Dept of Convention:
The Wages of Sin
17 April 2015

Whenever I see David Brooks’s byline in the Times, I fold the last page back behind the rest of the section, because I know that I’m going to read every word. Why? It seems to me that Brooks and I want the same good things to happen, but that we disagree somewhat about how to get there. What we disagree most about is religion.

Brooks is very subtle about religion. Sometimes he mentions the concepts of faith and sin explicitly. Usually, he doesn’t. I don’t want to accuse him of being sneaky, but he quite often garbs his judgment in code. From today’s column, for example:

But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.

So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it.

I couldn’t agree more with the gravamen of this passage, but the presence of “broken” and “crooked timber” makes me uncomfortable. They are bywords for good old sin, sin of the original kind, the kind that we’re born to because we are the children of Adam and Eve. Jews and Christians alike, we have been condemned by their transgression to taste the sweat of our brows. Only religion can cleanse us of sin. Once upon a time, Brooks’s column suggests, we ordered our society in accordance with this understanding; we were all good Protestants. Then, after World War II, we lost our taste for self-denial — and now look what we’ve done.

My trouble with religion has nothing to do with my agnosticism. I celebrate the religion of my wife, and that of the many other good church-goers whom I know. I often wish that I shared their faith, for the comfort that it brings, certainly; but sometimes just for the pleasure of taking part in a liturgical service, and not observing it from outside. If I thought that the religious revival that Brooks is calling for would culminate in the moderation and respect that distinguish my religious friends, I’d be the first to join in his appeal.

History, however, tells me that revival is unlikely to be moderate and respectful. We have already had four Great Awakenings in the United States, and it is not entirely idle that Upper New York State, the birthplace of one of them, was long known as “the burnt-over district.” I don’t want to live in a burnt-over district. If I grew up with the naive American understanding of “enthusiasm” as a blandly good thing, I have learned better. Sometimes these awakenings can be deadly without being enthusiastic, as happened in Prussia in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, where religious revival stunted intellectual vigor and prepared the ground for Hitler.

The older I get, the less prepared I am to accept the reality of sin. There is something horribly presumptuous about the very idea of it. It suggests that we can look into the minds of others and ascertain wicked, as distinct from merely weak, motives for their actions. That is sin as the failure of others. Sin as one’s own failure, as the conviction that, whether or not anybody else knows about it, we have done something wrong, is much more interesting. Only very good people, unfortunately, are able to treat the sins of others as no worse than their own; or, more to the point, their own sins as equally indefensible as others’. One kind of sin is problematic enough, but in effect we have two kinds. I think that we ought to give more thought to resolving them into one sort of failure: the failure to observe a convention.

I have a lot to say about convention, and I’m obviously having a problem working it out in a series of thousand-word blog entries. I keep going back to beginnings; I never get round to working out the consequences. When I read Brooks’s column this morning, I was thinking, What he means to say is that postwar American culture threw off the the respect for conventions that governed social cooperation because they were stifling growth and change. As Brooks writes, in the paragraph preceding the ones that I’ve quoted,

This more positive view of human nature produced some very good social benefits. For centuries people in certain groups in society had been taught to think too poorly of themselves. Many feminists and civil rights activists seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.

We needed to dump a lot of conventions that stood in the way of civil equality for blacks and for women. For homosexuals. For the homeless and the disturbed. For those formerly known as “the handicapped.” The prewar social arrangement still rested on the convention that white men talk to God, while everybody else talks to white men. There are still pockets of respect (some of them, I’m afraid, much too large to be called “pockets”) for this repudiated convention.

Somehow, however, the idea took hold that the very idea of conventions was reprehensible. Conventions thwart spontaneity, individuality, creativity! I don’t think that I can capture the vehemence with which, throughout the Sixties, “convention” was associated with stultification, suppression, even totalitarian conformism. Perhaps because the mass of prewar conventions was so grossly monolithic, it was hard to believe that conventions could be arrived at imaginatively, that they could leave room for plenty of individuality, and that they might even create occasions for spontaneity.

In fact, as I think Brooks suggests without meaning to, when you jettison conventions that no longer work, you must replace them with conventions that do a better job of negotiating our everyday transactions. We cannot function without pre-set understandings of the consequences of behavior. And, here in Manhattan, we don’t try to. Come visit sometime, and, instead of gawking at the buildings and the prices, pay close attention to the way New Yorkers pay close attention to one another in every public moment. (The young omadhauns who don’t pay attention stand out like the jerks they are.) These conventions are not trivial; they are backed up by a community spirit that every now and then bursts out into the open. (“Is this a line?” Glare.) For the most part, it doesn’t have to. Thousands of people walk by Tiffany & Co everyday without anyone’s trying to rob it. Considering the size and exhausting exuberance of New York life, violent disruptions of the conventional fabric are vanishingly rare.

The very idea that human beings are constituted of “crooked timber” is an Industrial Revolution insult — and how like Kant, who probably didn’t know how to operate a pencil, to make it. We are not straight, we are not regular, we are maddeningly varied. And that, that is what’s great about us: we are all human resources. With the help of a few wise and fair conventions, we can accommodate just about anybody.

Library Science:
Just In Case
16 April 2015

And so the last boxes left the apartment. Three of them were filled with plastic bricks. Our new balcony is somewhat larger than a third the size of the balcony upstairs. Our good friend and former ‘cross-the-hall neighbor has a balcony that’s the same size as our new one, and we gave her enough bricks to pave it. The remainder filled three book boxes and half of a garbage bag. I’ve held on to the garbage bag, but the boxes are gone.

Some of the nine boxes of books had not been opened in this apartment. One of them was marked “Trollope,” and it contained very little else. I know where to go if the urge to read about Barset or the Pallisers overcomes me. I expect that it won’t — not anytime soon. I did re-read Orley Farm in the summer of 2012, and I did enjoy it, but I had been reading the “sensational” novels of Wilkie Collins, and was primarily interested in comparisons. I can’t remember the young lady’s name — the inevitable Trollope virgin who falls in love once and for all — but she was relatively plausible, making appearances so widely spaced that I never quite tired of her, and could just tolerate the loitering fragrance of Trollope’s unpleasant high-mindedness about girls. It will tickle me no end if I manage to overlook this kink and live to rediscover a fondness for Trollope. For the moment, his novels are safe in storage.

Why am I keeping the bricks and the books? Why not just let them go?

The bricks are not available anymore. In a year or so, I may accept the unlikeliness of our ever needing the bricks in the boxes, but right now all I can think is that I should never forgive myself if the need arose and I were no longer able to supply it. It’s for this reason that I’m still holding on to the top of my mother’s glass-fronted breakfront cabinet. Once again, I believe that the course of the year to come will see changes in my thinking on this issue. “Just in case” is an inversely spendthrift principle.

As to keeping the books, I understand the meaning of a personal library less and less every day. When I was growing up, they were, at least in the eyes of people I admired, unambiguous boons. There was nothing wrong with having a lot of books. Books were, overwhelmingly, the principle source of information. They were also solid evidence of learning. (What about people who never read the books they owned? Their amalgamations of volumes might just as well have been stamped, “For Show, Vol XXIII” or “Fake, Tenth Edition.”) And books were unbreakable; they were forever. Physical books arrayed on physical shelves — ideally, an arrangement of wood on wood — were timeless artifacts of the permanent world that both precedes and survives us.

That was then. Books are now rather unreliable sources of information. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases — they’re no more in general demand than are telephone directories (which used to be an important resource in every major public library). I doubt that scholars will ever manage to do without dictionaries altogether, but for ordinary purposes it makes much more sense to turn to a smartphone. Encyclopedias and atlases go quickly out of date, or would do if anyone were still printing them. Yes, I understand that the Internet is unreliable, too; but it’s early days for the Internet; we’re where books were in 1500. (Books could be ludicrously unreliable in 1500.)

Somehow, “timeless artifacts” have degenerated to “stuff nobody touches from one year to the next.” I wince to think how often a shelf of mine has been sorted and catalogued, only to proceed into undisturbed limbo until the next round of sorting and cataloguing, years later. Books take virtual root: having occupied space in a bookcase confers upon them the right to go on occupying space. The presence of certain books in certain places becomes reassuring without regard for the usefulness of their contents or the grace of their language. Few possessions transform themselves into fetish objects as frictionlessly as books do.

We have become much less patient about the evidence of learning. A wall of books is too indirect. Open your mouth, and show


Even though I understand how the sands have shifted beneath my bookshelves, I nevertheless grew up in a time when libraries were greatly respected. I feel rather like a hereditary grandee of the Holy Roman Empire must have done after World War I. Napoleon had put an official end to the Empire a hundred years earlier, but now the constituent territories were thrown completely out of alignment with the old order. Austria became unthinkably insignificant. About a third of Hungary went to Romania, not to mention the loss of Slovakia. Who even knows where Pomerania was anymore — Pomerania, Silesia, Galicia, all gone. Countless aristocrats became Counts of Nowhere. Lots of smart people today are no less eager to wish good riddance to the old rubbish of books.

And why do I have the books that I have? Why do I keep some of them a mile away in a dark room? How do I decide whether to stand a book at the edge of the shelf, and thus to have it handy, or to stack it horizontally behind the ones in front, so that I can forget its existence? I have written about these matters for years now, and I’m forced to the conclusion that the only explanation is varnished caprice. Right now, such and such a book fits well in the orbits of my mind, but it might not do so in a year or two: so much for timelessness.

All of a sudden, holding on to books just in case I might want to re-read them is looking both untenable and idiotic. Surely there must be some principle to guide and govern the maintenance of a personal library. Have I been looking in the wrong places?

Idle Hands Note:
15 April 2015

I had hoped to get it done this morning, but, as we seem to have forgotten, the car service needs twenty-four hour notice to reserve a van or an SUV capable of carrying boxes. So: tomorrow I’ll load the luggage cart with the twelve boxes remaining in the apartment — nine containing books, three filled with extra plastic bricks for “paving” the balcony; don’t know when we’ll ever need them, but nobody makes them anymore and you never know — and roll it down to the driveway. No further discussion of our complicated storage arrangements, please. The point is that, for the first time in well over six months, I won’t be living with 16x12x12 inch brown cardboard boxes.

Yesterday was overcast, but today, it’s lovely again, and I hope to spend at least an hour out on the balcony, working on a needlepoint project.

It has been years. Four or five years ago, I climbed up to Rita’s, on 79th Street right next to the dermatologist’s office, and bought the materials for remaking a bargello pillow that I stitched in the mid-Eighties. It had begun to fall apart. The colors range from very pale to very deep green, and the pattern is a simple undulating stripe, the sort of thing that you can make up to suit yourself. I stitched one row of deep green, actually not even the entire row,  and then set it aside. Four or five years ago.

In San Francisco last month, Kathleen wanted to go to Needlepoint Inc, a stylish establishment that is now right across Union Square from the St Francis. (We had tried to go in January, but the shop was closed for the holidays.) I went along for the ride, and of course it was I who ended up spending all the money. I was captivated by a set of Lichtensteinish exclamations — BAM, POW, ZAP — in lightning lettering, set against the angular clouds that signify cartoon explosions. These, I thought, wouldn’t be too difficult to stitch, and, made up into pillows, they would make snappy replacements for a set of four pillows that my mother stitched in the early Seventies. One of the pitfalls of growing old is discovering that needlepoint is not forever. My paternal grandmother died, like all my grandparents, when I was young, but I remember her very fondly, and it killed me to throw away a floral piece that had come down to me, only to begin falling apart. I was assured by everyone that it couldn’t be saved. If we’d still had the house by the lake, I’d have burned it. Tossing it down the garbage shute seemed sacrilegious.

I won’t mind doing the same with my own pillow from the Eighties — so I say now.

Another drawback to needlepoint is that it costs the earth to have your work “made up” into something presentable — a pillow, a drinks coaster, even a “picture” suitable for framing (still more expense!). In order to get more bang for the buck, I like to have two identically-sized panels made into one pillow, and that’s what I’ll do with the undulating stripe. I’ve decided to start off with that. It will awaken all my sense memories of stitching, so that when I turn to the BAMS, which have to look great to be in the living room, my pace will be steady and the tension of my stitches will be even. When I got back from San Francisco, I conducted a rutheless triage session, and got rid of everything in my dusty work bag except for the undulating stripe, another piece of free-style bargello that was intended to be quite large but that will now be “lumbar,” and an initial “R” composed, origami-like, of folded Japanese paper printed with contrasting patterns. (Such is intended to be the illusion.) These projects, together with the three cartoon pillows, will keep me busy for a very long time.

But that’s just it: they won’t keep me busy. They’ll keep me quite calm. On Sunday, I spent about three hours on the undulating stripe. As is typical of projects that are either new or taken up after long neglect, I had to rip out a lot of work. One of the mistakes I had just made; the other was in the original stripe, stitched four or five months ago. Had the missed stitch been off to one side of the panel, I might have let it go, but it was going to interrupt the flow of the undulation right up and down the center of the piece. I minded the ripping out horribly — at first. It took a while to understand that ripping out is just another way of going forward. The mistake that I made on Sunday was really a lesson unto me. I had pulled the needle up through what turned out to be the wrong hole, and instead of pulling the yarn off the needle and tugging it back through the mesh, I tried to stitch my way out of the situation by aiming the needle back through a corner of the wrong hole. That was dumb; dumber was blithely stitching on without looking at the back of the panel. When I reached the end of the length of yarn and prepared to tuck it in, I was horrified to see a dustball of tangles back at the wrong hole. So all of that had to come out. But when it had all come out, I felt quite clear and cleansed. By the time I stopped working for the day, I liked the look of the back of the panel better than that of the front. It was neat as could be. I had never done such presentable work!

And as I stitched, my mind wandered in the most agreeable way. If it hadn’t been for the ripping-out, which I had to pay attention to, I’d have floated serenely above myself, calm and collected. The causality here is somewhat shaky: it may well be that stitching just isn’t on in chaotic circumstances — not on for me, that is. For me, stitching seems to be a kind of weather check: if I can do it at all, my house is in order. If I can do it well — but I can’t generalize on that yet, as I’ve been too erratic to do it well as a matter of course. But stitching is as close as I am ever going to get to meditation.

I think of Penelope. The problem that I have had with needlepoint in the past — and I’m aware, by the way, that it is no longer the done thing to use “needlepoint” as a verb, meaning “to work at tapestry stitching”; but doing so quietly brings my mother and my grandmother into the room — is the word “project.” The whole point of a project, in America, is to get it done, to finish it. Good craftsman deal with this inane pressure by setting high standards for their work, but, to me, high standards always meant difficulty, and difficulty was inconsistent with recreation. I was simply too impatient.

A cognitive cure for impatience, a non-medical technique for relaxing the highly strung: how different such a miracle would have made my life! But age seems to have done the trick for now. I can almost imagine stitching away but never finishing anything.

Reading Note:
Character and Contingency
14 April 2015

About ten minutes ago, I finished reading Penelope Lively’s first novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977). I had to put it down last night because I’d grown overtired, and forgotten to take my pill until rather late. I was too sleepy, and at the same time too anxious about the difficulty of falling asleep, to attend to the fine points of Lively’s wrap-up; knowing that, if I pushed through and read to the end, I should only have to re-read it today, I turned out the light — and was soon asleep.

The Road to Lichfield struck me as the perfect first book, not just because it’s very good and surprisingly assured, but because it serves as a sort of norm, a set point. It is rich in material that later novels will develop in different ways or, in fewer cases, not take up at all. Then there is the author’s entwining beliefs that the lives of affluent, professional middle-aged people are too stable to be easily capsized, and that those same people are even more susceptible to the shocks of passion than they were when younger. Life is therefore safe but terrifying — an interesting conundrum to be sure. Youth is wasted on the young, not least because the young can cut and run without consequence.

To me, the novels are fantastically varied, but I’m not sure that everyone else would feel the same. To some ears, the repeated theme, no matter how cunningly varied, becomes tiresome. I rather find that the variations are interesting because they’re grounded in the theme. I thought of this often while reading Cleopatra’s Sister. Lucy, an ambitious journalist who finds most men wanting, prefigures Gina, ditto, in Family Album. But Lucy also prefigures Chloe, in “The Albert Hall,” one of the contrafactuals in Making It Up; both women have flaky, unrealistic mothers (who nonetheless land quite nicely in the end). It would be a mistake to think of Lively’s themes as archetypes. They’re professions and relationships rather. There are many ways to be an ambitious journalist, many ways to hit upon the right man after years of bad dates. Lively has a repertoire of favored professions and difficult relationships, but she creates new individuals to fill those roles, in book after book.

I hope that my Lively jag doesn’t look like an obsession. It’s just that Lively is the right novelist for me to be reading now, when I’m busy reorienting so many of the pieces in my own mind. Life offers each of us a limited number of entry points; by the time we reach adulthood, our options have narrowed almost to the vanishing point. And yet we bring to these options, or at any rate to the option that we elect (or fall into, as the case may be) a dizzying range of idiosyncrasies, just as do the people alongside whom we work and whom we meet at parties and fall in love with. They pop up in our children, who, as teenagers, fight so desperately to remain opaque to us. To perceive these idiosyncrasies, we have to see through the conventions — but that’s what conventions are for, providing an appearance of regularity through which we need look more closely only when it suits us.

Here it is important to remember that most of Lively’s heroines have had university educations, Oxbridge as a rule, and therefore stand out from the ranks of bland conformist women, not much on view in Lively’s fiction but deadly whenever encountered precisely because they have stamped out their idiosyncrasies (Joan Thwaites in The Road to Lichfield, Margaret Baseley in “Transatlantic” (also in Making It Up). Lively appears to believe that we have seen all that we need to see of such people, and she is not the writer to draw excitement from taking pot  shots at them. That’s an important example for me.

Finally (for today, anyway), Lively has a wonderful way of conveying that people can be attractive — very attractive — without being terribly admirable, and that their failure to be admirable is not really a failure at all. Admirability is a distracton, a superfluity; everyday life has little use for it. It is never admirable to be unfaithful to one’ spouse, but it is often understandable, and, in Lively’s fictions, always responsive to a deep, if sudden, need. (In The Road to Lichfield, Anne’s infidelity is all but occasioned by the twin discoveries of her father’s dementia and of his long-term mistress.) When the cuckholded spouses find out about the fling and forgive it, as they usually (always?) do, even this is not admirable. It is simply the right and human thing to do. (It ought probably to be pointed out that Lively’s flings are, where women are concerned, usually one-offs.)

I’m aware of reading these novels for the first time, and missing a great deal of the complexity that underpins them. I am trying to resist making too much of a likeness to Jane Austen. I may already have mentioned that, just as Austen derived a great deal of her rhetorical (and comedic) power from a thorough grounding in the prose of the Augustan masters, particularly Dr Johnson; similarly, Lively appropriates the narrative style of an earlier generation of university-based historians who wrote for the broad reading public; more than just a style, it was a creed for reconciling character with contingency. Like nature/nurture, character and contingency are convenient poles along which to range our discoveries about human behavior; as pertaining to humans, their either/or tussle can never be resolved.


I don’t know how long I spent out on balcony yesterday. To see the street life better, now that it was so much closer, I knelt on the settee with its back to the railing, and rested my cheek on a fist. Every now and then, there would pass along the sidewalk on the other side of 87th Street a distended cluster of commuters, drifting east from the subway station at Lexington Avenue before fanning out along First Avenue and its side streets. I had the impression — this is the sort of just-so thing with which imaginative observers can plug any lack of evidence — that the people I was watching had all made more or less conscious decisions not to head home along much busier 86th Street. (It was also “clear” that they chose the north side of the street because our side is still covered with scaffolding related to the balcony-railing project. I’m told that the scaffolding is going to come down “in four weeks.” Bravo!)

I have already discerned two types of mobile users. Members of the first group cannot be heard at all over the distance to my balcony. The second type bellows, public-speaking style. Every now and then, there will be a guy who is speaking loudly to a pack of other guys, but, for the most part, if I can make out the words that I’m hearing, the speaker is quite alone, and barking into his phone. I can rarely make out what women are saying, but they laugh in groups. It is endlessly the same, and endlessly different.

Off His Trolley:
Acting on Principle
13 April 2015

If you peer a bit at this picture, you may note that the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park has suffered the loss of two trees (on the right); perhaps you’ll have to take my word for it that they have been replaced by saplings. A chilling discovery for a chilly day. How established will these spindly twigs be, when I see them for the last time?

Another thing that you may have noticed is that I haven’t mentioned novelist Penelope Lively this month, not until now. That’s because I had to put down the novel that I picked up after Passing On. Like Moon Tiger, Cleopatra’s Sister has a North African setting and an unfortunate title. Come to think of it, it is also rather darker than the run of Lively’s fiction, although in an entirely different way. Where Moon Tiger looks back on a doomed wartime love affair — The English Patient without the hokum — Cleopatra’s Sister features contemporary state terrorism. A plane en route from London to Nairobi makes an emergency landing in Marsopolis, the fictional capital of fictional Callimbia (situated between Egypt and Libya, it seems), and its English passengers are caught in an ongoing revolution.

This diversion occurs midway in the novel. Up to that point, the chapters alternate between Howard, a paleontologist, and Lucy, a journalist. It is all but obvious that Howard and Lucy are going to meet and, in their dry English way, fall in love. (No gushing! We’re British!) The novelty is that we get to know them on their own, and not through the other’s shyly infatuated eyes. In between the Howard and Lucy chapters, Lively inserts brief instalments of the history of Callimbia through the ages. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything, which is also a novelty, since Lively’s experimentalism is no more blatant than her lovers’ passions. Shortly before the midpoint of the novel, however, there is a scraping twist: Callimbia’s military dictator turns out to be the son of an Englishwoman who served as a nursemaid in prewar Cairo and then settled down as a well-to-do Levantine matriarch. Suddenly, Callimbia isn’t so far away. Moments later, a crippled plane, holding, among others, Howard and Lucy, is making an unscheduled descent upon it.

What happens next, and next after that, and then after that, isn’t a lot of fun. Of course I cheated and went straight to the last pages. Even then, I could not bear the situation. Howard and Lucy were going to meet and fall in love, all right, but under such conditions! Conditions of awful discomfort and worse uncertainty. It was embarrassing to learn how safe I had felt from such misadventures in the pages of Penelope Lively. What a fool! I put down the book and picked up The Sitwells. Much better Eastertide reading, no? When the hubbub subsided, and the semi-annual visit to the cardiologist went so nicely that, henceforth, it’s to be an annual visit, I picked up Cleopatra’s Sister and marched through its second half.

Never stated in so many words at any point in Cleopatra’s Sister is the well-known axiom of Anglophone foreign policy: concessions will not be made to save the lives of hostages. If Howard and Lucy came out of this alive, it was not going to be thanks to kindhearted folk at the Foreign Office. It’s the principle of the thing! I got quite worked up about this as I labored through the suspense. My anger was a form of relief that distracted me nicely from the grave misgivings of the new friends. I could set aside what would become of them and punditrate on the wickedness of putting principles ahead of people.


And, all at once, I wished I were in college. Not young myself but surrounded by young minds. How much I’d like to sit in on a discussion of this point. Is it ever just to put the implementation of a principle ahead of the safety of a human life? Let’s grant that the human being in question is a countryman of the officials charged with acting on principle. Howard and Lucy are born Britons; the safety of their everyday lives is upheld by the power of the British government. Is it ever permissible for a government to withhold its power of protection in the name of a principle? I think not, but I should like very much to be challenged by a cascade of youthful hypotheticals.

I’m not talking about trolley problems — emergencies in which the “right” decision, whichever it is, will cost human lives. I don’t believe in reasoning by emergencies. What you or I would do in an emergency is something that we shall never know until we are faced with it, and there will be no time for rationality then. Emergency response is a gut maneuver. You fight or you fly without premeditation. To philosophize from such a vortex of contingency is inane.

I’m talking about the relatively deliberative situation that Lively sets out in Cleopatra’s Sister. The Callimbian government, now in the hands of a revolutionary general, seeks the return of enemies who have taken asylum in Britain. It holds the British passengers of the disabled plane as hostages. Please tell me what would be wrong with British cooperation? The Callimbians, who have presumably chosen to be enemies of the victorious dictator, must face their destiny at home. The hapless Britons would be rescued.

But Such cooperation is ruled out by the standard playbook, simply because cooperation is a kind of concession, and concession is a sign of weakness. So the British hostages must die in order to preserve the appearance of British strength. Excuse me, but who put something in this Kool-Aid? How is the British government clear, in such a case, from complicity in murder?

Like all systems, principles are conveniences. They solve crises with pre-packaged judgments and abstract exonerations. If/then. They are morally ambiguous: far from resolving moral crises, they render them murkier. The whole point of principles appears to be the evasion of difficult decisions. Of course you must have them in order to get through the day. But they are tools, not virtues. They are never, ever worth a human life.

In the stirring recent film about Alan Turing at Bletchley, The Imitation Game, no sooner is the Nazi Enigma code cracked than Turing’s team is forced to conclude that a convoy now discovered to be in harm’s way cannot be saved, lest the diversion tip the Germans off to the English discovery. Not a minute of film time later, however, Turing and his lovely sidekick, Joan Clarke, are making statistical calculations of plausible saves. Geniuses that they are, their minds don’t seem to have worked out quickly enough that the convoy, in which one of the team’s brother was sailing, might simply have been the first of the “lucky” — to the Germans, inexplicable — escapes. No, at Bletchley, as everywhere else in the world of Anglophone power, the first reaction is a show of impassivity. Nothing is done to protect lives at risk, lest the Germans figure out that Enigma is enigma no more. Only thereafter do the stalwarts grasp that, gee, some lives can be saved.

(Bandleader Glenn Miller was not one of the lucky ones. Ultra, as the new British fate-dispenser was named, did not make exceptions for cultural treasures.)

Does acting on principle signify strength, or merely inhumanity?

Dept of Human Nature:
Nothing Harder
10 April 2015

It must be repeated that in all the social sciences genuine scientific detachment is difficult to attain, and in any “absolute” or “pure” sense impossible of attainment. Even in the natural sciences, desire to prove an hypothesis or a theory of one’s own may bring to the distortion or neglect of facts some of the most powerful sentiments in human beings. But the natural scientist does not want to improve a molecule or an amoeba — at least, not “morally.” Upon the social scientist, however, there pours the full force of those sentiments we call moral as well as those we call selfish. He can hardly avoid wanting to change what he is studying: not to change it as the chemist changes the form of the elements he compounds, but to change it as the missionary changes the man he converts. Yet this is just what the social scientist must try to avoid as a better man would avoid the devil. One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them, a thing so hard that most people are not even aware that the two processes are separable. (20)

That’s from the Introduction to Crane Brinton’s classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in 1938. It’s a book that I read a long time ago (although not in college) and have always meant to re-read. If now is the time for re-reading it, that’s because the move to the new apartment has placed enormous pressure on my possession of individual books: Do I really need this one? Will I ever re-read it? So far, however, I’ve wondered if re-reading is really the word. Much in the text is familiar, but its meaning seems altogether fresh and new. Brinton is telling me things that I’d never heard before, because I couldn’t. To understand, you must already understand — the intellectual equivalent of the paradox about not being able to get a job unless you already have one.

One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them.

What amazing wisdom! The desire to change “men or institutions” is indeed so overpowering that it goes unnoticed. We profess to describe; in fact, we critique. It is only when this proclivity has been acknowledged that our analysis of anything becomes useful or trustworthy. I would add only that our descriptions are doomed by incompleteness; we can’t know enough to describe anything in full. We fill in the gaps with wishful thinking.

Brinton’s aperçu sheds an intriguing light on something that I think about almost every day: how to explain the collapse of liberal optimism in the 1970s. This is often attributed to shifts in economic winds attributable to increases in fuel prices, and there’s no question that an air of rude awakening characterized the middle of the decade. I think that it’s important to stress a backlash against liberal social advances of the previous decade, especially those concerning equal civil rights for black Americans. But Brinton reminds me that liberals, during their postwar halcyon, had made the same mistake that progressives in power seem always to make sooner or later, at least in modern times. They believed that they could change human nature. With the right kind of laws, incentives, and whatnot, they expected to transform the United States into a truly great society. Having commended themselves on their virtue, they stopped thinking.

The inevitable backlash was embryonic and mute, at least until the appearance of Ronald Reagan in the White House. Ever since, it has become persuasive and eloquent, while liberals have either babbled in bewilderment or talked businesslike mush. Conservatives always hold the Ace of Spades: they don’t believe in changing human nature. The human condition permanently reflects the fall from grace caused by Adam and Eve. We are all imperfect sinners, and there’s no sense in expecting us to be any better. Bigotry and racism are incorrigible elements in human nature. So is greed. What’s good is not greed itself but accepting its inevitability. Plan on the greediness of others, and you’ll do very well yourself. Punishment is the lot of the weak and resourceless.

Liberals, as children of the Enlightenment, believe in top-down improvement, if not perfectability. Champions of freedom, they fall hard, again and again, for essentially coercive solutions to social problems that are borrowed from the Industrial Revolution. It is a Disneyland fantasy, also a nightmare: lock people up in a well-designed, Utopian theme park, and they’ll develop correct attitudes “spontaneously.”

The conservative failing, like that of the liberals, lies in its strength. Acceptance of human nature leads insensibly to a program of pandering to powerful interests, instead of one that curbs them. The fact that we are all sinners ought to inspire conservatives to protect us from the depredations of the biggest sinners, but that’s not what happens. What happens is the legalization of corruption: see Citizens United.


Regarding businesslike mush: in the current LRB, Marina Warner, in a continuation of her report on the perversion of Anglophone higher education, mentions a useful term.

Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university — through “targets,” “benchmarks,” time-charts, league tables, “vision statements,” “content providers.” We may laugh or groan, depending on the state of our mental health, at the thickets of TLAs — three-letter acronyms, in the coinage of the writer Richard Hamblyn — that accumulate like dental plaque.

Although conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher are blamed for the deterioration of modern academia, I believe that the dirty work has been done by dispirited liberals who believe that business-speak and TLAs make them sound serious and grown up, providing substantive backup to their exhalations about progress and improvement. I remember the beginnings of the betrayal, when students on the left began calling for “relevance” in their studies, as well as the right to evaluate their professors. Nothing has surprised me in the forty-odd years since.

The next time someone throws a TLA at you, demand a rendering in plain English.

Rialto Note:
Friends Growing Up
9 April 2015

Here I’ve been writing about the gloomy old Sitwells, when I could have been writing about gloomy old New York, beset with a gloomy non-spring. The grey days are chilly, damp, and raw. The nights are interior, lamp-lighted, and much easier to take. They are also shorter, which makes them even less unwelcome. Mornings are the worst; they entirely lack the pop and dazzle that give one a reason for getting out of bed. If I were rich, I’m afraid that I should shed all my scruples about servants, and sink back into a well-pillowed life of being waited on, hand and foot.

One of the scariest things about ageing, were it not so comfortable, would be the ennui-free pleasure of utter idleness. This pleasure is somewhat metabolic: have something to eat, and it comes to an end. Do anything at all, beyond paying the simplest visits to the bathroom, and you are cast out of Eden. I have always harbored the suspicion that I’m a malingerer at heart, lazy and good for nothing; and now I know that suspicion is warranted.

Notwithstanding all of which, I’ve done a good deal of running around. In addition to cleaning up the “royal mess” that seems to have been triggered by the arrival of the glass curtains, and preparing Easter dinner, I’ve been to the theatre, to see Bathsheba Doran’s play, The Mysteries of Love and Sex. Hell, I went to the theatre to see Diane Lane, whom I have worshipped since A Little Romance, made when the actress was fourteen. Now she’s fifty. She is just about the most attractive woman in the world, half gorgeous sweetheart, half just the opposite. (Unfortunately, the folks at the Academy see only the outer half, but that’s tinseltown for you.) I ought to clarify: “just the opposite” does not mean “real bitch.” It means “inner-directed human being.” Paradoxically, it is easier to be a stable, centered woman if you are good-looking and good company, but it is harder to be perceived as such.

Another thing about getting older is that I no longer worship movie stars. I admire them. I admire them as they are, and don’t think about what I can’t see.

The play was well-crafted. The dramatic moments — or, I ought to say, the expanses of dramatic dialogue, punctuated with “dramatic” silences, so typical of Anglophone dramaturgy since Miller and Pinter — were always cut short in good time, usually with a sassy line that made light, if not a joke, of the proceedings. The Mysteries of Love and Sex is about two young people who have known each other since they were nine years old. When we meet them, they are about to graduate from college, and it soon becomes clear that the don’t ask/don’t tell regime that their friendship has provided, as a means of avoiding questions about their inconvenient sexualities, is about to crumble. Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) is the daughter of Howard, a “New York Jew” (Tony Shaloub) who writes successful detective novels, and Lucinda (Ms Lane), a Dixie belle; Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) is the black boy next door. It emerges that both are gay, something that it is much harder for Jonny to deal with because of his strict evangelical upbringing. The play tracks the twists and turns of the evolution and eventual survival of a childhood attachment into adulthood — a closely-run thing. Entertainment is provided by Charlotte’s parents, whose marriage breaks up long before the old friends find their new selves. Lucinda meets the discovery of her daughter’s lesbian life with a cheery but false acceptance, qualifying it as an “experiment.” That’s what college is for, she tells Charlotte. That’s all she did in college — experiment. Howard was her “Jewish experiment,” she concludes ruefully, undoing everything that she has just said. Howard and Lucinda do a lot of growing up, too. With a little bit of cutting, The Mysteries of Love and Sex would make a heartwarming television production. I’m speaking about the script. As brought to life by the strong cast at the Mitzi Newhouse, it was a stirring evening of theatre.

It emerges that both are gay. Charlotte and Jonny were much on my mind as I read John Pearson’s book about the Sitwells, in which some things never quite emerged at all. I envy the people of the future for whom such emergences will be too natural to merit comment. Children will always be unspeakably cruel about personal differences, but there will, I hope, come a day when a kid will be no more or less likely to be beaten up for sexual preference than for religious profession — and certainly no more likely to keep either a secret. There are many good reasons for not liking other people, but sexual identity will never be one of them.


A few final words about Pearson’s book. I left out a sentence in yesterday’s entry: my law school UCC professor would have taken ten points off just for failing to state the obvious. (Sometimes, it is very useful to state the obvious, at least if you go in for complex sentence structures.) I thought about editing the piece, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I’ll just say that the missing sentence, wherever it appeared, would have observed that the outing of Osbert Sitwell as a homosexual writer implied the outing of his “friendships” as romances. What would have been discreet otherwise became evasive.

Good reason for that, though, might have been the fact (if it was a fact, as I surmise it was) that David Horner was alive at the time of writing. The fact that Sacheverell Sitwell was also still alive would explain why the “family” biography scants him extensively, along with his wife and his sons. Pearson would have done much better to subtitle his book, “A Family’s Fracture.”

Indirect proof of evasion is given at two points. In the first, Pearson speculates that, in her sad old age, when she was all too willing to tell anyone that her life had been an unhappy one, Edith Sitwell might well have bitterly regretted never having known the consummation of physical passion. Such hypothetical regrets are quite conspicuously never vouched for Osbert. Second, we are told that Lady Aberconway, who was instrumental in dissolving the Sitwell-Horner menage with a minimum of fuss, had never been deceived for a moment (or words to that effect) by the nature of the men’s “friendship.”

The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography might have ended in a mellow tone, with Osbert sinking, sane but accepting, into the infirmities of Parkinson’s, enjoying his Tuscan castello and the compansionship of a manservant-turned-friend (whether friend or “friend” no longer matters), but instead, the final note is extremely sour: Osbert couldn’t resist writing a will that would force his heirs into mutual discomfort. His father couldn’t have done it “better.”

Let me not bid adieu to John Pearson’s book on a sour note of my own: for all the limitations that I have carried on about, it’s highly informative and extremely readable. I carried it about everywhere, even though it was a big old thing.

Reading Note:
Transitional Protocols
8 April 2015

Although this entry is about John Pearson’s The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography — published in 1978 — it does not really concern the Sitwells. My subject today is rather Pearson’s intriguing handling of the elephant-in-the-room topic — as it still was in those days, almost forty years ago — of Osbert Sitwell’s homosexuality.

For well over two-thirds of the book, Pearson appears to treat the matter with old-fashioned circumspection. Although the H word is attached to a small number of minor figures, and to the artist who was the focus of Edith Sitwell’s most painful fixation, Pavel Tchelitchew, it is not used in reference to Osbert. We hear instead of Osbert’s “friends,” of two friends, to be exact. (He appears to have had no “friends” at all as a young man, not even at Eton.) The friendship with Adrian Stokes is not long-lasting, but the fact that it peters out after a short time, along with that of the age difference, suggests that the relation was something quite other than the platonic mutuality of two peers. The friendship with David Horner lasts for decades, but not once is carnal contact so much as hinted at. We are in the old world in which such things were not mentioned. Anyone with an adult, reasonably cosmopolitan mind could infer them. Although we now regard such discretion as both evasive and repressive, it had a lot to recommend it. I myself didn’t fault Pearson for observing the traditional protocols.

What shocked me was the way he dropped those protocols, like a stack of china plates, in a late chapter that is dated 1949-1952. (Osbert’s dates: 1892-1969.) Nothing to do with sex!

Cyril Connolly defined the natural qualities of the homosexual writer as “combativeness, curiosity, egotism, intuition and adaptability,” and one can see how much Osbert had relied on all these literary advantages to complete his monumental work. (407)

Typing it out now, I’m still shocked. Everybody knows, it seems, that some men like to have sex with other men, and only with other men; there’s no need to call attention to this in print. “Homosexuality,” it appears, means something else, something that comprehends an aesthetic, an artistic style that Cyril Connolly obligingly unpacks for the gentle reader. It also appears, in 1978, that, where art is concerned, the love that dare not speak its name can shout it — so long as love has nothing to do with it.

The thick plottens a few pages on. Even after pointing what “one can see,” Pearson continues his policy of not identifying the relationship between Sitwell and Horner as homosexual. But the euphemism of friendship undergoes a terrible strain, not least, one imagines, because Osbert was by this time well into the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.

But inevitably the illness made him more of a recluse, and more and more dependent on the few close friends he had. He became gentler and more accepting of his lot, and very tolerant and thankful for the affection that he could command — particularly from David. He seems to have been very wise about him now. He knew that it was only natural for David to have other friends and something of a life away from him. This always had been a condition of their life together and it still applied. But David was still fond of him, still spent the greatest part of every year with him, and he was grateful. (436)

Other friends… This is not the way one speaks of friendship. It is a way of talking about romance, particularly the imbalanced romance that subsists between lovers who do not love equally. David is “fond” of Osbert, and no more has been imputed to him at any earlier point in the narrative. Osbert, in contrast, has been explicit about his love for David, especially in letters that might have been copied from Wilde. Whether the romance had a sexual aspect is of course nobody’s business, but it would appear to be more candid to speak of David and Osbert as lovers. The want of such candor screams two pages later.

But Osbert had more serious troubles to contend with now. Gossip had started about him and David, and while he was still in Florida he received a disturbing letter from David saying that there was talk that they were breaking up. (438)

Now we are beyond the problem of nomenclature, and clearly in need of more explicit descriptions of the actual relationship between the two men. Gossip? Breaking up? Why would David be the one to report this? Had he given grounds for such a rumor? He very possibly had, with one of his other friends. But Pearson tells us nothing. He tells us, in fact, no more than Sitwell himself did in his multi-volume autobiography, in which David was mentioned, Pearson tells us, once. Pearson might just as well have done the same. Osbert’s friendship with David occurs entirely off-screen. Rather, it takes place entirely in public, but with an altogether unnatural invisibility.

As a result, there is no preparation for the startling development that occurs shortly after the events that I’ve related. This development is nothing less than Edith’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which is, long story short, attributed to her attempt to deal with the rage occasioned by David’s mistreatment of ailing Osbert, a mistreatment that is not specified in even the grossest detail. Without David’s having appeared to do anything, he moves from being Edith’s friendly correspondent about her brother’s health to the arch-villain of the piece.

And, once again, I should understand this coy confusion perfectly well had not Pearson barged in with the news that Osbert was a homosexual writer!

The fact that Pearson was writing years and years ago, in a very different climate, when homosexuals were beginning to be tolerated, but still not quite accepted, doesn’t explain much of anything — does it? In fact, I’ve just put my finger on it. Homosexuality was, at least in sophisticated circles, tolerated. That Osbert Sitwell might be a homosexual was no occasion for contempt or ostracism. But homosexual relationships — the ways in which two men might express their love in public, with their clothes on — still made the heteronormative world uncomfortable. Such relations, it was hoped, would continue to remain closeted.

So, what the hell did David Horner do?

Gotham Diary:
Tidying Up Memory Lane
7 April 2015

Last night, after dinner, while Kathleen and I were reading quietly, I was stunned by a instance of eccentric excess that beat just about everything. A Rolls-Royce fitted out with a harpsichord! As this automotive wonder was said to have plied the roads of Europe between the wars, what was almost as stunning was my never having run into the anecdote before. During the early Seventies, I did practically nothing but scoop up tales of musical curiosity, usually from the liner notes of classical LPs. How could I have missed this one?

Before Kathleen could fill out a search request, I was already wondering if the keyboard instrument in question might not be a clavichord, rather than a harpsichord, so I suggested searching for “chord,” and, wouldn’t you know,  I was right. The downgrading dropped from there. Not only was it a clavichord, but it was not actually installed in the Rolls; rather, it was packed in a tool compartment under the front seat. The instrument could not be played en route. Having built and owned a clavichord myself — I built it from a kit — I understood the practicality, insofar as a very wealthy musician might have to worry about practicality, of toting the most quiet of instruments on road trips. The vision of bizarre self-indulgence that would mount a harpsichord keyboard on the back of the panel separating the passenger from the chauffeur evaporated before we could stop laughing at it. Kathleen was sorely disappointed: she had hoped for a photograph.

Let me tell you a funny story about Lord Clavichord. Annoyed by a lesser, not-yet-titled acquaintance in whose Chelsea house was prominently displayed a large bowl full of press clippings, he placed an even larger bowl in his entry hall, and deposited into it a single, utterly uninteresting snippet from the Times, announcing that he had returned to London from a trip abroad. Not that I can vouch for this story any more than I should for the harpsichord in the Rolls. Both tales come from the same source, John Pearson’s 1978 book about the Sitwells. (Osbert Sitwell was the friend with the smaller bowl and the deeper thirst for vainglory.) I hope to learn more about Lord Berners, the musical millionaire, from a recent book — well, not so recent that you can’t buy it used at Amazon — that the NYRB just got round to reviewing (with a nice notice by Alan Hollinghurst), Sofka Zinovieff’s The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy. Meanwhile, I’m filling in a long-partial picture of the sometime literary trio.

I can’t remember why I bought Pearson’s book, but I’m glad that I did. I’ve tried to read biographies of Edith Sitwell, but I’ve never got very far, because she was so hysterically self-important. The family approach works much better. Just when I want to put Edith on a diet of arsenical buns, Pearson shifts his focus to someone else in the family. Osbert, if hardly more likable, was not quite so mad. The poor fellow was always trying to achieve a literary success that would make him rich. Like his sister, he had a nose for notoriety, but although everybody knew who the Sitwells were, or at least that they existed, it was difficult to transmute this celebrity into pounds sterling. Which was all the more galling because Osbert had expensive tastes, having cultivated them as the son of a wealthy but disapproving baronet. Money was everywhere, around Osbert, except in his pockets. The third child, Sacheverell, was far better-adjusted than his siblings. Indeed, he enjoyed a long and happy marriage to an attractive Canadian, complete with children (and  heirs). The villain of the piece is Sir George Sitwell, the meddlesome but unloving father. Having reached the year 1930 — each of Pearson’s chapters is dated — I suddenly had to know how much longer I was going to be asked to put up with Sir George, and I was shocked to learn that he would be around for another thirteen years. Sir George Sitwell was so mean that, rather than pay his wife’s gambling debts, he allowed her to be packed off for a three-month stay as His Majesty’s guest — at Holloway Prison. Oh, the horror!

But why, you ask, am I reading about the Sitwells at all? Out of a kind of completism, I suppose — tying up loose ends that have been dangling for decades. Permit me to explain. In the first years of the Sixties, I should say for Christmas 1961, I presented a wish list of books that represented, more than any physical development, my jump from childhood into adolescence. All of a sudden, and out of seemingly nowhere, I became a reader of more or less serious books and a listener to classical music. It took a few years for my taste to cohere, or for me even to know what was going on, but what I can reconstruct of that wish list is evidence of my mind in embryo. I still have two of the books, both of which were new at the time, which is how I learned about them, probably in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. One was Edith Sitwell’s The Queens and the Hive, a narration of the deadly duet that Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart danced for almost thirty years.

So that’s how I came to know about Edith Sitwell. Not from Façade (although I quickly got to that), but from a book not of poetry but not really quite history, either. I haven’t looked at The Queens and the Hive in ages, but I think it safe to say that the writing is more colorful and expressive and, yes, even poetical, than is usual in worthy histories. Over the years, I learned that Sitwell was not considered, by anyone who mattered, to have been an important literary figure. Worse, she was something of a clown. Along the way, however, I had acquired a pile of books, most of which I still have simply because I have had them for so long. (Memo to Marie Kondo: they still spark joy when I hold them.) I had one book by each of her brothers, but I have read neither. (I came across Osbert’s Noble Essences just the other day. I suspect that I’ve held onto it because there’s an Edward Gorey drawing on the cover.) For some reason or other, I appear to have felt, when I ordered The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography, that it was time to pin them all down, to organize the information accrued.

I was also interested in the Sitwells as social creatures in civil society. It cannot be said that Edith or Osbert behaved particularly well. In fact they were awful. They combined the lurid hauteur of the anxiously titled with intellectual-class disdain of the masses (no less rooted in fear than their snobbery was), making a classy cocktail of modernist contempt. I fear that I shall have to place them in my rogues’ gallery. Lord Berners, with his clavichord and his bigger bowl, promises to be much more sympathetic.

The Admiral said, “You could never call —
I assure you it would not do at all!
She gets down from table without saying ‘Please,’
Forgets her prayers and to cross her T’s,
In short, her scandalous reputation
Has shocked the whole of the Hellish nation;
And every turbaned Chinoiserie
With whom we should sip our black Bohea

Would stretch out her simian fingers thin
To scratch you, my dears, like a mandoline;
For Hell is just as properly proper
As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!

(En Famille)

I had to pull down the text, but only for the inaudible elements of punctuation and capitalization.

Kafkureaucracy Note:
The Hobsbawm File
2 April 2015

Also in the current issue of the LRB (37/7) is Frances Stonor Saunders’s report on MI5′s thick file on the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The report covers a twenty-year period dating from the beginning of World War II to a moment in the Sixties when the bureaucratic clock ran out, fifty years ago. MI5, Britain’s version of our CIA, cannot release files that are less than fifty years old. It is further prohibited from releasing files kept on living persons, which is why Hobsbawm, who made repeated requests, was never permitted to see what MI6 “had” on him.

What they had, it turns out, proved absolutely nothing unless glanced through the agency’s ludicrously circular suspicions, all founded on that most essential of bureaucratic proclivities, the idea that, once you have come to the attention of an organization charged with gathering important information, you can never cease to be one. This doesn’t mean that the spooks will keep tabs on you just in case. It means that they will see betrayal in your every move. The Hobsbawm file is thick with evidence — taken from correspondence and phone calls — that Hobsbawm’s relations with “Moscow” and with any kind of party orthodoxy were openly hostile. To an intelligent observer, this would have suggested reducing the intensity of surveillance. To the bureaucrat, of course, it was proof positive of Hobsbawm’s devilishly clever malignity.

Following his reprimand, Hobsbawm pulled his neck in, but MI5, working on the principle that any change in demeanour must be a stratagem, a calculated deception, continued to monitor him. Their suspicions were further aroused when Southern Command reported that Hobsbawm knew he was being watched. For a surveillance operation to be effective, it must go unnoticed by the target; nothing should be discernible, not a whiff. Literally. Cornwell [John le Carré] recalls that MI5 burglary teams in the 1950s – tasked with breaking and entering for the purpose of photographing records or installing eavesdropping equipment – were acutely conscious of leaving behind their own smell (habitual smokers in a non-smoking house, unfamiliar aftershave, women’s scent and deodorants etc). Hobsbawm was now, in MI5 usage, ‘surveillance sensitive’, which would explain his muted posture and the interruption of contact with Kahle: he was trying to throw them off the scent.

That Hobsbawm might instead be attempting a retreat from what he later described as a ‘combination of priggishness and immaturity’ (an unwitting echo of his commanding officer’s view, as expressed to MI5, that he was ‘patriotic’ but ‘juvenile’ in his judgments) was never considered. Nor was the possibility that this passionate anti-Nazi could do something more useful in the war effort than teaching soldiers the correct pronunciation of ‘Wo ist das nächste Bordell?’ This is how intelligence works: it’s a parallel universe of unfalsifiability where evidence is fitted into a context already believed to be true. Just as when Alice B. Toklas throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude Stein: ‘This is the wrong road!’ Stein drives on: ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’

So, Hobsbawm’s file continued to gain mileage.

Meanwhile, of course: Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt — the agency’s own. This quartet of traitors proves not so much that MI5 didn’t know what was going on — suggesting that stepped-up precautions would have found the  toffs out. What it proves is that the mere creation of organizations such as MI5 leads inexorably to the darkest kinds of espionage. An unintended but inevitable consequence of its founding is that MI5 exists to host counterspies. How could it not? What could be more attractive than the opportunity to game a system that, in order to assure regularity and to minimize the effects of idiosyncrasy, substitutes rules and procedures for individual judgment? Who can be fooled more easily than clerks taught not to think for themselves?

(And then, of course, the obvious stupidity of entrusting the security of a superpower to bureaucrats is used to “justify” rogue activities.)

What we can learn from this is that security operations decay when they become routine. In police forces, routine operations lead to looking the other way at best and outright corruption at worst. The comic books have it right: it would make more sense to hire free-lance teams of brilliant misfits to ferret out the information that would either prove or disapprove official hunches. One per customer: no repeat investigations by the same team.

Bureaucracy is yet another example of the misapplication of Industrial-Revolution discoveries to the civil life of human beings. It purports to solve the problem of trust. How can you be sure that Official X is doing what he’s supposed to be doing? You can institute rules and procedures to trammel the activities of Official X, if that makes you feel better. But this is as effective as a diet of cholesterol triggers. The fact is that you cannot, ever, be sure about Official X. You have to trust him. You have to use your judgment. You and Official X have to be good at what you do, and good people as well. There are no shortcuts. And why should there be? Bureaucracy is, after all, merely a pipe dream that promises an end to the need to pay attention to boring matters.


Beyond the general dim-wittedness of bureaucratic policing, the Hobsbawm file lights up the aurora borealis of anti-Communist anxieties, which raddled the developed world as soon as the Tsar and his family were shot, and Paris flooded with the beleaguered owners of salvaged samovars. Vladimir Putin is currently teaching us that we should have done better to confess our fear of Russia. We seemed to believe that the nation that the Bolsheviks conquered had formerly been a dreamland of ballets, palaces, and odd French. We pretended that Peter the Great, stylistically a Westerner, was a figure of the Enlightenment. We forgot about the awful Ivans and the bad Boris. We forgot about the lockdown of civil society enforced by a monastic establishment as grim as ISIS. And now they are all coming back, waking up like Sleeping Ugly.

It was because we were really afraid of Russia that we feared the world-wide spread of Communism. (There is really no other way to explain “Nixon in China.”) It was the fear of Russia that made us that warranted, in Eric Hobsbawm’s instance, the constant antagonism of an Anglo-German, Marxist scholar who never, as an adult, committed the slightest breach of faith. It was our fear of Russia that inspired our leaders — everyone but Churchill, and then Roosevelt — to prefer Hitler to Stalin.

When I was a student, there was a puzzle that caused a lot of discussion. How was it that, at their most radical, fascism and communism were equally totalitarian and dehumanizing? It was as though political activity took place not in an arc, from right to left, but in a ring, in which the extremes simply fused.

Thinking about this yesterday, and knowing a lot more than I did as a student, I saw that the very different attitudes toward human nature that are exhibited by the left and the right lead to the same horrors because neither the left nor the right respects human nature. The left is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to fall short of their potential, and it tries to legislate, and then to coerce, improvements. (This is one of those lamentable afterlives of Enlightenment ideas.) The right is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to complain about falling short, and it tries to silence “opposition.” The left disapproves of human nature; the right wants to pander to it. Neither sides accepts the unavoidable complications of human nature. Our political philosophies all begin with statements of where we want to go. It is time to begin with an understanding of who we actually are.

Gotham Diary:
1 April 2015

In the spirit of April Fool’s, I probably ought to leave today’s photograph unexplained. Not many years hence, nobody, but nobody will able to figure out where it was taken. For all I know, the three stones are no longer lined up alongside the street that had been repaved just the night before. They are probably not even three stones anymore.

I took the picture as a souvenir of Will. The night before, we had been walking to a restaurant. Will climbed the stone in the foreground as soon as we turned the corner and saw it. He paused at the far end, assaying a jump. I held his hand, in case. Somehow, without saying a word, we both decided that the gap, in the neighborhood of a yard, was too broad  So he jumped down instead, and climbed the second stone, from which a hop to the third was easy-peasy. The next day, as I was on my way to lunch at a restaurant across the street from one where we had dined, the stones were an almost shocking reminder of my precious grandson. So, Mr Potato Head that I am, I took this very dull and inherently inexplicable picture. When I saw it again a few minutes ago, it took a moment for the recollection of Will to click in. But I remembered the location perfectly well. California Avenue, just south of El Camino Real. Palo Alto, California. Monday, 23  March 2015. Pretty soon, I’ll forget that, too.

I’m exhaustipated. I went to the dentist at eleven and the dermatologist at 2:30. I had a nice lunch in between, but I ran errands after the second appointment, and had to lug a bunch of bags from 79th Street home, faute de taxi. I’m planning a very simple dinner, but cooking of any kind seems beyond me; I won’t be surprised if we order Chinese.

I’d forgotten all about Easter when Fossil Darling mentioned it on Saturday. I called my late mother-in-law’s butcher first thing Monday morning, and sheepishly asked for a ham. It turned out not to be too late to make such a request. The butcher will cut the ham roughly in half, and slice the smaller half into steaks, which I shall distribute, frozen, to our dinner guests, for them to enjoy some other time at home. I have discovered that the ham steaks don’t take prolonged freezing well. Two months is about the limit. Also, one wants one’s freezer space for other things. I wish that butchers would sell ham steak, but there doesn’t seem to be any demand for good ones. The pathetic ones that hang in plastic in supermarkets are too small, too watery, and too pallid. Also, without the bone, they’re worthless. Better to have a ham sandwich from the delicatessen.

I shall roast half of the ham according to a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a recipe that Julia Child recycled for ham steaks in The Way to Cook. (Pineapples are not involved.) Ray Soleil will bring his fabulous ultra-chocolate mousse, which Kathleen, who gives up chocolate for Lent, cannot wait to devour. Ms NOLA will make a healthy and delicious salad. This will be our first holiday dinner in the new kitchen, which will hold all three of us.


“Exhaustipated” is a word that has emerged in the household lingo that Kathleeen and I speak, by no means privately. Who knows which one of us made it up. We coin new words all the time, and most of them fade into oblivion pretty quickly. Kathleen came up with a keeper the other day, though. Instead of saying “I have to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow,” she said, “I have to get up at the crackola.” (Accent on the second syllable, for those of you who can’t tell never-you-mind from Shinola.) I love it. “Crackola” emphasizes the fact that you have to be cracked, screw-loose, out of your everloving mind to make an early-morning appointment. Or, in Kathleen’s case, spdrwoman.

It’s probably a preppy thing, but a lot of our patois consists of highly-abused French. C’est le storois, for example. (Store-WAH.) Kathleen says this all the time. It doesn’t really mean, “That’s the story, but something closer to “That’s all, folks!” A very good friend of mine used to be unable to call the premium Ford automobile by its proper name; he had to say, Lincogne. (Lean-KUN-ya.) A real fan of the ancien régime, he called the little triangular vent that appeared on the rear doors of Detroit’s luxury cars — all front doors had them, but only rich people’s rears — the “let-them-eat-cake” window. If he was actually sitting in the back seat of such a car, he would open the vent and mime throwing crumbs from it. Sometimes the crumbs were real. This friend went missing about ten years ago. Perhaps he encountered a stray guillotine.

It’s a sign of our debased culture that, instead of Shakespeare and Horace, Kathleen and I garnish our conversation with lines from the movies. “I am, after all, me.” (Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.) “But where do you keep your wallet?” (Gene Wilder in The Producers.) The monologues of Ruth Draper constitute a rich seam of source material. “I don’t know how you drank that.” “That’s what minds are for.” “Goodbye, and don’t come back!”

Speaking of preppy, did anybody see the (faux) death notice for Bunny Bixler?


In addition to being tired, I’m very upset about Jenny Diski. I hope that you don’t have to ask who she is. Hers has long been the first name that I look for in every new issue of the London Review of Books. Her dry humor exudes an essence of impatience so fine-grained and concentrated that it is fragrant rather than annoying. She does not suffer fools gladly, but you might say that she suffers fools for the wicked fun of it. And now she has small-cell lung adenocarcinoma. I asked the dermatologist about this, and she gave me a shrug of hopelessness. It’s not good, she said. It is not brought on by smoking, she added, and it kills more women than men. The mother of a friend of hers has been in remission for three years now but they say that she could go at any time. (That rather sounds like remission as a tire with all the air let out.) Genetic, surmised the dermatologist.

Jenny Diski has been publishing a sort of cancer journal, and in the latest entry she reports that the only thing that consoles her is knowing that she has not-existed before — before she was born. I’m glad that this thought gives her comfort, but it wouldn’t do anything for me. At least, I don’t think it would. I’ve been meditating on the idea all day, in between sighs of fatigue.

Would it have been better just to take the day off?

Department of Vexation:
31 March 2015

Once again, there are piles of books here and there in the apartment. Boxes, too, some of them empty. Instead of breaking down the empty ones and taking them out to the service elevator room for disposal, I’m holding them for refills: books to go into storage. Vexed matter, that.

Regular readers just may recall that there came a day in December when I said, “Enough,” and arranged the fifteen unopened book boxes in the dining ell. They were about as invisible as light-brown solids could be, and they looked orderly enough if you saw them at all. The bookcases were almost full, and the contents of these remaining boxes would either go into storage themselves or displace books that had been shelved. Vexing.

The unopened boxes contained books from two very different bookcases upstairs. The ones marked “B4M-R” or “B5M-R,” or some variation thereof, held books from the second and third ranks of the bottom shelves of the breakfront bookcase. Those shelves are hard to get to — I have to get down on my knees and, unable to bend to see, grope. These were books that I wanted to hold on to but didn’t expect to open anytime soon. They will almost certainly go into storage now. (The shelves on which they stood are still partially or completely vacant. I’m thinking of storing something other than books in these difficult reaches.)

The other set of boxes came from bookcase F. Bookcase F is currently standing in the foyer, loaded with art books and generally taking the place of a classy-looking but shoddily-made book case that I knew we’d never be able to fit into the apartment. Effectively, there is no longer a bookcase F, just the books that were in it. Bookcase F housed a miscellany of books on all subjects save fiction and history, and many of them are one-of-a-kind, such as David Esterly’s The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making (Viking, 2012). This book is something like Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, but, instead of motorcycles and political philosophy, Esterly writes about wood carving, Grinling Gibbons, Hampton Court, and his participation in the restoration of a stateroom damaged by fire. Esterly, an American, had to prove himself worthy of the challenge, so the book is about that, too. To call either book a “memoir” would be dim-witted, but memoir, written by a craftsman, is what the two books have in common. You could slip Shop Class in among the political philosophy books, and Esterly’s book would fit in with the art books, but that arrangement seems dim-witted, too. The whole point of bookcase F was to reflect the unclassifiability of many books.

Another book that would belong in bookcase F because it wouldn’t belong anywhere else is Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. That’s assuming that it belongs in my library at all, something that I’m not sure about. (I haven’t quite finished reading it.) Everyone has been praising H Is for Hawk to the skies, but I find myself, among other things, in disagreement with many of the blurbs printed on the back of the dust jacket. Will I be surprised if a better book is published this year (Financial Times)? I’ll be not only surprised but appalled if one isn’t. “A wonderful exploration of how birds of prey can function as metaphor to produce art” (Dan O’Brien)? What does that even mean? I cannot agree with the Costa Book Award judges that H Is for Hawk is unparalleled in modern literature. (Running With Scissors comes swiftly to mind, tonally different though it be.) There’s something about Macdonald’s style that I don’t like, and it occurs to me now that this something is American. I don’t mean, as you might think, that there is something American about trying to capture the wildness of one’s own grief, although this is certainly something that the British writers that I’m familiar with don’t go in for. It has something to do with Macdonald’s language — a transatlantic quality, perhaps.

Macdonald was felled when her father, a noted press photographer only in his late fifties, collapsed and died on assignment in Battersea. Macdonald was very close to her father, she tells us, although she doesn’t enlarge on that or on any other aspect of her family life. Nor does she have much to say about her career as an academic historian. She appears to be on good terms with her mother and her brother, and a few close friends make sporadic appearances; as for the career, it is simply interrupted by grief. The conceit of the book — and I think I’m right to call it that — is that the death of Macdonald’s father left her all alone in the world. No partner, no home, no job, no nothing. Just the goshawk that she decided to train, and memories of reading The Once and Future King, TH White’s book about King Arthur, and The Goshawk, White’s account of training his own bird. Macdonald all but sequesters herself in dehumanizing misery, identifying, to the point of madness, with her feral pet, Mabel. Macdonald describes Mabel with an aplomb that, simply as a matter of writing, in contrast to the language of the rest of the book, suggests to me that she has not overcome the British leeriness of self-revelation. In the book’s best passages, Macdonald stumbles after her hawk through woods and fields with a transforming zeal, as if she were becoming a hawk herself.

Macdonald is able to return to normal life because she happens to be, after all, normal. TH White, to whom H Is for Hawk is something of a memorial, was not normal. Beaten by sadistic schoolmasters as a child, he became a sadist himself, and a homosexual as well. He recognized these developments with horror and did not indulge them — except, it seems, with his hawk, who eventually had enough and flew away. White’s is a sad story, or at any rate a lonely one, in Macdonald’s telling.


A sad and lonely story of a rather similar kind is told by Penelope Lively in the tenth of her novels that I have read, Passing On. The points of identity, often inverted, between Passing On and H Is for Hawk are so numerous that Lively’s novel answers the question, which I shouldn’t have dreamed of asking, “How would Lively handle Macdonald’s material?” Passing On begins with a funeral, and ends with something like an exorcism. Two middle-aged children, Helen and Edward, have spent their unmarried adulthood living under the roof of their unloving, demeaning mother. Now she is gone. She has left the house to her adolescent nephew, on the understanding that Helen and Edward shall have it for life. The children themselves have inherited outright an adjoining lot, a wilderness known as “The Britches.” This is where Edward spends most of his free time. A closeted gay schoolmaster — he teaches girls at a “crummy” private school — Edward lives a life of the most abject self-denial. Considered saintly by others, he is merely past caring for or about himself. As with White, there is no place in the British gentry for Edward. (Passing On was published in 1989.)

Now that his mother is dead, Edward finds that he minds this self-suppression very much. A passionate bird-watcher, Edward nonetheless realizes that human beings bring something additional to the business of organic life. Call it love, call it self-awareness, call it the foreknowledge of death — it is all of these things. Edward does not quite blame his stunted humanity on his mother, but her absence from the scene allows him to assess it — and he is undone.

A local developer pesters Helen and Edward to let him develop The Britches. Just to quiet him, Helen hires the developer’s son to dig a vegetable garden behind the house. One summer afternoon, after weeks of sleeping very poorly, Edward finds himself transfixed by what he sees out the window. Later, he remembers it this way:

He forced himself to go over what had happened, or what he thought had happened. The whole episode seemed now quite unreal; he doubted the testimony of his own memory, which made it all the more nightmarish. He could remember sitting up here, in his room, tense and restless, hearing the sound of the boy’s spade from beyond the yew hedge. He remembered getting up, going downstairs, standing for a while at the sitting-room window. There was some idea in his head, he knew, of going out there to talk to Gary, simply talk, he had barely ever exchanged more than two words with him. He had this compulsion to look at him, to stand there in the sunshine and watch him digging. He remembered opening the french windows, walking across the lawn. Then, somehow, he was beside Gary. Had he spoken? Gary had turned towards him — there had been an expression of surprise on his face. And that whiff of Lifebuoy soap, and the swell of his brown arms below the rolled-up shirt sleeves. But then what had happened? Edward had wanted to touch him, that he knew. He had wanted, overwhelmingly, to lay his hand on that blooming flesh, to feel its warmth, to make contact. The boy, indeed, had at that moment ceased to be himself at all — to be Gary Paget — but had become universal, anonymous and accessible. Edward had been filled with tumultuous thoughts and feelings, topped by an overwhelming need. And affection, there had been that also — a compulsive, joyous affection. He had seen Gary as someone else, as everyone: as a specific person known and lost, as a person unknown and of wondrous promise. He had reached out and his had arrived not on Gary’s arm but at his crotch. (189)

I hate quoting Lively out of context. For one thing, the stories are so good that it seems criminal to spoil them in the least detail. For another, Lively is a past-master at creating sustained fictional weather, such that the passage that I have quoted climaxes a sun-stricken sequence of pages with all of the éclat — but, horribly, none of the noise — of a summer thundershower. We stand by, so transfixed ourselves by Gary’s metamorphosis into a god that we’re not annoyed by, or even inclined to notice, the repetition of “overwhelming” and “compulsion.” It is right out of Ovid. But it is Edward’s life that is upended.

Happily, there is no doubt about where to shelve Passing On. It belongs with all the other Livelys, currently lined up in a small enameled bookshelf under the bedroom window that functions as a much-reduced bookcase F. Who knows whose novels will have to go into storage to make room for them in the fiction bookcase? A vexed question!

Travel Advisory:
Out and Back
30 March 2015

The flight home was not fun. The turbulence wasn’t too bad until we approached New York, but I found it excruciating. Then the pilot switched on the Fasten Seatbelts sign, and announced that, as we should be making an instrument landing, all computers must be turned off. The forepart of my brain could deal with this information, but it wasn’t much help, because the primitive posterior of that organ, stiffened by the horrible surprise of the Germanwings crash just days before, remained unsubdued by two Xanax tablets. In the anxious empire of my helplessness, the announcement of an instrument landing had never been heard, for the good reason that, as my brighter self was perfectly well aware, such disclosures were unnecessary before in-flight Wi-Fi. As we rocketed in descent, I expected the plane to fly apart at any moment. (Visibility was indeed very low — three or four hundred feet at the most.) I have been on flights where landings were greeted by the passengers’ applause. This was not one of those. Everyone seemed quite calm. It was only me.

Otherwise, it was, if not a great trip, then an exceedingly interesting one. And we got to spend a lot more time with my daughter and her family than we had expected to do. On our last full day, Megan met us for lunch at Louis’s Diner, overlooking the ruins, shown in today’s photograph, of the Sutro Baths. Then she drove us up to the top of Twin Peaks, which neither Kathleen nor I had been to before. The weather was cool and crystal-clear. On our way home to Megan’s, we drove through an enclave that we’d never even heard of, St Francis Wood, a residence park of Westchestery substance.

Before that, there was Palo Alto. We stayed at an inn on Stanford Avenue, just off El Camino Real. The university campus began across the street. Four blocks along the main drag in the other direction lay California Avenue, where there were some quite nice restaurants. (I also had lunch one day at the Jack in the Box somewhere in between.) There was every inducement to leave the premises. No window in the bedroom; a conference table in the “living room,” no proper reading chair, a bizarre (but clean) bathroom. When it was warm enough, I sat in a flowery courtyard and tried to keep out of the sun. But it was usually too chilly.

I attended Kathleen’s panel at the Blockchain Workshop, but it was rather disappointing, owing to the unexpected presence of a cyberlibertarian cattleranching rock star. The man never sank to bloviation, but he did talk an awful lot. Kathleen looked a wee bit annoyed. The next day, we showed up for a panel on Burning Man, catching the end of another panel, this one on the Internet of Things. The Burning Man talk was lively, and I wish I could tell you about the panelists, but the acoustics were terrible, and I never did figure out who anybody was. Larry Harvey was there, but I had him mixed up with Peter Hirshberg and Stuart Mangrum. No matter, no matter; the stories were very good. You may be wondering what “blockchain” means, or you may be wondering why there was a Burning Man panel at a convocation of the Bitcoin Space. Don’t look at me!

It was disappointing to discover (as reason would have foretold) that there is no sand, nor any dunes, on Sand Hill Road, which runs up into the mountains from El Camino Real along the northern edge of the Stanford campus. I had enjoyed imagining that the venture capitalists to whom the name of the road refers, just as “Wall Street” refers to the stock market, hived in concrete bunkers on windswept beaches, desperately outbidding each other for real estate on the moon.

At lunch one day, we were having a nice talk with some younger people at a table by an interesting pool. Then I put my foot in it, by saying that San Francisco used to be a much more formal town, and I wasn’t only going on Vertigo or The Birds but remembering my own first visit, fifty-three years ago. The conversation shifted to local matters about which I could be expected to have nothing to say. The young people were very nice but very firm.

Megan and I had two very interesting conversations — interesting to me, anyway — and I’m going to write about the substance of each in a little while, letting things settle, and avoiding the risk of appearing to report on a discussion that Megan may remember differently. The first conversation was about the application of robots to farming, and it was touched off by Megan’s intriguing remarks about soils and mycorrhizal fungi. The second conversation was about “people skills” and sexism.

Will is beginning to discover that time is bigger than he is. When he airily told me that his “great-great-great-grandmother” was a famous doctor, I had to tell him to lose two of the greats; Martha Yow would not have been pleased to be shoved into older generations. But those greats meant little to Will. He needed more vivid constructions. Later, when Megan and I were talking about stuff and clutter and getting rid of things, I mentioned a photograph album, full of old photographs of people who were dead before I was born, that belonged to my father’s parents. “Your father’s parents!” exclaimed Will, shocked by this temporal stretch. You can tell that he both wonders where these ancestral figures are now and knows that he won’t like finding out.


On Friday, I went down to collect packages, mail, and the laundry, and brought up a small box that turned out to contain the sheer curtains for the living room and dining ell windows. I had expected a more voluminous arrival, but glass curtains aren’t voluminous. Ray Soleil came up after work and hung them all. Now, I had been saying for over a month that, as soon as the sheers were up, I’d regard the apartment as done, but instead the latest development set me off on an unforeseen tangent — although Kathleen did say that I’d been talking for “quite a while” about getting rid of the piece of furniture that, as a child, I was taught to call “the buffet.” We emptied the drawers and the cabinets, distributing contents on every available surface, and carted the sideboard to the service elevator room, whence, at some point on Saturday, it was taken away. Did I really do that? It was an iconic thing, that “buffet.” But it was in need of work, and it took up much more room than it contained. It was too big for the dining ell, and there was no sense in finding another place for it.

Instead of a compleated home, then, gracefully sheltered by gauzy draperies that concealed the black window frames together with the black night, I now had a royal mess. Napkins here, pitchers there; the platters I did manage to fit into the kitchen, where they belong. Once again, there are book boxes in the foyer — nine of them. It turns out that the arrival of the curtains signaled the end of a lot of provisional, temporary arrangements that I made in the high heat of the move. The apartment is not done.

But it looks great, and it was great indeed to come home to.

Reading Note:
Confrontation; Craftsmanship
20 March 2015

A bad morning. David Brooks’s column in this morning’s Times is sinking in.

At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.

Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.

When Brooks goes on to speak of good times for Chris Christie and Scott Walker, all I can think of is Virginia Woolf, at about this time of year, in 1941. Nothing degrades humanity faster than fear, and life in a climate of fear is, as Hobbes put it, nasty and brutish. Short begins to look like a plus.


I’ve been reading about confrontational times of long ago, Hobbes’s day, in fact: the crisis of 1637-41 that led up to the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This is not a particularly favorite period of mine, but Ray Soleil brought back a book from his trip to England last summer that I fell into reading despite my own better judgment. (I mentioned it the other day.) Eventually, I couldn’t stand any more, and had to turn to my bookshelves for CV Wedgwood’s account of the same period, The King’s Peace: 1637-1641 (Oxford, 1956). I read it as an undergraduate, without any real understanding, and no sense whatever of Wedgwood’s artistry, but I managed to hold onto the edition, a now-battered first.

Wedgwood (1910-1997) was the great-great-great granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood. She earned a First at Lady Margaret College, Oxford, and in no time at all presented the world with the richly comprehensive Thirty Years War. It’s probably not irrelevant to note that her mother was also a writer. The King’s Peace begins with a brief acknowledgment of thanks to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which enabled her, she says, to write it sooner than she had expected.

The King’s Peace is divided into three sections, the first of which provides the background to the crisis. This background is very spacious. We are taken on a survey of the dominions under Charles’s rule — industry, resources; courtly life and the arts; and so on — that would not seem underdeveloped as an introduction to the history of the Seventeenth Century overall; as the prelude to four turbulent years, it risks seeming overkill. But it establishes a pace of fine-grained scrutiny that the interested reader will find reassuring: Wedgwood has an almost uncanny sense of detail that prevents her ever being tedious. There is, therefore, no impatience for her to begin. The Queen does not appear until the seventy-third page, and almost at once this opening section comes to a close.

The second section of the background report is entitled “Faith and Foreign Politics.” It runs from page 76 to page 133. The hinge between the two subject issues is so quietly clever — for now I was paying as much attention to Wedgwood’s craftsmanship as I was to her story — that I memorized the page number: 110. Having covered the irreconcilable differences between the Arminian clergymen of the Church of England and their Calvinist opponents, Wedgwood wraps up with a few cases of High Commission sanctions against men who would later be known as Dissenters. One of these was a brash young man called Thomas Shepard. Effectively defrocked, Shepard lost an appeal. “Uprooted, Shepherd fled to Yorkshire where he took refuge in a private household, but his retreat was discovered and he sailed for the wider freedom of New England.” We have arrived at Foreign Policy.

The North American colonies do not long detain Wedgwood; it’s enough to know that the king seriously considered outlawing further emigration. Foreign policy began very much at home, with a Catholic queen whose marriage treaty guaranteed her right to worship as she saw fit, and whose husband, initially chilly but later enthralled, confused making her life agreeable with appearing to tolerate not only Catholics but their priests.

The popular argument was ignorant, incorrect, but deadly: if the King, the head of the Anglican Church, persecuted honest Protestants and smiled upon the Papists, it followed that the Church itself was being led back to Rome. The King’s indiscreet and harmless relations with his wife’s friends made his, and Laud’s, religious policy suspect, not only to extremists and fanatics, but to the substantial majority of his Protestant subjects.

This is the best kind of writing: it presents a thorny complication (the king’s confusion) in an agreeably comprehensible manner. (“Smiles” is particularly fine.) But there is something else, something peculiar to this moment in my reading.

Once, he had been in love. At least, he had wanted desperately to go to bed with the girl and thought continuously of her, which fitted descriptions of the state. Mercifully, he discovered that there was already another man before he exposed himself to the humiliation of rejection. Now, he couldn’t remember what she looked like.

He wished, sometimes, that he had married. Sex he would have enjoyed, and a wife would have been armour against the more aggressive female parishioners. He stood in the aisle, still holding the red glove, and pictured the wife he did not have; she swam into the rose window above the west door, a realistic figure, nothing like Mrs Paling, but dumpy and rather plain, wearing a brown raincoat and carrying a pile of organ music, not an arousing figure but a reassuring one. (96)

That’s from Judgment Day. Penelope Lively (born 1933) read history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating with honors. It is not necessary for her undergraduate path to have crossed Wedgwood’s to make out, if not a connection, then a relatedness. Both women write with the same muted geniality.


If Monday comes and goes without an entry’s appearing here, and Tuesday does the same, and so with the rest of the week, that will probably be because I will be taking a break in Palo Alto. Kathleen will be participating in an event at Stanford, and of course I must take the opportunity to visit my daughter and her family in San Francisco. (Although at the moment I’m very tempted to hide under the bed.) I hope to return to weather more springlike, and less punishing, than what afflicts us now.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, a gentleman of my age shares his experiences as a picker-upper of coins in the street. He claims that his haul has swollen since the spread of smartphones.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Judgment Day
19 March 2015

Partly, it’s the cold that I’m on the edge of. It has knocked me down on two days in the last month, but, for the most part, left me walking wounded. Mostly, though, it’s the impending trip to San Francisco. In a perfect world, I would never travel; people and even places would come to me. In this imperfect world, I start shutting down about a week before departure, so that, by the time we leave (for I never travel alone), I’m numb to most anxieties. Airport terminals are, increasingly, places of terror, with authority figures playing the part of terrorists. Everything that I dislike about the way we live now is concentrated in queues of apparently miserable wretches. I don’t want special treatment. I just want to be spared the hugely demoralizing sight of drab, careworn people.

The worst thing about this shutting-down is that it becomes harder to take an interest in things. That, in turn, makes it harder to judge the things that do engage my attention. Are they mere escapes?

Last night, I sat, stunned, for about twenty minutes, after finishing an early (1981) novel by Penelope Lively, Judgment Day. I had fetched it out of the pile the day before and swallowed it whole. Many of the earlier scenes were funnier than anything that I had read in Lively. But there were some very strong notes, too, of understated darkness, and, in the end, it was this darkness that prevailed. I was desolated by the ending — as desolated as if I were all, and all at once, of the characters who were desolate at the end. It was not a good feeling at half-past eleven at night, with Kathleen, unusually, long since asleep.

Lively’s characters are socially defined. We get to know them primarily through their relationships and interactions with others. (Regular readers won’t have any trouble understanding why I find this arresting.) In Lively’s later work, events, the things that happen, are also determined by things that have happened before. That sounds rather obvious, but it is actually uncharacteristic of long fiction in English, which relies on the introduction of new characters and unexpected developments, however plausibly foreshadowed, to maintain the pitch of excitement. In The Photograph, a widower discovers a photograph that he was not meant to see, and everything that happens afterward is a result of that discovery. Of that discovery by him, I ought to say, for it’s really the effect of the photograph on a particular man that sets off a chain reaction among a particular set of acquaintances, who themselves constitute the chain. It is in the light of this chain of events that we see all of the other characters. Everyone in Lively has a private life, but there is no privacy with regard to the world of the novel itself. Because Lively writes very generously, scrupulously registering everyone’s good qualities while letting the bad speak for themselves, her novels do not suffer from the suffocating rage that gives Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fictions their somewhat ludicrous, even autistic atmosphere. You do not want to escape from Lively’s novels. Although, in her later books, Lively quite strictly omits all the irrelevancies, she leaves the world large enough for comfort.

In Judgment Day, we see the characters in light of each other, but there is no chain of events, only a sequence. The plot is ignited by the need to raise funds for the repair of a village church. Almost all of the characters happen to live on the Green over which the church, flanked by a tavern and a petrol station, somewhat humbly presides; but they don’t necessarily know each other well. In fact, there is even a new household, headed by Clare Paling. Clare, a stand-in for the author to the extent that she is an Oxford-educated stay-at-home mother, is happily married to Peter, but Peter is a busy executive, always dashing off to a day at the factory or to a week in Brussels. The fragility of the Palings’ marital arrangement is so delicately hinted at that I can’t locate any actual hints; they consist primarily in the breeziness of Peter’s tone. You would not be surprised to learn that he is having an affair, nor that Clare would forgive him. But Peter is never linked to the slightest misbehavior. Such unrealized potential would not occur in a later Lively.

Naturally, the vicar has a leading role. I have never run into anyone like George Radwell. In George, the laughter and the darkness are united, with the laughs that respond to his early appearances drying up completely as the end approaches. George is a mediocrity, or perhaps something even worse. His being a vicar at all is the result of clerical error. Neither notably good-looking — he is pink-skinned and flabby — nor particularly intelligent — he’s not stupid, but he can never think of the right thing to say until the moment has passed — George is unattractive without being repellent. We laugh at him at first (he makes a fool of himself over Clare), but then we sense, and soon taste, the terrible loneliness of this man whom no one would miss. It begins to seem a living death.

The novel’s true stoic is Sydney Porter, a retired accountant. Porter keeps to himself and cultivates his garden. He has already experienced the living death of surviving the death of his wife and young daughter in the Blitz. Off somewhere else on naval duty, he was close enough to come to London afterward.

He’d asked to go, though there was no need, the identifying had been done already, before he came up from Portsmouth, done by the ARP Warden, who was a neighbor, who knew them well. They were side by side, and the attendant had pulled back the sheet that covered Mary first and for a moment he’d been shattered anew, thought wildly that perhaps there could have been a mistake, because her hair was gray, quite gray, her short, fine, brown hair. And then he’d realized it was the plaster, the plaster dust that had spewed out of the house as it fell about them, covering them, drowning them, suffocating them. And he had stood there staring not at her face, which was gray-white too, but at her dusty hair, until at last someone put a hand on his arm and steered him away.

I’d never read anything like that, either. Just how people died in the Blitz was never made very clear. Did it need to be made clear? But here it is. Drowning in plaster dust. Like the dead at Pompeii. Not burned by flames or boiling lava. Not concussed by falling bricks. Suffocated. Like George Radwell’s mediocrity, Sydney’s loss is expressed with shocking vividness in a very few words.

One other character whom I can mention without spoiling the story is Mrs Tanner. Mrs Tanner is a monster, no doubt about it, and all the more monstrous for having no idea whatever that this is the case. She is the one who deserves the living death of an isolated, unminded existence, but of course she is married to poor Mr Tanner and she even has a grown daughter. She appears in George’s study, “a massive figure in blue crimplene” with a “doughy, expressionless face,” to seek help with her “illness.”

“It’s this phobia, see. It’s been ten years now — ten years this spring. The doctors haven’t ever been able to do anything, so my husband said the other day, why not try the vicar? See what he’s got to suggest, if anything. Can’t do any harm, can it, he said, and that’s what they’re there for, that sort of thing.”

This scene occurred early enough for the idea of George Radwell as a faith healer to convulse me with laughter. Whither could this possibly lead? Several pages later, it leads to Mrs Tanner phoning the vicar to tell him that she’s going to take the place of his housekeeper, who’s off having a baby. So that’s what her “phobia” was all about: the opposite of “meet cute.” This is funny, too, but not quite so funny. Mrs Tanner’s barging around the vicarage with doughy inexpressiveness that nonetheless can’t keep silent turns out to be a very effective device for making sympathy for poor George at least imaginable.

I don’t believe that Penelope Lively was a young mother when she wrote Judgment Day, but the novel is haunted by any young mother’s anxiety about vehicular traffic. Clare herself is oddly immune to this dread. She drives, in fact, rather recklessly, too fast at least, and indeed she drives herself and a carful of children into a ditch. (This accident turns out to be providential, as George tries to counsel her, sparing her a much worse accident occurs at Clare’s intended destination — hardly a recommendation of providence, Clare retorts.) The village Green is vandalized by midnight motorbikers who can’t be caught; eventually, the marauders invade the church and put an end to the plot. (Except the story is not quite over.) Despite the appearance of Old England, the people of this town, like people everywhere who want things to be both convenient and picturesque, have failed to create a safe world. Inevitably, a child riding a bicycle is struck and killed.

This death either destroys or ruptures the two relationships that have grown in the course of the story. I can mention only the one between Clare and George. Working together for the good of a church in whose doctrines neither of them believe, these two, whose early encounters were marked by contempt and equally hostile lust, also work past their belaboring first impressions, but this appreciation culminates in a respect that prevents them from coming together.

Make sure that you do not finish this book alone, late at night.

Gotham Diary:
18 March 2015

Picking up the current issue of The Nation this morning, after finishing with the Times, I had a sort of reverse sauna experience, plunging from an agreeably cool thought into a madly passionate screed — a juxtaposition that made the thought even more attractive. Both appeared in the “Books & the Arts” section at the back, which is not just the only section that I regularly read but the reason for continuing my subscription. The screed, an exaltation of the team of cartoonists that was massacred in January, was written by the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Stéphane Delorme. (“Team” is his word, and the subject of his fourth and final bullet point.) I don’t know if the now-venerable Cahiers was ever quite as edgy as Charlie Hebdo, but its subject matter has always been as graphic as Charlie‘s contents, and Delorme writes as if prepared to climb on board the younger vessel. “Now that literature in France has primarily become an unimportant society game, drawing brims with an understanding of the world.”

If you’ve read the piece, then you won’t be wondering why Delorme is so dismissive of literature, because the immediately preceding paragraphs concern the succès de scandale of Michel Houellebecq’s new book, Soumission. (I’m not going to translate that. You ought to have a dico on your phone if you don’t know what it means.) (Delmorme’s pep talk is entitled “Insoumission.”) I’d like to reproduce the entire essay, because it is so French, but a bit of the Houellebecq put-down will do nicely.

So Houellebecq becomes a word, an idea, the anti-Charlie. With his obsession for sullying everything, he is the embodiment of “meh” France, the rancid, depressive France of the beginning of this century. A France already anachronistic. A France represented by this intellectual without conviction, who tries things out “just to see,” to be less bored, who writes out of boredom. He is the typical French embodiment of a vintage trend, with his prose lifted from Flaubert, Céline and Sartre, but completely flattened out, deadly boring. He is the very picture of the writer without a conscience. Another sinister book was released at the same time, Jean Rolin’s Les Évenements, which shares Houellebecq’s petit-bourgeois fantasy of a civil war led by extremists coming along to entertain us. Now we must hold tight and not let these opportunistic vultures prowl around. Every one of these uninspired writers mired in the sordid and the police blotter merely gathers the crumbs left behind by journalists. We have to put an end to these so-called X-rays of French society, which only reveal their authors’ sad bile. If Charlie could make us understand once and for all that our era needs courage and conviction, and that we’re done with spinelessness — that would be a step in the right direction.

My problem with French journalism is that I have no taste for this kind of rousing, I-feel-better-now excitement, even when it makes me smile, as this certainly did. A strong current of magical thinking — Writing makes it so — charges this sort of work, which nevertheless must eventually fall back on old-fashioned exhortation: we must cease being spineless. Now is the time for courage. Well, now is always the time for courage, and there hasn’t been a moment in the past several centuries when some Frenchman wasn’t writing this sort of thing. For all the good it does…

(For a surprisingly interesting, and not at all unfavorable, review of Soumission, see Mark Lilla’s piece in The New York Review of Books. But don’t be tempted to read Houellebecq in French; he really is deadly boring. That’s his style, and, happily, it fades to invisibility in lower-key English translation. In case you find the author’s pseudonym daunting, just remember Welbeck Street in London, but try not to emphasize the first syllable.)

Nicholas Elliott’s translation of “Insoumission” immediately follows a round-up review by Thomas Meany, “The Great Chastening.” I don’t want to say a word about this fine piece today — I wrote an entry of twice the ordinary length yesterday, and I have errands to run before lunch — but the cool thought that I mentioned is expressed in one brief snippet. Meany is writing about John Dunn, author of Breaking Democracy’s Spell — a book that I think I should like to read.

His prose is intellectually bracing, sometimes opaque, but often flashes with insight. He is a late expositor of what Cyril Connolly called the Mandarin style: “Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are in possession of a classical education and a private income.”

If the shoe fits, sit up in your chair. The problem here, of course, is that I am forever barraged by the common-sense urge to soften the mandarin manner, to open up the seams here and there with a bit of (surely unnecessary) explanation, to concede that I am in possession of an education that is not quite classical — not to mention hurrying along to those errands before lunch; sometimes, just to use meaningless and inelegant expressions, such as “sort of.”

Reading Note:
The Buried Giant
17 March 2015

It’s an extraordinary image, isn’t it? Especially if you know that, the work of one Giovanni Battista Bracelli, it dates from 1624, nearly three hundred years before the word “robot” was introduced. I copied it from the current issue of the New York Review of Books, where it adorns Sue Halpern’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a piece that I referred to yesterday. The figure on the right is very dramatic — reminiscent, for me, of Paul Taylor’s dance, Cloven Kingdom. But it’s the figure on the left, composed in part of six compasses, that tickles me. Six compasses, a bit of baroque scrollery, and what looks awfully like the bells mounted in school hallways. Done!

It can’t quite go without saying that these drawings do not anticipate robots, but rather create (or further), in the venerable tradition of capricci, or fanciful doodles, the imagery to which illustrators would recur when robots did arrive, as fancies of a rather different kind. Bracelli’s characters are not anthropomorphic but just the opposite; they envision men with the gift of fleshlessness. These fellows stumble around painfully, but they will never bleed. It is difficult to suppress the idea that Bracelli’s drawing is “futuristic,” but we must make the effort, and not only because popular illustrators tasked with creating “futuristic” designs drew on very old ideas (if not necessarily Bracelli’s drawing itself). Futuristic images are so rarely predictive.


I thought about running the picture atop yesterday’s entry, where it might have been more apposite, but I’m glad that I didn’t, because I see it more clearly than I did yesterday, now that I have read The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel. The Buried Giant is also about images and their recurrence. This is not immediately obvious — as I must conclude on the basis of two of the four reviews of the novel that I read as soon as I was done with it. (I plead guilty to the charge of reading The Buried Giant, somewhat against my current inclinations, simply in order to deal with the reviews that were piling up, and that I could not read until I knew the book itself.) These rather unfavorable reviews, by Joyce Carol Oates and Adam Mars-Jones, appeared in the two Reviews, New York and London respectively. Oates and Mars-Jones are fairly unhappy to find that The Buried Giant is remarkable neither as a narrative nor as a piece of writing. In their disappointment, they dismiss the novel as second-class fantasy. (Mars-Jones is by far the harsher. Of the novel’s most stirring action sequence, he writes, “From the reader’s point of view, it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” This judgment is not nearly as clever as it sounds.)

The other two reviews that I had on hand, by Christine Smallwood, in Harper’s, and Nathaniel Rich, in The Atlantic, were favorable. Smallwood’s piece is a conspectus of “Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels of remembering” (as the subtitle has it), and at least it left me feeling that I wasn’t a complete fool to have enjoyed The Buried Giant. It was Rich’s piece, however, that woke me up to what I’d liked about it.

From subsequent clues, we can deduce that the year is approximately 450 AD, but despite our unnamed narrator’s anthropological tone, we are not in England as it actually was then, but as it was imagined seven centuries later by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the other mythologizers who gave us King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the wizard Merlin.

This is exactly right, and I shall try to explain why it is also very interesting.

In The Buried Giant, the people of Britain — the “Briton” (Celtic) and Saxon inhabitants of the island — are afflicted by a kind oblivion that, in Ishiguro’s hands, is pregnant with thought about the nature of memory. This oblivion, unlike the cruel caprice of Alzheimer’s Disease, does not make its victims forget their own names, or the faces of their loved ones. They simply forget what is no longer around to remind them — a bit more quickly than we all do. Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple at the center of the novel, cannot remember why their son no longer lives with them; they decide to set out to visit him even though they have no idea where that might be. The implication is that Axl and Beatrice no longer remember that the world, even the world of England, is a big place. Beatrice occasionally visits a Saxon settlement that is about a day’s journey distant, and she seems aware of other villages that lie beyond it; surely their son lives in one of these. So their adventure begins, and it soon becomes a quest — Beatrice’s quest — to put an end to the cause of this oblivion. Beatrice believes that recollection will bring understanding, and Ishiguro maintains our loyalty to Beatrice even as he makes it clear that recollection will bring other, much less desirable things, most notably the longing for revenge.

When what literary historians used to call the matière de Bretagne, the bundle of stories surrounding a late-Roman warrior known as Arthur, were being polished for courtly appreciation by poets and “historians” like Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the middle of the Twelfth Century, there was no real evidence of who the important people of 450 might have been. There were no documents, no inscriptions, no tombs. Bit of weaponry and coinage and other such knickknacks told an ethnological, but not an historical, story. Instead of the kind of evidence that modern historians insist on, Geoffrey and his French counterpart, Chrétien de Troyes, had stories, oral ballads one supposes. We don’t know much (if anything) about how twelfth-century writers transformed this matière into the written works that have come down to us, not because the process was embarrassing but because it was of no interest.

There was no critical voice asking Geoffrey to produce his sources. Geoffrey’s job was to create a satisfying account of what no one doubted — for everyone was familiar with parts of the matière — must have taken place. It is certainly arguable that Arthur and Merlin were “based,” over generations of retelling, on men who existed in 450, but those men were not like Arthur and Merlin. Arthur and Merlin, like snowflakes, grew during and were shaped by centuries of changing conditions. By Geoffrey’s day, a line had been drawn beneath most of those centuries by the Norman Conquest. The old changes, from Roman to Saxon Britain, were over.

Like the villagers among whom Axl and Beatrice live, at the beginning of The Buried Giant, the men and women who “retold” the stories that became the stories of Arthur and Merlin had forgotten everything about the great warriors of the mid-Fifth Century — everything but that there had been great warriors. The stories were the product of oblivion. Kazuo Ishiguro, studding his new novel with ogres, pixies, and a she-dragon, is perfectly aware of this, and he assumes that his readers are perfectly aware of this, too. His she-dragon is not the sort of accoutrement of fantasy literature that it would be in Tolkien. It is a small monument not only to the inability but also to the unwillingness to remember that no one has ever seen a she-dragon.


I have always thought of Ishiguro as a “Japanese” novelist, complete with scare quotes. I know that he grew up and was educated in England, and that he did not revisit Japan (having left it at the age of five) until he was an adult. What I mean by “Japanese” is a synthetic, imaginary quality that is self-consciously imitative of illustrious exemplars. It supposes an aesthetic at odds not so much with Western practices of art as with Western ways of talking about those practices. The Western artist is thought to require “new forms.” He goes out into the garden and looks closely at a peony blossom. He studies it to the exclusion of every other consideration. Then he returns to his studio and paints what he saw: his vision of a peony blossom. The Asian aesthetic, embodied in such treatises as The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, assumes that you must know how to paint a peony blossom before you can actually see one. Therefore you must study all the best paintings of peony blossoms before you consider an actual flower on your own. When you paint what you saw, you strive to make it look as much like other, great, pictures of peonies as you can. If you, too, are blessed with greatness, this will manifest itself almost as an error, as a falling-short of the exemplars, or, just as problematic, a falling-beyond. Your peony painting will be judged only by connoisseurs, men who may or may not be painters themselves but who are familiar with all the exemplars.

I don’t think that Western art is much different, but ever since Vasari, it has been presented in terms of progress and advance. Connoisseurs know better. Or, rather, they understand that “progress” and “advance” have nothing to do with beauty, and are therefore of no interest.

So what I mean when I say that Ishiguro is a “Japanese” artist is not that he has embraced the culture of his ancestors, but simply that — helped, perhaps, by an awareness of that culture — he has dumped a lot of European claptrap. His books, even the most gripping ones, are never about new forms. On the contrary; they are studies of old forms. Christine Smallwood, wondering why, as a “recent convert,” so many of her acquaintance either think little of Ishiguro or take him for granted without content, quotes a letter from a friend.

I think he’s very good, yes, although to be honest there is something snobbish in me that never quite lets myself say he is one of my favorite writers. What is that? I think it’s something about feeling very clearly manipulated, maybe.

That’s our world in a sentence: the writer is too much a snob to admit being the kind of snob who might be called a connoisseur: someone who cannot be manipulated. The big difference between Europe and Asia in this regard is that, in Europe, people who don’t know much about anything will be heard, their opinions “respected.” I hope that I don’t sound too much like Nietzsche when I say that this is ridiculous nonsense.

The pleasure of reading The Buried Giant is very much that of the connoisseur. This can be described in two ways. Positively: the connoisseur grasps a network of objects that becomes more powerful, and even overwhelming, as more connections are made. Negatively: connoisseurship is derivative, preoccupied with the past; ultimately, the connoisseur becomes an oppressive, completist bore. The difference is temperamental, and I don’t see the point of trying to convince people who are impatient with connoisseurship that they are wrong. The pleasure was in any case genuine for me. During the action sequence that I mentioned earlier, I was remembering the excitement of the climax of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose — both scenes of tumult in a monastery; but I was also remembering the fractured narrative, which I didn’t enjoy at the time, of Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice. I was often reminded of Boccaccio, because the archaic style of dialogue adopted by Ishiguro is that of translations of the Decameron — musty and earthy, with nothing left out or taken to be understood. This very quality also reminded me, but negatively, of the King James Bible, a book of many mysteries. If I did not, like the reviewers, make a connection between Ishiguro’s Sir Gawain and Lewis Carroll’s White Knight, that is because, to my shame, I am not conversant with the Alice books. (And if Monty Python and the Holy Grail occurred to me at all, it flashed by very quickly, because I should never allow satire, no matter how exhilarating, to cause collateral damage.) It’s probably no accident that I was reminded of many things that I can only halfway recall; I am no model connoisseur. But the pleasure of sensing connections was constant and quite intense.

I have been describing what I consider to be Ishiguro’s overall style, which I call, cheekily, “Japanese.” What makes The Buried Giant distinct, and not just a medium for memories, is its ongoing dramatization of memory and memory loss. What I mean most by “dramatization” here is that neither memory nor its loss is an absolute evil, the bad man in the play. Axl, who only dimly remembers that he and Beatrice may have had violent disagreements in the past, causing one another pain and even estrangement, wonders if oblivion has not, by healing those old wounds, allowed his love for her to grow robust and even indomitable. The Saxon knight, Wistan, with whom Axl and Beatrice travel — Canterbury Tales! — wants to put an end to the oblivion precisely to sharpen his people’s resentment against the untrustworthy Britons, who, as we know historically, will be beaten back beyond the marches of Wales and the borders of Scotland. We can argue, with Beatrice in turn, that understanding removes the sting of memory: tout comprendre est tout pardonner, a maxim that the Holocaust, however, appears to have derailed. There is no getting to the bottom of this conundrum, because there is no getting to the bottom of the fact that we are little more than what we remember, and that we shall all disappear in the oblivion of others. What makes The Buried Giant exciting to read is the unceasing prospect of betrayal: whom can Axl and Beatrice trust? Can they even trust one another? This, too, is a problem of memory, for we cannot remember what has not yet happened. We can only remember, and that very imperfectly, what has happened in like cases. For the experienced reader, the number of like cases is immense, and Ishiguro’s low-key prose does little to steer you among them.

The Buried Giant ends on a quay by a river, across which lies a special island that can be reached only by the offices of a ferryman, and the ferryman can carry only one passenger at a time. The hope nursed by Beatrice and Axl, that an exception might be made in their case, and both might be ferried across in a single crossing, is as heartbreaking as the hope of those Hailsham students, in Never Let Me Go, that love calls for the special treatment of lovers. It is so easy to forget that love is itself the special treatment.

Que Faire Note:
It Works
16 March 2015

The weather warms by inches. It has ceased to be too cold to spend more than a minute on the balcony, and I have straightened things up out there. If it were warmer, I’d clean it up as well, so that we could sit out there in comfort. That will happen in due course. For the moment, it’s enough that the balcony doesn’t look like a dump — which it did, for most of the winter. If in doubt, put it out(side) — that was our policy. It must have been a dispiriting spectacle for our neighbors across the street. I hope that, what with our just having moved in and the frigid air &c, they haven’t minded too much. We also hope that they won’t notice, when the weather turns balmy and we can sit on the balcony in the dark, that we’ll be going into full rear-window mode, spying on everything that we can see through their windows. (Technical note: all the windows that are visible from that end of our apartment face front.) The building across the street, which is older than ours, has fire escapes, despite its size, but no balconies. So our neighbors won’t be sitting outside in the dark spying on us while we’re spying on them. Awkwardness averted.


The quiet weekend was clouded by sniffles that intimated colds, either past or to come, and by two pieces, one in the New York Review of Books, one in the London, concerning the third phase of the Industrial Revolution. The first phase introduced steam-powered factories and railroads. The second phase brought us the modern conveniences (electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing). In the third phase, the capitalists will finally attain their holy grail, which is zero human employment. Robots are about to replace us all, where they haven’t done so already. In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, a novelist who seems to have given up fiction in order to write about economic dislocations that are stranger than fiction, tells us about robots that are both designed by robots and capable of repairing themselves. If these marvels have not quite yet been realized, it won’t be long before they take their place beside drones that, for the moment, require remote human pilots, but that any day may graduate to the status of autonomous mobile weapons. In the New York Review, Sue Halpern critiques a rather sanctimonious open letter, signed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking among others, that calls upon AI developers to bear human consequences in mind when they develop their projects. Halpern and Lanchester are both perfectly aware that nothing — under current socio-economic arrangements — is going to prevent capitalists from developing any and all machinery capable of replacing human labor, no matter how dangerous, and no matter how destructive to the social fabric.

The only question is whether the political will to resist these developments can be brought to bear before it has been so fueled by toxic grievance and resentment that it is incapable of moderation. Forget “capitalism” as a system; the deployment of hefty capital investments is an essential part of economic life. Who is to own, and who is to direct, this capital? We have seen enough to know that governments are even worse than plutocrats — just as craven but vastly less competent. We also know that small businesses, which require capital investments, too (if rather modest ones), function better if they are operator-owned. I would venture to add that small-business owners would be more inclined to provide their human employees with robotic tools than to replace their human being altogether. And I would suggest further that such robotic tools would be best designed, or at least perfected, by cooperatives or not-for-profit organizations funded by small-business owners — and not, that is, by large mass-producers.

There I go again, sketching ideas on the back of an envelope. What good does that do? Well, I may say something that inspires someone else to think of something not only better but also more effective.

Optimism wilts, however, whenever I consider the social scene in which something better and more effective would have to be implemented. The last paragraph of Sue Halpern’s piece is enough to chill any hope.

We live in a technophilic age. We love our digital devices and all that they can do for us. We celebrate our Internet billionaires: they show us the way and deliver us to our destiny. We have President Obama, who established the National Robotics Initiative to develop the “next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.” Even so, it is naive to believe that government is competent, let alone in a position, to control the development and deployment of robots, self-generating algorithms, and artificial intelligence. Government has too many constituent parts that have their own, sometimes competing, visions of the technological future. Business, of course, is self-interested and resists regulation. We, the people, are on our own here—though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.

The problem is not business or government or the National Robotics Institute so naively established by the President. The problem is “we.” If it is true that we live in a technophilic age, that does not necessarily mean that we are technophiles. It does not seem to me that anyone is terribly mature about what “our digital devices” “can do for us.” The smartphone, the top device of the day, reminds me of Hollywood: it’s high school with money. The smartphone is an adolescent toy that permits users to play games and to exchange gossip. (The Apple Watch will open a gym wing, accessing all sorts of physical data that ought to be of no concern to healthy young people.) Sure, I have one. I use it as a phone, and to send the occasional text (usually telling someone where I am and when I’ll get to where I’m going). I check the weather, and I practice Mandarin character recognition. I take the odd photograph and post it at Facebook. At the end of the day, though, my battery is still 90% charged. I don’t read email on it, nor do I see what other people are up to at Facebook. I don’t look up movies on IMDb or search Wikipedia for information. These are things that I do at my desk, where serious thought is unlikely to be disturbed — and I am much less likely to post a fatuous comment at Facebook. It’s true that I’m having a hard time building the habit of registering questions that occur to me throughout the day, whenever I am not at my desk, on an iPhone Evernote. But I’m working on it.

In another NYRB review, this one of William Gibson’s new novel, I learned that it is already the case that, according to reviewer Lagaya Mishan, “people have hired stand-ins to play the tedious early rounds of games as a shortcut to higher levels.” (Ew!) How long before those stand-ins are replaced by robots?

Our Inner Life :
13 March 2015

Where to begin. I was going to sketch the current state of my thinking about “the inner life.” And I shall, presently. On the way to the computer, however — at lunch, to be exact — I read the Folio essay in the new issue of Harper’s. (April 2015) It’s a piece by Fenton Johnson, “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude.” What with the thoughts already running through my mind, my reading of “Going It Alone” was something of a train wreck. I found myself in a sea of paradox and confusion. There: the train just sank to the bottom. Let’s swallow a paradox or two.

Isn’t spirituality something that ought never to be mentioned? Never preached or written about, or lovingly described in ecstatic poetry? It’s not that spirituality is private (although it is), but rather that the speaking, writing self dissolves in the experience. There is no ego capable of framing a report. Indeed, much writing about spirituality announces that very conclusion. Words cannot express or capture, so we’re told, the measure of spiritual life. All that can be discussed is a sort of hangover, an afterimage. Or perhaps some sort of koan.

Here’s another. Writing of the resolution to lead a celibate life, Fenton Johnson says, “I salute the courage of those who make such declarations in public, but I admire more deeply those who honor their vows in the solitude of their hearts.” Where does that leave the writer whose subject is the experience of celibacy?

What confuses me is the nature of Johnson’s intended reader. Who is he talking to? In our society, the solitary, celibate life is available to everybody who wants it, but Johnson’s solitaries don’t just pass the time in quiet rooms or spacious deserts. No: they write. Sometimes they paint (Cézanne); sometimes they preach (Jesus); but, mostly, they write. Now, it doesn’t take an essay such as this to inform us that writing, serious writing, well-packed with thought, requires extensive solitude. Everybody who has ever written a novel worth reading, for example, has spent a lot of time alone, or, in the cases of Jane Austen, Louis Auchincloss, and others, tuned out. My dear Kathleen has the gift of creating utter solitude wherever and whenever she needs to draft a document. Or when she wants to read a book. She will not hear music that happens to be playing in the same room. A video will not distract her. She is temporarily unaware of her body. I myself, in complete contrast, am helplessly responsive to the the slightest disturbances. Libraries have never been good places for me because, by their very nature, they make no provision for actual solitude. I require strict radio silence — voluntary solitary confinement. And I’m habituated to it. I need to be alone a great deal. The careful reader will quickly grasp that I can be alone when Kathleen is around because she isn’t around. Except when she wants to be, which is, I can happily say, not quite as often as I’d like.

I gather that none of the claims that I have made about my wife or myself would tempt Johnson into regarding us as living solitary lives. They are claims that could probably be made by most readers and nearly all writers. Celibate writers are rare. Great as my esteem for Henry James may be, I cannot allow the suggestion that his celibacy puts him in a higher heaven of writers. (On the contrary: James’s writing draws much of its power from sublimated sexuality. I think it safe to say that James was sexually troubled, and I would argue that the act of writing served as his sedative.) We’ll agree with Johnson that there have been some fantastic celibate writers. The question is how incidental this celibacy is to the writing.

I began by asking about spirituality because Johnson’s theme seems to be to praise the consecration of life to something other than love and companionship, but not just any something other — no. The consecration of life to meditation and then to writing all about it. Johnson praises James and his other writers for giving us the fruits of their solitude. What they wrote is “their gift to us, their spiritual children,” Johnson writes, and by “us,” he makes it clear that he means solitaries like himself. Is he trying to say that those of us who don’t live solitary lives can’t appreciate Henry James fully?

I am not going to try to straighten any of this out. I enjoyed reading “Going It Alone,” and could not more emphatically agree with Johnson about the importance of solitude in our mindlessly overconnected lives. But I could not grasp, and in fact probably refuse to grasp, what it might mean “to define, explore, and complete the self by turning inward rather than looking outward. “


Here is my thinking about the inner life: it is vital, but uninteresting. Essentially uninteresting. I must somehow conduct an inner life, simply to know what I’m working with here, but I don’t think that I can make it interesting to you. It is not very interesting to me, either, which is why habits are so important. I used to believe that habits were regrettable, because they were robotic. You’re not really living if you’re doing something habitual. But I have since learned that what goes on in the bathroom, for example, is of no real interest at all — unless it’s alarming, whereupon we act upon that alarm by calling the doctor; and even then, it is of interest only to us, our loved ones, and the doctor. What goes on in the bathroom is often vital, and, from the standpoint of society, it is vital that it go on in the bathroom. I am not going to argue that what goes in the bathroom could never be transformed into interesting reading matter, but I think we can agree that the subject is not going to become common anytime soon. My point is that the bathroom is a site of highly habitual behavior. It is not “really living,” but you’d be dead otherwise.

Thinking is also an act of the inner life, but it is no more interesting to others than what goes on in the bathroom. It is not thinking that is interesting. (Unless you’re Mozart.) It is what thinking inspires you to do. It’s what you say, or write, or commit to smoke signals, that is interesting. Or that might be interesting. Interesting things happen, always and everywhere and only, between people. Some of whom — note to literary solitaries here — are dead.

More to come. Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!

Spring Note:
Paul Taylor Returns
12 March 2015

If Paul Taylor is at Lincoln Center, it must be spring.

First, a bit of math. What is the value of N, where N represents the number of New York seasons of performances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company that Kathleen and I have shown up for, including the current one? It is not a very high number, unfortunately — to enjoy myself thoroughly, I have to stamp down a demon who barks What took you so long? first. But it is high enough for one’s merely mortal mind to equate it with “forever.”

N turns out to be seven, as I thought. I figured that we had to have seen the Company for at least three seasons at City Center, on 55th Street, and Kathleen read in last night’s program that the Company moved to Lincoln Center in 2012, making this their fourth there. It occurred to me that the Web site that you are currently reading would allow me to determine the matter. According to this Web site, there is no mention of Paul Taylor prior to 2010. It took a few minutes, however, to remember that there is no mention of anything prior to 2010 on this Web site, because that it when it was inaugurated. Looking into its predecessor (which is still out there, if neglected), I found, yes indeed, an account dating from 2009.

In that earliest related entry, I talk about a ticket-buying spree that took place prior to the performance. Kathleen and I visited the box offices of several Broadway theatres and got seats for several shows, one of which closed before we could use them (a revival of Guys and Dolls), and one of which was a dud (The Philanthropist). About the Paul Taylor dances I said just about nothing. “Delightful,” I said. In 2010, I said even less, because I was too wrapped up in my newborn grandson. These silences don’t surprise me. For a long time, I had no idea what was going on in any given Paul Taylor dance. I just knew that I liked them, and Kathleen made it very clear that she liked them. So we went back, some seasons more often than others. We almost missed last season entirely, and it would have been quite understandable if we missed this one. But we are not going to miss this one, because one late night in January, after Kathleen had gone to sleep, I sat down at the computer and did what you’re never supposed to do after a couple of glasses of wine. I bought a boatload of tickets. To five performances, no less. To save money, I took seats on the side of the front row, but the tickets added up, and I felt quite guilty about the impulsive expense the next morning. I felt even worse when I realized that we might be unable to attend one or more of the shows, owing to Kathleen’s commitment to attend a Bitcoin event at Stanford at the end of March.

The tickets duly arrived by mail, all on the same day, and they sat unopened for weeks. I finally opened them a few days ago, and good thing, too, because, shortly afterward, Kathleen was finally booking our flights to San Francisco, and if I hadn’t put in my two cents, we’d have missed three shows instead of just one. Phew. Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil will take our tickets for the Saturday evening on which we’ll get to Palo Alto.

Last night, we discovered that seats to the side of the front row are perfect. I shouldn’t like to be any farther back. Row A is ideally distanced from the dancers — by the orchestra pit. (For there is live music once again at Paul Taylor.) This is one of the first things that I learned about Paul Taylor dances: you ought to be close enough to talk to them. Not because you’re going to do any such thing, but because you’re going to want to read all the expressions that accompany conversation. Unlike most choreographers, Paul Taylor does not work from the neck down. In the middle of a new dance that we saw last night, Sea Lark (set to Poulenc’s music for another ballet, Les Biches), two dancers stood upstage, perfectly still but for their rolling eyes. You can’t really see that from Row R.

Row R is fine for classical ballet. You don’t hear the stomping (not that Paul Taylor’s dancers were very audible in the first row), and all the dancers in the corps de ballet look just alike, a lovely flock of indistinguishable swans. Classical ballet can be thrilling, because, like almost everything developed in the Nineteenth Century, it breathes a dream of mechanical precision. At its best, classical ballet is perfectly coordinated.

It took me a long time to figure out that what interests Paul Taylor is salvaging the moves of classical ballet (and combining them with other moves) while eliminating the exactitude. The coordination is studiedly imperfect. This is not the result of careless or sloppy dancing. It is the inevitable consequence of Taylor’s choice of dancers. For there is no Paul Taylor “look,” no type. There are, to be sure, no fat or even remotely unfit dancers. Nor are there any usually tall people in the company. But some dancers are considerably shorter than others. Some dancers are nowhere near as slim and fine-boned as others. Michael Trusnovec is an Apollo; Sean Mahoney looks as though he might be a construction worker. Laura Halzack stands out among the women not just for the glamour of her face but for her penchant for demented abandon: sometimes, the lady looks just plain nuts. (And very beautiful.) Moments when Robert Kleinendorst looks responsible enough to be trusted with a pack of matches are very rare. George Smallwoods substantial head (shaved, but not close enough to conceal a big bald spot) makes him look stocky, although he isn’t. In short, the Paul Taylor Dance Company comprises sixteen different human beings. They dance very well together. They run through intricate, quickly-shifting configurations without running into each other. Whenever a girl takes a flying leap, there’s always a boy to catch her. But they remain sixteen different people. And at least two are in the neighborhood of forty years of age.

Some dancers are more prominently featured than others, or so it seems, but there is absolutely no corps, no clump of lesser dancers condemned to assist the stars. One of the amazing things is how well Paul Taylor has made seniority work for his company. Members are listed by seniority, and they take curtain calls in reverse seniority. Some dancers move out, leaving the company, but most seem to move up, as older dancers retire. (We were sad to see the last of Annmaria Mazzini and Amy Young, and we can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when Michael Trusnovec withdraws.) Seniority, which is meaningless artistically, has the odd leveling effect of making everyone look different. Over time, you get to know who each dancer is by name, and while every dancer appears to be capable of doing anything, no dancer leaves his or her personal uniqueness in the dressing room. Full appreciation of such full-charactered dancing requires a seat close to the stage.

It took me until last night figure out that Paul Taylor and his dancers have taught me more than anyone else about what I understand humanism to be.