the negotiation of a settlement of the dispute. The complaint against him is one of conflict of interest; to me it looks more like loaded dice.

What does it mean for an elected leader to step aside — for reasons other than poor health and so on? For reasons like Gunnlaugsson’s? Has there been much stepping aside in the two centuries of liberal democracy? Even Putin didn’t step aside. When then-current term-limit laws prevented him from continuing as president of Russia, he switched jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A few years later, they switched again, and things haven’t changed since. It now appears that Putin is not going to be stepping aside until he steps into his coffin. Those of us who haven’t been bitten by the power drug, and who wonder why people like Putin don’t retire when enough is enough, must remember that we haven’t been bitten.

If Gunnlaugsson’s bluff succeeds, I foresee an amendment to Iceland’s constitution. If, that is, anyone is still paying attention to such niceties.


In retrospect, it looks like a miracle of timing. Or a perfect storm. On Tuesday, I finished reading Our Kind of Traitor, and was very upset by it. The next day, I looked at the Panama Papers story with new eyes, and at the same time understood that what was so upsetting about Le Carré’s novel wasn’t the plight of the characters but the story in the background. It’s a story that frightens me a lot more than the Cold War ever did. The story in the background presents Great Britain with a new kind of enemy within: the City. The City, which in view of its status as the would-be global financial capital has taken to calling itself “London,” wants all the big money, from whatever source derived, and it wants the owners of that money to feel comfortable about entrusting it to City bankers. The City wants to be Panama. Or the US — Delaware, perhaps. (If the Panama Papers disclose few American names, that’s because Americans don’t have to go abroad to shelter their money.) It wants to be whatever will bring in that money.

Le Carré doesn’t go into it; he doesn’t belabor his belief that money is power — political power. He leaves that to the imagination. My imagination is receptive. I forget when it was, last year, that I began to worry about the ability of very rich people to buy their own armies. This has been a movie fantasy since the days of early James Bond, and it is given fantastic play in Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the minions of the sociopath played by Samuel L Jackson wear Star Wars-white armor. At some moment, however, it ceased to seem merely fantastic to me. What would stop a pharma king from defending his discoveries, and denying them to the rest of the world, with a conventional army? He would be safe from almost any kind of bombing. We might say, why go to so much trouble? But then, we haven’t been bitten by the power bug. For the moment, however, the pharma king would not need to go to so much trouble. He could buy the support of the state.

States are abstract, which is just another way of saying that they exist only in the minds of human beings. If we all believe in the state, and act as though it exists, then it does exist, embodied in countless personal interactions. It is embodied in countless acts that people decide not to commit. But this magic act lasts only as long as it is kept up by a determined plurality of citizens or subjects. We saw what happened in 1789, when masses of Frenchmen not only stopped believing in the power and authority of Louis XVI, but began regarding their king as their enemy. As Americans, we decided to have done with kings. We produced one of the most impersonal constitutions of all time, so full of its famous checks and balances that it has now become impossible to do anything, or at least anything that most people are aware of. But there is still no getting around it that our office-holders are men and women, just like us. The business corporation, for all the clout of its constitutive legal fictions, is still run by men and women, just like you and me. We expect these men and women to behave according to a very high standard of public interest. We have also depended upon a journalistic inclination to protect us from too much evidence to the contrary — it’s for our own good. Would Americans have made FDR a four-term president if they had known (as everyone in the upper socio-economic reaches, my late aunt once assured me, did know) that he was unable to walk from here to there? Our leaders have behaved pretty well, and our newspapers have shielded us from scurrilous gossip. But wait! It’s not 1970 anymore, is it?

What happens when and if Americans become so disgusted with the abuse of official institutions that they support a leader willing to bypass the state altogether, and to constitute power in himself?

We saw this happen, or should have done if it hadn’t happened so slowly, at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The idea that Rome fell to a host of invading barbarians is the most arrant nonsense. The barbarians did everything they could think of to imitate Roman ways. It was the Romans who stopped believing in Rome — a loss made easier by the removal of “Rome” to Constantinople. Rome got too big not to fail. The barbarians simply stepped into a series of power vacuums.

(We really ought to pay more attention to our use of this “too big to fail” conceit. It means nothing unless it means “too big to be allowed to fail,” and that, of course, invokes a greater power, one capable of implementing the decision to prevent failure. There was, obviously, no such entity to prevent Rome’s decline and fall. We can only hope that we understand enough about money and commerce to warrant our faith in the government’s ability to forestall financial catastrophes. It’s by no means a sure thing.)

But the barbarians were — well, different. They were warlike. That is, they liked war. Rome had grown by enforcing peace behind its borders. Roman aristocrats were distinguished by their disdain for military swagger. The barbarians, in contrast, and notwithstanding their Roman-ish duds, gathered around chieftains and indulged in feuds. Bloodshed was a very personal business; nobody went to war on principle. The Church, child of Rome no less than of Christ (an understatement), cried out for peace, but it could never be established for long. From the fifth century until the tenth, European kingdoms were either short-lived or ineffective. Peace was broken everywhere and regularly — sending a virtual invitation to invaders (and these were barbarian invaders) from Scandinavia, the Hungarian Plain, and North Africa. This invitation, by the way, appeared after the forging of the vast Carolingian expansion and the establishment of the new Holy Roman Empire, so soon did Charlemagne’s glory follow him to the grave. It took well over a century to get back, as it were, to Charlemagne.

It helped that making war got more and more expensive, making it available to fewer and fewer players. The history of Europe until 1789 is the story of an ever more concentrated class of noblemen by inheritance, determined to keep the fight going despite all the obstacles, from gunpowder to inflation. The aristocrats kept insisting on the honor of warfare even after the Bourbon collapse; indeed, their finest (that is, blackest) moment may have been the outbreak of the Great War, which was incited by a rather gothic-looking assortment of officer-class war bands.

The question for us is not whether we, too, are warlike. It doesn’t seem that we are. The taste for war has been drummed out of us, at least for the time being. The question for us is whether we are freelike. Do we like to be free? The barbarians who succeeded to Rome in the West certainly liked to be free. The most successful bunch of them went by that name, and came to call their country “France” — “free.” We have followed them in declaring freedom to be vital.

Like everything else, though, freedom has gotten complicated. There’s freedom from and freedom to. Many Americans seem to believe that the freedom to bear arms will take care of the freedom-from problem. Few of these Americans live in cities. (The Carolingians, their Merovingian predecessors, and their Capetian successors, didn’t care much for cities, either.) Urban Americans, at least on the East Coast, tend to prioritize the freedom from other people bearing arms. In any case, as the title of the new Richard Linklater movie shouts, everybody wants some! Meaning, the peace and quiet in which to enjoy it.

We may be too unlike the warlike barbarians, much as I hate to say it.


The Panama Papers present a certain conundrum. Among the clients of Mossack Fonseca were several heads of state and even more near relations of heads of state. (Or chums.) Their reasons for sheltering their money from public view — the view of the public back home — were certainly various, and not necessarily illegal. Nevertheless, hiding the money was deceptive in intent, and it was subjects or citizens, as the case may be, who were intended to be deceived. In some cases, certainly, tax laws were violated in order to keep money out of the public account. In other cases, the money came from bribes, which are if anything worse than tax dodges, as China’s too-booming construction industry keeps demonstrating in terms of collapsed or blown-up buildings. (The world was sickened by the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which seemed to target elementary schools for destruction.) In these cases, officials use their position to act against the public interest.

It is hard to see how they are not traitors. For it seems to get clearer every day that the global ring of Big Money is an enemy of the people with whom the leaders of the people ought not to be consorting. Big Money knows no nation; it owes no allegiance. Big Money does not unite or organize the people who own the big money; it controls them only with the view to expanding itself. And just how does it do this, you may ask? With opulence and exclusivity. With comfort and safety. An example:

Late one afternoon, I was having X-rays taken at the Hospital for Special Surgery. It was a slow time of day, or would have been had there not been a commotion of security agents opening every door and looking in every room. We would read in the papers, a few days later, that the dying king of Saudi Arabia was in New York, undergoing medical tests; some of them, it was later averred, at the HSS. The security agents were sweeping the joint. That’s what I mean by “safe.” I don’t have to mention that the king belonged to Very Big Money.

Compare this with the time, of which I never tire of telling, when I found myself in the office of a maxillofacial surgeon (impacted wisdom tooth) at the same time as the Nixons. Pat, it turned out, had rather bad teeth, but Dick tagged along and got as checkup, too. If you want to hear the rest of the story, not even two years have passed since I last told it, so I can’t tell it here. There may have been no one else in the waiting room, but I was still there, and nobody checked me out. Tricky Dick may have lived in the White House, but he was not Big Money. He probably would have been, though, by now.

Big Money provides entrée to the bubble of resorts, high-rises, and private islands that was consolidated, for edifying purposes, into a luxurious space station in the movie Elysium. You don’t have to worry about terrorists there. You don’t have to worry about political implications. You and the Big Money that owns you can leave those unpleasant things to ordinary people.


Friday 8th

On Wednesday, I did something partly new. I stretched out my arms on a stack of pillows in front of me and exposed them to the Blu U lights. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions sitting under the lights, exposing my scalp to the healing rays, but this was a first for my arms, and the results are certainly more visible to me. The backs of my hands are disfigured by preppie-pink blotches that itch like mad. (A moisturizer seems to help, but the dermatologist offered to prescribe an oral steroid.) More interesting is the difference between my forearms. The left arm is far more “afflicted,” with a rash of acne-like spots, only pink. There are a few spots on my right arm, too, but not nearly so many. Most interesting of all: the spots stop at just about the place where my skin is exposed when I roll up my shirtsleeves. I have always understood that the foundation of the precancerous cells that the Blu U lights deal with so effectively was laid in childhood. Perhaps not. When Kathleen looked me over, she said, “Ah, your driver’s arm.” Meaning my left arm, not the arm that I use to hold the wheel but the arm that I lean out the open window. Everything now points to Houston, where I drove a lot even when I didn’t own a car.

There’s a photograph that I ought to dig out for the dermatologist. It shows me in August 1977, and it is hard to describe my color. That year, which closed up my radio days and took me to law school (and Kathleen), I decided to see if I could build up a tan. My default response to sunlight is a quick burn, but I was told that, if I started early, and controlled my exposures, I would tan, and not burn. This turned out to be true. In Houston, it’s usually warm enough in March to sit out by the pool for an hour in bathing trunks. I would drive from the radio station to my father’s house, which I had moved back into when my mother got sick, and catch some rays. By June and July, I could spend all day in the sun and not get burned. But when I took a good look at myself in August, I saw that tanning was really not for me.

For I wasn’t really tan. My skin was too red — a very deep, mahogany red — to be mistaken for bronze, as the French describe a tan. There was the same uncanny effect that’s produced by Donatella Versace, a southern Italian if there ever was one, who likes to pretend that she is Scandinavian. Perhaps I’m mistaken about that, but in any case the color of her hair and her bone structure are an obvious mismatch. So it was with me. I had always wondered what the Mikado’s “permanent walnut juice” would look like. Now I had an idea.

Suntans are funny. In the days of peasant labor, they were eschewed by the fashionable: one didn’t want to look like a wizened old fisherman. Then work moved mostly indoors, and the lower quintiles went pale. Suddenly a tan was a conspicuous way to advertise one’s acres of free time. Golden brown skin became the look of health. My arduously tanned skin was not golden brown. I was not the picture of health. The picture of radiation poisoning, more like. However: I never burned, never peeled, never itched. Also: never again. From 1978 on, I kept myself well covered-up. And now this, the ghost of a very peculiar tan line, in ironic preppie-pink.

I don’t know how the Blu U lights work, and I have never seen the aftermath of treatment, because I have not got eyes on the top of my head, and, even if I did, they probably wouldn’t help. I don’t want to read about the lights until I’ve watched this reaction subside — I want to be surprised. And to marvel yet again, as the Blu U lights join fiberoptics and Remicade as techniques and medications that keep me alive. I think of myself as an old person, but not as a sick person, and yet without these medical advances I should have died five years ago at the latest. The marvel is not that these advances work. The marvel is that I’m surfing their introduction. If I had been born in 1938 instead of ten years later, they probably wouldn’t have been so effective. Orinoco!

Tanning salons were still new when I went to law school, and it took me longer than it did everyone else to realize that one of our classmates was paying regular visits to one. In the middle of winter, he looked as though he’d just returned from the Bahamas. There were reasons to suppose that he might very well have spent the weekend in the Bahamas, which I’ll leave it to you to work out, so I didn’t think anything of it. I was surprised only when I heard about the tanning salon. Suddenly, this guy’s tan looked as bogus as the one that had only recently faded from me. A tan that was developed in South Bend in the middle of an Indiana winter simply could not be real, however glowing. Come to think of it, the glow died out when I found out how it got there. When the lights went out beneath my classmate’s tan, he went from golden brown to grey. We see what we know.

It’s hard to believe that I was ever a guy in car, driving around Houston with my elbow sticking out the driver’s side window. To quote my favorite Woody Allen movie, Who do you think you are, an astronaut? (Hint: the line is delivered by Betty Boop.)


In the kitchen, on the stove, there is a pot of tomato sauce. The sauce cooked last night; now it must be strained. The onion, the sprigs of basil and oregano, and anything else that’s not smooth and silky must be filtered out. Tonight, I shall spread some of the sauce on a round of pizza dough. I shall sprinkle “low-moisture” mozzarella on the pizza, along with, perhaps, some sautéed mushrooms and some thin-sliced pepperoni. I hope that the pizza comes out tasting like a cliché.

I’ve been making pizza regularly for about a year, and I have mastered all the basic production issues. That was my first goal; only after I met it, I thought, would I tackle the sauce. But I’ve been procrastinating. It’s so easy to buy a bottle of sauce! I schmear a smidegeon of it on the dough, because I’m secretly dreaming of pizza bianca, and then sprinkle on the toppings: sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured olives. (I cook the sausage and the mushrooms and then go after them with the mezzaluna, throwing in the olives.) The pizzas come out great and Kathleen loves them. But I am disappointed. These pizzas don’t taste like pizza. And the reason for that is, largely, the sauce.

I finally looked for a recipe, and I came across one for “New York Style Pizza,” at Serious Eats. The sauce is a relative of what I call butter sauce: tomato pulp, a peeled onion sliced in half, and lots of butter. When the sauce is has slowly bubbled for a while, you throw away the onion halves. How could something so basic be so complex? But then, what is simple about the flavor of tomatoes? The protean magic of onions? The richness of butter? For the pizza sauce, the “lots of butter” is replaced by a teaspoon each of butter and olive oil. Pinches of salt and red pepper flakes are added along with a teaspoon of sugar. Oh, and microplaned garlic cloves. I had never grated garlic with the microplane. Intense, but not overpowering: it’s as though garlic were revealing its quiet inner soul.

The night before, I used the same pot for cooking a lavish morel sauce. I picked up a package of dandy-looking morels at Agata & Valentina, and decided on the spot to make a pasta sauce out of them. Again, it was a matter of treating complicated elements simply. Having read the pizza sauce recipe, I microplaned a clove of garlic into melted butter, then a chopped shallot. When these were ready, I tossed in the sliced mushrooms. When the mushrooms were limp, I poured in a tub of Agata & Valentina’s lovely veal stock — about two cups. When the stock was reduced by half, I added some heavy cream. When the cream thickened, we ate. I tossed into the sauce some cooked cavatappi (I’ve also seen them called cellentani) — the grooved helical tube that I discovered in law school. The dish was earthy and meaty but neither heavy nor wintry.

The night before that, I cooked in the same pot a chicken and wild-rice soup. I made this up but wrote it down. You cook a handful of mirepoix, together with a quarter teaspoon of something called “red poultry seasoning” (I got it at Fairway), in a knob of butter. Then you stir in four tablespoons — a third of a cup? — of something called Royale Rice mix. It’s a blend of brown, red, and (very little) wild rice. Pour on a quart of boiling chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, put the lid on the pot, and cook the rice for forty minutes. You can do all of this ahead. When it’s time to eat, cut a skinned and boned half chicken breast into bite-sized pieces, and throw it into the soup, along with a slurry of one tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in one tablespoon of water. Bring to the simmer, cook for a minute, and serve. (Cook a bit longer if your chicken pieces are bigger than you meant them to be.) With a nice piece of cheese — we’ve been crazy lately about a double-crème brie called Affinois — a hunk of liver mousse, and toasted baguette slices, the result is a very hearty meal for three.


From my last visit to the storage unit on 62nd Street, I brought back nine boxes of documents. They sat in the foyer, still in the big Bean tote bags that I use for these operations, for about a week. The other day, I began to tackle them. One box was empty — ideal! There were three others that didn’t seem particularly heavy. One was stuffed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the Times and most dating to the Eighties. All of them were quite yellow, and I expect that they’re friable as well. Another box held a few folders relating to the rent — the rent on other apartments that we have tenanted in this building. Also, floor plans. There was even a thank-you note from Rose Bialek! There are still some people in the building who remember jolly old Rose, the building’s long-time rental agent. We used to kid Rose about writing her memoirs. Impossible, she would always reply. She knew too many crazy stories about too many residents.

Rose told us a story that pertained to us, in a way. At the time, Kathleen had let Rose know that we were looking for a larger apartment. So, one day we had a call, and Rose said, there’s this guy on eighteen who just died — in the hospital, don’t worry! You won’t believe it, Rose said, but he isn’t even cold yet and three tenants have already called to ask for the apartment. Isn’t that disgusting? So I’m giving it to you. Whether that was the move that prompted Rose’s thank-you note, I can’t tell. Kathleen would always present Rose with a nice scarf, under which was tucked some valuable consideration. Rose did not identify the supplicant tenants, as was right and proper.

We heard a few more stories, not from Rose, about the late tenant who preceded us, but never you mind about those. It’s enough to repeat what we found. There was deep shag carpeting everywhere, and it was not new. Much less understandable was the closet situation. The sliding doors had been removed from the large closets in both bedrooms, and the interiors had been stripped down to the walls. Then they’d been painted pitch black. The building removed the carpet and restored the closets, but we were permanently curious about the late tenant’s décor.

The fourth lightweight box that I opened was full of crinkly onion-skin paper. This is not the time to dilate on my sometime passion for onion-skin paper, but I was very surprised to see that I had used for papers written for a history course that I took at Notre Dame. That this was what I had submitted, and not a copy, was proved by the grade on the last page. It was a very good grade, together with a note from the professor asking me to stop by after class. I remember that well. He was surprised by my grasp of history, already honed as a kind of obsessive hobby at Blair. He was pleased that I seemed to know so much. Well, everything has its down side, so that when we got to the English Civil War, and I found that I could not stomach the idea of going through that yet again — history was still very much a hobby, I remind you, and I took it all quite personally — I stopped going to class and ended up with that funny grade that you get for failing to show up for the final exam. It counts as an F, of course. I accumulated at least four of those over the years, all in electives. It never occurred to me that this failure of mine must have been very disappointing to the history professor.

I have not re-read the paper. I’m working up the nerve.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Rumored But Not Verified
March 2016 (V)

Monday 28th

At dinner yesterday, Fossil Darling insisted that I read the Ian McEwan story in The New Yorker. When I told him that I don’t read New Yorker stories anymore, because too many of them have turned out to be the first chapters of novels that were therefore somewhat difficult to read upon publication, the opening’s having been spoiled, Fossil insisted that this really was a short story. I took a look at it and saw that it was short enough to read again, if and when. I also noticed that I had begun reading it, down to the middle of the second paragraph.

So I read the story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” this morning, after the Times — after, that is, the obituary of Jim Harrison. I once read a story, perhaps a novella, by Jim Harrison that I liked so much that I bought the book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Other Stories. Do I still have it? In storage, if at all. Because I didn’t like anything else by Jim Harrison. Which is to say that the one or two things that I read, after “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” were so disagreeable that I drove a great strikethrough line across his name. Almost every detail in the obituary was at least somewhat off-putting, especially — the narcissism of small differences? — the bits about food and gastronomy. The name of Rabelais was cited, perhaps the most concise monument to the land where machismo brawling and roughhousing take the place of grace.

Two weeks ago, or, rather, in the next-to-the-latest issue of the New York Times Book Review (20 March), the “By the Book” feature was devoted to Harrison. This often begins with the question about nightstands. Who knows how long ago Harrison answered it. “Unfortunately, I can’t read novels while I’m writing one because of the imitative nature of the brain.” I’m well aware of the phenomenon, although I don’t write novels, but there is something so wrong about the way that this sentence ends that I can’t decide where to begin. With its impersonality, perhaps: I myself should say, “because I’m too easily influenced by the prose of novels that are good enough to read.” Or with its subhuman tone: “brain” instead of “mind”; the “nature” thereof. To move from “I can’t” and “when I’m writing” to a clause without verbs or personal pronouns is intellectually klutzy. And it sounds like an excuse. As if to say, Unfortunately, I can’t fly because of the wingless nature of the body.

I always read “By the Book” if the writer is halfway interesting to me, and Harrison is halfway interesting to me because he is (or was) a grand old man for whom I have no use. Who are his favorite writers? Never mind; they’re none of mine. When asked which author, living or dead, he would most like to meet, Harrison names García Márquez, “who has a jubilant nature. I would wonder what made his spirit so rambunctious.” I suppose that Harrison meant to say that García Márquez’s writing is jubilant. But, “rambunctious”: that signals something that I really dislike, seriously writing in your outside voice. I haven’t read García Márquez in Spanish, so I can’t comment; but I will say that his way with women bothers me. I wonder if he ever met one who was frank with him.

Now, what am I up to, you will ask. Am I not Mr Sunshine, saying nothing if I have nothing nice to say? Isn’t that my philosophy of book-reviewing? Indeed it is. But I don’t think that the preceding paragraphs are about books. They’re about me. I seized upon Jim Harrison’s obituary as an occasion for making an observation that the “By the Book” feature inspired. There is no such thing as an objective critic, no one who really likes and dislikes things for good reasons. I think that we’re objective, if we are at all, only after some highly personal criteria have sorted things out, preliminarily. From time to time, it’s important to review those criteria, which are of course nothing but prejudices, so that we know where we stand. The easiest way of doing this is to consider a writer whom we find uncongenial. Journalism comes in very handy. Obituaries and features such as “By the Book” allow us to consider writers whom we find uncongenial without actually having to read much of what they’ve written. After all, their books ought not to be cluttering up our shelves.

I have a strong prejudice against the landscapes of the “West” of the United States, and against the lonely lifestyles that seem to go with them. Let me be the first to fault myself for the incapability of my imagination to believe that Marilynne Robinson really did, really, grow up in Idaho. In my heart of hearts, I do not believe that it is possible to grow up in Idaho with the ambition to live a life of letters; and yet I have met, and even shaken hands with, the delightful Vestal McIntyre! He says he’s from Idaho; he has even written a novel about it. But I don’t really believe it. That is my prejudice. When a prejudice is confronted by an exception to its rule, it blinks. Denying that Robinson and McIntyre come from Idaho is an inevitable consequence of loving their work. (And, anyway, there is nothing very lonely about the Boise of Lake Overturn.)

I find that I have outgrown animals. I still have a weakness for patting the necks of horses, if they’re in the mood to let me. There’s something weirdly cuddly about horses, even though I’m standing on the other side of a fence. I like to outstare cats; anything that I can do to drive a cat crazy is worth trying. (Cats are unforgivably impertinent.) Dogs — the older I get, the sorrier I feel for dogs, given their terrible dependency problem with people. Like television, dogs get much more attention than we can really afford to be giving them. When Kathleen and I were married, I wanted to get a dog. I had grown up with dogs. Kathleen was very firm, however, about No Dogs. For a while, I resented this. Then I forgot about it. Now I’m nothing less than relieved. I had to babysit a dog one weekend, years ago, and the novelty wore off instantly. That, I think, is when I began to feel sorry for dogs. It was a more appealing solution to the babysitting problem than feeling sorry for myself.

Also: dogwalkers, or, rather, the ad hoc packs of leashed dogs that surround dogwalkers. Quite aside from the pedestrian nuisance that they present, these peculiar spectacles excite the most perplexed dismay. The attempt to imagine what a dog is thinking invariably leads to the mental equivalent of lower back pain. Trying to imagine what a pack of dogs is thinking, especially about being in a pack, makes me wonder if the End is sufficiently Nigh. I believe that mass dogwalking ought to be conducted in the dead of night, when I am never outdoors.

Anyway, I don’t like to read about animals. I don’t want to look at pictures of animals. I will tolerate animals only if they are appropriately subordinate to interesting human beings.

You might conclude from the foregoing that I don’t care for “nature.” This might well be true. In fact, “nature,” as a supposed thing in itself, does not exist for me. My understanding is that the term, “nature,” is used to refer to that which is untouched by human agency. As such, it follows that we cannot know it. Just walking around in the wilderness might upset any number of ecosystems. Think of all the ants you’ve stepped on! Not to mention the bacteria that go down the drain when you take a shower. Can’t you just look at something — the Grand Canyon, say — without hurting it? But how do you look at the Grand Canyon without driving up to it? And then what happens? After you’ve oohed and aahed at the pretty colors of the rocks, you try to get your mind around the stupendously prolonged erosion wrought by the Colorado River, that little dribbling creek down there. Talk about lower back pain!

I don’t care for bad — or gruff — manners. Now, I am no fussbudget when it comes to good manners. Good manners have nothing to do with empty, rote rituals; they’re all about making other people comfortable. This is particularly true of table manners, which have evolved to make it possible to conduct a conversation while eating, thus making a pleasure out of a necessity. Kathleen and I were talking just the other day about why genteel Americans shift their forks from left hand to right after cutting a piece of meat, and we agreed that it puts the fork into a decidedly different relation with the mouth, such that, among other things, the appearance of leaning downward to bite something impaled on a sharp implement, as if one were a fish snapping at a baited hook, is avoided.

Trying to make other people comfortable when you don’t really feel like taking the trouble is always an interesting predicament. Going ahead and not taking the trouble is never interesting in itself, but only when it leads to even greater offenses. Nothing offends me more deeply than the idea that “society” is the cause of everybody’s problems. It is precisely the other way round. The purpose of social conventions — and that’s all society is, conventions, ranging from family traditions to business practices, from language to walking in, or watching, a parade — is to make life better for everyone, by setting up a web of light expectations and freeing up time for more idiosyncratic matters. The fact that “everyone” doesn’t always include everyone is the fault of individuals, whether they’re acting alone or in packs. Social injustice is caused by bad actors, not by “society.”

The idea that “society” can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown. Whether reading Anna Karenina or a life of George Eliot, it is easy to conclude that “society” can be very cruel, especially in its rejection of “fallen women.” To us, it seems hypocritical, somehow, that all the great writers of the day could and did visit George Eliot at home, but that their wives never accompanied them on these outings. But the only people who were oppressed by such considerations were those who aspired to belong to a subgroup of society, the one best known as “respectable.” Respectable society could indeed be very harsh, but it makes more sense to regard it as a club than as a true society. Ah! I’ve just discovered another one of my prejudices: society is what takes the place of religion when people live together without observing the same religious practices. I’m very close, here, to claiming that there is no such thing as Islamic society. And precious little in some rural areas. That would certainly explain a great deal.

And yet, none of this bloviation about society explains the nasty little spring at the heart of Ian McEwan’s story, which is that literary merit is meaningless to the point of nonexistence in the absence of celebrity. McEwan is not writing about literary reputation, which really begins when an author dies and can no longer be encountered at book signings, publication launches, or literary festivals. Once a writer is dead, she can only be read, and her reputation depends entirely on the amalgamated opinions of readers (with an arguable boost from biopics). McEwan is writing about literary fame, something that has surprisingly little to do with reading. His story tells of two writers; it is the purported (but never disclosed?) confession of one of them, a sort of pocket Amsterdam. After university, the two writers enjoy bohemian poverty in Brixton. Then, one of them writes a successful script for television. One thing leads to another, which is plenty of free time in which to write good novels. Money and fame pile up together; the author and his wife live practically right on Hampstead Heath. The other writer marries, has children, struggles with teaching loads, and manages to write four novels. These are well-received by the critics, but it takes more than positive critical reception to make a writer famous; it requires, in short, a boost from somewhere else, whether a marriage, a job in publishing or creative writing, or a scandal. (Nobody read A Confederacy of Dunces until John Kennedy Toole killed himself.) Sadly, since the narrator hasn’t had his picture taken, kissing a movie star, by the time the story reaches its turning point, all four of his novels are out of print.

It turns out that the famous writer doesn’t read other people’s novels, or at least those of his old best friend. The narrator takes cunning advantage of this, and the resulting scandal propels him to dreamed-of eminence. Because that’s what it takes. Tell me how this is not an instance of social injustice.

Rather, it is a demonstration of the narrow range of the impact of social conventions. Society does not distinguish important writers from unimportant ones; only posterity can do that, and posterity and society are not to be confused. Society registers current events. Social conventions do everything possible to minimize the impact of events, because the whole point of social convention is to enable smooth sailing. (This is why adolescents and other immature types profess to hate society; it has no time for their profoundly stale traumas.) Social conventions can have nothing to do with literary achievement, because literary achievement is so often upsetting. But convention can take note of the fact that everybody is, or seems to be, reading Portnoy’s Complaint. Thus fame gathers around certain names.

Sometimes, in a certain light, I agree with Margaret Thatcher: there is no society. But of course I can’t leave it there, as she did. What there is, where lazy people think they see “society,” is a web of conventions, as vitally important but as morally neutral as the rules of the road, and sometimes, like the rules of the road, enforced by the state. This web is woven by everybody, give or take — everyone who has ever lived has had a hand in it.

Which means you.


Tuesday 29th

What did I write yesterday? I’m afraid to look. I remember that I was talking about prejudices — I suppose there’s some relief in that. In other words, I was saying, Now I’m going to share with you my nutty perspective on something called “society.” Only I didn’t ever say that the perspective was nutty, did I?

Of course I’ll blame it on Jim Harrison. There’s more about Jim Harrison in today’s Times. It’s pretty clear that what the newspaper’s literary contingent is hoping for is that rare reversal of the usual pattern, that Harrison’s death will occasion a regretful stock-taking: We didn’t fully appreciate him when he was alive. Our bad! Dwight Garner, responsible for today’s puffing, quotes a woman in Harrison’s fiction who complains that there is no nature in Manhattan; the closest that you can get to it (nature) is orgasm. This is the sort of nonsense that sets me dreaming of a science-fiction device that, when shot at people who say such things, strips them of all verbal skills. It’s nature you want? Fine: enjoy being limited to grunts and armwaving.

I’ll come back to Harrison, in connection with David Brooks’s column about “Trumps,” also in today’s Times. Right now, it seems essential to distance myself from yesterday’s implication that social conventions are essentially benign. This implication was unintentional. True, I did write, “The idea that ‘society’ can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown.” This statement is simply wrong, no matter how hard I try to bolster it with an explanatory context. I was thinking of “society” as it is represented in literature, where there is a lazy habit of blaming “the way things are” for the unhappiness that befalls fictional characters, especially stand-ins for disaffected young writers. It doesn’t matter what I meant: social conventions can cause a great deal of suffering and confusion. And if they don’t seem to be stridently damaging today, it’s not hard to remember times when they were — when, for example, homosexual men and women were condemned to vicious and pointless ostracism. Or when women were not allowed to work after marriage — something that is still the case in much of the world. My remark was fatuously provincial: social convention really does make life easier for educated, affluent, and inner-directed people like me. Good to know!

I was indeed thinking, not of everyday life (although I lazily included it), but of literature: how social convention is treated in fiction. The novel that usually comes to my mind when I consider this problem is Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I haven’t read it in about ten years, so I ought to keep my comments to the minimum. Let me not distract myself with lucubrations about Wharton’s venture into life on the other side of the tracks, about which she can’t really have known very much. Let me stick to the central problem of the book, which is that Ethan cannot leave his crabby old wife, Zeena, when he falls in love with Mattie and discovers that the drudgery of his New England agricultural life is redeemed by her presence. Ethan cannot leave Zeena for a simple reason, and it has little to do with social convention, although not the one you’re probably thinking of. If Ethan abandons Zeena, she will starve to death. There is no one else to take care of her. There is no safety net of state protections. So long as Ethan is alive, his obligation to care for his lawfully-married wife is non-negotiable.

This part of the story, Wharton certainly understood from the inside. She wrote Ethan Frome at about the same time as her marriage to Teddy Wharton fell apart. She had outgrown Teddy, to put it simplest; something of the same happens to Ethan vis-à-vis Zeena. But Wharton could put her husband behind her. She had the wealth, and she had the opportunity to escape to Europe, where, like her friend Henry James, she was genuinely happier. Teddy filched money from her accounts, but she put a stop to that, and Teddy never starved. What, Wharton may have asked, if neither she nor her husband had enjoyed such splendid resources?

Is Ethan Frome still as widely read as it was in my day? I can see that it occupied the place of an anti-Ayn Rand manifesto in the syllabus. (Not that anybody assigned Ayn Rand!) Once you read Ethan Frome, you understood how important Social Security, and, later, Medicare, were and are. As mid-century readers of Wharton’s sad tale, we were conscious of enjoying very different social conventions, enacted into law. Like so many French novels of the Nineteenth Century, Ethan Frome zeroed in on a “problem,” and eventually contributed to the inspiration for a “solution.” The last time I read Ethan Frome, I came away thinking that it had served its purpose and no longer needed to be read. I now think that that was wrong. So it does need to be read, again, by me. At least.


David Brooks has unearthed something mildly amusing in the history of the Civil War. There was a regiment from New Jersey, headed by someone called Atkinson. Atkinson was a gentleman, and he wanted his men to behave like gentlemen. Instead, the men rebelled. They set up something called the Independent Order of Trumps. “In sort of a mischievous, laddie way, the Trumps championed boozing and whoring, cursing and card-playing.” Trumps! Yet again: You can’t make this stuff up.

Here is Dwight Garner again, writing about Jim Harrison: “His books declared: If you aren’t taking big bites out of whatever life is on offer to you, you are doing it wrong.”

Now, I’m sure that Jim Harrison was a true gentleman in person, after his own fashion. He would probably have horsewhipped the Trumps. But the idea of taking big bites out of life is still gross, literally gross. Garner falls so completely under the spell of this excessiveness that he commits a grossness of his own:

Mr. Harrison was a more cerebral writer than he is often given credit for. In his memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), he reads books as if he were shoveling coal into a blast furnace. He wore his erudition with enviable lightness.

This is obviously confused, or at least a case of fatally mixed metaphors. It is one thing to be cerebral but to wear your erudition lightly. It is, oh, so very much something else to “consume” books as if they were undifferentiated bits of fuel. And I’m afraid that it’s the laddie appeal of the Order of Trumps that sings to men when they’re taking big bites.

As David Brooks explains the difference between the good boys and the bad — the Good Scouts and the Trumps — it is very hard not to picture him seated on a plush Victorian armchair in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

So the ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture, currently led by a group we might once again call the Independent Order of Trumps.

Last night, Kathleen and I watched The Descendants, a movie in which George Clooney does a fine job of bringing Brooks’s ideal man to life. He has two things going for him, both trademark skills. He embodies the “tensions” that Brooks writes about with harrowed eyes that register a massive effort at self-restraint; and his eyes are never more harrowed than when he has to tell is cousins that they are not about to be made rich. He feels sorry, that is, about making them do the right thing. This the opposite of what most men in his character’s position would do. They would look buff and advise the others to get over it.

The other thing is Crazy George. Clooney has a gift for injecting minute but hilarious shots of lunacy into his performances, at just the right time. Generally, the problem is one of impulse control. Overcome by the need to do something, or at least to find out something, right now, Clooney’s characters lose the bland authority that Clooney’s stature emanates and become sheer goofballs. In The Descendants, the Crazy George moment occurs outside his cousin’s house on Kauai, which is currently occupied by his comatose wife’s lover. Matt King scampers about and peers over the hedges with a barely suppressed frenzy. It’s moments like this that make Matt believable as an ideal man: he’s not too ideal.

In short, if you saw George Clooney in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, you would know that he was wearing it under duress. I should point to The Descendants rather than to Brooks’s column — endearing as it is to learn about the Trumps — for a portrait of the kind of man that Donald Trump’s supporters have given up trying to be.

This new Independent Order of Trumps, the one that is having such a fine old time kicking at political correctness and braying unwholesome sentiments has been not only enabled but instructed by hipsters in the media, men who think that it is funny to slum with the lads. I blame stubble. When men’s magazines began sporting covers on which chiseled faces sprouted stubble, that was the not-so-secret sign that American manhood had been ushered into the Age of Whatevs. It used to be that stubble was a sign of personal crisis: men without full beards did not appear unshaven unless something was very wrong. A three-day growth of stubble signified serious trouble. Soon, however, it signaled transgressiveness, or gratuitous misbehavior. In Trump’s supporters, we can see where transgressiveness leads when it is detached from collegiate irony.

It stops being transgressiveness; it is no longer gratuitous. It passes into plain wickedness. My ideas about free speech are rather more limited than those of the ACLU, and I don’t think that anyone ought to be allowed to state, in the public forum, that Mexicans are rapists. It is maddening to think that in this age of talk, talk, talk about humanitarian concerns, Donald Trump cannot be sued for racial defamation. Real men take threats to the civil order seriously.


And where are the women? Cindi Lauper claimed that girls just want to have fun, but it seems that Jane Austen still sees things more clearly: girls just want to have men. (And men just want to have sex.) In this week’s Book Review, Cindi Lieve writes about Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. The title speaks volumes: people no longer arrive at sexual encounters as men and women; they are boys and girls. Adolescence is a social structure for which no effective conventions have been developed. Not in America, anyway; in Nederland, it appears, they do things better, making sure that the boys and girls have a modicum of men-and-women training before they hook up. So they won’t.

What girls want, as best I can make out, is attention. Perhaps a little kissing, a little cuddling. But they don’t seem to be mad to have intercourse. So they do the other thing, because guys like it and girls don’t much mind. It is a terrible thing for boys to learn: that others will make them happy if they are careful not to inquire into the sincerity of their service providers. This is the germ of contempt that makes it possible — imaginable — to own slaves and to confine women to purdah. This is where enguytlement begins.

I keep hoping for the women who have done men to surprise me. I don’t mean, done with men, easy as it is to imagine wanting to. I mean the kind of woman whom Alison Janney so often plays. Someone willing to send jerks to their self-inflicted doom. Where is the woman who will speak trash truth to Trump?


Thursday 31st

The subject this week was supposed to be: my prejudices. It has turned out to be a hard one to get to. The moment I mentioned a prejudice, I would launch some sort of justification. Natural, perhaps, but not to the point. The original point was: I’m not a fan of Jim Harrison — but it’s not his fault. That is what I wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to utter.

The larger point was to acknowledge certain prejudices — preferences, likes and dislikes, habits of mind that shape perception before intelligent judgment comes into play. We all admit that we’ve got prejudices, but we don’t like to say what they are, and, when we do say, we find ourselves, as I’ve just done, arguing that they’re not prejudices at all, but rather — intelligent judgments. When I mentioned my response to the Grand Canyon, which I like to talk about partly because it is the one really top-flight American sight that I have never seen, I tried to present my resistance to its spectacle as reasonable. It was part of a larger objection to the idea of nature, which I held up as a paradox: human beings can never experience an environment that has never been sullied by human beings. But the simple, unreasonable truth behind these statements is that I not only find natural sightseeing a bore but have no affective memories of what I have seen. I don’t like the outdoors because it is insufficiently upholstered: there is nowhere to sit comfortably. I don’t relate to the exurban, and I have trouble relating to the people who do.

Why on earth do I want to talk about my prejudices? Because doing so seems to be the only honorable response to a certain kind of cultural event: the obituary for an artist or thinker or other cultural figure with whose work I have little or no rapport. Jim Harrison died — having just been featured in a Book Review interview — and as I read the obituary in the Times, I thought, disrespectfully, what is all this noise about Jim Harrison? It was the same with David Bowie. Thanks to my prejudices, I never got beyond the impression that David Bowie was creepy. Not him personally, but his work. I found Harrison’s writing to be rustic, rough, calloused; and I don’t like things that are rustic, rough, or calloused. There is no good reason to dislike these things — and that is the point that has to be made, at least every now and then. I should much rather talk about things that I do like. The world, it seems to me, is filled with things that I do like. But these obituaries remind me of things that I don’t, and I’m not comfortable with the appearance of pretending that those things aren’t there. I feel obliged to register their existence with honesty, by pointing out that, sadly, my personal limitations prevent me from sharing the obituaries’ enthusiasm.

Perhaps what’s really going on is that the obituaries of certain people remind me, vividly, of my prejudices, of my limitations, and it smarts. I should like to be a person who likes everything. The person who genuinely likes everything has always been the ideal. I settle for trying to like more — and quite often succeeding. I am engaged at the moment in an invisible skirmish with John Fowles, because I really don’t understand why I read his novel, Daniel Martin, with such a mixture of approval and disgust. And not only that: I was reading it for the third time. But sometimes, the attempt backfires. I used to like reading Trollope, and I read more than half of his many novels. I read so much that a certain prejudice of Trollope’s, not tremendously noticeable if you read Barchester books and the Palliser books and perhaps a half dozen more, but impossible to overlook once you have noticed it, nor any easier to endure than a very unpleasant smell. This was Trollope’s prejudice about virgins.

Which of course he never mentions as such — heaven forbid! No; what he writes about is girls on the verge of marriage. So much as to mention their virginity would be insulting, according to that interesting British logic according to which the mention of something — something “delicate” — not only implies but presents the possibility that things could be otherwise. (Thus the decoration of a house or the taste of a meal could not be discussed: both were presumably excellent, or at least correct. I even read somewhere that the reason for the table-manners ban on using a knife to cut salad is the implication that the greens have not been torn into properly bite-sized pieces.) Trollope has a thing about nubile females. They can fall in love only once; once they have “given their hearts,” they cannot take them back, not even to bestow on a more worthy lover. There can be no other lovers. When I read The Small House at Allington, a novel that is very much about this irrevocability, I chalked up Lily Dale’s steadfast devotion to Adolphus Crosbie to personal, peculiar obstinacy. I thought that it was “just her.” I had not read a great deal of Trollope at the time, and missed the blatancy of the theme. Once I noticed the theme, Trollope became as morally objectionable to me as are those pro-lifers who would punish women for seeking, much less obtaining, abortions. Or, in other words, a sex pervert.

A sad discovery. A few years ago, I read Orley Farm for the second time, and the sprawl of the story was great enough for me to overlook Madeline Staveley’s regrettable preference for Felix Graham. But I was reading the book for an extraneous reason; I wanted to see how it compared to Wilkie Collins’s “sensation” novels. (I wrote about reading Orley Farm in August and September 2012, beginning here.) My copies of Trollope’s other books have been in a box since the end of 2014; the box is in storage. I hold onto this voluminous library in hopes that my perceptions will shift again, restoring Trollope to the ranks of cherished writers, but I have no reason to expect that this shift will ever occur.

Is my current dislike of Trollope a prejudice? Absolutely. My prejudices about women are among the strongest. They may look like reasonable feminist principles, but they aren’t.


In today’s Times, someone mentioned something called the “Overton window.” I had never heard of it, but there is indeed a Wikipedia entry, and who do I find there but — Anthony Trollope. I’ll be damned. “An idea similar to the Overton window was expressed by Anthony Trollope in 1868 in his novel Phineas Finn:”

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”

“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”

“The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”

‘Tis a small world. I mentioned the Overton window to a friend who called a little while ago, as a way of explaining how consciousness of the prevalence of American racism has grown by leaps and bounds in recent months. In this connection, I’m reminded of an exchange in Spotlight. Ben Bradlee, I think it is, can’t believe that Bostonians have been unaware of the extent of priestly abuse, which the Spotlight journalists have shown to be much greater than anyone suspected. Didn’t people know? Mike Rezendes replies, “Maybe they did,” by which he means that almost every Catholic Bostonian knew about a pederast priest. But, at the same time, the assumption was generally made that the pederast priest whom anyone knew about was the only rotten apple in the diocese. It never occured to anyone that a penchant for pederasty is as distributed among the clerical population as it is among the male population. Similarly, white Americans have convinced themselves that instances of racism known to them were outlying events, freaks of bigotry.

If I’ve been an exception to that blindness, it’s because of where I grew up, where the undiscussable was discussed. Discreetly and in coded terms, to be sure, and certainly more taken for granted than talked about. But the fact that blacks and Jews did not own houses in Bronxville was known to everyone, children included. So was the knowledge that this discrimination was illegal. (I’d never thought of it this way before, but I see now that I grew up in a community of bootleggers.) So the racism that Donald Trump is tacitly treating as permissible comes as no surprise. I am glad that it is no longer outside the Overton window. I endeavor to resist feeling grateful to Trump.


Friday 1st

To celebrate April Fool’s Day, I had a bad dream this morning. A great leak was pouring through cracks in the ceiling of our bedroom. It was one of those classic nightmare maneuvers, how do we make this worse, that began with a spill of water from a vase. The next thing you know, the vase was a hanging basket, leaking a stream of water. But no: the water was running down the ropes from which the basket hung, and, my Lord, look at that yellow patch of plaster, seeping, now pouring water. Trying to make out the pattern of the carpet, dark under the water, I now noticed that the bedroom had been cleared out, even the bed that (in waking life) we fear will collapse any day now. Wondering how that happened — how all the furniture got moved (and by now the cascade was ebbing) — I woke up. Nevertheless, even with the bad dreams, there are times when my idea of the perfect life involves nothing but lying comfortably in bed, asleep. Tucked in and quiet and, requiring nothing but an occasional sip of icewater.

I’ve read two terrific books this week. I’m reluctant to write about one of them, lest I seem deranged by another crush on some dead old lady who was born in Germany — in this case, Sybille Bedford. I have decided to put my adoration of Bedford’s prose to the test: will she be able to engage and hold my attention throughout the nearly eight hundred closely-printed pages of her biography of Aldous Huxley? I have mentioned once or twice that I’m reading Huxley’s novel, Eyeless in Gaza, but mostly I haven’t been. The characters are both familiar and unattractive, and when the writing is really good, it makes me think of Virginia Woolf and wish that I were reading her. (She does not go on so.)

The Trial of Dr Adams appeared in 1958, as The Best We Can Do. John Bodkin Adams was an elderly physician, practicing in Eastbourne, a genteel seaside town. In 1956, Dr Adams was accused of having poisoned a Mrs Edith Morell, who had died, 81, in 1950. As he was also accused of poisoning somebody else, he was presented by the newspapers as a serial killer. He would, it was alleged, endear himself into his patient’s testamentary arrangements, and then overdose her with heroin and morphia. Sybille Bedford attended and wrote up his seventeen-day trial — then the longest in Britain’s criminal history.

Now, the first thing that I want to say about The Trial of Dr Adams is that the covers of my paperback edition, purchased through Amazon from a bookshop outside of Dayton, Ohio, that listed its condition as Used – Very Fine, fell, or rather, cracked off. The front cover came off almost immediately, the rear cover as I approached the end of the story. The book did appear to be in reasonable condition when I unwrapped it, but the covers seemed odd. They were very brittle and inflexible. And there was another thing. The publisher was Time Inc. Originally, Simon and Schuster had published the book in the United States, but Time had picked it up, several years later, for something called the Time Reading Program. The Wikipedia entry for this operation does not list The Trial of Dr Adams, but it does say that the books were chosen by Max Gissen, Time‘s book reviewer for many years, and notes that the covers were “constructed of very stiff plastic coated paper, for durability.” I can’t quarrel with that: the covers are intact. They’re just not attached to the book. There was much to be learned about the durability of plastic in the 1960s.

The point is, of course, that The Trial of Dr Adams was chosen by the TRP as representative of the edifying text that it went in for. It would be interesting to read all of the TRP titles, solid mid-century fare, much of still well-known, with one eye on Drew Middleton’s concept of “middlebrow” and the other on the Cold War. Two weeks ago, I was writing about Time in another connection, but I never got round to saying that Time was the most finely moderated voice of American anti-Communism. Its passions were covert, its surface wry and unenthusiastic. Why did a book about a serial killer register on its screen?

Because Dr Adams was the victim of a witch hunt. Or so it seems. The matter is not gone into at any length in either of the two prefaces to the TRP edition., and Bedford herself is brisk to the point of silence. The first preface, by the editors of Time itself — the TRP Introduction is the work of the then Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford — asks what seems to me to be the key question:

Could there be a fair trial in a case where every possible juror had been exposed to conjecture? Could the rules of evidence strain out from the jurors’ consciousness the irrelevancies that they had already heard and read? (vii)

The answer to both questions is “yes,” for Dr Adams was acquitted. The administration of morphia and heroin was never questioned; the question before the jury was whether such dosages as Dr Adams had prescribed could be said to have realized (and implied) his intent to murder the patient. Bedford’s account of the trial makes it very clear that Dr Adams’s innocence was established by the workings of the English legal system, with all of its ancient presumptions and its rules of order. She makes it clear, too, that the operation of this legal system was undertaken by two of the participants in the trial: the judge and the counsel for the defense. Geoffrey Lawrence, the counsel, mounts one of the most zealous defenses that I have ever heard of, by which I mean that he has mastered every fact of the matter, marshaled unexpected evidence, and measured to a pinpoint the implication of every scrap of testimony. His cross examination of the principal expert witness for the Crown is thrilling enough for film.

As for the judge, Patrick Devlin, Bedford is quite right to introduce him as the “supremely intelligent” possessor of “Mandarin” hands. (4) His summing-up at the end is what can only be recognized as a triumph of legal duplicity. Having dutifully noted and frowned over all the damaging evidence of overmedication, Mr Justice Devlin nevertheless manages to direct the jury to acquit the defendant.

Is he likely, it may be asked, to adopt a plan which does not even mean an instantaneous dose which kills her off, but involves a rather elaborate system of change in medication which takes thirteen days to dispose of her? (276)

In the context of the summing-up, this highly rhetorical question all but shouts its own answer in the negative. The judge is basically advising the jury that the Crown case is nonsense — which, upon the examination mandated by the English legal system, it was found to be.

There appears to have been a strategy, arrived at independently, no doubt, by the judge and Mr Lawrence, of denaturing the thrill of a serial murder case by rendering the quotidian details as monotonous as possible. If Dr Adams was up to something terrible, he was up to it day after day after day. As a murderer, indeed, he is all but shown to be incompetent. He completely fails as a diabolical character. The fact that two of the three attendant nurses don’t like him is brought out as a matter of their own nasty dispositions. The toxicity of the drugs is all but established, thanks to Mr Lawrence’s doggedness on cross, as being incapable of establishment. The Trial of Dr Adams would probably make a terrible movie. Suspense and horror are subverted at every turn. Which makes for a true page-turner.

Finally, it was decided that Dr Adams would not take the stand. The jury is reminded not only that this does not indicate a guilty conscience but that defendants were not permitted to testify in their own defense until fairly recent times. The prosecution, says the judge, must make its own case without any help from the defendant; that is, it has no right to benefit from the defendant’s behavior as a witness. The judge also addresses the evidentiary problem of the gaps in the narrative that the doctor could fill if he testified. “You are not obliged to think that if the Doctor had gone into the witness-box he might have given a convincing answer.” (253) In short (again), the jury must make up its mind on the Crown’s case. This is all very lucid, but it is sympathetic to the point of tendentiousness. What I think the good editors of Time wanted its reading-program participants to learn from the Adams case is that high-minded men of authority can be relied upon to steer society through the rocks of suspicion and confusion: they know best.

Bedford herself might not have altogether agreed. Her original title clearly implies that the system is capable of doing worse, and indeed, “The Worst We Can Do,” her chapter in The Faces of Justice that deals with regrettable magistrates, shows that, like any other institution, the law can be infiltrated by wrongheaded people. Let these paragraphs be a call for the republication of The Best We Can Do. It is a classic.


John Williams’s review of The Throwback Special, which I read over the weekend in the Book Review, convinced me that I had to read Chris Bachelder’s fourth novel right away, and, duly ordered, it arrived on Wednesday night. I swallowed the whole thing — it’s not very long — yesterday afternoon. I expected it to confirm a lot of my prejudices about men, and it did, but not precisely the prejudices that I had in mind. The Throwback Special made me feel achingly sorry for the middle-class heteronormative and acculturated white American male.

Something that I hadn’t expected at all, and that I had to force myself to bear in mind, is that the group of middle-aged men that Bachelder writes about is not my age or anywhere near it. These men are all in their mid-forties — my daughter’s age. Although they differed from each other in many ways, they reflected a far higher degree of what I should consider social enlightenment. It’s hard to imagine any of them — well, no more than one or two — supporting Donald Trump. But these general issues are kept in the background, just as they are in the daily lives of most healthy people. And, in the end, they seem only to add a layer to the familiar confusion: what does it take to be an American man?

It’s a curious question. For a long time now — since the late Nineteenth Century at the latest — the American male has been saddled with the explicit and very comprehensive dissatisfaction of the American female. Men are either excessive or deficient: crude oafs or spineless wimps. The response of American males has not been entirely constructive, for too many men have retreated to masculine enclaves, particular that of Sports. Here, they expect to be safe. But they are safe only from the complaints of women. More existential concerns pursue them, all the more pressing because so much time is taken up dealing with women. Please don’t think that I regard all women as wondrous special creatures who deserve to be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. I simply believe that women can be as great, and on the same terms, as men. That’s all. Most people, men or women, are not wonderful. And I think that it’s time for people to take stock of themselves without reference to gender. If you’re concerned about your courage, don’t be worrying that your cowardice marks you as unmanly. (And don’t pretend that it’s okay or understandable because you’re a woman.)

For the most part, Bachelder’s men are not consciously worried about their manliness. They’re worried about the entropy that is dismantling the ease with which they were manly when they were younger. They are worried about their children. Some of them are wondering what went wrong with their marriages. Each one of them is a apparently the owner of a home that has been invaded by some sort of unwanted animal, such as a raccoon, or bats. And yet manliness is the elephant in the room, because, unlike the length of a penis, it cannot be measured. For some reason, it is typical of the American male, or at least typical of the type of American male who interests novelists, to assume that other men are more manly. It is also characteristic of them to have no clear idea of what manliness might really be.

There are twenty-two of them here, and there is only one aspect of their lives about which we know the details for each one of them: the T-shirt that every man wears to bed is described. As to the rest of life, Bachelder makes no attempt whatsoever to produce data for dossiers. We know that Robert worries about the high pitch of his voice. We learn that Wesley is a real-estate lawyer who works for a major department store. Randy used to be an optician, but he lost his business. Charles is a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls with eating disorders. I don’t know how most of the men make a living. There is one thing I forgot: the other thing that we know about each of these men is that he has driven some distance to spend a weekend at a motel somewhere alongside Interstate Highway 95 (which runs from Florida to Maine). During the weekend, the group of twenty-two will celebrate, study, and, donning replica gear, re-enact the five-second play that ended the football career of quarterback Joe Theismann, on 18 November 1985.

We are told that these men, or most of them, have been meeting for more than ten years. We are not told one other thing about the formation of the group. Where do these men come from? How did they meet? It seems that they don’t know each other outside of the group. But, for the purpose of this weekend, they have well-established identities. There is Fat Michael, who is actually in unbelievably good shape, the “cephalic” vein on his upper arm a fixture of envy, and there is Bald Michael, who is really bald. There is Trent, who has put on about thirty pounds since last year. There is Adam, whose hair is streaked with grey. Adam shows up late, but won’t say why, beyond mentioning a domestic incident. It must have been a humdinger, because an elderly man, clearly Adam’s father, shows up later on the Friday night and escorts him to a car, never to be heard of again.”Is it true about Adam?” asks one of the other men, but we are never enlightened about what might be or not be “true.” At the very end, the point of view shifts to that of David, the young man — he is attending a business retreat that has booked the conference room that, for the first time, has not been rented for the group because dues money was used to replace Randy’s gear, which he claims was stolen but which everyone assumes was sold by Randy on eBay (indeed, Randy confesses to this) — who is drafted to take Adam’s place. The final page is covered with David’s plans to start up an even better (younger, richer) group to do the same thing.

I feel obliged to point out that almost every male encountered in The Throwback Special is perfectly familiar with what happened to Joe Theismann in November 1985. They all seem to have seen it happen, on Monday Night Football, where the gory damage was replayed with a warming that squeamish viewers ought to turn away. (Boys were sent out of the room.) The event is as well-known to normal American men as any major televised event, and somehow, thanks to the alchemy of media, mythologized into a kind of superfact. Bachelder’s re-enactors are not eccentrics. Needless to say, however, I wasn’t watching. I remember (dimly) that Theismann played for Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate there, but I didn’t go to football games then. (I would go to more than a few on my second round, as a law student, years later.) If I overheard talk about Theismann’s grisly injury — I was working on Wall Street at the time — I must have shrugged and wondered What do you expect, because I can’t get my mind around football; it’s simply lunatic to me.

But you don’t have to care for, or know much about football in order to fall under Chris Bachelder’s spell. I might almost argue that, the less you know, the more compelling The Throwback Special will be. The less you know, the more the book becomes the source of information. There’s a wonderful passage near the end that I copied out, not because the image is arresting — I’m as resistant to images as I am to football — but because the phrase with which it is wrapped up seems to capture everything notable about this novel:

Vince took a picture of Randy’s hand in the bucket, pink and blurry beneath the cubes like a creature whose existence has been rumored but not verified. (207)

Rumored but not verified — what boy’s head is not stuffed with rumors that have not been verified? The men in The Throwback Special are beset by rumors (“Is it true about Adam?”), and by things that they don’t know or can’t quite understand. Sometimes, it seems, they won’t understand. At one point, Nate consults Charles about a little problem he’s having with his wife. He has shared what he takes to be a sexual fantasy with her, and her response has been uncomprehending. Charles, who is always being consulted by members of the group, and who is almost used to the idea that they don’t know what they want to hear, tells Nate that his fantasy is not actually sexual at all.

Nate suddenly seemed despondent. He would rather, it occurred to Charles, have been diagnosed as an untreatable pervert than as someone who was just lonesome. Apparently, he had forgotten that he had sought out Charles for reassurance or explanation. Nate had finished talking, and it also appeared that he had finished listening. He seemed miserable. (68)

As I say, there’s a great deal in this novel that is not even rumored. John Williams considers it a shortcoming that the twenty-two men blend together. I don’t; I think that it has much the same magical affect as the use of the first-person plural in Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. The result in that unforgettable novel was to make the reader deliciously and terrifyingly complicit in the narrating group’s obsession with gossip. If that didn’t happen here, to me, it’s probably because I can imagine myself belonging to a flock of office workers much more easily than I can see myself in a football jersey. But Bachelder’s blur does indeed create a first-person-plural feeling; after all, it’s important to every man in the group that he belongs to it. At the same time, the men in the group do not know each other equally. Some friendships have been made over the years, although they are sedulously boxed apart from regular life, but most of the men are strangers to most of the others. It may surprise the reader (of The Throwback Special or of this page), but most people are not curious about things that aren’t partially visible. Most of the time, a guy is just a guy.

Bachelder’s writing is superb. For all its unerring precision, it is never actually at odds with the nature of the reunion, as it might be if, say, the style of Henry James were deployed. It strives to be invisible, aware that these men would be embarrassed to written about in any truthful way. (They all seem to harbor terrible misgivings about themselves, even the supreme Fat Michael, an absolute control freak about his body.) Its concision, of course, is expert: there is nothing “natural” about a lean, transparent style. And every now and then the writer steps forward, as if to take a little bow. And one cannot fail to applaud, after reading this:

It could be said of Steven, as it could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary. (80)

If I say that I don’t like images, it’s because they’re so rarely as good as this one, so apt and compatible — and also so precisely abstract. And vice versa, as necessary — what a raspberry!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
After Egypt
March 2016 (IV)

Tuesday 22nd

It took longer than it ought to have done to figure out that taking a certain cold-remedy capsule shortly before bedtime was a bad idea. It didn’t occur to me until half an hour after I took one on Sunday night. What followed was not fun. I was still dozing, unaware of having had any sleep, the next morning. That wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was what I shall call an irritated bladder.

Between the cold and the insomnia, I got out of bed feeling that, behind my forehead, my skull contained nothing but low-grade concrete. I got through the day largely by foregoing any attempt at thought. I had to shop for a couple of dinners, and I had to prepare one of them. A very old friend who teaches law in Honolulu, and who doesn’t visit the East Coast as often as she used to do, was in town, and I wanted to try out my Tetrazzini on an important guest. Chicken Tetrazzini turns out to be a very good dish for the cook with diminished capacities: it is all about reduction, and the only halfway demanding part is the slicing of a lot of mushrooms. I never got round to mincing the fresh tarragon leaves, but perhaps they would have been de trop. Our friend very nicely asked for seconds.

We talked about many things, but there was one protracted conversation about writing that remained with me. We were talking about student writing, which is often surprisingly terrible, and always has been. Whenever this subject comes up, I’m reminded of Dr Johnson’s insistence that boys wouldn’t learn Latin unless it were flogged into them. Now, neither Kathleen nor I ever had problems writing. A Brearley teacher once wrote on a paper of Kathleen’s, “You write so well that it’s a pity that you have nothing to say.” My first paper at Blair — a bluff on The Iceman Cometh, which I hadn’t read — was dismissed as “a tissue of circumlocutions.” These are lessons that you need endure only once; perhaps it would be better to say they need to be taught only once. Students whose fluency is initially vacant will blush for shame but grasp the problem pretty quickly. Students for whom writing a three-page piece of expository prose is an exercise in pulling teeth without anaesthesia present a much more intractable problem.

When students who “can’t write” turn up in freshman college courses, or, worse, in law school, teachers tear their hair and wonder how such students have “gotten this far” without learning the rudiments of outlines and topic sentences earlier in their academic career. It has always seemed a deplorable mystery to me, a matter of high-school teachers inexplicably not doing their jobs. Last night as we talked, though, I saw things from the high-school teacher’s point of view. High-school teachers are overworked and underpaid. How realistic is it to expect them to make soup from stones?

Is it any wonder that a teacher confronted with twenty-five or more papers to grade will begin to overlook purely literary failings? If the teacher has assigned a certain theme, then the teacher will know what the student is trying to talk about. Has the student grappled with the theme? Is there evidence of learning in the contents of the paper? The fundamentally literary problem posed by the general reader, who needs to be agreeably introduced to the subject matter and persuaded to read what the writer has to say about it, might well begin to seem somewhat beyond the scope of the immediate assignment, or perhaps simply beyond the imaginative range of the student, who would not be writing (or reading) at all unless required to do so. What are you asking me to do? the student wails. The answer ought to give everyone pause: I am asking you to want to communicate in writing. Because effective writing does not occur without that desire. To what extent is wanting to write a skill that can be taught and mastered?

I still have a few of the letters that my father wrote to me, mostly during my teens. They are crisp and stern, but they are also scrupulously literate. To me, it seemed that he wrote easily, but he assured me that this was not so. No, he said; “You should be a lawyer, because you can write.” Oh for the days of the party of the third part.

It was bliss to wake up this morning, hours and hours and hours after last registering awareness of the time.


In my adult life, I have often feared political candidates whose policies were wrong-headed or worse, but now for the first time I am fearing not the politician, not the Donald, but my fellow citizens, his supporters. Whatever happens in this election cycle, Donald Trump has opened a putrefying abscess on the body politic. The growth of this abscess is of course none of his doing; ever since the Cold War persuaded the nation’s leaders that it was all right to lie to the voters and to misrepresent issues for the national good, Americans have been living in a sort of Disney World of fictions and unrealities. So long as we were prosperous, grateful Americans could afford the pretense of magnanimity, but, now that there is little to be grateful for, the sham is obvious to those who fell for it. They not unreasonably feel that they’ve been made fools of, and they’re mad as hell. What if these angry people coalesce into a political body capable of sweeping away the leaders who have lied to and taken advantage of them? What if the poisons of the abscess pass into the nation’s blood stream?

For that is how the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Everybody thinks, Hitler this and Hitler that. But Hitler, like Donald Trump, was merely an enabler. Sure, he looked like a dictator, he ordered and commanded. But he was only ordering and commanding what many Germans already wanted, and that is the problem, their already wanting it. Without that, there would have been no calamity, no Holocaust. Being high-minded and liberal no longer seemed worth the effort to Germans whose fortunes had dwindled after the economic chaos of the 1920s. They did not have to be persuaded that the victors of 1918 were wrongly punishing them with massive indemnities. (After all: what victors? World War I ended with a truce.) They did not have to be cajoled into imagining a return of Germany’s imperial power. The persecution of the Jews aside, the Nazi program for Germany was a happiness project, and it’s no wonder that so many Western observers were positively impressed, at least at first.

It has become horribly easy to imagine that the United States is on the threshold of a repeat performance. When I began keeping a Web site, I believed that it was not altogether useless to consider the mistakes and failures of leaders, with a view to avoiding both in future. It arguably remains useful. But, for the first time, I wonder if it is not actually, definitely, too late for secular improvements.

It has been pointed out, by Ross Douthat and others, that Paul Ryan could put an immediate stop to Trump’s juggernaut if he could only bring himself to repudiate the fustian economic policies that, surely, he can no longer take seriously. If he would set aside the free-trade, tax-cut nostrums of the Republican Party establishment, if he would acknowledge that Trump is right about a lot of economic issues, then faith in the GOP might be restored sufficiently to permit Party leaders to nominate the next candidate. The point of this exercise would be that, having come clean about economic fiddle-faddle, the Republicans could call a halt to Trump’s social demagoguery, much as an Eisenhower would have wanted to do, however indirectly. But this seems to be beyond the imaginative powers of today’s leading Republicans. They are more committed to an ideological program (one that increasingly seems to make no real-world sense, except for plutocrats) than they are to leadership or power. They are determined to honor their parents, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Martha Howell reviews a new book about Jacob Fugger, the Augsburg financier who flourished around the turn of the Sixteenth Century. Although Howell finds many faults in Greg Steinmetz’s mercantile biography, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, she thanks the author for making one thing crystal clear: large-scale capitalism depends upon state support. In Fugger’s case, bad loans to European rulers might be offset by commodity monopolies that were in the gift of those rulers. One does not have to think very widely to enumerate examples of state support for American capitalism: consider the gift, to private investors in a very wide range of transport enterprises, of publicly built and maintained highways and airports. Nor should countless tiny but lucrative amendments to state and federal legislation be overlooked: ostensibly neutral in their wording, their application will benefit particular, if unnamed, businesses. Consider the Black Hole of “Defense spending.” And yet none of this stops right-wing politicians from demanding that the government get out of business’s way. Eventually, someone — we’ve had the bad luck to draw Donald Trump — will come along to tell the losers whom he promises to make winners that the Establishment is wearing no clothes: policy and actuality have canceled one another out.

The cover story in the current issue of Harper’s is Dan Baum’s call to stop the War on Drugs, and I urge everyone to read it, and not only because it begins with a cynical confession by John Ehrlichman that makes Nixon’s Southern Strategy look ingenuous. Baum rightly devotes his most urgent discussion to the problem of regulating drugs after the current prohibitions have come to an end. But this discussion is blinkered by a common binary prejudice: the production and sale of drugs will be overseen and operated by businesses or by the government (or by some combination of the two). He does not consider the third possibility, which is the not-for-profit entity. Not-for-profits aren’t given the thought they deserve, perhaps because they’re neither potential jackpots nor implements of public virtue. Indeed, that is their advantage: they steer between the Scylla of political patronage and the Charybdis of greedy disregard.

The not-for-profit asks us to be clear about what we mean by the word “capitalism.” Do we mean enterprises that support themselves and plow surpluses into the maintenance and expansion of enterprise assets, as well as paying truly decent wages and remunerating executives with significant salaries? If so, then not-for-profits are as capitalist as anything. If, however, we mean enterprises that create earning opportunities for passive investors, pouring money not necessarily earned by the company’s stated business into the pockets of those investors (who have done nothing but contribute money) instead of into the company’s coffers, then not-for-profits begin to look “socialist.” But they are not socialist, because they are not controlled by politicians or government officials, all of whom might also have interests that cannot be served if the company sticks to its business.

The more I think about it, the more apt the not-for-profit seems to be for most commercial enterprises, especially those that people do not regard as primarily commercial at all, such as housing and utilities. I have said this many times before, but I am always looking for a better and more effective way of saying it. I’m also looking for contexts that point up the attractions of the not-for-profit. Whenever I think of Donald Trump and his “deals,” I consider how different our economy would look if not-for-profits ran the bulk of American businesses. There would be little room for the Donald in it.

For-profit capitalism has an important role in the economy: it is, demonstrably, the most effective engine of innovation. The development of innovative businesses is, needless to say, highly speculative, and investors in successful innovations ought to be rewarded for running substantial risks. But no enterprise remains innovative, and that is not a bad thing at all. Innovation comes to a stop the moment it finds a stable place in the economy. Once that happens, “innovation” becomes “improvement,” in a business that is no longer fighting for its life. To pick an historical example, landline telephones ceased to be innovative when they were installed in a great number of American homes and businesses. (And, as if to prove my point, the mature AT&T was opposed to most innovations, as anyone who tried to get a new phone jack installed will recall.) Another test of the moment when innovation cedes to improvement is passed when it becomes plausible for an enterprise to raise capital by issuing debt.

It may be too late for any of these ideas to stop Donald Trump’s insurrection (for that is what it is), but even that nightmare will not last forever. Adolf Hitler was such an idiot that his régime burned itself to a crisp after only twelve years of power. Twelve years ago, George W Bush was finishing his first term. It is in everybody’s interest to hope that Donald Trump is as wild and crazy as he seems.


Wednesday 23rd

In the afternoons, I generally stay away from the computer. Sometimes, I’ll sit down and write a letter. But I’ve altogether broken the habit, if it ever was one, of looking online for something interesting. So I generally miss late-breaking news. I didn’t hear about the Brussels attacks until Kathleen told me, when she got home at about nine last night.

To me, these attacks — and the very existence of ISIS — are the fruit of the Western élite’s contempt for the people of Islam. The people of Islam are, after all, generally poor (when they’re not crooks), and they don’t share our ideas about education in the humanities. They’re as either overlooked or looked down upon as Donald Trump’s supporters were, as such, until Trump dispensed with dog whistles and began discussing his issues explicitly. That he found an enthusiastic audience for his bigotry marks a colossal failure for the American élite, just as the emergence of jihadists in Europe represents the failure of a long-term policy of allowing immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Islamic world to fester in hopeless housing projects. The attacks in Brussels also represent the failure of Belgium as a nation. I call these developments failures because no liberal democracy can afford them. The fact that Republican electoral strategies were intentional, that middle-class short-sightedness was actively encouraged, does not make those strategies anything but a failure for the American body politic.

How did so many smart people screw up so badly? I attribute much of the half-baked quality of our social reforms since World War II to the masculine desire to get things done, which sometimes does actually get things done, but which more often seems hasty about announcing achievements prematurely. You pass a few bills — big success! You appoint a member of some minority to a top job — mission accomplished! The masculine way of getting things done is commendable where the results are material (new buildings and roadways) but almost regrettable when it comes to abstractions, such as civil rights. Putting an end to the egregious and visible signs of discrimination does not mean that the impulse to discriminate has been vanquished.

A major weakness of liberal democracy is that it is abstract. Or rather that it remains abstract, and somewhat unreal, for too many ordinary people. Now, there are some people without educations but with religious convictions who “get” liberal democracy without having to think much about it: more than any other form of government — perhaps it would be better to say, alone among forms of government — liberal democracy attempts to realize the Christian belief that all people, being equal in the sight of God, ought to be equal in the sight of men as well. A corollary of this equality, routinely dismissed by every kind of self-appointed authority, holds that no one is in a position to tell anyone else what to do. If these views are part of your spiritual anatomy, then you don’t need a four-year college to steep you in liberal values.

Unfortunately, this conviction is rare. Even worse, the liberal outlook, with is emphasis on freedom, is always somewhat more comfortable with laissez faire ideas than is healthy. Laissez faire would not be a problem in a population of highly-educated men and women. Highly-educated people know right away when their toes have been stepped on, and they can see who has done the stepping. They are in a position to lodge effective complaints. It’s the impact of laissez faire policies on the uneducated that’s the problem. Uneducated people are aware that they’ve been wronged, but they’re not sure about who has done the harm, and they are rather easily misled, at least for a time, by demagogues. Their often misdirected complaints go unredressed. With our dense network of federal and state regulatory agencies, we’re disinclined to see laissez faire as a likely problem, but in fact the concept of “free-market economics,” the juggernaut that has dragged behind it the financialization of markets and the globalization, not of trade, but of labor, is laissez faire in spades.

As I have said many times before, the failure of Western élites has been an unwillingness to communicate liberal values to the uneducated. Élites prefer to announce them, in rulings and legislation and campaign slogans. These are not forms of communication, and they feel like bullying. This is the big problem with Hillary Clinton. She will wonkily master the nuts and bolts of a problem, and then explain it in terms that make sense to people who may not have gone to a college as superior as Wellesley but who have been trained to imagine abstractions into reality. She has nothing to say to voters who lack this intellectual training, which is necessary if social problems are to be fully grasped. She has a hard time concealing her impatience with them. People like me may not like her very much, but we can agree that she’s the best of the bunch. Ordinary people lack the intelligence to judge her good qualities; they see only the bully.

How to deal with the lack of intelligence of ordinary people is a big problem that’s made even bigger by the persistent screw-ups of the élites. But they happen to be one and the same problem. The screw-ups are almost always failures to enlighten uneducated voters, to show people who have not been trained to deal with abstractions why the principles of liberal democracy are so important for us all. This would be a great job for our media, if our media were at all genuinely public-spirited. It is perhaps in our media, across the West, that we are screwing up most badly. It is not that our media tell lies. It’s rather that their way of presentation is a lie: media presenters affect a neutrality and even an innocence that they cannot feel. Television reporters pretend to be shocked by terrorism, for example; they behave as if they, too, were victims. They pretend to be as bewildered by the underlying causes of terrorism, which anyone with an education can see as clearly as the sun in the sky, as most of their viewers really are. Now, I do not mean to suggest that media people are any closer to a solution to those underlying causes — unemployment, first of all; cultural disaffection that is all but stoked by majoritarian contempt and official condescension; nostalgia and sentimentality that spoil in isolation; adolescent restlessness — but the harm is done by the appearance of cluelessness. If the media are clueless, then the causes of terrorism must be inexplicably evil. But the media are not clueless. There is just too much that they find it inconvenient — boring? — to say in front of the camera.

Worst of all, media people pretend that education is not really necessary. Anybody with good reflexes can bone up on a lot of facts and slam winning buttons.


I have entered the final, Egyptian phase of Daniel Martin. I ought to be speaking from experience, having read the book twice before, but in fact I had to skim the final pages to find out how close to the end the return to London was set. I can’t believe that I’ve come this far, over five hundred pages, without getting tired of the book’s obvious faults, which generally fall under one of two headings: endless stretches of dialogue that are often quite as deprived of literary interest as a tennis match; or authorial musings on gender issues that have gone rancid over the years. In this latter regard, it’s as though The Collector were John Fowles’s touchstone novel: his men do like women, a lot, but the question is whether women like being liked by his men? Well, of course they do; Fowles is writing the novels, after all. Except for that first case, where the woman tries to escape. For my part, I read Martin’s thoughts about women and so forth as historical curiosities, even though I know that most men still probably think that way. Martin’s bland self-assurance, at least, seems no longer sustainable.

In fact, I can’t say what is attractive about Daniel Martin. It owes a great deal to the novelist’s ability to present his hero as a creature who inhabits the world. I’d prefer to avoid talking of Daniel Martin as an animal, because he does so himself, always with respect to carnal desire. I find this idea, that it’s the animal in us that makes sex so compelling, slightly laughable, because for actual non-human animals sex is an endurance test that is undergone only very occasionally. Animals are more on the lookout for dinner, but you will not find Daniel Martin talking much about food. He does, however, inhabit the landscape of Devon, almost in spite of his descriptions. In his very green corner of England, Daniel goes shamanically green himself. (He does also make some curious remarks about Robin Hood.)

Egypt, of course, is not green. But it does have the Nile, which has already (by the point I’ve reached) been described as “pearly gray.” Cruising the Nile is like taking a train: you board a movable shelter that could be anywhere, and then travel through a peculiar landscape, only occasionally, however, setting foot in it. This is what the Nile means in literature (as opposed, say, to what it means in Egyptian agronomy). You steam up and down the river, and hope that the adventures will be manageable. You compare the slightly boring tranquility all around you with the hustle and bustle back home; you reflect that the Nile has been doing its thing for x long time. You study your companions, who bristle with far more points of interest than the riverbanks. You comment on the quality of the wining and dining. As an important part of the Nile trope, you’re involved in some complicated, problematic sort of romance.

I can’t remember a thing about how John Fowles plays this hand. Daniel and Jane are still in Cairo. They’ve just been to a good dinner party at which some very funny jokes have been told by a professional comedian. The jokes are still quite sharp and funny. Here’s the first:

They find a stone statue of a pharaoh at Luxor. The inscriptions are indecipherable, the archaeologists are at a loss as to who it is. The statue is brought to Cairo and cleaned, but still the experts are baffled. At last a secret policeman asks if he can see it. He is taken to the room, he goes in and locks the door. An hour later he comes out pulling his coat on and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“It’s okay,” he says. “He confessed.” (523)

The sad thing about this is that what used to be an Egyptian joke is now a TSA joke.


The lobby just called to tell me that a “delivery” was on its way up. Delivery? Of what? I wasn’t expecting anything. It took a few minutes to remember the Easter ham. I ought to have had the ham delivered tomorrow, or even on Friday, but I wanted to be sure that I had it. So now I have to find somewhere to put it. It’s a whole ham, you see, from which the butcher has sliced three or four steaks, leaving a great big roast for Sunday and a small roast to send someone home with. The steaks are the best part, if you follow a recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. It’s an adaptation, for ham steak, of a roast ham recipe in Mastering the Art, and really much better. The steaks are obviously not all the same size, but they always seem to feed three diners generously.

Even though I’ve been clearing out the freezer and the refrigerator with unprecedented regularity, I have nowhere to put all this ham — not yet. I’ll figure out something for the big roast. The steaks are more of a headache, because one doesn’t want to look at ham in any form until Whitsun, so the steaks have to be frozen. And where is the room for that, may I ask, especially in light of the big mistake in my last order from Nueske’s. I meant to order one package of Canadian bacon, but I ordered two. As I don’t know anyone else with a meat slicer, I can’t give the extra package away.

I wish I could remember how to cook the roast ham. I know that part of the method is to slice a fresh pineapple and line the bottom of the roasting pan with the rings. The ham sits on them instead of in the juice, and the result is magical. There’s also brown sugar, of course; but was there some strange ingredient that you’d never guess in a million years? In other words, did I make this recipe up in a moment of unrecorded genius?

And dessert — what’s for dessert? It has to be something chocolate, to break Kathleen’s Lenten fast. As always, Ray Soleil offered to make his intense chocolate mousse, but I wanted to make something this year, or thought I did, and so I declined. But what am I going to make? Is it too late to call Ray?


Thursday 24th

As I was walking out of the theatre yesterday — Yes! I went to the movies! But first, the important part — as I was checking my phone, I found two messages from Kathleen. The first said, “:will call when I check in at. Hyatt.” Great! Kathleen was in Washington for the night, attending an annual confab involving dinner and then a long meeting the next day. The second message took a while to process. It was from Kathleen’s phone, but not from Kathleen.

Hi: I found this blackberry on the train after we reached DC. Please tell the owner when you talk to her that I gave it to lost and found inside union station!

Two curious details about this message are that the writer knew that the phone’s owner was a woman, and that the phone was recovered by the stranger so soon after Kathleen wrote her message about checking in that the phone had not locked; there was no need to open it with a passcode. But I didn’t think much about these things at the time, and, indeed, there is still no reason to attach much importance to them. As of this writing, the phone remains in Lost & Found at Union Station — a haven with which we became familiar a few years ago, when Kathleen left her wallet on the train.

A more important detail: the lost phone receives the constantly updated codes that allow Kathleen to log on to her law firm’s network. (Need I point out that she left the phone on the train because she was preoccupied by packing up her laptop, on which she had been working all the way from Penn Station?) Without access to “the system,” she could not determine the time and place for dinner in Washington. I found this out when one of Kathleen’s associates called me. She had been out of pocket when Kathleen called for help, but was now able to be of service. She had called Kathleen at the Hyatt and gotten no answer. Unaware that Kathleen had called another associate and found out what she needed to know, I was left with disturbing visions of a Lost Kathleen, wandering the streets of the capital before finally collapsing, exhausted, in an unsafe alley.

And then there was the Hyatt angle. Kathleen had told me that the dinner would not be late, so, between ten and eleven, I called her room several times. Calls to the hotel were automatically answered by a recording. If you knew “your party’s extension,” you could dial it at any time. I would punch in Kathleen’s room number — which I knew, because I had tracked her down when I got home from the movies, and was able to tell her where her phone was before she was entirely sure that she had mislaid it — and then nothing would happen; nobody would answer. I was frantic by the time our landline phone rang, just after eleven. (Kathleen can’t remember my cell phone number.) “I thought I’d wait until after eleven,” she said, matter-of-factly recurring to an ancient practice that reflected the sharply reduced long-distance rates that use to kick in at that hour, sometime during the Peace of Westphalia. When I said that I’d been calling her, we had a new mystery. She had been sitting “right there,” and there had been no ringing. It turned out that something was wrong with the hotel’s phones. To get Kathleen, I should have to go through the operator. This morning, placing a wake-up call, I found even that to be a challenge. I cycled through three welcomes from the recorded voice before I finally chose an option that would take me to an answered phone and a re-connection to Kathleen.

After all, just how important are hotel phones these days? Everybody knows that their use is laced with surcharges. Everybody else knows that you can always reach your chums on his or her mobile, the number of which is tucked nicely into yours.

The cherry on top: Kathleen was carrying an iPhone. She had not left that on the train. She had not used it in ages. It was not charged. She did not have an Apple charger, and the hotel could not provide her with one. (Big surprise.) The whole point of the iPhone is that Kathleen is supposed to use it to contact me, and, presumably, other non-business contacts. I don’t have time to tell you more about this, because I can hear the men with the big butterfly nets and the funny white suit out in the hallway.

Now that I have described this sundae of technological delight, permit me to suggest the ambient lighting: the film that I had just seen when this opera buffa began was Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. Ah, here they are. They’re trying to decide whether to take me away to the “clinic” or settle for an injection. So I can’t tell you more about this nail-biting drama about a drone attack that alone will prevent a couple of suicide bombers from wreaking yet more havoc on Nairobi.


Just a few more deep breaths.


Not only did I go to the movies; I went to the Museum! For the first time since September, I’m ashamed to say. (It has been a difficult year. Longer than that, really.) But the weather was lovely, and I finished writing on the early side. So I dressed and ran outside and grabbed a taxi. The Museum is not far away, but I save my energy for walking around in it, not to it; and, in the event, I walked all the way home, too. On the way home, I stopped in at Crawford Doyle, not for the first time since September, but very nearly. I told the assistant manager that the store ought not to be selling the books of Marie Kondo, not, at least, to me; for I had taken the first one to heart and just about stopped buying books. But only just about. I did leave the shop with two new ones. There was Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I had intended to buy if they had it, and then a sort of surprise, Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. (I managed not to buy the new Kondo.)

Only now do I see what these books have in common: neither was written in English. A few months ago, as it must be by now, Jhumpa Lahiri published a piece in The New Yorker, an extract from her new book, announcing that she had stopped writing in English, and that she had taken up writing in Italian, a language to which she had no connection beyond an infatuation that began in her youth. The excerpt was translated, like the book, by Ann Goldstein.

I read a good deal of In altre parole when I got home. The original Italian text is printed on the even-numbered, left-hand pages, facing Goldstein’s translation. I was surprised by how rarely I had to look to the right. I, too, have an infatuation with Italian. I am by no means as fluent in it as I am in French, but I understand it better, perhaps because it is further away from English, just as Italy is vastly more self-absorbed and uninterested in Anglophone antics than France is. For some reason, I don’t translate Italian into English as much as I do French. Italian is more likely to make immediate sense to me. Why? All those years of listening to opera? That seems both plausible and far-fetched. After all, I haven’t learned German from Wagner and Strauss. It has something to do with the rhythm of Italian, which is perhaps the most beautiful rhythm in the world of language.

But my knowledge of Italian is vague and confused. I cleared up quite a few confusions yesterday, perhaps forever, thanks to Lahiri’s beguiling memoir. The difference between dentro and dietro, for example (within, behind). Per quanto — however (much/many). Sciocchezza: a folly, not a shock. Lahiri writes a lot about wanting to learn Italian — what, exactly, that was like. This involves a vocabulary with which I am already familiar. Lahiri’s very thoughts are familiar. This is her first book in Italian: the writing is not very difficult. I daresay that one of the attractions of Italian, for Lahiri, is the beauty of its simplicities. I suspect that it is more difficult in Italian than it is in English to be trite, banal, and stale. (The danger is all the other way: pomposity, grandiosity, drama.) Now, literary Italian can be — well, Latinate, as Dante often is. I carry around in my head a favorite sentence from a story in New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Italian, the Nick Roberts edition (1999). It comes from Silvia Petrignani’s “Donne in piscina.” The women of the title, sunning themselves beside, not in, a swimming pool, are talking, why not, about men, and one of them says,

Perché sono pochi gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono sul serio.

Because there are few men who really like women. Sad, but true. But I love all the bumps. “Pochi gli uomini” reminds me that what the sentence is really saying is that They are few, the men who like women really. And the inversion of piacere: Like the French, Italians don’t like things; they are pleased by them. That pleases me: Mi piace. Women please me: Le donne mi piace. Women please them: Le donne gli piacciono. Men to whom women are pleasing: Gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono. There aren’t many: Sono pochi. Really: sul serio. For me, the sentence is an Italian lesson all by itself. I have encountered nothing like it in Lahiri’s book, and I don’t expect to.

In altre parole is a handy Italian on more generous lines. It’s a pleasant book, tinged with loss and longing, that one can dip into anywhere. I was about to refer to an earlier entry here, but it doesn’t exist; I must be remembering a letter to a friend. When the excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, it obliged me to think about what it means to be a native speaker. Lahiri, accomplished in English as she certainly is, is not a native speaker. Bengali is her mother tongue: the language that she spoke with her mother. But that’s all it is. Growing up in London and Providence, she did not speak Bengali with anybody else. She does not speak it well, she says — she has a terrible accent, she says. And she can neither read nor write it. It would seem that Lahiri has known English almost all her life — but not quite.

So, when she fell in love with Italian, as one does, Lahiri did not feel altogether foolish, as indeed I should. When she stopped reading books in English, a few years ago, she closed the door on a world that, however familiar, had no real claim on her; it had not shaped her most fundamental thoughts about the world. She had enjoyed great success in English, obviously, and I hope that she will do so again, even if she is not so sure that she wants to. But English remains her second language. Why not make of Italian, not a third language, but another second?

It’s curious that one’s immediate objections are entirely “practical.” First, she is old to be learning a language. She has a lovely chapter about collecting words that she doesn’t know. She gathers them up every day and puts them in a basket. At the end of the day, the basket is almost empty, because of course it is her memory, and memory discards most of what comes before it. She is delighted when a word sticks. But is this a viable modus for a reasonably sophisticated writer? Presumably — this is at least my stumbling block with other languages — Lahiri would want to write an Italian that is as proficient as her English? In altre parole is an easy book for me to read, because it is the work of someone who learned to describe the world in English. Lahiri’s Italian is very good, but she says the things that an English-speaker would say.

Second, and perhaps the more massive caution, there is the numerical abyss between the languages’ readerships. Even without globalization, English is spoken by many times more readers than Italian is; and there is some evidence that Anglophones, for all their many faults, are bigger readers. Why write texts that will have to be translated, their born glories sheared off, in order to be widely read? As I say, I haven’t encountered a single sentence in Lahiri’s book that is anywhere near to the foreignness of Petrignani’s. But the language itself is indeed foreign.

Scrivo in un italiano brutissimo, scorretto, imbarrazzante.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is interesting.

I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.

If you’re following me, you’ll see that there is nothing at all foreign about the thought that Lahiri seeks to express. Goldstein captures it very well, but the changes that she wrests in order to make the statement fluid and agreeable in English completely destroy the power of the original, which depends entirely on a build-up of somewhat onomatopoetic adjectives. Brutissimo! Not just “terrible,” but “ugly.” Scoretto! So many Italian words are made negative or even nasty by fastening an ‘s’ onto the beginning, short for “dis” but resulting in a premonitory hiss. Imbarrazzante! Eem-barratz-AHHNNN-tay. How can “embarrassing,” obviously the same word, only in English, compete? The rhythm of those three denunciations is a virtuoso pile-up that requires no italics or exclamation points. It can’t happen in good English, as Goldstein demonstrates by taking scorretto out of the sequence: incorrect just won’t do. “I write an Italian that is ugly, incorrect, and embarrassing.” The literal translation is a flop. Of course anything so ugly and embarrassing is going to be incorrect. More has to be made of this note: it has to be amplified to “full of mistakes.”

The vituosity is not Lahiri’s, as I expect she’d be the first to agree. It’s simply Italian.


Good Friday 25th

Which is why the sentence exhibits none of the defects that it enumerates.

All day, I’ve been trying to decide whether to tack the preceding sentence, which didn’t occur to me until later, onto the end of yesterday’s entry, and finish it off with good wishes for the weekend, or to add something else. Having chosen the latter option, I’m still not sure that it’s a very good idea, but I’ll plead helplessness: I’ve just finished Daniel Martin and can’t think of anything else to do with myself, at least for a little while, until it’s time to make dinner. For several days, I’d put off continuing with the novel, because I really wasn’t keen to follow it to Egypt — and I was right about all the superficialities, which may mean no more than that John Fowles introduced the Nile-cruise trope to me. But it was in the final two hundred pages that the following statement began to make at least a vague sort of sense.

[Daniel Martin is] intended as a defence and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.

Those are the author’s words, printed on the back cover. Humanism? Never have I read, or at least tolerably enjoyed, a novel so completely marinated in the whine of male adolescence. Here is a sentence from the high slopes of the final climax, which is set in Palmyra — the Temple of Baal, recently destroyed by Da’esh, is pointed out, but this was forty years ago.

They were now reduced to what, in their two sexes, had never forgiven and never understood the other. (678)

So gross an appeal to gender, as if Dan stood for all men and Jane for all women, is nothing more than the rankly hormonal cry of thwarted carnality: I especially cherish the authority with which the author and his protagonist speak for women as well. Indeed, there is a dismaying Così fan tutte quality about the novel’s resolution, as if Dan and Jane were only doing what men and women were put on the planet to do. This is not Fowles’s intention, I suspect, but it keeps blurting out from behind the pretense of mature, experienced adulthood. I thought that Dan was an idiot tout court for pursuing Jane so loudly within the very month of her husband’s death by suicide — give the girl some time, man! So I felt mildly disappointed by the success of his importunings.

The humanism of Daniel Martin did not, for me, abide in the romance. It emerged from, of all things, the trope of the Nile-cruise. I’d left an important element of this elegant conceit out of my catalogue: along with the repetitious riverbanks (which however Jane and Dan claim to find endlessly interesting), the peculiarities of the fellow tourists (observed in somewhat contemptuous detail), and the “timelessness” of the ancient river, there must also be a wise old man (or woman) who does not so much explain the riddle of the sphinx as sprinkle other gem-like mysteries on the tablecloth. I had forgotten the Herr Professor, an elderly archaeologist from Leipzig who now lives in Cairo, serving Eastern Europeans as a guide to the antiquities. It turns out that his late wife was English; she was the daughter of a doctor who had settled in Egypt, and a pediatrician herself. After the War, the Herr Professor accepted the invitation to return to his now East-German university; one of his sons remains there (another doctor), while the other has gone to America. All this in the middle of a Cold War that the Herr Professor’s sheer humanity seems to see beyond. The conversations that he has with Dan and Jane are as interesting as conversations can be (although Jane, always something of a geisha, says little), but there is a tidal pull underneath that bound me to the novel, and made it seem to be the most important thing that I could possibly be reading. An interesting illusion, that. But somehow the presence of the Herr Professor does substantiate Fowles’s claim: Daniel Martin is indeed a defense of then-unfashionable humanism.

What mysteries, you ask. Simply the mysteries of another person, another life, another generation, another background. For once, Daniel Martin forgets about himself. Or at least the novel forgets him, forgets, for a moment or two, Daniel’s amorous quandary — whether to continue a relationship with the young actress whom he has befriended in Los Angeles, or to succumb to the weakness of Be Here Now and rattle Jane with his attentions. And the odd thing is that this new element, the open and nonjudgmental appreciation of sheer otherness, seeps up and floods the rest of the novel, so much of it, necessarily by now, in retrospect. If Daniel cannot stop measuring the world by his desires, his ambitions, and his contempt for both of these things, John Fowles shows that he at least can step back. The Herr Professor makes us aware that, all along, Fowles has enabled us to look over Daniel’s shoulders, and to see the other people in his life, for ourselves. We can’t look to Fowles for a judgment of his principal character, because everything about the novel (including that other trope: the novel that you are reading is the one that the lead character is thinking about writing) points to an identity, with Daniel filling in as an alternative Fowles, waving from the other side of experience. But even if Daniel and his author are the same person, the author is writing about the other people in the book from the perspective, and perhaps with the insight and the wisdom, that follows the writing of a novel. I hope that I am not spinning too fine a thread when I suggest that Daniel Martin is about who Daniel used to be, and who his friends have been all along.

As with the Herr Professor, the sense of a humanist assessment of life arises from a grasp of time, the difference between now and then. This is really nothing but sheer history, a feeling for which is so palpable in the Herr Professor’s personal narrative. Daniel always is, even when he is remembering his youth in the combes and hangers of Devon. That’s why he is so maddening. But the book itself is not lodged in an eternal present — another mystery. My solution to this mystery is to conclude that the novel is the history of a man who has no very clear sense of history.

And there I must stop: it is time to make dinner. My copy of Daniel Martin is flagged with more than a dozen small Post-its; I wonder if I shall actually take the time to copy all the passages into Evernote and explain why they caught my eye (if I still can). I hope so. It would be a fine way of working out the confusion that I felt throughout this third reading: why? What makes this book worth the time? Because so much — so much about the title character — argues that it isn’t. I feel that, in these few paragraphs here, I have reduced the perplexity considerably, but I sense that there’s more to be learned. Meanwhile,

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Avoiding Egypt
March 2016 (III)

Monday 14th

Running an hour late on everything — trying not to feel delinquent, panicked.

Time Magazine was mentioned in one of the Op-Ed columns this morning — Paul Krugman’s, I think. Time Magazine! How surprising — that it still exists! But of course it doesn’t, any more than today’s Vanity Fair is really anywhere near as old as The New Yorker. It’s true that Time has published without interruption, but not only has it changed out of recognition, but the world that it served in the heady American-Century days of the Fifties and Sixties has disappeared — extinguished, pretty much, by people like me.

Now, I’m making all of this up, of course. You’re to read it as a piece of fiction, a story that might or might not seem to hew to true facts, whether or not you yourself remember them. Try it on; see if it fits. But when I caught the mention of Time this morning, my entire life flashed before my eyes.

The story begins in the early Sixties. Kennedy is president, or perhaps Johnson has already taken his place. Where I come from, it is still the Fifties, and where I come from is Eisenhower country. Eisenhower is a Republican, of course, but he has spent a good deal of his presidency trying to outmaneuver the ardent, Red-fearing right. He may have seemed to be a boring old man, but he was sound. Somehow, Kennedy seemed to be more sound than Nixon, and, if he wasn’t, the assassination at Dallas took care of that. Johnson is definitely not sound.

I come from an affluent Coastal suburb. Everyone is a Republican, but only a few people are in any way ardent. Republican is the default setting for “normal.” Democrats are, by and large, less educated and poorer. They live in other suburbs, or in the city. Nobody really believes that Democrats are Communists, because — I left something out — almost every white voter in the South is a Democrat. Nobody pays much attention to Democrats, at least until Johnson comes along.

In this Coastal Establishment, Time Magazine has the last word on everything. Take the clout enjoyed, on today’s liberal/progressive front, by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, and even The Nation — all the periodicals on my library table — and put them into one very faintly right-wing publication, and you have Time. Smart teenagers read Time as a matter of course. (To be impressive, you have to read US News & World Report — the most boring prose in America.) Time tells you how things are.

And then there is the rift. From the very start, the rift is generational. Kids look at their parents and assume that they’re wrong — about everything. Why? Is it the music? Is it the pictures of self-immolating monks and nuns in Vietnam? Is it Johnson’s talk about civil rights? Is it — drugs?

It is all of these things, but it is something more, because the parents, if not exactly wrong, are somehow mindless. The grown-ups have stopped thinking. They sound just like the authority figures in Brave New World and 1984. They want to have a good time, and they want their kids to have the same good time, dammit. They do not like having the boat rocked just for the hell of it — they can’t imagine having a good reason to rock the boat. They don’t have much imagination at all, really, and no wonder, given their experience of the Depression and the War. They’re entitled to some peace and quiet, no?

The problem is — Communism. The Commies are out to put an end to the good life. They want to surround the United States with Commie dictatorships, so we fight back with our own Crony dictatorships. In the South, Democrats complain that Communist infiltrators are encouraging Negro activism. How seriously do comfortable Republicans in the Coastal suburbs take these complaints? Not very. But they equate Commies with boat-rockers, and boat-rockers belong behind bars. End of discussion!

But their children — people like me — see the Negro struggle in a very different light. We may not actually know any Negroes — in sad truth, this ignorance makes our virtue easy — but we think that it is wrong to forbid some people to sit down at a lunch counter. We are beginning to learn about the Holocaust, and the idea of separate drinking fountains has a terrible smell. We don’t know if the nuns and the monks in Vietnam are really Communist agitators, but we sense a lack of connection between what is going on in Vietnam — what the people there really want — and the government that the United States is increasingly seen to be propping up. By the time Johnson decides not to run for reëlection, most people like me will regard his Administration, at least its military parts, as a big fat liar. As wars go, there is something awfully wrong about the War in Vietnam. Something — stupid.

I always think of this as Time’s swan song: Now that flower children have gone to pot. That’s from the late Sixties, obviously. By then, the Coastal Establishment is broken beyond repair: people like me have seen to that. We have embraced all the social challenges, and as Nixon and Watergate and the Oil Embargo and Stagflation bring the United States to what looks like the end of the American Century, a bit ahead of time, we grow up and get advanced degrees and start running things. This is where people like me divide into two opposed camps, one of which supports Jimmy Carter while the other hates him. (The people who hate Jimmy Carter are gearing up to financialize the American economy, but Afro-Americans are welcome everywhere among us.) But that’s another story. Between us, we have trampled Eisenhower’s Republican Party — also Nelson Rockefeller’s — to death. And, whichever side of the aisle we’re on, people like me are convinced that we’ve won.

But we’ve missed something. We have taken no political account of white people who are not people like me. In a curious transvaluation of values (I don’t know what that really means), we have rendered these people politically invisible. The ones whom we see are “entertainers,” Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, just as our parents ignored Negroes who were not entertainers. We may no longer read Time Magazine, but the white people who are not people like me never could read Time. It was above their reading grade, way above. Those people were too hopped up on schnapps and NASCAR to follow politics. People like me are in fact tacitly bigoted about such people, whom we call “rednecks,” “yahoos,” and “crackers.” How nice it would be if they would all emigrate to Australia!

We hadn’t noticed — we were still a bit young at the time — that Nixon had activated a sequence of changes that would transform American politics in a way that made people like me almost irrelevant. We sort of understood why southern Democrats, feeling betrayed by Johnson, were becoming Republicans, but we didn’t know where that was going to lead. Or perhaps we simply couldn’t see where it would lead, because where it would lead was not a political possibility, in the minds of people like me. Surely racist bigotry was a thing of the past?

I don’t know where we got the idea, people like me, that we had put an end to racist bigotry. We had put an end to our parents’ short-sighted, go-along-to-get-along quietism, but our parents, with a few exceptions, were not racial bigots, or in any case were not prepared to make a fuss about their bigotry. They would retreat to their gracious country clubs and churches, places in which enthusiasm of any kind was firmly discouraged. That’s what we brought to a stop. We never had anything to do with genuine, pulsing bigotry.

So, now it’s our turn to retire. the oldest amongst us are pushing seventy. We support Hillary, not because we like her but because she has proven to be a capable executive, or we would like to support Jeb Bush. Donald Trump has grown up with us; he might have been one of us. But he was never one of us, whether because he was an insecure dreamer or a bully or both. We have laughed at Donald Trump almost all our adult lives, when we haven’t scorned him for vandalizing the Bonwit Teller signage. We have always seen Donald Trump as a rogue, and we should never let him run anything.

My mind goes back to Simon Winder’s Danubia, which I read at the end of last October. Writing of the failure of the various revolutions of 1848, Winder points out that nobody was prepared to agree on a second step: after the revolution, then what?

People like me never even saw that there was a second step. We may have stopped reading it, but we were still blinkered by the worldview of Time Magazine.


I wound up last week’s entry by asking a question that I never began to try to answer. Why, in The Heather Blazing, does Carmel Redmond complain, on two occasions, at the opposite ends of her married life, that her husband Éamon doesn’t tell her about himself?

You’ve always been so distant, so far away from everybody. It is so hard to know you, you let me see so little of you. I watch you sometimes and wonder if you will ever let any of us know you. (154)

What does this mean? What would be the disclosures that Carmel feels her husband has withheld? And how can she have lived with him for decades without developing a sense of who her husband really is that she can depend upon, regardless of what he says or doesn’t say?

In other words, is she “really asking,” or is she demanding some sort of ritual performance?

When I read The Heather Blazing for the first time, I took this passage, like so many others, as an evidence against Éamon, an “indictment,” so to speak; that he could not defend himself amounted to a sort of conviction. Now I wonder if, each time that I read this novel — and I certainly intend to read it again sometime — I shall find myself forgiving Éamon Redmond’s faults even more unreservedly than the last time. To me now, he seems to be an almost obstinately decent man, meaning not that he is a rebel who stands up for inconvenient principles but rather that he is determined to suffer every inconvenience — every tic of conscience — that’s required to repay the debt that he owes to those who have taken care of him, the men of Fianna Fáil. It may be clear that Éamon is a cog in a machine that has already done whatever good it could do for Ireland, and that is now doing things that are not so good. But it is not clear that this makes Éamon a bad man. And my ambivalence surprises me. I do not expect to like characters such as Éamon Redmond.

And who would be responsible for that, for my liking him? Who, now? Who would make his silences so understandable that I should like to take Carmel aside and beg her to stop demanding ritual performances? I understand that the sharing of intimacies is a fundamental aspect of human social grooming, but by Carmel’s own account it was Éamon’s resistance to such norms that made him attractive to her in the first place. And there is nothing inside Éamon that would allow him honestly to comply. There is no withheld information. Why do I believe this? Where did I get this idea?

Why do I find Éamon Redmond increasingly semblable? Is it me? Am I changing? Or is it the novel — am I reading it more clearly?

What if Colm Tóibín didn’t know what he was doing back then, twenty-odd years ago? What if he set out to paint a portrait in vitriol but didn’t have the heart for it? What if he set out, instead, to invest a character, whose outward circumstances were the opposite of his own, with his own confusions? To infuse a High Court judge with the spirit of a gay expat journalist? Or to imagine himself as a High Court judge? It is none of my business, but the question, What does Carmel want? has become something of a laugh line.


Tuesday 15th

The pile of books alongside my reading chair has taken one of those Jack’s-beanstalk jumps that happen every now and then when books come in all at once from several quarters. There are some new books, some books that had been in storage, a book that a neighbor lent to me on the understanding that I would (please) not give it back, and books from my own shelves. Every one, though, belongs in one train of thought or another.

Well, almost every one. George Sand’s Consuelo is there because, frankly, it is very fat. If I read it and then decided that I didn’t need to keep it, that would be a very happy outcome. I have never finished a novel by Sand, although I have begun more than a few; this is another source of pressure. Consuelo is about a Venetian singer in the Eighteenth Century; I suppose that I could attach it to the Gilbert & Sullivan train, by contrasting it, however grotesquely, with The Gondoliers, which is set in the same place and time (roughly). Both capture, or rather are captured by, that sugary cuteness that you used to be able to find in Little Italy, on horrible table lamps featuring shepherds and shepherdesses: that is how one century liked to see its predecessor. Both Consuelo and The Gondoliers rise above the level of schlock, but you have to ask what, exactly, the period setting brings to the finished artwork.

Another fat novel is John Fowles’s Daniel Martin. I am well into this somewhat hypertrophic roman à moi, in which Fowles reinvents himself as a successful writer of Hollywood screenplays. The conceit is that the book in your hand is the novel that Daniel conceives of writing about halfway through the narrative — his first. It was of course not the first for author Fowles. I ask myself, Why am I reading this for the third time? The answer seems to be that it haunts me, that I remember it as a deeply engaging book, even if I forgot lots of the details, or even the extended episode in Egypt that finishes it off. I am about to embark for the Nile, in fact, and I’m twitching with the resistance that made me put down The Adventures of Augie March when the action was on the verge of shifting to Mexico. That won’t happen here, I don’t think.

Daniel Martin haunts me for several reasons. First, it is tremendously readable, even though written by a man. Even when Fowles launches one of his aesthetic sermons, he holds your attention. His opinions are very strong, and — now, in 2016, nearly forty years after publication — sometimes thrillingly out of date. It’s hard to make sense of some of them: you have to worm your way back to that rackety decade and revisit its peculiar perspectives (anything but confident, but not very clear, either) on past and future. The dialogue is lively, too, although it is something of a joke that Fowles/Martin exhibits none of the discipline of a moviemaker. His conversations go on and on and on: you are there. If you weren’t convinced of the sincerity of Fowles’s urge to recreate life as it is lived and breathed, his garrulity would be unbearable. (There is one tic that I cannot bear. In the depths of his exchanges, which read pretty much like a script, with even less adverbial modification outside the quotation marks, Fowles will deploy someone’s name as an anchor, to remind you that someone else is the one speaking. “Oh, if only I could see it that way, Dan” — an invented example with emphasis supplied. In the thick of intimate conversations, people don’t call one another by name.) Then there are the long lyric passages, usually describing landscapes, especially the landscape of Devon. These passages are shot through with a love of Little England and the longing of the highly rational man (or of one who thinks he is) for the simple certitudes (as he imagines them to be) of peasant life. At the same time, Daniel Martin is marinated in English literature. I don’t mean that it’s full of allusions that must be caught (although it is), but rather that it seems of a piece with great books from the early days of Modern English onward. Like so many English writers of the Twentieth-Century, Fowles finds the Seventeenth expecially congenial. And you can see that he is just about willing to consider forgiving the Victorians for having — existed. In the end, I suppose you could say that Daniel Martin is the literary equivalent of a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, except of course that one was alive for part of it.

Another novel is Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, which I haven’t read before. I haven’t much to say about it yet, having penetrated no further than the first two chapters, and I don’t expect to think highly of it. Huxley, as a recent re-reading of The Devils of Loudun brought home, has not aged well. I’m reading it solely because Sybille Bedford, in Jigsaw, tells us that Huxley “borrowed” some unpleasant dramas from her own family life and recycled them here. She was horrified, when she found this out, in 1937, but by then she and the Huxleys were great chums, and Maria Huxley reminded her younger friend that her husband used everything in his novels. So the friendship was not damaged, and Bedford went on to write the authorized biography of the author of Brave New World, which book I must say that I have managed not actually to read. I’ve treated 1984 in the same way. It occurs to me that I should have seen them, if they were great movies.

Anyway, I decided to read Eyeless in Gaza, really, because it was a way of holding on to Sybille Bedford, who didn’t write enough if you ask me. I read her Jigsaw years and years ago and liked it, but I thought that it was rather queer, and I don’t mean sexually. What made it queer was the Bohemian freedom of its characters’ lives, a freedom nevertheless bound up in good manners. I was too young, I think, to hear the crystal purity of Bedford’s voice. Now that I’m old enough, I read her with avid hunger. Legacy, A Visit to Don Otavio, A Favourite of the Gods — all marvelous. And now I’ve just read The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s Report. I quoted a passage from this the other day, but did not talk about the book. It ought to be read by every lawyer and, especially, every law student. Everywhere in Europe.

The Faces of Justice is something of a fragment. It might have been a much, much bigger book. I don’t mean that Bedford ought to have burrowed into the philosophical differences between Europe’s two great legal systems. The virtue of her writing is always that it sounds the depths from a calm surface. This is a knack that is easier to explain, in terms of Bedford’s very complicated personal background, than to describe; other writers who possess it would be Penelope Lively, though to a lesser degree, and Janet Malcolm, who seems to me to be following in Bedford’s footsteps. Both Bedford and Malcolm are fascinated by the funhouse-mirror distortions of legal procedure, and both appear to understand the whys and wherefores of everyday justice without having bothered with law school. Bedford, who became interested in trials as a very young woman in London, has a keen if unacademic awareness of, for example, the niceties of hearsay, and she is horrified by its admissibility as evidence in Continental jurisprudence. Provincially horrified, she is careful to note. If you grow up in the Anglophone legal tradition, then the courts of Germany and France (and all the rest) are going to seem frightfully inquisitorial; if you’re looking at Anglophone law from a foreign perspective, it can seem hideously infected by sporting notions that have nothing to do with right and wrong, but are instead wrapped up with that utterly untranslatable term, fairness. “Life isn’t fair,” we all console each other; but English law and it numerous offshoots all do try to correct that.

In The Faces of Justice, Bedford starts out with the way things are done in England. She attends an “ordinary” case, by which she means one in which there is no actual suspense. The dim truck driver who “converted” a shipment of apples and Gloucester cheese to his own use — that is, he stole it and sold it and used the proceeds to buy a flashy car — is obviously guilty. There is nothing to get to the bottom of. This makes the case a good teaching tool, because all the things that take place in an exciting case happen here, too, and, because there’s no mystery, it’s easier to pay attention to them. Bedford shows how the case against the driver is painstakingly made, by establishing, as if in some virtual, holographic recreation, the facts of the matter. We take this for granted; Bedford insists that we see exactly what it is that we take for granted.

Bedford also writes about “summary justice,” which is how the vast bulk of infractions are dealt with. Think of parking tickets; think “drunk and disorderly.” Think of stealing a quantity of matchbooks and a slice of cake from the back seat of a parked car, as one odd young man was caught in the middle of doing. So long as the money involved is below a certain threshold, and the penalties fall short of high fines and extensive prison terms, these cases can be handled by a magistrate, usually, in England (at least at the time of Bedford’s writing, 1960 or so), a retired barrister. Bedford runs through about two dozen matters: la comédie humaine. The salience of justice is oddly higher in magistrate’s court, perhaps because the magistrate is, within the scope of his jurisdiction, rather godlike: he is judge, jury, and counsel wrapped up in one person. And Bedford’s report demonstrates that magistrates usually, but not always, do dispense justice.

Then Bedford crosses the Channel, and visits the capital of the province in which she grew up, Karlsruhe. I didn’t know that Karlsruhe was the seat of West German justice prior to unification, a fact that is really neither here nor there in her report, which is primarily devoted to a somewhat sensational case (at the time) involving a stressed-out father who shot and killed an elderly exhibitionist who had been flashing his daughter. This is definitely not an ordinary case, but Bedford squeezes it for all that it can tell us about how things are done in Germany — how very, very differently. The jury, for example, sits alongside the judges, and together with the judges, one-man-one-vote, reaches the verdict. Nor are the members of the jury members of the public whose names are drawn out of a hat. They are what we might call stand-up citizens, people with good reputations in the town and solid balances in the bank. If there were one reform to be borrowed from Continental law, this would be my choice. I see the attraction of sporting chances as a way of leveling the field of justice, but I am not willing to extend it to a way of composing juries that permits uneducated men and women to grapple with complicated, unheard-of fact patterns. Nor do I buy the Anglophone fairy tale that juries are triers of fact but not of law.

There is a beautiful sequence of paragraphs about the Courts of Restitution. “Most of the plaintiffs are dead.” One gathers from today’s news that these courts must not have been doing a very good job, since the restoration of art (especially) to Jewish families dispossessed by the Nazis is as big a deal as ever, nearly sixty years after Bedford’s book. Her account, which is worldly and humane and as brief a can be, suggests otherwise. Grand pianos, furs, rings — it’s all being sorted out somehow. “Anyone who cares to may walk in and hear; this is the aftermath of what everybody knew, and here it is going on, in living memories. And it as grim and pitiful and unbearable as it ever was.”

The plaintiffs in such cases are represented more often than not by Jewish law firms. Once more, Jewish faces are seen in German courts; Jewish lawyers, move, speak, mix with apparent smoothness. “Morning, Herr Collegue — ” “Morning, dear sir — ” All as before? Better than before? Whatever lies behind — must lie behind — this is a daily reality. (108)

Bedford also goes to Switzerland and to France, providing a very interesting picture of the former and a more perfunctory portrait of the more-familiar French. Along the way, there is an “Austrian Interlude” that I have to read again, because it is so odd and so curiously funny: it’s as if Bedford were humming arias from an imaginary Mozart opera set to the usual Italian libretto by da Ponte, only this time starring Don Basilio.

I’ll wind up by quoting a passage or two from the Swiss section of The Faces of Justice that gave me a good laugh.

Bâle is a very rich canton. There are no poor. Private and public money is spent freely. Taxes are just and not too high. The young are well brought up. God is feared and the family is loved. Crimes against property are committed mainly by psychopaths and foreign workers. Nevertheless the summary courts do not stand idle. The Swiss appear to have a passion, almost equal to the Germans’, for dragging their private rows before the courts. Charges of slander, vilification, back-biting and evil-speaking are forever poured — not reticently — into the patient judge’s ear by waitresses, landlords, van drivers, neighbours and meddling passers-by. (153-4)

And, on the next page:

Then there came a whole group who complained of a messenger boy who would whistle at them when they went out to hang their washing in the yard. The boy said that it was his luncheon hour, and by no means at all of them.

The judge said, “That amounts to an admission, you know.” The boy laughed.

How I hated to finish this book! To make things worse, it’s a very slim reprint (by Quid Pro books, of New Orleans), so its removal from the reading pile didn’t amount to anything.

Other books: The Bad Popes, which you can be sure I’ll be telling you about; an early, and rather short, novel by Fontane that I’m never able to get quite into, whenever I pick it up — its time will come; Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, with its very indecent jacket art a book that cannot be read in public places; the first volume of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which I thought might make a nice bedtime read; Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons, which I must return to or replace on the shelf; Francis Bacon’s Henry VII, a surprisingly legal history of the reign and every bit as demanding as it is interesting (and so not for bedtime); and the latest Granta. Oh — and a real threat to the stability of the book pile unless it’s at the very bottom, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night. Soon to come, Tom Bartlett’s history of Ireland. What’s that book by Nicholson Baker? Fermata? I need that, but not for sex.


Thursday 17th

As I mentioned the other day, I’m reading Eyeless in Gaza, by Aldous Huxley. Discovering it, I ought to say. Discovering it in the now-official sense of reading it for the first time. But also discovering something, by means of rediscovery, something that once seemed familiar but is now amazingly ancient. That would be Huxley’s “novel of ideas” gambit. When I first read Huxley, in the early Seventies, he seemed adult and authoritative; the struggle that he had with reconciling passion with reason, the beast with the angel, was genuinely agonized, and informed by an Arnoldian study of all the best that has been thought and written. (Matthew Arnold was a collateral forebear.) Not only was Huxley not bound by European prejudices, moreoever, but he was keen to propose a third way, that of mysticism. He was greatly attracted to the dream of merging the self in the cosmos, as his two “psychedlic” books, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, attest. But for all the big ideas, Huxley now comes across as just another twentieth-century Brit dogged by irritated impatience with the limitations of his physical and psychosocial frame.

And who would not have been irritated and impatient? As I read the non-idea passages of Eyeless in Gaza, I’m reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Huxley’s style is differerent (it’s not so hierophantic), but his picture of the late Victorian world of his (and Compton-Burnett’s) childhood shares a certain heavy deadliness, as if every cup of tea were laced with soul-killing toxins. Stiff and stuffy, it is a time of frowns, of discomforts (those clothes!) and dissatisfactions. I rather enjoy these bits, because it is by no means disagreeable to be reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett if you do not actually have to read her. But one must also bear in mind that it was the experience of these buttoned-up atmospheres that made all the young men so thrilled to rush off to fight in 1914.

Owing to a childhood illness, Huxley’s eyesight was severely limited; he could not drive a car. But even had he been completely able-bodied, I doubt that, for all his loving-kindness for humanity, he should ever have been much help around the house. His clever but devoted wife, née Maria Nys, managed everything for him. I have to wonder, though, if she proof-read Eyeless in Gaza. I am certain that, had she had a look at it, Sybille Bedford would have complained about the following:

One isn’t lazy about what one loves. The problem is: how to love? (Once more the word is suspect — greasy from being fingered by generations of Stigginses. There ought to be some way of dry-cleaning and disinfecting words. Love, purity, goodness, spirit — a pile of dirty linen waiting for the laundress. How, then, to — not “love,” since it’s an unwashed handkerchief — feel, say, persistent affectionate interest in people? How to make the anthropogical approach to them…? Not easy to answer. (11)

You will be wondering who the Stigginses are. So was I. A light search revealed a learned-looking text in which the Stigginses were grouped with those oleaginous religious pooh-bahs, Austen’s Mr Collins and Trollope’s Obadiah Slope. I think that we can leave it there for the moment.

My concern for the Stigginses evaporated the moment I came across “dry-cleaning” and then “disinfecting.” What was wrong with “laundering,” I objected? Why introduce all those chemicals to the problem of eliminating adulterants? And then came the “dirty linen,” followed quickly by the “laundress.” My jaw fell; I didn’t know where to begin. With “laundress,” of course, Huxley inadvertently acknowledged my objection, but was he aware that laundresses do not oversee the dry-cleaning process? Most of all, did Huxley know that linen is not usually dry-cleaned? Laundering does not degrade linen, as it does, say, wool. All textiles wear out eventually, and cleaning processes of any kind hasten deterioration, but laundering makes linen soft and supple long before it frays it.

Aside from this domestic incongruity, there is the sheerly literary awkwardness of bringing together a snazzy new technology — the replacement of chlorinated for petroleum-based solvents made dry-cleaning much safer in the 1930s — and a venerable (if “unmentionable”) conceit, used by Voltaire if not earlier.

Finally, there is the confusion of following the mention of the laundress and the “pile of dirty linen” with the suggestion that laundry isn’t possible: love, that “unwashed handkerchief,” must be discarded. For Huxley is indeed assuming that there is no way to dry-clean, disinfect, or even launder words that have been soiled by overuse. I make no such assumption. I believe that you can nurse weakened words back to health by using them sparingly and deliberately, and exhorting others to do the same.

I reject, furthermore, the notion that human beings constitute a jumble of paradoxes and design flaws. They are not fallen angels. (There are no angels.) Nor is it intelligent to regard them as highly-gifted animals, because those differentiating gifts are so extraordinary that to overlook them in the search for a common nature is to commit a category mistake. We are what we are, and if we’re confused so much of the time, that is because we can create things that we don’t really understand. (Consider the smartphone.) We are perhaps too fond of keeping our options open, but then, having any options at all is a rather recent development in human history. Why should we be good at it?

“One isn’t lazy about what one loves.” What is that pearl of wisdom supposed to mean? Also: says who? “The problem is: how to love?” Is Huxley looking for a manual? I throw up my hands: men! Dry-cleaning the linen, indeed. Maria Huxley, we’re assured by Sybille Bedford, was a very busy woman.


The strangest feeling overcame me as I typed out Huxley’s words: the awful recognition that it was with this sort of twaddle that I filled volume after volume of my youthful journals. Anthony Beavis, the Eyeless in Gaza character whose diary the passage comes from, writes better and more coherently than I did, but the emptiness of the activity is the same. The problem with asking how to love? within the confines of a page in a book at a desk in a room that hardly anyone will ever see — nay, that one will almost certainly never revisit — is that talk of love makes no sense in solitude. Talk of love in general terms is never more than decorative. Love is a state that exists, with highly varying qualia, only between actual human beings. You cannot talk about love without having at least one other specific person in mind. How to love my wife after ten years of marriage? How to love someone from the other side of the tracks? How to love my parents? How to love this beautiful woman who has nothing to say? How not to love the guy who beats me up?

Like Aldous Huxley, I grew up in an affluent world of superficially similar people. Experience was both narrow and universal. It’s no wonder that, when we took up our journals, we assumed that we knew everything that there was to know about the world, except how to bear it. Being intelligent above the common run (the common run of this affluent world, that is), we set out to imitate the philosophers: we would work out the big problems by writing about them. Eventually, I realized that I was treading water in a limitless sea of verbiage. Huxley, more bold perhaps, polished his ratiocinations into books. His answer to the question of love was to be the devoted recipient of Maria’s care, while indulging in affairs with other women. I’ll bet that there were times when Maria Huxley wanted to send Aldous to the dry-cleaner’s.


My persistent cold, which seems to be a vast subterranean network of roots that now and then puts up mushrooms of congestion and misery, brought me low on Tuesday, but relief was at hand. 15 March was the release date for the videos of Brooklyn and The Big Short, and Amazon contrived to put the DVDs in my hands just after lunch. So I watched one and then the other. Brooklyn first, of course — and a good choice it was, too, to reserve The Big Short for second, because I lost about five pounds in salty tears watching Brooklyn and might well gone on weeping without something acerbic to change my tune. Both films are remarkable, but I don’t want to say much more than that right now, because yesterday —

Yesterday, I walked by the Video Room on my way home from the dermatologist. Or rather, I walked in, and then walked out with a copy of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which I watched as soon as I got home. During the years when I went to the movies almost every Friday, I should probably have seen Steve Jobs in the theatre, because if you go every week you have to sit through more than a few good films that are nevertheless not, at least in advance, compelling. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m trying to determine whether Steve Jobs is compelling — compelling enough to add to my library. Will I watch it again? Well, yes; I’d like to. But after the third time, would I be done with it? I can’t tell. The film has all the morbid attraction of a highway accident. You look for bodies. And you think, this man will die in 2011. But you also wonder: what is this movie about?

Steve Jobs asks you to look forward and backward. It moves forward, jumping from product presentations in 1984, 1988, and 1998, while jumping back to a few earlier moments in time. The formula is a Hollywood ancient, a sort of triple-play backstager: the moment Jobs (Michael Fassbender) walks onstage to pitch the latest marvel, the screen garbles or fades to black and we move on, for another twenty or thirty minutes of pre-game drama. Each time, Jobs has to confront three antagonists: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the computer engineer who actually designed the first Apple products; Lisa, the daughter whom he is so reluctant to recognize (played by three actresses over time, with Katherine Waterston appearing as her mother in 1984 and 1988); and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the professional executive whom Jobs hired and who fired Jobs. At Jobs’s side throughout is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). It is unclear what her job is, but she is clearly the only person who can make Steve Jobs do things that he doesn’t want to do. With good-hearted opportunism, Hoffman will play whatever role the situation requires, from dutiful personal assistant to stern grandmother. Kate Winslet must have had a ball, and at least she won at the Golden Globes.

With Wozniak and Lisa, Jobs is challenged by the demand that he settle old scores. It is with Scully that Jobs himself is the subject of the discussion. Scully, evidently a father figure of sorts at the beginning of his relationship with Jobs, is particularly interested in Jobs’s way of dealing with his adoption — by far the richest story line unspooled in this film, and I think that I can say that even though I had every reason, as an adopted person, to find it the most interesting part of Steve Jobs. Scully asks, “Why did you feel rejected? Why didn’t you feel selected?” Ha. I might say that I could write a book about that question, but it will probably be nothing longer than a chapter. The answer in Jobs’s case turns out to have been chilling: he was selected and rejected. Because his birth mother contested his placement with the Jobs family, his adoptive mother withheld her unqualified love, lest the child be taken away and her heart broken. That certainly explains a lot.

It explains a lot of Steve Jobs’s legendary indifference to the feelings of others. But why, really, do we care? By the time he died, Steve Jobs was famous for inventions that are only hinted at, and only once, in Danny Boyle’s movie. The Mac, NeXT, and the iMac have been consigned to the museum of technology. The Power Books and the portable devices that are so much with us are yet to come when the movie ends. I suspect that keeping these familiar products offscreen is part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s strategy for likening Steve Jobs to a rock star, a man who got onstage and killed the people. The movie leaves us all aware that the best is yet to come. And the final episode, set in 1998, seems to wrap up the squabbles. Scully is at peace, Lisa realizes that her father really does love her (a Rosebud moment), and Wozniak walks away, disappointed, presumably forever. Clear sailing ahead for Steve! Aside from the liver problem, that is.

“I play the orchestra,” Jobs tells Wozniak at the second encounter. They are standing in the pit at the San Francisco Opera, and Jobs credits the remark to Seiji Ozawa, who conducted in San Francisco for years but also appeared regularly at Tanglewood, which is where Jobs says Ozawa explained the conductor’s job — what, to be precise, distinguishes a conductor from a metronome. I should like to see a movie that explores this conceit, for it seems to be the one really interesting thing about Steve Jobs, more interesting by far than the innovations that he oversaw. As Wozniak sneeringly implies, Jobs was not really a “computer person.” He never learned how to make computers, or to make them do any particular thing. But he knew how to talk to the people who could do these things. He was, in a sense, the ideal customer, ideal not from the fabricator’s point of view (hardly that) but as a customer. He could have anything that he wanted, anything that he could dream up. As I see it, this virtually godlike power would play a much greater role in setting up the “reality distortion field” that Jobs was said (by Hoffman?) to inhabit than any adoption traumas.

What made Steve Jobs so interesting? It can’t have been bad behavior merely. Everyone knows who Bill Gates is, but I suspect that far fewer people know about his privileged background than know about Jobs’s more troubled one. Gates is gifted and clever, more knowledgeable than Jobs about the tech side and far cannier about business. But this extraordinary superstructure seems to rest upon the foundation of an ordinary guy. Steve Jobs’s foundation was daemonic: he vibrated, or so it seems, at superhuman frequencies.

If I am not a computer person myself, I am especially not an Apple person. I have an iPhone for one reason only: it facilitates FaceTime visits with my family in San Francisco. (My family is, decidedly, Apple people.) I no longer have in iPad; indeed, I have two tablets but rarely use either. And I do use the phone almost exclusively as a phone. The odd text; checking the weather — that’s it for me. I spend a lot of time at a computer with three screens. That is “work.” The rest of the time, I’m not connected. Perhaps I’m too old. I gave it a try, the new, seamless way of living, and decided that it was not a good thing for me. I treasure my traditional private life, a life that is spent apart, with family and friends, or alone. I don’t want, in the words of an infamous ad campaign, to make the world my living room. I think that it’s a mistake to conduct your private life in public, to text absent friends while dining with present ones. There is a terrible confusion here that I expect future generations will sort out. Since I probably won’t live that long, the experiment doesn’t interest me.

Although Steve Jobs isn’t the movie that I’d like to see about this remarkable man, it shows, with a lurid fascination, a way of being private at all times. Horrifying!


Friday 18th

As I was reading along in Eyeless in Gaza, I came across a line of German poetry that, without thinking, I rattled off with passable fluency. Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichniss [sic]. I could even sing it. (Mahler’s version; I can never recall the Liszt, although it is very beautiful.) I knew that the verse was Goethe, from the second part of Faust. But what did it mean? I really hadn’t the foggiest. Something about illusion. I looked up the words in the dictionary, but that got me nowhere. In a Wikipedia page on Liszt’s Faust Symphony (Mahler used the same chunk of sublimity at the end of his Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand”), the line is translated thus: “Everything transitory is only an allegory.” I don’t know; you tell me. The stanza ends with the equally inexplicable bit about how the Eternal Feminine draws us upward. It’s all very beautiful in German; it might be beautiful in any foreign language. But never, oh never, in English.

I had to set Eyeless in Gaza aside; its pretentiousness was keeping me awake. I turned to Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which is far more readable than Huxley’s novel. I keep waiting for it to become dry in the French manner, but it never does. I believe that I can actually date the purchase of this two-volume history to 1995, and even to a particular bookstore: the Quill, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was there with Kathleen, apparently the only husband that an alumna of the a capella group, the Smithereens, thought to bring along to its first reunion (marking its fiftieth). I loved the Quill and bought quite a few books there.

I was also, at the time, getting serious about understanding “the Middle Ages.” Somewhere around that time, I acquired Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book which argues that there never really was a feudal period, strictly speaking; feudal concepts, in Reynolds’s view, were elaborated by lawyers in Northern Italy just as the need for feudal arrangements — knight service and all that — was beginning to die down. If this sounds strange to you, or somewhat perverse, the reason for the lawyers’ interest was their clients’ desire to nail down property rights that, owing to very poor record-keeping in earlier centuries, were not very clear. I believe that Reynolds is quite right. The lawyers were only doing what historians have done ever since: they were imposing a retrospective coherency.

Does this mean that Marc Bloch was wrong to take “the feudal society” seriously enough to investigate its workings in five hundred pages of small print? I’ll see, won’t I. Meanwhile, I was struck by something that Bloch points out on page 75 of the Chicago paperback. Alone in Europe, England governed itself in its own language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is true that this came to an end with the Conquest, after which everything was in Latin for a while; what Bloch neglects to mention is that Latin, the official language on the Continent until well into the Renaissance, did not take hold in England for very long. A hundred years after the Conquest, a good deal of legal business was being done in Norman French. Consider the names of two of Henry II’s most notable possessory writs (real-estate claims), Mortdancestor and Novel Disseisin. Two centuries later, “law French” was firmly established as the language of English courts. I’ve never been able to figure out quite when it was abandoned, but I suspect that the use of law French (aside from references, quips, and quotes) did not survive the tumult of the Wars of the Roses. I have always loved the transitional judgment, concerning the law of nuisance (of all things): “Le noisomeness de le stench est plus que l’utilite de la use.”

Norman French transformed Anglo Saxon from a harsh Teutonic dialect into something vastly more sophisticated, a language, in my view, without a counterpart anywhere else. The French is not a dressing; it goes much deeper than that. It pervades English so extensively that there are rhythmic safeguards that prevent its taking over. In Chaucer, you can still see the French bits, which stick out plentifully. By Shakespeare’s time, French elements are so naturalized that many of them don’t seem foreign even to us, reading centuries later. We have two words in English for many ordinary things, and a great part of any writer’s style is his or her peculiar weave of Teutonic and Latinate words and phrases. English remains a Teutonic language, but only because it isn’t anything else; to describe its difference from other European languages, I should borrow an image from geology and call it metamorphic rather than sedimentary.

Geography is destiny: England owes its peculiarities to its isola-tion. Its language and its institutions have evolved without serious interruption for nearly a thousand years. This cannot be said of any other European country. At the very least, almost all the nations of the Continent were overhauled by Napoleon’s conquests; no matter how reactionary the government of any country might be thereafter, its leaders were afflicted by the need to reform and to streamline. The threat of revolution was always at hand, and often realized. England reformed, too, of course, but never dramatically. In 1832, the franchise was extended, and Parliamentary seats were more genuinely representative of populations; further reforms continued this trend. But Parliament remained Parliament, and the Prime Minister continued to be the head of the leading Parliamentary party. Nobody tinkered with the idea of installing a popularly-elected president. Nobody has. In the 1920s, the legal system was overhauled, but in a backstage manner; the leading players in a trial still wear wigs. England has a knack for changing the foundations while leaving appearances intact; on the Continent, it is just the other way round.

From these cloudy ruminations I draw an explanation for a curious phenomenon: the English are much better at narrative history than anybody else, and English history has a wider, general readership. It is not entirely a scholarly enterprise, and it is not aimed altogether at students. Why? Because English history is so pleasingly continuous, or at least it seemed to be in the Nineteenth Century, when modern traditions of writing history were germinated. It is only recently, with the depressive “realization” that Britain is no longer a superpower, and not a genuine partner of the United States in some “special relationship,” that the glum view of John Le Carré has taken hold. I don’t mean to complain, or to advocate waving flags, but only to say that English historiography was born in a climate of extreme self-satisfaction. Since the overarching story was so magnificent — a monarchy that knew how to relinquish control (as if), an empire upon which the sun never set (and whose books might be regarded as having been cooked by said sun), and a political system that was as free and open to all as Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — there could be no harm in chuckling now and then at the nation’s dependence on muddling through. Indeed, the moral of English history seems to be, Whatever you do, don’t use your head. Just tell us what really happened.

After all, everything transitory is only an allegory. <?>


While Huxley resorts to German, his admirer Sybille Bedford turns to French. Understandably: she spent most of her young life (if not her childhood) in France. Specifically, however, she turns to Racine, to a line from Phèdre to be precise. I have a distinct recollection of her doing so in Jigsaw but did not make a note of it. In The Faces of Justice, it occurs on page 157 of the Quid Pro edition. This is the beginning of a short but intriguing chapter about the daughter of a great French industrial fortune, a woman denied her inheritance by her brothers because she has neither married nor remained at home (“feudal society” still at work, circa 1960). This lady, whom Bedford calls Mlle Z, has come to Switzerland to try to recoup some bonds held there in her late father’s account. Bedford adapts Racine to describe this would-be heiress as “la province française entière à son but attachée.” I won’t translate this, because I’d just have to translate the translation, but the inspiration for the quip is Phèdre’s statement of the fatal nature of her attachment to Hyppolite.

Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée:
C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
(I, iii)

The image of Venus as a raptor, gripping her prey (Phèdre), is something that I have not encountered anywhere else in art — which may be proof that I don’t get around enough. Without being graphic, the line conjures flesh punctured by talons: it’s all in the sytax, which puts the prey before the “attachment.” Bedford’s borrowed plumes don’t quite sit atop Mlle Z’s head, however; far from French Provincial, Mlle Z appears to be somewhat bohemian. What seems to fuel the jest is Mlle Z’s inability to afford Parisian chic.


I am in the middle of watching a Nederlander film, Oorlogsgeheimen (Secrets of War, 2014). I picked it up at the Video Room the other day, thinking that it might be good to listen to some Nederlands. Actually, I am near the climax of the film. I had to turn it off last night, because Kathleen was still out, having dinner with a client, and I hadn’t heard from her. I was very worked up. Imagine a Mark Twain boy’s-own-adventure story, but with Nazis. Nazis rounding people up and putting them in cattle cars — that sort of thing. The movie is set in a Catholic village near Maastricht. Two boys, Lambert and Tuur, are best friends. But Lambert’s father is a collaborator, and Tuur’s father is in the Resistance. Tuur has a demented old auntie who speaks her incontinent mind, which is not full of warm thoughts about “Krauts.” Tuur himself has trouble keeping his voice down. He’s somewhere between ten and twelve, I’d say, and the War is very exciting for him. He likes having to run to the bomb shelter — he actually smiles when the ground shakes. That’s at the beginning of the film. One day, a new girl is introduced to the class, and unless your brain is a turnip you see at once that she is Jewish. Inevitably, she sets up a rivalry between the two friends, and at the moment when I had to stop watching, it seemed that Lambert’s jealousy might well bring ruin and worse to the girl and to Tuur and his family. I shall find out presently. The movie is exciting because it keeps the tempo of boy’s life, with slack longueurs punctuated by attacks of frenzy. It is very clear to the adult viewer that Tuur has no idea how dangerous the Nazi officers really are; his parents have tried to protect him from their terror. To no avail, of course. The comic-book pace of the action is horribly ironic: this is no action story.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Just a Patient
March 2016 (II)

Monday 7th

Daniel Martin is a puzzling book to read in 2016. The world in which it is set is now forty years old at the latest, but there is little sense of history. By “history,” in this fictional connection, I mean the sense of present grinding into past — in a word, change. Things, in Daniel Martin, don’t so much change as reveal their essence. The title character and his friends (using the word loosely) exist in an eternal now. Their lives may be cluttered with memories, like crumpled attempts at a first draft, but their youth was a golden age, a time out of time. To remember the golden age is to feel disappointed by everything that followed, and doomed to that disappointment as the inevitable by-product of self-realization.

Here is a metaphor that is dropped in passing. (I am not interested in the “first major success” that is the subject of the paragraph.)

The anatomy of first major success is like the young human body, a miracle only the owner can fully savour — and even then, only at the time.

This is almost perfectly wrong. The young may enjoy their youth, but they are incapable of savoring it; they don’t know enough to make the myriad comparisons that melt into true savor. The sense of the wondrousness of youth does not come until youth is past, and we see it for the first time in those who have followed us into youth. We know that they don’t, that they can’t, appreciate what they’ve got. All that they’re aware of possessing is the audacity of youth, the license to reach out and take things. They have put the timidity of childhood behind them and are ready to run risks. But they haven’t the equipment for assaying those risks. They don’t know, until it’s too late, how much easier it is to hurt some people than others, and they don’t know which ones are going to be hurt.

Youth is a golden age — or has been one in modern times — because no one forgets the shocked delight of discovering autonomy, which may be nothing more than the absence of parents. It is a more or less unchanging experience, shared by almost everyone, but it is stamped by peculiarities that bestow a trumpery uniqueness.

Because I am puzzled, I am writing very slowly. Part of me wants to be brisk: Daniel Martin is a badly dated book. The author-narrator dispenses a lot of non-wisdom. Sometimes he merely blusters.

It took some years for Dan to realize that the total failure in England to develop a decent commercial movie industry, let alone something better than a constipated trickle of serious film-makes, is at least partly due to our unerring flair for backing bad directors … or to the corollary notion that some semi-illiterate cameraman or ingratiating phony must know more about reproducing life than anyone else. (153)

Consider the string of extreme adjectives: total, constipated, unerring, semi-literate, ingratiating. This could be Norma Desmond talking. There is absolutely no substance in these remarks. It is mere bile, and the all-too-familiar bile of movie writers at that.

Part of me is intoxicated by the sheer readability of the thing. Of Oxford:

No town is further, when it wants to be, from the tame conversational norms of the rest of middle-class England, with all its conditioned evasions and half-finished sentences, its permanent poised flight into the inarticulate. I had lived for so long in exile, in a world whose only ‘test” was one’s degree of craftsmanship in a given context, and aeons from this tiny society that lived essentially, for all its outward academic orientations, by ideal and abstract — and frequently absurd — notions of personal truth and behavior.

I had also, behind the apparent deference, felt obscurely condescended to; the way intellectuals will condescend to peasants, make all kinds of urbane adjustments for their ignorance. (176)

I agree with very little; much of it seems almost violently incorrect. But I do not really complain. I keep turning pages, pages that I have already turned on two occasions. I read Daniel Martin when it came out in paper, and then again shortly after law school. The paperback cover was deep green, and I thought of it Daniel Martin as a green novel, as who wouldn’t after that profoundly rural first chapter, so loaded with unfamiliar terms and arcane agricultural practices that it might have been taken from Keats’s Grecian urn — had the urn been green. It is a big, literate, realistic, almost Victorian novel, all the more so for being studded with situations that no Victorian could publish. (It seems ridiculous now, but Swinging London was really just the final (but successful) attempt to smash the staid English ethos that had come into focus during the old queen’s long reign.) It is sophisticated but not difficult — well, not difficult after the first two or three chapters, which can be as thorny as Sleeping Beauty’s forest, and for the same reasons. Having made it clear that he is not going to consdescend to us peasants, John Fowles proceeds with his stock-taking, which would be clinical if he were not so poetical.


And I keep comparing Daniel Martin (the character) to Éamon Redmond, the central figure in The Heather Blazing. The two books share a similar fundamental structure, as chapters set in the present alternate with chapters that glimpse at the progressively recent past, but their protagonists make them utterly unalike. It is easy to imagine Éamon’s response to Fowles’s book — and clear that it would not be verbal.

I cannot get over how familiar Éamon is to me. He doesn’t remind me of anyone in particular, just half the student body of Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. So many boys were just like him: quietly well-mannered, mild, diligent, stoical, and determined to do well in the world in a way that marked no distinction between family expectation and personal ambition. It was the last part that kept me at my distance, and kept them in a generalized blur. I was fearful about doing well in the world. I was pretty sure that I could not compete; already, I knew that I could not keep my mind on the demands of an external challenge. I might be very good at something, but I should be good in my own way, disregarding the conventions that facilitate apprehension. In some obscure but persistent way, I could not conform. Complicating things further, I did not appear to be a non-conformist. It was like colorblindness, a drawback that you can’t detect in another person without amassing a lot of incidental evidence. I was forever letting interested and encouraging professors down.

And I was almost certain that compliance was corrupting. Eventually, it would become a habit that forestalled judgment. Colm Tóibín drops occasional hints that Éamon’s career has been corrupt ever since he agreed to study law, at the request of Seán Lemass no less. The problem seems to have been that the legal profession was in the pocket of Fine Gael; Fianna Fáil, Éamon’s family’s party, needed to challenge that hegemony, so that it could work with instead of against the lawyers. So Éamon became a barrister and was given Constitutional cases by the (Fianna Fáil) government; eventually, or actually rather early in his career, he was made a judge.

At the beginning of the second part of The Heather Blazing, Éamon is about to deliver an opinion that he knows will be controversial. In a small Irish town, a student at a Catholic school has gotten pregnant. She has not only been expelled, but forbidden to return after the birth of the child. Her presence in the school, the principal testifies, would be counter to its “ethos.” The question before Éamon is whether this “ethical” problem warrants depriving a gifted student of a good education. He himself, we are assured, has no personal stake in the religious underpinnings of the “ethos”; he has completely lost his religious faith. In other words, the ethos no longer has any meaning for him; it is just the way things are. But that has nothing to do with how he envisions his role.

He listened carefully to the counsel’s submission about various articles of the Constitution, but there was no argument about facts or truth, guilt or innocence. In the end he was not the legal arbiter, because there were few legal issues at stake. Most of the issues raised by the case were moral: the right of an ethos to prevail over the right of an individual. Basically, he was being asked to decide how life should be conducted in a small town. He smiled to himself at the thought and shook his head. (88)

And there is no question about how, as an adherent of Fianna Fáil, he ought to decide: for the “ethos,” of course. And yet Éamon is troubled by doubts. When he actually reads his opinion, he is sure that it is correct, well-written and -argued; he knows that his colleagues will approve. But when he looks elsewhere, when he takes his eyes off the pages, he is not so sure. He knows that many Irish people, including members of his own family, will disagree. He quails a bit at the prospect of this contention, and when it does break out he resorts to using his authority as a judge to silence it. But he does his duty. It is all so brilliantly written that you don’t know whether to admire him or to despise him. You manage to do both, because that is the only way to respond to the scrupulously corrupt, when they do unpleasant things no matter what the personal cost.

I came across an essay online, by a professor at the University of Manchester, Liam Harte, on the role of the marine in Colm Tóibín’s writing. Harte’s discussion of The Heather Blazing is interesting at two points for off-topic commentary. First, Harte mentions Éamon’s “emotional autism.” Second, he describes the speech that Éamon delivers at a Fianna Fáil rally in Enniscorthy:

This proves to be a defining moment in his life, which leads directly to his being singled out as a future instrument of Fianna Fáil power, a destiny he duly fulfills when he becomes a state prosecutor and eventually a judge. But it is also the moment in which Eamon Redmond becomes the mouthpiece for a moribund, patriarchal conservatism, parrotting a received revolutionary ideology that is shown to have ossified into platitudinous orthodoxy. It is the rhetoric of de Valera himself, who, instead of addressing urgent social and economic issues of the day, delivers a stock eulogy to Enniscorthy as “one of the sacred towns of this island [...], which has ever kept the flame of nationhood alight, even in darkest times.”

Needless to say, Colm Tóibín would never put this so bluntly. He leaves it up to the reader to see Éamon’s “platitudinous orthodoxy” for what it is. Having read my Irish history books, I was able to date the scene to the 1951 election, clinched not only by Éamon’s age but by de Valera’s as well. (He’ll be seventy next year, someone tells Éamon.) I could measure Éamon’s determination to get ahead in the world by his ability to write and then to memorize a speech so at odds with Ireland’s social and economic needs. On the first two readings, I distantly sensed something “off” about the speech, but for the most part I saw the favorite son doing his family proud. Now I felt the depth to which Éamon’s corruption was rooted in his family.

As to the “emotional autism,” this must refer to the unhappiness that Carmel, Éamon’s wife, expresses at two points in the novel. In the earlier (which comes after the later in the narrative), Carmel is pregnant. She complains of Éamon’s remoteness; she feels that he doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t even hear her. Nor does he share himself. The passage is a bitter echo of what we have already heard from the much older Carmel. In the first stage of the illness that will kill her, this older woman makes the same complaint. What she also says at that time is that she blames herself for having tolerated his reserve. She used to admire it, but she learned that it was wrong “to want [him] like that.” (155)

I found myself surprised to be taking Éamon’s side. Colm Tóibín’s side as well, I suspect.


Tuesday 8th

Which is more important in everyday life, what we believe or how we behave? I myself have no doubt of the answer. The question, which nobody was asking, occurred to me as I mulled over a passage from Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, which I’ve just read for the second time.

They had known each other for some years. They moved in a milieu of highly educated, upper-class, post-war young, who had lost ideals and aims but retained their manners. (And the scruples which these comprise.) They had turned — privately: they were no socialists or reformers — against patriotism, militarism (that above all), religion, bourgeois values; they still believed in individual good behaviour. They wanted a good time [...but] Unlike Evelyn Waugh’s Bright and Young they wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving unpaid bills or burning cigarettes on other people’s carpets. (182)

Bedford is describing what came to be called the “Lost Generation” in English; the case might be made that, when push came to shove, good behaviour was not enough to check the fascist tide. Dealing with Nazis, perhaps, required a new set of manners, one shaped by public convictions. I don’t know. I was thinking about how well the passage described me, and a lot of people whom I know, with the Summer of Love and its attendant seasons of countercultural excitement standing in for World War I. There would be only one item out of alignment: we did not reject “bourgeois values” so much as retune them. Particularly when it came to raising children, we believed in safety first, followed immediately by education.

The old bourgeois idea of education involved the pursuit of credentials and the development of a personal patina. The credentials vested some objective authority in the managers of business that bourgeois men usually became, while the patina of culture and worldliness conveyed an aura that, if not actually aristocratic, did not clash with high-born manners. Our idea of education was geared more toward self-realization, which usually involves having a good time. Fais ce que voudras. I now believe that the older view of education was better. When I was young, anything like patina was scoffed at — clearly phoney. But it seems that patina is not a mask but a kind of semipermeable membrane that permits sophisticated knowledgeability to flow back and forth between the individual and the environment.

A social crisis may be defined as a moment when belief displaces behavior as the more important thing. Otherwise, belief is, or ought to be, private and personal; it’s behavior that counts. Doing certain things, refraining from others, setting an example most of all: these are the elements of primate sociability. We are constantly checking up on each other, constantly measuring ourselves against others. We want to fit in, but without altogether disappearing, and other people show us how it’s done. Imagine two halls: in one, everyone is disputing the most important ethical principles, while, in the other, everyone is trying to make everyone else comfortable. It always amazes me that so many people choose the first room. Don’t they know about the second? Or do they truly despise comfort? Perhaps they are simply bad listeners.

I knew when I began re-reading Jigsaw that I would be upset when it came to an end, and I am. I want to know more. That is why I have just ordered Quicksands, Bedford’s third and final memoir. At the bottom of Bedford’s Wikipedia page, there’s a link to the podcast of her appearance on the famous BBC radio show, Desert Island Discs, in 1998. I clicked through and listened to it. Bedford shared a lot of Mozart, along with a bit of Beethoven and Schubert — oh, and Bach. All very proper. She sounded like the older and slightly odder sister of the princess that Wendy Hiller plays in Murder on the Orient Express very plummy, with a light Ruritanian accent. Bedford talked at one point about the importance of love and the risk of jealous misery, but it was clear that she would not allow herself to be induced by these thrills and ills to make scenes. Scenes in front of third parties, anyway.

Bedford’s life story was a charmed one, and we’re to be grateful that she taught herself to write about it so well. Her memoirs are only cosmetically fictional; she compresses and edits, nips and tucks, all in the interest of telling a coherent story. But she does not, I think, shape her material to emphasize the remarkable events. She acknowledges her luck at every stage. Sometimes — rarely — it is bad luck. Certainly few things could be worse than dealing with the drug addiction of a close relative (in this case, her mother). But for the most part it is very good luck, and the best bit of good luck in her life was the friendship of Aldous and Maria Huxley, who took up residence in her tiny seaside town, Sanary-sur-Mer, a few years after she herself arrived. Ordinarily, the advantages of such a friendship would be contacts, doors opened, but in the case of the Huxleys it was more immediate. They were generous to Sybille and her mother when money was tight. They got Bedford married and out of France on the eve of the War, and they took her with them to the United States in 1940. Because Bedford’s mother was Jewish (or partly), and because Bedford herself had published an anti-Nazi piece, she was on the Gestapo hit-list, and she might well have perished in the Holocaust had it not been for the Huxley’s constant material support.

On Desert Island Discs, Bedford cited a maxim of the Huxley’s: you must give people what they need before they have to ask for it. This is the summit on which listening truly merges with observation, with paying attention, with being aware. You hear a request before it is spoken.

I like to think that I’m a good listener, but I have my lapses, and one of them came up a few weekends ago, when Kathleen asked if we could “have some jazz.” I had been lost in the development of two monster playlists, one lasting well over a day and the other, two. I was in the middle of tinkering with one of them and telling Kathleen how happy I was with how it was going when she made her modest request. She was not complaining. She quickly added, “I don’t mean right now.” I didn’t blush, but I felt crass and derelict. Kathleen has often said, over the years, that jazz on the weekends makes her feel cozy and safe. I had stopped listening. I got good at compiling classical playlists to her taste. I had compiled a few jazz playlists that were limited to the mellow classics, to musicians like Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. This wasn’t what Kathleen had in mind. She wanted to hear jazz that was new when she was young. Herbie Hancock. The Crusaders. John Coltrane. Miles Davis. Sometimes mellow but usually not. To me, a lot of this jazz is difficult to listen to in the same way that self-consciously “dissonant” classical music is: I can’t grasp the form, and therefore don’t know where I am (beginning, middle, or end?). There is also a lot of noise: squawks, rushed scales, intrusive drumming. I don’t quite dislike the jazz that Kathleen asked to hear, but I pushed it aside over the years, as we stopped listening to CDs directly and took up connecting iPods to speakers.

Several months ago, Kathleen asked me to play some albums that she hadn’t heard in a long time. Quite a few of them were already uploaded onto iPods (we have two big ones and six or seven Nanos), and I uploaded a few more. In the process, I realized that it really does make sense to listen to albums as albums, rather than shuffling among their contents. I saw that this was why I had stopped listening to Keith Jarrett. Nearly a dozen of his Standards albums, on which he’s assisted by Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, comprised their own playlist, but shuffling through this material for more than an hour gave me a musical headache. I now realized that this way of listening was incorrect. The albums were as composed as the individual improvisations, by a sense of what followed what. And listening to Jarrett’s intensely analytical takes on the standards that he used to play in hotel lounges when he was a young musician is not something to be done at great length — any more than, except for some special occasion, you would play all of Beethoven’s late quartets in a row, or five Mahler symphonies. Such overexposure is not enlightening but corrosive.

From my first encounter with iTunes, as an application for managing a library of MP3 files with a view to uploading music onto an iPod, I have kept classical music separate from everything else. After my Radio Days experience, I don’t have to think about how to organize a library of classical music. Organizing everything else is not so easy. Jazz, for historical reasons, is particularly difficult. Does Mildred Bailey belong with Miles Davis or Jo Stafford? What do you do with Julien Clerc when he sings American standards? (One of my favorite CDs, it’s called Studio.) Pop can be just as difficult, although it usually isn’t: pop shuns the very possibility of difficulty. (And yet: Steely Dan?) In any case, the CDs are filed separately, classical in the book room and everything else, along with all the DVDs, in the bedroom. The MP3 files are loaded onto different computers, too. Everything that isn’t classical is currently stored on a large, heavy laptop that we call “the wheezer,” because no one (included our tech god) can figure out how to keep the fan from whirring into motion, slowing down, and then whirring again — constantly. I no longer use this machine for anything else.

Since Kathleen’s request, I’ve been spending time with the wheezer on at least one day of every weekend. Lots of CDs have not been uploaded at all, so there is always a small stack of them to process. I’ve already used up all the space on an old Nano that was for a long time tucked away and never used. Now I’m toying with buying a big iPod and putting everything on it. Everything.

I do know that it will be easier to listen to Kathleen if, every now and then, she hands me a newly-acquired CD. She won’t have to tell me what to do with it.

I am trying very hard to behave better in another area, too. When I am thwarted by things — when I can’t open a plastic package easily, when wrapped-up bits of food tumble out of the overcrowded refrigerator, when cords coil into knots and wall sockets can’t be reached without bodily contortions — I tend to lose my temper. The root of the problem is almost invariably my impatience, my wish to be done with tiresome things as quickly as possible. The effect is a lot of unpleasant noise. Bad language, blasphemy (baroque at times), an inclination to slam. When I am calm and happy about what I’m doing — cooking, say — I can steer through these difficulties without upset; but when I am doing something else — when I am writing, but momentarily occupied by filling my water-bottle with ice cubes, furious that the ice trays, made by Rubbermaid, produce cubes too large to fit into the mouth of the water-bottle, also a Rubbermaid product; when in short I should rather not be in the kitchen at all — I allow the recalcitrance of things to become what it cannot really be, a personal affront. The first step in a self-improvement campaign such as this one is to recognize as quickly as possible that one is behaving badly, and that is what I am working on. I talk to myself as if I were a child. Shsh! I say, trying to sound calm. Don’t say those things. It doesn’t matter whether I’m alone or Kathleen is sitting in the next room. Cela ne se fait pas.


Thursday 10th

Something in Daniel Martin reminded me, the other night, to tell Kathleen a story about the taxi ride that took me to the Hospital for Special Surgery for last week’s Remicade infusion.

I am not keen on talking to cab drivers. I try to provide particular details about my destination, and how I’d prefer to reach it, in the preternaturally clear and firm voice of a seasoned and very busy man. Either I encounter an unusual proportion of daydreaming drivers with no axes to grind, or this strategy of mine works, because most rides pass in blessed silence. The downside is that any driver resistant to my anticipatory rebuff is very resistant to it. Some are pissed off by it, while others are encouraged to believe that I am as anti-liberal as they are. I’m surprised to say that last Monday’s quick trip to the hospital gives strong evidence in support of the latter proposition.

The driver, first of all, was an all-American wreck. He was in his forties at least, and he sounded older — more worn down. His still-blond hair was shoulder-length and scraggly, his face was blurred by uneven stubble and unhealthy skin, and his frame was both sinewy and wasted. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he had survived a serious drug problem, especially when he spoke. I don’t have much experience with addicts, current or rehabbed, and I shouldn’t be presuming to talk about this driver at all if it weren’t for the delicious punch line. But, although sooner or later I could usually process his statements, they were difficult to follow, especially as they were burdened by a belligerence whose aim was unclear. Sometimes, I thought he regarded me as the enemy; sometimes, as a desperately-needed ally. One thing was certain: he was not going to stop talking. Something else seemed likely: he’d become hostile if I refused to engage.

It was the usual stuff: immigrants were ruining the country — every country. Just the other day, he’d had a passenger from Europe who complained about the refugee situation there. I agreed that migration was a problem, but it was complicated, I said, because you can’t just stand by while people to starve to death, nor can you shoot them (yet) for trying to save their own lives. I pointed out that most refugee problems are the consequences of abandoned colonial projects, for which the Western powers were responsible — and it took him a moment or two to process that. When he returned to the ring, as it were, his new topic was welfare, specifically welfare mothers. Surely something should be done about them. It’s complicated, I said, once again; only this time, I could feel something sparkling inside me: my mind was jumping its leash. Ordinarily, this exhilarating sensation happens right here, when I’m writing these entries, and suddenly an unexpected line of argument opens up like a ray of sun that is doubling as a staircase to enlightenment. I don’t think that I have ever experienced it in a taxi.

We had just gotten off the FDR at the 71st Street exit: the ride was nearly at an end, with less than a minute to go. The driver said something to the effect of finding a way to keep welfare recipients from having children, and my reply was out of my mouth before I knew what it would be. “Indeed,” I said (I really did), “it seems to me that abortions ought to be obligatory in such cases — but you’ll never see that happen in this country.” Without making a sound, the driver radiated speechlessness. “Right in here is good,” I said, suggesting that he pull over near the crosswalk to the hospital. As I was swiping the credit card, he said, “Are you a neurosurgeon here?”

O how I beamed. O the abominable conceit of it!

“No,” I sighed, “I’m just a patient.”

Did I really mean it? Kathleen didn’t ask directly; she was probably afraid of what my answer might be. To what extent was I simply pointing out that extreme conservatives could simplify their lives so much if they could only get over their problem with abortion? To what extent was I offering a Swiftian modest proposal, tongue in cheek?

I do know that I was thinking of the children, the children who are born into welfare. And I was thinking of the many prosperous couples who declined to have children while World War II was raging. What kind of a world would they be bringing children into? Consider my old friend Fossil Darling. Once the War was over, his parents right down to business. He was born within a year of V-J day, making him one of the oldest of boomers. (I’m eighteen months younger, but the more significant detail is that the man and the woman who produced me were not married and not about to be.) Nobody told those couples that they couldn’t have children during the War; it was simply a decision that loving, would-be parents made on behalf of might-have-been children. It’s a pity that this reasoning and this discipline do not occur among the poor. It is also perfectly understandable. Poverty is exhausting, and pleasures are few. Nothing is more delightful than a baby. But babies stop being babies pretty quickly, and nothing is sadder than a child blighted by poverty from birth. A few exceptional kids will break through; exceptional people almost always do, no matter what their background. But one of this country’s leading stupidities is its equation of the exceptional with the exemplary.

We ought to be doing everything that we can to minimize poverty. That’s what I should have said to the driver, had I been thinking.


And yet to talk of such things seems a clueless luxury in these troubled times, when the risk of putting a demagogue in the Oval Office is as great as it is. The tide of conservatives who oppose liberal government has not receded, as political tides usually do, but burst all the restraints, and degenerated into an anti-political scourge of the very idea of government, of moderation of any kind. The politicians of the right have finally been overtaken by the bestial mindlessness that they have been feeding for decades. The opportunism of their positions has been exposed, as they themselves ridicule those positions, now that they have been taken up by Donald Trump. They could never come out and say what they were up to. They could never be honest about encouraging bigotry and a profoundly unChristian lack of generosity. Donald Trump is not only being honest about these things, he’s driving voters to fight for them. If those voters have their way, every social transformation of the past fifty years will be undone. I think that their success in this undertaking is unlikely. But their narrative is that of an oppressed people (white men and the women who have to listen to them, in this case) being led out of Egypt and delivered into the Promised Land.

If nothing else, how are these supporters to be managed in the event that Trump’s bid does not prevail?


I often claim not to believe in conspiracy theories. What I mean is that I don’t believe in secret conspiracy theories. Public conspiracies operate, if not “all the time,” then certainly from time to time. They are public in that they are not really hidden. There are no secret handshakes. The code words are not encrypted. Take the memo that Lewis Powell wrote, shortly before he joined the Supreme Court. He called for a judiciary more favorably disposed toward business interests. It’s for that reason that I speak of the Powell Court: even though Powell was never Chief Justice, his philosophy has shaped the Court’s judgments for forty years or more. Powell’s role was not widely known until after his death, but it was a matter of persuasion, not conspiracy. He inspired a generation of young lawyers (members of the Federalist Society) to take a new look at commercial jurisprudence. The results have been disastrous, if you ask me. But it’s hard to say that the pro-business agenda was a secret.

Now I wonder if the same thing isn’t happening with Ayn Rand. Sales of her books are “healthy,” to say the very least. People one knows talk about reading her books, although not much to us, because Kathleen and I radiate an anti-Randian voltage — the force that is with us. But how else to explain Justin Keller’s recent open letter about San Francisco?

The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.

This sort of thing would have been truly unthinkable in the Sixties — Keller would have been tarred and feathered. One might have thought like this, but one mightn’t have said it. As with Donald Trump, however, Keller is merely giving voice to politically incorrect views. He wants to live in Disney World, so why can’t he? Ayn Rand is the Donald Trump of educated people. She is telling them that it is all right to complain, as Keller did, about “riffraff.” (I should have thought that Hollywood killed the use of that word in the Forties.) She inspires them to give a nicer-sounding name to what is plainly a casino economy.

As with the Federalist Society, the spread of Randian politics, while not altogether secret, isn’t noisy enough to generate effective opposition. Young people on the left are tilting at abandoned windmills. Wall Street, Big Pharma — these are not the enemy. And they remain impregnable so long as the enemy is ignored. The enemy is the aristocracy of the exceptional. In today’s world, brains have replaced brawn: you can leave the horse and the armor to your computer avatar. Exceptionally bright, focused people are gathering together, and, if nothing else, they are increasingly determined not to live among us.

The aristocracy of old Europe supported itself by expropriating agricultural revenues. Today’s aristocrats are doing something a little different: they’re preventing the spread of wealth, so that nothing has to be expropriated. They are nevertheless the same kind of rentiers, living off the revenues of intellectual property. As a former screen-writer who never owned her work for the studios, Ayn Rand would be applauding very loudly, were she but still with us.

I’ve written elsewhere about this, about my belief that the ownership of intellectual property ought to vest adamantly in its creator. It is not his to sell. He can rent it out, instead. His heirs, too, might benefit financially for a time, but the right to control the use of intellectual property ought to be extinguished with the creator’s death. To translate this into plainer English, no corporation ought to be allowed to own intellectual property of any kind, save perhaps for the limited exception of brand-names and logos. The use of intellectual property would thus pass into the public domain (although not necessarily for free) much faster than it does now. I should award Ayn Rand the rights to her screenplays but strip the Ayn Rand Institute (or, rather, Leonard Peikoff) of the rights to her novels. (How did Rand manage to let Anthem slip into the public domain?)


Ask me how I felt when I read David Remnick’s leading note in this week’s “Talk of the Town.”

The G.O.P. establishment may be in a state of meltdown, but this process of exploiting the darkest American undercurrents began with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.


I can go back to 2008, although the entry might be a bit difficult to decipher. That would be the first reference to the Southern Strategy on this site, which was inaugurated about a year earlier. More recent mentions of the term, “Southern Strategy,” in 2010 and 2013, do not state Nixon’s exploitation of bigotry as explicitly as I’d like for present purposes. In June 2013, I wrote,

Similarly, the Republican Party has made cynical use of christianists ever since the Nixon Administration. It can happen here.

I may sigh, but I don’t whine. I have always believed, or at least ever since I first heard this nugget of wisdom, that being ahead of your time is just another way of being wrong. (Let’s file this under “Up the Orinoco.”) I understand that anything that I say lacks most of the authority of anything that David Remnick says. But I do wish that that would change. Because the odds against “its happening here” dwindle with time. Before I searched the site, I was sure that I’d mentioned the Southern Strategy more often. That signals to me that I was afraid of talking about it too much. Perhaps I have to get over that.


Friday 11th

Were I so minded, I could start a new Web log, or re-pitch this one, to focus on a life of re-reading books. But first I’d have to come up with a better word for it. This is a problem that I often run up against — needing new words for things — and I must confess that I’m not very good at it. New words occur to me all the time, but I can’t go looking for them. Now that reading things a second or third time has become a regular activity, and not something that happens every now and then, I’m truly unhappy with “re-reading.” I daresay I needn’t say why.

Once upon a time, when books were expensive and scarce, multiple readings were the common ones. “Then read from the treasured volume of thy choice,” as Longfellow put it. That’s how I always remember the quote, which was inscribed on bronze bookends that were handed down to me when I was a boy. What Longfellow actually said, “Then read from the treasured volume the poem of they choice,” suggests an even smaller library. (The bookends must have been accurate.)

Then what happened? The consumer society? People now speak of “consuming” literature — perhaps they have stopped this barbarism. Literature can indeed be consumed, but only by oblivion. It survives careless reading robustly. Nevertheless, consider the very word, “novel.” That tells you something. It’s yet another instance of a word’s coming to mean the opposite of what it meant — don’t you just love old novels? — but only for lovers of literature. And even they face the problem of surfeit: in a world of much-too-much, how do you decide upon any one thing? For people who stick to the new and the fashionable, it’s a simple matter of locating the best buzz, but, even then, books take precious time to read. Almost any choice seems very clearly not to be the optimal choice.

I deal with this problem relatively easily, I think; I follow trains of thought. Last year, I read Angela Bourke’s biography of Maeve Brennan — along with all of Brennan’s stories — and I am still on the path that followed from there. I have bought a few books about the history of Ireland, but I have re-read a good deal of Colm Tóibín, and then re-read it again. Perhaps the word I need has nothing to do with doing something again; perhaps “to read,” chez moi, ought to be taken to mean “to read again.” More useful might be a marker for the book that I am reading for the first time. “I am discovering…” Something like that.

In any case, in the course of writing a letter to a friend, I learned from the little records that I keep that, of the seven books that I’ve read most recently, only three were “discoveries”; I’d read the other four before, one of them twice. Of the seven books before those, only two books were new acquisitions; two others had languished on the shelves, unread, for some time. It’s true that a lot of this revisiting began self-consciously, as I tried to justify keeping so many books in the house, and so many more in a storage unit that I rarely visited. But the activity has become a pleasure, and even something of a habit: when I’m looking for something to read, I don’t turn to my bookshelves only after having been disappointed by the offerings at Amazon. I turn to the bookshelves first. The repeated harrowing of my collection, moreover, has forced me to distinguish books that I love from books that literary people are supposed to have on hand. I keep ever fewer of the latter.

At the storage unit the other day, I came across two books that I wished I could dump into a get-rid-of box, right then and there. They were big and fat, just the sort of book that I like to de-accession (is that a split infinitive?). One was a memoir by the wife of a recent Prime Minister, the other the biography of a former Royal-by-marriage. Say goodbye, Gracie! In contrast, the clutch of books that I brought home were all slim paperbacks. One of them, unfortunately — Josef Pieper’s Scholasticism — is falling apart: open it up, and the pages fly out. This isn’t surprising. Paperbacks produced in the Sixties were cheap in every way. A few years ago, I went to read Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake again. I had to buy a new copy. But I couldn’t get rid of the original. I don’t know why the current edition isn’t bound as startlingly, in bright yellow with the title in Chinese red. I couldn’t live without seeing the spine on the top shelf.

The awful truth is that nobody can write about routinely reading books multiple times until the cusp of middle and old age. (I exclude scholars, of course.) Were I minded to keep such a blog, I should have to decide whether to be honest, whether to call it Diary of a Crusty Old Coot or Dust From the Attic. Something appealing like that. Here’s a naughty title: Foxy. (If there happens to be a blog by that name out there, one whose subject was old books, how would you find it? With very great patience, I suppose.) Nobody much younger would want to read such a blog, yet of course it would be young readers who could learn the most. They would at least hear something different from the chatter of journo-marketing.

I used to think that it was bathetic to have a “favorite author,” a writer to whom one could turn and always find satisfaction. If pressed, I should name Jane Austen as mine, but let’s face facts: there isn’t that much Jane Austen to go around. There are five unarguably great novels, and there are the sometimes very amusing things that Austen wrote before she found her heart. (She, too, had a morbid fear of bathos to overcome.) The early work is not the stuff of anybody’s “favorite author,” and the five great novels run the risk of overexposure. Lately, however, I have discovered that I do have a favorite author, and I don’t suppose that anybody will be surprised to find that it is Colm Tóibín. His books are always there for me.


The Heather Blazing left me puzzled: why did Carmel complain about not knowing her husband because he wouldn’t talk to her? I can understand her anger about his not listening to her, although I’m not persuaded that Éamon’s not-listening was quite the same thing as that of most men. I came across a perfect description of the general character of men who don’t listen in a book that I’m discovering by Sybille Bedford: The Faces of Justice: A Traveler’s Report. I swallowed the entire first part of it last night. In the following passage, Bedford is describing what she calls a “not-so-good” magistrate. He is the kind of man who

talks with his head down, who seldom takes his nose out of the ledger. He does not look at the people who speak to him. He hurries them along with hnhn’s and well’s. He interrupts witnesses, and when there is counsel he takes the examination out of his mouth. He browbeats young barristers. He gives everybody a sense of the scarcity of his time. He does not appear to listen. He pretends to be unable to understand what people say to him. He is sarcastic when it is too easy. He makes up his mind, or appears to have made up his mind, at the beginning of a case. He loses his temper not because it might be necessary, but because he loses it. He loses it, not because it has been tried beyond endurance, but because it is a cherished exercise. He shows contempt for his customers and his place of work, and he betrays his sense that he is made of different clay. (36-7)

Few actual magistrates may be not-so-good in this way, but Bedford has captured a great many not-so-good husbands. Unfortunately, Genesis supports the “different clay” idea, since Eve is created out of Adam. (You’d think that this would make her superior, no?) Today’s young men are far more conscious than their fathers were of the generality of “feminist” complaints, at least from what one can see in public, but the idea certainly persists that a man is somehow magically better than a woman who is by every meaningful metric his equal. He partakes of masculinity: res ipsa loquitur.

Éamon Redmond is different. Let me not say that he is never a not-so-good husband. But, as Carmel herself complains, he is too often elsewhere, off in his mind. If the narrator is to be trusted, Éamon is lost either in his past or in the law. I don’t think that he fully believes in himself. Perhaps he comes to do so at the end, when, like so many grandparents, he discovers the meaning of everything in the antics of a child indirectly his own.

As I listened to Carmel, I thought of Tóibín himself. Tóibín often refers to his own silences, to his preference for not-saying. Do the people who get close to him complain about this? Do people get close to him? It’s none of my business, but I can’t help feeling an authorial sympathy in these Heather Blazing passages, which seem at first to criticize Éamon but end up leaving me feeling that he has been (justly) acquitted. It is, after all, impossible for a silent man to tell you much about his silences. Tóibín writes volumes about them, but only by displacing them onto imaginary characters.

I found myself pulling down Mothers and Sons, the short-story collection, having forgotten that I’d recently had another look at it, also in 2014. I read everything but the two long stories and “A Priest in the Family.” This time, I read that story and the first of the long ones, “The Name of the Game.” They are both, intensely, about not-saying.

Ostensibly, of course, they’re about other things. In “The Name of the Game,” a widow plots her way out of the debts left by her late husband. In “A Priest in the Family,” a mother acknowledges not so much her ordained son’s pedophilia as her neighbors’ awareness of it. But what propels both stories is silence. In “The Name of the Game,” the widow keeps her plans to herself, discussing them only with the businessmen whom she deals with, and then only with regard to their specific dealings. The only exception is a traveling salesman who is known as “Birds Eye.” Even her exchanges with Birds Eye are short of conversation. He very kindly tells her what she’s going to have to do if she wants to save her shop, and the house that it is in, from foreclosure. He tells her whom to contact to make the arrangements. She asks him questions; he gets back with answers. That is all there is to it, or all that we are told. Her sixteen year-old son, Gerard, and some of her neighbors think that she and Birds Eye are an item, and have thought so before she takes him into her confidence. Needless to say, this news surprises her.

Nancy, the widow, does not tell Gerard anything. Gerard knows only what he can see, as a chip shop (fastfoodery) is opened on the side of the old store, and then the store itself is transformed from a failing grocery market to an off-license beer and wine shop. In due course, he also knows what he can count, as business booms. Because Nancy tells Gerard nothing, he assumes — and, again, so do the townspeople — that she is doing it all for him, that he will inherit the business pursuant to the custom of the country. But that is not Nancy’s plan at all. She intends to escape the town at the first possible moment, move to Dublin, and find herself a job as an executive secretary. The story stops short of the likely catastrophe, which is that Gerard’s life will have been ruined by reasonable expectations’ sprouting at a dangerous moment in adolescence. For Gerard hates school, or thinks he does, and embraces the promise of salvation that he sees in his mother’s enterprise. He drops his school chums and takes up wearing suits, and hobnobbing, so far as possible, with older men. (They don’t think that he’s being ridiculous.) What Nancy never mentions to anyone, of course, is her intended betrayal. Everything that she does, she does only to leave it behind.

I’ve arrived at the age where Nancy could be involved in international espionage, followed on every pavement by troops of assassins, and the story would be no more thrilling — less, in fact. What Tóibín never loses sight of is his setting: Nancy’s story unfolds beneath the carcinogenic lens of small-town attentiveness. Nancy is not the only silent one. Her neighbors are just as oblique. They also say nothing, or nearly. Saying nothing is how Nancy’s best friend and her husband indicate that their friendship has been dealt a mortal blow.

In “A Priest in the Family,” everyone is silent because nobody can imagine how Molly will react to the news, which seems to have reached the town in some indirect way, that her son, Frank, is going to be tried for abusing students. (The background is autobiographical, in that several of Tóibín’s boarding-school classmates were abused by a teacher. Tóibín himself was not. This wasn’t because he wasn’t the cutest kid in the dorm. It must have had much more to do with the massive not-neediness that, like Éamon Redmond, he developed in response to childhood loss. Such losses, interestingly, generally increase the vulnerability of children to predators. The story’s perspective on the crime is also autobiographical: it happened long ago. Frank is a middle-aged priest now.) The title of the story is ironic, of course; what had long been seen as a great advantage for any family was now more likely to be a liability. This is never mentioned or referred to in the story itself, except by its absence — another silence.

“A Priest in the Family” is a series of shatterings, all breaching the silence that surrounds Molly and all quickly repaired by her determination to maintain that silence. These upsets increase in violence (there is no other word) until a moment of extreme alienation, following a confrontation between Molly and her daughters, both mothers themselves. They daughters think that Molly ought to leave town for a while, to allow the scandal to die down. Molly is determined to continue her life as it is, but of course she cannot.

The town during the next week seemed almost new to her. Nothing was as familiar as she had once supposed. She was unsure what a glance or a greeting disguised, and she was careful, once she had left her own house, never to turn too sharply or look to closely in case she saw them whispering about her. A few times, when people stopped to talk to her, she was unsure if they knew about her son’s disgrace, or if they too had become so skilled at the plain language of small talk that they could conceal every thought from her, every sign, as she could from them. (147)

As she could from them. Molly has a better idea about how to live down “her son’s disgrace.” She will not go off to the Canary Islands with her friend, Nancy Brophy. Instead, she asks Nancy to do her a favor.

“Would you do something for me, Nancy?” Molly said, standing up, preparing to leave.

“I would, of course, Molly.”

“Would you ask people to talk to me about it, I mean people who know me? I mean, not to be afraid to mention it.”

That’s how you keep people from talking. All anybody (everybody) wanted to know was how Molly was going to take the news — would she, as some of them must have hoped, explode in hysteria? The people who knew Molly well knew that that would never happen, so (it follows) whatever might happen must be much worse. But they in their turn were wrong about that. Molly simply lets the air out of the balloon, and without pricking it.

It’s a neat trick, ain’t it, all this eloquent writing about silence.

Next up: my life as a born chatterbox.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Bullet Points
March 2016 (I)

Monday 29th

Rossini’s birthday! How old would he be, born in 1792? Not quite sixty?. I can think of no composer with a more fitting birthday.

On Friday evening, I checked out the equipment and determined that we should be able to watch the Academy Awards show on Sunday. I can’t say that “the television had not been turned on since last year’s Oscars,” because on at least one occasion there was what might have been a cable outage (it turned out that the router needed rebooting), and checking out the “TV reception” was part of the process of elimination. But in fact, neither Kathleen nor I has “watched television” since last February. I have put all the references to “television” in quotation marks because there is no longer any such thing as a television set, and broadcast television seems to be a vestigial affair. This technological change has nothing to do with the ghastliness of what is shown “on television,” but I wonder how long the monstrous term (an illiterate combination of Greek and Latin roots) will be with us.

Kathleen kept thanking me for indulging her — for watching the Oscars with her. But I wasn’t making any kind of sacrifice, even if it was true, as she said, that I had better things to do. I was curious. Not so curious as in years past, because I’ve seen so few of this year’s movies. I did see Spotlight in the theatre, and I was glad that it won Best Picture. I’d have been much happier if Rachel McAdams had won Supporting Actress, because she is and always has been so great, and she has now turned in three superb performances as a journalist — ie, smart person. (I’d have been happier, too, if Alicia Vikander, who did win, won it instead for Ex Machina, a film that I think about all the time.) The parade of technical awards that went to that dystopian Mad Max thing was dreary, on a par with the Academy’s inability to nominate a single black actor for any award. At least Ex Machina got the best one, for Visual Effects.

Chris Rock was not unbearable. By that I simply mean that I’ve gotten really tired of “comedy” and should like to see some charm. What I’d really like is for Emily Blunt to do the show. She could spend the evening saying lovely gracious things that were in fact loaded with little barbs for the literate. I have always wanted to know how many ways she has of saying “How nice for you.” Or she could be sweet, while Helena Bonham-Carter did the unruly.

When the show was over — well, long before — I was physically shot. My nerves were raw and jangling. “You don’t get out much,” said Kathleen, “so you’re not used to it.” The vacant noise, the violent changes of tone, the incredibly uninteresting footage of winners making their ways from seat to stage, and the ads — the racket of it all clobbered me. Watching that stubby white Cadillac progress through SoHo for the fifth time, I did have a moment of great peace. I thanked God aloud — yes, I really did, whatever that means — and Kathleen knew without my saying more what I meant: we don’t have a car. I wondered if our being grateful for not being saddled with an automobile was more or less unusual than our never watching “television.” Maybe, next year, watching the Oscars will be a sacrifice.

I’d like to have seen The Big Short and Brooklyn in the theatre. Especially in the winter, I don’t leave the apartment for pleasure, even to cross the street to go to the two remaining cinemas in the neighborhood. Actually, taking in a movie can be an irritation in the same way that “watching television” began to be an irritation: you have to show up on time. That isn’t how the rest of my day works. I won’t say that I flow from one thing to another at my own pace effortlessly, but I do get through the day and its various chores without a great deal of friction. All it takes is one date to screw up the rhythm. Today, I have to be the Hospital for Special Surgery at 3:30 PM, for a Remicade infusion. It’s still early enough in the morning that I’m not feeling any pressure to get ready for the outing, but by half-past one I’ll be a little restless around the edges.

Rossini retired at the top of his game, and had the time of his life for nearly forty years thereafter. I think that you must have to be born on 29 February to pull that one off.


Last week, the Times online featured a recipe for crumb cake with pears, and I saved it in Evernote. Now that Gristede’s across the street has shut down, we no longer have a regular grocery store here, only Fairway and Whole Foods, with their racks of olive oil and dearth of old-fashioned items like French’s onion rings or the little cans of evaporated milk that I use to make macaroni & cheese. Nobody within walking distance (two blocks) sells Entenman’s baked goods. We have come to rely on their regular crumb cake for weekend breakfasts. Not the rich butter crumb cake, the one without the confectioner’s sugar, but the square cake. Actually, it’s Kathleen who likes it a lot; I prefer the cheese danish. No matter — Fairway and Whole Foods don’t carry such “supermarket” merchandise.

So I thought I’d try to make the crumb cake with pears myself. And I did, on Saturday. There are three basic steps before baking. First, you tenderize slices of peeled pear in honey, butter, and lemon juice, over a low heat. Second, you make the streusel topping. Third, you make the cake batter. Then you combine these ingredients in a prepared pan and put the pan in the preheated oven. It’s not a breeze; unless your kitchen is set up like a pharmacy, you’ll be reaching into a lot of cupboards for spices and other things that one doesn’t use every day. But it’s not tricky, either, and everything went along very nicely until it came time to prepare the pan.

Actually, the recipe sets preparing the pan at the top of the steps, as the first thing to do. I’m very glad that I disregarded this protocol, because, having worked on the three constituent elements, I clearly saw that this cake ought to be baked in a springform pan. When you bake a cake layer, you simply invert the pan over a plate and hope that the layer comes out in one piece, as it almost certainly will do if you butter the bottom of the pan, line it with a piece of parchment paper, and butter the paper. Buttering the pan and lining it with buttered parchment paper was indeed called for by the pear crumb cake recipe. But inverting the pan was obviously out of the question. The streusel topping would fall off, taking some of the pears with it. (Now I think of it, I suppose I could have buttered a plate, inverted the pan over that, and then slipped another plate on the exposed bottom of the cake, but even that would probably have made a mess.) Springform pans were invented to deal with this problem; instead of removing the cake from a one-piece pan, you dismantle a two-piece pan, and remove it from the cake. As it happened, though, I didn’t have a nine-inch springform pan. Eight- and ten-inch, yes, and a twelve-inch for cheesecake. But no nine-. I resolved to buy one, if the cake turned out to be worth making again.

So, how did I get the cake out of the pan? When I was cutting the parchment, I provided for two wide “handles,” strips of paper that projected from the circle that would line the bottom of the pan. These handles would allow me to lift the cake out of the pan. Or so I thought.

They didn’t. Four handles might have done it, or maybe even just three. But you can’t do much cantilevering with paper. The two handles pulled up a diameter of the cake from which the halves began to crack apart at once. With Kathleen’s help — she held the pan — I was able to lift one handle just enough to slip my splayed hand beneath the parchment paper. That did the trick.

I’ll be buying that nine-inch springform pan, because the pear crumb cake is definitely worth the trouble. I thought that the pear, layered between the cake and the topping, might be superfluous, but it isn’t. It’s moist and fruity-flavorful, and just present enough to add a welcome complement. Thin slices are in order, though, because the cake is immensely rich. There’s a stick of butter in the streusel and another stick in the cake. But it’s a great all-around treat to have on hand, a substitute, say, for pound cake. It’s neither too breakfasty nor too desserty. It’s grand with tea.


Kathleen and I have been having a regretful conversation about how differently some things have turned out. Things have been different from what they were — the very fact that Kathleen is a partner at an important law firm is all the proof that you need of that — but we thought that they would be different from how they have turned out to be. We thought that women in top professional jobs would change the world a great deal more extensively than they have done. We thought that sexism would wither and die. Instead — well, all the -isms seem to be flourishing, if in discreet, occluded ways. But perhaps it’s something else. Racism and sexism, after all, are intellectual constructs. They’re ideas, to which racists and sexists subscribe but which they can be persuaded to reject. Mere bigotry — unconsidered contempt — has deeper roots. It is intellectually circular but emotionally adamant. The adventure of women in the workplace has certainly caught a great deal of bigotry (also known as entitlement) in the spotlight. But men don’t really have to misbehave into order to keep women and minorities in their place. They simply have to know how the road to success is paved.

The first thing about the road to success is that very little of it involves productive work. Productive work means that you show up in the morning and, by the time you go home at night, you have created a widget. You have bolted as many plates onto the hull of a ship as is possible in one day. A long time ago, productive work came to be overseen by managers, people who do not work themselves but who keep track of the “big picture,” coordinating workers, materials, and schedules. The modern business corporation has added a layer of managers to manage the managers.

(Young bankers will be screaming — no work? Are you crazy? But the work that young bankers do is makework, like military drills, to test endurance capacities.)

The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to fantasy. A ship is either seaworthy or it isn’t. But this month’s quarterly figures can be massaged. The categories into which raw data are sorted can be manipulated so that merely to control and assign the sorting is to come out on top. If you can persuade your managers to frame information in a certain way, you can make your rival look like a fool and a failure. The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to courtly life, where competition for influence with the boss is just about the only thing that happens.

One of the biggest mistakes made by public intellectuals in the past century has been to pretend — to claim — that princes and courts are things of the past, swept away by enlightened revolutions, and to have missed the reappearance of courtly machinery in executive suites. We rightly associate the courts of the ancien régime with corruption and deceit, with back-stabbing and disingenuousness. We wrongly fail to see that this old complex of sins is still spinning, and spinning even faster, in corporate headquarters. Work has got nothing to do with it.

The more you look at it, the more courtly life appears to be a way of going about things that powerful men adopt when their skill sets are superseded. The original European aristocrats were warriors — thugs, basically. Over time, being a thug required more disiciplined training; in their high-medieval heyday, aristocrats spent hours every day cultivating the skills required to fight on horseback. Gradually, however, infantries got bigger — more rank-and-file foot soldiers, as in ancient times — and new weapons changed the face of war. By the end of the Renaissance, cavalries — equestrian aristocrats — were being sidelined ; sometimes, they were just in the way. Now, it might have made sense for aristocrats to hang up their spurs and retire to private life; surely this is what would have happened if the end of cavalry occurred in the same economic considerations that prevailed when aristocracy emerged from the mists of Dark Europe. But a very different economic dispensation was in place, and aristocrats lacked the one thing that was needed to get by in it: money. Aristocrats had always been cash-poor. In the search for economic viability, they hit on a new approach: they could be ornamental. It became important to look good on horseback, a business very different from that of fighting effectively. Looking good in general became the aristocrat’s day job. Fighting actual enemies was replaced by fighting for military commands and commissions — and the pensions that went with them.

There seems to be a rule at work: when deprived of a genuine raison d’être, privileged people don’t just sink back into the mass. Nor do they learn new skills. Instead, they concoct a bogus but plausible replacement raison d’être. I said a moment ago that men adopt these changes, but that’s only because men have had a lot more experience at fooling around with power.

It’s still early days. We thought that the presence of women on the scene would change things. And perhaps it has, but in ways too new and unexpected for us to have looked for. Women may not have triumphed in the corridors of power, but they have certainly learned a great deal about how men carry on in them. Some have joined in. More, I think, have withdrawn slightly, to confer with other women. Some women are withdrawing further, into autonomous, more transparently cooperative spaces. The capacities of these new endeavors remains unknown. Meanwhile, men capable of self-criticism have learned from women that there is always real work to be done somewhere, much of it surprisingly satisfying, and that a life of lucrative posturing may be just as empty and unsatisfying as philosophers have always insisted. Too bad the philosophers’ example never did much good. At least we have women now.


Tuesday 1st

At the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday, I was trying to finish reading Ronan Fanning’s Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power. But the woman in an adjacent chair was making it difficult. Had her voice been even slightly lower, I should have assumed that she was not only a man but a gangster. The mouth on her! She had the knack of an inside voice with outside penetration; it was impossible to miss a single word. And. When. She. Texted. Somebody. ,. She. Read. Each. Word. Aloud. As. She. Typed. It. Yes. She. Did. She was accompanied by a confidante whose voice was easy to ignore, but who could not have been a very close friend, given the biographical information that the patient felt obliged to disclose. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that she was a volunteer from the patient’s parish church, or perhaps even hired to sit and listen. It was hard to see how this awful woman could have any friends; she heaped invective on everyone she mentioned. She claimed to be very sick, subject to attacks that “were a long time coming,” whatever that might mean — really! She was too weak to walk from here to there, she said, but had she jumped from her seat and brandished a baseball bat at the rest of us, that wouldn’t have surprised me, either. After one particularly foul remark, I gave her a stern glance, but she probably didn’t see it, given her sunglasses and low-billed baseball cap. Thank goodness, her medicine was quickly infused, and she hobbled off with her Oenone. In her wake, I should have been happy to hear the Unit’s ordinary low burble of noise — voices, machines, phones — but instead there reigned a vast stretch of total quiet. I put my book down, took of my glasses, and drank it in, a second infusion.

Whilst still trying to read under the onslaught of Jersey miasmas, however, I’d lost my place at one point and restlessly looked ahead. I was two chapters away from “Conclusion.” It began,

Éamon de Valera had no interest in political power.

I snapped the book shut, shocked. Here I was, about to finish reading the biography of a man whose only interest was political power. How could Fanning say such a thing? I began to parse the sentence. Political power — that means haggling. De Valera certainly hated haggling. But who but a politician of the most sublime self-control could have taken the Treaty constitution that created the Irish Free State in 1922, and tinkered with it so gradually, clause by clause, from 1932 to 1937, that by 1938 the country was governed by a new constitution under which Ireland was an independent state, with only the emptiest and most notional reference to Great Britain, and done it all without exciting British “reprisals”? Who but a master statesman could have steered Ireland through World War II in a state of neutrality, the appearance of which concealed so many ways of aiding the Allies that the United States considered military awards for at least two officers? (As this would have been embarrassing to the Irish vis-à-vis the British, the idea was dropped.) Who but such a man could have put limits on the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, by refusing to make it the only permitted religion (and by refusing to acknowledge it as “the faith founded by Christ”), and by refusing to support Franco?

I could make no satisfactory sense of the statement. Proximity to the herculean self-regard of this mesmerizing tyrant — de Valera had no need of military support — must have softened Fanning’s brain.

By the time I reached the Conclusion in due course, I was truly perplexed. On the chapter’s second page, Fanning writes,

For it was then that he acquired an extraordinary composure, self-sufficiency and strength of will: the personality traits that served him so well in his later pursuit of political power.

See? Political power! But something in the sentence jingled distantly. My weary eye wandered back to the opening sentence.

Edward de Valera had no interest in political power.

Oh. Professor Fanning must have pricked the egos of countless students with this stunt. The Irish leader’s given name was changed before he even took up leading, when he joined the Gaelic League under the tutelage of his wife. It hadn’t appeared in the book for two hundred pages or more; who would expect to find it resurrected in the Conclusion? But the point is correct: as a young man, de Valera exhibited not the slightest political impulse. It was only in 1913, when Great Britain as it then was seemed about to explode with violence sparked by the intractable Irish Question, that de Valera caught the local enthusiasm and joined the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA). It was only in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 — in which the thirty-something, a battalion commandant, strictly followed his superiors’ orders, including the last one, to surrender to the British (and not to run away) — that de Valera emerged as the only surviving officer of the Rising, giving him a prestige among fellow prisoners at Dartmoor that stuck for the rest of his life. Fanning is quite right: the young de Valera was indifferent to politics.

We might talk about that all day. There are many discussions that one might pursue after reading this book, the scope of which is limited to de Valera’s political life. Fanning tells us that his purpose is to show that, horribly mistaken though de Valera might have been to reject the Treaty, in 1922 — worse than mistaken: catastrophically vainglorious — no matter how responsible he and he alone may have been for unleashing the bloody Civil War that he himself called an end to in 1923, he was the only man who could have demonstrated Ireland’s independence by maintaining its neutrality from the British struggle against the Axis. Churchill and many American leaders thought that Irish neutrality was despicable, but Fanning makes the case: it was the only way to show Ireland’s independence, and it did so. Fanning is persuasive about de Valera’s greatness.

But first you have to grant that independence was the paramount political value. And then you have to count the many costs that mounted up precisely because de Valera was not interested in anything but independence. Above all others, the ecclesiastical régime that effectively governed the Irish state for the first fifty years of its existence, suffocating dissent and curtailing intellectual freedom, not to mention the personal liberties associated with marriage and procreation. You have to recognize that de Valera’s lack of interest in the subject of economics, his commitment to an imaginary rural idyll that his own hardscrabble childhood ought to have snuffed out, kept Ireland poor much longer than it ought to have been. De Valera was one of the most conservative revolutionaries ever to draw a breath. But then his example forces us to examine this overworked word yet again. De Valera was not a revolutionary. He was, what is far more common in modern European and American history, a secessionist. And in nine cases out of ten, the secessionist seeks to preserve, not to originate.

Éamon de Valera was a benevolent despot, but the only object of his beneficence was Irish independence. Toward all other people and ideas, he was a dictator who insisted upon doing things his way. As I was leaving the Infusion Therapy Unit, I showed Fanning’s book to a native of Ireland, the only nurse who was on the staff in 2004, when I had my first treatment. When I remarked that de Valera was a tyrant, she answered with dead calm, “Yes, he was.” I didn’t know whether to hear refuge or exile in her reply. Fanning’s book had made it clear, even without going much into social matters, that Maeve Brennan was right to stay in the United States when her family returned to Ireland in 1944. (Her father, Robert, was the first Irish Ambassador to Washington; he is mentioned a couple of times by Fanning.) There was no place in Ireland for a funny, irreverent, feisty and independent woman. Maeve would have had three choices: to don one kind of veil, and become a wife, or the other kind, and become a nun; or she could have made sure that wives and nuns would never have to care for her parents. She might teach, but only so long as she remained unmarried. No other professions would be open to her. And there would be no glamorous fashion magazines to write for, much less what was arguably the only home that she ever would have found on the face of this earth, The New Yorker.

In the interest of social stability, the political regime sustained by Éamon de Valera snuffed out countless human possibilities. A line from Don Carlo comes to mind. Philip II has just claimed to have granted Flanders “peace,” by suppressing religious freedom. Posa, in a momentary and very dangerous loss of control, fires back,

Orrenda, orrenda pace!
La pace è del sepolcri!

(Verdi sets this explosion to music that is not music.) I find it impossible to give de Valera a pass. Fanning tells us that de Valera discovered Macchiavelli while imprisoned at Lincoln, and the rest of his book could be taken as advocating de Valera’s claim to be the Florentine’s star pupil. I can think of few leaders who have so unswervingly put national interest ahead of every other consideration, especially the personal ones. In the best and worse senses of Macchiavelli’s title, Éamon de Valera was indeed the Prince of Ireland.

It is difficult to overlook the man’s Spanish heritage when making this assessment. Indeed, his exotic name contributed to his upsider status. He was unsentimental to a degree not to be expected in Ireland. His piety was unleavened by Irish jocularity; I expect that he said his prayers with the dry but fierce conviction that God was on the other end of the line. He began his adult life as a teacher (of mathematics), and he remained one all his life. If you squint, he becomes a revenant, a Spanish Jesuit who beached at Kinsale in 1588 or at Wexford in 1798, and who lived on to oversee the instruction of the Irish, dying only when Ireland was unquestionably free. Although, by then, perhaps not so Catholic…

His work was done by 1945; had he not been addicted to power, he might have opened the door to more progressive — more humane — thinking a full thirty years earlier. It’s his holding on that I cannot forgive. Insofar as the Civil War was de Valera’s doing, it reflects partly his lack of experience in diplomatic affairs and partly everyone else’s in Ireland. He must be granted the wisdom to see that violence was not going to solve anything — and certainly not make Ireland independent. So, he called it off — he could do that. The Free State government put him in jail for his third and last taste of imprisonment. Then he set about his great work, as Fanning has it. When postwar voters threw him out of office in 1948, he was 64 — a fine time to retire. But no. Éamon de Valera took God’s gift of life as a mandate to rule. He came back to power in 1951, and again in 1957. When he gave up the premiership, it was to assume the presidency, which he held on to into his ninetieth year.

He died at about the same time as Franco, and the Cassock Curtain began to fall. The peace of the tomb began to be interrupted by the bustle of life.


Thursday 3rd

It was getting late, but instead of winding down, I was keying up. The novel in my hands was not only compelling but thrilling, combining the moral urgency of Dostoevsky with the dramatic vertigo of Ludlum. The writing, well-behaved to the point of invisibility, crackled with irony.

I knew that if I let myself go, and spent a few mad hours reading the thing through to the end, I should not tumble into a satisfied sleep but rise in fury from my seat and demand justice! Or something like that; as I say, it was getting late, and in my excitement I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I only knew that I disliked being excited after midnight: it seemed dangerous. So I put the book down and picked up Jigsaw, which I’ve been saving for bedtime since I took it up last week. Sybille Bedford calmed me down and delighted me. I was soon tossing her aside and turning out the light.

When I tell you the name of the novel that was juicing my nerves, and you cock a doubtful eyebrow, the mystery will thicken a bit when I add that I’ve read the book twice before, and that knowing what’s coming is at least as agitating as suspense. But then, it isn’t just any exciting old tale. No, the novel was chosen like a drug. I believed, rather desperately, that it would allow me to remain in the imaginative space that had been hacked out of mental wilderness by thinking about Éamon de Valera. Ronan Fanning’s biography had been as demanding as a lucid and straightforward account could be; getting my mind around de Valera had stretched the poor organ so thin that it winced at the thought of snapping back to normal. I needed to keep the mood alive. The Heather Blazing just might do the trick.

The Heather Blazing is Colm Tóibín’s second novel, first published in 1992. Although beautifully finished and effortlessly free-standing, it is in retrospect a rehearsal, a practice run at themes that would loom at the back of Tóibín’s later fiction. The hero is a severely self-controlled and -constrained judge who is obliged to reconsider his Bildung by the sweeping changes in Irish life that followed the fading of the de Valera dispensation. The judge is even named after de Valera: “Éamon” with one ‘n.’ He owes his success to his family’s support of of the great leader; even his obedience and his diligence, which would seem to be personal virtues for which one might take full responsibility, have an aspirational edge, as though the young Éamon were emulating the older.

I knew that I’d read The Heather Blazing recently, but not how recently, and now I’m amazed to see how sharply views can shift in a short time. The difference between my brain at the end of 2014 and now is that it has been fed a great deal of serious Irish history. All right, only three books, but as concentrated as demi-glace and as rich to digest. The Heather Blazing reads now as if it were in 3-D. As a work of literature, it is providing me with a dark, warm den in which to consider further the moral problems posed by a man who did Great Things, but who himself was not only not Great, but not even Good; a saint in his own eyes (what could be worse?), or, if not a saint, then a prophet, channeling the will of God. The Twentieth Century taught us to quail at the appearance of such figures.


Every now and then, a columnist at the Times will reduce a troublesome issue to perfect clarity, and in only a few hundred words. Nicholas Kristof accomplishes the feat today, and even then he devotes only half of his column to it. He sets up a Q&A with an imaginary but articulate Trump supporter and shows us why the incredulous and bewildered élites miss the whole point of Trump. He wraps up this little discussion with no little irony when the imaginary voter expresses his assurance that, once in the White House, the Donald will cast aside the “outrageous” things that he said because of his background as an “entertainment personality.” No, Hitler didn’t really mean it, either.

There are five questions and answers, and I’ll summarize them very briskly.

  • Isn’t it a problem that Trump has no experience?
    He has plenty of business experience; our political system is broken.
  • Trump is such a liar that he’ll hand the election to Hillary.
    Nonsense. You pundits can’t predict anything.
  • Trump makes fun of people.
    It’s about time.
  • Trump is making the United States look ridiculous on the international scene.
    Ask me if I care. [Or no: let's have Kristof's text:] “Take a deep breath. I don’t care whether foreigners like us, as long as they fear us.”
  • Trump is offensive on the subject of women.
    [Stated answer:] That’s just campaign shtick. [Real answer:] I’m not offended.

The first exchange is as old as genuine political activity. Ideally, politicians ought to work their way up the ladder from smaller to larger constituencies. I wish that they were required to do so by law, so that no one could even think of running for president without having served successfully as a state governor, nor a legislator aspire to the Senate until after a few terms in the House of Representatives (to which he or she would come from state counterparts). I believe in career tracks that can’t be jumped, as happened with Eisenhower (even if he turned out to be a good thing, mostly). As for “business experience,” the financialization of commerce has made a joke of it; only when the primary point of business returns to doing business, and creating windfalls while making bankers rich is properly seen as a terrible distraction, will it be possible to estimate business experience. The only legitimate Republican contender, in my eyes, is John Kasich. The man himself is unimpressive, but he is the only governor in the race.

The second exchange is intriguing, because the imaginary voter doesn’t address Trump’s mendacity at all. He rightly fastens on the question’s shaky grasp of probabilities, opaque at the best of times and, in Trump’s case, more a triumph of improbabilities. The questioner assumes that Hillary’s supporters will flock to the polls and overwhelm the Right. Another story in the same issue of the Times questions this very expectation. I myself believe that a fight between Trump and Clinton just might force Clinton to abandon her understandable but ruinous determination to admit to no faults. Her sins have all been venial, but her refusal to acknowledge them might prove to be mortal. Hillary Clinton needs to shed the armor of Joan of Arc, which doesn’t fit her well, and, wearing nothing her clothes, attribute the curlicues of deviousness in her career to the difficulty of getting anything done with dolts like Trump in the room. She shouldn’t blame Trump or complain about him, but merely present him, with a dash of mockery, as a mountain through whom a tunnel must be bored. Instead of attempting to expose each of Trump’s many lies as such, she should embrace her listeners with the cool smile of Jon Stewart and repeat the mantra: Pants on Fire.

I have been considering the substance of the third exchange for quite a while now. When Trump made fun of a disabled reporter the other day, it was behavior that, had he been anywhere but on a political platform, might well have had serious disciplinary consequences. The great wave of consciousness raising that has so altered the complexion of American society in the past half-century has always packed an insufficiently-grasped undertow. It is one thing to set new standards of respect for formerly discounted groups, and to encourage their progress from the margins to the center of social life. It is quite another thing to pretend that no healthy, loving American could possibly cherish the old disrespect. It is more than merely regrettable that political correctness, that toxic brew of high-mindedness and zero tolerance, has been such an important tool in effecting the enfranchisement of “minorities.” It demonized ordinary folk while infantilizing its beneficiaries. I don’t see how children are to outgrow the cruelties natural to children unless they are allowed to acknowledge them.

My only comment on the fourth exchange is this: will the United States still be a democracy when its people become interested in America’s place in the world, and stop dreaming of floating Zeus-like above it?

When people claim that Trump doesn’t mean the hateful things that he says, they’re trying to excuse the hateful things that they feel but do not say. It is commonplace to refer to the many Germans who believed that Hitler would never really persecute the Jews, only to be shocked, shocked when he did. But this shock is of uncertain genuineness. Nobody but Hitler, perhaps, would have taken the first steps against the Jews, but once those steps were taken, they were ever more easily followed by others’. A man who will bet on a candidate’s hidden goodness is not especially troubled by his apparent wickedness. Voters trying to assume the mantle of Henry Kissinger’s superior realism get exactly what they deserve. Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t deserve it.


The punchbowl is back in our lives. It’s this hideous thing that my mother picked up somewhere at the height of her Victorian craze. Most punchbowls are simply big bowls, mounted on sturdy bases or feet to demonstrate their stability. Our punchbowl is more like a vase. It rests on what might be a inverted mini-punchbowl, a mound of hollow metal. The bottom of the punchbowl proper is narrow, almost wasp-waisted. It swells out with modest convexity until approaching the halfway mark of its height and swelling out on a concavity to a great diameter — more than a foot. Finally, it rolls back to a convex curve and tucks into a sculpted rim. It has always seemed to be a huge thing, incapable of fitting in anywhere, but our spacious living room has swallowed it up.

Once upon a time, it was a recognizable piece of silverware. Now its exterior is streaked gunmetal grey. It looks fit for a garden — not least because I’ve put a flourishing arum lily in it. I’ve had the plant for years, but now I am watering it so well that it almost always has a bloom at some stage of development. Its profusely layered foliage looks not unlike one of David Hockney’s splashes, but dark green rather than pool blue.

The one inexorable rule about vacating the storage unit is that everything must go. Everything must be either carted away by hired junksters or brought home. Nothing, no matter how undesirable, may be left behind. Some things, it is true, will be shipped to the uptown storage unit, but very few or these things will not be books, or the shelves to put them on.

On the next visit, I shall pack up a stack of cut-glass dinner plates intended for buffets: there are little dividers in the glass, just like the ones that keep things separate on children’s plates. There are about a dozen of these plates. We shall never use them. Then there are some silver candlesticks. They’re in even worse shape than the punchbowl, and we won’t keep them, either. After that, I’ve got 25 document boxes to bring home. Six of them would fit in a banker’s box. I’ve forgotten what’s in them. Kathleen and I tagged many of them with large Post-its, in lieu of more fixed labels, but most of the Post-its have fallen off over the years.

Then, then I’ll be down to books and just books. And LPs. The LPs will follow the unwanted books to wherever the junksters take them. The wanted books will go uptown. Nothing will come home, except of course for books that I really want.


Friday 4th

Regular readers will have tired of my complaining that I’m tired; finally, I have tacit evidence of the dire effects of this persistent fatigue. Whilst writing yesterday’s entry, I lost sight of the larger point that I wanted to make about Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s Times. I never got round to mentioning what made the column worth quoting and summarizing in the first place: Kristof’s recognition that Donald Trump’s supporters have a point.

The point is that nobody has been listening to them, and the proof of this is that Kristof finds it newsworthy to present their arguments with something like sympathy. Even I couldn’t quite hold on o this important development. Like every other liberal-minded critic, I deconstructed the imaginary Trump supporter’s remarks, trying to uncover the hidden agenda. That’s not hard to do. What’s hard is grasping the sheer humanity (if not humane-ness) of the supporters’ logic. Whether he intended to do so or not, Kristof captures not only their impatience and resentment but also, in the obtuseness of his questions, their justification.

Having pointed this sort of thing out to several friends in more alert moments, when, unlike yesterday, I was able to stick to the point, I have to add, with emphasis, that to understand the mind that would be happy to see Donald Trump in the White House is just that, and not tantamount to agreeing with it.

The United States was founded on very high-minded principles, but it has survived because so many dedicated public servants have kept their eyes on the ground and tried to break the inevitable falls. I don’t mean just government workers or elected officials, but also the professionals, especially clergymen and lawyers, who are licensed by the state to take a special part in public affairs. I should also include most journalists, although investigative research is attractive work for troublemaking spirits. (I wish that I could say something good about doctors in this connection; doctors do an unimaginable amount of good to countless individuals. But when it comes to social effort, they seem to become Ayn Randians, with the results that our medical care is preposterously expensive and our hospitals indistinguishable from roller-derby arenas.)

It would be easy for these public and semi-public monitors to slip into cynicism. It is easy. Has it happened on a large scale? How did the people who flatter themselves that they have America’s interests at heart fall for the fable of free-market economics and its attendants, the deregulation of nearly everything and casino-style banking? Surely not everyone was on the take — but that, of course, is what Trump’s supporters, by now cynical as well, really believe. They’re mad because so much of the res publica has been divided up amongst the élites, and they have been left out of the sweet deals. Wouldn’t you be?

I often think that the élites will be lucky to come out of what’s in store with their necks intact, but also that, one way or the other, they will have destroyed the United States in which they grew up. A new and better United States may take its place, without violence perhaps, thanks simply to generational change. I can’t say I’m sanguine about any of this.

I’m reminded of a law-school joke, which I’ll exaggerate. The A students become law school professors. The B students become judges. The C students become millionaires. The reason for this is a factor that dominates every field of endeavor in this country: luck always trumps merit. To begin with, luck is not even recognized as such; it is merged into “work.” I’m not saying that hard work isn’t required. All three classes of law students work hard; just getting into a good law school is hard work. But the millionaires are sailmakers: they know how and where to catch the favorable winds. Now, almost everyone who benefits from good luck has had to work hard just to be prepared to take advantage of it. But taking advantage of good luck is not work, it is not a sign of merit — at least with regard to all the other hard workers — and there ought to be limits to the extent to which its benefits can be exploited. Two cardinal sins that come immediately to mind are legislative lobbying (locking in your good luck and freezing out others) and tax breaks (tax break are prima facie indicators of the inadequacy of the taxation scheme in operation). In our pursuit of rewards for lucky individuals, we have lost all sense of proportion. Even the lotteries show it.

As a matter of course, I don’t follow Nicholas Kristof’s column. I am not keen on Human Rights or humanitarian issues. I’m not against them in the least; in a well-ordered world, they would never come up, because no one would be denied or mistreated. But the people who talk about these matters remind me of the people who talk about conspiracies. Both groups address real problems with unreal simplification. Both subscribe to the argument that Truly Terrible Problems require nothing but Heroic Determination to Stop Them. In fact, truly terrible problems are the result of truly intractable incompetence and resentment. If you ask me, incompetence is our biggest humanitarian problem: it is almost everywhere, and it is almost always covered up. If white Christian Americans were as competent as they are always claiming to be, their hegemony would have lasted longer, and might even be unquestioned to this day. But no. When civil rights regained traction for the first time in eighty years, white Christian men insisted that Communist agitators were behind it. Now, that’s incompetence piled on incompetence. Proof? Trump all but kissing Putin’s ass.

When I read about problems between police officers and black men (it’s usually men, but, as poor Sandra Bland reminds us, not always), I see decades of bad behavior and mutual mistrust. And men. Men being men, who’s going to be the first to do the right thing?

When I read about conservative refusal to allow hearings for the next Supreme Court Justice, I see the same thing. A big game of chicken. (More about progressive bad behavior in this connection some other time — but be it duly noted.)

Which brings me to the ultimate question: are American men good for anything but a big game of chicken?


I was so tired yesterday morning that I went back to bed when I finished writing, even though I hadn’t had much to eat and it was well past lunchtime. I slept for over an hour. Then I had to get up, so I stayed up and made a salami-and-smoked gouda sandwich, with chips and a huge tumbler of iced coffee on the side. I read for a while, trying to work out Éamon Redmond’s walks through Enniscorthy on Google Maps but refraining from searching yet again for evidence of “Cush,” the clutch of seaside cottages that by now, I think, have all been swallowed up by the waves. I did notice that the two sentences that open the first and the third parts of the novel, respectively, are identical.

Between six and seven, I got dressed and went downstairs for the mail. A bit of excitement: as I waited for the elevator, the light went out on the button, and the elevator whooshed me by. I pressed the button madly, but the light would go out instantly. Eventually, I went round to the service elevator, which did stop for me. On the first floor, I found a knot of firemen. They had shut off the elevator buttons with a key. By the time I had dropped off some laundry at the cleaner’s and collected the mail, whatever had summoned the firemen was settled, and I saw one of them use the key to reactivate the buttons.

When I got back upstairs, I did a bit of writing. Shortly after eight, I was done. I stood up and thought about dinner. Kathleen was attending a Bar Association gathering that included dinner, so I was on my own. Because I’d had lunch so late, I still wasn’t very hungry, and there wasn’t anything that I particularly wanted to eat. So I made the bed. I said to myself, “Why are you making the bed at this hour? It’s practically bedtime.” I replied to the effect that it didn’t matter when I made the bed, so long as I was home alone. The bed didn’t take any longer to make at eight o’clock at night than it would at ten in the morning. The important thing was that the bed be made when Kathleen came home.

And yet, when I told this to Kathleen as we got ready for bed, folding the quilt that serves as a bedspread, she said, “I know it makes you feel better when the bed is made.” Meaning that she could care less. So she says. But I don’t make the bed for her to notice it. It’s the absence of an unmade bed that I have in mind.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, Nate Heller evaluates A O Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism. Nearly three weeks ago, I wrote, “I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go.” Although I mentioned it again the following week, à propos its reception in the Book Review, it appears that I did let it go. And Nate Heller showed me why.

Pointing toward interesting problems and promptly running away is a regrettable tendency of Better Living Through Criticism. To the extent that the book has a structure, it resembles a Rubik’s cube that has not been solved. The components of a cumulative argument exist, but they are broken up and scattered randomly throughout the text.

I see that I made a similar complaint last week, but nowhere near as forcefully as Heller does in these two sentences, with the image of a mischievous boy who points and runs away, and who leaves his Rubik’s cube unsolved. I was shocked by the insulting aftertaste of these lines, and wondered if I should have said such things. (Yes, but of a politician, not a writer.) But Heller’s piece was too gripping to pause for complaint.

Heller lays out a theory of criticism that seems comprehensive to me. “Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways.” To summarize:

  • As “first responders” — Schumann on Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!”
  • As historians (Heller uses “scholars”).
  • As seducers.

If I like this, it may just possibly be because it outlines my own program. I don’t often look at things that are actually new, but I’m always finding new things in familiar works. (New to me, anyway.) And the works are familiar. This is what being a historian entails: “someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteeem.” Although I’m keenly aware that I don’t know the canon backward and forward, and never will, I know that that’s not the impression that I give to readers who are not historians or scholars. About seduction I shall say nothing. In the Times today, Ben Whishaw tells an interviewer that, when they were working together on London Spy, Jim Broadbent warned him not to talk about acting. Very sound advice.

And then there’s this:

Why do we follow him, then? Scott did not go to film school. He has not made any movies. He may or may not have a detailed knowledge of the complete oeuvre of Claude Chabrol. His powers of suasion come from his ability to make you feel that his experience was, or will be, yours. What the first responder and the scholar demand from us — “Defer to me; I see more than you do” — we give voluntarily to the seducer, who woos our consent.

I think that I’m trying to take this a step further: I want to make observations that might not make much sense if you don’t know things about me that wouldn’t come up if I were writing in the “objective” manner. As the element of seduction makes clear, the pretense of objectivity is a sham. Adults lose the taste for reading expository prose that is personality-free. Some people argue that there has to be a “story” to make anything interesting; I find that infantilizing. But everything that happens to anybody is the element of a story, whether it is ever woven into a tale or not. And it is through shared experiences (or through experiences that weren’t shared (!), even though the same thing happened) that we learn about the world from other people. And, as I say, we learn more if we know them better.

That’s a controversial view; lots of traditional journalists were passionately opposed to the insertion of the reporter’s personal experience (or opinions) into a news story. I still say that it was a sham, this belief in the possibility of neutral objectivity.

Meanwhile, here’s John Fowles on critics.

It was less anything personal that I had always disliked in Barney, in fact, than that he was a critic. No creator can like critics. There is too much difference between the two activities. One is begetting, the other surgery. However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator: by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal. (113)

To be fair, that’s Daniel Martin speaking, not his “generator,” but it has the pulpity ring of an author sharing his thoughts. Daniel Martin is Fowles’s autobiographical novel, I’ve always thought, and there is nothing in the text to suggest that Dan’s musings are not to be taken at face value. In any case, what a load! I giggled at the thought of Fowles’s encountering A O Scott’s idea that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art.

Geoffrey O’Brien once remarked, in Sonata for Juke Box, I think, that the Beatles, during their years of celestial fame, lived in such a tight bubble that they were the only people on earth who didn’t know what The Beatles phenomenon was. But this is true of every artwork; it’s what distinguishes artworks from other productions. Artwork is taken up by other people and appreciated by them in ways and for reasons that its creator might deplore. Criticism is simply observation, from the same private viewpoint as everyone else’s, that is rendered coherent and informative. For Dan to say that he cannot like critics is to admit, as he probably would if pressed, that he cannot like his readers, either. The idea that a critic is bad because he might have an adverse effect on one’s income is a very low blow, and shallow as well.

The relationship between criticism and paying popularity is absolutely ad hoc, different in each case. Can a critic kill a book? It would seem that the sales of a certain kind of “literary” novel are more vulnerable to the withering dismissal of Michiko Kakutani than are those of the latest Preston/Child. A O Scott’s rather narrow-framed objection to The Avengers had no discernible affect on that film’s box office, and it’s regrettable that Samuel L Jackson opened his big mouth to make a stunningly ill-considered complaint. On the other hand, I don’t know how many lousy new novels I’ve read because of enthusiastic reviews. That’s one thing that reviewing the Book Review taught me, slowly, to avoid. The novels were lousy for a simple reason: they weren’t for me. I learned not to talk, at length anyway, about things that are not for me.

Although: one of these days, I’m going to finish Moby-Dick, and then, watch out!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
A Visit from the Bishop
February 2016 (IV)

Monday 22nd

In this weekend’s Book Review, two of the books that have interested me lately are reviewed. David Denby, who has not, I think, worked at the Times, gets half a page, a rather desultory and obscurely competitive review by Dale Russakoff. “Denby argues eloquently for ‘the character-forming experience of reading difficult books’.” But Russakoff isn’t sure that Denby gets past that bromide. (I’m not quite sure, either.) What Denby does demonstrate — and here I agree more whole-heartedly with Russakoff — is “the irreplaceable role of great flesh-and-blood teachers who unlock knowledge day and day out for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.” It was Denby’s account of the teachers that made Lit Up a breathtaking read for me. Their heroism faces down new monsters. Violence in schools is no longer much of a problem, it seems; nor are hostile administrators, at least in the classrooms that Denby visits. The enemy is the students’ immersion in a digital world that makes it almost impossible for news of a less banal way of life to find a point of entry.

A O Scott, the newspaper’s chief film critic, gets a full-page review, written by Daniel Mendelsohn, no less. Author and reviewer alike are astute critics of things ancient and modern, but Mendelsohn’s treatment is more rigorous, both as to analysis and explanation. Scott has a weakness for the new slang — for what Mendelsohn calls “a flippant, ‘popular professor’ tone.” Indeed, there were few moments in Better Living Through Criticism that made me slow down, much less stop to think what Scott might be getting at. Which is always a cause of wonder when Kant is the subject of discussion.

But then, Scott doesn’t actually “discuss Kant.” He dismisses him, after a respectable summary of the subjective universal, as no longer congenial. This is valid; I share Scott’s suspicion that neither philosophy nor neurobiology has a lot to tell us about the pleasures of art. But there is a polite flaccidity in the way Scott courses through the matters that he raises in his second chapter, “The Eye of the Beholder.” From Kant he goes to Maria Abramović, whose show at the MoMA attracted thousands. Then he moves on to Rilke’s engagement with the Archaic torso, and Larkin’s “Reasons for Attendance.” What he says is certainly intelligent, but it is not half, not a quarter, of what might be said. Nothing is really unpacked. Abramović’s allure — she sits still while sharing a mutual gaze with a line of visitors who take turns sitting opposite her — is likened to that of the Mona Lisa: “That enigmatic, long-dead lady in the Louvre is looking, and smiling, at me.” I’m afraid that I don’t consider that a very interesting or, in the best sense of the word, sophisticated response to da Vinci’s painting, but then, it’s no great favorite of mine.

On Rilke’s response to the Archaic torso — an extraordinary critical act, a beautiful sonnet into which everything is crammed: praise of the ruined statue, longing for the imagined mental/spiritual peace that is swept away by self-consciousness, the tension between the wild and the erotic, on the one hand, and the poised and transcendent, on the other — candidly betrays Scott’s excitement, the measure of which can be taken by his lament that, in today’s crowded galleries, it has become almost impossible to commune with masterpieces. Scott captures the interplay of critical perspectives that would make reading Rilke in front of the torso so thrilling, but he holds back from repeating the point of his first chapter, which is that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art. To say so in the context of Rilke’s sonnet would set an impossibly high standard for critics. It would also solve the problem of George Steiner’s thought experiment in Real Presences, by replacing comment on art with comment that is art. Nor does he recur to the example of Manet, at the end of the first chapter, as a critic of Titian and Velázquez. His own career as a writer of shortish pieces about movies would look almost shabby in comparison.

I was happy to see that Daniel Mendelsohn shared my view that Scott’s calling upon critics to be wrong is wrong.

But those errors of individual taste … are hardly proof that the critic’s job is to be “wrong.” The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful — in a word, worthy of trust — than her readers have the time or inclination to be; qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.

Ah, but what is “taste”? I have pondered this question viscerally ever since I heard Keith Jarrett’s recording of eight of Handel’s keyboard suites. For some reason, what I heard most clearly in his performances, far beyond his technical proficiency, was the display of good taste, something that I knew to be very important to Handel and his listeners, even if they never did a very good job of talking about it in terms that weren’t egregiously snobbish. (Taste was what highly-bred but worldly aristocrats liked.) What is taste? So far, I’ve tentatively concluded that it is actually a combination of Mendelsohn’s three other qualities: education, articulation, and style. At any given moment, one generally-shared vanishing point of taste — a particular blend or balance of the three attributes; I quite strenuously wish to avoid calling it an “ideal” — is coming into view, while an older one is slowly fading away. Education is simply exposure, serious, engaged exposure, the more of it the better, on the part of both artist and critic. (This is why the young ought to stick to criticizing the new.) Articulation is phrasing, modulation, emphasis. Listening to an old recording of Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Brahms’s second piano concerto yesterday, I was struck by the difference between Serkin’s articulation of the music and what you would hear from the best players today. You might not like Serkin’s way with Brahms, but it is, if I may be indulged, a fully articulate articulation, coherent and consistent. Nobody is wrong about taste, and there is really no such thing as bad taste. (Only the lack of taste — although I suppose it might be useful to speak of uncertain taste, in which the balance is off.)  Style, finally, is the deviance that points toward future possibilities of taste. New generations develop different blends of education, articulation, and style. Taste does indeed change. But it is always constituted of the same elements.

Question: Is the Archaic torso, also sited in the Louvre, appropriately labeled as, somehow, Rilke’s?


The gift of gab.

Do I have it? And what kind of a gift is it? A good gift, or a curse?

And: Am I really Irish?

These have been ongoing questions all my life, never quite inaudible, and never seriously answered. For a very long time, I dismissed them with “I don’t care!” And I didn’t care; it really didn’t matter. The questions persisted, but so did weeds in the garden. I was lucky to live at a time and in a place that spared me the unfortunate consequences of being Irish that were known to earlier generations, both in the United States and in Ireland itself. (Not to mention England.) I never had reason to think that I suffered being Irish. If I was Irish. The adoption papers didn’t say.

My adoptive father’s forebears were wholly Irish. They came over in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and, instead of settling on the East Coast, headed straight for Iowa. My father’s father was born in 1874, in Clinton. His mother, considerably younger, was born in Davenport. A distant cousin told me that a courthouse fire destroyed most of the old records about the family. I have never done an iota of investigation. My adoptive mother’s father was of Irish background — again, wholly, I think. But her mother was of French-Canadian ancestry, born in Duluth, Minnesota. She was also a Protestant. Most interestingly, she was the eldest of thirteen children, her father having married twice. It’s possible that I made that up. From time to time, I would ask my elders to explain the family relationships, but I never wrote anything down, and I forgot most of it.

My adoptive parents were more people who had come from the Midwest than they were “Irish.” I was instructed, again rather interestingly, to tell anyone who asked that I got my red hair from my maternal grandmother, the non-Irish non-Catholic. Being Irish was a joke that my father put up with gamely. He let other people fuss over it, telling the jokes and using the odd Irish expression. We never discussed it, but I’m sure that he was aware of the irony that the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were anything but, at least so far as the actual football team went. My mother collected Belleek teacups, perhaps unaware that Belleek — the factory, at least — is in Northern Ireland. She loved those teacups, she really did. But she never used them.

So you could well ask, were my parents, despite their inheritance, actually Irish?

In case you think I’ve been mooning about this lately, you’re right, more or less, as entries for 8, 10, and 12 June of last year show. I shall take them as read, particularly my distaste for the “crazy and common,” as well as how Colm Tóibín and Maeve Brennan helped me out of “My Ireland Problem.” What I didn’t say last summer was that Tóibín and Brennan work in a similar way: their stories are full of silences. Maeve Brennan, in person, apparently had the gift of the gab in spades. That’s why The New Yorker prefaced her Talk pieces with references to a “long-winded” lady. The pieces themselves, however, are not particularly long-winded; they’re moody and perceptive and soaked in nostalgia for a vanishing past, as the parts of Manhattan that Brennan loved were torn down and replaced, seedy old buildings giving way to soulless new ones. (Joseph Mitchell felt the same ache, but he was more concerned with vanishing ways of life than with buildings.) As a writer, my point being, Brennan shows and rarely tells, and what she tells is always palpably not the whole story. The stories that she set in Dublin, like Tóibín’s Nora Webster (set in Enniscorthy), show mostly by not telling, and their power doesn’t really come through until a second or third reading. It was precisely this anti-loquaciousness that aroused my interest in learning something about Irish history.

“They are both the sons of Belial,” Lloyd George said of the Ulstermen and the Sinn Féiners that he had to deal with in negotiating the treaty that would create the Irish Free State in 1921 (ratified in 1922). I used to think the same thing. The Irish were cursed with the incapacity to be governed, thought I in my ignorance. Then Tóibín and Brennan crushed that notion. They showed a willingness to be governed, yea, oppressed anew, that chilled me far more than my old picture of anarchy.

Nevertheless, it was clear that understanding modern Ireland, or, rather, what R F Foster called “The de Valera Dispensation,” would require boning up on the history of the place, and although I knew that the history was complicated, I had no idea how complicated. This weekend, I struggled through a chapter in Ronan Fanning’s The Fatal Path, “The Treaty Negotiations,” that was like a nightmare in which I’d suddenly become involved in a structured finance deal with too many parties to keep track of. It was extremely wearying. The Catholic Irish were already divided on the question of recognizing the sovereignty of the British Crown; they both refused to negotiate the partition the six counties of Ulster as a Protestant preserve. (At least, that is, until Lloyd George came up with his elfish “Boundary Commission.”) For their part, the Ulstermen were divided between realists, who would accept the Home Rule that was being thrust back upon them, and the die-hards, who wanted to go on being part of Great Britain, and to preserve the Act of Union of 1801. The differences between any two groups might be slight, but they were always worth fighting over. The only constant in the story — Fanning’s subtitle is British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 — is the willingness and determination of two prime ministers, first Asquith and then Lloyd George, to do whatever it took to hold on to the premiership. Lloyd George would do anything; Asquith preferred, if at all possible, to do nothing.

That “Irish Free State” thingy. Whatever happened to that?


Tuesday 23rd

The names were familiar. Eamon de Valera, of course: he was still the leader of Ireland when I was a boy. Charles Parnell. Michael Collins. The Easter Rising. The Black and Tans. Sinn Féin and the IRA, also of course, because of more recent Troubles. Roger Casement. Gladstone and Home Rule. And let’s not forget the Irish Free State.

There were other names that didn’t become familiar until more recently: John Redmond, Pádraic Pearse, the Curragh. But these were no different; I couldn’t put them in relation to the other names. I expect that mine was the sort of ignorance that characterizes a lot of educated adults, their heads full of loose nuts and bolts, gleaned inattentively during high school and college but never pinned to any sense of reality. It is not usual for me, however, to harbor such littered historical blanks. There is a great deal of history of which I am really quite completely unaware, but when it came to Ireland, until very recently, I was aware of quite a lot, but I didn’t know what most of it meant.

Now, thanks to the two books that I’ve been mentioning, I know what a good deal of it means, but by no means enough. Independence, for example. When did Ireland become independent of Great Britain? It’s a trick question, because independence came in stages, and was assymetrically recognized. (I think that’s right.) I am waiting for Ronan Fanning’s book about de Valera to arrive, after which I may read Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History. I like Tom Bartlett already. (Ronan Fanning refers to him thus in the text of The Fatal Path.) I read the introduction to his book at Amazon and was presently birdseyeing the campus of his high school alma mater, in the Falls Road neighborhood of Belfast. Think what I’d know if we’d had Google Maps when I was growing up! Meanwhile, the advance of knowledge on this subject, if I’m to be honest, is glacial. The bare minimum has not sunk in yet.

I hope I’m giving some idea of what it’s like to be in the middle of learning a new subject.

Now, from a very early point, I was an enthusiastic, if extraordinarily uneven student of English history. At the top of the list of aspects of English history that I did not want to investigate was Ireland, an inclination that I appear to have shared with many leading English politicians. We all wished that Ireland would just Go Away. Especially because, if Ireland were to disappear, not only would it take the wild, incomprehensible and quarrelsome Irish with it, but it would no longer be available as a strategic base for French or Spanish invasions. Unlike the British statesmen, however, my fondness for England was supported by not knowing any Brits. I didn’t know many Irish people either, but Irish-Americans were everywhere, still distinctly Irish even if their parents had been born in the United States. The voices of those with Irish parents still echoed the old country’s way of talking. Americans of British descent were everywhere, too, but the background had been washed out of them by centuries of American life. (Plus, I learned from the dictionary, English speech and manners were far better preserved in the South, far away but its rebellion not forgotten.) I remember making my father laugh by declaring that all English people lived in big houses and had butlers. That I was trying to point out how disadvantaged we were now makes me laugh.

The first thing that I must do in trying to understanding my usually rather vague dislike of Irish-Americans (despite being arguably one of them) is to isolate the snob factor. It is difficult to distinguish this from general aspirationalism. Like my parents — at least when I was a child — I looked forward to a better world, and I believed that an essential step in advancing toward it was to get rid of the baggage of the past. In my case, that baggage included the present, my dreary everyday life. I was striving to reach a point at which I should no longer associate with the people I knew. I believe that I have discussed this eccentric snobbery elsewhere, and now is not the time to take it up. But I begin by recognizing that I was a snob.

Irish-Americans were unlike all the other hyphenated people in that they came equipped with English, but they did not speak it like the English, and there was something terribly wrong with them. They were Catholic. So were we, but, with us, it was different.

Rather than expatiate on the view taken of Catholics by the Protestant majority in the Village of Bronxville, New York — to tell you the truth, I have no idea what it was; I’d have died rather than find out — or to muse sociologically about the location of St Joseph’s Church, practically on the commuter railroad tracks, across which there were, in the tiny rump of Bronxville over there, no houses but only apartments, many of them over shops, and many of them inhabited by Catholics whom my parents did not know. Rather than all of that (for the moment, at least), I’d like to look at a few representatives of the species. Since Catholicism was the principal defining characteristic of Irish-Americans, I’ll start with Monsignor Scott, our pastor.

Here’s an Irish joke: Monsignor Scott was a feisty but prim Irishman who, if he was born on American soil at all, it was to parents who had conceived him in Ireland. He called my mother “Bee” for some reason, which was confusing, because the youngest of my Protestant grandmother’s twelve siblings was Aunt Bee (for “Beaulah”), and she was certainly no parishioner of Monsignor Scott’s. (Additionally, she was someone else.) Now, I had started out in the newish parochial school next door to the church, but I had not fit in with the nuns at all. (Being terrified of them did not render me docile.) So my parents took me out of St Joseph’s and sent me to Iona, over in New Rochelle. The grammar school was still on the college campus during my third-grade year, but in fourth grade we moved to a new structure on Stratton Road. The school was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland, and I got along with them well enough so long as I was a little boy. But when I shot up into early adolescence, everything changed for the worse, because now sports began to be taken seriously. I had learned to hate baseball at a summer camp (also in New Rochelle); I was sent to the farthest reaches of the outfield and paid no attention whatsoever to the game. I turned my back to home plate to stare at the passing traffic, and was bemused when balls occasionally rolled close by, at least until the roar of imprecations reached my ears. At Iona, I simply refused to play. I was spanked, I was cajoled; I refused. I was a very good student in those days, probably because there was no library in which to discover topics that had nothing to do with my course work. I don’t remember how the baseball crisis was resolved. Doubtless by summer, and the end of the school year. In sixth grade, I began to “have headaches,” and this brought an end to my sojourn at Iona.

Because I was already something of a lawyer, I always had sins to confess. One day, I realized that Monsignor Scott was on the other side of the grille. This was unusual, but I listed my peccadilloes as usual. I had stolen some money — I was always stealing money in those days. I was always caught, because I was a terrible thief, and I really did learn my lesson, which is that crime doesn’t repay the effort that you have to put into it if you want to get away with it. Having been caught, I thought I had nothing really to lose by confessing my crime to Monsignor Scott. Imagine my surprise, then, when he barked at me by name and told me that he was going to call up the principal at Iona and make sure that he knew what a vicious miscreant I was. The lawyer in me knew that Monsignor Scott was way out of bounds, and that even to repeat to the principal something that he had heard in the confessional would get him in trouble if it ever came out, so I didn’t collapse in dread. I’d like to say that I adopted a more circumspect policy, that I stopped confessing to stealing, and took up coveting, a lesser included offense. But I never ran into Monsignor Scott in the confessional again.

Among the many factors that kindled my desire to know more about Ireland and its history was learning, from Maeve Brennan’s stories and movies such as Philomena, how common Monsignor Scott’s infraction was in the Ireland of the “de Valera dispensation.” I got the idea that the Catholic Church was an adjunct of the civil justice authorities, such as the police, or that perhaps it was the other way around. And yet I had always known this. I can tell you why my family wasn’t really Irish: we did not recognize priests as the highest authority with whom we came into contact. My parents never, so far as I know, turned to a priest for advice, except possibly with reference to me or to my sister. Certainly they never sought political advice in the parish bulletin. But true Irish-Americans were different. It made enormous historical sense, of course; in the old days of British rule, priests were the highest authority with whom an Irishman might deal. The priest was a source of strength and counsel then, a source of reaffirmation on matters of faith and morals, a reliable guide to right living. After the British pulled out, however, the relationship between priest and parishioner seems to have soured. No longer oppressed by a heretic power, the priests and their hierarchy nevertheless failed to relax their vigilance. Now the danger came from below, from heretics within the fold, from intellectual hooligans who believed in a free press, contraception, and divorce. The Church threw its weight into the ostracisation of such deviants. The result was a modest strain of totalitarianism. Irish wits went into exile, abandoning the country’s anti-intellectual suffocation.

Totalitarians can admit no faults, so it’s no surprise that the Church failed again and again — failed institutionally — to deal with pedophile priests. The priests of old may have been good shepherds, but more recent Irish and Irish-American hierarchies were almost helpless in the display, once it showed, of their contempt for their flocks. As a result, last summer, during the referendum on same-sex marriage, many opponents stayed home, declining to vote rather than appear to support the Church.

Did anyone seriously think, in 1960, that John F Kennedy would take his orders from the Pope in Rome? The fear that he might do so was often mentioned by the press, as existing somewhere, but I never heard anyone express it. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of papal history knows that popes have only rarely got kings and prime ministers to do their bidding, but the Irish-American Catholic Church presented a different picture, and I expect that it was Catholics themselves who worried that Kennedy would defer to Rome, because they could not imagine their own refusal to do so.


Thursday 25th

Last night, we had second helpings. Not just leftovers, but more of what we had had for dinner the night before: Chicken Tetrazzini.

Stouffer’s, now a division of Nestlé, is still cranking out frozen Turkey Tetrazzini, which is what Kathleen and I encountered as children. It was one of the few meals of that kind that we actually liked. (You can still buy a case of twelves boxes of the stuff for about $70.) Neither Kathleen nor I has ever seen this dish on a menu. The original calls for chicken, much more of a delicacy back in the day when Luisa Tetrazzini was wowing opera audiences with her embellishments on “Sempre libera degg’io,” from La Traviata. James Beard gives a recipe in American Cookery, claiming that the dish was probably invented to honor the soprano in San Francisco, which does seem to have been, for a while, second only to Paris in the pursuit and attainment of pleasure.

I tried Beard’s recipe a long time ago, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Our enthusiasm for Tetrazzini must have faded with childhood, I thought. But last fall, I decided to have another go. I had an idea that a reduced and intense chicken broth was the key, and so it turned out to be. By the middle of this month, I had developed a recipe that owed its success to the broth that Agata & Valentina sells. I wondered if I might obtain similar results from broth of my own.

My record with meat stocks is not good, for the simple reason that I always allowed them to boil. I discovered that this is a no-no rather late in life, long after I had given up even thinking about making chicken or beef stock. I knew how to goose up commercial broths, and that seemed good enough. But now, possibly inspired by Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal, I was beguiled by the idea of using one chicken to make the whole dish myself, at home. I already had another use for the dark meat, the parts that wouldn’t go into Tetrazzini. In fact, the only reason for roasting a chicken, and the reason for the problem of white-meat leftovers, is that the legs are the parts that Kathleen and I like to eat.

In the summer, I make chicken salads with the breast meat. But in the cold months, I want stews — pots of deeply flavorful bits of meat and vegetable swimming in delicious sauces. That is what brought me back to Chicken Tetrazzini last fall. The problem with classic chicken stews, such as Coq au vin, is that, as that name ought to make clear, they call for the sustained cooking of a mature bird. But nobody sells roasting hens anymore, much less cockerels. Stewing the kind of chicken that you actually can get your hands on simply kills the poor thing a second time.

Now, if I only knew what I was doing, I could make one chicken produce two dishes, both sure to be eaten up.

I bought a three-pound chicken at Fairway. I don’t buy meat at Fairway as a rule, but it wasn’t convenient to run down to Agata & Valentina (I wouldn’t after all, be needing their broth), and I thought that I might squeak by with a Bell & Evans bird. I spatchcocked the chicken; roasted it, along with the neck and the wingtips; served the legs to the two of us; and then dealt with the carcass. The breast meat, removed from the bone, was bagged and refrigerated. In a large stock pot, I gently browned a handful of mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, and celery). Then I tossed in the bones. After a few minuts, I poured in a lot of water. I lowered the heat a bit, and waited for the water to begin to boil. The moment it did, I reduced the heat further, so that the only motion in the pot was the rising of a shimmering lens to the surface, which never broke.

I had read that, if you don’t boil the broth, the albumen in the bones is not commingled with the broth, so that the broth stays crystal clear. Instead, the albumen forms a clear crust around the sides of the pot, nothing like the dirty foam that collects if the broth is boiled. After about an hour of cooking, I strained the broth into another pan, and discarded the solids. Over the same heat, I reduced the broth to the measure of two cups. It was quite brown, but also quite clear. When I was ready to use it, a few days later, it was a quivering jelly. A little more reduction, and it would have made a master chef’s aspic. All of this took time, but no effort.

When I was ready to concoct the Tetrazzini, I brought the broth to a boil and threw in the stems of a package of mushrooms. The caps I sliced and sautéed in the bottom of a large saucepan. Then I scooped them out and made a veloûté in the uncleaned saucepan. I’ll assume that you know how to make a veloûté. (In a wonderful little book from 1953 that my mother used, Casserole Magic, by Lousene Rousseau Brunner, veloûté is made less formidable by being called “rich cream sauce.”) When the sauce was almost as thick as I wanted it to be, I tossed in the cut-up chicken breast meat and the mushroom caps.

It remained only to cook some spaghetti. When the spaghetti was done, I tossed in some butter, as I always do with pasta, but this was a mistake, because the sauce was already quite rich enough. It would have been better to throw the veloûté mixture right away. After a good stirring, I poured the sauced spaghetti into a gratin dish, sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on top, and ran it under a low broiler for a few minutes.

After two mouthfuls, we agreed that my Chicken Tetrazzini is ready for a dinner party for four. It is, frankly, comfort food, but the intensity of the chicken flavor brings haute cuisine not so much to mind as to the tongue. I believe that you could stir in peas at the last minute, but only they were worth dying for. (The mushrooms, it seems, are also my own idea.)


I have had to give some thought to the next part of my Irish-connection narrative. It has to do with naming names. This is something that I am very disinclined to do, for names belong to other people, whether they’re dead or alive, and they are not my playthings. At the same time, the alternatives to naming names are all a bit awkward, and they can slow things down. Also, as readers, we want the wicked pleasure of the dish. We want the thrill of hearing one person declare that another person is a pig. Especially when we’re young, and have no idea of the pain that can be caused, or, worse, the insult registered.

This question of naming names becomes particularly vivid at the fringes of family connections. Here, the measures of acquaintance and friendship are replaced by expectations of welcome intimacy. If you don’t feel particularly welcome or intimate with family members who are neither close nor remote, then there is a strong suggestion that you dislike them, that there is something wrong with them. You are supposed to like the members of your family, even though this rarely happens in practice, especially in metropolitan areas where people of very different backgrounds get mixed up together.

In 1957, retired, and two years a widower, my mother’s father married his secretary. It was all perfectly respectable. My mother might have been a little put out — she had always been a daddy’s girl — but Grace, the secretary, couldn’t have been less disagreeable. She was younger than my grandfather, yes, but she was older than my mother. Grace and my grandfather seemed to be very happy together, but it did not last for long, because within two years my grandfather was felled by a cerebral haemorrhage — a stroke.

The reason for my bringing this up is that Grace came from an Irish-American family in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood to the east-southeast of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Before marrying my grandfather, Grace lived in her father’s house, as did an unmarried sister whom I got to know well later, when she moved up to Bronxville to share an apartment with Grace after my grandfather died. There were brothers, and there were nieces and nephews. Someone might have been killed in the War.

We paid a visit to the house in Windsor Terrace. I thought it was gruesome; the idea of living there was so oppressive that I could not wait to leave. I have since realized that it was simply a respectable Catholic Irish house, not unlike the one that I mentioned last summer. It was austere, but it was not humble. Everywhere you looked, there was the gleam of highly-polished dark wood, on door frames, mirror frames, chiffoniers, and upholstered sofas and chairs. I have a strong recollection of colorlessness, but that may be an interpolation of other memories. There was also a great deal of glass, of old-fashioned Victorian plate glass. The effect was not to brighten the house so much as to remind me that light was somewhere else.

Grace’s father was still alive, a slim, compact man with a wry handsome face and white hair. Despite everyone’s best intentions, the visit entailed a clash of cultures, or rather the evasion of one. I could put it in socioeconomic terms, and wind up suggesting, without saying a word, that Grace’s father was determined not to be condescended to by relative grandees from Westchester who were Catholic in name only. I should rather talk about comfort. There was little thought of comfort in Windsor Terrace. I’m talking about physical comfort.

The house was ready for a bishop’s visit. Had a bishop ever visited our house, he would probably have relaxed into acting like an executive, like my father. The talk would have been of golf, and Scotch would have been the refreshment. A bishop in Windsor Terrace could behave as though such modern depravities didn’t exist. He could have shown up in vestments, surrounded by acolytes. (Grace’s sister, who was one of those quick-witted Irishwomen whom you don’t mess with, would have giggled, but only later.) Even in street clothes, he would have been treated like the ecclesiastical aristocrat that he was. And Windsor Terrace would have declared that it was worthy to receive him. Tea, biscuits, a glass of sherry at the most, all served with expensive Irish crystal and china and immaculate linen. A stiff and formal exchange of words would have afforded immense ritual pleasures to all. The visit of a bishop would have been an event second only to the birth of a child. Much more than a wedding! You never now how marriages are going to turn out. You never know how children are going to turn out, either, but there’s a big difference between little babies and full-grown in-laws.

All I could think, naturally, was that, if Windsor Terrace was what it meant to be Irish, then I didn’t want to be Irish. At the same time, without any conscious thought at all, I decided that Windsor Terrace was, without a doubt, Irish.

I can still hear the voices of Grace and her sister, though, and with pleasure. They could be impatient with me, but they were never really cross and certainly not unkind. They may have wondered why I was so peculiar, but I made them laugh and that was enough. Their voices were still very Irish. They had been born and raised in Brooklyn, and you could say that the sounds of Brooklyn haunted their speech as the sound of Britain used to haunt the speech of the most respectable Irish. But they spoke Irish, using English words. They could put ferocious palpability into the final “t” in “treat” or the “k” in “book.” I am sorry that I was not much older when I got to know them.

Now — and this is the only way to wind up my recollection — I could not have written any of this without having read Maeve Brennan’s Dublin stories. The idea of a bishop’s visit, in particular, would never have occurred to me. It is also the case that, without having read Brennan, I should never have had the slightest desire to revisit memories of Windsor Terrace. Which I’m very glad to have done.


Friday 26th

Having put down Jasper Ridley’s 1987 biography, Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue, to read R F Foster and Ronan Fanning on Ireland, I’ve returned to Ridley and am nearly done. It’s a good read. As I recalled from the first reading, when the book came out, Ridley has two points to make about Elizabeth. First, she could not make up her mind. Second, she was obsessed with the incarnation of royalty — not that he ever puts it that way.

Dithering — the inability to make up one’s mind once and for all — is regarded as a male weakness and a female characteristic. This is, of course, bosh. Men are simply more covert about it, as they have to be, if they don’t want to be mocked. The matters that Elizabeth dithered about were all matters of state, with serious, not to say fatal, pros and cons. Take the best known: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587. And take just one strand of the deliberations: murder or execution? Elizabeth knew that the assassination of Mary would meet with much less shock and outrage than an official execution by the state. Kings and queens got bumped off all the time. Three English kings had been done in, Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, all in dark and dirty dungeons with no spectators. Even after Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant (which she did, for many reasons reluctantly, including this one), she continued the search for a hit man. As aficionados of this episode know, when she handed the warrant to Davison, Secretary of State, she may or may not have told him to hold on to it until further word from her. He claimed that she did not. He passed it on to the Council, who sent it to the Chancellor for the Great Seal, whereupon it went its official way to Fotherghay Castle, the relatively remote castle in which Mary was imprisoned. The Queen of Scots was duly separated from her head.

Elizabeth didn’t hear about it for four days, but when she did, she went ballistic. Davison was sent to the Tower, while Elizabeth sought advice as to whether she could execute him without a trial. Once again, she couldn’t find anyone to cooperate — a motif that I should like to have seen Ridley make more of. Davison languished in the Tower for twenty months. He was eventually freed and made whole — he’d been fined, and prisoners had to pay for their food and lodging in the Tower — but he was never employed by Elizabeth again. The general understanding is that Elizabeth was projecting her guilt for killing Mary onto Davison, as if the execution had been his fault. I disagree. I think that she had felt thwarted and frustrated at every step in her dealings with Mary, and now that Mary was gone, she exploded — because she could.

Elizabeth’s indecisiveness was the product of her scruples. She wanted to do the right thing in every way, and such a thing rarely existed. She also hated to spend money, so she was always promising to aid Protestant warriors in Europe but never sending the checks in a timely fashion. If indecisiveness was at all gender-linked, it was the result of not being taken entirely seriously by the men who served her. The core advisers served her for decades, and got very good at handling her, but not so good that she didn’t feel handled, and she hated that.

By “the incarnation of royalty” I simply mean the institution of the crown as a transfigurer of the personage upon whose head it rests. Such a person becomes God’s appointed minister on earth, answerable to no human judges. There was something almost modern about Elizabeth’s insistence on this, something more abstract (and much less magical) than medieval theories of monarchy. As a woman, she was obviously incapable of carrying out the primary duty of a king, which had always been, however figuratively, to wage war and defend the realm. More important as a handicap was the associated inability to occupy the ceremonial center of military life. She could not hang out in the stables or oversee the sports that Essex and Henri IV set up for their men during their frolic and detour at Compiègne. Elizabeth liked gallant soldiers well enough, but she was surrounded by gifted civilians, forebears of today’s statesmen. (They might have a military past, and Leicester always seemed to be on some kind of active duty, but by and large they pursued the arts of peace.) Elizabeth’s touchiness about lèse-majesté was a vital reminder that she occupied the top job, or perhaps that the top job was occupied by her. And don’t you forget it. She carried this to almost ridiculous levels when arguing on behalf of, say, Philip II, against his Nederlander rebels. She really did believe that they ought to obey him. At the same time, she believed in the Protestant cause. And, at the same time, she loathed Puritans. It was up to her, and nobody else, to settle Church doctrine. Elizabeth’s views are clear and even admirable, but they clashed constantly.

Scrolling through Amazon, I don’t see any titles that suggest a genuinely feminist appraisal of Elizabeth’s career. There are plenty of books that are written by women and that highlight the domestic side of Elizabeth’s life. However interesting this might be, it is not why we take an interest in Elizabeth. She was the first woman in modern Europe unambiguously to rule a kingdom by herself. So far as England goes, she was also the last, until Margaret Thatcher. It’s easy to romanticize her as Good Queen Bess, doing a jig for the troops at Tilbury; it’s just as easy, if far less popular, to scorn her as a nervous nelly. When we say that she was a great queen, what on earth do we mean? She had a gift for oration that puts her in Churchill’s neighborhood, but what else beside speeches? And what did she teach men about women?


Ronan Fanning’s biography of Éamon de Valera has arrived, and I’ve read the first two chapters, which take the reader up to the planning of the Easter Rising in 1916. There is almost nothing in these chapters to suggest that de Valera would emerge as one of Europe’s most durable statesmen in the last century, and there is one detail that I wish Fanning explored more fully, because it makes de Valera’s rise seem even less likely. Perhaps it is an object lesson in Lessons Learned. In 1904, de Valera was due to take his BA examination. He had not dropped out of University College, Blackrock, but he had taken a year off to teach at a “sister” college in Tipperary. Fanning can explain this move, and he tells us that de Valera may have had the time of his life at Rockwell College, for the first time enjoying undergraduate high-jinks.

But Edward de Valera [it was "Edward" until de Valera got involved with the Gaelic League, largely through his wife, Jane Flanagan/Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin] seems to have paid a high price for his uncharacteristic excursion into this less than lurid self-indulgence: it allowed little time for focusing on preparing for his BA examination in the summer of 1904. Although he left Rockwell and returned to Blackrock as soon as the school year ended, only fourteen weeks remained before the examination began. It was not enough.(17)

De Valera wound up with a “Pass,” which ruined in one blow his chances for the career in higher education that he seems to have had in mind. “He was thoroughly disgusted and was to regret it all his life.” The curious thing is that de Valera was always diligent, dutiful to a fault. His classmate, future primate of Armagh and a fellow leader of Irish affairs, John D’Alton, called him “a good, very serious student, good at Mathematics, but not outstanding otherwise.” The question isn’t how a second-rate student came to rule a new country — certainly not! The question is why this “good, very serious student” made such a catastrophic misjudgment on the eve of his examination. I’m not going to speculate, and perhaps there is no more evidence than Fanning adduces — de Valera was having fun for the first time in his life. But at least I should like to see that disgust and regret connected to the character of the man de Valera would become.


Another Irish-American in my childhood was “Aunt Peg.” The widow of a policeman, Aunt Peg lived on the other side of our apartment building on Palmer Avenue — the building (and even the same side) in which Grace and her sister would share an apartment many years later — and she encouraged me to visit her. This was not encouraged by my parents. When I did visit, Aunt Peg would take me up on her capacious lap and embrace me lovingly. She was always hot and damp, and there might be a disagreeable aroma lurking beneath her perfume; like any little boy, I tired of her embrace much sooner than she did. I suppose I was taking the place of a lost child; in those days, you didn’t tell children anything, if you could help it. But she loved me absolutely, and that was a good thing. My mother’s mother also liked to hold me, even though, like my grandson, I was a tall boy and hard to fit on any lap. My mother disapproved of all of this, and I’m sure that she read somewhere or was told that any sign of unconditional love could prove fatal.

By the time my sister and I became parents ourselves, we were not surprised to see that, while our mother loved babies, she began to lose interest when her grandchildren could talk — could talk back. They remember her fondly enough, but my sister and I watched that enthusiasm wane to dutifulness. Kathleen and I talk about this often. Kathleen never met my mother; my mother died at the beginning of 1977, and in the fall, I met Kathleen. But Kathleen has never cared for babies — well, hardly ever. When she was a girl, she hated dolls. What could be more dumb (in every sense) than a tea party with pretend-people who had nothing to say? My mother never talked about dolls, but then she had the undivided attention of her worshipful parents. It was clear that she preferred children to behave like dolls.

There was the spectre of another lost child in the apartment building, but I never figured out where he fit in. He was not really a child; he was killed in Korea, and I often saw a photograph him outfitted for football; he had been some kind of star somewhere, full of promise. Nobody ever looked more the part of the young American hero. His name was Donny. His photograph was guarded by another Irish-American woman, Loretta O’Brien. Loretta and my mother were good friends. My father and Eddie O’Brien were friends, too, in their taciturn way. Eddie was almost a generation older than his wife and my parents, and he smoked gigantic cigars. I think that he was a stock-broker. He was one of those men, not uncommon in those days, who had a high old time until having a high old time was more trouble than it was worth, whereupon he married a pretty younger woman. (My father’s father followed the same trajectory, way out on the Mississippi.) Eddie was twinkling and genial, but I didn’t understand his terse sense of humor. For every word he uttered, Loretta spoke forty. She loved me, too, but the love was verbal, so my mother had no objection. There were times when I could make my mother laugh; Loretta was always laughing. She was either laughing or she was talking, but she was not at all a silly woman. She was simply long-winded. But her exuberance filled one’s sails.

Loretta was farther from her Irish roots than the folks in Windsor Terrace. She had some kind of New York accent — highly diluted Bronx, I’d say — and I don’t recall her using any Irish expressions. Loretta had worked, as a secretary I suppose, in a way that my mother hadn’t. My mother had had a job behind the counter at a jeweler’s in the village, but this was a lark, really a sort of Peace Corps experience only not so high-minded. Loretta had done a real nine-to-five, which was presumably how Eddie met her. He had plucked her from the typing pool, something like that. But I have no idea what the facts were — none whatsoever. For all I know, Eddie met Loretta on a summer cruise, and pushed an unmentioned first wive overboard so that he could marry her. But I don’t think that that’s what happened.

Every now and then, Loretta would pull Donny’s photograph out of her purse and start to weep. This was hard, because I could never remember how Loretta was related to Donny. I thought that he was her son until it was made clear, with laughter not entirely pleasant, that he wasn’t. (Loretta would have been an indecently young mother.) And the aggressive masculinity of a guy crouching with a football put me off. Oh, dear. I see that I am going to have to say something about being tough.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
February 2016 (III)

Monday 15th

This cold of mine has begun to demoralize me. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Sort of, I suppose. What I’m really sorry about is that I have to live through this moment in American history. It’s an ugly one. With the body of Antonin Scalia still at the undertaker’s, partisans were already crying, Aux barricades! Not only do the Republicans deny President Obama the moral right to nominate Scalia’s successor, but they’re talking about overturning the same-sex marriage case. It seems that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of hot buttons were pushed by the late Justice’s death.

For about ten minutes after hearing the news (Fossil Darling called to tell me), I was so exultant that it is now official: I am going straight to hell. Over the past thirty years, Scalia has been the reason why I couldn’t claim to be a person of good will, wishing death to none. If he had retired, I might have forgotten about him. But of course he did not retire, so my loathing ran right up to the moment of his demise.

When I was growing up, people like Scalia — and the people who admire Donald Trump — were thought to be beneath contempt, even in conservative Westchester County. Perhaps they were. But they’re not any more. This does not mean that they are not contemptible. It is very unpleasant to live in a democracy that requires you to respect contemptible people.

These people, I hasten to add, are contemptible only to the extent that they venture past the election booth into active politicking. And what is contemptible about them is simply that they want black Americans either to disappear or to settle back into slavery. At least that truth is being squeezed out into the open. For far too long, liberals and progressives have concluded that the fight for Civil Rights was over and won. If asked, black Americans would offer a contrary view, but we smart people always know better, don’t we. How could anybody get up in the morning, in our enlightened world, and embrace bigotry? It took Barack Obama’s residency in the White House to teach us.

Enough intemperance. Blame it on the cold. Or blame it on the chill of grand peur that I’m beginning to feel.


As I read Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, I wondered about its intended readership. Whom did A O Scott have in mind? College students, I concluded. (Folks in the book business, and other critics, too — but that’s a very small market.) It would be nice to think that general readers will pick up this book, but I doubt it. Even the self-help subtitle (for shame!) can’t lighten the lead weight of criticism. I don’t know when it became comprehensible English for one civilian to bark at another, “Don’t criticize me!”, but that is when the word was vernacularized, and lost to thoughtful writers. “Criticism” is something unpleasant that nasty people inflict on their supposed friends. That’s why even professional critics, the men and women who write reviews of books, plays, movies, concerts and whatnot, are believed to set out to knock things down. Even “positive criticism” has an air of the oxymoronic about it. It sounds like an inoculation: “This is going to hurt, but then you’ll be all better.” And Scott writes from a position that accepts all this negative feedback. He takes it as understood that what critics do is reprehensible, and that critics themselves are hateful.

Then he sets out to replace that understanding with a better one. On page 17, he states that criticism is the late-born twin of art. Now, that’s a wild claim! But three pages later, he is quoting H L Mencken: “Literature always thrives best, in fact, in an atmosphere of heavy strife.” Sounds like the same-old to me: Criticism is painful. Re-reading Mencken’s line just now, I was reminded of free-market economics, which also advances a duke-’em-out ethos. Let the best man win!

I really don’t know where to begin with Better Living. I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go. I’m still undecided. I couldn’t find the center of the book, the point from which Scott’s thought might be seen to radiate. Perhaps it was unfair or wrongheaded to look for one, but I couldn’t help it, because I believe that I have figured out what criticism is all about, or at least where it ought to go from here. In the most basic sense, I have learned by doing, writing this Web log. What I have discovered is that the bundle of skills and judgments that distinguish the craft of journalism will no longer sustain what is worthwhile about criticism.

Perhaps it never has; I believe that I have always worried that it didn’t. Instead of writing more about Better Living Through Criticism right now, I’m going to take up another autobiographical question: why didn’t I try to be a journalist? Why was it something that I quite consciously shied away from?

I’ve just deleted a longish paragraph about how I did radio instead. Interesting perhaps, but not on point. I did radio because it came very easily to me. I did not have to work at it. Using radio to teach myself about serious music, I was always ahead of the requirements, such as they were. I went in, at the college level, knowing more than anyone else, and I stayed in that position for more than ten years. You may wonder how someone who never seriously studied music or played an instrument with proficiency could excel in this way, but in fact that’s precisely how I did it. I didn’t make music. I listened to it.

Journalism would not have been such a snap, not remotely. But what really kept me away was the ambiance. Is there a reason why the prototypical journalist always seems to be a sportswriter?

Life has taught me that, although I’m not bad in genuine emergencies, I wilt under routine pressure. I don’t like locker rooms, or other masculine enclaves. There is something terribly depressing — hellish, really — about hanging around with men-being-men. The smell is part of it, but so is the casual rudeness, and so is the cavalier attitude toward scratches and bruises. Throughout childhood and early adolescence, I was terrified of being drafted into the army. Being killed by the enemy never occurred to me; I was sure that I’d be killed by my sergeant. I was also a little afraid that I’d kill my sergeant. I was afraid of violence in part because I feared that I might like it, even thought it might kill me. I was afraid of a life so pointless.


Yes, I was afraid that journalism was pointless. Something to wrap up fish in. And yet, what an avid consumer I was — and remain! I read the Times every day, and a host of magazines. Didn’t I ever want to write for The New Yorker? (Come on, tell the truth.) Well, there were times when I’d have liked to be the sort of guy who writes for The New Yorker. But I always knew that I wasn’t that guy. This had, and has, nothing to do with not being good enough. It has everything to do with doing what I want to do. And that would be? Until recently, I didn’t know; I was still looking. You could say that my looking got serious when I launched Portico, a Web site, in 2000. (Or was it 2001?)

Portico was laid out like a magazine. There were departments — the top menu links — and these were subdivided. The cooking section, “Culinarion,” came in four sub-sections, “Sweets,” “Savories,” “Eggs,” and “Extras.” (I still find that to be an elegant disposition.) The page on Hollandaise is physically remote from the page on Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, which dates from 2005, by which time I had set up the first version of this Web log. The page on Didion is a review, no two ways about it. So are most of the other pages devoted to books; although, if you look at the page on Netherland, from 2009, you see that it is a “Note,” and that it deals with an aspect of Joseph O’Neill’s novel, making no pretense of comprehensiveness. Even the Netherland page, however, is more objective than anything that I’ve been writing lately.

By “objective” I mean something slightly different. I mean that the writer’s personality — mine, in this case — is only indirectly present. I make a lot of judgments on this page, but they appear as in the guise of truths.

Netherland is not only a novel about but a treatise on wistfulness. And what is wistfulness but nostalgia faced the other way? Not, in other words, nostalgia at all. It is the longing for things to happen again, now that one is capable of understanding and appreciating them. The wistful man does not want to go back in time. He wants to bring the past forward to the present, and refresh it with his enhanced grasp of how things might be, or might have been, otherwise.

Who is this “wistful man” that I seem to be familiar with? I can’t answer that. I couldn’t possibly write this page today. I don’t think that way anymore. I’m not sure that I should choose the same long passage (about a fellow called Cardozo) for comment. I’m glad that I wrote what I wrote, but it feels to me as though whoever wrote it is dead and gone.

The manner for which I am groping is “subjective” in that I embed what I have to say about a book or a movie or anything in a matrix of memoir. The idea is not to showcase my life but to plug books, movies and whatnot into it, and to see what happens in the long term; not what happens right after I’ve read the book for the first time, but after I’ve lived with it. I’m not reading a book because someone asked me to, or writing down a couple of interesting things about the book that may or may not kindle a desire to read it, and then collecting a paycheck and moving on to the next assignment. I’m not reading books that I don’t like and telling you what’s wrong with them. Everything that I write is intended to survive its ceasing to be news. In fact, I write for the second reading.

What authority do I have to practice criticism? That’s up to you to decide — and I am certain that, after you have read enough of what I have to say, you will know how to regard my authority — what it means to you. At the end of Lit Up, David Denby writes of the teachers in whose classrooms he has watched fifteen year-olds grow,

They were more experienced, certainly, than students; they were guides, leaders, dispensers of knowledge and justice, but also people subject to the ups and downs, the happiness and mishaps, that the students were subject to. They demonstrated that it was possible to do that without losing authority. In fact, in media-sozzled America, where skepticism is the prevailing mode of thought, candor may be a way of gaining authority. Teaching is about building trust. Acknowledgment of one’s own humanity is one powerful way of building it. (238)

As I say, I’m figuring this out as I go along. But it’s a matter of refining, now, not looking. I was thinking over the weekend of the time that I put into reviewing The New York Times Book Review, week after week, year after year. There was a long time in the middle when I didn’t know why I was bothering, because, on such close inspection, the Book Review turned out to be a pretty shoddy product. But I kept at it because there was something that wasn’t clear to me. This turned out to be what the whole point of reviewing was: to sell books. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because what I mean has nothing to do with shilling or publicity. I mean that a good review makes the people who will get the most out of the book want to read it. (A really good review also warns away those who won’t — without making one unfavorable remark.) I also learned that I wasn’t interested in reviewing books myself. It’s the other way round. I want them to live in me.


Tuesday 16th

The bleakness that prevails in a North Atlantic February — and that makes Februarys so hard to remember as times when anything happened — is intensifying, somehow, the sting that I gave myself yesterday, when I wrote that I went into radio because it came easily to me. Haven’t I always (and here I hang my head in shame) done the things that came easily to me? Kathleen says, “Nonsense,” but she is a great comforter.

The issue wasn’t why I went into radio. It was why I didn’t pursue journalism, which might seem to be the natural home for a fluent writer with a worldly take on varied interests. And the answer to that question, with the sting still lodged in my skin, seems to be that I was a chicken, a sissy, a coward. I didn’t think I could take it. Not the writing assignments, but the other guys. (What I should now, looking over a great distance in age and time, call the roughhousing. I have also learned that I am a very sore loser. I am incapable of sustaining the thought, “It’s only a game.” So I avoid competitions.) Questions of courage and confidence aside, moreover, I am allergic to esprit de corps. It is a reaction to growing up in the United States in the Fifties.

Whatever the personal issues, there was also the question of journalism itself. Not journalists or the way they might carry on, but the result of their labors: columns of print that are soon forgotten. This does not mean that journalism is unimportant. In our complicated world, journalism is often the only thing that suggests the possibility of making sense of things. But, as its name suggests, it is important for the day. Tomorrow, we shall require other instructions, other pointers, other commentary. Journalism embeds itself in the day that it addresses. The interest that it has for later readers, when not plainly historical or a matter of record, is almost always ironic.

Take Frank Nugent’s review of Bringing Up Baby. A O Scott does, in Better Living Through Criticism. The review appeared in the Times on 4 March 1938. If you have access to old Times pages, then you can read it for yourself. It’s not long, and it will make you smile. Aside from some framing matter, the review is a catalogue of the hoary old comic routines that Howard Hawks ran through, one after another, to provide a ridiculous but acerbic backdrop to his screwball comedy. You’re smiling not because Nugent doesn’t get it but because his litany reminds you of the fun of watching the movie. What’s actually funny about Bringing Up Baby isn’t any of the “clichés” that Nugent lists, but the cognitive dissonance between the nonstop circus in the background and David Huxley’s perplexity up front. (Huxley is played by Cary Grant.) When his precious intercostal clavicle (well, not his) is buried in the yard by George (a/k/a Asta, Skippy, Mr Smith — a terrier), Huxley is understandably upset, and not inclined to see what has happened as a cliché at all. Clichés are what happen to other people.

What may have lulled Nugent into missing this irony is that Cary Grant, even in the guise of a bumbling paleontologist, belongs in a circus himself. The actor grew up in one, and it is arguable that no movie brings out Grant’s acrobatic talents as much as this one does. Nugent may well have seen Grant’s performance as yet another cliché. The movie is dangerously smooth on this point — this dissonance, as I call it, between Huxley and the leopards. It is compromised by Grant’s physical grace in response to disaster. A more conventional leading man would have looked like — Frank Nugent; not funny. And it takes a while for Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) to declare her resolution to detach the man she loves from his dreary fiancée. Her strategy is anything but romantic. On the contrary: she hurls her future husband into a cyclone of trauma. That’s what’s funny, too. What a strange girl this Susan Vance is! And what a genius Howard Hawks was, to mount her triumph in the hyper-vaudeville collapse of a bunch of scary old dinosaur bones!

Poor Frank Nugent. He can’t have imagined that his unfavorable review of a movie that clearly annoyed the hell out of him would be brought back to life nearly eighty years later and reconsidered in an essay entitled “How To Be Wrong.” As Scott suggests, Nugent may simply have seen too many movies; he may have missed the subtle cues, at the beginning of the film, that a romance would be presented in a highly unlikely light, and this would make everything new. Hollywood’s gags had been recycled too many times — for Frank Nugent. Reviewers of Peter Bogdanovich’s remake, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), didn’t have Nugent’s problem at all; it had been ages since the “clichés” had been taken out of cold storage. In fact, the very antiquity of the jokes was part of the fun.

With the appearances of What’s Up, Doc? and, two years later, Chinatown, I realized that the old movies were back. That’s how I put it. I’d seen scores of old movies by then, both on the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie. The latter showcase played the same movie every night for a week: how’s that for a films course? I knew that color had somehow ruined everything, but I could see that Bogdanovich and Polanski knew how to fix that, even though I couldn’t have explained what I saw. I should venture now to say that Bogdanovich treated the color schemes of television’s new sitcoms the way Hawks treated the fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker): the benchmark of normal. (It was Eunice Burns, his film’s fiancée, played by Madeline Kahn, whom Bogdanovich would treat as the drunken Irishman.) The colors in What’s Up, Doc? seem to promise that all the awful things that happen to Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) couldn’t happen — and yet, of course, they do.

I wonder why Scott doesn’t mention What’s Up, Doc? I wonder a lot of things about the essay in which he talks about Nugent. It ranges over many subjects, all of them, allegedly, critical mistakes. Scott’s own mistake is to start off with a daring bid that the essay never quite delivers.

But it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong. Not on purpose, of course, and not out of laziness, ignorance, or stupidity. No: the critic’s task is to trace a twisted, looping, stutter-stepping, incomplete path toward the truth, and as such to fight an unending battle against premature and permanent certainty.

For one thing, I don’t see how you can call a duty sacred if the responsible party isn’t aware of trying to fulfill it. For another, I’m as tired as Frank Nugent could be of the metaphor of the unending path toward the truth.

“How to Be Wrong” reminds me of a priest at St Thomas More who used to give mesmerizing sermons, filled with name-checks and references to great art and literature. And yet nobody could ever determine what the point of the sermon was. (My father made the same complaint about Notre Dame’s Father Hesburgh.) Each one of Scott’s paragraphs flows from the one before it, and into the one that follows, making perfect sense — but the effect is miscellaneous. The closest we come to one of those “funnel paragraphs” that I was taught to write, and put at the beginning of each attempt at expository writing, appears toward the end of the essay, in the form of a summary. Scott runs through all the ways in which the critic can be wrong, pretty much as Nugent enumerates the clichés in Bringing Up Baby. Here is the end of that paragraph, and the beginning of the next one.

You can be earnest or flippant, plainspoken or baroque, blunt or coy, dilettante or geek. You can follow the precepts of theory or just go on your nerve. You can labor to be consistent or blithely and capaciously contradict yourself.

It doesn’t matter. Actually, it matters a great deal. It matters more than anything. You are guaranteed to be wrong…. (211)

Wrong? Only if you’re trying to be objective, as I defined it yesterday. You’ll be wrong only to the extent that you have pretended to make universal statements — statements that are true for everyone at all times. But why try? It’s silly, unnecessary, and — characteristically masculine to want to lay down the law, to pronounce an irreversible sentence. That’s a terrible power for a judge to have in a capital case, for a life is at stake. Outside the courtroom, however, there are no irreversible sentences. Everything is reversible, except — except the fact of you.

The fact of you, in subjective critical terms, exists only on the page. Every entry at this Web log presents the reader with the fact of me. Aside from quotations, I wrote everything that appears here. Now, it’s possible that no one will ever get to know “who I really am” — not even I. In fact, it’s certain. But what I’ve written is also a fact, and it cannot be wrong, no matter how many poor judgments I make.

This is much more than the sleight-of-hand, the turning-of-tables that it might seem to be. Such authority as my pronouncements possess proceed from the fact of me, the fact that I’ve written everything here (or chosen what I haven’t myself written). The more you read, what you read acquires greater authority, and the clearer, in your mind, the nature of my authority becomes. You may conclude that I am an expert on things that make you feel happy on Tuesdays. Or you may make use of me in the way that Kathleen and I think that designers ought to make use of us: for whatever we choose, in the line of china patterns or upholstery fabrics, it is always promptly discontinued, so it would be much cheaper to ask us first.

And, at the very end of the essay, Scott writes,

It should go without saying that every good critic, every interesting critic, will commit some of the crimes enumerated above, whether brazenly or unwittingly. A great critic will be guilty of all of them. (212)

Again, this is perverse, because of course Scott is saying that you have to be wrong to be right. Which is merely clever, just as his talk about “sacred duty” is merely cheeky. The only way that I can make sense of “How to Be Wrong” is to claim that Scott is trying to say exactly what I’ve been saying, while, however, holding on to that illusion of objectivity. In the light of that illusion, the critic may be wrong, but that doesn’t stop him from laying down the law or telling it like it is or however you want to put it. But I don’t want to put it; I don’t see the need.


Thursday 18th

At lunch today, I overheard a couple of women whom I’ve overheard before. They’re a mother and a daughter. The daughter has a rather penetrating voice, possibly because her mother is hard of hearing, and her mother can be heard pretty clearly, too, even though she is beginning to fail. They have reached the point of reversal, so that now it is the daughter who scolds her mother. The mother ordered a portobello burger. That’s a portobello mushroom done up to resemble a burger, not a meat patty with a mushroom on top of it. “All you’re having for lunch is this mushroom,” said the daughter, exasperated, but only mildly.”You need more protein.”

As they talked about this and that, the mother querulously interrupting the daughter and then saying, “I get it, I get it,” I realized that neither of them had an organized way of looking at the world, and that both of them were irritated by this, whether consciously or not. The subject was a young woman with “a shitty resume,” in the daughter’s words. (The daughter is very outspoken with her mother. One wonders if she’s always outspoken, or if her mother provides a vent.) The relationship between the daughter and the young woman was not clear, but what was clear was that the daughter didn’t have a point of view from which to judge her, or her situation. She and her mother together had several points of view. That, in fact, was the actual subject of their conversation: trying to decide on a point of view — from which judgment would follow. Had the young woman been taken advantage of by her employer, or had she acted improperly? Well, both; the facts were not in dispute. But whose fault was it?

We’re all in this boat. It’s not that we’re relativists. That would entail applying the same point of view but changing our minds about applying matters of principle. Take same-sex marriage. The old point of view was that homosexuality was a weakness (or a vice) exhibited by a minority of people (deviants). This made it easy to transform our regrettable inclination to regard non-conforming sex as disgusting into a principle. Nobody was talked out of maintaining that principle. What happened was a shift in point of view. From thinking about homosexuality, whatever that might be, we moved, as we became more familiar with actual homosexuals, as friends and family members, to thinking about people in love. The more we thought about people in love, the more we realized that the very idea of “non-conforming sex” was obnoxious, and that other people’s sex lives are their own business. Thus we demoted the principle that had been in force to the status of a personal preference. It’s important to distinguish this from relativism, which holds that certain behaviors, while sometimes wrong, are sometimes not-so-wrong, or perhaps even right. It is actually a form of hypocrisy, and rightly condemned for that reason.

Point of view has a lot to do with ethics, much more than the philosophers might care to admit. And yet ethical standards makes no sense without points of view. Do you view this world as a vale of tears, in which we are tempted and tried so that we can prove ourselves to worthy of paradise? That is probably still the gist of Roman Catholic teaching. The Church takes the point of view of the supremacy of the individual soul. Your soul is all that you have to worry about in this world. You can’t do anything for anybody else’s soul. Just how Church teaching came to diverge so sharply from Christ’s charity is one of many interesting stories in the history of Christianity, but like most such stories, it boils down to doing what the patriarchs tell you to do, and don’t even think of questioning their aristocratical privileges, because they have their own souls to worry about, too. Their being good is their problem, and none of your business. It is understandable that the Church’s hierarchy would take such a constitutionally dim view of political activity.

Most people assume a point of view that maximizes the importance of Right Now. Because you’re alive right now, right? What does it matter what happened a thousand years ago? Who has any idea what’s going to be happening a thousand years from now? You’ve got to think about where your next meal is coming from, a concern not shared by the dead and the unborn.

But the dead made the world that is feeding you now — I hope you’re being fed! And you are making the world that will feed future generations. This has always been the case, but the introduction of liberal democracy ought to make us more conscious of the way life works, because each of us in a democracy is involved, however minutely, in making political decisions that will set the course of the nation. Don’t ask what you can do for your country now. Ask what you can do to help it into the future.

Such a point of view, in which I take the present for granted (“Our lives are ruined,” says the mother in Radio Days — and it’s a laugh line), but want future arrangements to be better, involves economic considerations that probably don’t come up at the University of Chicago. But they’re familiar to every seriously striving family.


“Philosophy” is a vexed word. Most people — even educated folk — are cowed by it, because the professionals who present themselves as philosophers are usually utterly unintelligible. And yet the question, “What’s your philosophy?” is, I feel, almost always asked in earnest. It’s really just a grand way of asking, “What do you think?”, but the grandeur is valid because the world is a big place, with lots of moving parts, and nearly as many broken ones.

Philosophy is, or has become, profoundly male, patriarchal. As I suggested the other day, philosophy, like the kinds of criticism that emerge from a philosophical position, deals in universal statements, valid for everyone at all times. I think that Plato was one of humanity’s star crackpots, but his idea of the cave, with all the little people watching shadows on the wall, caught on with guys who liked to think of themselves as superior. From Plato’s notions of form and matter issued a mechanistic moralism — an ethic of unattainable austerity that distracts its postulants from listening to, and truly caring for, others — that we have only recently outgrown. We have outgrown it, but we haven’t found anything to take its place. I would suggest looking for a replacement that is neither mechanistic (it follows, therefore…) nor moralistic (that men are fallen creatures). I suggest something closer to home: a point of view.

A congenial point of view: a point of view that would attract sharers. In other words, a point of view whose leading feature would be that many other people adopted it. As recent nightmares demonstrate, however, congeniality is not enough. You must have something like humanism, too: the conviction that every human life is precious unto itself must be part of the point of view. My hunch is that it is possible to articulate a point of view that can grapple with life’s problems while at the same time remaining fundamentally vernacular — no higher education required. I think that you can have a comprehensive point of view that depends upon a mere handful of readily understandable principles, such as “Murder is wrong.”

Before you can have political life, you must have a pre-political, apolitical consensus. We see that now. For what does “polarized” mean if not “lacking a common point of view”? Historically, it can be demonstrated that the current polarization of American society can be traced to a breakdown of the consensus of white Americans with respect to black Americans. The minority of Americans who rejected this consensus, which basically held that Negroes, to use the word of the time, were second-class people, was very small, at least until the late Forties. Then, not very mysteriously, there were breakdowns in the barriers that excluded black Americans from participation in Major League sports (so to speak). One thing led to another, and by the Sixties, a sizable bloc of white Americans was willing to grant black Americans effective political equality. This seemed like a nice idea at the time — most white Americans who were pro-civil rights thought that they were being very high-minded and generous — but it turned out to be very complicated, as developments such as Black Power soon showed. The fracture of the old consensus meant not just that white Americans were ho longer of one mind about black Americans, but that many Americans became doubtful about sharing the country with other Americans. At the same time, civil rights legislation in the Sixties exacerbated a lack of consensus as old as Andrew Jackson, about the role of the government in social affairs.

A consensus about the role of government, however, is a political consensus. It does not have to be in place before a social consensus can make politics possible. One thing that the United States has always lacked is a forum for the civilian discussion of such issues as the role of government. Thomas Jefferson worried about this (late in life); he saw that the victory of the Revolution and the triumph of the Second (1789) Republic had put town meetings and larger regional gatherings out of business. The new Constitution, on its face, professed to have no need of such institutions, and if any of the State constitutions provided for them, I’m unaware of it. We need to do something about that. Look what happens when you leave it to the government itself to decide.

Local discussion groups — what Jefferson and, following him, Hannah Arendt called “councils” — would be a good place in which to consider a consensual point of view. Not that that’s going to stop me from proposing an idea or two.

I think that we can figure out how to share this country without treating anybody shabbily. The only hitch is, we have to want to.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes about the simple candor about globalization that has made Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump so attractive to their supporters. As a member of the establishment himself, Surowiecki is careful to mention that adopting their policies “could well be harmful if implemented,” but even he is willing to face the facts that are already familiar to too many thousands of Americans:

American workers used to believe that a rising tide lifted all boats. But in the past thirty years it has sunk a whole lot of them.

The consensus about globalization was always more seriously embraced in the corridors of political and corporate power than anywhere else, but now it appears to have broken down. Globalization has had its chance, and it has failed. Or rather it has revealed itself as something quite unlike a rising tide. It is, instead, a funnel, getting smaller and smaller as it approaches outcomes. Globalization is nothing but a system of levers that increases the intake of those who control the levers. Everybody else gets poorer — certainly, relatively poorer. Walmart is not unlike the medieval Church, a machine for hoovering up the pennies of the poor and amassing the fortunes of a few.

In contrast to Sanders and Trump, all the other candidates — Hillary Clinton and the real Republicans — appear to be liars. They do not tell the truth about globalization, which is that they have no intention of seriously mitigating its damage. Previously untroubled supporters of Clinton are showing increasing discomfort with her appetite for this and other élitist Kool-Aids.

I would begin by breaking down “globalization” at home. You’ve heard all my nostrums before, so I’ll mention just one: large tracts of New Jersey and Long Island that have been ploughed under for suburban sprawl used to be fertile sources of local food. (It’s worth bearing in mind what any gardening catalogue will tell you: eastern Long Island lies in the same temperate zone as Virginia.) The cost of shipping things ought to be calculated more honestly, a change that would include better conditions for truck drivers, not to mention the upkeep of Interstate Highways. It is true that the Northeast will never (anytime soon) be able to support the vast monocultures of the prairie states, but I expect that an intelligent land-use program could produce enough food to support its very large population.

For the very reason that you get what you pay for, the lowest price is not necessarily the best price. Usually not, in fact.


Friday 19th

The other day, at Facebook, I came across a video clip in which Donald Trump was spliced into an episode of The Honeymooners. As Jackie Gleason fumed impatiently, Trump blathered on about his business acumen and so forth. I realized that I had not heard the Donald’s curiously light voice before, not at least for a very long time. And then, the very next day, I found myself asking, for the umpteenth time, how to pronounce Kanye West’s name. There it was, in the Times again. I hate reading words that I can’t say. “Ratiocination” used to drive me wild.

If I watched television, or even listened to the radio, I should know these things. From time to time, I’ll ask someone about Mr West, and I’ll be told, and I’ll forget it at once, because the only thing that I know about Kanye West is that I can’t say his name. Does he sing? Does he sell clothes? I’m never sure. There’s no good reason for me to know how to pronounce “Kanye” — not my opinion necessarily, but evidently it’s the judgment of my Memory Department. Kanye West inhabits a quarter of the universe that I do not visit. So does Donald Trump, although that may change. I have never seen The Apprentice; I cannot imagine wanting to watch it.

I do know the sound of Michael Bloomberg’s voice. Like almost everyone I know, I’d vote for Bloomberg for President in a heartbeat. Further proof of the extent of my removal from the center of American life.

I recently read a piece on the Internet that was hostile to Terry Gross, of Fresh Air. Hostility to Terry Gross is rarely expressed in public. I happen to admire her, primarily for her diligence: she reads her books, and, unlike the grotesque Charlie Rose, she does not attempt to create a bogus camaraderie. Listening to the show, you get the feeling that she is your friend, not her interlocutor’s. But I can understand that the modesty of her persona might very well metastasize, in the ears of someone who had come to find her irritating, into an egregious pretense. As I say, I admire Terry Gross — but I no longer have any desire to tune in to Fresh Air. I don’t want to listen to conversations in which I can’t take part. I’d read a transcript, I suppose, if it were put in front of me. I read “interviews” all the time. They’re not actually conversations; they’re exchanges of email. The interview subject “says” something, but nobody hears it until the “Send” button is pressed, by which time there has been opportunity for review and reconsideration.

I suppose lots of people listen to Fresh Air because they want to hear what a writer (for example) sounds like, and to estimate what kind of a person the writer is. It’s for this reason that people attend readings at bookstores. The writer reads a passage from the new book. Then questions from the audience are fielded. There was a time when I was a very competitive member of such audiences, and sought to score high points (with whom, though?) by asking penetrating questions that actually penetrated the writer’s necessarily bland, or at least wary, persona, and elicited an interesting comment. When I realized that this activity was not going to bring me fame or fortune, I lost interest.

While it lasted, though, I acquired a great many signed books. So many, in fact, that I finally did realize that there is no longer anything valuable about a signed book. Everybody has got at least a few. My rule is that, if the writer doesn’t know who you are, you should ask for a plain signature. You really ought not help the bookstore assistants who provide slips of paper on which to write your name, so that the writer won’t have to struggle with your peculiar background or manner of speaking. (“How do you write ‘Kanye’”?) The only value of having your name appear above that of the author lies in the extent of your own fame. “To Bismarck, Kind Regards, Lincoln.” Now that’s valuable. It’s called an “association” copy; it’s proof that two famous people at least knew of one another.

I have a duty to become famous in life — did you know that? It was settled upon me by Kathleen, in a remarkably material way. A hundred years ago, when she was a young associate at Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood, she bought a dozen or more copies of novels by Louis Auchincloss and carted them into his office, where he graciously inscribed them all to “Robert J Keefe.” Right there we have a problem: nobody who knew me at all would ever address me in such style, any more than anybody would call me “Bob” (and survive my Glare of Death). It is certainly the case that I never had a conversation with the eminent writer and lawyer about literature — or about anything else, either. The second problem is that Auchincloss may have come to regret knowing Kathleen at all, because when she left the firm under her partner’s shifty wing, it was bruited that the group departure damaged the firm’s capital structure, depleting major partners’ pensions. Finally, my opinion of Auchincloss’s fiction has slipped, over time, beneath the waves. As a young man — a lawyer myself — I naturally found his achievement impressive. He said many times that he could not just sit home and write. So he wrote on the subway, in odd free moments. I came to find that the results demonstrated good reasons for not going about the writing of novels in that manner.

So, there — I abjure my duty, by going on record that the apparent “association” in my copies of The Rector of Justin and The Winthrop Covenant is a sham. And yet — if I do become famous, might this pretty story not make those books more valuable? You never know.

(I want you to know that I have perused back pages of this Web log in search of the Auchincloss anecdote and not found it. If I missed it, and have already bored you silly with it, I do apologize.)

At the barber shop, I read an interview with Oscar Isaac. It was the cover story on a recent issue of GQ. So, the actor has got that far. Why is the world taking so long to see how great he is? I’ve admired him since Drive and W./E. I think that A Most Violent Year is the best mob movie ever made, its standing secure because there is no mob in the movie. But I like it because Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are so good. Inside Llewin Davis looked like a mistake, but who knows? Maybe over time we’ll come to love it — like Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca. In Ex Machina, Isaac does an astonishing job of being unattractive in almost every way. It’s what the story calls for, but, hey, the actor really throws himself into the job. If you ask me, he doesn’t look so great on the cover of GQ, either. Playing Outcome #3 in The Bourne Legacy, in contrast, he is almost pretty, with chiseled features (good lighting) and beautiful eyes. (As sometimes happens, I recognized his voice first.) It goes without saying that nothing was disclosed in the interview. It was a dusted-off resume with a few idle remarks on the lines of “Sorry I’m late.” I suppose that there was a positive nugget in the announcement that girlfriends would not be discussed. Neither was anything else. I couldn’t believe that I had fallen for the cover. I never read anything at the barber shop — my glasses get in the way. But this I had to read?

Is it ‘Eye-zik or Ee-’zok? Tell me, and I promise to remember.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Okay and Not Okay
February 2016 (II)

Monday 8th

There were all sorts of things that I meant to do on Saturday afternoon, and some of them did get done, but not after I sat down with Lit Up, David Denby’s new book — the prequel, as he calls it, to Great Books, now twenty years old and I wish I could find it here somewhere. In Great Books, Denby went back to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate thirty years earlier, and sat through the great books course with a few very good teachers. This time, he visited a magnet school on the Upper West Side (and, in shorter stints, two other schools outside of town), and sat in on a class of tenth-graders as they made their first serious contact with literature. In 1996, it was all about him — what had he made of his education? what was there to hold on to? — but, this time, his interest was, he says, more “parental.” I’m still musing on that choice of words. But the teachers are once again the stars. They are brilliant and inspiring: they have ingenious ways of setting books up for discussion, and they know how to keep interest from flagging. Your first thought is that teachers can’t be paid well enough. Your second is that relative poverty attracts or at least presents no obstacle to ascetic people whose aloofness from common clutter is what high-school students need more than anything else. In any case, you keep reading, as I did on Saturday.

Denby says that today’s kids are “incredibly busy.”

School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting) — compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

My recollections of those days, which are very patchy, can’t be trusted: they present a younger, unformed image of the man I am now. What I remember most clearly is that I was never busy. I avoided busy-ness even then. There have been busy passages in my life, matters of months, in which I lived out and about, but there have been longer stages of quiet. I’m in the middle of one now, and it often occurs to me that this one isn’t going to end until I do. But I was saying that fifteen years ago. I have been old and stiff and out of shape and physically lazy all my life.

Most of my classmates, wherever I was in school, did seem to be very busy. Busy was the smell of success. I thought it idiotic, certainly brainless. Busy people are very poor listeners, for one thing: so poor that they don’t even notice the failing, and I suspect that they don’t enjoy life very much for that reason. Young people are of course prone to restlessness; even I, Oblomov that I was, was all too familiar with restlessness. But restlessness and the urge to keep busy are not the same thing at all. I wish that adolescents were not encouraged to be busy. There may be lots to discover when you’re a teenager, but I don’t think that bits and pieces of everything ought to be served up in tiny slices day after day.

I certainly never knew an old person who smelled like a book, but I think I understand what the New Haven kid was trying to say. Perhaps what he really meant was that books sound like old people: they’re quiet.


By now, I was in New Haven myself. As usual, I skipped from the end of the Introduction to the middle of the book, and found myself in a class of unadvantaged students. Amazingly, their teacher, Jessica Zelenski, managed to get them interested in three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of them classic standouts (Sonnets 18, 130, and 73). All of this happens in three or four pages — it’s rather miraculous. But what stuck to me was Denby’s reading of Nº 73, which begins,

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Denby writes that this is about “the poet’s diminishing passion for a lover”; a few lines later, he attributes to it the “grief over a passion consumed by its own strength.” I ran straight to Helen Vendler’s commentaries on the Sonnets and was relieved to find no mention of such ideas. Sonnet 73 is about ageing, and Vendler has very interesting things to say about how Shakespeare changes his mind about it in the third quatrain. The first line of the concluding couplet,

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

hardly describes the reaction to a lover’s spent passion. It isn’t love that is “consum’d by that which it was nourish’d by,” but life. I can dimly make out the grounds for Denby’s thinking what he does, but why he would want to think it — why it would be interesting to think such a thing — is beyond me.

Helen Vendler has convinced me that what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s sonnets is their construction, which, notwithstanding the form’s limitation to fourteen rhymed lines, varies enormously among the 154 poems. I should send Denby to one of the most strangely put-together sonnets, Nº 75, “So are you to my thoughts as food to life.” Whereas the bulk of sonnets consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet, this sonnet is laid out 4-6-4, with the eleventh and twelfth line joining the the couplet, to conclude the thought presented in the first four lines: I love you so much that I know what a miser feels.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometimes all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starvèd for a look;

“Sometimes,” Vendler writes, “when a sonnet seems otherwise unremarkable, as in the present case of 75, we may suspect that Shakespeare’s interest lay less in the theme than in its structural invention.” This is disingenuous; I am almost certain that Vendler believes that Shakespeare’s interest in invention is always greater than his interest in the theme. The less interesting the theme, the greater the scope for invention. Shakespeare may keep us guessing about the people to whom he addressed these poems (if indeed they were real), but he doesn’t try to hide his meanings. Sonnet 75 addresses an aspect of love that, while it rarely gets poetic treatment, much less treatment of this caliber, will be familiar to everybody. You are in love: you want the world to know it, and to admire you for it, which is a little queer, because you also want the world to go away, and leave you alone with your lover. (Sometimes, you want to be alone with your love.) The first two instances of indecision are thoughtful, somewhat abstract, as if the lover were planning the next day’s schedule. The third pair crackles with naked longing, “clean starvèd for a look.” That’s about as plain as Shakespeare’s English gets in the sonnets.

To return to what has become a favorite sonnet, Nº 95, I want to call attention to an awkward moment. The moment calls attention to itself, but you have to go to 95 to find it. It’s in the second half of the third quatrain, the first half of which I’ve already shouted from the rooftops.

O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Line 12 would offer a prime instance of bad writing if Shakespeare did not know perfectly well what he is doing. The line ought to read,

And turns all things to fair…

Reversing this order doesn’t just muss up the expected syntax. It creates the impression that a new image is going to be introduced, an image of which “all things” is the subject. (Equal accents for “all things turn” also slows down the scansion, so that there seem to be too many syllables in the rest of the line.) To begin with “And all things” is, in the nature of spoken English, to signify that the preceding line is complete unto itself, that we have done with veils and blots. “And all things turn,” which is how we read the line until we get to that seemingly out-of-place ‘s,’ might very well borrow from the cankered bud in the sonnet’s second line, and suggest a patch of sunflowers turning toward the sun, just as everyone seems to be turning, admiringly, to the secretly vice-ridden young man. Then we screech to a stop: is that ‘s’ a typo?

It is not a typo, and the fact that it is a chiasm (as Vendler tells us), while good to know, isn’t particularly material, either. It’s a jerk, intended to make us feel, in the reading of the sonnet, what we cannot see: something is wrong with this young man. His beauty’s veil is not quite up to the task of smoothing over his blots. It twitches awkwardly and reveals disorder. I don’t know how many times you’d have to read Sonnet 75 (from the top!) before the jolt would fade; I doubt that it would ever dissipate altogether. Shakespeare is quite right to regard his sonnets as living monuments that will breathe long after poet and lover are dust.


Now that I am about to finish R F Foster’s Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, I can complain about it without whining. Having attained the penultimate chapter, “The de Valera Dispensation,” I am where I wanted to be when I bought the book in June. I wanted to understand the world that Maeve Brennan, whose work I was reveling in, had to reject, a world in which a woman could be a wife, a caregiver, or a nun — and nothing else. Something that I had noticed without noticing finally clicked, something that I had seen in Colm Tóibín as well: priests had a strange power in Ireland. They were social policemen and social judges whose findings were often grounds for official enforcement. Priests had perhaps always played this role in peasant societies, but in Ireland the priests kept the educated middle classes in line as well. None but the very rich enjoyed what an American would consider everyday freedom. I believe that Irish priests are no longer the authorities that they used to be, and that today’s Ireland is as much like a modern secular democracy as a country with its hungover history can be. But I’m intrigued by the use that the new Republic made of the Church, as a stabilizing force that would forestall the social unrest that for centuries always seemed to be gathering at the edges of Irish society. Now that it’s over, I’m less inclined to regard it as the asphyxiating thing that it must have been for many Irish men and women, especially the ones I’d want to know.

Foster’s book is not written for tyros. It is a political history that assumes familiarity with events. Thus the Easter Rising is never presented as the subject of a narrative in which insurrectionaries seized public buildings, only to be overpowered and executed. You must find out what happened elsewhere. Likewise, the 1801 Act of Union is simply the after-effect of several decades’ commotion among the Protestant Ascendancy. Foster never makes much of a point of the implicit historical irony: no sooner had the Protestants upgraded their position in the English hegemony by taking parliamentary seats at Westminster instead of at College Green than the Catholics began working up to demanding what had just been abandoned: Home Rule. In any case, I was in over my head for much of the book, until I reached the run-up to the Troubles, which George Dangerfield discusses so eloquently in The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Even so, what were “the Troubles”? Just the Civil War of 1922-23? The Civil War plus the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it? Those two wars plus the Easter Rising of 1916? I’ll have to do a bit more reading before I can answer the question. For the moment, I’m panting with delight, celebrating my arrival at the end of Foster’s book. I can’t think when I’ve re-read so many sentences and still not understood what they meant. Next up, Ronan Fanning’s far more readable Fatal Path, a study of incompetence with which the British handled the Irish problem between 1910 and 1922. I know that it’s more readable because I’ve already been through the first chapter. I read much of it to Kathleen, while she was knitting. So far, I’ve discovered that Fanning (something of a grand old man in Irish history, I gather) has a fantastic knack for quoting passages that make H H Asquith look like a humbug. Great fun!


Tuesday 9th

This morning, I got back into bed again, after the Times. I felt not only tired, as I had done for about five days up to the middle of last week, but rotten as well, beset by the symptoms that most people think of when they think of a cold. (And, as always, I was cold.) For a little while, I lay in bed, feeling rotten but at rest, and superficially warm. The other two stages of this morning bedrest, with which I had become familiar, followed in due course. First was the nap, from which I awoke without being certain that I had been asleep. It took a few minutes of staring around emptily to register the time lapse, the lack of recent thoughts, that indicated sleep. The final phase ended with sharply waking from a clear dream.

In the dream, I had different parents. After the dream, I would realize that these alternative parents were borrowed, in large part, from a friend of mine, the death of whose mother several years ago had a strange effect on me. I never met her, but my friend wrote beautifully about her, and talked to me even more eloquently — although, perhaps in the talk, it was the silences that were eloquent. In the dream, she was about to go to the hospital. She was going to be tested for possible treatments; a serious cancer had just been discovered, and we all knew — my alternative father, even more like my friend’s, lurking in the corners of the dream, included — that she was going to die. But we were able to keep up good cheer because the ravages of the catastrophe were not yet evident. She was wearing a white dress, white-on-white, a cross between a summer dress and something that you might see on a débutante. Although simple and slender in outline, it was floor-length, in honor of this special occasion: a token of our brave simulation of optimism. I joked that she would be mistaken for an already-admitted patient. Her face fell a bit, and she said, in a voice that was no longer bright, “No, scrubs are blue.” I chimed in at “are blue.” Rhymes with rue.

Then I woke up. My figure in the dream had been distinctive enough for me not to think immediately of my friend’s mother; I thought, rather, of myself. (Also: patients don’t wear scrubs. Always the critic.) Was I dying? Was that why I was so cold and tired in the mornings? I wasn’t worried; it didn’t seem to matter. So long as death comes without violent pain and huge medical bills, I won’t mind it much. (Or so I fancy.) My mind wandered along until I remembered my friend’s mother. As I understand it, she decided, upon discovering the cancer, to go straight into hospice care. Now, when my aunt did the same thing, after she was told that the consequences of her appendectomy (of all things!) would involve feeding tubes and prolonged hospital stays, I was very angry about it. She was dead before I could get to New Hampshire. I had always been very fond of her, but now I discovered that she was not just the center but the entire embodiment of the alternative family that I had imagined in my unhappy childhood, an alternative that would become quite actual, I’d been told, if “anything happened” to my parents. I was angry with my aunt for removing herself from my life by, effectively, committing suicide. The atmosphere of peace and serenity with which I endowed imaginary scenes of my friend’s mother’s death were the result, I suppose, of having no actual emotional commitment to anyone in the envisioned scenes, except possibly to my friend, as to whose sentiments (whose grief!) the very decorum of friendship dictated that I keep a certain distance.

I have written here about my friend’s mother’s death several times. I was surprised by the intensity of my response. “Intensity” is perhaps the wrong word, but there’s no doubt that the death was catalytic for me. I have been on a different track ever since. Or perhaps I have had a more assured sense of what’s important. My friend’s mother’s death was distant (ie, it occurred in the Midwest), quick (a matter of three or four months), peaceful and serene, as I say (lots of pictures were published on a family site), and also undramatic. By “undramatic” I mean that my friend went into the ordeal on very good terms with his mother. There was no need for reconciliations or absolutions. She had always, it seems, regarded his sexual preference with equanimity, for one thing. I gather, on the basis of sheer inference, that she had a better opinion of my friend than he has of himself. Not that she expected more, just that she found him to be okay.

That may sound tepid, but I speak as a parent who knows that okay is the best possible state for a child to be in. There is a great deal of wisdom in the title of the film, The Kids Are All Right. Let a child be brilliant, successful, famous, whatnot: to a parent who is not living vicariously, these are all unstable conditions, and they have well-known adverse side effects. Nothing makes me feel more grounded than hanging up the phone after a chat with my daughter and feeling saturated with the conviction that she is okay. Doing okay might be a better way of putting it, because this kind of okay requires a good deal of hard work and serious thinking to achieve, and I know that being okay is not something that fell into my daughter’s lap, as if it were her destiny.

To my mother, I was never okay. Objectively, I have never been okay, at least by one important measure: I have never supported myself. The fact that this has never bothered me could be taken either way. Whenever I am beset by doubts, Kathleen insists that I am doing what I ought to be doing, and better than ever. But to most people, my unconcern with supporting myself is proof positive of my being the opposite of okay. Not that it is discussed, ever.

When I woke up, I knew that I had borrowed my friend’s parents for my dream, because I’d been okay, and I still felt okay when I opened my eyes.


In the Book Review this weekend, Tom Bissell wrote a birthday card of sorts to the late David Foster Wallace, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest. He had a couple of interesting things to say — interesting because of the starkness with which they declared a mentality unlike my own.

This difference was not surprising. I had been unable to get very far with Bissell’s first book, or first big book, The Father of All Things. I don’t remember why, but I suspect that it was a matter of punchy sentences. There was a violence in the book, not merely referred to by its contents, that I disliked in pretty much the same way that I would dislike seeing a portion of streetside slush on my dinner plate.

The first passage consists largely of a quotation that in itself has little to do with what interests me about this passage, but I give the sentence entire anyway.

In “How Fiction Works,” the literary critic James Wood, whose respectful but ultimately cool view of Wallace’s work is as baffling as Conrad’s rejection of Melville and Nabokov’s dismissal of Bellow, addresses E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters: “If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters — round and flat characters — and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.”

What interests me — to the point of astonishment — is that, while I’m not familiar with Conrad on Melville or Nabokov on Bellow, I can well imagine what they have to say, and I’m pretty sure that I should agree with them. I admire Conrad greatly, and Nabokov mildly, not so much as I did when I was younger. But I have no use for Melville, at least until I’m reduced to using an outhouse, and Bellow is the midcentury American author whom I dislike the least — but I still dislike him. And all of these men, possibly even James Wood himself, are full of themselves as men, by which I mean that simply being male (and not female), being possessed of male genitalia and having access to the locker room, seems to them to be a terrific, transformative characteristic. These writers might acknowledge that there is actually nothing very remarkable in being a man, but they would all claim, in one way or another, that, just as only a man can be a military hero, so only a man can understand a man’s burdens, and only a man who is a gifted writer can explain these burdens to the world. In other words, being male is the problem that the great male writer solves. But first, the male must be posited as an object of interest, and that’s what “interests” me, because I don’t limit heroism (or creative genius, &c &c &c) to men and therefore can’t accept men as objects of interest.

In any case, how neat of Bissell, I thought, to line up the writers I like on the one side and the ones I don’t on the other — and to be baffled by the ones I like.


Here’s the second passage.

As a member (barely) of the generation Wallace was part of, and as a writer whose closest friends are writers (most of whom are Wallace fans), and as someone who first read “Infinite Jest” at perhaps the perfect age (22, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan), my testimony on this point may well be riddled with partisanship.

Again, my interest isn’t so much in the statement as a whole as it is in that glancing phrase, “whose closest friends are writers.” I have been feeling rather glum this February, this Black History Month, because I don’t have any friends who are black. Somehow the world around me has sifted and shifted to the extent that even my acquaintance is almost entirely white, the exceptions being Asians. Aside from two doorman and an extraordinarily capable handyman in the building, and the array of check-out personnel up and down the shops and stores of 86th Street, I don’t see any black faces unless I leave the neighborhood via subway. (Or visit the Museum.) To say that this is a problem is to beg for a solution, and solutions all sound both ridiculous and patronizing. The only real “solution” would be to have a friend who happened to be black. And it’s not odd that I don’t, because I don’t have many friends to begin with, a point that I’ve been trying to make, or to puzzle over, for some time now. Bissell’s phrase brightened the situation considerably, because I have only one friend who is a writer, and that is Ms NOLA, who entered my life via family.

It’s odd, don’t you think, that someone who likes to read and write as much as I do doesn’t know anybody else who is equally committed? Especially since I live in New York, a magnet for writers?

But what about my friend whose mother died? He no longer lives in New York, but I met him when he did, and I met him through his Web log. He writes, as I say, beautifully. On the handful of occasions when we have met, however, I have always come away thinking of him as a thinker. Not as a philosopher — that word is tainted for me, and probably unsalvageable — but as someone who thinks a lot. I’ve read a lot about writers getting together, and thinking never seems to play much part in their encounters.

I suspect that my lack of incentive to have friends is attributable in part to growing up in Bronxville. In the Times Magazine, over the weekend, I read that NFL chief executive Roger Goodell lives in Bronxville. Figures, said I to myself.


Thursday 11th

Let 10 February stand as the anniversary of the beginning of the evacuation (okay, emptying) of our oh so expensive storage unit on East 62nd Street. That will obscure the existence, and the failure, of earlier attempts. Until about eight years ago, I had been consistently getting rid of things, so that what began as a large box in which not a cubic meter was empty, stuffed as it was with everything that we retained after we sold our house in the country, but could not house in our apartment, was largely empty space, with a clear floor and only the walls lined with shelving.

Then, there was a hiccup. I could not bring myself to get rid of a piece of furniture that no longer “worked” at home. Actually, it was the top half of a piece of furniture, a hutch, in common parlance, although I never thought of it as such. I didn’t have a name for it, because it ought to have been inviolably attached to its bottom half, constituting a cabinet that I called “the breakfront.” I wrote about this piece about a year ago, and won’t repeat myself. I don’t seem to have mentioned that the “glass-fronted” top half was removed because some of the glass was broken, along with the little frets that held them in place. Repairs would have cost the earth, if you could find someone to do it, and I knew that the piece wasn’t worth it, sentiment notwithstanding. The shelves behind the glazed doors didn’t hold much, really — they were quite shallow — and I coveted the wall space that it blocked, room for more pictures. So I did something unimaginably transgressive, and dismantled what had once been something just short of an altar. I remember that Ray Soleil and I had a hard time getting it off; there were a few cunningly difficult screws at the back. But we managed in the end.

What I don’t remember is how the hutch, as I shall call it now, got to the storage unit. It can’t have been easy. I must have hired some sort of hauler. Ray, of course, advised me to get rid of the thing; whenever I’d say that, someday, down the road, I’d like to be able to hand on the breakfront complete, if not quite in one piece, he said nothing but assumed his wistful, people are like that smile. So the hutch went into storage and promptly blocked the lower shelves on one of the unit’s short walls. It also became a convenient surface on which to dump things. Then, three years ago, I did another stupid thing. When Megan and her family moved out to San Francisco, I thought that I would just hold on to the countertop dishwasher that we had given her shortly after she found their flat on Loisaida Avenue. Once again, Ray, who was helping me, said “Don’t,” and, once again, I did. The dishwasher, a very bulky piece of equipment, squatted on the floor in front of the hutch, making even the unobstructed shelves on the short wall incaccessible.

Then we moved, last year, from one apartment to another. In the process, ten book boxes were deposited in the unit. Three were full of the fantastic plastic paving bricks that we used to humanize the concrete floor of the balcony. Our balcony downstairs is much smaller, so that even after we shared some of the bricks with a neighbor who has the same-sized balcony, there were three boxes left over. (You never know!) The rest of the boxes were full of books; most of them, I had not even opened after the move. As I recall, I took them downtown in a black car, and schlepped them up to the unit myself. You could sort of tell, by the haphazard look of the two stacks of boxes, just inside the unit’s drawer. Throw in an old hamper full of fabrics that Kathleen had bought for the house whose sale had prompted the rental of this room, and the unit was once again impassable.

Only now I was significantly older. More decrepit, yes; no longer up to spending hours in a virtual basement without good lighting or a place to sit. A cage of four tinned walls, a concrete floor, and a screen-fenced top. For all its books and shelves, it was less a library than a moraine of disorganized deposits. The spirit of the place was, and still is, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” But I was also much more focused on what I’m doing right now, this, what you’re reading. I had less time, and certainly less drive, for other things. The storage unit might be an expensive nuisance, but when I thought about it at all, it almost seemed to be somebody else’s problem.

For a year, I sporadically flapped my arms up and down and whined for help. Nothing happened. One day in October, I dragged Kathleen to the unit, to show her the situation and to elicit her suggestions. I don’t believe that she saw anything, except overwhelming impossibility. When we left, with two totes full of document boxes, it seemed to me that Kathleen had simply turned off her eyes. But late last month, we had a more urgent talk. It had been time to stop spending hundreds of dollars a month for years, but now it was really time. At least I had an idea of what must be done first. All the items that I have mentioned above had to be cleared out, carried off and disposed of we cared not how. Kathleen volunteered to find someone to do the hauling.

She sent an email to someone whom we’d used before, but never got an answer. She also found that another outfit was still going, and when it became clear that we weren’t going to hear from her first choice, I called the second. It had blossomed into a very professional outfit, with a Web site, credit card payments, and insurance even. I made an appointment for yesterday. I was told that the movers would show up at some point between eleven and one. So I went to the until at about ten. Getting myself dressed and ready and out of the house was grim, anxious business, but I made it, and I was rewarded with a quick taxi ride. While waiting for the movers, I began to sort things out. As I piled up the smaller items to be got rid of (the boxes of bricks; Will’s playpen, hardly used — he hated it; the battery-powered patio lamp that proved too dim to read by), and as I emptied the boxes of books and set aside a few treasures to take home (James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, George Sand’s Consuelo), a warm sense of achievement stole over me. I knew that, even if the movers never showed up, and I not only had to make another appointment but also return everything to the storage unit, I’d have made real progress. More than that, I should have breached a barrier. I knew what we would do next, and then after that.

It was not long past eleven when the movers called from downstairs. Ten minutes later, fifteen at the outside, they were gone again, and so was all the stuff that for so long made it impossible to think about the storage unit. Because I could never quite bring myself to let go.


I say that I brought home a few treasures, but they weren’t all treasures. I seem to have filled the tote bag without paying attention. There were at least three books that I couldn’t consciously have brought home. One was Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, a memoir that contains an important account of the formation of the alliance between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and conservative Evangelical organizations that has driven the Pro-Life movement. Now that it’s here, I’ll make a place for it. I don’t think that I’ll do the same for The Essential Talmud. Well, I take that back. Picking up the book just now, to remind myself of the author’s name (Adin Steinsaltz), I see that it’s a history of the Talmud. I’d bought it thinking that it might be a sort of abridgment. While I might no longer have any use for an abridgment (is “abridgment” conceivable?), I’m sure that I’d find a history of the Talmud quite interesting. So I’ll give it another go. I’ve had the book for a very long time; it has spent decades on shelves, hidden behind the books standing in front of it. If it turns out that I like it, The Essential Talmud will be yet another instance of the grave difficulty of getting rid of books. They can be lumber for years, and then…

But it’s true, mostly they don’t change. They just going on being lumber. Also brought home was 201 Russian Verbs. I have dabbled with Russian on two occasions; the only word that I seem to remember is uchitel, teacher. Since I never took a course, I’ve never understood what those small-b thingies are. On the whole, I am not interested in Slavic languages at the moment, and if I were to change my mind about that, I’d focus on Czech, because it has a romantic claim on my imagination, embodied I suppose in the Charles Bridge, which I have never seen. At the moment, I’m keen to learn how to pronounce things in Irish. How to turn Taoiseach into tea-shack, for example. There is a suite of four maps in Foster’s difficult Modern Island that shows a slow and steady decline of spoken Irish from 1851 to the present, notwithstanding the Republic’s investment in its resuscitation. Its use in today’s Republic seems to be purely ornamental and ceremonial. It is never going to be another Modern Hebrew. I have no intention of trying to make myself understood in Irish. I learned, from reading Brigid Brophy, to avoid a voyage to Drogheda — years ago. But the book that I ordered comes with two CDs. They’ll be fun to listen to.


When I got back from the morning’s expedition, the water was still off in my bathroom. There had been the usual notice, alerting tenants that the water in certain lines of apartments would be cut off between 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM. But this time, the water had actually been cut off. It was running in the kitchen and in Kathleen’s bathroom, which abut, so I shouldn’t be without. But I was a little grumpy just the same, and then a lot grumpier when it didn’t come on at 3:30, or at 4. At five, I went downstairs and asked the nice lady in the management office about it. She assured me that it would come on in a second. It came on shortly past six — I won’t say that I’d given up on it, but I’d almost stopped thinking about it. The configuration of Kathleen’s bathroom is such that it is a bit cramped for me, and I disliked the prospect of having to manage, but I was getting used to the idea. But suddenly there was the unmistakable sound of surging in the pipes. I turned on the water in my sink, and a very brown liquid gushed out. Disgusting, but transitory. I returned to my reading with a lightened heart.

About an hour later, I began to hear dripping. I could also hear the hissing hum that the pipes make when someone nearby is running a bath. The dripping, which sounded quite electronica, was clearly behind the wall between our bedroom and my bathroom. But I didn’t like the sound of it, the dripping and the humming: it was pretty clear that someone had opened the faucets somewhere upstairs and neglected to close them when no water came out of the tap. And then walked away and forgotten about it — gone out for the evening, perhaps. So I went downstairs and told the doorman. I was advised to expect a handyman. Waiting for him near our front door, I noticed that a small stream of water was trickling from the base of the house phone faceplate. Miles from my bathroom! I went downstairs again. I was told that the handyman and his crew were in the apartment directly above me, mopping up. Sure enough, when I got back to our place, the humming had stopped. The dripping was still going on, but without much of a pulse. Presently the handyman appeared, to check for leaks. There weren’t any — or so we thought, because we missed the bulge over the showerhead in my bathroom, which I noticed at bedtime and which may or may not require repairs. But there were no leaks in places that ought to be dry, hallelujah!

The apartment directly overhead is untenanted. “They’re working on it.” Meaning that it is being renovated, presumably by outside contractors. That’s why the water was turned off, so that “they” could do something about new plumbing and fixtures. It now appears that one of “them” was an idiot. The handyman pinched his thumb and forefinger until there was nearly an inch between them. That’s how deep the water was before he mopped it up.

Too much excitement for one day.


The night before, I stayed up late, to finish the last pages of Lit Up. It’s probably no accident that David Denby, as an eminent film critic, knows how to write about classrooms with cinematic vitality. You, the reader, are very much there. You get to know the tenth-graders who express themselves so vividly and so individually, as they use the books that they are reading and discussing to differentiate themselves from the sullen, unwilling mass to which they all belonged at the beginning of the school year. Their teacher, Sean Leon, a wiry young man of mixed descent who was born in Northern Ireland, never knew his Italian-American father, and was taken by his mother’s second husband to grow up outside of New Orleans, comes across as a not-too-distant, if altogether mortal cousin of Jesus. I don’t mean that he is particularly holy, but his personal austerity is almost overshadowed by his passional commitment to helping young people in the struggle between the individual and society. That, “The Individual and Society,” is the name of his course, as it were, and his solvent is the urgency of literature.

Mr Leon’s syllabus is skewed to the recent; Denby’s persistent objection is to the omission of Shakespeare. As I mentioned, Denby finds, in his briefer visits to two other schools, that tenth-graders can be guided to a true if preliminary appreciation of the riches of extraordinary poetry, even if it is four hundred years old. And Mr Leon’s list is at least as precocious: Slaughterhouse-Five and Notes from Underground, not to mention No Exit and Waiting for Godot. Sometimes, Denby frets that these books might be brutal assaults on tender minds. What he’s forgetting, of course, is the inexperienced mind’s ability to ignore what it is not ready to suffer. I was pleasantly surprised by what Mr Leon’s kids could get out of what they were reading. Of course, he pushed them relentlessly. But they expected that; they pushed each other relentlessly and were conscious that relentlessness is a sign of metropolitan life.

I couldn’t put the book down, but it was also true that I never lost the feeling that I should have hated being one of Mr Leon’s students. I should have withdrawn into some sort of angry obstructionism, refusing as a point of pride to join the group discussion by taking one side or the other. The entire experience, for me, would have been nothing but a gross invasion of privacy. I hated being a student even more than I hated being young; I hated knowing so little of what there was to know. I never cared for hearing what classmates had to say, and by the time I reached the Great Books Seminar in college, I was exhibiting that dubious verbal dexterity that justified calling the program “Pre-Law.” Parry and thrust, but never support; it wouldn’t be until I was in my late thirties that I saw the importance of backup up other voices, if only by trying to say more clearly what they meant to say.

And I should have hated the recentness of the reading list. Indeed, even to this day I have not read most of what’s on it, including Slaughterhouse-Five. From what I know about the book, I’m grieved to think that it constitutes the gateway through which many students pass from complete ignorance to a sense of modern history, giving them, undoubtedly I should think, a picture of meaningless horror and incompetence that completely masks the awful but enlightening story of How We Got There. I can remember complaining in high school that we were being taught history backwards: beginning with New York State history (the idea!), we moved on to US history and then to Europe. That’s what happens when you introduce notions of “relevance” into education.

I haven’t read Brave New World and I haven’t read 1984. It is generally conceded that they are not works of great literature; if they have things to teach to adolescents, I learned those things elsewhere and wanted no further doses. (I’d be interested to know what students would make of them as parts of a trio that included The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The appalling fact that so many adults are reading and liking these dreculacious scrawls is proof of the importance of high-school inoculations.) I couldn’t believe that Paolo Coelho made it onto the list, even if Mr Leon’s idea seemed to be to shoot down the idea of life-as-a-journey. Nor have I read Siddhartha. I read a lot of Hesse in college, but it was all the stuff that was being translated for the first time, such as Beneath the Wheel, not the established chestnuts like Demian and Steppenwolf. (Was it Naomi Bliven who wrote of the newly-translated books that “This isn’t literature, but incense”? I never read another page of Hesse after that.)

I think of these as books for people who don’t hear very well. They require shouting. Fine modulations are lost on them, or dismissed as “elegances.” Shakespeare is all very well as a robust lover, consumed with jealousy. But the minute you lift the hood, as it were, and examine the mechanics of a sonnet, he becomes “aesthetic” and “refined.” Refained, as British snobs put it. They think that Jane Austen is all about class and marriage and property; they can’t feel the devastating heartlessness of Emma’s clever remark at Box Hill — nor suffer Emma’s agony as she later reflects that she is unworthy of Mr Knightley. It is all too fine.

It is a matter of music. Music without melody, without open-throated sound. It has rhythm, intonation, modulation, rises and falls — just no song. Even great poetry does not actually sing, which is why, Goethe aside, so many great German art songs are settings of second-rate verse. (The cry of the poet in Capriccio is ever at my lips: when the composer snatches his sonnet and runs off to the clavier, Olivier wails, “Er komponiert mich!”) But it does something like singing, something that a feel for music brings out as vital.

You can’t really hear that sort of thing in your teens.


Friday 12th

You are doubtless wondering what I, recluse that I try to be, do for a good time. Well, I cackle.

I’ve been reading Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré, a book that I had no intention of reading when it came out. But then I read A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, and got to meet, Rick Pym, the extraordinary con man who is the hero’s father. I knew from reviews of the biography that this figure was very closely modeled on Ronnie Cornwell, Le Carré’s father, and, when I was through with A Perfect Spy, I had to have more of him. Indeed, Ronnie is even more outlandish than Rick — threatening to sue his son, if I got this right, because he wasn’t mentioned in one of Le Carré’s books. This hasn’t happened yet in the biography, but: the reviews had great fun with the time that Ronnie picked up a girl in Berlin (or somewhere) by pretending to be his own son.

Yes, but was she the kind of girl that David Cornwell (John le Carré at home) would pick up? For Cornwell jeune does pick up girls. It says so, in Sisman’s book, in a horripilatingly embarrassing paragraph that’s written in the present tense. I am not going to quote it. I am going to try to explain my cackling without any quotations — a bad idea, perhaps. Because first-hand evidence is part of the fun, isn’t it. Look at this! Now look at THIS! But you’ll have to take it all on faith from me. Adam Sisman tells us that David Cornwell is — “tormented” would be too strong a word — about his need for brief, meaningless affairs with attractive women. His wife — his second wife, Jane — is more or less understanding. “Nobody can have all of David,” she tells Sisman.

It’s unspeakably sordid. Not the philandering, but the talking about it. I can only guess that Cornwell’s sex life has occupied the patter of chatter among the classes that matter, and that it was thought wise to deal with “rumors” proactively, by saying, “Yes, it’s all true, and Jane knows all about it” — Sisman stops short of saying that she arranges the trysts, but you do wonder — “so deal with it.”

I found myself wondering how a particular woman would deal with it. Now, this woman is not one of Cornwell’s conquests. She claims to have led a long and happy married life. Her fiction is not quite so autobiographical, although in one of her best books, she revisits pivotal moments in her life and writes about what might have happened had things gone the other way. What if she had that baby in her teens, and lost her university slot? What if her husband had taken an American teaching position? And so on. I think about Making It Up all the time. The woman who made it up is Penelope Lively.

My favorite Lively novel is Heat Wave. Presumably, Lively made up the backstory of Pauline, the middle-aged book editor whose ex-husband not only carried on à la Cornwell but justified it in more or less the same way: I’m sorry, but I’m made that way. These things happen. &c. Now dry-eyed, Pauline remembers the sleep-deprived anguish of wondering where her absent husband was, or, worse, of knowing. Pauline has done with him; but only to discover that her daughter, Teresa, is married to a man who looks bound to take after her father. Pauline can hardly bear to stand by and watch this, but that’s what she does, as the summer gets hotter and hotter.

Not far, in the pages of the biography, from the “straight-up” passage about our author’s infidelities, Sisman discusses the writer’s home in Cornwall. It’s a refurbished terrace of three workers’ cottages, high atop cliffs overlooking the sea.

Three workers’ cottages?

In Heat Wave, the terrace of three workers’ cottages stands in the middle of a wheat field. It, too, has been refurbished — by Pauline. One of the cottages is her own weekend house. The other two have been knocked together into one unit, and, having decided to spend the entire summer in the country, Pauline has asked her daughter and family to spend it next door.

What would Penelope Lively make of this — is “coincidence” the word? She might ponder. “Attractive in what sense? Are these women ‘his type’? Or are they more objectively chosen, as likely to excite the envy of other men?”

I like to think that she’d say something like this: No need for cliffs, if you’ve got a nice steep flight of stairs.

This is what literature is all about. Sorry to be so shallow.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
House into Home
February 2016 (I)

Monday 1st

Never have I been so curious about the Iowa Caucuses. Even worse, I hope that Donald Trump wins. This is not because I’m sure that he would lose to Hillary Clinton, or because of any other calculus, either. He is simply the only one of the Republican candidates who is at all bearable. If he’s godawful, he’s like democracy: the worst, except for all the others. I am reminded that the United States survived Andrew Jackson. (Arguably, it did not.) My great fear is that Ted Cruz will win. Cruz is absolutely the worst. Speechless with anxiety, I shall now change the subject.

Ross Douthat wrote about decadence on Sunday. I remember being fascinated by decadence, in college. I mean, the very idea of it! You never heard about decadence in Bronxville. It was very alluring, perhaps because, for me, it was set to the music of Salome. Actually, aside from Salome, I had no experience of decadence. I had an idea of what it might be like — it was all in my head. I imagined dusky seraglios, piles of fruit, and exquisite bath oils. (The bath oils part was a real exercise, because it was difficult to imagine that bath oils could ever be anything but greasy and suffocating.) Over in a corner, Oscar Wilde, draped in an enormous bath sheet, made outrageous remarks, and cackled with his coterie. You had to look where you were going, lest you step on Huysmann’s jewel-encrusted tortoise.

I may have taken one bath. It was very boring. You can’t really read in the bath; I can’t, anyway. How do you keep your hands dry? After about a year of pining after decadence like one of Gilbert’s lovesick maidens, I realized that I was not cut out for languor. I suspect that I had been drawn to decadence because it might provide a creative cover for laziness. In fact, it was rather laborious. I can’t really read when I’m striking attitudes. In fact, I don’t want to be conscious of anything but what I’m reading. All you need for that is a good chair and a bright window. Simplicitas!

Later, I would understand that Wilde was transgressive, not decadent. In fact, decadence turns out to be one of those things that nobody is, except for the odd crackpot. Only other people are decadent. And you want to look closely at the people who call other people decadent. Ross Douthat, whether clever or kind, refrains from pasting the label of decadence on anybody, or, for that matter, on anything more particular than the entire United States. Here’s what he has to say about decadence:

But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

Whatever this tells us about the US of A, it reveals Douthat as a sentimentalist. He wants to advance, whatever that means. He wants the economy to grow — in my book, a shockingly unexamined desideratum. He wants people to have aspirations for their numerous children. He wants them to fight for the right causes, with complete conviction. These are all things that characterized America in the century that ended in 1970, almost a decade before Douthat was born. (1970 is about when I gave up on decadence.)

I wonder what Douthat would make of Robert J Gordon’s new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. I nearly bought the book yesterday, but I’m on a budget, so I’ll have to get to it later. I already agree with his arguments, at least as Paul Krugman laid them out in his rave review, and as Gordon himself summarizes them in what you can read online of his Introduction.

This book is based on an important idea having innumerable implications: Economic growth is not a steady process that creates economic advance at a regular pace, century after century. Instead, progress occurs much more rapidly in some times than in others. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transition century before 1870, remarkably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then.

While I believe that Gordon underestimates economic growth prior to 1770, possibly because he overlooks an alternative measure of growth, I agree wholeheartedly with his other statements, because I have discovered them for myself in the course of reading a great many histories of this and that. And I have concluded that the astonishing changes in the relationship between man and the material world that have created generalized levels of health, safety, and comfort to which affluent societies everywhere have become not only accustomed but addicted in the formulation of their hopes and dreams have climaxed. Our task now is not to grow, but to organize what we have grown — an urgent business, since the unintended side-effects of the growth spell may prove to be terminally toxic for the planet. We have to sort out who owns what, and who provides what kind of direction. Our systems of government (I speak of the developed world here) were all conceived in the latter days of the old, pre-growth dispensation; the Founders, like other revolutionaries, believed, not without reasons, that the lessons of the vanished empires of classical antiquity had much to teach them.

One of the linkages with the ancient world that we’re inclined to overlook is that of communication. News traveled somewhat faster in 1790 than it did in Caesar’s day, but it was still a matter of days, and it was still carried on horseback. Such delays were necessarily taken for granted by political thinkers. It was also the case that rich and powerful people got their news faster than the general population did. (Lots of “news,” in fact, took the form of secret communication.) The mechanisms of proclamation and assembly in our Constitution would have been manageable in Roman times. We, in sharp contrast, are threatened by the panic that might be caused by the simultaneous reception by everybody of malignant misinformation. Something like this occurred after the breakup of Yugoslavia: corrupt radio stations broadcast false warnings that Christians were at imminent risk of slaughter by their Muslim neighbors.

The more I think about it, the more instant communication carries risks of environmental degradation. It does not involve chemical pollution, but it is no less an unintended by-product of something desirable. It tends to reduce the variety of information, much as pollution seems to reduce the number of animal species. Take a “harmless” example: today’s international art market, which is made possible entirely by the modernization of communication and transportation. It is possible for a small cloud of people to be conversant with participants and developments everywhere in the international market. Local art markets are deprived of the prestige that, for reasons of human nature, must accompany the production of art if it is to be taken at all seriously. Why should Denver have its own fine-arts world, if patrons can fly to an art fair? But who benefits from this monoculture? I ask the same question about commercial combinations. Are beer fanciers likely to enjoy cheaper, better brews when the AB Imbev acquisition of SAB Miller goes through? I expect not. Lots of jobs will be cut, and a handful of people, perhaps only two or three, will see an increase in power and income. (Oops! I forgot the bankers’ fees!) The desirability of industrial conglomerations ironically depends on ideas of efficiency that pre-date the Industrial Revolution.

The other day, I went to order something from Chef’s Catalog, a reliable source for kitchenware for many years, only to discover that it has been shut down. Shut down by its recent parent, Target, whose management determined that Chef’s business “did not align” with Target’s plans. Chef’s Catalog was not losing money. It wasn’t even in the way. Target paid a lot of money to buy it, but now decided that it was just clutter. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry: closing down healthy businesses is wrong.

Let’s remember, after all that Adam Smith wrote in the pre-industrial world. Most workers in his day were agricultural laborers, and there was no reason to expect that that would change. The idea of commerce as the support (via employment) of the general population — well, since I haven’t read The Wealth of Nations all the way through, I can’t say that this idea never crossed Smith’s mind. But he does appear to have been principally interested in consumers, a preoccupation that has also outlived its eighteenth-century rationale.

From now on, growth will have to occur primarily in the human understanding. The attempt to revive the more ignorant outlook of another century is both sentimental and decadent.


Tuesday 2nd

The consolation, of course, is that the last two winners of Iowa’s contests for the Republican presidential nomination didn’t go very far.

Looking for news about the Bloomberg campaign — might Hillary Clinton’s failure to leave Bernie Sanders in the dust trigger some positive move toward Bloomberg’s actually running? — I came across a Times story reporting on a poll, sponsored by Bloomberg’s company, that showed very little support for the former mayor, at least in Iowa. This is far from surprising; people like me, who would like to acclaim Bloomberg before he delivers a single speech, are few and far between. But the poll also showed enormous support for Martin O’Malley — 46% of Democrats had a favorable view of him. So what? Having won zero delegates (in a vanishingly small Democratic turnout), O’Malley lost no time in dropping out of the race.

Are we ever going to get beyond polling? At the very least, isn’t it time to move from the random cold call to a better-organized online arrangement? Is there a way to limit polls to registered voters?

On the Op-Ed page, R R Reno says something that may strike regular readers of this Web site as familiar. (I certainly hope that it does.)

If these candidates [Trump and Sanders] have traction, it’s because over the last two decades our political elites, themselves almost entirely white, have decided, for different reasons, that the white middle class has no role to play in the multicultural, globalized future they envision, a future that they believe they will run. This primary season will show us whether or not they’re right.

A point that I might make more strongly than I do is that it is questionable and short-sighted of white political élites to imagine that they, they, are going to run a multicultural, globalized future.


I’ve been on a Gilbert & Sullivan jag. It’s very taxing; the Savoy Operas make me cry to the point of headache. Why? They’re supposed to be funny and entertaining, but I carry on as though I were a professional mourner. In part, it’s because my appreciation of the collaborative accomplishment has skyrocketed. The popularity of G&S in certain sectors of the Anglophone population does not diminish the very high polish of the music, which reveals a Mozartean fluency. Nor does it blunt the acute wit with which Gilbert volleys the English language. My tears are provoked by the dissonance between what I hear in the D’Oyle Carte recordings and what used to be produced in high school auditoriums all over the country. I used to appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan as a guilty pleasure, but now I regard it as a cultural monument of the first order, and the second cause of weeping is the fear that this monument is about to be shrouded in oblivion, in our new multicultural, globalized world.

English may be the most common second language on the planet, or at any rate seem to be, but full appreciation of Gilbert’s verses strikes me as hardly less demanding than a taste for Shakespeare. Gilbert’s usage may be closer to us temporally than Shakespeare’s is, but it is far more precise, written, as it were, to be parsed. And its references are almost equally arcane. Gilbert was a failed (or uninterested) barrister whose whole sense of topsy-turvy was inspired by legal nonsense, which was far more abundant in his common-law times. He was astonishingly alert to the comic possibilities of ambiguity, as in this exchange from the end of Iolanthe:

Celia: We are all fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses.
Lord Mountararat: It’s our fault. They couldn’t help themselves.
Queen: It seems they have helped themselves, and pretty freely, too! (II.554-557)

And then along comes the Lord Chancellor, with his simple suggestion that Fairy Law be amended to read that “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” This might seem fatuous to those who regard law as embodying scientific truths, but, as Gilbert was doubtlessly aware, quite a number of laws were amended in this fashion, not once but twice, during the 1550s alone — laws about acknowledging the authority of the Pope, for example. What looks like a breezy jest turns into a variation on a Reformation Theme. (I have already written about the farcically inexorable about-face at the heart of Patience.) As we move further from Gilbert in time, the sauciness of his humorous imbroglios becomes less salient, while the roots of his absurdities burrow deeper into obscurity. You can decide to let it all go, or you can decide that intelligent speakers of English ought to be educated to enjoy it, as we do with regard to Shakespeare. This is more than a matter of explaining the jokes; it entails nothing less than the fullest possible relighting of the world in which Gilbert wrote.

Music dates differently, and I don’t think that Sullivan is ever going to be difficult to like. This is a problem insofar as it makes his music seem negligible to the discerning. A prolific tunesmith, Sullivan was somewhat ashamed of his facility. He struggled to be not only “great” — an exercise that usually resulted in soggy pretentiousness — but also “English,” whatever that meant. At the bright beginning of his career, critical observers entertained high hopes that Sullivan would develop a distinctively English idiom. When it turned out that Elgar developed it instead, Sullivan was branded as a failure, and his immortality, depending as it does on the Savoy Operas, is yoked to an idea of second-rate hack work that Sullivan himself appears to have shared. But if you just listen to the music, and forget about the toils of nationalism, what emerges is a glorious Second-Empire style, as spacious as the Palais Garnier, all the fun of a can-can, and the dispatch of a crack express train. There is always more going on than the ear can take in, and if this is not distracting, it preserves the work from triteness. Gifted at mimicking the styles of the past, Sullivan is a self-demonstrating historian of music. At the same time, his work betrays an ardent, as well as up-to-date admiration of Verdi’s way with the orchestra, itself an under-appreciated subject. (I believe that orchestration provided Verdi with the means of planting himself as a character in his operas.) The music to which Sullivan set Gilbert’s articulate ballads is equally articulate; more than that, it shines with the most straightforward, good-humored love of life. Like Mozart, Sullivan is a master of lubricating his complexities so smoothly that they never get in the way of the unschooled. Unlike the words, the music is never superficially puzzling.

There is an astringency in Gilbert & Sullivan that sets it apart from the Victorian world outside the preserve of the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan is like one the great chefs imported from France — delicious. Gilbert is English to the bone, but he has swallowed a lozenge that makes it impossible to trust in romantic impulses. There are moments of deep yearning in his texts, but over the course of the collaboration with Sullivan, these drift from the comely heroines, such as Josephine Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, to the battleaxes, the Katishas and the Lady Janes. Young love is mocked by the young lovers themselves.

Phyllis: We won’t wait long.
Strephon: No. We might change our minds. We’ll get married first.
Phyllis: And change our minds afterwards?
Strephon: That’s the usual course. (Iolanthe, II.438-41)

This astringency saturates everything in the Savoy Operas, particularly, if invisibly, the very idea of social reform. When I first got to know The Mikado, I was naive enough to believe that Victorian audiences must have been shocked and offended by what struck me as a transparent critique of the Establishment. I see now that my surprise — my surprise that performances of The Mikado were permitted while the old sourpuss sat on the throne — says a lot about the plush, suffocating hypocrisy of life in Bronxville circa 1960, a little world in which it was forbidden not only to sell houses to Jews but to hint at the existence of the prohibition. I was so conscious of the injunction against speaking the truth about society that I mistook Gilbert’s pantomime caricatures for overt social criticism. As David Cannadine points out in his important essay, “Gilbert and Sullivan as a ‘National Institution’,” there was no social criticism in the Savoy Operas.

This, in essence, is the social universe of the Savoy Operas: a universe selectively but perceptively modelled on the real and recognizable Britain of the years 1871-1896. There is monarchy on the way to apotheosis, and there is aristocracy on the way to decline. There are those great professions most concerned with domestic security and international peace. But, apart from Dr Daly in The Sorcerer, there are no clergymen… In the same way, the commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie hardly appears at all, apart from the gentlest references to middle-class social climbing in The Mikado. … As for the working class, they are invariably picturesque and dutiful rustic maidens, country bumpkins, jolly jack tars. And the settings are almost always pastoral and sylvan: country houses and villages predominate, and apart from Titipu (which is a Japanese town) and the Palace of Westminster (significantly bathed in yellow moonlight in Act II of Iolanthe), the press and pace of urban life hardly intrude.

The complete lack of social criticism leaves Gilbert & Sullivan free to contemplate such universal social problems as the difficulty of attracting and holding on to the attention of others, the itch to be too clever for one’s own good, the false consciousness of striking noble attitudes, and the longing to bury disappointment and frustration with material wealth. We laugh because we are not asked to cry. And yet, here am I, crying as I laugh. And then not really laughing, just crying. It is not sentimentality, but an emotional discomfort, as ordinary little people are presented in magnificent language and ravishing music while emphasizing the fact that they are neither magnificent nor ravishing in themselves. As we none of us are.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Ian Bradley’s Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and followed the D’Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (the last of several; the company recorded it in 1908). Pinafore, the first Savoy Opera that I ever saw, has never been a favorite of mine. It is perhaps too hearty and masculine for my taste. (Have you noticed? When I approve of a sex-linked characteristic, I say that it’s “manly” or “womanly.” When I disapprove, I use the other words, which also, for me, suggest a strong whiff of the bogus.) There are some great numbers in Pinafore, and I used to think that “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” was Sullivan’s greatest tune. But in later years I have not been drawn to listen to it. Perhaps it would be better to say that, while I have listened to it, I haven’t been inspired to pay much attention.”We sail the ocean blue…” All right, then, off you go!

At the outset of this personal overview of the Savoy Operas, I’ll declare a marked preference for the four central works, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and The Mikado, created in that order between 1880 and 1885. I am not going to say that they’re perfect, only that (what’s much better) they’re Just Right. Princess Ida is perhaps a bit less Just Right than the others, but Acts I and II are very fine, and “This Helmet, I Suppose” redeems the rackety nature of the finale with a grand Handelian blaze. It is hard to think how the other three operas might be improved in any way. Not only do the collaborators exhibit complete mastery of their formula — a gross word for a subtle understanding of good theatre — but they mock it along with everything else.

HMS Pinafore is far from Just Right. The romantic scenes are poorly paced, and there is a great deal of confusion about Captain Corcoran’s status — is he the owner of a “luxurious home” (Josephine) or “lower middle class” (Sir Joseph)? Also, ahem, is it not pathological, rather than merely absurd, for the demoted Corcoran to wind up in the arms of the woman who took care of him as an infant? Then there’s Dick Deadeye, a character whose one virtue seems to be serving as a reminder of how lucky we are that Gilbert did not go in for real villains. (Buttercup’s swerves into gypsy effrontery are also unnerving.) I conclude that Pinafore is still too close to the kind of melodrama that the Savoy Operas eventually supplanted.

The music of Pinafore is miscellaneous. A great deal of it is merely rousing, almost nakedly patriotic. (Bradley notes that in the early years of the last century, the company ended performances with “Rule, Britannia!”) There is a black joke in the notion that Ralph Rackstraw is good enough for Josephine Corcoran simply by virtue of being an Englishman — a participant, that is, in the most tirelessly class-conscious and self-policing society in the the world — but Sullivan drowns the sting in tub-thumping jingoism. The operatic scena, “The hours creep on apace,” is quite out of joint in Pinafore‘s good-humored atmosphere, and so is “Refrain, audacious tar.” In all of these slippages the problem seems to be that Sullivan had not yet learned how unsuitable it was to be plainly earnest in the house of topsy-turvy. He would solve this problem by going over the top, out-antheming the anthems, as in Iolanthe‘s “When Britain really ruled the waves.”

I don’t mean to heap contumely upon a very popular work of art, but only to measure the sublimity of the collaboration in terms of the pitfalls that had to be traversed. (I ought to have begun with The Sorcerer, which I have seen but hardly know.) The difficulty for me is that Trial By Jury, the one-act inauguration of Gilbert & Sullivan, is as Just Right as a thing can be. But of course it is a shank, a large fragment — a spacious finale for the unwritten romance of Edwin and Angelina. And both legal absurdity and aversion to matrimony were not only quite familiar to Sullivan’s funny-bone, but also matters that would never intrude upon his serious compositions. It was much harder for him to make fun of the Royal Navy, or even to have fun while portraying it. The triumph of Sullivan’s Savoy achievement lies in his eventual success at overmastering his own impeccable manners, without, at the same time, doing anything actually rude.


Yesterday evening, I watched Bridge of Spies, which has come out on DVD. (I picked it up at the Video Room on my way home from a session with the blue lights at the dermatologist’s.) I knew that Kathleen wanted to see it; I didn’t know that she had already done so, on the flight to Australia in December. So I watched it by myself, before she came home. Considering that Steven Spielberg directed it, I liked the movie quite a bit; this may be attributable to the Coen brothers’ screenplay. It’s too bad that “Stoikiy muzhik” couldn’t have been used as the title, because it perfectly encapsulates what Bridge of Spies is about: a man who stands up for what’s right. That it is a Russian phrase intensifies the compliment, but it also guarantees that the man of whom it is said would never, speaking only English and a little German, say it himself. Tom Hanks is of course the man — “stoikiy muzhik” could be his job description. Hanks brings a barely-checked garrulity to the trivial details of life that intensifies his reticence about the big things. One senses the piety observed by a good man in the face of righteous holiness, precisely where piety is everything.

The compliment is paid by a Russian spy called Abel, who has been caught by the FBI and then defended, pro bono, by Hanks’s Jim Donovan, a lawyer who takes Abel’s case more seriously than his friends and family think he ought to do. It is just as difficult to detach Mark Rylance from this character, who submits to Hanks’s questions with silent aplomb. Rylance is the trickster god among today’s actors; you can’t even be sure that you’re being tricked. At several points in the story, Donovan expresses surprise that Abel doesn’t seem to be worried about what will happen to him, to which Abel invariably replies, “Would it help?” Does that work? is what you want to ask. Can you ease your cares by acting on the knowledge that fretting doesn’t help? Most of us cannot. Is that because we lack the power, or haven’t trained ourselves to develop it? If we asked Abel, he might give us a riddle for an answer.

For me, however, the really scary character was Amy Ryan’s Mary Donovan. If there had been more of her in the movie, I should have had to cover my eyes, because she evoked the ferocious moms of the Fifties so powerfully that I dreaded hearing my mother summon me peremptorily to come downstairs for some awful reckoning or other. Trim and blonde, perfectly made up and with every hair in place, she simmered with conflicting responsibilities. On the one hand, she was the realistic, de facto head of the household, charged with putting food on the table for a houseful of kids (while remaining sublimely unmussed). On the other hand, she was the law-abiding helpmeet, the ultimately subservient second banana. Ryan gives us both a woman who is completely in love with her husband and an imminent train wreck. She also tells us everything that we need to recall about those times — those times when the world was a great place, but only if you were one of the Jim Donovans.

I’ve seen a bunch of other Berlin-Wall movies lately. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Funeral in Berlin, The Debt, and, in a different key, The Man from UNCLE. I know there really was a Wall — as well as I can, never having been to Germany. But it seems unreal now, probably because it is. I believe that portions, or at least a portion, of the Wall were left standing, but of course the Wall was much more than a pile of bricks topped by barbed wire. It was a battlefield, where real people were really killed. For those people, and for the soldiers who shot at them, the Cold War was Hot. This active Wall was always evidence of the failure of the Russian experiment with Communism, just as it was evidence of the West’s failure to contain Russia within borders that had long been too fluid.

More forgotten than the Wall — so much harder to visualize — are the nuclear arsenals that the Cold War was fought to keep in their silos.


In The New Yorker, Elif Batuman writes about not wearing a head scarf in Turkey. Batuman’s parents were born in Turkey, but she herself grew up in New Jersey. (Even though I went to boarding school in New Jersey — way west Jersey, as I used to insist, practically the Delaware Water Gap — I share the suburban New Yorker’s bottomless contempt for the Garden State, and I always feel sorry for the Indian and other immigrant families who have for some reason perched there, of all places. I think that it has something to do with Science, but still… And by “suburban New Yorker” I am referring to folks from Westchester County and the nearer reaches of Fairfield, in Connecticut. In the mind of the “suburban New Yorker,” those parts of Long Island that are neither horse farm nor beach simply do not exist. The Hamptons are an island floating somewhere between Block Island and the Statue of Liberty.) Batuman grew up a secular (atheist) humanist. This would have made her right at home under the Kemalist régime that, after decades of rule, came to an end when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over, in 2003.

Or would it? The Kemalists were tough guys. They were a social minority determined to hold on to power. You know how that goes. Batuman is a fiercely intelligent reporter, which makes her a helpless, nonstop critic. Sooner or later, she will offend everybody who believes that holding on to power requires imposing limits on free speech. You just know that, if Batuman had been old enough to visit Turkey professionally before the AKP era (which she just about was, but let that pass), her traveling companion would have been an Armenian from New Jersey. She’d be writing from prison. If she was lucky.

In any case, Batuman writes about visiting Urfa, a provincial town on the Syrian border where interesting archaeological remains have surfaced. One day, she visits a holy site, the Cave of Abraham, and dutifully dons a head scarf for the occasion, as required by law. When she leaves, she forgets to take the head scarf off. Suddenly, everyone she encounters on her way back to the hotel is, as she puts it, “so much nicer” to her. She entertains the idea of observing local custom for the rest of her visit, but she decides against it, on the not unassailable grounds that this would be pretending. In the middle of arguments pro and con, she discusses Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the novel that forecasts a democratically-elected Islamic government of France early in the coming decade. She quotes a passage, which I shall quote as well, and adds a fascination interpretation.

“Huysmans’s true subject had been bourgeois happiness, a happiness painfully out of reach for a bachelor. …to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice.” Such happiness ispainfully out of reach for a bachelor,” even a rich one with servants; it really depends on a wife who can cook and entertain, who can turn a house into a home.

You can see why I find this “fascinating.” Only a woman can cook and entertain, and only a married woman can turn a house into a home. I am not only fascinated by this rubbish — which I’m pretty sure Batuman regards as rubbish, too — but paralyzed. Where to begin?

Let me begin with convincing selfishness. While I’m heartily sympathetic to all women who would rather do something that does involve turning houses into homes, especially to those who would like, or who actually need, someone else to effect this transformation, what pisses me off about Batuman’s paraphrase of the prevalent traditional worldview is the taboo that forbids men to do these things. I have broken it all my adult life, and I have enjoyed good-enough comfort, hygiene, and household organization, not to mention a perfect record (to the best of my knowledge) on the score of making sure that nobody gets sick at my dinner table, throughout. I have lived the life that I wanted to lead.

I discovered early that women are not natural homemakers. As with many women, my mother’s domestic expertise stopped pretty much at the frontiers of her wardrobe. A cleaning lady was engaged to run the vacuum and so on, and if there is one single reason why I took up the art of cooking it is self-preservation: my mother was a terrible cook. At her best, she was uninspired. When inspired, she was a dangerous lunatic. It’s true that no one got sick. Everything was guaranteed dead, even the bacteria. In order to hold on to my father, my mother had to learn how to broil a rare steak, ditto lamb chops, and do something with chicken. Everything else came out of a can or a box. Reheating aside, more food was cooked in the oven than on the stove. Her batterie de cuisine would have been sniffed at by cowboys at home on the range. Terrible knives, paper-thin pots and pans, an enameled cast-iron frypan that was wrong for everything.

From this unpromising environment I moved on to the vie de Bohème, where I discovered that female flatmates were without exception slobs. They were perhaps a little cleaner than young men new to the independent life, but their closets, drawers, writing surfaces and such were all tangles of whatnot. Beds were made only when parents came calling, and not always then.

Parenthood introduced me to the reality that I could change diapers as well as anybody. If you pay attention, and your baby is healthy and a good sleeper, child care, while exhausting, requires no special skills. If you know how to make love (and I do mean love), you know how to hold an infant.

I did inherit one thing from my mother: I liked to entertain. Or rather, like François in Hoellebecq’s novel, I wanted to serve friends pot-au-feu by the stove. But I wanted to make it, and I wanted it to be delicious, so that people would be glad that they were dining chez moi. I did not want to farm out the cooking to a woman; I wanted to do it myself. Most of the serious chefs in the world, are, after all, as you may have noticed… In the one kitchen that I got to design from the ground up, I created an atmosphere that Kathleen described as “a wood shop, but with curtains.”

What has made my life different from other men’s is, I conclude with increasing conviction, my size. This meant nothing to my mother (except that, as she gloriously put it, I ought to find “a nice, tall queen” to marry), and my father was just as big. But in the rest of the world, it has granted me a good deal of license. It is simply easier to stand in the way of other people, meaning people other than me, and the blessing of humanity is that there are only so many people who enjoy standing in the way of others.

And I did have a secret agenda: I wanted to prove, beyond doubt, that you don’t have to be Mary Donovan to turn a house into a home.


Friday 5th

David Brooks writes about “rational saints” in his column today. He mentions Larissa MacFarquhar’s Drowning Strangers, the title of which refers to a moral challenge. If your mother is drowning over here, and two strangers are drowning over there, where do you jump in? Do you save one life or two?

Regular readers will be able to guess what I think of “rational saints.” They might be confused, however, about where I’d jump in, because I say such nasty things about my mother. But of course I should jump in to save her. I don’t think I’d give it a thought; I’d just do it. There would be no calculus of two against one. Under the circumstances, the strangers would not be morally equivalent to two of my mother. (Two of my mother! Turn this conversation off now!)

Somehow, saving my drowning mother reminded me, by the inverted logic that is my substitute for rationality, of what I was already thinking of writing about today, which is that making and keeping friends is a rather small part of my life.

Now, like most people in New York (or so it seems to me), I have a fluid idea of “family.” My family includes several people to whom I am in no way related. The exemplar is Fossil Darling, my roommate at Blair more than fifty years ago. I know that he is a family member because I should never put up with him as a friend — he is that irritating. You think I’m joking! Fossil’s spouse, Ray Soleil, is in contrast both a family member and a friend. The point is, however, that I should jump in to save Fossil, and let the two strangers fend for themselves.

M le Neveu is family on two levels. Which reminds me — we haven’t seen him in a while, and I ought to have him up to dinner. It may seem that we are always having people to dinner, but that is not the case. I can think of only four occasions since Thanksgiving. Of those occasions, one involved neighbors, one involved family-family, and our guests at the third were friends who would be family if they did not have enough family already. (They have also moved to Cape Cod for part of the year. Last year, “part” pretty much meant “all.”) Finally, we had Ms NOLA and her husband — a classic case of Gotham friendship. Ms NOLA used to date a family-family member, but quickly became a member of our elective family.

After family come the correspondents. Some of these are friends with whom I used to spend face-to-face time. In one case, a friend became a correspondent years after moving away from New York. In other, the same thing happened, years after we got out of law school. I have always liked to write letters, and I treasure my correspondents. There are two problems on this front, however. One is that few people want to be correspondents. In the old days, before the Internet, people would say that my letters were beyond their capacities to reply in kind. If you’re a good cook, you probably get this, too. (I have.) Nowadays, I make no effort with friends who don’t like to write. The other problem is that I have little to say that doesn’t appear at this site. It not infrequently happens that I find a letter that I am writing turning into material for an entry here, but only rarely do I write a letter with that end in view from the start. In any case, I don’t see my correspondents very often, maybe twice in a year, maybe once in two years. Maybe almost never.

Then there are the people with whom we used to spend a lot of time and with whom we now catch up via telephone, and the very odd Manhattan layover, every now and then.

Beyond these thinly-populated rings, there are uncountable acquaintances. Some of them might become true friends, if we were to spend more time together, but in most cases that is unlikely. Most of the people whom we have met more than once or twice, we may meet once or twice more, before shuffling off &c. A small slice of this group shows up at the annual parties that we give, usually in the spring.

Up to this point, Kathleen knows everyone just about as well as I do, with the exception of some, but not all, of the correspondents. For the correspondents also include people whom I met after an initial encounter on the Internet. I met a lot of people that way, back in the heyday of blogging. Now I keep with almost all of them at Facebook. Only a few exchange actual letters.

And that’s that.

But what about old friends?

I’m thinking of the friend who was our best man when Kathleen and I were married. We met when Kathleen and I were in law school, and Barry was writing a dissertation on the mechanism of “cohabitation” in the constitution of the Fifth Republic (France, of course). Cohabitation was still a speculative matter in the late Seventies; it would come up, as I recall — but why recall, when there’s Wikipedia? Barry and I lived in the graduate-student dorm (few law students did), and we became fast friends. Not long after Kathleen and I settled in New York, Barry joined the Peace Corps, and spent a couple of jolly-sounding years at Azemmour, in Morocco. Then he landed in Washington. When Kathleen and I bought the house by the lake, Barry was our most frequent guest, and he had a lot of sweat equity in its improvements.

You might think that it was selling the house that dented our friendship — the house gave us a place with enough room for hanging out, something that becomes increasingly difficult in apartments as you get older. (For one thing, “hanging out”?) But it was the Internet. I became an internaut when I joined a Trollope listserv over the Fourth of July holiday in 1996. There was no looking back for me. Thenceforth, I kept in touch with everyone via email. For some reason, Barry didn’t do email. I don’t recall ever receiving a piece of email from him, although I must have done. I wasn’t just writing email, either, of course; I was exploring a new universe. It wasn’t that I dismissed the bricks-and-mortar world; I just knew that it wasn’t going to go away if I ignored it for a while. I do know that Kathleen and Barry were in touch, because Barry thought that he had been mistreated by a former employer, and asked Kathleen to refer him to a specialist in employment matters, which she did. By then, however, two new blows had been dealt to our friendship.

The one that I knew about was George Bush. Barry was always a rather gleeful conservative. When Reagan took office, two friends of his, both lawyers years ahead of us at Notre Dame, long gone by our arrival, became well-connected young men. They were all, Barry included, pious Catholics. Somehow, though, political alignments didn’t get in our way in the early days. Kathleen and I believed that Reagan was bad for the United States, but only because he was inconceivable as an actual president. He was an actor — a view from which I have never shifted. But Barry and I reveled in our arguments. We were still too young to take politics very seriously. By the time George W Bush came along, things were different. I was fifty-two. Bush was not a joke, or he was a different kind of joke. He represented the party that had impeached and tried to convict Bill Clinton, in what struck me as a gross misprision of justice. Barry’s participation in Republican campaigning, in 2000, bothered me a lot, and I cut back on initiating contact.

One fine day, I realized that I hadn’t talked to Barry in a very long time. This was partly because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say, “So, how’s the job search going?” If Barry wanted to call me up and tell me about that problem, I’d give him my undivided attention, but my decorum with men who are out of work is to make the second move — unless, of course, I have a plausible lead, which is sadly unlikely. A long time went by, and then one of Barry’s two other Notre Dame friends called Kathleen (because she had helped Barry to find an employment lawyer). I forget exactly what he told her, except that Barry wasn’t well, that his friends were helping him out, and so forth. Some time later — years — we were told that Barry had died, out in Spokane, where he grew up and had family. He died of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I see now that I made use of a dementia of my own. I stopped remembering things about Barry. Not the old things but the new things. He had a girlfriend for a while. She was just right for him, Kathleen and I thought, and we hoped that they’d get married and enjoy the rest of their lives together. But it didn’t work out. And I don’t know why. I think that it was when the signs of things not working first appeared that I stopped keeping track, stopped remembering how things stood when last we talked. It became another thing not to talk about.

I could see that Barry’s life was falling apart, for some invisible but inexorable reason, but I couldn’t think how to respond. And I wasn’t, by this time, very powerfully motivated to respond. Barry had cast his lot with the enemy; plus, he never read my Web site. We quite literally had nothing new to talk about.

Barry’s diagnosis let me off the hook, technically: there was nothing that I could do. Short, that is, of moving in with him and caring for him like a nurse. But perhaps I exaggerate. The fact is, I don’t know what I could have done, because I never looked into it, never tried. I let time do its ever-rolling thing and bear my old friend away. I’m still on the hook.

Another old friend has disappeared. I haven’t felt too bad about not trying to hunt him down — to determine whether he’s dead or alive — because a posse of my Blair classmates worked itself into a lather attempting to do just that, complete with a round-robin argument about whether you have the right to get lost to your old chums, last year, when our fiftieth reunion came round. I knew that Michael did not want to be found, whatever the problem was. He, too, backed away from computers and the Internet, but snail-mail addressed to him was also returned. I knew that, assuming that Michael were physically well — psychologically, he was never at ease — he had simply moved from one flat in Laguna Beach, where he lived modestly on the income from a trust fund, to another, and committed the partial suicide of leaving no forwarding address. Unlike Barry, though — Barry who stopped being Barry — I do miss Michael, who made me laugh more than everybody else combined by the time I was twenty-one, and who still made me laugh forty-odd years later when, in conjunction with an annual convention that Kathleen used to attend (it was held either in Palm Desert or Coronado), we made a point of swinging by Laguna Beach for lunch or dinner. Michael had some serious issues, but he knew how to make them very funny.

You tell me what any of this has to jumping into the water to save my mother.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hope & Ignorance
January 2016 (IV)

Monday 25th

The Sunday paper came this morning. Did the Times even print a paper today? I won’t mind if it doesn’t; Monday’s paper is almost always the most disposable. But for the Metropolitan Diary, which nowadays seems determined to show that, changes in style notwithstanding, New York is pretty much what it was in 1925, the Monday paper doesn’t have anything going for it, and its relative thinness — more a matter of content, at least for home subscribers (who get so many of the Sunday sections on Saturday), than of bulk — causes a small weekly spasm of withdrawal. On the other hand, plowing through the Review — a nosegay of bloviation (by regular contributors) and temptation (teasers for forthcoming books) — on a Monday morning can be harrowing. Monday’s paper, after all, reflects the severe cutback in leisure that Monday brings.

The big news — the only news, really — is that Michael Bloomberg is once again considering a third-party bid for the presidency. And that headline is really all there is to the story, for the moment. It will take a few minutes for reactions to accumulate. Maybe the phantom Monday Times is full of responses to a proposed Bloomberg candidacy. Everybody read about it online yesterday. Would Bloomberg get my vote? How many ways are there to say ‘yes’?

The big story, however, is the compare-and-contrast account of the water situation in Flint, Michigan: compare what officials said, once the decision was made to detach the city from Detroit’s supply (which was, it seems, “expensive” — however safe), with what was actually the case. This is perhaps the most dramatic tale of élite failure in our time, and I hope that it will be anatomized down to the last group-think minutes of the smallest political commission. The denial and disregard of the toxic pollution of a necessity of life by elected and appointed officials is so dire that one hears tumbrils over the horizon. What is keeping the good people of Flint from lynching the city manager, one wonders. Perhaps he has prudently left town. It difficult to fight off the conviction that, after due judicial process, Governor Snyder ought to be put to death by robots wielding lead pipes.

Meanwhile, snow. Looking at the Times’s Web site this morning, I see a lot about snow removal but nothing about store restocking. Not that I’ll need to shop for a few days yet. I still have the makings of Chicken Tetrazzini on hand, not to mention a Carbonnade à la Flamande that needs no more than sauce-finishing and a sliced baguette. As soon as the new pizza stone arrives, I can get back in the pizza business. The old stone broke because it was round, and I had to store it vertically. Inevitably, it did a wheelie, tipped over, and shattered. No more round pizza stones. King Arthur, source of the replacement, advises me to leave the new one on the bottom shelf of the oven. I’ll give that a try. I’m told that the stone, along with some re-usable sheets of parchment (now declared to be a necessity in baking pizza at home, probably because they reduce dependence on cornmeal, which scatters everywhere and then burns, like the crumbs at the bottom of the toaster), yeast and yet another sourdough starter, is in transit. Yes, but when will it get here?

Although I spent about four hours in the kitchen on Saturday, prepping this and baking that, and, more important, straightening a few cupboards, I did a lot of reading over the weekend. In the journals, there was Heather Havrilevsky on Nicholas Sparks (Bookforum) and Tanya Gold on the Royal Family (Harper’s), shrieks both. There was Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels (1955), which I pulled down from the shelf for pleasure. And there was Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1587? 1592?), which — well, I forget why I decided to re-read it. The decision was made a few years ago. When the Penguin Classic arrived (Five Revenge Tragedies, edited by Emma Smith; the first Quarto version of Hamlet (1603) is included — Polonius appears as “Corambis,” and the two flunkies immortalized by Tom Stoppard as “Rossencraft” and “Gilderstone”), I read the first couple of scenes of Act I but then stopped, defeated by the dreadful writing. In a more conscientious frame of mind, I pulled it down again last week, and struggled through it in a couple of days, finishing it on Saturday afternoon.

Having just read the Rosencranz and Guildenstern version of Hamlet, I was well-prepped to deplore Thomas Kyd’s prosody, which is long on witless repetitions and longer on witless rhymes. Consider the opening lines of 2.4, delivered by Horatio in what turns out to be his last scene. (Despite his expectation of security, he is murdered at the end of it.)

Now that the night begins with sable wings
To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
Come Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower,
And there in safety pass a pleasant hour.

I don’t mind sharing what this reminded me of:

To you, my little prairie flower,
I’m thinking of you every hour.

That’s the poem that Daniel Leeson reads, having written it down on a sheet of paper, to Lucy Warriner, in The Awful Truth, while Lucy’s husband, Jerry, lurks behind the doorway, armed with a pencil, which he surreptitiously brushes against Lucy’s ribs, making her giggle inappropriately. The terrible thing about these verses is that they really are deathless! Their inanity is unsurpassed.

Though now you’re just a friend to me,
I wonder what the end will be. [Tickle]
Oh, you would make my life divine
If you would change your name to mine.

In my senior year at Blair, I wrote a paper on The Spanish Tragedy. We were given a list of works to choose from, and this was one of them. I can only imagine what drew me to it. The subtitle, perhaps (“Hieronimo’s mad againe”), or the promise of betrayal and blood. But all the gore in the world can’t make up for the complete lack of psychological shading. I dimly recall being distressed by the play’s tedium, and I’m sure that my paper did not get a very high mark. And how lucky we are that the name “Bel-Imperia” did not catch on.

Less Than Angels reminded me of Eileen Myles, the poet who has been much in the news because — I forget why. Myles has called for men to stop writing books for fifty years and making movies for a hundred. This makes a lot of sense to me, although if I am offered the chance to publish a book I shall not decline. When I was a boy, it was doubted that women were really capable of men’s work; a generation later, we have reached a stalemate in which women are permitted to do anything so long as they accept half-pay. If only more men would step out of the working world for a while, becoming dependent upon their wives, we might rectify this imbalance.

Less Than Angels is infused with a tamped-down impatience with <sigh. men. It bubbles away, just below the laughter. Every now and then it is allowed to spew forth, but only for a moment, and only through the cross mouth of Miss Clovis, the administrative battleaxe who likes nothing so much as needling men. The men in Miss Clovis’s life are mostly anthropologists, and Pym has a field day studying them.

The most romantic character in the book is not the nineteen year-old anthropology student, Deirdre Swan, who would be the heroine of a more orthodox novel, but her spinster aunt, Rhoda Wellcome. Rhoda is a Mary who would willingly be Martha to the right man — a quantity unlikely to materialize in her shy, protected life. Rhoda is one of Pym’s miracle characters, respectable, churchgoing, more than a little strait-laced, but lovable withal. Rhoda is always learning things. Here she is at a dinner that she and her sister are giving for an assortment of friends and neighbors, including Deirdre’s first love, Tom Mallow. Rhoda’s sister starts a conversation by asking what people eat in Africa.

“The Hadzapi tribe will eat anything that is edible except for the hyena,’”declared Alaric precisely.

“Oh, well…” Mabel spread out her hands in a hopeless little gesture.

“The butcher wouldn’t offer you hyena anyway,” giggled Phyllis.

“Most African tribes are very fond of meat when they can get it,” said Tom.

“Yes, and many of them relish even putrescent meat,” said Alaric solemnly.

“Do they understand the principles of cooking as we know it?” asked Rhoda.

“Oh, yes, a good many of them do,” said Alaric. “In some very primitive societies, though, they would just fling the unskinned carcase on the fire and hope for the best.”

“Yes, like that film of the Australian aborigines we saw at the Anthropology Club,” said Deirdre. “They flung a kangaroo on the fire and cooked it like that.”

“Now, who would like some potato salad?” said Rhoda, feeling that there was something a little unappetizing about the conversation. She had imagined that the presence of what she thought of as clever people would bring about some subtle change in the usual small talk. The sentences would be like bright jugglers’ balls, spinning through the air and being deftly caught and thrown up again. But she saw now that that conversation could also be compared to a series of incongruous objects, scrubbing-brushes, dish-cloths, knives, being flung or hurtling rather than spinning, which were sometimes not caught at all but fell to the ground with resounding thuds. In the haze brought about by Malcolm’s cocktail, she saw the little dark-skinned aborigines, swinging the kangaroo by its legs and hurtling it on to the fire. Certainly she had to admit that the conversation was different from what it usually was and perhaps that was the best that could be expected. (146-7)

Tom Mallow, for all his county background, is no more a hero than Deirdre is a heroine, and he comes to a Waughian end back in Africa. The older woman that Tom leaves for callow Deirdre is far more interesting. Catherine Oliphant writes advice and fiction for women’s magazines; it does not go without saying that she rarely follows her own advice. She has a marvelous scene with an aunt of Tom’s who “drops in” for a conversation that is right out of La Traviata, as Catherine herself points out. The aunt is too late: she is almost disappointed to learn that Tom is no longer living in sin with a woman so poised, chic, and intelligent as Catherine. This is not, however, to suggest that Catherine is Our Kind. There is a corresponding scene at the end that Pym handles just as well, and perhaps even better, by resisting classical echoes and even closure itself. Tom’s sister, a countrywoman, summons Catherine and Deirdre to her club in St James’s; Tom’s first love, whose first love appears to be golden retrievers, is also of the party. It is decided that Tom’s papers, currently en route from Africa, ought to be sent to Miss Clovis; beyond that, connection is resisted. Pym shows why this must be so.

Catherine did not think it would matter very much how they dressed since it would be most unlikely that they would attain the standard set by Josephine and Elaine.

When Catherine and Deirdre entered the lounge of the club, Catherine’s suspicions were proved correct, for they had hardly set foot on the soft carpet before two women, both wearing well-cut grey suits, small hats and pearls, and carrying fur wraps, stood up and advanced toward them. It was perhaps humiliating, Catherine felt, that she and Deirdre should be so easily recognized, hatless, in loose tweed coats and flat shoes. Deirdre had scraped back her loose and flowing hair into a kind of tail and darkened her eyebrows so much that she looked quite fierce. Catherine was just herself, but had made an effort to be neater than usual. (250-1)

Less Than Angels is not entirely misanthropist. There is a young man called Digby Fox, initially part of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern pair of poor young graduate students (the other winds up marrying a debutante and going into Leadenhall Street). When Tom Mallow leaves for Africa, his friends gather to see him off at one of those old-fashioned “air terminals” from which you would take a bus to the actual airport. As soon as Tom’s bus departs, Deirdre laments that she and the others are now part of the past.

“Only where he is concerned,” said Digby. “We are still ourselves, you know.”

He had taken her arm and was attending to her with great kindness and solicitude. Catherine was glad to see this and made no attempt to take upon herself the role of comforter, which is often regarded as a kind of female monopoly though it can be admirably filled by the right kind of man. (193)

Yet another novel that I was sad to put down.

I don’t know how far I’m going to get with Daniel Martin. The first chapter is rebarbative with agricultural terminology that nobody knows anymore. Nevertheless, John Fowles declared that the novel was “intended as a defense and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.” The exploration is undoubtedly dated, and I expect that I’ll disagree with Fowles about humanism, but I’ve got to read the book to find out.


Tuesday 26th

Two papers today: Monday’s and Tuesday’s. Having gotten through both, I want to go back to bed. And I should, if I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. Also, there is this to write. It’s especially important to write something today, because I am not going to write anything tomorrow, nothing for The Daily Blague, that is, not tomorrow nor on any future Wednesday. Even without the help of such crude yardsticks as word counts, regular readers will have observed an increase in — more crudity — output. Volume. Verbiage. It has poured forth readily enough, but it has consumed all of the energy that I have for intellectual activity, loosely defined, by which I mean that I simply cannot bring myself to go through the mail or do anything else having to do with knowledge work. By the time I’ve proof-read what I’ve written, somewhere in the early afternoon, I am shot for the day, good for nothing that involves the brain. Oh, I can read. But reading doesn’t count.

There are the weekend days, it’s true — but they are weekend days. They are not work days. So I must reserve a weekday for housework: not just the bills and such but the magazine renewals and the insurance forms and the cards in which I send our grandson a contribution to his allowance — now shockingly overdue, just like everything else. Wednesdays have long been my day for going out, running errands, seeing doctors — yes, I’ll be at the dermatologist’s tomorrow — so it makes sense (or at least I hope it does) to clear the whole day for current affairs.

It seems increasingly clear to me that this site’s days are numbered, that, sooner or later, I am going to spend my mornings writing something else. I may very well do this online, but it will not be a Web log. It will be an intellectual memoir. That sounds pretty grandiose, doesn’t it. But I say that as modestly as one might speak of writing a novel. I myself am not going to write a novel. This is not to say that my intellectual memoir will be altogether free of fiction, for who can make such a promise? And I do hope to make a story of it, because it is the elemental urge to tell a story, my story, that propels me. I still don’t know quite what this story is, but I do know a great deal more about it now than I did, say, a year ago, or even last summer. I have been letting the DBR teach me what it is — one of the reasons for the increase in writing. Until very recently, I worried that my story was so peculiar that it would turn out to be a vaguely repellent curiosity, but lately I have felt the smack of cliché: my story, while indeed my own, is just like everybody else’s.


Like every lump of human stuff, I feel, at least at times, both incomplete and excluded: alone. Like everyone else, I want to put an end to these uncomfortable feelings. Some people believe that it is possible to overcome the isolation of the body, but I don’t; I believe that our very sense of who we are, each of us, is the consequence of being sealed within our skin. Union, escape, transcendence — call it what you will; it can’t happen the physical world. So we have invented a spiritual counterpart to our corporeal individuality; but we can never be quite sure that the spirits are real. Or we worry that our spirits are not as robust as we should like them to be. The strongest faith is not entirely, absolutely unwavering. Something is always missing. This is the story of everyone who is conscious of having a story. Something was missing, so I set out to find it. And I found something else instead.

Because all we have at the start is the sense of missing — incompleteness and exclusion. What we miss must, because we miss it, be somewhere. Where? So we look, but without knowing what for. Everyone who has a story — and this is by no means everybody, unfortunately — finds something else, something that takes the sense of being partial and isolated off the boil. It is something that we didn’t know was there, and to some extent it is brought into existence by our search. We must discover it for ourselves. This may sound trite, but it stands in sharp contrast to our idea that children needn’t be expected to stumble onto the rules of grammar or the multiplication tables by themselves. There are many things that can be taught, but the thing that each of us is looking for must be custom-made. It is created, if not by, then in the search.

Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that Man creates God. What I am saying is that each of us who believes in God creates his or her peculiar relationship to God — a relationship that cannot be fully comprehended by words. (To put the matter with greater piety, we allow God to frame our relationship.) The outward parts of this relationship may be rigorously orthodox, adhering in every particular to the pertinent catechism, and yet be privately distinct. For we can never know what some else’s relation to God might be. All we know is our own, and, as I say, we cannot fully express it even to ourselves. This is true no matter what the object of our relationship might be; all that is certain is that this relationship is the thing that takes the place of what we thought we were looking for.

For we began by looking for something that would make us feel complete and included within ourselves. Instead, we found relationship. To another person, perhaps. To a kind of work. To an understanding of the cosmos. The person, the work, the cosmos — these all remain outside us, beyond the envelope of skin that contains us. But the relationship to them stops the wound of incompleteness and exclusion. And that is the story told by everybody who has a story to tell. As I say, not everybody does. Some people do not, or cannot, find relationships. Some people will not settle for relationships; they demand thorough-going, self-sufficient autonomy. Some people are too damaged to sustain a relationship, and can’t seem to be healed. Some people fear that relationships are just another illusion. Many people have terrible judgment. All that we can do for these unfortunates is to tell our stories better. We can never tell our stories well enough.


I believe that what we find when we set out to look for what’s missing is, simply, humanity. Although we are human beings, we do not possess humanity. We participate in it unawares. I am part of your humanity, even though I don’t give it a thought. Humanity is other people. Humanity makes your life, your very existence, possible. It teaches you everything that you know. It creates the world that you inhabit on this planet. Humanity feeds you; indeed, there is no other source of nourishment. Without humanity, you would be nothing. And yet, you have to find it for yourself.

It is always hard to find what is standing right in front of you. We come out of childhood thinking that we know about the world, but we are mistaken: all we know is what is useful to a child. Unless something is terribly wrong, children do not know that they are incomplete or excluded: they are complete and included in their parents. Then — the horror of adolescence — their parents become other people. Rather, they cease to be what you thought they were. And yet, there they are, standing just as they always have. They are still your parents, but they are also distinct human beings, and you must find them again in humanity, that world of other people. This is understandably difficult.

I never knew my own parents, but I don’t know how important this is. Other people took the place of my parents, and the main thing to know about this is that I was told about the arrangement when I was seven years old. Perhaps the thing to know is the way I took the news. Some people, I understand, hear such news and don’t find that it makes much difference. They go on loving their parents just as much as ever, as parents. To my thinking, the salient aspect is surprise. If the news that you were adopted as an infant comes as a surprise, then I do not think that it will change anything. But if the news confirms something that you have always suspected, then you will permit yourself to acknowledge other feelings. If you are like me, you will undergo the totality of adolescence right there, in that teary hour by the fireplace. The experience will be grievously premature. What, after all, do seven year-olds really understand, about where babies come from? In any case, your parents will become human beings ahead of schedule. And, by their own admission, they are no longer quite your parents.


Thursday 28th

The foregoing paragraphs triggered an emergency response from an old friend who happens to be a doctor. She detected what I’ll call a note of suicidal resignation. I wrote back to reassure her, but I do see what bothered her, and I don’t dismiss it. I believe that some people do kill themselves because they are tired. They don’t do anything dramatic, but they stop taking care of themselves, they stop watching out. They walk in front of a bus, not deliberately but not unawares, either. They stop taking their meds. They let go. And I am very tired.

Part of it is age, but by “age” I don’t mean the physical fallapart so much as the weariness of having seen enough. There’s a piece in today’s Times — today’s Upshot column. Josh Barro reports:

The process of labor market adjustment is “gummier than anybody realized,” said Mr. Hanson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. The persistent negative effects of Chinese trade on much of the American labor market have “toppled much of the received wisdom about the impact of trade on labor markets,” Mr. Hanson wrote with his co-authors, especially the “consensus that trade could be strongly redistributive in theory but was relatively benign in practice.”

Well, gee. Thanks for waking up, you guys! Barro gives economists a pass because, historically — and I can see you becoming tired enough to walk in front of a bus whenever I say “historically” — foreign competition did not disrupt labor markets. That’s because we were competing with Canada and Germany and other places of comparable per capita wealth. Who knew that China would be different? How could anybody not know? If you squint, Barro’s piece reads like a joke from The Onion.

Gummier — I like that. But it explains why I’m so tired.

In my fatigue, I have dreamed up yet another constitutional amendment: if voter turnout in federal elections (presidential or not) drops below sixty percent, then the government is disbanded — it simply ceases to exist. The Fed shuts down, the armed forces go home, and airports become much more dangerous but also much more convenient. The more I think about it, the less frivolous this suggestion seems. It might take the extremism out of American politics, like, forever.


I’m also tired because I want to say something about what living is like — and I’m thinking about all people alive today, now, not just Americans — but I want to say it without sounding “philosophical.” One of the things that disappointed me, when I tried to sketch my idea yesterday, was that, for all the jocularity with which I tried to loosen up my insights, I caught myself beginning a sentence with “It follows…” That’s what I mean by “philosophy.” If this, then that. The rigors of reason, the urge to account for everything in some grand, all-accommodating system. I disclaim any and all ambitions to think systematically, but the ground is so littered with the habits of systematic speech that it’s hard not to trip over them. Isn’t there another way of talking about how we live?

Yes, there is, but it takes much longer to get across. So much longer that, just thinking about it, I want to curl up and sleep forever.

And yet there is hope in “forever.” Do we have all day? We have forever. We have, at any rate, as long as we’re here.

That sounds nice: no rush. But look what happens when I say, “This is going to take forever.” Not so nice. It is not really the same statement, put in different words, at all. The difference between “have” and “take” is all the difference in the world.


Can we talk? I am a human being. I am stuck in the frame of a tall, overweight male, nearly seventy years old. I always have a beard, and sometimes a twinkle in my eye. I am a bundle — it really doesn’t matter whether “I” am the bundle or “my frame,” the thing I’m stuck in, is the bundle — of skills and experiences. The thing to know about me, since we are probably never going to meet, is that I like to read, and that I especially like to read things that make me laugh. I go in for shrieks, as the Mitford sisters put it. Just for the spice of it, I’ll add that I’m crazy about the fragrance of the carbonnades â la flamande that is filling the kitchen. I made the stew myself, but I credit its miraculousness to the veal broth that I bought at Agata & Valentina.

Philosophers ranging from Hume to Descartes tell me that I might be imagining that fragrance, not to mention the existence of Agata & Valentina. They warn that I cannot be sure about anything outside the bundle that contains me. I could be living in the middle of an illusion. Life could be a dream.

Well, that certainly sounds like the kind of thought that would preoccupy a thinker living in the middle of the intellectual storm that dumped the scientific revolution on us, and then the industrial revolution. Year after year ever since, students at the best schools have been taught what Descartes and Hume and the rest thought. Then they have forgotten all about it, most of them, because life is not a dream. Hume may be right — we see what we want or expect to see — but this does not mean that there is nothing to see. There is something self-cancelling about the idea that the material world in which we think we live does not really exist: it stops in its tracks and then evaporates. You cannot make anything of it. As Descartes might have ventured, the real world exists because we think it exists.

To understand this world scientifically, these days, is to get tangled up in entangled particles, and a lot of other rebarbative concepts. Knock yourselves out, say I to the scientists. But I’m going to go on experiencing the world from inside my bundle, no matter what you tell me. I am not going to try to figure out how my bundle really works, or what it really consists of. I am not interested in “really.” I am interested in “ordinarily.” I am interested in making the ordinary a little neater, a little more consistent, perhaps even a little more helpful.


What I want to talk about is the problem that we all have, as human beings, locked up in our bundles of skin and saddled with what we call “human nature.” This phrase, “human nature,” is used as if it expressed a scientific understanding of what it means to be human. As such, it’s a folk science, and not scientific in the least. “Human nature” is a collection of received truths about how people behave, grounded in the understanding that it is almost impossible for them to behave otherwise. This is why philosophers and others get so worked up about “altruism.” Altruism appears to be contrary to human nature, so how can it exist. Does it exist, skeptics ask. We could sit here all day, or even forever, and never get to the problem posed by the appearance of altruism, not because selflessness and sacrifice are hard to understand — they’re not! — but because it’s difficult to reconcile them with “human nature.” Our ideas about “human nature” have borrowed a great deal from genuinely scientific inquiries, and especially from the investigations of Charles Darwin, but these borrowings have been selective, and we have invested them with “meanings” that existed long before Darwin. Who needed Darwin to tell us that we are selfish? Nobody. What Darwin did, we say, was this: he proved, scientifically, that “human nature’ is selfish. Nonsense.

So, here we have this thing called “human nature” that, by and large, we deplore, even though we can’t escape it. So we say.

And over there, we have something called “humanity.” We associate that word not with selfishness or greed or lust or murderous rage, but with nice things — altruism, for example. We have a concept of “the humane.” The “humane” is all good. If everybody were humane, there would be no problems on earth. Well, illness and death, maybe, but you know what I mean. Humane behavior is admirable and desirable. But what is not human about “humane”? Why does our concept of human nature seem to exclude everything that is encompassed by our idea of the humane?

I have a hunch about this. It is not a theory. It is just a thought that emerged from thinking about these things. When I was writing about it yesterday, I expressed it in bullet points, which is what led me into if/then territory. So today, Instead of building up my argument, I am going to begin with its conclusion, and then support it, but with observations instead of proofs. I am trying to avoid the appearance of proving anything. There is one little axiom that I should like to deploy, for syntactical and rhetorical reasons: “humanity” is the manifestation of “the humane.” Not really, mind you; not scientifically. But that’s how we tend to speak of it. It’s how we think that interests me, because I think that we’d be better off if we thought a little more clearly.

Humanity, as I wrote the other day, is other people. For each of us, humanity consists of people we know, and, less importantly, of people whom we don’t know. This is my conclusion. I’m very well aware that some people are so disgusted by human nature that they don’t think much of the people whom they know, either, because they are also so visibly infected with human nature. For such people, humanity tends to exist on the other side of the world, among people who speak different languages and who live without the corruption of brass and marble mod cons. I feel sorry for people who take this dim view of things, although I’m a little impatient with them, too, because so many of them live in my neighborhood.

Humanity also consists of everything that people — and note here that I use “people” as a term for individuals in whom human nature and humanity intersect — have ever done. Most of this is invisible, but that doesn’t make it nothing. Our manners, our language — everything that we take for granted as children is the result of everything that has ever been done. Perhaps that is a second axiom; maybe it’s just common sense with a telephoto lens. Mozart is dead. His music lives on, and is very much a part of humanity. But I like to think that his fondness for dressing up and giving parties is still with us, too, however dimly. I like to think of him in his ballroom — he had an apartment big enough to hold one, for a while. Yes! His own ballroom. And here you thought he was poor, because aren’t all the best artists? Plus, Amadeus? But Mozart was not poor; he was broke, and now you know why. I like to think of Mozart insisting that nobody else could play the piano as well as he could. A real pain, this guy! I like the stories about Mozart, some of which are true. They are all part of humanity — along with the great music.

Now, the important thing about humanity, I want to suggest, is not that it is so much better than human nature. We like to make humanity out to be better than human nature because we feel stuck with our own human nature, but hopeful about everybody else’s humanity. When I say that humanity is other people, I’m saying a lot, and one of those things is that we like to think that it is up to everybody else to be humane. For ourselves, for each of us, it is just too hard. We can be humane every once in a while, but we are not the Pope or Mother Teresa. The Pope and Mother Teresa, however, are, or were, other people, and capable of great humanity. But this is just one of the things that I mean when I say that humanity is other people.

What I want to say most about humanity is that it is our connection with humanity — with other people, with what other people have done — that makes us humane. Each of us. We are transformed by each connection from bundles of self into something greater. The greater the number of connections, the greater the transformation. There is a certain limitation, of course. All the connections in the world are not going to relieve us of the need to take care of our individual bundles. We can’t give away all our possessions and hope for the best. (Maybe with Eileen Myles in mind, Jesus never seems to have asked a woman to give away all her possessions and follow him. He knew a good thing.) We have to take care of ourselves, if only to spare other people the drudgery. But this is a limitation, not an obstacle. We are still free to redeem our crummy human nature by making contact with what’s good about other people.

Do admit that I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know.

I have this little aide-memoire that I want you to take. Fix it on a lapel pin, if you like.



Friday 29th

These thoughts about humanity, and what it means for each of us — or most of us, or many of us, or the few of us who can be bothered to think about it, or maybe just for you and me; just me? — leads me to thoughts about hope and ignorance. The union of hope and ignorance is most clearly illuminated by the prospect of your death. You hope that your death will be peaceful, painless, surrounded by loved ones, &c. You hope that you will die neither in a violent explosion nor after twenty years in a vegetative state. Perhaps you hope that you will never die. All of this hoping depends on ignorance. The minute you knew, if you could know, the time and circumstances of your death, no matter how distant and rosy, hope would give way to a sentence of death — a heavy thing to live with. We may hate uncertainty when it comes to things that we want or need, but ignorance about many things that lie in the future is the cushion from which reposing hope springs to life.

Hope and ignorance are also joined in humanity, at least as I’ve presented it here. You will never know what is going on in another person’s mind. And this is a good thing, because it allows you to hope that the other person is well-disposed toward you, perhaps even in love with you (whatever that means to you). I don’t mean to be cynical; your hoping that someone loves you does not mean that you are not, in fact, beloved. It means that you don’t know what loving you means to your lover, and allows for hopes of an even more perfect union. What you don’t know may very well hurt you, but by the same token it clears the ground for hope.

When it comes to the benefits of forging connections with friends and lovers, or simply making the most of the connections that parenthood creates, our dispensers of general wisdom can get pretty dogmatic. There is more insistence than assurance in the claim that these connections are Good For You, that they will make you Happy and Fulfilled, and so on. Unfortunately, luck has a role to play here: we can only hope that we do not live up the Orinoco, stranded far away, in time or space, from the society that would encourage us to make the most of ourselves, and that would present us with our compleat soul mate. We shall never know; but some of us, certainly, will feel happy enough with where we are and whom we’re with not to be bothered by such thoughts. Others, just as certainly, I fear, will not know such satisfaction. They may devote themselves to their work and do their best to make happy families, but find themselves unable to suppress the question, Is this all there is? I have no words of wisdom for such discontent; I can only say that I respect it. This means that I refrain from suggesting making lemonade out of lemons.

I do feel, however, that connections, even when they fall short, contribute true wisdom and a sense of completion, neither of which can ever be mined from within. If I recognize that life can be rough, I nevertheless insist that stoicism and other modes of withdrawal are childish, little more than spiteful but pathetic reactions to (and would-be rejections of) life’s vicissitudes. John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


A number of political humorists (citations?) have speculated that Donald Trump never intended his presidential bid to attract long-term support, and that many of his moves, such as his line about Mexican murderers and rapists, have been intended to sabotage it, the joke being that he can’t figure out how to turn the damned thing off. I love this idea almost as much as I love Alan Bennett’s portrait of the Queen as an “uncommon reader,” but I don’t believe either of them. Nevertheless, I won’t be surprised if the Donald makes use of this campaign analysis, if that is the word, in the event that last night’s pity party winds up putting him out of the running. The important thing for Trump is to win, and it doesn’t matter at what. Claiming to have pulled off an outrageous bluff would be just as good as winning the White House, so long as that improbable coiffure were wreathed in triumph.

“He clerked for Rehnquist?” Kathleen expostulated this morning, reading about Ted Cruz in the Times. I myself just learned that the other day, when the paper ran a photograph of Cruz, not even wearing a jacket, sitting to the left of the robed Chief Justice. I was more surprised to see how pretty Cruz used to be, how Elvis-like. The old maxim is true again: pretty people have to choose the face or the figure. If you stay trim, as Cruz has done, you risk becoming, as Cruz has done, extravagantly unattractive. Kathleen was also shocked to read that Cruz went to Harvard Law. Yes, and Princeton, too, I put in, making sure that her understanding of Cruz as a populist was complete. As I always say, Only in Texas.

The problem with Hillary Clinton as a candidate is that she seats the united couple of hope and ignorance on a very scratchy horsehair sofa, upon which comfort will always be an impossibility. You hope, considering the alternatives, that she will win, but you can’t quite summon the ignorance required to believe that she ought to win. Clinton has an unparalleled ignorance problem: we know her far too well. While it is generally true that we know nothing about what somebody else is really like inside, it is entirely possible that this unknowable somebody inside Hillary was strangled to death at some point no later than her Goldwater Republican days. Mrs Clinton is diligent and capable, and she will perform her presidential duties more than satisfactorily. But she will not be a leader: she will not fill the ignorant with hope.

In all fairness, it ought to be pointed out that even Barack Obama could not do that.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Exquisite Spleen
January 2016 (III)

Tuesday 19th

Still afflicted by a cold — a cold, mind you; not congested sinuses with sniffles and coughs but a sense of being cold, almost all the time, even when the room is almost unbearably hot for Kathleen — I am indulging corresponding eccentricities. Once again, I went back to bed after reading the Times this morning. I wrapped myself up like an invalid in a deck chair, and fell asleep, napping for nearly two hours. During the nap, I dreamed furiously about a book that, I decided, I must re-read. Parts of the novel (which came in four boxed, paperback volumes, with interior fire-escapes and brick walls on the covers) came to me unbidden, but it was very hard to connect them, and there was also an uncomfortable feeling that the novel was about me. That it told the whole truth about me. As I woke up, and realized that I had dreamed the book up, disappointment gave way to relief.

The novel that I had fallen asleep while reading was Theodor Fontane’s Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich, 1891). A few years ago, NYRB republished Douglas Parmée’s 1964 translation, and I bought it on the strength of somebody’s review. But almost at once, my idea of the characters clotted unattractively — they would not be worth caring about, I feared. It took a deliberate policy of reading neglected NYRB volumes, combined with the success of Stoner, another such, late last year, to get me to take Irretrievable down from the shelf. Even then, it languished for a few weeks with the bookmark tucked into the third or fourth page. The book opens at a seaside mansion, recently built by a count. But what kind of count, and which sea? That’s to say, were we in Germany or Denmark, on the North Sea or the Baltic?

When I picked up the novel again last week, I learned that its tale is set in 1859. But it was only yesterday, when I took up Irretrievable in earnest — I have now reached the two-thirds mark, and should much rather be reading Fontane’s novel than sitting here writing — that the significance of the date registered. In 1859, Schleswig-Holstein, a pair of provinces north of Hamburg, still ran up into the neck of mainland Denmark; a few years later, it would be torn away by Prussia, in the first of Bismarck’s little German wars. I know about this war because it caused no small embarrassment at the British court. The queen’s oldest child, also Victoria, was the Crown Princess of Prussia; her brother, the Prince of Wales, had just married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. (I don’t really know what to do with little wars, memory-wise, until I have an embarrassing scene to attach them to.) As usual, Bismarck made cunning use of the accidents of history, which in this case threw up some uncertainty about the inheritance of the duchy of the provinces. I remember reading somewhere that Bismarck joked — but I’ve recently written about this, in connection with Syria.

I’m trying to do better about avoiding such repetitions. Last week, wasn’t it, I wrote about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. Only when I was done did I search the site for a previous reference, and then I found that I had already said much the same thing about my favorite lines, but put it slightly differently in each case, such that I should be hard put to decide which one to keep. (I was also reminded to renew the struggle with William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity.) Within the space of a week, then, I have repeated myself twice, or nearly. Perhaps I have run out of material?

Anyway, Irretrievable is very good. It begins in what was Denmark at the time, and much of the action takes place in and around Copenhagen, involving an aunt of the then king whom I think Fontane made up — a worldly and amusing princess of seventy to whom the hero, as it were, is a Gentleman in Waiting. When I asked Kathleen if she had ever heard of gentlemen in waiting for princesses, she declared that they would be most inappropriate, but I had not learned the princess’s age when I asked. A worldly old lady definitely needs gentlemen in waiting, even if “being younger” puts them in their fifities and sixties. The trouble is, the princess has a very fetching, twenty-nine year-old lady in waiting, a very clever woman whom I instinctively cast as a blend of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alicia Vikander.


Thanks to a piece in Sunday’s Review section, the weekly potpourri of Op-Ed pieces, I learned about a Web site that I’d never heard of. I visited the Web site and read the latest entry, which is basically about the importance of dates in the study of history. Specifically, the author, who seems to be roughly the same age as the temptress in Irretrievable, felt obliged to insist that the only thing that is certain in history is the lifespan of historical figures. You can argue about the importance/virtue/depravity/&c of Innocent III, Copernicus, and Marie Antoinette, but you cannot argue about their dates of birth and death. The wonderful thing about knowing these dates is that they tell you who was alive at the same time. Josef Haydn and George Washington, for example, were very close contemporaries. (They were born in the same year, but Haydn lived for another ten.) Also a contemporary was the Qianlong (Ch’ien Lung) emperor of China (1735-1796). More interactively, Pitt the Younger and Napoleon were contemporaries, closer in age than, say, Churchill and Hitler. Nobody today needs reminding that Churchill and Hitler were alive at the same time, but just you wait. My point is that Pitt was the Churchill of his day, or Churchill the Pitt of his. (I also trust that you know what I mean by “nobody.”)

There is no getting around the importance of dates. And there’s no pretending that dates aren’t a nightmarish nuisance for anyone who isn’t really interested in history. The trick isn’t to make dates interesting, somehow; it’s to make history interesting. The history of anything will do. For me, it was classical music. Classical music is much easier to grasp if you know its history. For general purposes, that history, although it strictly begins much earlier, deep in the Middle Ages, covers the three centuries that run from 1650. The history of classical music consists of knowing what composers grew up hearing, or, more important, not hearing. The symphonies of Mahler did not inspire Bach or Mozart, but Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was explicitly inspired by Haydn’s symphonies. The dates will explain how this was so. Brahms wrote in a highly personalized version of what was for him a contemporary idiom, but it was deeply informed by music of the past, even though that inspiration does not show through stylistically, but only glimmers on the printed score. It is difficult to connect the turbulent, still-urgent operas of Verdi (who died over a century ago) with the relatively pallid court entertainments that Haydn and Mozart had to contend with. (Haydn was old enough to be Mozart’s father, but he outlived him by nearly twenty years. Their artistic primes, however, coincided.) But the links in the chain not only illuminate the connection but demonstrate its power, which it took the young Verdi about ten years to overthrow. With classical music, you have a choice: it can be either a jumble of “100 Best-Loved Hits,” in which case most of it will be complicated and boring; or it can be a development, with composers mining a few seams of musical possibility against the background of shifting audiences — a story, a history, told in music.

So it is with the history of everything. Everything that happens is the result of accidents. The man who would grow up to be Charlemagne was born in and shaped by, as we all are, the world he grew up in. That world was, in turn, shaped by him. (And how.) But if you want to understand Charlemagne’s works beyond the confines of the mere statement that he was a military leader who conquered a lot of territory — a statement that applies to Alexander the Great and to Genghis Khan as well, but so what? — then you have to know his dates. Happily, Charlemagne has left us one of the easiest dates in history: he became the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 CE. Once you nail this date, the accidental quality of Charlemagne’s existence diminishes considerably. The establishment of the Holy Roman Empire is itself much less of an accident than Charlemagne’s birth (sometime in the 740s), and, with a little work but a lot of interest, a host of other dates can be nailed nearby.

There ought to be a Nobel Prize for the genius who devises an app that insinuates all the dates into the minds of eager young gamers.

As to the Web site that was mentioned in the Times, I can say that it seems to be very popular. But I’d rather not say more until I’ve had a longer experience. I’m told to expect two to four new postings in the mail every month.


Wednesday 20th

In today’s mail, a notice from Facebook reminds me that today is the birthday of my old friend from radio days. Alas, he died shortly before his last birthday, a year ago. What is the protocol for dying at Facebook? And while we’re talking about dates, let me to my shame confess that two days ago, when I was thinking of my late friend, I neglected to do the same for my father, whose birthday (102nd) it was. Year after year, I am mortified to remember him on the 19th or the 20th, but never on the 18th. Some sort of remembrance of one’s parents on their birthdays is the plainest form of piety, and I am a perennial disgrace. Me with all the talk about the importance of dates. Mozart’s birthday, which will probably not pass by without my thinking on it, falls a week hence; ‘twould be his 260th.

Thanks to Google, I was ready for the fire. I’d looked at the pictures and seen the ruins. On 16 December 1859, Frederiksborg Castle, then an hour by train north of Copenhagen, was consumed in flames, and that is why Theodor Fontane set his novel, Irretrievable, at that time — not, as I expected, because he wanted to make some interesting use of the imminent conflict between Denmark and Prussia, with its Holsteiner hero caught in the middle. Publishing in the novel in 1891, Fontane may well have expected his German readers to expect the same — why else make use of what was by then a “historical” setting? Fontane’s resort to history is more subtle. Doubtless other great buildings had burned to the ground in living memory, but it is hard to imagine a disaster that would have suited his story nearly so well.

Irretrievable is billed as the story of a failed marriage. Both the late Douglas Parmée, in the introduction to his translation, and Phillip Lopate, in his Afterword to the NYRB reissue, call it such. But the novel may well be the first fictional representation of what we call the mid-life crisis, with all its pain and foolishness. It is only the outer chapters that portray the married couple in their unhappiness. After sixteen years, they have simply grown tired of accommodating one another. She thinks that he is frivolous and he thinks that she is a prig, and they are both right. Some readers will have no trouble sympathizing with one over the other, but I wasn’t even tempted to take sides. At the beginning of the book, it is true, the wife, having been counseled by all her friends to soften her rigors and to exercise her superior intelligence with greater discretion, is about to embark on a project of self-reform, but this is interrupted by a summons to the capital. Count Helmut and Countess Christine Holk are Germans, but their duke is the King of Denmark. This late-feudal, pre-nationalist arrangement was about to be “corrected” by Bismarck, who would take advantage of the death of the king (and duke) to interpose a German claim to the territory. But all of that is a red herring, nothing to do with the novel beyond keeping the informed first-time reader on edge.

Count Holk is a gentleman-in-waiting to an aunt of the king, the Princess Maria Eleanor — a creature of fiction. I could never figure out whether the Princess is a widow or a spinster. It doesn’t matter. She is a genial sister of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, a royal who remembers the ancien régime for its aristocratic liberties. Although no less virtuous than anybody else, the Princess rejects the patina of nurturing respectability so thoroughly that she struck me as an Edwardian figure — as having thrown off Victorian propriety in disgust, rather than as having refused to take it on. To Count Holk, a country gentleman of good breeding but astounding naïveté, the Princess is a wonderful old sinner. Why he appears on the roster of her gentlemen-in-waiting is another mystery that Fontane can’t be bothered to clear up. Just as Countess Holk is about to try to be a nicer wife, her husband learns that, because So-and-so has the measles, while Whatsisname is on a scientific expedition, waiting for Mount Etna to belch, he will have to fill in at the Princess’s little court. In the past, Christine has accompanied him to Copenhagen, but she declines to do so this time, claiming the need to place her children in suitable boarding schools — a bone of contention between husband and wife — as an excuse.

So Holk goes off to Copenhagen by himself, thoroughly prepared to enjoy the city’s amusements, as well as the comforts of his excellent landlady, Frau Hansen. In the interest of concision, I shall say only that it is at Frau Hansen’s that Holk is softened up, so to speak, for his mid-life crisis, which we already know will involve extensive internal mutterings about Christine and what fun she isn’t. Although a beautiful woman is all but catapulted into Holk’s room at the boarding house, the danger lies elsewhere, at court. The Princess has a new lady-in-waiting, Ebba von Rosenberg. Ebba is twenty-nine and a saucy mix of Voltaire and Oscar Wilde — and pretty to boot. She sizes up Holk immediately as a man who has no business being a courtier, and she tells the Princess so; nevertheless, she plays with him. The Princess worries from the start that things will get out of hand, but, aside from a mild word to Ebba, she does nothing. Holk’s fellow gentlemen warn him that he understands nothing about women, but this, as you might imagine, only piques him, for he is not aware of needing to know anything about any woman other than his wife, to whom he has always been effortlessly faithful.

It is of the essence of midlife crisis for a man to find himself caught in a trap that, not having foreseen it, he regards as an insulting act of treachery. It never crosses Holk’s mind that his blameless record in the past is no guarantee, given his current state of grievance against Christine. He fails to see that this grievance encourages him to indulge in courtly games from which he might formerly have withdrawn. He becomes, at the worst possible time, daring. All the while, the words of the woman who increasingly fascinates him, spoken not to him but to the Princess, ring in our ears.

It’s his character that is his basic weakness. And the worst of it is that he doesn’t even know it. Because he looks like a man, he considers himself one. But he’s only a good-looking man, which usually means not a man at all. All in all, he hasn’t had the proper training to develop his very modest talents in the line that would have suited him. He ought to have been a collector or an antiquarian or the director of a home for fallen girls or just a fruit-grower. (132)

There is an astoundingly funny exchange in which Holk tries to impress Ebba with his knowledge of genealogy. Is she a Polish Rosenberg or a Czech Rosenberg? Neither, she replies; she is a Meyer-Rosenberg, descended from Gustav III’s “pet Jew,” ennobled by his king only days before the king’s notorious assassination. “Holk could not repress a slight movement of shocked surprise…” (97) We can just imagine.

As Christmas approaches, the Princess moves her court, as is her custom, to Frederiksborg, still a royal castle. After the fire, it would be rebuilt with contributions from the (new) king as well as from the state, but the lion’s share would come from the brewer of Carlsberg, J C Jacobsen, and the castle would be re-established as a museum. Fontane mentions none of this: he leaves his readers will a royal ruin, as in one sense it remained; there would be no more Christmas house parties hosted by princesses. And of course the new structure would have windows that closed shut and fireplaces that didn’t smoke and whose chimneys did not spark — complaints abundantly made in the novel.

Rather than spoil Fontane’s masterful but light-handed interplay of romance and catastrophe, I should like to point rather to his answer to the question that pestered me from the moment of the party’s arrival at the castle. I’d been asking it earlier, but now it became pressing. It also involved sparks: how would Holk wake up to his obsession with Ebba, hitherto so obvious to everyone but himself? How would he realize what was going on? Just as Holk didn’t know, so neither did I: I was terrified that his awakening would be prosaic, disappointing, and somehow unconvincing. But Fontane does not disappoint.

One day, there is a skating party. The Princess is installed in a sled, and the party sets out upon the frozen part of a vast lake that in fact opens to the part of the Baltic known as the Skagerrak. Holk pushes the sled, while Ebba and two officers follow; the local preacher leads the way. It is a handsome picture. The journey takes the skaters from the edge of the castle grounds to the bank of a small hotel, where others await them.

Holk, with one hand resting on the back-rest of the sleigh, raised his hand with the other and in a second they came to a halt beside a small wooden jetty leading to the hotel. Pentz had come up meanwhile, and offering the Princess his arm, he assisted her up the bank, followed by the two captains. Only Holk and Ebba remained standing by the jetty as they watched the others going ahead and then they looked at each other. There was something very like jealousy in Holk’s eyes and as Ebba’s seemed only to reply with a half-mocking challenge which said: “Nothing venture, nothing win,” he seized her hand violently and pointed out to the west where the sun was sinking. She gave an almost arrogant nod and then, as if the others’ amusement were only an additional spur, they sped away together towards the place where the narrow gleaming strip of ice between the receding banks was lost in the wide expanse of Lake Arre. (191)

Of course! It would be a physical challenge, a carnal exhilaration that would shock Holk into awareness of his forbidden desires. Holk’s mind has nothing to do with it, mediocre organ that it is. It is his body that awakes to itself. After that, he is helpless and, of course, ridiculous.

Also very interesting is the way that Ebba deals with Holk’s laughable picture of their future together. While she is ill for a few days, recovering from the stress of the conflagration, he takes the opportunity to burn his bridges, but she does not laugh at him when he comes to her with the unwelcome but expected news. I should say that I have never seen a fire put out so quickly.

Irretrievable rather spoiled me for other novels. For elegantly formed, gently funny fiction, it can’t be beat. As Phillip Lopate suggests, Montaigne would have loved it.


Thursday 21st

The latest Reviews arrived yesterday, both of them. I dipped into the London, but read nearly everything in the New York. There’s a piece by David Maraniss about football, as in the future of, in which the author describes a spell of giving up watching the game on television. He wonders what it would be like to be Garry Wills, who told him once that he (Wills) had never seen ESPN. I can’t claim never to have seen ESPN — it’s onscreen (if muted) at too many luncheon spots. But I’ve never watched it, certainly never at home. But it is not given to man to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else, much less somebody who never does what you do all the time.

Maraniss quotes someone as saying, We’re in the gilded age of football, but the thing about gilded ages is that they collapse on themselves. Somebody else notes that college students are showing up at football games with their smartphones, leaving at halftime, and not coming back. I should forgive smartphones a great deal if they put a damper on stadium events of any kind.


Then there’s Janet Malcolm on Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes — the one from which the Hughes Estate’s permission to quote anything was withdrawn. I read Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath not too long ago, but I’d forgotten what an admirer of Hughes she was. Or perhaps she has become one. She execrates Bate’s book with such exquisite spleen that you come away wondering if sales will plummet to zero. As a literary biography, she insists, it is a washout: Bate’s comments on the poetry are jejune and his interest is clearly in the sexual gossip. These are her closing words:

He [Hughes] emerges from his letters as a man blessed with a brilliant mind and a warm and open nature, who seemed to take a deeper interest in other people’s feelings and wishes than the rest of us are able to do and who never said anything trite or obvious or pious or self-serving. Of course, this is Hughes’s epistolary persona, the persona he created the way novelists create characters. The question of what he was “really” like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.

Hear, hear! If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. This is not merely a moral claim, but the driest of truths, in that we cannot be known except by our deeds — the things that we do in public. The things that we do in private — which, certainly, we ought to do our best to keep private — are often incomprehensible to ourselves, and never intended to be comprehensible to anyone else. The minute sexual activity is intended to be anything it is no longer private or really even sexual. Some of Hughes’s lovers found him “forceful”; others, “sadistic.” Does this information help us to understand his poetry better? Or will it simply confuse us? Who knows, so long as no unfortunate is taken from the scene of passion to a hospital, what forceful and sadistic mean? The fact that everyone is naturally curious about everybody else’s sex life is the best reason in the world for excluding such tittle-tattle from literary biography. They ought to toss Bate out of Oxford.

A corollary that I can’t quite frame seems to emerge from Sue Halpern’s piece about Steve Jobs and Apple. Strictly speaking, it emerges from something that I read a long time ago, something that comes to mind every time I read about Jobs. I seem to have known something rather awful about Steve Jobs before I knew anything else, but that’s not possible, given the dates of Mona Simpson’s novels. A review of one of them mentioned that a certain character was based on Simpson’s “biological brother” — Steve Jobs. It went on to relate an anecdote about this character, who was so self-absorbed and heedless of others that he never flushed the toilet. (Never? Rarely? Sometimes didn’t? Doesn’t matter.) How I wish that I had never come into contact with this revolting information! But I don’t blame the reviewer, and I don’t blame Simpson, either. The blame falls squarely on Jobs, and his sociopathic disregard for the boundary between private and public. As to the corollary, I suppose that I’ve already expressed it: we have a duty to maintain our privacy — we owe it to everybody else. Impertinence works both ways.

Halpern, by the way, nails what’s wrong about Jobs and Apple.

Steve Jobs had an abiding interest in freedom — his own. As [the films and book under review] make clear, as much as he wanted to be free of the rules that applied to other people [ahem!], he wanted to make his own rules that allowed him to superintend others.

Earlier, she quotes something that Joe Nocera says in one of those films, Alex Gibney’s documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

The myths surrounding Apple is for a company that makes phones. A phone is not a mythical device. It makes you wonder less about Apple than about us.

Indeed. How long will Jobs go on being the superintendent?


The cover story in the Times Magazine over the weekend was about the Center for Applied Rationality, in Berkeley, California. In a nutshell, the Center’s goal is to help us all to overcome the wrongheaded biases outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Jennifer Kahn reports on the ordeal of undergoing a four-day workshop there. Along the way, she comes into contact with immortalism, the belief that becoming immortal is humanity’s most urgent objective. If there is a distinction between immortalists and transhumanists, I’m not yet aware of it, but, as a humanist, I am committed to death. We must all die, so that humanity can evolve. The evolution of humanity is not the same thing as the evolution of the human species. Humanity is human society, and it evolves much faster than DNA. Whatever “human nature” really is, its expression at any time is governed by humanity, which is to say the human society of the moment. Humanity changes as newborns “invade” the world and old people leave it. If people started living forever, they would slow and possibly halt the evolution of humanity. Ask any Millennial how keen he or she would be to have a lot of Baby Boomers still hanging around in fifty years.

(I say this as one of the older Baby Boomers.)

It seems that the Applied Rationality movement is spurred by the fear that machines endowed with artificial intelligence will take over, and exterminate human beings. The only way to prevent this is to acquire superpowers oneself. No matter how you look at this, it amounts to self-hatred, or what I should call inclusive misanthropy, in which you really do hate yourself, or despise your weakness, more than you hate or despise anybody else. It’s an adolescent outlook, an easy way out of dealing with a complicated world. It is more difficult for mature, engaged adults to dismiss humanity as a failed undertaking. Whether or not we have any faults as human beings — it is arguable that we don’t, that we’re just humans — we certainly do suffer the disappointment of feeling faulty. It is easy to imagine an improved humanity. That’s what immortalists and transhumanists are after.

What appeals to me instead is the idea of making the world a better place for faulty human beings. There is still a lot to learn about education. It probabaly wouldn’t hurt to teach Bayesian probability instead of, say, trigonometry. But we are more apt to create environments in which accidents are unlikely than we are to think statistically. Babylonian libraries of self-help books to the contrary notwithstanding, nobody really wants to live life as an experiment — as a project, that is, of self-improvement. We all just want to live. We want to do the things that we like to do, and we want to love the people we love. We need help with these things, not lessons. We need to be steered away from such pleasures as devising rules that allow us to superintend everybody else, or to appropriate other people’s property; and we need to be shown, convincingly, that is is mistaken to love people (and I’m speaking about romance here, not Christianity) who do not love us back.

We need a world that does not require us to be entrepreneurs. We need a world that shelters us from addictions. I’m thinking not of drugs here but of power and wealth-amassment. Nor am I thinking about a nanny state. I’m thinking of a butler state. A butler doesn’t keep you out of trouble, but he performs tasks, or oversees the performance of tasks, for which you are not particularly skilled. He might balance your checkbook and offer sound financial advice. He might accompany you on dates, so as to have a good chat with your date’s butler. Above all, a butler must have a withering stare that you would do anything to avoid.

Listen, these daydreams are lot less silly than transhumanism. After all, we have already invented self-flushing toilets.


Another thing that Sue Halpern mentions is Eric Pickersgill’s suite of photographs, Removed. Pickersgill poses people with handheld devices, which he then removes, asking the “sitters” to hold their stare as well as their posture. The results are interesting, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be more compelling to edit something else out of the picture. For example, imagine a colorful street scene in which those pedestrians holding and staring at devices would be presented in black and white, or in some sort of semitone. Imagine interactivists standing in empty space, or, to borrow a joke from A Night At the Opera, in front of wildly dangerous or inappropriate backdrops. Even easier: remember Albert Brooks breezing past the Taj Mahal, on the phone and unseeing, in the underappreciated comedy, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005).

In terms of the evolution of humanity, everybody holding a device as if no one else were present has won a Darwin Award.


Friday 22nd

In the new LRB, I read something so arresting that I must get right to it, without all the preliminaries. One day long ago, presumably in the halls of the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom was overheard to say, “Well, you know that the ancient Greeks, even Plato and Aristotle, had no concept of ‘power’ as we know it today.”

I have sedulously quoted from anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s mini-memoir about his intellectual formation. It was he who overheard Bloom, and his reaction was the same as mine, except that he actually did it: he ran to the library for a dictionary of Classical Greek. “I could find tyranny, democracy, monarchy, city, army etc, but no entry for any abstract or general concept of power.” (LRB 38.2: 16)

How could this be? How did Allan Bloom find it out?

A cautious scholar would take months to answer the question. I’m content to take Bloom’s word for it. The power that men exercise politically was thought — I surmise, perhaps rashly — to inhere in them as men. It was like muscle: some people have more than others. But free-floating power, existing on its own, probably never did occur to classical minds, or to medieval ones, either. My thinking is that our idea of power, “as we know it today,” is Newtonian. A kind of gravity, which I think is the model for our ideas about power, it is “out there,” and it would exist even if the human race did not. Political power requires human beings for its expression and exercise, but it is a natural force, given humanity. Especially as regards vacuums: when an array of political power collapses, chaos ensues but is soon arrested by a new array. Where the ancients might see political collapse as an opportunity for new men to exercise their inherent power, we’re more likely to see the opportunity to seize power, and to grip it tightly, or else to die.

“Power” is one of our many doubled words. It comes from the Latin word for strength. We also have the English word for strength: “strength.” For the purposes of rough translation, the words are synonyms. But of course synonyms exist only at that rough level. Over time, every distinct word accrues its own special connotations. “Power” and “strength” are not words that can be used interchangeably. We may say that an athlete is powerful, but we’re more certain to say that he is strong. Whereas machines are not “strong”: machines have power. Or they are powered. As is usual in English, the twin with the Latin root has an abstract coloration. We can’t really see power, whereas we can see strength in the bulge of a bicep. You might go so far as to say that, in English, it is power that gives strength.

That is how we use the word in politics. Power comes from somewhere — voters? grass-roots movements? campaign contributions? — and gives politicians the strength to run things. As we understand it, power does not inhere in the politician.

I’m trying to describe power here, not to analyze it. I’m curious about how we use the word, not about what power really is. And yet I am interested in what power really is, because our way of talking about it may be — must be — mistaken. We do not really know what political power is: we are often surprised by its manifestation. (Consider the Donald!) We try to erect frameworks within which power must be exercised according to certain rules, but these frameworks are all more or less fragile, vulnerable to emergencies. (Consider Lincoln and habeas corpus.) We believe that power ought to be bestowed for limited terms, but we don’t know how long those terms ought to be, and we’re not sure about rules allowing politicians to extend their terms. (Consider FDR; consider Bill Clinton, who almost certainly would have been elected to a third term in 2000.)


Holding these questions about power in mind, I consider the portrait of Iowa that Richard Manning paints in the current issue of Harper’s. It is, to say the least, extremely unflattering. Any notions of Iowa as a bucolic cornfield dotted with well-kept farmhouses will be washed away by Manning’s report on the state’s terrible problems with dirty water, polluted by fertilizer and hog excrement run-offs that would bring down federal sanctions if they did not issue from farms. Iowan evangelists may claim that they want the government to leave them alone, but their monoculture of corn depends on federal subsidies that were intended to encourage the renewable energy source of ethanol.

I say that the federal subsidies were intended to encourage ethanol production because I doubt very much that they were intended to cause the pollution of Iowa’s rivers or the increased dependence upon fertilizers that accompanies any monoculture. To talk of monoculture is perhaps misguided, because Iowa’s farmers rotate corn with soybeans. Manning isn’t clear about the extent, if any, to which soybeans do the work of fertilizers, but soybeans are just as problematic as corn. Whereas corn processing gives us high-fructose corn syrup, soybeans give us linoleic acid, a fat that not only triggers inordinate obesity but also impairs cerebral development. Nor are hogs a monoculture: Iowa has been “Tysonized” by the vertical sharecropping system that produces chickens designed more for processing than for nutrition. (Chickens, also like hogs, produce excrement in multiples of human output.) Assuming that Manning’s piece is accurate, everything about Iowa’s agriculture is wrong. The state ought to be shut down as a biohazard and its farmers (and their corporate overseers) deported to Patagonia.

Only a cynic, however, would imagine that any of this awfulness was ever intended by anyone. Once upon a time, Iowa was old-fashioned farmland. Only bit by bit did agribusiness invade; only bit by bit was Iowa’s ecology subjected to the application of industrial heedlessness. One step at a time, subsidies were floated; one step at a time, they became guarantees. (They say that Ted Cruz is going to have to change his mind about the ethanol subsidy if he wants to win in the caucuses, despite some exalted endorsements.) I should venture that the biggest shifts in Iowa’s farming occurred during the Sixties and the Seventies, when national attention was focused on Vietnam and oil. Regrettably, no one was paying attention — except, of course, Iowans with a brain. That’s a recurrent problem with running a big democracy, where political opportunists can turn any crisis into a magician’s misdirection.

So: who has the power in Iowa to prevent the United States from enforcing its environmental laws? The United States itself is on both sides of the equation, what with those “renewable energy” subsidies. Merely to render the nation’s positions in Iowa consistent would be an heroic achievement. But that would be just the start. In an essay studded with trenchant observations, this is Manning’s most piercing:

There is no doubt that conservatives would like to win the presidency, but they don’t actually need to. We have a naïve sense that to correct wrongs in our country, we simply need to elect the right president, pass the right laws, and that’s that. Politics in a state such as Iowa, however, teaches us that laws are only the beginning of the process, the opening bell for litigation, lobbying, and defiance. Faced with a federal mandate to regulate hog manure, [Iowa governor] Branstad simply cut the budget that paid for inspectors. Likewise, he roundly criticized William Stowe, urging Des Moines Water Works to address its issues with collaboration and volunteerism.

“What we see every time we hear ‘collaboration’ is buying time, a defense for the status quo,” Stowe told me. “The status quo will ultimately bankrupt our rivers and seriously jeopardize the public health of our consumers.”

If the Water Works prevail in the suit that William Stowe has brought against the state’s rural drainage districts, we will have another chance to see the exercise of power in Iowa, whoever has it.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2016 (II)

Monday 11th

On Friday evening, I watched Ex Machina. It was one of several movies that I wanted to see in the theatre last year but that I missed for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me. I ordered the DVD because I am very interested in the performances of Oscar Isaac. To me, he is one of the great actors of the day, capable of playing every kind of robust man. Sometimes, he’s a good guy; sometimes, he’s not; but his character’s relation to right and wrong is always complicated, and the complications are compelling. Isaac’s men don’t make trouble for the hell of it. Both as a screen presence and as an impersonator, Oscar Isaac is as serious as a heart attack. His best movie so far — it is also his biggest — is A Most Violent Year.

In Ex Machina, he plays a Silicon Valley bully called Nathan. He’s an insecure sadist masquerading as a smart, approachable guy, backed up with impressive hardware. Approachable, that is, upon invitation only: the pilot who ferries his few visitors to his mountain fastness must keep a distance of perhaps half a mile from the house. The house is a stylish, ecology-friendly hell, saturated in loneliness. Above ground, it offers plate-glass views of green wilderness; its subterranean quarters plaster minimalist chic on the architecture of a convention motel. (Think Cedar Rapids, without the bustle.) Nathan heads the world’s largest Internet company (a sort of Google), but he lives alone with his in-house slut, a strangely clumsy Asian woman who doesn’t speak.

Before we get to Nathan’s place, we visit the head office,  presumably in California, where a reedy young coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) hunches over his computer in what might as well be a cubicle but is not. We never see what Caleb sees when he looks up from the screen; perhaps it has no real existence for him. Within the minute, we learn that Caleb has won a competition. The prize is a week in the mountain fastness with Nathan. Cool!

I had read enough of the movie’s reviews to know that this would not be cool. Caleb is terribly naïve, but he isn’t too stupid to play mouse and cat with Nathan. Nathan is surly, obnoxious, and faux-apologetic by turns; he also drinks too much, and we wonder what that is about. If I had to some extent stayed away from Ex Machina, that’s because it was presented as a something of a horror flick. But even the creepier moments are overshadowed by an air of intellectual mystery: the answer to the question why Nathan has chosen Caleb to be his guest sounds not in horror but in science. Nathan is conducting an experiment. What is it?

Nathan tells Caleb that it’s a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with a robot that he has built and endowed with artificial intelligence. Caleb is to judge the quality of the robot’s AI. When Nathan asks Caleb if he knows what a Turing Test is, Caleb gives the correct answer, and this tips us off, or ought to do, to the irregularity of Nathan’s proceedings. When Alan Turing proposed the AI test that bears his name, computers came in boxes, and interactions were text-based. The extent to which a computer could enact the circuitous associations made by the human mind in conversation, presented, so to speak, as lines of dialogue taken from a play, would be the mark of its success. It would be able to fool its human interlocutor, however, only because, as a necessary pre-condition, the human would not know whether he was dealing with a computer or another human being, somebody hidden in the box.

There is no human “control” in Nathan’s version of the test, and no box, either: his computer is a shapely robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a marvelous concoction of skin and gear that as of yet we can encounter, thanks to CGI, only in the movies. Her face, forearms and feet are covered with something that looks just like skin; the rest of her is prosthesis, except for a mesh-covered poitrine that will doubtless inspire a few nightie fashion shows. Separated by plate glass, Caleb and Ava talk about themselves. Caleb is very impressed at first. Then, puzzled, he asks Nathan why Ava has been designed as a pretty girl. Nathan replies with some hogwash about the hopeless interpenetration of intelligence and sexuality. It is at about this moment that Caleb stops judging Ava’s performance and starts trying to learn from it. Another way of putting this is that his interest shifts from the analytical to the romantic.

You can see all of this coming. You can even foresee that Nathan will never permit Caleb to return to the outside world alive. (The moment Caleb tells Ava that his parents were killed in a car crash when he was eight, you know that his goose is cooked.) But because Nathan is such a heavy, we’re distracted by the eeriness of Ava’s ability to flirt with Caleb; instead of cocking our brows, we sympathize  What you don’t see coming is something that you needn’t worry about my revealing. I have said just enough, I hope, to whet your appetite when I conclude, in general terms, that Ex Machina poses a reverse Turing Test. Its implications are perhaps monstrous, but they are entirely conjectural, something to be mulled over after the movie; as for the climax and finale, they are unbelievably elegant.

Talking with my daughter, who is studying the application of artificial intelligence to environmental and agricultural problems, I learned that Alan Turing’s test is little more than a party trick nowadays. The object of AI research is no longer to fool human beings into thinking that they’re talking to another human being. It is to teach computers to teach themselves things that human beings are incapable of learning. I don’t really understand it well enough to say much more than that the objective seems to be the creation of algorithms that will allow computers to make sense of massively complex (and minute) data, and to decide for themselves what is important, ie a call for action of some kind. Yes, it is scary and controversial. Short of a vast reduction of human population, it may just save the world. In any case, it is unlikely to feature machines as fetching as Ava. But Ex Machina reminds us — and some of us, especially the many Calebs out there, urgently need reminding — that, whatever we create, we shall remain stubbornly human. There is no escape for us from that lot, except into sheer inhumanity.

This stern object lesson is hidden in a beautiful and suspenseful movie, so clever that you don’t see the cleverness until the last few minutes, a dreamy half-mile nature walk that gives you just enough time to recompute everything that you have just seen. Alex Garfield has written and directed a magnificent étude on artificial intelligence that doubles as an old-fashioned masterpiece of indirection.


After my week with Marilynne Robinson, I read the weekend’s newspapers with something like incredulity: why all this depravity! Can’t people see? The short answer, for everything from Trump and Cruz to sexism in academia, is the existentially-crazed determination of power élites to hold on to what they’ve got, and the resentment of those who feel that they have gotten gypped. Same old story. But the long answer is a sheer blank. That is because ambition and resentment lose their vigor over time. Power inevitably dissipates, and resentments, while not always forgotten, invariably lose emotional force. Although we are all caught up in the toils of current affairs, we are all potential historians, too, and, when we look back, and as we look back more closely and more often, we become inerrant arbiters of good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, worth and junk. History, as I have argued, is a crucial component of The World, that composite residue of human achievement that has piled up since the earliest and most primitive of persistent human artifacts, of which the historical record is the youngest. Meanwhile, of course, we have to live in the world, the everyday chaos that we have imposed upon our increasingly fragile biosphere. Most of that small-case world will be swept away without an identifiable trace, but future generations will add a few items to The World, to enhance contemplation of human weakness and possibility.

This explains, I think, my rough optimism. Like most students, I live more in The World than in the world. The past is no better than the present, but it is easier to understand, because evil has a way of starving itself to death, foolishness eventually provokes resistance, and rubbish falls apart. I believe in history because it teaches how we learn (and don’t). That we learn is beyond dispute: the American Constitution is the fruit of the rich understanding of political history that was shared by the gentlemen who composed it. (Now we must learn from its shortcomings.) More people enjoy health, freedom, and prosperity than earlier sages ever imagined; at the same time, however, we are experiencing a second Fall, for, in the space of my lifetime at least, we have learned that modern wonders come at a steep price. We need new sources of income, and for these we must look to our minds: to our minds working together.

Our great model for working together is the team. The best team is composed of variously-endowed men and women who share a common ability to pursue common goals with intelligent discretion, under the direction of a leader with the lightest touch and the greatest natural persuasiveness. I myself do not belong to a team. I have never thought that I’d be good at it. But perhaps my sense of teamwork is stunted, and, just as possibly, the importance of teamwork, and a sense of how it would work, hasn’t reached my neck of the woods. What, exactly, is our common goal?


Tuesday 12th

When I think of The Hunger, a movie that I saw only once, on video, I don’t think of David Bowie. I know that he’s there, but I think about Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, and how unlikely it is that they were in a movie together (and yet, for that very reason, given those two actresses, how normal). I remember thinking, while I watched it that once, that The Hunger is about a certain urban glamour that I’d do anything to avoid. Or was it simply glamour of any kind, that sometimes lovely but always empty carapace? I think, if I watch it again, will I like it more than it frightens me? But I don’t watch it again. The ghosts of the actresses in their Forty-ish finery drift through my mind for a moment and then fade. David Bowie appears as a name, or as a supporting dancer, lifting the ballerinas. Thinking of The Hunger, I wonder how long a sense of vast loneliness would surround me if I found myself living in Queens. Queens has always been for me the place where people go to be lonely, just as Brooklyn is where you go for complete lack of privacy. It makes sense that vampires would live in Queens.

Whenever I see a picture of David Bowie, I think, WEIRD. Not “weird,” as in “spookily unusual,” and not “weirdo!,” as if I weren’t a bit weird myself. But declaratively, self-consciously abnormal. Which is weirder than merely weird, because I can’t really understand the willingness to put your misfitness out there, in front of everything else. To me, it is simply another way of saying, “I’m bored.” It’s like having a disease, but instead of seeking treatment for the disease, sitting in one of those lawn chairs in Times Square (do they still have them?) while wearing a placard that says, “Hypertension Victim.” “I’m not like you” is such an unsociable thing to say, why say anything?

The main thing is that I don’t associate David Bowie with music. I can’t recall a scrap of his singing. I know that I heard it, back in the Seventies, and that it failed to appeal. (It was never, as the anthems of Queen were for a brief but mortifying period, a guilty pleasure.) Since then, Bowie has only been a photograph in a newspaper or a magazine. And, of course, a vampire of some kind, that once.

A friend and I have a running argument. It comes to mind because this friend was one of many who posted a tribute to David Bowie at Facebook yesterday. My friend, who is a much better photographer than I am, is not tempted to take pictures in which people won’t figure, whereas for me the draw of a photograph is its deserted composition. There is always a man-made element. If I take a picture of a tree, it’s almost certainly a tree that was planted by a landscaper. I love ruins. We don’t have many good ruins in New York, but there are plenty of neglected things that have seen better days. My photographs are actually full of people; they’re just not around anymore. Sometimes, in what I think of as my best shots, you can just see them.


I finished The Fall of the Ottomans last night, and was surprised to enjoy the last chapter quite a lot. Better late than never, I suppose. As I’ve already noted, Eugene Rogan’s book is a military history of British engagement with Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, in the Levant and in Mesopotamia. (There is also a chapter about the Armenian Genocide.) But the actual fall of the Ottoman dynasty did not occur until the war was over — as Rogan makes clear in his Epilogue. When the war ended, the Turks gained some eastern provinces, but that was more a matter of Russian withdrawal from the war than of military prowess. On other fronts, the Dardanelles had been held, but the Arab territories were stripped away. And this was before the Peace Conference. By the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which dealt with Turkey, chunks of Anatolia itself were disposed to the Greeks, the French, and the Italians; Thrace also went to Greece. The eastern provinces were taken away. Then Mustafa Kemal, soon to be known as Atatürk (or “Father of Turks”), put together a rebel army in Ankara and led it to victory after victory, until Anatolia and the eastern provinces were entirely Turkish again. It was at this point that the Ottomans fell.

I should like to see a good, readable history of Europe from 1918 to, say, 1929, framing the reconstitution of Europe with the cycle of inflation and depression in which it took place. The new nations that were conjured into existence by the conference at Versailles took their first raucous breaths, displacing millions, during this time. Nowhere was the new order shakier than in Turkey. The Greeks were awarded Smyrna and its hinterland, and these new possessions were promptly awarded to Greek settlers. They didn’t stay long, though; they were driven out by Atatürk’s men by 1922. The diplomat who talked Versailles into this folly, Eleutherios Venizelos, is still remembered as the Father of (Modern) Greece, and is so highly regarded that a slick operator, born in 1957, assumed his name (or at least claimed a relationship) and became Treasury Secretary in one of Greece’s rackety, pre-crisis governments. Venizelos was out of power during the brief war with Turkey, and this is sometimes taken as the reason for Turkish victory. Which all goes to show that you can’t lose, even if you do.

Not that Eugene Rogan so much as mentions Venizelos. I learned about him in Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919. Rogan’s interest is limited to the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the British (with a chapter about the Armenians). I did learn one interesting if outlying fact: it was Trotsky, of all people, who made the Sykes-Picot agreement public. He was airing what Rogan calls the tsarists’ “dirtiest” linen.


I subscribe to Letters in the Mail, a publication (I suppose) of the Web site The Rumpus. For a few dollars, you receive a letter every three weeks or so. I signed up at the start, out of civic duty, as it were; I shouldn’t know about it now, because I hardly look at anybody else’s Web site anymore (about which I am regretful but not exactly sorry). The mail duly arrived and just as duly piled up; I didn’t open any until last spring. The letters are written by young people who are associated with The Rumpus, or known to it, but usually, the writers are not known to me. I find the letters to be breaths of fresh air, even when all they really do is remind me that, when I was young, I had nothing to say, and that that was my anguished subject.

I opened one over the weekend. It was written by Brandon Hicks, who announced at the start that, as a 21 year-old, he wasn’t familiar with writing letters. I was surprised that he was familiar with writing at all, at his age, but it turns out that he is really a graphic artist, and a pretty effective one, too, as the illuminations adorning his letter show. One strip illustrates some of the future selves that he dreads becoming, including “impotent” and “Canadian writer” — it’s both clever and sweet. As for the letter, Hicks quite wisely ducks by posing fifteen questions. The questions appear to cover a wide range of topics; Q3 solicits advice about tools (pens) from fellow-artists. But they are all the questions of somebody who is 21 and has yet to know enough about the world to have anything to say about it. This is in no way a failing.

How come most highly educated [people] are never actually “reading” anything? They’re always re-reading something. For you, what is the value of re-visiting something you have already read? (Q4)

Is anything as maddening as hearing that some smart friend or acquaintance is re-reading a classic that you haven’t even got round to reading the first time? When you’re young, I mean, and haven’t really had the time to read much of anything, and you haven’t really understood very much of what you have read. I remember thinking it nothing less than miraculous, a wonder of piety, that Cardinal Newman (it was said) read Mansfield Park every year! (Now that I’ve been around for a while, I can see that re-reading Mansfield Park every year would be Newman’s kind of stunt.) I don’t know how old I was when I first re-read something, and I don’t want to know, either, because if I was younger than thirty-five, I was showing off.

Why re-read? Well, if you’re like me, and have to know the ending of every story before you read it, books lose nothing the first time. There are no virgins. If Jane Austen makes you smile once, she’ll probably do it again, provided you don’t revisit too soon. That is the first reason for re-reading something. Good books remain good books.

The answer that most people will give, however, is, I suspect, that good books change. Well, of course, they don’t change, any more than the sun goes around the earth. You change. And it’s like kissing someone whom, in the dark, you thought was somebody else. You’re all ready for one experience but instead you get another, and it is intimately shocking. The language seems different, or the characters make different impressions. Or you get something that went over your head the first time. The book has been unfaithful to you, but this only makes you love it the more. Bear in mind, however, that this is not what happens when you read classics of adolescence such as The Catcher in the Rye. Such books do not tell you that you’ve changed. They tell you that you’ve grown up, that you’re too old for this playground.

Later on in life, good books manage to be both, the same and different. More the same than different, perhaps, but it’s the difference that keeps things fresh. I have learned rather recently that re-reading a good book is an excellent way of living through an ordeal. While the ordeal goes on, you tuck yourself into the book and are surprised by its reassurance. This, too, shall pass.

For me, it is the writing. Which is not “words for words’ sake.” Writing is sense made flesh. Which is pretty much my answer to this question:

You’re going to think I’m pretty ignorant for this one, but … Poetry. What’s the deal with it? I don’t understand what anybody is saying half the time. And I don’t enjoy words just for word’s sake enough to appriciate [sic] the aesthetic arrangement within a poem. How is it in any way preferable to prose? Please, no bullshitty “It’s a window into the soul”-type answers. (Q14)

Somebody, I can’t remember who, tipped me off, last year, to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. I didn’t know it, I’m ashamed to admit; I have yet to bear down on the Sonnets conscientiously. This one begins,

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of your budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!

O, what a scold this sonneteer can be. But the first two lines of what Helen Vendler would identify is Q3 (the third quatrain) dazzles me with a high-voltage thrill.

O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee

This is really pretty vituperative; I can imagine any number of dramatic dames of the stage spitting it forth, their contempt for the nonce blotting out their adoration. My advice to Brandon Hicks is to memorize a few sonnets — a few famous ones. Ask around. Sonnets 73 and 129 will come up a lot, along with 18 and 116. Memorize these now, while you’re still young, and then play with them. Speak them with funny voices. Try singing them. (It will add nothing; the Sonnets are already complete music.) In Sonnet 95, which I also recommend, notice how difficult it is to say “chose out thee” instead of “sought thee out.” The beauty part is that nobody with half a brain will think that it’s peculiar of you to memorize Shakespeare. Any other poet, and you’re declaring an interest; Shakespeare is too monumental for that. To recite Shakespeare is to convince other people that they ought to be able to do the same.

Eventually, after a decade or two, you will have an answer to your question about poetry, and you will fall to your knees and thank me. Treat your tongue well!


Wednesday 13th

This afternoon, I’ve got an appointment with the dermatologist that has already been postponed twice. I’m very tempted to postpone it again. But as I really do have to go outside today, I might as well visit the doctor. I need a haircut, and the larder needs stocking. It’s very cold, so there won’t be any running across the street in shorts. I haven’t been out of the building since Friday.

I had two bad dreams. In both, the fact pattern of an administrative matter that is driving Kathleen crazy at the moment (at the office) was repurposed, once involving a book that gave faulty instructions, and, in the other, a dog that wouldn’t bark at the right barkees. These dreams were saturated with the air of inescapable workplace tedium that I took away from our conversation before dinner.

I am reading Hamlet, because Marilynne Robinson says that it is all about grace.

Hamlet’s madness is both feigned and real, and it consists in his descent into the reality of his circumstances. He cannot naturalize himself to this reality, and, consciously, at least, he cannot see his way beyond it — except, perhaps, in the thought of death. As prince, and as madman, he is flattered, manipulated, spied on. His world would compel him to an act of homicide that, thoroughly as he can rationalize it in the world’s terms, and despite continuing provocations of the darkest sort, he finally seems to have put out of mind. And when he does this, he is restored to himself. He will die because he is a generous, uncontriving man in a world where these virtues are fatal vulnerabilities. (The Givenness of Things, 43)

When I was young, Hamlet was taught as an object lesson in the futility of intellectual preoccupation. Teachers and critics were impatient with Hamlet’s reluctance to act. Robinson’s argument is precisely the opposite: Hamlet is prevented by his very virtue from descending, as she puts it, into the reality of his circumstances — a descent into something worse than hell (for in hell, the promise of humanity is altogether broken). Hamlet would rather be pursuing his studies at Wittenberg, which may seem distracted and unrealistic to the average American male but which nonetheless signifies a distaste for exercising power over others. The fact that his destiny is to be Prince of Denmark is the essence of his tragedy, not his propensity to weigh and consider. What he can do is forgive, or, as Robinson insists (what is more than forgiveness), he can free all faults. That is what she means by “grace.” It is not Hamlet who is futile. It is everyone else. (And everyone else dies, too.)

What kind of a dream is it to wonder what authority would be like if it could operate without power? That is indeed how authority works in the cultural affairs of liberal democracies. Authority does not compel, but it is there to inform the ignorant and to guide the wise. I often entertain a daydream of two political zones, one a city of enlightened cooperation and the other a wilderness of senseless self-interest. I see it as a Darwinian experiment, with the thugs eventually extinguishing themselves. Wishful thinking! The thugs would manage some rudimentary form of cooperation and so survive, while the enlightened would bore themselves to death. A truly improved humanity cannot really be imagined. It might happen spontaneously, but only without conscious planning.

That is not a counsel of despair. When I think of Shakespeare’s brain, I see a vat of gently simmering words, bubbling up in response to tacit associations. I don’t want to credit Shakespeare with automatic writing, but I know from my own experience that some of the happiest language emerges unbidden and unsought. If I were to go looking for felicitous constructions, I’d return empty-handed. If Shakespeare had to think of all the wonders that Helen Vendler finds in his sonnets, he wouldn’t have written so many, much less the thirty-odd plays. This is Hamlet’s problem, because he does have to think what to do when he “descends” into the court of Elsinore. Nothing comes naturally to him; he has to think everything through from scratch. But his philosophy, his thinking about humanity and life — well, it’s world-famous, isn’t it? The fluency of Hamlet’s soliloquies never fails to astonish. You can’t make this stuff up.

Shakespeare’s simmering brain was not a sport of nature, I am quite sure. A lot of reading was involved. That may be why we know so little about the man: he was always reading, so there is nothing to discover. On the evidence of his writing, he soaked up everything there was to know about the world. Those who trifle with the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays always argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the experience to know what he knew, but the experience that mattered for Shakespeare to be Shakespeare was an experience of words — written words. As Robinson points out in one of her many gleeful moments, those who doubt that Shakespeare could have known first-hand what life at court was like always overlook that what we know about life at court we know from Shakespeare.


The dermatologist, looking at my arms and scalp, said, “This looks great!” Then she said. “You have a lot of pre-cancers. I think we’d better try the blue lights again.” I used to use a very effective cream. Cheap, too. (The blue-lights sessions are not cheap.) But I got too sensitive. The cream inflamed my skin after three or four applications, and the inflammation took forever to die down. The cool thing about the blue lights is that you get a little portable fan. About the size of a prescription bottle, with three two-inch blades mounted at one end. A pocket windmill. The problem is keeping the fan intact. If you put it in your bag or backpack, it falls to the problem and the blades fall off. In one piece. That’s what happened to the fan I got last time. Also, I never once used it. Because the fan, while definitely cool, is not particularly cooling. I prefer old-fashioned fans, the folding ones that you snap open, if they’re any good. The paper fans from Pearl River are not very good at snapping open, but they do work. With minimal wrist action, they send up a nice breeze. Whether or not it cools you off or dries your sweat, it feels better than nothing.

It was good to get out of the house, I have to admit. In and of itself. My spirits lightened, just walking to the barber shop. Waiting in the barber shop. By the time I got to lunch, life seemed more or less normal. Home has become the place where I wait for Kathleen to come home, and where, when she comes home, we talk about her day at the office, very little of which can be discussed even with closest friends, much less here. The arrest of a partner sheds a wicked fallout. Almost every one of our friends has said something on the lines of, “We know that Kathleen has done nothing wrong, but human nature, being what it is…” The annoying thing is that everyone is so complacent about this sad truth. I’m not so fast to blame human nature. I think that the ethics of journalism (together with the exploitation of journalism by prosecutors) is a more proximate concern.

Thinking about Shakespeare as I was walking around, I dallied for about two minutes with connections between verbal fluency and “the unconscious.” Or (for ten seconds) “the half-conscious.” Suddenly I was peering over a familiar, if long-unvisited, abyss. I remembered the churning laundry cycle of puzzling out how Freud’s divisions of the mind functioned in the actual brain. How did the subconscious work? And, just as I was about to totter over the edge, I was saved by that superhero, Memory. We don’t know much about memory, but we do know that everything that we know is a memory of some kind. Sometimes we come up with new ideas (or associations) which, ipso facto, can’t be memories themselves; but they’re made out of memories and they quickly become memories themselves. Regardless of how the brain works, the mind is a bundle of memories. Some memories, as we all know, are more accessible than others. Some memories, as every senior knows, become inaccessible the moment you look for them. The same goes for verbal fluency. At least with the oblivion that clouds certain words from view just when we need them most — all we can grasp is that there’s a certain sound (the letter “o” at the start, or a Latinate root with “ion” at the end) — in such cases, we can turn to a thesaurus, where the word either will or will not stand out instantly. Retrieving names is nowhere near as easy.

(It seems that I haven’t written about this before, but my search engine may be letting me down: I was amused, a few months ago, to feel a cage of oblivion falling like a trap around the name of a very famous filmmaker. It was as though I could see it happening, but not quick enough to catch filmmaker’s name. I could remember the names of his movies, and also that of the famous film that he starred in but didn’t direct, but I was amused, as I say, by the phenomenon, enough to wait it out, instead of running to IMDb. I didn’t need to know. I wasn’t writing about him; I wasn’t even talking about him. It was a foretaste, or perhaps just a plain taste, of senility, and I was curious to see how long it would last. Now I can’t remember. It took more than a day, I do recall, for “Orson Welles” to ding like a bell. I could see him, in Touch of Evil and The Third Man, but I could not name him. I could name “Paul Masson,” but not Orson Welles. I almost felt that the name refused to present itself until my mind was certain that I’d forgotten the search. As I may have done, for a few minutes. It would be interesting to know what hidden subroutines, if any, were running in my brain for all that time. I don’t think that they were search subroutines, though. I think that they were oblivion subroutines, spinning a spell, keeping the shield up.)

I don’t know if it stands to reason, but experience suggests that it’s easier to remember things that come to mind often. Therefore — the moral of this story — it’s possible to manage your memory by keeping your attention on what used to be called worthwhile things. Not worthy things, but things of interest, items that spark curiosity. What’s especially potent is letting one thing lead to another, as Marilynne Robinson’s essays have led me to Hamlet. I hate to admit it, but in all my sixtysomething years, I’ve read Hamlet all the way through no more than three times, and I’ve never read it as carefully as I’m reading it now. I’m reading it carefully because I have a reason, a scent to follow — this thing that Robinson says about the role of grace in Hamlet’s progress through the play. Considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s sturdiest entry in the revenge-tragedy sweepstakes, it’s especially curious that the hero loses his interest in revenge somewhere in the second half of the play. And is saved by that, even if he dies. Human nature being what it is, Hamlet is able to triumph over it.


Thursday 14th

Today, I am in bed, with a cold. Officially. In fact, I am at my desk, and the bed has been made. I was awakened in the late morning by a dreadful nightmare, and then, having fallen back asleep, awakened again by the dream’s continuation. In the dream, I was being compelled to remain at a rented house by an extorting owner who somehow had the physical means (never put to the test) to detain me. How much he wanted for my freedom was also unknown. But the scenes were fearful and unpleasant. After a few hours of sitting up, I decided that I should not be going back to bed until bedtime.

We were up late last night, because Kathleen was working late, and, when she got home, we talked about her day, as I’ve noted we’ve been doing, only this time there was some sunshine in her report — some real sunshine. One heavy cloud had lifted and vanished; another showed signs of breaking up. The third instance of good news was not so much good news as the pre-emption of bad news: the cloud in this case was made to storm prematurely, before it had the force that it would have had in ten days. No outward harm was done, and embarrassments, which might have been dreadful, were minimized and duly forgotten. In this last matter, I may claim to have been the source of good advice, for which Kathleen, having taken it, warmly thanked me.

Yes, I think that last remark sounds like Polonius, too.


Hamlet and grace. What to make of Marilynne Robinson’s idea? Is Hamlet really Robinson’s “generous, uncontriving man”? How to reconcile such a description with Hamlet’s manipulation of the instructions carried by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to the King of England, a manipulation that will lead straight to their deaths? How to reconcile this with the fact that he actually does kill Claudius, finally — and deliberately? We can write both of these deeds off as impulsive, as is the killing of Polonius behind the arras. Hamlet does so explicitly, in connection with the counterfeited orders.

And praised be rashness for it — let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall (V.2.6-9)

But can these hotheaded moves be reconciled with grace? What sort of grace accommodates manslaughter?

And yet Hamlet does seem to have been changed by his time with the pirates, heading home to Denmark instead of on to England. His last words upon leaving were exhortatory:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! (IV.4.64-5)

When he reappears, by Ophelia’s grave (as yet unaware that it is hers), Hamlet muses abstractedly on death and dust without a thought for Claudius or revenge. Indeed, so unbloody are his thoughts that he seems already to have died, to have savored the vanity of human achievement. As he muses on the dead attorney’s documents, which in addition to doing the late conveyancer no good, would not so much as fill his coffin, he seems to have anticipated Claudius’s death as well as his own.

No sooner does Hamlet learn that the grave will be Ophelia’s than he tumbles into it to wrestle with Laertes, each claiming to have loved the drowned girl more. Is Robinson asking us to see this violence as gracious youthfulness? Thinking of John Ames’s quiet rhapsodies about baseball, in Gilead, I’m inclined to think that she is.

I myself do not believe that human achievements are vain. It is true that they do not prevent death, and it is also true that “you can’t take it with you” — but isn’t that a strange idea. Why should you want to? What would you do with it? Are we still beset by the relatively primitive idea, brought to an absurd high point by the Egyptians, that our corpses must fitted out for sustenance in the underworld? This idea seems to be commingled with a less primitive notion, which holds that certain things meant so much to the deceased that they ought to be taken out of circulation, and made to disappear from this world. But that is our doing, the doing of the living. The man who wants to take his wealth with him — is he conscious of any implication of denying it to those he leaves behind?

It is a very good thing that our achievements, so far as they leave positive material traces, do not die with us. Consider the doctor: the diseases that he has cured, the lives that he has (for a time) saved, the human happiness that he has added to the world, and that will stay, lingering in the air after the saved have passed away. The lawyer’s good works have made titles secure. Perhaps they have been secured to bad people, but their being secure minimizes litigation, encroachment, and even family resentment. The world is a better place because people have done well in it, morally if not materially. Human achievements, for good and ill, live on in buried roots. We are inescapably surrounded by the consequences of the past, amongst which our deeds will inevitably figure, even though we ourselves be forgotten.


I don’t know how long this is going to go on.

At the dermatologist’s office yesterday, I was asked for the phone number of my pharmacy. I had no idea, I said, but when they asked me where it was, I remembered that the number was probably on my mobile phone, so I dug it out and sure enough. Well, it was a number for Duane Reade. When I go back to the doctor next week, I’ll make sure that I have the number that’s printed on my prescription labels. Anyway, by the time this was taken care of, I was spooked again by The Bourne Legacy. Every time I pick up medications at the pharmacy counter, it happens. I feel like one of the Outcomes in Tony Gilroy’s movie, the Bourne episode that stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon. (Both actors are connected with future episodes at IMDb, but the Renner project is undated.) This almost instantly became my favorite, because it’s so monstrous. To close down a clandestine program, US security officials kill off everyone connected with it. (Stacey Keach plays a Cheney-like figure.) The Outcomes, or field agents — their mitochondrial DNA has been altered — are given new pills. Well, the South Korean agent is given new pills. But, the next thing you know, three Outcomes are on the ground, dead, with telltale nosebleeds. The Outcome played by Oscar Isaac is blown to smithereens by a drone bomb. Jeremy Renner’s character contrives to appear to be killed. Now it’s the turn of the doctors who developed the “science” that made the Outcomes possible. One of their number has been doped, and he shoots all the others in a horrific massacre at the lab. Only one doctor — played by Rachel Weisz — survives, and she’d be cooked soon if it weren’t for Outcome #5 (Renner), who shows up at her house in the nick of time. He’s looking for more meds. The doctor and her patient run for their lives.

Their adventure climaxes with a protracted chase through Manila, largely on motorcycle but also involving a dash of parkour. It is just bearable for someone like me; even my autonomic nervous system responds to the dangers of high speed. Up until then, though, the movie is a triumph of understatement. The murder of the three Outcomes who get “new meds” is particularly implicit. Everything is happening very fast — as fast as a cycle chase — but it’s happening all over the world and there is no noise. Outcome #6 (Rob Riley), built like a linebacker, pauses on a deck, surrounded by pleasure boats, then drops to his knees and, with a body-length spasm, falls on the planks. Outcome #1 is discovered on the streets of Karachi. Best of all is the death of Outcome #4. A subway pulls into a station, and as everyone gets off, you notice that three women are staring at someone whom you can’t see because of the exiting passengers. Then the camera pulls around, and you see the Korean agent who queried the change in pills. Her head is back against the window, and her eyes are open. There’s the nosebleed.

I don’t really wonder how I would meet my end if my meds were replaced with poison — I suspect that the agents’ new pills raised blood pressure to deadly levels — but I’m aware that it might happen every time I interface with someone about them. That’s because the scene in which the Korean agent gets her new pills is so banal. She’s curious about the switch, but she accepts the explanation that is given to her by the kindly but in fact diabolic security agent, who shows up as a deadly enabler in a later scene. You can’t trust anybody. You probably don’t even know who anybody really is.

Somewhere, in one of his prefaces to the reprints of his George Smiley novels, David Cornwell (John Le Carré) says that the Intelligence exercises of the Cold War, while murderous, were a waste of time, both foolish and feckless. They accomplished nothing. The truth is, they gave a lot of clever people something to do with their brains, a sort of three-dimension, real-life chess. I wish I’d known this; I stayed away from the Le Carré books because I thought that they glorified the spies and their “tradecraft.” (So does Cornwell, at least so far as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is concerned.) My suspicion that there was something seriously off about the Cold War didn’t take on any flesh until I read something that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about his time at the State Department: bright young men cultivated their sources for scandals that would attract the attention of the higher-ups. I don’t know how he put it exactly, but the upshot was that the bright young men on the South Asian desk made the most of instability in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and got all the attention. There’s no inside secret about this; Graham Greene made great fun of it in Our Man in Havana. But I had trouble accepting that grown men would spend real money and endanger real lives in the pursuit of such empty contests.

That they would bundle it all up as “patriotic,” and get away with it, is probably the worse smack in the face that Americans have ever sustained.


Show of hands: how many readers think that Donald Trump is the only American who admires Vladimir Putin? How many would be surprised if Putin showed up in Iowa, campaigning not for presidential nominee but for godfather? How many believe that Trump would have a hard time deciding whether to challenge the Russian or to settle for consigliere?


Friday 15th

There’s a surprising photograph of Henry Kissinger in this week’s Nation. Taken in 1968, when he was about 45, it makes him look like Mike Nichols’s smart-ass brother. He’s standing to the side of someone, Richard Nixon probably, but because the photograph has been cropped, you can’t be sure about that, and what would have been an expression of happily admiring support is instead the very image of the cat that ate the canary. When he was younger, Kissinger tended to look wonky-dorky; in the prime of his international influence, which began not long after the picture in The Nation was taken, he tended to look pompous. But here, he looks kind of fantastic, but also untrustworthy. Or, as the review to which it is attached proclaims, he looks like an opportunist.

The thing about opportunists is that that’s what they look like to everyone but the source of their opportunities. Kissinger was a creature of the Rockefellers for a long time, but when it became clear that Nelson Rockefeller was never going to be President of the United States (even then, his positions were too centrist, and he would give his name to a political party that came to an end in the Sixties, the “Rockefeller Republicans”), Kissinger put himself up for auction. He wound up where he wanted to be, in the White House.

It’s surprising that this Harvard-educated German scholar of Metternich and Castlereigh turned out to be so simpatico with Nixon, but as the White House tapes that are quoted by Srinath Raghavan in his account of diplomatic and military responses to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, 1971, make uncomfortably clear, Kissinger could assume the persona of an avid football fan at the big game.

Kissinger: If the Soviets move against [the Chinese], and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.
Nixon: So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?
Kissinger: Well, if the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. If the Russians gete away with facing down the Chinese, and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis … we may be looking right down the gun barrel. (1971, 256)

In an earlier conversation, Kissinger urged action because “at least we’re coming off like men.” The upshot of this was to send an American fleet into the Bay of Bengal. What would have happened had it arrived before the ceasefire is not hard to guess. The point of all this posturing, by the way, was to prove to the Chinese, whom Nixon was courting, that Americans were tough.

In “The Opportunist,” British scholar David Milne reviews two books, and one of them is the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s study of Kissinger. Ferguson is a clever fool, capable of spinning persuasive illusions that banish inconvenient contradictions. He wants to see Kissinger, as his subtitle indicates, as an idealist. But, Milne writes, “the written evidence that Ferguson provides is both vast in quantity and slight in explanatory utility.” I can easily imagine that this is the case, and that Ferguson’s book would be a terrible slog to get through. In one paragraph alone, Milne provides a prospectus of what a more accurate, but also more nightmarishly entertaining book about Kissinger would look like.

Kissinger was consistently reckless, and Ferguson is blind to the pattern. Throughout his career, Kissinger was quick to detect potential humiliations for America — in withdrawing from Vietnam too quickly; in the coming to power of Salvador Allende in Chile; in allowing a dependable friend, Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, to lose a fight with India, led by the unreliable Indira Gandhi — and quick to recommend the deployment of US military resources (whether ground troops, bombing campaigns, covert destabilization programs, or military aid), all in the interests of US “credibility.” The responses he counseled as Nixon’s national-security adviser helped to create catastrophes in each of the regions they affected: the destabilization of Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot; the ousting of the democratically elected Allende government and the rise of the murderous Augusto Pinochet; a brutal war on the subcontinent during which Pakistan slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in what historian Gary Bass has described, in The Blood Telegram, as “a forgotten genocide.” Kissinger’s brutal policy advice did not stem from realism in any meaningful way, and it certainly wasn’t inspired by the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It was about demonstrating American power to the world, absent a moral core and a sense of proportion.

That is the legacy of Henry Kissinger, and some critics, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have been shouting it for years. Kissinger is a grand old man now, but I am confident that the historians will get him right within the next couple of decades.

Kissinger would contend, presumably, that Milne is wrong about the lack of a moral core: what could be more moral than America’s protection of the free world in the Cold War? But the Cold War was an imaginary war. The hot war that it was supposed to forestall never took place, but this happy outcome cannot be attributed to Cold War strategies. The Cold War oversaw a number of local hot wars, from Korea to the now difficult-to-imagine wars between China and Vietnam (forgot that one, didn’t you) and Iran and Iraq. Perhaps these conflicts protected the free world, but it is difficult to see how, except as distractions that gave military men something to do. The advantage of American wealth was undercut by the persistence of American cluelessness: what a record we racked up, during the Cold War, for backing tyrants! Ordinary Americans understood next to nothing about foreign affairs, and still do. American governments try to convince voters that certain actions must be taken (or avoided), but they never make the slightest attempt to remove the provincial blinkers. As a result the political scene has been prepared for little more than bluster. Looking right down the gun barrel, Kissinger was a pastmaster in that department. Unfortunately, his bluster was loaded with shrapnel.

I’m sorry that Milne doesn’t mention Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” with Israel.


Eventually, I got round to reading David Cole’s piece, “The Trouble at Yale,” in the NYRB, and it surprised me, because I expected it to provoke a world-going-to-the-dogs response. Instead, I went all plus-ça-change. Perhaps college disturbances are doomed always to be the same. Either one thing or the other. Student revolts at fee increases and silenced teachers have an ancient history. These essentially administrative squabbles are easy to understand. The other kind, the political uprising, goes back to the early days of nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. First, nationalism was, from the start, tied to literacy — literacy in native languages. And literacy is concentrated in schools. Second, students seem to have more free than everybody else. They can afford to go out into the street and throw stones.

There was no throwing of stones at Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. Father Hesburgh kept a very tight lid on protest: he declared that unwelcome protesters were trespassers on the campus, liable to eviction by the police. I found this a bit heavy-handed, because it wrote a script for would-be martyrs, but those martyrs never emerged. (Maybe one or two did.) Unrest at Notre Dame remained a matter of talk. This put it on a par with the university’s proper business, also a matter of non-violent expression.

When I was in college, I assumed that, in the event of revolution, I’d be one of the first to be taken to the guillotine. (I’d have been rather put out, otherwise.) It wasn’t so much my conservative political views — I was very much a liberal even then — as my personal resistance to all things new. I also believed in good manners, and the idea that good manners were a tool of social oppression made me laugh, because I had outgrown that very idea somewhere between the ages of nine and eleven. I did not see the advantage of being young, but only the disadvantage of being inexperienced and immature. And ignorant. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to be sure that what I learned was solid. So I signed up for Great Books, because it promised to be a safe place from novelty. (And it was.)

(When you are young, you cannot imagine the physical advantages of youth; you wake up to them only when they begin to slip away. This is the saddest fact of humanity, sadder by far than death.)

If I did let my hair grow a bit (an awful mistake, given my hair), I maintained and even raised my standards of hygiene and dress. This also doomed me.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I was a terrible student. I flunked nearly all of my electives, usually losing interest in mid-course. (And it was a great mistake to take a History of China course that met at eight in the morning.) I was no better than classmates who devoted themselves to thinking about social action instead of classwork; I simply indulged in different passions. A lot of it came very easily to me, but it was therefore something of a waste of time, because I wasn’t really learning. I drove the professors crazy with my shows of occasional, unreliable brilliance. But I did read the Great Books.

The overarching problem of any attempt to evaluate my younger days is trying decide whether to blame the environment or myself. If I was only rarely inspired to work hard, whose fault was that? I learned to work hard later, at the radio station. It had nothing to do with being on the radio and everything to do with scheduling the music programming and typing it up in time for the offset printer. This new skill saw me into and through law school. I passed the New York State Bar Exam, something that I think nobody does without a spell of hard work. But after that, I lost the sense of mission. There was no reason to work hard. (The idea of working hard just to make money has flitted through my mind, but never stuck round long enough to establish itself.) This dodgy profile, which suggests a life of failing to live up to capacities, is another reason for seeing myself in the tumbril.

Capacities for what, though? When I ask this question, I feel that I’m up the Orinoco. What if the time for my talents has not yet arrived?

So the hard work of my later life has been to look at the world as closely as I can and to write down what I see. Correction: to write down what I see that doesn’t seem quite right. I try to notice the mistakes. The things that the people around me seem to think, but that don’t seem to be the case to me. Unfortunately, I am not a trained examiner in many fields. Economics, for example. It has never been demonstrated to me that economic growth is essential to economic health. Am I stupid, or is this just (a) something that it suits businesspeople to believe or (b) a reasonably accurate summary of the past three centuries only? Shakespeare grew, then grew old, then died. But his work is still very much with us, and likely to remain so. Why can’t the economy be more like Shakespeare’s work and less like Shakespeare?

Why can’t people see how unattractive, how really stinky and blotchy, selfishness is? Perhaps because they can’t afford to? Kathleen has worked closely with a gifted paralegal for nearly thirty years, and the two women are good friends. The paralegal is great source of information about life on the other side of the professional divide. An associate may be all smiles and compliance with Kathleen, while treating the paralegal like a washerwoman. Not too long ago, the paralegal was carrying an immense pile of documents, and having a hard time getting her key out for the glass door at the elevator. (Modern security.) Through the glass, she could see a partner standing nearby, on the phone. He could see her. Instead of putting down the phone and opening the door for her, he turned his back and walked as far away as the cord would allow. Why? My presumption is that, having grown into the habit of treating lesser mortals with less respect, he can’t make exceptions: he is imprisoned by his own bad behavior, which will stand revealed as such if he ever corrects it. The paralegal got through the door eventually and is anything but condemned to carry a heavy weight through some circle of the Inferno. But she will never forget the partner’s turning away, and neither will Kathleen, and neither will I. And neither will you, although, unlike us, you don’t know who he is.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Structure of the Next Sentence
January 2016 (I)

Monday 4th

The Givenness of Things is a collection of essays, most of them originally delivered as lectures, by Marilynne Robinson, the author of Housekeeping and the Gilead trilogy, plus a number of non-fiction books. The lectures were given here and there, not as a prestigious university series, and there is an amount of repetition in the collection that might annoy some readers. But I suspect that these readers would be annoyed anyway. Repetition is the least of Robinson’s divergences from current standards and practices. The Givenness of Things is off the academic grid. (And who but academics deliver lectures?) Its author is a mainline Calvinist Christian who would like to sweep “Christianist,” fundamentalist demagogues right off the bench. Her fellow academics are probably embarrassed by her acceptance of “the givenness of God” — the fact that, for Robinson, God is simply there — while the Christianists would be squirming unknown beneath remote rocks if there were more believers as robustly vocal as Marilynne Robinson.

So much I think I can say. I haven’t finished reading the book. Much of it will have to be re-read. I shall even have to read a bit of Calvin himself, because what Robinson has to say about Calvin is not what you were taught in school. I need say no more than that Robinson’s Calvin is sunny and sweet. Either generations of pastors have been taking his work in vain, or Robinson is off her rocker. But an early glimpse at Calvin suggests that she is not. In Chapter 10 of Calvin’s Institutes, “How to Use the Present Life, and the Comforts of It,” I read,

If we are only to pass through the earth, there can be no doubt that we are to use its blessings only insofar as they assist our progress, rather than retard it. Accordingly, Paul, not without cause, admonishes us to use this world without abusing it, and to buy possessions as if we were selling them.

That’s not how I interpret 1 Corinthians 7:30-31, which in both translations immediately at hand speaks of “those who buy as if they had no possessions” (Oxford Annotated). But Calvin’s gloss is appealing, obviously, because it sounds the note of stewardship: prepare to leave your things behind in as good repair as you received them. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I have simply grown to be so old at heart that Calvin is no longer so prominently a party-pooper. I ought to note that I was not directed to this passage of Calvin by Robinson herself, although she does provide John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant: Selected Writings with a Preface. I simply opened the book and there it was.

There is no hellfire in Marilynne Robinson. There isn’t very much about resurrection and eternal life in paradise, either. Robinson’s concern with religion is terrestrial. She testifies to the joy that believing in the God of her fathers brings to her, but her lectures are directed to the problems of living with and according to faith in our particular moment in time.

This necessarily makes Robinson something of an historian, and she rises to the challenge modestly but sturdily. Her history is mostly American, and mostly recent — but it is history, not mere received wisdom or just-so stories about cherry trees. It is the history of a strange silencing, either that or an acquiescence. “Nevertheless, the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate.” (104) There is also the history of “liberal,” which went from being a proud self-identifier to a stinkbomb. Robsinson does not discuss these histories at length, but they pop up everywhere. Robinson is a prophet, lamenting the withering of American generosity. Like me, Robinson believes that a lot of the blame goes to right-thinking people who have come to mistaken conclusions.

It’s curious: I feel a sympathy, an agreement with Marilynne Robinson, greater than I have ever felt with any writer. There are pages that provoke me to exclaim that I might as well stop adding pages to this blog and instead simply refer readers to her books. But it is an intellectual sympathy rather than a personal one: Robinson is stoutly Midwestern, given to muting her sophistication; I am a corrupt Manhattanite. She loves America almost as much as she loves God; a resolute agnostic about God (if that is possible, which it probably isn’t), I haven’t managed to love anything larger than a few human beings. I agree with Robinson completely about, say, Greece — Greece the economic sinkhole that spent so much time on the front pages earlier this year. But I have different things to say about it. For me, the foremost thing about Greece is not, as for Robinson, an attachment to native, traditionally Christian ways that might not harmonize with free-market economics. The foremost thing about this problem-version of Greece is that it signifies an absolute failure on the part of the European élite to do its job — to keep the affairs of the European Union running smoothly. Everybody knows now that Greece ought never have been admitted to the Eurozone, but it was pretty clear at the time, to anyone caring to look, that the books had been cooked. Greece got in because probity gave way to ego-fulfilment. It was certainly, from a viewpoint such as Robinson’s, an ultimately ungenerous, uncharitable deed — not consistent with Christian ethics. But for me, what’s more, is that it was flat-out incompetent.

So we are allies, not co-religionists. Alliances are hard to puzzle out, because allies come together from very different backgrounds, and their cooperation is always tainted by opportunism. I find that, while I can describe what Robinson has to say (and not just repeat it), I cannot quite judge it. The big question for me is this: can you feel as joyful about “Creation” and humanity as does someone for whom a loving God is a given?

The question that The Givenness of Things poses, whether Robinson intends this or not, is whether it is possible to feel any joy at all when the people in charge are making such a total hash of things.


One of the more intriguing examples of how Robinson does history appears, along with many other matter of great interest, in the essay entitled “Decline.” (I have not been able to work out the relations between Robinson’s titles and the contents of the essays upon which they are pinned; it often seems to me that the titles could be randomly reassigned.) This is her discussion of trends and fads. Although “closely related, almost synonymous,” trends and fads differ on the existential level: fads are being, while trends are becoming. Fads really happen. The financialization of the economy that has done so much harm, and produced so much economic inequality, in the past thirty years is a fad. Trends are simply anxieties. For a while, in the Nineties, we worried about being overtaken by the Japanese. Now we’re worrying about China. It is very foolish to pay too much attention to trends, not because they’re so rarely realized but because the real trends in human affairs are occult.

Who could have foretold, in 1936, that anti-Semitism would lead to horrific “solutions” in Germany, rather than in France? Robinson raises this question in connection with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in “Value,” which I haven’t finished reading. How mistaken — as distinct from being the victim of bad luck — was Bonhoeffer in deciding to stay in a Germany that would ultimately shoot him? How wise is Robinson to hang on here in the United States?

I won’t go back to Gilead to find a supporting passage, because the text wouldn’t convey any sense of the surprise that I felt when Robinson, writing as John Ames, rhapsodized about playing baseball on a sunny afternoon, and so charged it with genuinely holy grace that the words and what they really meant seemed to tumble out of the Song of Solomon. Or the way in which John Ames’s wife, Lila, in the book named after her, scratches out lines of Ezekiel with an intensity that is neither entirely sane nor entirely reverent. When it comes to blending aspects of life not commonly seen together, Robinson’s artistry is sublime. The following might be shouted down in any senior commons room, but Robinson makes it inarguable.

God is the God of history. Christianity is a creature and creator of history. On these grounds alone it is absurd to think history could possible lack relevance. Then, too, if human beings are images of God, aware of it or not, and since they have been an extraordinary presence on Earth for as long as they have been human, what they have thought and done cannot be irrelevant to very central questions about Being itself. We are grass, no doubt of it. But with a sense of history we can have a perspective that lifts us up out of our very brief moment here. Certainly this is one purpose of biblical narrative and poetry. (154)

More anon — definitely.


Tuesday 5th

Since writing here yesterday, I have lumbered through two of the essays in The Givenness of Things, “Metaphysics” and “Theology.” Their difficulty for me was their distance from the metaphysical and theological discussions that I am familiar with, that I attended to in school. I had a very hard time chasing Marilynne Robinson’s idea of metaphysics — what she meant by the term — and all I got was that it was different from Kant’s and Hegel’s in characteristic, if not essential ways. “Theology” was a bit easier; it might well have been titled “Christology,” the term that Robinson uses throughout to denote the immancence in Creation of Christ, at least from the moment of earliest humanity. She finds in this view a means of overcoming the idea of Christian exclusivism, the denial of Christ’s blessings to all non-Christians, a doctrine that she considers to be a woeful misreading of Scripture. Bear in mind, however, that I was merely keeping my head above water, or trying to. For quite aside from understanding what Robinson means to say, there is the problem of grasping her reasons for saying it.

An important thread — rope, really — that runs through Givenness is the care of the poor, and how the poor are being neglected, as they almost always have been, but now with the added bitterness of its having appeared, for a few decades, that a liberal, affluent society might put an end to poverty once and for all. Robinson’s dread of a growing oligarchy is the issue with which I am in most complete agreement with her. She argues, however, that neglect of the poor is a sin against Christ. As indeed it is, if Christ is in view. I think that it is enough to call it a sin against ourselves. Dissonances like this are a kind of gentle torture: am I missing something, or am I including it?

Two passages of great importance to me, from “Theology”:

Religions are expressions of the sound human intuition that there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life. What is often described as a sense of the transcendent might in some cases be the intuition of the actual. (212)

I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such. (222)

Before responding to these statements directly, I want to pause with a comment that is much on my mind these days, a thought of surprising simplicity. If you believe in God, why not believe in all the rest — Robinson omitted the Virgin Birth. Another, even more pronounced thread in Givenness — this one a cable from the Brooklyn Bridge — is Robinson’s squabble with the rationalist fallout of the Enlightenment. She all but jeers at atheists whose cosmology remains quaintly mechanistic, and has not yet mastered quantum physics, which fill Robinson with an almost theological exuberance. I think that she is quite right to complain about the evaporation of articulate dogma in mainstream Protestantism. She is right to belittle thinkers who have lost their faith because it cannot be reconciled with common-sense views of reality.

But Robinson is overlooking a couple of things — things that I overlooked, too, when it occurred to me that a believer might as well go whole hog vis-à-vis complex, even abstruse dogmas. Commitments to various theological niceties are all very well today, when nobody is going to burn for them; we easily forget how readily these points of dissension provided the volatile fuel of martyrdom and religious warfare — how materially wracked Europe was by what ought to have been a spiritual reformation. Robinson also forgets, I think, that the disillusionment that ex-believers wear like a bad perfume reflects the very plain fact that, for centuries, for a millennium almost, the brightest minds in Europe were devoted to proving the existence of God, quite as if faith had nothing to do with it. These smarties were the heirs of leisured pagans, who had competed to create persuasive world views. It was not enough to believe something yourself; you must convince other people to agree. When the administration of the Roman Church fell into the hands of aristocrats who also controlled education, a thousand years of suppression and oppression might have been seen as getting off easy.

Marilynne Robinson is not interested in proving the existence of God; for her, God is given. Rather, she is interested in showing that the existence of God cannot be disproved, and that there is something inhuman about the attempt to prove that God does not exist. I agree with her there.

As one would guess from her novels, Robinson’s creed is a matter of joy, blemished only by the persistence of evil, which in her view comes not from God but from the failure of human beings to be their best selves. I agree with her judgment as to human weakness. (Natural disasters, and diseases that take the lives of children, may be “evils,” but they are not evil. Only man is evil.) But I leave God out of it. For it happens that my intuition that “there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life” is a very dull thing. I grant it, which is to say that I do not deny it. But I do not really feel it. As intuitions go, it is my most anemic one.

Sometimes, I think that I have internalized Christianity. I have literally incorporated its moral teachings in the habits of my mind. I try to act accordingly, as if I were Christian, but without regard for the externalities — God, the Fall, the Incarnation, and all the rest. To the extent that God and the rest exist for me, they exist altogether inside me, as hidden from my view as the structure of the next sentence. At other times, I fear that these thoughts are grandiose, and perhaps even pathological.

Somehow, however, my resistance to Christianity, my conviction that while it was right about a few basic things it was maddeningly wrong on myriad points of detail, has collapsed. Part of this doubtless owes to the character of Pope Francis. He has discarded the mask that exponents of Catholicism have worn since I was a child in their care — a mean, frightening, and authoritarian joylessness.

I am also beginning to see in Christianity — genuine Christianity, not smug christianism — the best hope for reversing the wanton depravity of environmental degradation. The monetizing, in effect, of our only home.


I think of what the late historian Carlo Cipolla had to say about coal.

Coal was well known in London in 1228, for in that year there is a definite record of a “sea-coal lane” which, it is suggested, was then used as a landing place for sea-coal from boats. In the same year coal fumes allegedly drove Queen Eleanor from Nottingham Castle. In 1257 mention is made of shiploads of coal imported into London. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the English — like all other Europeans — remained very reluctant to use coal extensively, instinctively regarding its fumes as toxic. Early in the seventeenth century, however, the English were forced to put aside all their reservations, and after 1500 they resorted extensively to coal not only for domestic heating but also in industrial processes such as oven-drying of bricks and tiles and of malt for beer, the refining of sugar, the production of glass and soap, and iron-smelting… Concentrating on iron and coal, England set herself on the road that led directly to the Industrial Revolution. (Before the Industrial Revolution, 270-1)

When I read this, a few months ago, I realized that I had always assumed that the toxic nature of coal fumes was a discovery of the Industrial Revolution. Now I saw that the Industrial Revolution, particularly as it foregrounded steelworks, reflected a decision on the part of “capital” to overlook, or to work around, the deleterious impact of burning coal, now on a massive scale. Eyes were open. The positive result is a world transformed by ingenious applications of electricity, a resource as necessary to our society as oxygen is to our respiration. The negative results, of which the London fog was an emblem, have been cleared up, pretty much, in the developed West. The developing world is both another story and the same old story. I am perhaps unreasonably optimistic about putting the Earth back to rights, but I know that it will take a century or two simply to stop making things worse, at least in certain parts of the world.

There is an echo of the Fall in the story of coal. It has been argued that Adam did not become fully human until he disobeyed the word of God. It is an argument that can never be settled, because it is really a matter of taste. Most of us have learned to accommodate the existence of evil, if not evil itself, by finding it interesting; educated people are especially prone to quip that life would be a colossal bore if we were all good all the time. But the coal story is only an echo. It cannot be said that actual good came from the Expulsion from the Garden: the knowledge of evil and its aftermath are entirely cautionary. It would require, in contrast, a perverse austerity of mind to believe that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution have been altogether regrettable, that, indeed, they have been devoid of wonderful enhancements of human life and dignity. The Industrial Revolution was complicated, prolific, and multifarious; it was not a simple disaster. If you believe in the Fall, you know that it was redeemed by Christ but that it remains in effect: to orthodox Christians, we are all still born sinners. I believe that the negative sequelae of environmental degradation can be stopped — not now, but someday.


Wednesday 6th My Birthday (68)

Finally! Buried in the Business section, the story ought to have appeared on the front page: “Racial Identity, and Its Hostilities, Return to American Politics,” by Eduardo Porter. It appears (at last, in the pages of the Times) that white voters are prompted more by their identification as whites than by their economic status. Well, uneducated whites. I remember saying this a while back and feeling mighty indiscreet about it, as though I were calling attention to a fart. Because, where I live, it has become politically incorrect even to imagine such bigotry. Where I live, almost everybody is white. Almost everybody is educated, too. It is rude and mean to look down on the uneducated, since, where I live, the uneducated people tend not to be white. New York City does not attract uneducated white men. (It attracts almost everybody else.) On no point in the political calendar are New Yorkers more out of touch with the United States than that of the consequences of racial identity.

Speaking of the Donald, did anybody read the story, which appeared over the weekend, about his brother, Freddy Trump? It’s a sad, if familiar story: the oldest son who fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, the life-of-the-party who succumbs to drink and dies in his early forties. The remarkable thing was the tone of his younger brother’s comments. Given what we’re used to hearing from the would-be candidate, Donald Trump sounded sage, respectful, and even circumspect on the subject of his brother’s failure. Instead of screaming, “Freddy was a loser; I’m the greatest Trump,” he said (in connection with his father’s stinginess with praise), “For me, it worked very well. For Fred, it wasn’t something that was going to work.”

Oh, what’s wrong with me? I’m clutching at straws. Give me the slightest evidence of Donald Trump’s humanity and I slump with relief. What a sucker. Donald Trump is a developer. There isn’t anything that he doesn’t itch to repackage.


Fossil Darling just called to wish me a happy birthday. Every other ping tells me that a Facebook friend has done the same. I don’t know why, but this birthday feels different, just as this holiday season felt different. On the surface, the holidays were awful, owing to repercussions of the Shkreli arrest, but beneath the surface I felt a great change, the clearing of a new perspective. At the same time, a feeling of resignation and contentment that seems distinctly monastic. What’s monastic is the quiet. The quiet is not silence, just the absence of noise, particularly of the vocal variety. Most of the time.

There seems to be a new woman in the building, a new tenant, which I don’t think I’d have noticed if she were not a brayer — bruyante, as the French would say. Have you ever blushed, while traveling abroad, to notice how many Americans come unequipped with an inside voice? The new tenant is one of those. I first heard her when I tried to catch an elevator. The car was already jammed, mostly by the luggage cart but also by the guard whose job it is to prevent renovating workman from using the passenger elevators — even though there hasn’t been much evidence of renovating workmen in recent weeks (months)? But it was also full of her voice. “I don’t think so!” she said, meaning that there wouldn’t be room for me.

The elevator went down to the ground floor and then bounced back up for me. I could hear the braying woman in the lobby when I stepped out. She was asking a handyman for his name — fifty feet away from me.

I did what I had come downstairs to do and was waiting for an elevator to take me back upstairs when the braying woman sidled up and commented on my indoor clothes (a Take Ivy outfit with shorts). “I hope that you haven’t been outside, young man,” she said, brightly, even congenially, but loudly and impertinently. “It’s very cold out there!” Thinking that this must be put a stop to, I slowly turned my gaze in her direction and stared. “No,” I said, after a beat. Then I looked away. What I’d seen was a large woman, not fat, not even stout, really, but very much there, with a somewhat doughy, indistinct face and scraggly gray hair. Her expression might have been friendly, but it might just as easily have been impatient. She clearly expected to be welcomed sociably, but to me she was as annoying as an Irish setter. She was wearing a track suit — an indoor outfit, I hope, “young lady,” a thought I kept to myself.

In the elevator, the braying woman expressed admiration for the chain of beads that Kathleen made for my reading glasses. I usually smile, say thanks, and add that my wife made it — because, I’m ashamed to say, even I think that it’s a bit fruity to go about wearing what could pass for a very attractive but not particularly manly necklace. Lately, I have been pondering hitherto unguessed aspects of this sort of exchange, and how the mention of my wife might strike an interlocutress as unwelcome news. It’s still very odd and confusing to suppose, even for a moment, that anyone is trying to pick me up. But the other day, in Fairway, I had just put two six-packs of eight-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola into my shopping basket — that’s how Kathleen likes her Coke — when an attractively-dressed older lady nodded at me with a smile. “That’s the way I like my Coke,” she said, approvingly. I smiled, but for a few minutes I was thirteen, or twenty-two, or even thirty at the oldest, being complimented by one of my mother’s friends. I was wearing another Take Ivy outfit — sportscoat, sportshirt, slacks and loafers. In a few days, I shall need a trim at the barber’s, but even at my wildest I’m pretty kempt. I might be overweight, and a permanent scowl might be engraved upon my forehead. But I am male and walking without assistance. You don’t see many like me at Fairway.

Abominable conceit? I almost wish.

In the elevator, I said “Thank you” to the braying woman, but I did not turn to return her glance and I did not mention Kathleen.

I knew it: as soon as I had gotten off the elevator and was out of sight — but not out of earshot; the elevator doors take forever to close — I heard the brayinig woman say something about my not being very conversational. For my part, I felt like saying to her, “Perhaps, when I have seen you in the elevator for five years, or, more likely, twenty or thirty, I may decide to chat with you.”

This brief encounter passed from my mind — well, not really. But it stung rather badly when I was reading Marilynne Robinson a little later. In “Experience,” which is about judgment and revelation and souls, she writes, “I do believe we blaspheme when we wrong or offend another human being.” Blaspheme! I certainly did mean, if not to offend, then to reprimand, the femme bruyante. It was all the worse because Robinson had just sent me to the Bible, by wrapping up her remarks about the soul — “But the souls we let our theories and our penuries frustrate are souls still, and, if Jesus is to be trusted, they will be our judges, they are now our judges” — by observing, “Clearly I am very much influenced by the parable of the great judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.”

The “great judgment,” the division of all the people as into sheep and goats, with the goats being relegated to “eternal punishment,” is extremely clear. If you feed the poor, clothe the poor, and visit the poor when they are in prison, you go to heaven (“eternal life”). If you don’t, you’re one of the goats. This sort of thing always makes me feel completely pharisaical, because despite all the nice things that I try to say here, I do not drop coins in the cups of beggars along 86th Street. I take clothes to Goodwill and don’t claim a tax deduction, but is that clothing the poor, exactly? I certainly don’t visit the poor in prisons. Haven’t things changed a bit since Scriptural times? It feels weaselly even to suggest such a thing. I don’t in fact do a damned thing, directly, for the poor.

My excuse? “It’s the rich who need my attention!”

Which is abominable conceit.


Marilynne Robinson says something so well, in “Experience,” that I propose using it as a text, in an examination for would-be members of the élite, on which to write a thousand words.

We can no more generate ideas that are strictly our own than we can acquire ideas without making them our own. (232)

We can be neither original nor objective. We can be only imaginative and critical. We can only add and amend; we are far more likely to be forgotten utterly. I have accepted this as the plain truth for so long that it is no longer humbling. I should no sooner feel humble about lacking a third arm or an angel’s wings. It is just the way things are for everybody. I’m all for abominable conceit, but delusions of grandeur must be resisted.


Thursday 7th

I celebrated the day after my birthday by reading The Givenness of Things through to the end. I don’t know how to evaluate this experience. A great deal of “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” one of the later essays, seemed to involve the Evangelists’ way of dealing with Jesus’ identity as Messiah, but I couldn’t get a purchase on it. I never knew why I was reading it, or what I was supposed to take from it. It went over my head somehow. I’d like to think that I’ll give it another try, but while this is not altogether unlikely, there are many other uses for my time. It will depend on how the book as a whole settles in my mind.

Our friend the Deacon told me that one of his scholarly Dominican friends (a priest, that is) quipped that the world would have been a better place if only John Calvin could have been like Marilynne Robinson. These Dominicans do think that Robinson is indeed nuts about Calvin. I’d like to hear that, or the opposite, from some other voices.

For the moment, Robinson’s is a very singular voice, here or anywhere. She wants to revive Calvinist doctrine, but only for those who wish for a more robust faith. Let others find their own ways. (Not once, I think, does Robinson mention Catholicism. She goes straight from the “Early Church” to the Reformers. Her only real heretic is Marcion.) If she would change anything, it would be Christian exclusivism — the limitations of Christ’s grace and blessings to Christians. This must mean that good people anywhere can intuit Christian ethics and lead lives that put them among the sheep rather than the goats. When I say that Robinson has a high opinion of America and is proud to be an American, especially vis-à-vis Europeans, I must hasten to add that she is revolted by christianist fundamentalism, which to her way of thinking is just positivist balderdash that substitutes Scripture for Principia Mathematica, and denatures Christ’s blessings in the process.

Last week (on the 29th), I wrote about something that had only recently occurred to me. What’s wrong with modern American society today is — a general addiction to television and spectator sports aside — confined to the élites. Robinson seems to come to a similar conclusion, in “Realism,” the final essay in Givenness.

Cynicism and vulgarism are cheek and jowl. One teaches us helplessness in the face of the abuses and atavisms the other encourages us to embrace. (278)

Ordinary people do not need to be taught helplessness or encouraged to embrace atavism. It is the élite class that, being in a position to backslide, does so. I wish that Robinson had more to say about journalism, or at any rate more occasion to mention journalists, because I sense that she would agree that it is this quartier of the élite, the men and women who write for magazines and, to a lesser extent, newspapers who promote, “helplessly” themselves, these unnecessary evils. Perhaps the judgment is unduly harsh. But if journalists are quick to admire the genuinely pious, particular where piety is found with generosity, they are also quick to insist upon the exceptionality of pious, generous people, and to endow them with a hint of the miraculous, as if to warn readers away from emulation. But piety and generosity are very simple habits to grasp, if not to acquire, and they are available to everybody. If everyone sincerely wished to be pious, or more pious, and generous, or more generous, then the world would be a much safer place. And I believe that those wishes would be spread more generally among the élite if journalists would stop counseling them that cynicism is cool and that vulgarism is fun. (Why am I thinking of Pinocchio?)

Perhaps it is this simple: journalism has its roots in one part of problem-solving. The identification of a problem is the first step in solving it, and that is what journalists profess to provide. They also report on attempted solutions. But they don’t put their personal weight behind these attempts, because that would not be “objective,” and it would not be cool. Only those journalists who were also activists could write such reports, and journalists have a habit of expelling activists from their number. This is why I wish we could replace our advertising-supported apparatus of journalism with Jeffersonian councils — a dream that Hannah Arendt took up in “Thoughts on Politics and Revolutions.” Such self-selecting committees would act as fact-finders and as legislatures, at least to the extent of proposing reforms. I try not to talk about these councils, because they have never existed and we shall know little about them until we give them a try in some relatively harmless area — relatively — such as (my semi-jocular suggestion) the use of mobile phones in public. I know only that these councils must be local and that they must operate textually, with the exchange of written documents — drafts, revisions, and all the rest. The minute you allow people to stand up and speak their minds, sad experience proves, you reduce politics to bad theatre. If limiting participation in councils to those who are fluent with their pens is élitist, then that — hardly a surprise! — is the kind of élitism that I am in favor of. And I can think of no better use for empty churches than for periodic meetings and discussions. No action would be taken at these gatherings, but people would get to meet and know each other, and, very occasionally, a proposal might be read aloud. This is just about all I have to say on this subject, and although I think that it is vitally important, I try not to mention it more than twice a year.

For the moment, my council pipe-dream provides at least a conceptual alternative to current arrangements for informing public opinion. To translate Robinson’s mission into my terms (wrenching it not too violently, I hope), the idea is to foster the three social virtues (which are rooted in Christianity) of decency, self-respect, and generosity. Journalism as it is currently practiced will never be very good at doing this.


An American novel that I have re-read several times and come to love is John P Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter (1946). I am always quietly thrilled by the opening chapters, in which Polly Fulton Brett, the cherished daughter of a rich industrialist, pays an impromptu, off-season, wartime visit to her country house in Massachusetts. Given the winter snow, driving from the train station to the house is inconvenient, but by the time the reader arrives at Polly’s front door, the deep white silence of the New England night is a forceful presence. Polly walks through the house with a sense of failure: her husband, Tom, has never made the use of it that she intended. He has been distracted by political celebrity, and he lives in Washington for the most part, while Polly stays in New York. The marriage, we soon discover, is in tatters. From this beginning, Marquand takes us back through Polly’s life and loves, while at the same time moving forward. Before she can even slip into bed, she is summoned to New York by her father’s poor health; later, she will go to Washington to attempt to reclaim her husband. And Marquand will take us into the heart of the perfect gentleman who has always loved Polly, even after she wouldn’t have him, a lawyer named Bob Tasmin. Tasmin cuts an extraordinarily knightly figure, and is every inch the hero, but his weapons, so to speak, are modesty and discretion.

When I re-read the novel for the first time, ten or fifteen years ago, I learned that a movie had been made of the novel, starring Barbara Stanwyck. I had never heard of it, and it did not seem to be available for hire or purchase. That has changed. I came across the DVD at Amazon the other day, and ordered it at once. I wondered how bad it would be — to be a hitherto forgotten movie starring a great actress whose stock is ever on the rise.

First of all, it isn’t a bad picture. Second, however, it is deeply untrue to the book. Bob Tasmin is played by Richard Hart, a promising but perhaps alcoholic actor who died in 1951 at the age of 35. Hart presents Tasmin as a nice guy with snobbish tendencies and cold-fish inclinations. As in the book, Tasmin won’t marry Polly, his unofficial fiancée since forever, until he makes junior partner at his Wall Street law firm: he is determined not to rely on BF’s fortune to support Polly in half the style to which she is accustomed. But in the book, Tasmin’s ardent love shows through to everyone; Hart gives us only commonsense prudence. No wonder Polly’s eye wanders when she runs into Tom Brett, a dodgy man of the left. In the movie, Tom is played by Van Heflin, and not as in the book, Heflin’s Tom grows quieter and more discreet over time. In fact, he takes on Bob’s virtues. The marriage is still in tatters by the time we get to the War, but the blonde mistress that the book’s Tom keeps in Georgetown becomes a blind Dutch refugee for whom his care is strictly Platonic. And it is Tom, not Bob, that Polly throws herself at in the final clinch. You realize, of course, that Marquand’s novel could not have been properly adapted to the taste of mid-Forties studios and moviegoers. (In the book, Bob, who has married someone else, removes himself from Polly’s arms, because he is, after all, the perfect gent, but Polly is left alone with her millions.)

The movie deserves to be watched by any admirer of Stanwyck. Without being at all fierce, she glistens at times with the seismic intensity of Joan Crawford. But it’s the air of surprise with which her Polly falls in love with Tom that has to be seen. It’s almost as though the shoe in The Lady Eve were on the other foot.

The charming but not charmed country house of the book, however, is transformed into a Tara-on-hill, more studio-imperial Georgian than BF’s grand Park Avenue apartment. Tom never even spends the night there.


Friday 8th

Continuing to take it easy, I watched another movie yesterday, also starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Ray Soleil had told me about this one, and I picked it up with BF’s Daughter. Either Ray presented it, or I understood him to do so, as a cute conceit: in East Side, West Side, a married man lives with his wife on the East Side, and keeps a mistress on the West Side. That’s not really how it goes, but no matter. The real problem with East Side, West Side (1949; directed by Mervyn LeRoy) is that it is very hard to synopsize. I found this out when I tried to tell Kathleen about it. I’m not sure that I want to try again.

It’s much easier to tick off the film’s strengths. East Side, West Side easily lives up to its claim to be a movie about Manhattan. I doubt that any of it was shot here, but great pains were taken to convey that impression. The views from the interiors of cars were particularly authentic. La Guardia in the old days, for example — I felt that we were dropping my father off, as we used to do fairly often. (La Guardia was only twice as far in miles and not nearly twice as far in time from our house in Bronxville as it is from our apartment in Yorkville.) The Triborough Bridge — as I shall continue, resolutely, to call it, until the new name goes the way of the Avenue of the Americas — looked just like the toy that it is. Gramercy Square. Washington Square. Little Italy. The East River, seen from a terrace on Gracie Square (which is just a street). The terrace was supposedly on an actual building, 10 Gracie Square, as I could tell when a limousine pulled into its through-building driveway (the exit from which is right across the street from Kathleen’s old school, the Brearley). A portion of this driveway, with its pillars and niches, was faithfully recreated, with a shot of the paling at the south end of Carl Schurz Park mounted in the background.

Not that the art direction was perfect. The Del Rio, a nightclub with an entrance giving onto a nulle part configuration of streets and alleys — James Mason and Ava Gardner sauntered up and down an improbable thoroughfare in an early scene — was improbably spacious inside. The same was true of a high-end dress-shop. New York’s buildings may be impressively tall, but its interiors tend to be compact, if not cramped. Generations of designers have gotten very good at concealing the paucity of cubic square feet, and suggesting grandeur by means of theatrical sleight-of-hand. But the movies generally flunk the test. I will say that the Gracie Square apartment was plausible, with its staircase tucked into a small fold.

The easy part of the story concerns Brandon and Jessie Bourne. Some time ago, Brandon (Mason) had a torrid affair with Isabel Lorrison (Gardner), but he broke it off and she left town. Now she’s back, and she wants him back. He says no, but he keeps sticking around saying no, and you realize that he’ll go on saying no even after he starts kissing Isabel. Gardner is very cheap, and quite frank about it. She doesn’t live on the West Side, though. She lives at 20 Washington Square, which is too close to Fifth Avenue to be East or West.

Along with saying no to Isabel and not really meaning it, Bran promises his wife (Stanwyck) that he’ll never see Isabel again, and he doesn’t really mean that, either. Jessie fluctuates between reassurance and despair, states that Stanwyck somehow manages to personalize for just this movie. Then somebody gets murdered, and Bran is the suspect for a while. During this fracas, Jessie’s love and affection for her husband mysteriously but convincingly evaporate. But you know that this is going to happen when Bran pays a call on his mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), once a famous actress. She has always been fond of him, so he is surprised when she tells him, from the comfort of her bed pillows, that she has never been so fond of him as she is now, now that Jessie is going to be free of him. The rich, ironic demi-glace of the scene, in which Sondergaard is wonderfully spooky, just about knocks you out.

Perhaps Jessie’s attention has drifted to Paul Dwyer (Heflin). How he comes into the story makes perfect sense as it unfolds on the screen, at least to a New Yorker, which is both as big as the world and a very small town. But I would put you to sleep if I tried to explain, because first there was this, see, and then that happened, and then the pretty model was headed for LaGuardia to pick up her “fella,” and Jesse gave her a lift, and what do you know. Nevertheless, by the end of East Side, West Side, all attachments are off. We see the back of James Mason, leaning against the terrace door, with the East River humming in the middle distance.

Cyd Charisse plays the pretty model. William Frawley is the bartender at the Del Rio. William Conrad investigates the murder. But the real treat is former first lady, then Nancy Davis. She plays Jessie’s best friend and is very good at it. No starlet she! It took a while for me to recognize her (as Mrs Reagan), but by then I was impressed. I found myself working out where Joan Didion was, in 1949.

I suppose the fact that East Side, West Side whizzes by at a speed seldom reached these days by Manhattan traffic,and is just too hard to summarize (sorry, two facts), prove(s) that it is a real New York movie. There aren’t very many of them.


Not having The Givenness of Things to read is a bummer. I could start re-reading it, I suppose, but my mind is enjoying the rest. However, I have nothing else as interesting to read. I have two chapters, maybe less, of The Fall of the Ottomans to get through; I’m still at the start of The Museum of Memory, and somewhat stuck on the possibility that I don’t like Orhan Pamuk as a romantic lead. Then there is Osman’s Dream, a history of the Ottomans by Caroline Finkel. That’s a lot of Turkey! The English and Their History is a new arrival, but already faintly disappointing. Robert Tombs ends each part of his history with a chapter about how the English of the time saw their past and themselves in the world. I read the first of these chapters to Kathleen, to put her to sleep. It didn’t work; she was much too interested. I, in contrast, didn’t learn a thing. I do have Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, but I’m saving that for just the right mood. Which is another way of saying that my mind is enjoying the rest.

Oh, I know! This is the time to re-read Aria, by Brown Meggs. It’s a novel about making a recording of Otello in Rome in the late Seventies, and I read it with the greatest interest back in 1980, when I returned to New York and stayed for a while with Fossil Darling. I wonder how it has held up. I’ve had my own copy for a few years now, and it has just been sitting there.

What I miss about The Givenness of Things is the constant references to Scripture, which I faithfully checked out. The impossibly, wonderfully old-fashioned thing about Marilynne Robinson is her combination of scholarship, which she wears lightly, and religious enthusiasm, which is forceful rather than insistent. She refers to Jonathan Edwards a few times, and I began to see her as a worthy successor to that divine. But how would I know? My scurryings to the Bible reminded me that I have never read it. The whole thing. All the way through. Plus, I lack the classical languages — no Hebrew, the Greek alphabet and rhododactylos Ios, and just enough Latin to fake it with a Loeb. Let’s face it: I’m illiterate!

In today’s Times, there’s a favorable review of Tom Holland’s new book, Dynasty, which tells the bloody story of the Julio-Claudians, the family that ruled Rome from the murder of Caesar to the suicide of Nero. Tom Holland has been praised by Donna Leone as a first-rate storytelling historian, and, on the strength of this advice, I bought his Rubicon, but soon bogged down, because, like The Fall of the Ottomans, it is (at least at the start) a military history. From what I gather, war is often experienced as an appalling bore, and that’s what I find reading about it to be as well. War is also chaotic, which means that it can’t really be captured in intelligible prose. I don’t know why anybody would want to know the details of the Siege of Kut, a British disaster on the Mesopotamian front that ended ingloriously in 1916. Professional historians have to know, of course, but I don’t. Holland’s new book sounds more like a family romance in the key of Kiss of Death. Should I give it a try?

There does seem to be this new school of vernacular historians in Britain. Dan Jones has been working on the Plantagenets and their Lancastrian and Yorkist successors (Plantagenets all, really). I have one of his books and it is very brisk. I don’t want to be derogatory, but the tone is something between Time-Life and Boy’s Life. The story is well-enough told, but it is a very small story, about a handful of people clutching for the crown. There is no background at all. I don’t mean “boring details,” but background — a sense of the country muddling through. The problem with vernacular history is that it falls into an eternal present. The struggle for power is unending but also unchanging. There are new faces, but no new moves. You wreak grievous bodily harm on your enemies and hope to get away with it.

Actual history is richer. Take John of Gaunt — what was he like? (“Gaunt” means “Ghent,” John’s birthplace.) So far as I know, this second son of Edward III never attempted to parley his wealth and position, which were immense, into a grab at the throne. He was bright and ambitious and filthy rich, thanks to his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster. But he was Richard II’s honorable uncle, despite that immature man’s travails and his unwise banishment of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. (After his father’s death, in 1399, Henry would return to England and usurp his cousin’s crown, becoming Henry IV.) I don’t intend to claim that John of Gaunt was a nice guy, but he was interesting, especially in his military and political failures, which he was eminent enough to survive. “Colorful” is the word. Also, John of Gaunt was a friend of Chaucer. So saith Wikipedia. Can this be true? What would “friend” have meant? And how much of any of this can be known?

How did Archbishop Chichele, the fifteenth-century founder of All Soul’s, pronounce his name? The Internet is not authoritative.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Snobbery Doesn’t Come Into It
December 2015 (V)

Monday 28th

At the end of her remarkable little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes that it is not for everybody.

You won’t die if your house isn’t tidy, and there are many people in the world who really don’t care if they can’t put their house in order. Such people, however, would never pick up this book. You, on the other hand, have been led by fate to read it, and that probably means that you have a strong desire to change your current situation, to reset your life, to improve your lifestyle, to gain happiness, to shine.

This sort of thing usually appears at the beginning of self-help books, not on the penultimate page. Placed where it is, however, the statement about “you” is not just an alluring promise but a demonstrated fact. Well, it was for me, partly because I have, in my somewhat longer life, stumbled on a few of “KonMari’s” home truths already. I felt an enormous affirmation of all my housekeeping intuitions. This was all the more welcome for coming in the middle of a dark time, a screwed-up holiday season.

Life-Changing Magic preaches the importance of taking things seriously — the material things that crowds your closets and drawers. If they are truly important to you, if, in KonMari’s quaintly off-sounding phrase, they “spark joy,” then by all means keep them. If they don’t, then their importance consists in the need to get rid of them, no matter how profuse the excuses for retention. Once you have purged your life of things that fail to spark joy, you will find it easy, she promises, to find the places where everything that you keep belongs.

There is no need to buy anything. There may not even be the need to buy the book, because KonMarie encourages her readers to discard things that have served their purpose, and you might know one such reader. KonMari believes that you probably already possess more than enough of the storage equipment that you need — drawers, shelves, closets, and so on. The only thing that is required to make a success of her challenge is your attention. You must pick up everything that you own, one at a time, and attend to the feeling that holding it brings.

The end result is not a tidier home. It is a more sharply-focused sense of self. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is essentially a diet book, addressed to the thin person inside anybody who feels fat. This metaphorical fat is actual confusion. We have amassed heaps of stuff because we might find it useful. We intend to read this book when we have time, or to use that pot when the right party is on the calendar. You never know. You never know whom you might want to become, when you’ll need the right stuff.

This “never knowing” is obviously confusing, a cloud over your grasp of the future, such as it is. KonMari’s simple test is this: does the person that you want to become make you happy now? One of her favorite categories of clients’ discards is study guides for speaking English. Everybody seems to have a few of these, but the books never spark joy. Does this mean that speaking English is unimportant? Yes. For most people, speaking a foreign language is an accomplishment, like playing the piano. If you are passionate about it, you just do it. If you’re not, it means that you’re happy with your life as it is, but are cluttering it up with insincere aspirations. Once you clear your home of the material litter of these fond hopes, you will find the true ones. KonMari mentions a woman who pared down her library until it told her what she wanted to do with her life: When the only books left were all concerned with social work, she decided to launch a day-care center.

Modern life is characterized by cheap plenty. Just as there is too much flimsy clothing, and too much processed food, so there are too many options for “personal realization.” The odiously-named concept of the bucket list implies that life is not lived without certain special experiences. Most of these experiences are passive, even if they involve a bit of exercise. (Climbing the Eiffel Tower is possible only because Monsieur Eiffel actually built it. “The Eiffel Tower” belonged on his list in a way that it can’t on anybody else’s.) They are as inconsequential as postcards — for what, after all, does seeing the Grand Canyon bring to your life beyond yet another wow? It were better to study your local geology — better not to spend time and resources for an idle glimpse of some remote wonder. The best of these lists would include only one goal, and achieving it would be both difficult and fulfilling. It is hard to determine that one goal, however, if your house is full of how-tos.

Find out who you already are, and get better at it. Throw away all the stuff that who-you-are doesn’t need.


As it moves along, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up takes on a tone that some readers will find “spiritual,” not meaning it as a compliment. KonMari talks about welcoming her house when she comes home from work. She thanks the things that she throws away for having given her the pleasure of acquiring them, which was, apparently, all they were good for. She folds her clothing with something like reverence. Once she has presented her businesslike criteria for filling garbage bags, she lets her house tell her where everything that she retains belongs. This will certainly strike some readers as silly and new-age-y. Others might see the heritage of a Zen-like respect for the world. KonMari explicitly wants her house to have something of the sacred aura of a Shinto shrine.The secular reader in search of housekeeping tips might find this sort of thing annoying.

Asian thought, however, has never made a significant distinction between the material and the metaphysical; the spiritual world does not lie outside or beyond the one that we apprehend with our senses. There is little or no Platonic dualism. So it is entirely reasonable, in such an intellectual climate, to hold that material things, far from being vain appearances, can touch our souls. In fact, it is urgent that we recognize and accept this un-Reasonable proposition, because it is the central insight of environmental respect. The quality of the world in which you live influences the nature of the person you are.

Human beings have almost always acknowledged this, but with a fateful backwardness. If you were poor and uneducated, that was your destiny, and nothing that anybody else could help change. Perhaps it was necessary for some people to become rich and learned, just to see how far human capability might be stretched. Once that was discovered, however, and once it was at the same time discovered that most rich and educated people don’t stretch their own human capabilities very much at all, it was clear that, one day, the talk of destiny must be abandoned, and a world of more equitable distribution conceived. We are still a long way from any such achievement, and I don’t see any social tools that would realize it soon. Today, however, we have a peculiar problem. Because some people manage to organize their way out of wretched environments, we like to think that everybody living in poverty might do the same. In fact, the few who do emerge are as unusual as the figures who long ago became priests and kings, in the early days of agriculture. Ordinary people who happen to be disadvantaged need good-enough food, clothing, and shelter no less than others; above all, they need to be spared the terrible stress of being poor, the endless and exhausting decisions that navigating a hard life entails.

These are people who don’t need Marie Kondo’s book.

For those of us who do, the insistence of the connection between the world outside and the soul within is the same, despite our bland comforts. Affluent people are no less embroiled in the world around them than are the poor. Their inclination to believe that they can take or leave that world, that the freedom to do as they please assures that they will be who they please, is sadly mistaken. It is perhaps unintelligent to argue that we are all the products of the world we live in, but there is no doubt in my mind that we live in dialogue with it, and that conducting this dialogue with humility and respect will make the world a better place.


Tuesday 29th

Never having gotten round to selecting a photograph for this week’s entry, I forgot to post yesterday’s opening. This morning, I rooted around old pictures for half an hour, finally settling on something from a long time ago, a picture that someone took of me at work, shortly before or after Kathleen and I were married. So we end the year with a salute to the past, which is definitely another country.

Our trip to San Francisco is off. Kathleen is simply too swamped, doing the work of two lawyers; besides, there might be a new client in the offing. I thought, very briefly, about traveling alone, but that’s something that I haven’t done in more than fifteen years. I might travel with someone other than Kathleen, but not alone. And I don’t think that I’d leave Kathleen alone just now.


In passing, yesterday, I declared that mastering a foreign language is an “accomplishment” for most people, meaning that it is not vitally important. This judgment might seem at odd as with the genius loci of this Web log. I believe that the ability to read foreign languages is vitally important to all educated people, and even more to the society in which they live. We need as much experience as we can get of other ways of thinking, and I believe that this experience is best encountered in printed matter.

Growing up the Cold War, however, I was habituated to the drudgery of what were called language labs — rooms with cubbyholes, tape recorders, and headphones. To learn a foreign language meant to speak it. Reading it, especially reading it as literature, was secondary. The entire enterprise, I’ve since decided, was baloney. You can learn to speak a foreign language in an intense, immersive course, but you will not hold onto it, or make it part of your life, unless you spend some time — at least six months, I should think — living in a place where it is the spoken language. It would be wonderful if everyone had the opportunity to spend some time somewhere abroad, and I’m sorry that I missed my chance in college (although I was much too immature). But without such sojourns, a foreign language cannot be absorbed.

We ought to go back to the pedagogic idea that prevailed before the Cold War, when foreign languages were needed mostly by scholars who had to keep up with foreign scholarship. Learning to read a foreign language is much simpler than learning to speak it, because mere reading does not require you to stop thinking in your own — a bruising experience. Mastering a foreign grammar, as is far more necessary for reading than for speaking another language, probably gets in the way of learning to speak it, because vernacular speech everywhere is usually quite ungrammatical (or at least a-grammatical). But speaking a language will take care of itself, when the actual need arises. You will certainly not learn a foreign language better by studying it at home than you will if you’re surrounded by native speakers.

The effort to speak foreign languages is actually making us all more illiterate than we might be.


Another bit of received wisdom that has fractured for me in recent weeks can be formulated thus: the loss of religious belief has left modern man alienated and rootless, in constant but hopeless search for substitutes.

To the extent that this is true, it is true, I believe, only of highly educated people — people who formerly experienced religion as a source not only of spiritual meaning (I’m very uncomfortable with this phrase, but it turns up all the time in the received wisdom) but also of material explanation. For people who lost religious belief, the challenge of scientific explanations of the world not only dismantled their religious counterparts, as elaborately expounded by Thomas Aquinas, but undermined spiritual meaning as well. This didn’t have to happen; there are still plenty of people walking around today who believe in (the Judeo-Christian) God without discrediting science. Many of these people are highly educated.

As for uneducated people who have stopped going to church, it’s less likely that they lost their religious belief than that they are enjoying a modern liberty. If anything has changed since the old days, it is the license that our constitutional insistence upon religious freedom has given to people who want to sleep late or pursue a hobby, instead of attending religious services. This is new. You used to have to participate in the local religious rites, whether you wanted to or not. When the going gets tough, ordinary people will return to their pews — if they’re not setting up some new sect.

This, I think, is the root of the élitist anxiety about the alienation of the common man: what the common man has become alienated from is the idea that he ought to do what élitists tell him to do.

But élite alienation is much more serious. The loss of religious belief among élites is quite real, particularly among those sections of the élite that frame leadership propositions. For it must be understood that nobody has become alienated from the need for leadership. The problem is that, without some kind of divine backup, élites doubt their own authority to formulate responses to social problems. Élites throughout history have claimed supernatural support for their proclamations of what must be done. But God was divided in the Reformation — torn apart, literally; the élites of a very small portion of the earth’s surface could no longer agree on just what it was that God wanted. During the century following the demoralizing end of the Thirty Year’s War, in which Catholic Austria refused, refused, and refused again to recognize the claims of Protestant Germany, better minds devoted themselves to weighing the possibility of detaching Western élites from God.

They got no further, really, than insisting that there must be a detaching. Reattachments to other alleged sources of meaning and authority, such as art or education, have not succeeded. On the Times’s Op-Ed page, believers such as David Brooks and Ross Douthat assert, more or less emphatically, that reattachment is impossible; only the old, the traditional source of morality — Judeo-Christian scripture — will serve. (This is, after all, God’s world.) Most members of the élite — journalists, particularly — are agnostic and even self-denying. All but the most aggressive investigative journalists are uncomfortable with the claim that their reports are morally authoritative. This is particularly true in political reporting.

What constitutes leadership today? That is the very important question that lurks behind the limping complaint about “alienation.”

With the advent of nationalist, populist democracy in the Nineteenth Century, élitists found themselves to be unwelcome, for it was populism’s mad dream, wholly anticipated by the political philosophers of classical antiquity, that societies could function without élites. (Libertarianism is nothing but populism for nerds: Silicon Valley presents the comical spectacle of men (mostly men) who not only want to sweep away conventional existing élites but who regard themselves as smart guys just doing their own thing and telling no one else what to do. Just conducting orgies of creative destruction.) The emergence of an élite is just about the first thing that happens in any society.

With traditionally-trained élites ruled non grata, the nationalist democracies exposed themselves to the antidemocratic tyranny of charismatic leaders who made things up as they went along, trailing chaos and bloodshed. We were given good reason to fear the very idea of leadership. That may explain why, in all the long decades since the deaths of Hitler and Stalin, little has been done to configure the profile of a truly democratic leader. Thoughtful Americans recognize how lucky they were to have FDR — and how useless he is as a template. In any case, our leadership models are all deformed by the deadly crises that called them forth. Who was Churchill without the Nazis? An impetuous, imperialist windbag.

Fortunately, the idea of a “peacetime” leader need not detain us. We are not living in peacetime. Quite aside from the political confusions that disrupt the élite’s globalist dreams, there is the uncertain urgency of confronting environmental degradation, and the certain urgency of doing so with a patience capable of resisting apparent solutions that will only derail society.

I don’t think that we need God to inspire us to behave better than we do. I don’t think that we need the attractions of resurrection and eternal life to rivet our attention to saving ourselves from possibly immediate immolation. But we do need good leaders.

At the dawn of our industrial, then technological era, it was not unusual to hear oracular declarations that man had displaced his gods. It may be the greater part of the élite has lost its faith in supreme beings. But I doubt that there are any serious members of the élite today who entertain such orgulous notions. Lost faith in God may never be replaced, but neither will God.


Wednesday 30th

As everybody knows, the first issue of the London Review of Books for the new year features a presumably abridged edition of Alan Bennett’s diary for the year. The entries are superficially short and slight, until you read them. Humour, wisdom, a very dry nostalgia; a bemused affection for relatively unsophisticated parents — Bennett was surprised that his father found Nancy Mitford very funny. This year’s big event was the opening (or openings) of The Lady In the Van, which occasioned a trip to New York last month. In preparation for this, Bennett sprained his ankle. He was flown First Class across the Atlantic, he tells us, by the New York Public Library (which was going to make him one of its Literary Lions) and by Sony Pictures.

I wonder, though, looking at our fellow passengers, who is paying for them, so ordinary do they seem and even scruffy. Perhaps they’re all in the music business, in which case this not being a private jet is maybe a bit of a comedown.

On the one occasion when I flew first class from London to New York, the scruffiness of my fellow high-livers was what struck me, too. But I didn’t have quite the wit — even if I did share the suspicions of the second sentence — to jump from looking too poor to be in first class to looking too rich, and to break through the pretenses of airlines in order to remind myself that really grand people don’t fly First Class any more. They fly Only Class.

Here is the entire entry for 1 September:

Oliver Sacks dies, my first memory of whom was as an undergraduate in his digs in Keble Road in Oxford when I was with Eric Korn and possibly, over from Cambridge, Michael Frayn. Oliver said that he had fried and eaten a placenta. At that time, I don’t think I knew what a placenta was except that I knew it didn’t come with chips.

I left college with an ironclad determination to avoid the Oliver Sackses of this world. People who fry and eat placentas, so that they can tell you about it. I had no idea that Sacks was gay until earlier this year, when he began dying in public, but when I saw the dust-jacket photo of him astride a motorcycle in Greenwich Village, looking as burly and butch as Bob Hoskins, I felt very sad. How many pointlessly thwarted lives! How much tedious transgression! Alan Bennett’s transgressiveness, in contrast, is genial even when it is tinged with bitterness.

As it happens, Bennett puts his finger on the importance of tact in an early entry (15 February). He has just read some good reviews of a play, Blasted, given at Sheffield. (He seems to be a friend of the director.)

In such a violent play, though, I find myself spiked by my literalness … If a character is mutilated on stage, blinded, say, or anally raped or has his or her feet eaten off by rats, the pain of this (I nearly wrote the discomfort) must transcend anything anything else that happens on the stage. A character who has lost a limb cannot do other than nurse the wound, no other discussion is possible. Not to acknowledge this makes the play, however brutal and seemingly realistic, a romantic confection. If there is pain there must be suffering. (But, it occurs to me, Gloucester in Lear.) Another topic concerning me at the moment is Beckett’s sanitisation of old age about which, knowing so little of Beckett, I may be hopelessly wrong. But Beckett’s old age is dry, musty, dessicated. Do Beckett’s characters even smell their fingers? Who pisses? How does the woman in Happy Days shit?

There are two beautiful reconsiderations — what Bennett would or should have done had he known what he knows now. He now wishes, having just seen a revival of An Inspector Calls, that he had taken advantage of an opportunity to plug JB Priestley for the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey; and he laments not have been sufficiently aware of it to remember hearing Kathleen Ferrier sing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in 1950. (I, too, find that work both dreary and empty.) He had to be reminded by an old program. What he did remember was sitting behind the Princess Royal (soon to become HM the Queen) and her Lascelles relations. Well, who wouldn’t?

Whenever possible, Bennett heaps contumely upon the Tories. He does not say that he loathes David Cameron, but you get the sense that he does; yet when he says that he “did detest” Margaret Thatcher, you also sense that Cameron isn’t quite worthy of detestation, that he doesn’t measure up even as a villain. The remark about Thatcher (11 October) is provoked by Charles Moore’s recyling of Graham Turner’s “mendacious interview with me and other so-called artists and intellectuals in which we are supposed to have dismissed Mrs T out of snobbery.” Snobbery didn’t come into it, Bennett insists, because he and Thatcher arose from the same background. This ironic observation tickled me enormously, for while the Iron Lady may have impersonated Britannia during the Falklands War, in fifty or a hundred years she will only be read about, while Bennett will still be read. By the time Kathleen came in to get ready for bed, I had improvised a dactylic chanty:

For SHE was a GROcer’s DAUGHter from GRANtham,
And I was the SON of a BUTCHer from LEEDS.

Sadly — How very disappointing, I think Maggie Smith says somewhere in Evil Under the Sun — that’s not how Bennett puts it. He doesn’t mention Grantham or Leeds. “But she was a grocer’s daughter as I am a butcher’s son. Snobbery doesn’t come into it.” I do blunder so.


Friends from out of town will be coming to dinner tonight. They still share a family apartment on the Upper West Side, but they spend most of their time in Brewster, on Cape Cod. We have seen them only once since they relocated, and they have not been to this apartment. Which I shall be tidying up this afternoon. Dinner is “under control.” Also this afternoon, I shall make a soup of wild rice and mushrooms. I have already made a carbonnade. It filled the apartment with such lovely smells last night that I was afraid that all the flavor was dissipating. The secret, aside from a bottle of Chimay’s best ale, is a reduction of Agata & Valentina’s veal broth from one quart to two-thirds of a cup. And yet, when I took the casserole out of the oven, the sauce was still pretty runny. As I prefer creamy sauces, I may adulterate the dish by thickening the liquid with a roux. At the same time, my dreams of the soup involve at least the thickening of cream, so perhaps I had better leave the carbonnade alone.

I was supposed to buy two large onions along with the beef and the ale, but I forgot, and had to make do with the sorry-looking contents of the crisper. A tired Vidalia onion and a clutch of shallots. When I was through slicing everything, I had discarded nearly half. But it was enough.

The other night, we had Tetrazzini leftovers. I made the dish, comprised of chicken breast, velouté sauce, and spaghetti, two weeks ago. I dished it out into four of those lion’s head ramekins that are perfect for serving Hollandaise. I topped two of the ramekins with Parmesan cheese and warmed them in a hot oven. I covered the other two with plastic wrap and found room for them in the freezer. They made excellent leftovers. I worried that at least some of the spaghetti would turn into wires, but that did not happen. Again, I made the velouté with a severe reduction of chicken stock, which made the dish rich in every way. Kathleen couldn’t quite finish off her ramekin.


Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and Kathleen and I plan to observe it in the usual way, with champagne, caviar, and Radio Days. We’ve been watching Woody Allen’s valentine to the New York of his childhood on the last day of the year for two decades at least, and many of its lines are staples in our household macaroni. “Who is Pearl Harbor?” “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion.” “Hawk, the lions raw, is it the kingue approaching?” “I can’t take that much liquid.” “That’s no fluke!” Not to mention getting Regular with Relax. We even put up with the bathetic episode, right before the split, bittersweet finale, about the little girl in the well, because the montage, so to speak, of Americans of all walks united by the centrality of listening to the radio is so arrestingly beautiful, and at the same time testimony to an utterly lost world. Nobody listens today because everyone is too busy talking.

If we can manage to stay up, we shall speak to Will not just on his birthday but at the anniversary of his birth moment, 1:45 AM. It will be 10:45 PM in San Francisco, late for most six year-olds but not for Will, who has always been a night person.


Thursday 31st New Year’s Eve

Last night’s dinner went well. The beef was overcooked, but the sauce was delicious, and the soup was a keeper. Our friends brought a very tasty apple-cream pie. After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked until midnight.

The wives, high-school classmates, sat together on a love seat and chatted. The husbands sprawled, each on his own love seat, and argued. We argued about the failure of evolution to keep up with social and technological change. We argued about medieval science, which my friend believed to be a matter of church doctrine instead of scientific investigation. Our voices rising, we argued about universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act. Finally, even more heatedly, we argued about the Cold War. My friend asserted — without, I could tell, expecting to be contradicted — that the Cold War was not only successful but necessary, in preventing the spread of Communism around the world. Kathleen announced that it was time to go to bed.

I didn’t realize until later, after I’d loaded the dishwasher and Kathleen had gone to sleep, how far I have traveled from received wisdom on these as on so many other topics. I was appalled to surmise that a quick summary of my “positions” on many issues would mark me as an utter reactionary. But my “positions” are merely observations, informed by the historical considerations that I am always revising, and the historical connections that I am always working out.


It is one thing to examine prehistoric skeletons and to observe that we share ninety-odd percent our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. It is quite another to overlook the role of social evolution in human development. It is true that social catastrophe can undo many of the webs of support that suppress violence and other undesirable behaviors in normal times. But a reversion to some sort of natural setting, “the way we were” in, say, 175,000 BCE, has never really occurred. So far, no society has ever been “knocked back into the Stone Age” and persisted at that level. It may happen in the future — who can say? — but such a disaster would be unprecedented. And even the Stone Age is not to be confused with the State of Nature. Human society does not evolve backward. It can only be destroyed, which is quite different.

Medieval Science

Technology and science were not connected in the Middle Ages, any more than they had been in pre-Christian antiquity. Science was entirely a matter of theories, devised by philosophers and tested by other philosophers. Empirical observation played almost no role in these inquiries. Technologists (ie, cathedral architects) worked by trial and error. The roof of St Pierre de Beauvais, for example…

The origins of modern science do not lie in the overturning of church dogma. The overturning of church dogma was a consequence of modern science. The origins of modern science lie in medieval technology. I wrote about this in September, quoting a quotation:

Before men could evolve and apply the machine as a social phenomenon they had to become mechanics. (PG Walker)

Modern science began with the application of tools to scientific inquiry. One of its first manifestations was the pendulum clock, a collaborative effort dating from the 1650s.

Democracy in America

My friend agreed with me that the United States is a mess right now, but he wasn’t clear about why. In my view, he couldn’t be, because he doesn’t want to concede — and who does? — that universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act explain a great deal of our predicament.

We Americans like to believe that we have made amends for the things that the Founders got wrong, the most egregious being slavery. Instead, as I see it, Americans have substituted workarounds for atonement. This nation was framed, in 1789 (when the first presidential election was held), as a patrician republic. Voting was limited, in each of the new states except Pennsylvania, to landowners. This is to say that the Constitution’s function was thought to depend upon an educated, stakeholding electorate, with an interest in participating in local government and staying abreast of national affairs.

Universal male suffrage was a sales pitch for the new states in the Near West. The populism thus engendered, having spread to the original states, eventually flowered in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose face cannot be removed from the twenty-dollar bill fast enough for me. The patrician élites were encouraged by the Jacksonian persuasion to conceal their patrician façades in a masquerade of common-mannery. This led to élitist opportunism and the replacement of patrician élites by robber barons in the big-spender department.

The result was a permanent bifurcation of the free American population into two classes: Élite (wealthy or educated or connected to the wealthy or educated or all of the above) and ordinary. As we move further from 1945, the astonishing growth of the middle class during the decades of postwar prosperity seems increasingly that: astonishing, and likely neither to last nor to be repeated. When the wonder years were over, many in the middle class — professional people especially (doctors and lawyers) — settled among the élite. The rest of the middle class reverted to ordinary.

The élite in America today appear to be bent upon starving the ordinary American to death. That is the extent of current élitist interest in the common man. You’d think that something else that happened in 1789 has been forgotten.

Anybody who thinks that the problems created by slavery, particularly that of a large population of people immediately discernible as slaves or the descendants of slaves by the color of their skin (a problem unknown to slavery in antiquity), have been “solved” ought to be stripped of any and all academic diplomas.

With the abolition of slavery amended into the Constitution after the Civil War, the American workarounds went in the direction opposite to that of atonement. Keeping blacks separate was the unofficial work of Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 climaxed a long and arduous attempt to undo the discriminatory régime in the South. Unfortunately, it infected the ordinary class of Americans with a resentful fear. Now that blacks could not be kept in their place, or denied the right to vote, many white Americans no longer felt “safe,” in their homes, in their towns, or even in their country. There had always been lone rangers on the fringe of American life, but ordinary white America responded to the Voting Rights Act with an upsurge in antisocial, siege-mentality behavior: “Christian” academies and gated communities, the proliferation of firearms. Élite Americans, meanwhile, congratulated themselves on their high-minded legislative success, and refused to see that there was still a problem. I speak, of course, of those members of the élite who were not actively stoking the fears of the ordinary class.

“So,” my friend argued, “you would undo the Voting Rights Act, because most blacks aren’t members of the élite class to which the Framers sought to limit the franchise.” Or words to that effect.

I should do no such thing. As European convulsions from the Reformation to the Terror to the Holocaust demonstrate again and again, you can’t clean up messes by undoing their causes. You have to move on. But moving on is a lot smoother if you know where you have been — as indeed the Founders did, having just experienced the five-year fecklessness of American government under the Articles of Confederation. I don’t believe that anybody seriously considered petitioning King George to “take us back.”

The Cold War

This was going to be my only subject today. I’ve been reading a string of novels by John Le Carré, and they have brought the Cold War into focus — not just the spying (which David Cornwell has concluded was silly and pointless), but also the ideological battle. What this battle really consisted of was a pair of power centers’ barking at their underlings about the horrors of the opponent’s way of life.

After World War II, Russia, which had suffered more than any of its Allies by several orders of magnitude, sought, quite naturally in terms of its history, to surround itself with a defensive perimeter. Infusing this perimeter with Communist ideology was merely the surest way of securing the possession of Slavic Europe, Hungary, and the adjacent chunk of Germany (this last the region from which most eastward incursions into Polish and Czech territory originated). Despite having overthrown the Tsar and the plutocratic élite that controlled the country until World War I, Russia remained Russia, as indeed the vibrant stardom of Vladimir Putin, attended by flocks of Russian Orthodox clergymen, makes crystal clear. President Putin is currently engaged in restoring the former Russian Empire, which was for seven decades known as the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics.

My friend evoked the Soviet embrace of Cuba. Was not the Cold War required to limit such “expansion” to that island? Explaining at length why my answer was a resounding “No” would be wearisome for reader and writer alike. Suffice it to say two things: Russia wished to counter the American military appanage of Europe with a pied-à-terre ninety miles from Florida. The Cold War had little to do with the thwarting of this ambition. It was on the brink of a very Hot War that the world trembled in October 1962. As for Cuba’s embrace of Communism, it was inspired by much the same degrading inequality that provoked the Russian Revolution.

That’s to say that Communism in Cuba was never a rejection of Capitalism. Something much older and meaner than capitalism prevailed in pre-Castro Cuba, a blend of the American plantocracy and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Cuban capitalists (or industrialists) were mostly rentiers, not what we would call businessmen. Too many Cubans were trapped in the backbreaking production of sugar.

Communism has the advantage of being a well-articulated ideology. Capitalism, in contrast, means many things to many people. In today’s Times, Jon Caramanica writes about shopping as a way to relieve trauma: “This is one of capitalism’s many tricks, and one of its best: the notion that you might rewrite your emotional life via acquisition.” Capitalism? How about consumerism? What prevented consumerism from thriving in Warsaw Pact nations was state control of industry, which is not the opposite of capitalism. Today’s China is conducting an exciting, sometimes too-exciting experiment in authoritarian capitalism, officially “communist” but wise to the fact that markets lead, instead of following, economies.

The Cold War was less about economic theories than it was about power structures. The Authoritarians fought the Liberals. The Authoritarians’ eventual defeat did not herald the victory of Liberals, however, mistaken as the Liberals might have been about that at the time. The Authoritarians are back, everywhere, with a vengeance. Quite a few of them are Libertarians and other oxyMoronic followers of Ayn Rand. Liberals have lost academia, traditional the Liberal nursery, to the Authoritarians who enforce political correctness. Let us not forget the Higher Authoritarians who would institute a theocracy. And this is just in the United States.

The Cold War was, ultimately, a very expensive organizing principle. You knew where you stood, even you doubted your next-door neighbor. All other hostilities were either limited or suppressed by Cold War strategies. When the Cold War came to an end, the economic boom was echoed by political collapse.

Because Liberals are helplessly élitist. I’m one; if you’re reading this, you probably are, too. We are certain that peace would reign everywhere if only everyone could see things as we see them. But we see things with minds that have been overhauled by liberal education and reassuring affluence. We may understand that very few people, essentially nobody, can see things as we see them without those benefits. But not only have we failed to generate the economic wherewithal to spread those benefits — we haven’t learned how to domesticate wealth, how to make it appear where and when we want it to appear; we have also lost the art of persuading others that they are benefits.

I’m R J Keefe, and I’m a member of the liberal élite. And, notwithstanding all the many mistakes made by this group, proud of it. I believe that we are still humanity’s best hope for continuation on Planet Earth. That is why I am its scourge.

Happy New Year!

Gotham Diary:
December 2015 (IV)

Monday 21st

It’s like binge-watching an electrifying serial. Or trying to. All the episodes haven’t come out yet, and, sometimes, nothing happens. It takes a while to realize that nothing is happening, because there are no signals. There is no rolling of credits, no trailers for what’s coming up next. On the other hand, every moment is a kind of cliffhanger. I’m mesmerized. When the atmosphere of crisis abates, and then nothing happens, it takes me a while to catch on. I find that I have no taste for resuming my regularly scheduled life.

But make no mistake: it is not fun.

On Saturday evening, the landline rang. It was Kathleen’s senior associate. The formulation of an agreement, which a client had declared, two days earlier, to be of no pressing importance, suddenly had to be completed by Sunday morning. There was an air of fire drill about the whole thing, but Kathleen and her team took it very seriously. The agreement was hammered out. The team met via conference call on Sunday morning, and then the client was dialed in. Everything was great, fine, super job and so forth; but something the client said in an offhand way gave rise to new worries.

Kathleen agonized over these new worries as she got into bed last night. She couldn’t see how she would ever get to sleep. So we talked about it and sorted it out. We were lucky. Sometimes, this sort of late-night discussion backfires, and makes things look even worse. Last night, however, the talk seemed to tire Kathleen out. We nailed down the issues, so that they stopped swirling in her mind. We worked out the implications of the various awful scenarios that she had imagined. This exercise didn’t solve any problems, but it did settle them down. Bit by bit, Kathleen’s fears were transferred to an unwritten checklist that she would run through when meeting with her team in the morning.

Kathleen asked me to play Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and even I began to feel that everything would work out all right. Then she fell asleep. Somewhat later, I, too, went to bed. It was very late.


This morning, I am tired and spent. A little drama goes a long way with me. Like a strong antibiotic that kills all the healthy microbes in one’s intestinal tract, worrisome excitement strips my mind of connectivity. Nothing is related to anything else; nothing is particularly interesting. There is only the static buzz of the latest crisis, and a longing to go back to bed. The idea of getting dressed and going outside is horrifying. The effort to write the next sentence calls up not an array of words but a tide of languorous fatigue. Close my eyes, and I’ll fall asleep at the desk.

And just think! Christmas is upon us! How jolly.


There’s a story in today’s Times about how difficult it is for local farmers to sell their produce at the massive Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx — the wholesale food operation that stocks the city’s grocery stores and restaurants. “Historically, it has been difficult for local farmers to pay the fees or follow the arcane rules of consignment necessary to sell in the Hunts Point market.” Any solution depends on cooperation between the governor and the mayor — two men who embody the impossibility of seeing eye to eye. But the problem is the problem. Yes, that’s what I meant to say. We’re so much in the habit of solving problems that we don’t devote much attention to preventing problems in the first place. The problem at Hunt’s Point is almost certainly the standard sclerosis that builds up between the regulators and the regulated. It all begins innocently enough. In the interest of public health and safety, regulators demand that certain conditions be met. The regulated comply, but in such a way as to create special interests and barriers to entry. The regulations, meanwhile, pile up like Ptolemaic epicycles. There is no mechanism for reforming the regulations as a matter of course, and, with the passage of time, there is no particular will for reform. On the contrary! The regulators and the regulated alike gain power and permanence from mastering the regulatory complications — those arcane rules. They work with and around them, transforming them into a virtual infrastructure that supports the way we do business.

It is not that no new businesses can join the club, but rather that new kinds of business cannot. Local farmers, in this case, inhabit a different economic environment from the one created to deal with large-scale growers and shippers. Local farmers do not deal in the volume of produce that would allow the time or expense required to master the regulations, even if compliance were in every case possible. It requires fiat from on high to create a separate space for outsiders.

This happens in almost every walk of everyday life. Licenses and permits are required to conduct most forms of legitimate business. There would be nothing wrong with that if the process of acquiring licenses and permits were made easy for those qualified to acquire them. But the people who already have permits and licenses are not keen to ease the entry of competitors, and they, of course, happen to be the only people with a political interest in the matter. That ought not to be the case.

At some point in last night’s discussion, Kathleen and I went off on a tangent about Puerto Rico and the hedge fund managers who, dazzled by a 20% yield and the implicit understanding that the federal government would somehow force the Puerto Ricans to pay it, come hell or high water, threw good money after bad earlier this year, swelling the island’s already unmanageable debt. Why shouldn’t the hedge funds managers expect to be bailed out? Look at what happened in 2008 and after.

But the federal bailout of Wall Street was pressured in part by something that the hedge fund managers can’t claim: the public interest, even if the public never gave it a thought. If the hedge fund managers go down, they and their investors will be the only losers. In 2008, in contrast, for a week to ten days, as I recall, the American economy trembled on the brink of a collapsed short-term credit market. This sounds banal and unimportant. Banal it may be, but only because the short-term credit market, which deals in something called commercial paper (among other instruments), is what puts food on supermarket shelves and pays the clerks at the check-out lines. In the short term, that is. The short-term credit market is what keeps the cash flow of the nation flowing at a regular pulse. You might indeed call it the heartbeat of everyday commerce.

The terrible eventuality was avoided — and then promptly forgotten. Few people ever knew that the risk was even there, because nobody is taught to look for it or to worry about it. Only professionals and their smarter friends are aware of such things. When I think of all the useless things on the high school curriculum, I boil at the perversity with which important matters of every life are not on it instead.

How many Americans know that the Interstate Highway System was initiated as a matter of national defense? Long before World War II, Dwight Eisenhower suffered years of frustration in the movement, with which he was tasked, of Army trucks from base to base, and, as president, he was determined to do something about it. It makes sense, therefore, to regard the highway system as a weapon. That’s why it was built. Not the ring roads around cities — they came later — but the long, uninterrupted stretches through farmland and wilderness. Now, a question for the class. How important is this weapons system today — qua weapons system? Is it budgeted as an item of national defense? Who is interested in keeping the system going now? Does that party (or parties) have the money to pay to maintain it, or does it have to ask somebody else?

It occurs to me to inquire into how new updates of operating systems, and other very co