Housekeeping Twaddle:
Picture This
20 November 2014

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

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

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

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

Dear Kath-
leen

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Advisory Note:
What do you think?
19 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Which it is not.

Gotham Diaryt:
Moving Along
18 November 2014

This is also my view, but I can’t see it right now, because sunlight is pouring through the window, and it’s difficult to read any of the screens. I’m even wearing a cap, to protect my scalp from solar carcinogens.

It’s also difficult to write because today is a waiting day. The locksmith has come and gone (very expensive), but I’ve heard nothing from the phone man, who was supposed to appear between eight and noon. I can’t call the phone company because I don’t have Kathleen’s PIN. It’s no big deal; very few land line calls are of any interest. But Kathleen insists on keeping it, because when all else fails…in the past, anyway.

The men from the cabinet shop will come when they finish with their current job. Once the bookcases and the china cupboard are reassembled, we can begin to unpack in earnest. And yet. The china is in the linen closet, and the boxes of linens are out on the balcony, so the clutter in the apartment won’t be significantly altered by putting those things where they belong. As for the bookcases, they need to be repainted. I thought about starting on that yesterday, but I never found the moment, what with errands and visits from tech god JM (who hooked up two of the three A/V systems, and did glorious battle on our behalf with the cable company) and Ray Soleil, who hung pictures in the long entrance hall. JM was here so late that he had dinner with us when Kathleen came home. It was nothing special, just spaghetti with Marcella Hazan’s buttery tomato sauce. As for Ray’s fantastic assemblage, I found myself loitering with pleasure by the house phone, for a change, while I waited this morning for the locksmith, who had just been announced, to make his way upstairs. There is so much to look at now!

After dinner, Kathleen and I watched another episode of Lewis. We reached Season Three, Episode Four, “Countercultural Blues” I think it’s called, the one with Joanna Lumley and Simon Callow. Season Eight comes out on DVD in Britain tomorrow, and I’ve already placed my order.

Shortly before dark, when JM and Ray were both at work, I was wandering around the apartment aimlessly (not really — but don’t ask me to remember what I was doing) feeling almost faint. Kathleen was exhausted at about the same time. But we stayed up very late. It will be weeks before the panic of moving drains from our bloodstreams. Meanwhile, the tempo of Kathleen’s work has picked up; “a maelstrom until February” is promised. At the moment, Kathleen is attending a business luncheon on the subject of something called liquid alts, which sounds to me like a rather nasty kind of enema. (Remember that tremendously funny Tom Sharpe farce with scenes at an abandoned spa?)

At last, the sun is passing about to pass behind the front of the building. Is it something to do with old age? When I was young, the sun stood still, wherever it was, but now it moves. What I mean is that I can see the drift of shadows across a wall. I used to be incapable of perceiving this motion. I am not altogether happy about losing the incapacity. It is not altogether reassuring to see time change on a celestial scale. One knows all about it, of course, but seeing it — how many things there are that we know about but do not care to see.

***

It is taking a long time to get through the final essay in When I Was Young I Read Books, because Marilynne Robinson’s arguments are, if not subtle, then well outside what currently passes for common sense among educated people when they think about the world and especially about science. Robinson is scrupulous about excluding scientists themselves from the number of her “new atheist” opponents. Scientists “doing science” are not a problem for Robinson, which is to say that they don’t at all interfere with her faith in God. Her target is speculation, whether more or less learned, about propositions that, because they cannot be falsified, do not fall within the activity of proper science, and therefore play no part in the “scientific” undermining of religion. She makes many statements that I have already but otherwise come to agree with, such as the “religious” nature of atheism. If I feel that something is being left out of account, it is not a matter that really belongs in an essay entitled “Cosmology.”

Insofar as Christianity matters as a religion, and not merely as a complex of ethics, it requires a loving God who cares about each of us personally. It’s easy to lose sight of this when contemplating the origin of the cosmos and the meaning of life and —  easiest of all — those ethics. Specifically, Christianity insists that Jesus Christ, only begotten son of God, was crucified and died for our sin, to absolve us of Adam’s disobedience and to assure our physical resurrection on Judgment Day. Very little of this dogma can be traced directly to the utterances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, but that is water under the bridge so far as Christianity is believed in by Christians. I myself am convinced that Jesus (who certainly believed in a God who cared about him) was more concerned about our caring for each other than proving ourselves worthy — how could we even begin? — of God’s love. God’s love was a model for us all, and I have no trouble taking the model as the ultimate authority of humanism.

So my difference from Marilynne Robinson, and from the new atheists that she writes about, and from those who speculate about the multiverse is that I feel no pressure to explain existence. I take it as a given, an axiom that I don’t need to demonstrate and couldn’t if I tried. I perhaps more comfortable with mystery than Robinson is herself.

Reading Robinson:
The Politics of Caring
17 November 2014

This is my new view. Some might find it depressing, but I rather like it. The leaves have been shed by the tree in the yard behind the whitish building on the left, and I’ve cropped out the slice of sidewalk on 86th Street.  So there’s more to it than the photograph suggests. Also much more looking up. I took the picture standing up, to avoid the screens behind the lower window panes. Seated, I can see the top of the sliver building. That’s the one across 86th Street, smack in the middle of the picture — which captures almost its entire width. There was a vogue for such constructions in the early Eighties (living in our second apartment, on the seventh floor almost directly opposite, we watched it go up), but then, I believe, they were banned. Meanwhile, just for orientation, our old apartment was the one in the opposite corner, on the right, only on a higher floor. You can see what would be the window of the blue room, just beyond the balcony railing. The window directly opposite belongs to the bedroom of the apartment next door.

The whitish building used to be a residential hotel. Then it was gutted, leaving only the four curtain walls. It was amusing to peer over our balcony railing and pretend to be looking down into the ruined tower of a demolished castle. But that phase didn’t last very long. When first rebuilt, it served as a halfway house, and there used to be jolly holiday parties in the patio. I don’t know what’s going on there now.

So, everything is different, but also much the same.

***

The view seems far more familiar than the contents of my head. It’s not just the diversion of mental resources to the organization of a new kitchen, or to the million-and-one nitzy decisions about where to put what everywhere else. It’s also the impact of Marilynne Robinson. Oh no! regular readers will gasp, here we go again. Last year, it was Hannah Arendt. This year — but Robinson hasn’t, to my knowledge, written nearly so much as Arendt, so I won’t be ploughing through book after book, filling entries with my amazed impressions. Robinson’s thought is also more concentrated upon a single point. She believes that we are images of God. This means almost exactly the opposite of what you might think. It means that we are fully as wonderful creatures as images of God would be. Like God — this part is new, but it makes terrible sense of Scripture — we have awful powers, and we allow evil to exist in the world. (Very bad things, anyway.) But that’s not the whole story, and we’re simply not, according to Marilynne Robinson, the depraved monsters, at war with “nature,” that modern anthropology makes us out to be. She wants us to stop thinking cynically about ourselves — it’s a terrible habit that, like smoking, does unimaginably more harm than good. (Maybe we’re cynical because we can’t smoke.)

It’s easy to say that Robinson is a self-confessed progressive Calvinist. But, as with Arendt’s conception of the human condition, you have to rethink everything in order to grasp the remark’s implications. Our political discourse has degenerated into an absurd polarization that resembles nothing so much as a softball game played by teams that nobody would pick. The alignments — just to pick one, the association of faith in God with a conservative outlook — are unnaturally exhaustive, by which I mean that everything is on one side or the other. Liberals who believe in God don’t have a voice, because conservative refuse to believe them on this point. Widespread fundamentalism — childish nostalgia for simpler times that never were — is certainly regrettable, but so is the progressive tendency to reject everything that’s old and to become infatuated with everything new. Marilynne Robinson wants us to stop supporting this bad ball game. She wants us to stop playing games altogether, at least when we ought to be taking each other seriously and improving the infrastructure.

It seems the most natural thing in the world that intelligent women would have a far better grasp of the natural frontier that separates public life from private life than their male counterparts do, because for men in our culture, “private life” means “solitary life” and independence, whereas for women it means “family life” and caring. Women don’t fear that public life will swamp or pre-empt private life, because they trust their own sense of right and wrong to keep that from happening. Even in the most totalitarian experiments, the germ of private life has been kept alive. For all the rubbly catastrophe of the Twentieth Century, at least it taught us that human beings are not good at being engineered. Crooked timber and all that.

It will be argued that women are better at caring because they’re mothers, but I beg to repeat that I’m talking about intelligent women. Intelligent women apply their experience of family life to imagining other families with similar joys and needs. Being mothers isn’t enough; the sense of caring doesn’t come with the act of caring, but the awareness of it, and that information is no less available to men than to women. As things stand, however, women do display an aptitude. They get it, that everybody needs to be cared for in some way or another.

Absolute independence is a chimerical nightmare, not the hallmark of a strong character, because it misunderstands privacy as indifference. That’s to say that, as an independent man, I grant you your privacy because I don’t give a damn about you, and if my independence requires that you not give a damn about me, that’s not too high a price to pay. But it is too high a price, far too high. The extravagance of the price is betrayed every time a strong man has to avoid confessing the truth, that he does give a damn about someone else, especially when that someone else is also a strong, heterosexual man.

Once you start caring, how do you know when to stop? There can be no systematic, rule-of-thumb answer, and this is another thing that intelligent women seem to get. The worst thing about caring is that it calls for tough choices. But you learn to make them and try to do your best. That’s not a very sound principle for political life, but then caring is private, not public, and therefore not political. But political life does depend, very much, on the contribution, intellectual and otherwise, of men and women who know how important caring is. People who don’t care in private will never care enough about politics to do it right.

Official Secrets Week:
Stealth
10-14 November 2014

Monday

My writing table has become an island of mess in a desolate waste. The urge to sweep it clear is very strong. But sweep it clear to where?

I have made an unspecified number of trips to a lower floor. I have had plenty of help. And yet this old apartment remains, basically, crammed. The tipping point has not been reached. By the end of the week, however, it will all be over. It will have to be, contractually.

When I woke up yesterday, I managed to fix a nice weekend breakfast, but I hardly made it through the Times afterward without longing to crawl back into bed. Instead of which, I got dressed and went downstairs with Kathleen. Kathleen was busy with bubble wrap yesterday — that is her specialty. The bubble wrap work is largely complete. Most fragile items have been protected. It astonishes me to see how many of our belongings are not fragile.

I expect that Kathleen is dozing on the train. She has a meeting in Washington this afternoon, and the Acela is not running for some reason, so Kathleen will spend the bulk of the day on a train. (She looked into flights: they’re twice as expensive. When did that happen? Good that it did, though.) I will not be dozing. I will be emptying the kitchen, and making more trips to the lower floor. Many more trips. These trips are occasions for thought, but not for thoughts about anything of interest to readers of this Web log.

***

Tuesday

Just lost an entry. Was signed out but didn’t know it. Surprise! Very tired.

***

Wednesday

The computer has been relocated to the lower floor. It developed a glitch overnight, but evidently not one to disturb the communication of my lofty thoughts. At least my eyes are lifted. The new view is full of buildings that rise high about me. I had no view at all in the old apartment; my computer desk faced a wall. Even when it faced a window, there was no view, because all I could see from my desk was the balcony. Now I have a view not entirely unlike the view from the balcony (the one upstairs). No horizon, to be sure. But plenty of apartment windows, and these are now much closer. Not too close — not too close for me. Kathleen deplores the Rear Window quality of the view from our bedroom (and from the book room, which is right next to it), but I rather like it.

The view from the living room is charming — but I’ve already mentioned it. The building across the street is not in fact Victorian but midcentury urban vernacular. It’s pleasant to look at by day, because it is clad in red brick. At night, not so much. Almost every room appears to be lighted by a glaring ceiling fixture. The non-descript walls are mostly bare. All of this is obvious to the aimless eye; you can’t help but notice.

So it is all very different on the lower floor. The pluses outweigh the minuses, I think, but we’re not entirely in yet; the final move isn’t until Friday. (Then we’ll find out just how screwed we are on the closet front.) Right now, it’s just different. The weather has turned damp. The sky is a dull white not unlike the bricks of this building, which are very much part of the new view. The weather is not uplifting. But I can see it now.

I struggled all day yesterday, amidst many other tasks, to empty the old kitchen, which I had rather naively hoped to accomplish on Monday. Great progress was made, but the closer I got to attainment, the more recalcitrant and obtrusive the remaining items became. And it soon came to pass that the new kitchen was full. Nicely full, that is — not crammed. The cabinets were not stuffed with odds and ends, and I was determined to keep them that way. So the elementary rules of physics — everything must be somewhere, and two things can’t occupy the same space — are giving me a headache. That’s why I’m writing here. It’s so agreeable to accomplish something. There’s a bag in the foyer that’s stuffed with bubble-wrapped breakables — soufflé dishes, small plates — and I’ve no idea what I’m going to do with them after I unpack it.

It’s good to be in the presence of words. My own words, yes, but also those of Marilynne Robinson, whose essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, has been my companion this week. On equality in America:

The meaning of it is much disputed — does it mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Frankly, if we were to achieve either we might find that it resembled the other nearly enough to make the question moot.

I find Robinson’s small-bore but perfectly-aimed shots at philosophy deeply refreshing. So much of what passes for elevated discourse is simply juvenile hair-splitting. To propose a distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome and then to erect a political dualism on facing fronts sounds a lot cleverer than it really is, and, what’s worse, it sucks up the energy that actually working for equality would achieve. At the risk of proposing a fatuity of my own, I’d say that we are much more agitated by gross inequality than we are attracted to generally uniform equality. We don’t want everyone to be the same, but we don’t want anyone to go without the resources of a decent life — our very idea of those resources and of that decent life shaped by the condition of fortunate people. Some day, we will know enough about the brain and its impact on personal character to match students with teachers who will most effectively educate them. Until then, university will be a hit-or-miss affair. Most university life today seems to be a social occasion. I can’t think why anyone would worry about equality of access to our “best schools.”

One reason why I lost yesterday’s entry (because I didn’t look to see if I was signed out — I never do — and because I failed to copy and save the HTML before clicking on the “update” button — which I always do) is that I walked to Gracious Home at lunchtime. I wanted to buy a card table and a trash can. I had looked at the store’s Web site the night before, but there was only one table on offer, while the array of trash cans was visually bewildering — every item was shown at the same size. The table didn’t thrill me, but I ended up buying it, because the other table that was on offer at the store was even less thrilling. As for the trash can, I chose a small cylindrical one that I should have preferred in oblong form. The oblong trash cans were all much too large. Having opted for delivery of my purchases, I couldn’t very well indulge in a taxi ride home. I couldn’t say that I needed the exercise, either, but I was too tired to be bored by the same old Upper East Side sights.

Now I must run upstairs, to get a few things that will improve the quality of life in the book room. By the way, the writing table shown above is now on the lower floor, right behind me in fact, and, aside from two potted plants, empty.

And now there’s a lamp as well. It’s time for lunch, but I haven’t the strength. I’ve been yielding to a relatively sordid impulse lately and taken to patronizing Burger King about once every two weeks. I bring the food back to the apartment. Burger King is just a few up the street from Fairway. First I do the healthy shopping, then the gross.

***

Still Wednesday

At Fairway, I couldn’t decide what to buy for dinner, so I bought for three. Thus was I too laden for a side trip to Burger King. So I came home and made a sandwich (ham and Swiss). I read Marilynne Robinson on one of her favorite subjects, rapidly becoming one of mine: bogus scientism. This largely is a problem of journalism, I think, of professional commentators who insult their best traditions with fuzzy, armchair ideas that generate not good writing but readable copy. Life is both too complicated (particle physics; the human brain) and too simple (hey, just look around!) for journalism. It tempts us with revelations that (the smarter we are, the better we know) we don’t really understand, and with promises of inside information that ipso facto can’t be truly “inside.” There are days when The New York Times is really too twaddlesome to read.

Robinson writes about the conundrums that bogus scientism has created about human nature. How much of our makeup reflects “adaptation,” and how much is “accidental”? “Natural” is defined, basically, as “Pleistocene.” This is nothing but the age-old complaint about Golden Ages, the Fall of Man, and the State of Nature, dressed up in a mongrel word that’s half-Latin and half-Greek. Once upon a time — well, at least we know that we didn’t ride around on the backs of dinosaurs. But life was, it is alleged, “simpler.” I rather doubt it! You try keeping clean and fresh without the help of a modern bathroom and a good washer/drier! (My dear, quipped a noblewoman at Versailles, her hands were as dirty as my feet!)

Because they usually spend so little time with them, grown men have a habit of imagining that children lead simple lives, and this is probably the root of the nostalgia for Neverland. But nobody’s life is simple, at least without the narcotizing help of stultifying routine. What life brings over time is not an increase of complexity but an ever-growing load of memories, many of them calcified into a sense of disappointment. Disappointment is not only a very bad habit, reflecting a failure of generosity toward oneself, but an indicator of groundless expectations. It doesn’t really matter what exactly didn’t happen, given all that did. This not a matter of simple-mindedly looking on the bright side of things. It is rather one of looking very close.

(What is an article about the caricatures policy at the new Palm doing in a newspaper?) (Oh, and the other day, the Times took care to identify Calais as a “French port.” I don’t think that anyone unaware of that fact — anyone raised in the Anglophone tradition, that is — ought to be allowed to read the Times.)

After lunch, I thought that I’d read a little and perhaps write a little, but I had to brush my teeth, and my toothbrush is still upstairs. So I gathered up the totes. After taking care of myself, I brought down all the remaining liquor, the fish poacher, and two desktop receptacles. One contains my little black book — actually a tiny address book produced for the Vuillard show at the Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts. The other holds a collection of neatly trimmed clippings with important recipes, such as the one for roast beef with “Henry Bain sauce” and the even more vital one for Marcella Hazan’s simplicissimo tomato sauce (long-simmered tomatoes, halved onion, and hunk of butter). Unless I decide to roast a chicken, I will need one of these recipes later this afternoon. My toothbrush, however, is still upstairs.

***

Thursday, briefly

We were saved by the cable guy, of all people — but to hear that story about moving day T – 1 and its abrasive effect upon marital harmony, you will have to send me a very large cheque — the kind that’s spelled that way.

In the morning, I struggled with counting bricks. Not real bricks — perhaps that was the problem — but clever faux plastic ones, half as thick and not even a tenth of the weight of a real brick, designed for garden walkways but perfect for New York balconies, which are surfaced in uninviting concrete upon which tenants soon learn that carpeting (of any kind) is not the answer. The plastic bricks, which snap together, are perfect for dirt and everything else that befalls a balcony: to sweep is to tidy. Messy particles fall between the cracks, and the worst that can happen is the stray weed.

Our upstairs balcony took about 600 bricks. A pricey proposition, but worth it. Even pricier now, perhaps, as the widgets have gone out of production — probably because it was left to me to discover their aptitude for grimy Gotham. On Saturday, Ms NOLA and her husband, ED, packed up enough bricks to pave our new, smaller balcony, which is less than half the size. Later in the week, our lovely neighbor, who has already taken so much off our hands (for which we are the grateful ones, as, knowing where our pieces are, we don’t really feel that we have lost them, change of title notwithstanding), accepted our offer to give her (for the duration of her tenancy) enough bricks to cover her balcony, which is of the same size. That being the case, I knew that we could calculate the number of bricks to pack for her. So I set out to count them.

The rest of the story will have to wait for tomorrow, as Kathleen has just finished the task that brought us down here on a midnight run (practically), and we really must get to bed.

***

Friday — beyond panic

How about counting boxes of books? With one of those sideways eights.

The worst of it is that the bookcases ought to be repainted (while they’re still empty). The two largest cases, moreover, have to be re-assembled by the cabinet men (on Tuesday). So we shall be living with walls of boxed books, with narrow corridors threading among them.

We still have to do something about our clothes, and the pictures on the walls — and compete with the renovators working on the 19th floor for the elevator. Fun.

***

Friday/Saturday, Kathleen asleep

A wonderful day, despite the awful moment when I paid a visit to the old apartment after the movers left and saw what to be moved remained. Even so, my plans for the new apartment blossomed beyond my dreams, with an unfailing spaciousness of atmosphere that I resolved to preserve from clutter of any kind, no matter what might have to go in order to keep the new place “clean.” Even when I’m done, of course, there will be twice as many objects as a normally stylish person would allow, and even now I’m coping with the problem of the love-seat echo — the sight of one sofa-for-two positioned just beyond, no further than would be the case in a furniture showroom, another. If that is to be the worst of my worries, I’m a very lucky householder.

It would not have happened without Ray Soleil. I should have felt that I was taking grotesque advantage of his generosity if he had not revealed, over and over again, the pleasure that he takes in getting details obsessively right. This zeal was matched, however, by a willingness to do brute service that one seldom encounters in an intelligent person (namely, me), and it was crowned at the end by his hanging of our largest picture, a painting whose creator, as it happens, was considering scraping it down, to reuse the canvas, when I worked out a trade involving the entirety of my classical-LP collection. There is no reason to think that the picture will ever be mounted in a museum, but it has aged — lived — well, very well, and those who get to know it tend to love it.

For about twenty-five years, it hung opposite our bed, and I can’t tell you how many imaginary faces and beasts I have seen in its sketches of Houstonian arbors — for it was then, in my radio days, that the picture was acquired. Kathleen has always been a great fan, and, lately, so has Ray. I myself was beginning to feel like the artist: I was almost ready to have the canvas unstretched and rolled, because the necessary wall space seemed to be lacking in the new apartment. But Ray pressured me to rethink my ideas for the foyer, which is where Sam Philpot’s painting now hangs, already in pride of place and obviously, at least in our apartment, a masterpiece. Even the whorehouse-red lampshades (inspired by Raise the Red Lantern, in color if not in shape) that stand on the sideboard beneath it do nothing but intensify the painting’s enthusiasm for the hue of canna lilies. Kathleen and Ray both insist that they now see a range of blues that they had not noticed before. This is going slightly too far for me. The painting, which, now I think of it, needs a title, has always been for me a study in green, greens of every kind, with counterpoint in Chinese red. It’s no wonder I gave away all my records for it (even the Karajan Rosenkavalier). But not on account of its blues.

It is like the early days of the Soviet Revolution, when brainy people had reason to be hopeful. We chant the B-52s’ line and promise to leave our behinds in the past. This means that we don’t put things behind other things, where they will stand untended, gathering disgusting coats of dust, whilst we go about our lazy lives. We don’t and we won’t. And yet: what’s behind the chairs in the bedroom but the entirety of our collection, or nearly, of framed artworks? Everything but the paintings is stacked on the floor — there was nowhere else to put it. Sam’s picture is up, and Kathleen’s Camp Wohelo paddle, and the Mexican Madonna, painted on tin, that my mother acquired during those Houston days and that I have hung reverentially (though revering I know not what) ever since I came into possession of it. Also — this was the first thing to go up — the Louis Phooey mirror, of cheval-glass length, that Ray insisted upon mounting over what we call “the commode,” a three-drawer Louis Phooey side table (Third Republic doubtless) that Kathleen and I purchased at auction when her parents were unloading their “investment” pieces. Kathleen is the only person in the world who thinks that it was normal not only to buy but to pay top dollar for her parents’ heirlooms, but I cannot claim to be bewildered or even unsympathetic, even if our bid for the five-legged fauteuil that we really wanted was surpassed by someone else’s. I never felt more authentically WASP (which of course I can never legitimately feel, having belonged to the Catholic minority in Bronxville) than when we wrote the check for that commode.

Interesting to think that there are social worlds in which the word “commode” means something very different from something that you would pay a lot of money to buy from your family.

I see that I never told the story about counting bricks. The faux plastic bricks that I was talking about, and which the movers brought down to the new apartment, then returned to the higher floor on which we used to live, placing them this time outside the door of the neighbor who wanted them, can be laid down any way you like, but they’re really intended to be placed in alternating pairs — two aligned north-south, say, surrounded by pairs aligned east-west. Counting the bricks on our balcony, I counted the pairs. Eight (or was it nine?) pairs deep, and fifteen pairs wide. The problem arose with multiplication. I ought to have known that, in the two-dimensional world that I was measuring, the pair factor could count only once. There could be eight rows of fifteen pairs, or fifteen rows of eight, but the total number of bricks involved was not the product of sixteen bricks by thirty.

I don’t have a head for numbers. Or rather, I have a head for numbers in which some numbers are far more interesting than others; say, four over seven or nine. I can ‘t say that I’m in love with foursomes, but I do love the number four — I believe, I suspect, that it is God. The fact that numbers are not equal, qua numbers, makes calculation very difficult for me. You’d think that, being the man I am, I’d have a natural sympathy for odd numbers, but I don’t. Quite the reverse.

As it turned out, there simply weren’t enough bricks to fill the boxes that I thought that our neighbor needed. Kathleen, who has become a reluctant observer, rather than a connoisseur, of my intellectual weaknesses, kept telling me that my calculations were wrong, but since her math is even worse than mine she was unwilling to press the point. Eventually I figured out that I was trying to cube, if not a circle, the balcony.

Sometimes it would be simpler just to count the goddam bricks. One by one.

As she was falling asleep, Kathleen mentioned that she was doing so on our first night in the new apartment. A very perfect killjoy, I replied that this was the fourth time that we would be falling asleep in a new (to us) apartment in this building. Kathleen managed to fall asleep nonetheless, thus answering the question that Ray Soleil asked during our adventures on this long but heroic day. “How has she stayed married to you?” Kathleen can always — always — fall asleep.

Bon weekend à tous!

Cognition Log:
Seeing What Is Seen
7 November 2014

It can take a while to see things — to see, that is, that you have seen them.

Take the view from the new apartment. I saw it right away, of course, but I didn’t see what I had seen for several weeks.

Whenever we talk about the move, we regret that we’ll be losing our great view. It is a great view, and it is still a great view thirty years later, only slightly diminished by the many apartment towers that have been built along its periphery since we took possession. These blocked our view of the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, but the vista, the long view not into but entirely across Queens County — the North Shore Towers, right across the Nassau County Line, glimmer on the horizon — has never been disturbed. In the middle distance, planes take off and land at LaGuardia. We can’t see the airport, except for a tiny strip of runway at the extreme eastern edge, but following the path of a flight coming in from the south can provide all the amusement that a tired mind needs, especially if it’s Friday afternoon, and the planes are coming in at the rate of nearly one per minute. And this middle distance is still so far away that we don’t hear a thing: only in the dampest weather does the reversal of a landing jet’s engines occasionally sound its thunder. We even have an interesting strip of the East River. Even if we can’t see the bridge, we can see Hell Gate itself, where the tides might be boiling. It happens that our view is parallel, not perpendicular, to that stretch of the water, so that boats sail to and fro, not by.

Although more than a thousand apartments face ours, from First, York, and East End Avenues, we cannot, aside from a few windows on the next building down 86th Street, peer into anyone else’s home without the aid of powerful binoculars. Only at night does the flickering of television screens remind us that those slabs of brick are inhabited. When the sun sets in the summer, it turns them into cliffs and mesas from a Southwestern landscape.

But this is the view from the balcony. The view from the apartment — from the living room — is of the largely blank side wall of the next building down the street. Four vernacular buildings — what we call walkups — and a bit of our building’s garage stand between here and there, so the building is not oppressively close. Nevertheless, it presents nothing but a wall of bricks. That’s what you see through the living room window when you walk into the apartment, and the view does not change until you approach the balcony door.

Our apartment has no view at all.

The new apartment has a lovely view. It puts me in mind of Greenwich Village. Through the tops of the trees on either side of 87th Street, we see a row of handsome Victorian buildings, interrupted by one mildly Gothic façade. The buildings on our side of the street are undistinguished, but of course we can’t see them. Unlike the view from our apartment, the new view is long on charm, and I hope to make that charm the keynote of our new living room. It was only when I was struggling to explain this to Kathleen that I realized that the new apartment has a view.

***

Similarly, as I was reading the final pages of John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor, I understood how conventional book reviews work, and at the same time understood why I was trying to avoid writing them — which is to say that I saw what I had seen. The conventional book review is nothing  more than a nosegay of impressions, offered in the hope that at least one of the blossoms will inspire a reader to buy the book. (I’m talking about favorable book reviews, of course. I don’t give much thought to the other kind.) I finally understood that I understood this when I was struggling to remember what it was that had given me the idea that I might enjoy The Unexpected Professor. I don’t think that I’ve seen it reviewed, although I may be wrong about that — but it doesn’t matter. All it took was one effective mention. No doubt the local context was important. But it’s quite clear that I was not persuaded to buy Professor Carey’s delightful memoir by a carefully-reasoned essay.

Carefully-reasoned essays occasionally appear as book reviews, but they’re usually quite long, and directed to a community in which the author, the reviewer, and the reader(s) figure, in one way or another, as professional colleagues. Essays of this kind actually made the TLS such a boring read for me that I gave it up. I cannot be persuaded to buy books. If I allowed that to happen, I’d be bankrupt in a month, and homeless, too, not on account of the bankruptcy but because the stacks of books would leave no room for me. There are simply too many books that I ought to read! Happily, I don’t want to read the books that I’m supposed to read. Something else is necessary.

Sacks’s immersion in science was rapturous, akin to what less gifted boys might find in sexual awakening. (294)

That’s John Carey on Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten. It doesn’t make me want to read Sacks, but it points to the kind of thrill that makes me pick up a book not out of duty but with desire. That desire is frequently transitory — all too often, the book that I must read right now has little or nothing to offer next week — and I am sometimes ashamed of my capriciousness. But my pleasure is both authentic and keen. I wouldn’t say that it is altogether effortless, but I can say that I’m never putting any effort into enjoying myself (except in the case of reading Ivy Compton Burnett, where making effort is the perverse jolly).

And that’s what I want to write about — that pleasure. If this means that I don’t provide a dutifully comprehensive summary of a book’s contents, then so much the better. You won’t miss it.

Bon weekend à tous!

Housekeeping Twaddle:
The Book Room
6 November 2014

It was perhaps a tad pretentious to call this room — this room that I’m sitting in, not the one in the photograph — “the blue room,” although it is indeed very blue. I got the idea from the White House, which has three formal rooms that are known by their coloring — red, green, and blue. I always thought that this was pretty cool, because I grew up in a world where rooms were known by their functions. I hated, from an early age, the terms “living room” and “den.” The latter is just gross, describing not a room but the regressive state of mind of an ageing American male. The former, as a result of the latter, has become ironic, because in the typical American house, if it still has a living room, nobody lives in it.

In Manhattan, space is too tight for most living rooms to go unused, but when we moved into this apartment in 1983 we were confronted by a second bedroom that was definitely not going to be used as a bedroom. A guest room, occasionally, but more often a dining room. A multi-purpose room, with the household’s television set and also the bookshelves, cleared from the living room because I had learned, or thought that I had learned, that bookshelves make many people uncomfortable, at least when they’re stocked with books. With this vision in mind, I decided that we would paint the second bedroom in a dark blue color and call it “the Blue Room.”

It must have been pretentious, because most visitors simply couldn’t bring themselves to say it. They would speak of it as “the library” or “your office.” I find the concept of the home office disagreeable and unattractive. It licenses the misuse of a proper room as a walk-in closet. Things that ought to be put away are left out in the open. Tacky and ridiculous items collect near the “workspace.” Why not go all the way and buy some knocked-down Herman Miller partitions? Then you would have a home office cubicle. Lovely.

My resistance of the use of “library” was quite different. It seemed even more pretentious than calling the room by its color. The Blue Room is blue, but it is not a library, because it is not fitted out as a library, with built-in shelves lining the walls. Also, “library” is nearly as suspect to me as “den.” It, too, describes a state of mind, in this case the aspirational outlook of somebody who would like to have read a great deal but who doesn’t in fact do much reading at all. Such people always make me think of the hair driers in beauty salons. If only there were  something that they could just stick their heads into, something that would do the work of reading while they looked at their iPhones! Libraries are nearly as ersatz. A recent cover of The New Yorker showed a woman reading amidst stacks and stacks of books. This is the library fantasy. You can read only one book at a time. In a frenzy of research, you might consult five or ten books. But stacks and stacks? They’re not books anymore, just atmosphere.

Seven or eight years ago, I moved all of my clothes into the blue room. This made a lot of sense, because I’ve always used the second bathroom, which is right next to the blue room, and never the one in the bedroom. Now Kathleen could keep all of her clothes in one room. I slept in the bedroom, watched movies in the bedroom, and kept my reading chair in the bedroom; I didn’t leave, I just evacuated my stuff. This gave the bedroom something of the getaway charm of a hotel room.

By then, the dining table was long gone, as was the convertible couch: the Blue Room was, effectively, My Room. But although it had a reasonably comfortable reading chair, and Ray Soleil and I would occasionally drink tea in here, I did very little in the room but change my clothes and write.

“The Writing  Room.” Ocean liners and grand hotels used to have writing rooms — and they were almost as opulent as the White House’s Red, Green, and Blue Rooms. In the country house that we had for a while, I painted a room Chinese red and called it the Writing Room. It wasn’t grand, but it was spare, with a table in the middle and accommodation for no other activity. Remembering the Writing Room perks me up, because it was very spruce, but then it makes me sad, because almost everything that I wrote in the Writing Room was in one way or another misbegotten.

The audacity of having a writing room was permissible as country-house whimsy; I should never have dared to use the term in this apartment. But that’s what the Blue Room is: a room for writing. The difference between a writing room and a home office is the difference between Sir Francis Bacon and David Allen. It is the difference between weighing and considering and getting things done. I do get a few things done in the Blue Room. I pay the bills every month. I pay them the old-fashioned way, with checks and stamped envelopes. Even with Quicken, the process takes me about two hours; it is aptly called paperwork. But mostly I write. I write thank-you notes. I remember to send Will his allowance. I weigh and consider and I write things down. Writing is never done. It is like everything else in a living household: the bed is never made, the dishes are never washed, the clothes are never clean. There are stretches of time when everything appears to be in order, but sooner or later someone sneezes, someone fills a tumbler with ice and water, someone slips under a blanket for a nap. Someone sits down at the keyboard. The disorder of life resumes.

But you have to put books somewhere, once you have taken them out of the hundred boxes that you have just moved downstairs. The second bedroom in the new apartment will be white, just like all the other rooms. For thirty years, I have lived with bolder colors than most interior designers would prescribe, but from now on I will look to the landlord to keep things looking fresh. The bookcases that are going from one second bedroom to the other will be distressed with coats of cream-colored paint, rubbed to show hints of their old colors and roughed up a bit to conceal wear and tear. The room that is not quite My Room and certainly not my Home Office will not be the Blue Room, either. It’s function has settled: it will be the Book Room.

Morning After Note:
Miraculous Ignition
5 November 2014

Not even the glowering crenellations of a hundred boxes of books can prevent a flurry of new arrivals. The choices were disciplined: Marilynne Robinson’s wonderfully titled essay collection, When I Was Young I Read Books, and Colm Tóibín’s contribution to a documentary record of the Irish Famine, plus copies of The Blackwater Lightship to give to friends. Ian McEwan’s latest, The Children Act. At Crawford Doyle the other day, I gave my curiosity freer rein, and picked up books by Patrick Modiano (whose melancholy was instantly appealing) and Neel Mukherjee (whose tone of voice suggested the English Literature of India rather than soap opera; still, a gamble). Along, that is, with Jill Lepore’s book about Wonder Woman, which I’d asked the shop to set aside for me when it came in. Having just finished Factory Man — on the very day, of all days, on which the Wilfully Mindless Party won control of the American legislature — my reading pile was running low. No more.

But I wish I could remember what prompted me to order John Carey’s memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. I suspect that it had something to do with Inspector Morse and his semi-ilk (Endeavour and Lewis), but there must have been more to it than the Oxford angle. I had never heard of John Carey, and that alone ought to have stayed my hand. About to be eighty, Carey has been an Oxford don for most of his life, writing studies of Donne and Dickens and compiling anthologies for Faber. Such is the rough picture that I have going in. The book arrived only yesterday, and I haven’t quite reached the beginning of his university career. But I have not come across anything so compulsively readable in ages. This aspect of Carey’s book is made all the more striking by the mellow quality of his tale, which, while not without its excitements, seems remarkably steady. He is, or was for his times, the normalized Alan Bennett: a straight academic. But he is almost as slyly funny as my favorite member of Beyond the Fringe. The Unexpected Professor is a prose classic that ought to begin appearing on the curricula of better schools pronto.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from the chapter about Carey’s national service, which he spent largely in Egypt. (I can’t think of anything that would keep a roomful of clever boys more highly entertained than this entire episode.) In it, Carey describes a visit to the ancient monastery of St Catherine, in the Sinai Peninsula.

We were not very welcome. It took a while before we managed to attract anyone’s attention. At length a monk appeared. He was robed in black, with a flat-topped black hat as worn by Greek Orthodox clergy, and had a grizzled beard. Eyeing our armaments, he expressed regret that the monastery did not receive overnight guests, but said he would show us round next day. So we unrolled our sleeping bags on the warm sand, and took turns on guard duty till dawn. He came to see us after breakfast, and took us inside. It was like a little town, and utterly deserted. Not another soul appeared. Perhaps the other monks were at prayers, or hiding in their cells. After the glaring light outside, the basilica was too dark for us to see anything, so we had to take it on trust when our monk extolled its rare and splendid icons. We declined his offer to show us the charnel house, and he declined our request to see the library. In 1844, a German visitor called von Tischendorf, to whom the monks showed their treasures, took away with him a large portion of the oldest surviving manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which has never been returned, and is now in the British Library. Memory of the theft evidently lingered, so we had to make do with a peep through the library door. However, we were shown the Burning Bush, and photographed it for reconnaissance purposes. It did not look a healthy shrub. Perhaps it has never quite recovered from its miraculous ignition. The monastery garden, on the other hand, enclosed in its own fortified wall, was lush and fragrant. Date palms,  lemon trees, olives and figs spread their grateful shade. There were beds of herbs — thyme, rosemary, juniper. Jasmine scrambled everywhere. On leaving we presented our monk with some packets of cigarettes, which he accepted eagerly. In those days no one knew that smoking killed you, so we all smoked, and felt no guilt handing him our lethal packages. I came away thinking perhaps an Oxford college would be quite like this monastery — the seclusion, the scholarly calm, the garden. It was not a very accurate prediction.

This is the sort of triumph upon which the French lavish their explications de texte although its constant shifts in register are hardly Gallic. The passage begins with Carey’s trademark modesty, but only to build to richer and more amusing vistas, hinted at by the lascivious sway of “eyeing our armaments” (linked to overnight), and first accessed in the basilica, where the monk “extolled its rare and splendid [but invisible] icons.” This papery-thin irony will prompt a smile on the lips of all attentive readers, while surreptitiously preparing them for guffaws soon to erupt. With the mention of the charnel house, lips part in delighted surprise — what a touch! The tale of von Tischendorf’s larceny deliberately and misleadingly threatens to restore straight faces, and the peep through the library door seems to bid adieu to comic possibilities, but this is only to prepare the ground for the brisk production of the Burning Bush. The what? The Burning Bush is produced, photographed “for reconnaissance purposes” (why didn’t Indiana Jones think of this?), and thereupon dismissed with the cool disdain that gardeners from the green and sceptered isle have been cultivating for centuries: It did not look a healthy shrub. Blasphemy, surely. Whereupon we are struck down by the truly blazing bush of “miraculous ignition.” Not only blasphemy, but pious blasphemy: in this Scriptural setting, few words can swagger with the insolence of “ignition.” In dazzling command of his material, Carey deploys comparison to take us to the thriving monastery garden, in which his younger self thinks he foresees his future. The appreciation of this lush haven straddles a serpent-in-the-gardenish gift of cigarettes — over which Carey lingers just long enough to remind us how much time has passed since this visit to St Catherine’s occurred, as well as to lodge a curmudgeonly lament for lost pleasures. The paragraph’s final words, loitering beneath the date palms, promise a mordant read ahead.

It is brilliant throughout, but the brilliance is no more readily apparent than the splendid icons. It is the reader’s treat to unpack the magisterial understatement. On its surface, this masterpiece of Oxbridge wit remains a rather straightforward travel narrative. We went, and we saw what there was to see; now, what’s next?

Really, the officers’ mess was a better preparation for college life.

Oh, no!

***

Every two years at this time,  I telephone Fossil Darling to repeat my observation, first made in the second Clinton Administration, that the Democratic Party has outlived its usefulness by many, many years — nearly fifty, at this point. I do not mean the values of the Democratic Party, such as they may be, but rather the behind-the-scenes constellation of donors,  party operatives, and policy planners. These men and women have, for the best of all reasons (among others), made every imaginable compromise, and they have not only lost all sense of up and down but are training youngsters to manifest the same disorientation. The inverted crown of the party’s failure is its inability to prod the most noble undertaking of its dream of general equality — the eradication of American racism — beyond a point at which it stalled a long time ago. The Democratic Party is in urgent need of a decent burial.

To pick up its standard and carry on the struggle, I propose politics in a new key. Let’s give justice, liberty, and equality a rest; these and many other terms have been polarized into insignificance. Instead of approaching politics as the pursuit of ideal virtues, let’s allow it to be the expression of our best hopes for ourselves as stewards of this planet — a responsibility to which we have been alarmingly awakened. Let’s see how far our own ideas of decency, generosity, and self-respect can carry us.

In other words, let’s go on doing what we’re doing now, but doing it better by paying attention to what we’re doing.

Virtues Memo:
Plain to See
4 November 2014

Last night, at dinner, my friend ED and I were talking about Venice. Specifically, we were talking about the sestieri, the sixths (instead of “quarters”) into which the principal mass of the city, flanking the Grand Canal, is divided. We could remember the names of five, but not that of Santa Croce, which we found on a map as soon as we got back to the apartment. Our other, sharper reason for consulting a map was to determine the location of Castello.

We agreed, ED and I, where Castello is — next to San Marco — but I said that it was to the south, while my friend insisted that it was to the north. As ED is someone who tends to know what he’s  talking about, I was extremely uneasy about the possibility that I might be wrong.

It turned out that we were both right and both wrong. It probably doesn’t make much sense to apply the points of the compass to labyrinthine Venice, but if one must, it makes most sense to say that Castello lies to the east of San Marco, from which it stretches both to the north (the hospital and the Fondamente Nuove) and to the south (the Public Gardens).

If I have to be wrong, ED is the man whom I want to be right. But it still killed me to be wrong about Castello. Wrong, because I saw at once that I’d made a snap mistake a long time ago, and never revised it: I believed that Castello began on the far side of the Arsenale. It — doesn’t. I can’t count the number of times that this mistake has caused me to raise my eyebrows in the middle of a Guido Brunetti mystery, but did that ever get me to check the map? I read Brunetti mysteries map in hand, but my mistake about Castello was of the type that, all too often, pre-empts correction.

Now, here’s what’s typically me about this story. ED just got back from a week in Venice. I have never even been to Italy. ED, as I say, is someone who, more than most, knows his onions — and he was just there. strolling from San Marco into Castello. Did that stop me?

Wrong.

***

I managed to be out of the apartment for more than three hours yesterday, on a circuit of errands that I made up as I went along, just to be away from our crated chambers. After a few dozen blocks, I could actually think. What with Election Day coming up, and the strong personalities in Beth Macy’s Factory Man in mind, I found myself finishing up some connections.

It occurred to me that the virtues that I’ve been writing about here — generosity, decency, and self-respect — are political as well as personal virtues. Unlike “honesty,” for example, they function in the same way at both the intimate and the public level. Honesty is forever breaking down as a virtue because the appropriateness of candor shifts with the distance between people and the size and composition of the crowd. “Tell the truth” is as close to useless as a maxim can be. The concept of truth is hobbled by our belief that “truth” exists “out there” — that Platonic ideals such as truth exist, and, that, if we’re very, very good, we can grasp them.

The possibility that everything that exists might share human imperfection was, I think, physically unbearable to Plato. He bent his extraordinary mental powers to the development of an explanation of the world that proved to be very satisfying to intelligent men. It posited a zone free of the organic mutability of human life. In this view, humans might be imperfect mortals, doomed to death and decay, but unchanging ideals, such as truth and justice, lived on eternally, in every age the same. This is the backbone upon which grew the entire Western intellectual tradition — including the very idea of “Western.” This tradition, which was already sufficiently developed a thousand years ago for Islam to consider and reject it, has often been at odds with the capstone Christian virtues, and discord between the intellectual tradition and Christian dogma remains lively. But the habits of mind of educated Westerners are still founded on the axioms of Platonic faith.

The most regrettable aspect of Idealism is its contempt for the ordinary, for the “mere.” More than he knew, Plato was importing Greek ideas about heroes and heroism into his new faith — not the least of its appeals to those intelligent men. As a consequence, our Western ideas of virtue continue to extol the exceptional, the one-off, and especially the active self-sacrifice. We have only recently learned to appreciate — to recognize — the virtues of holding on, making a go of things over time, and enjoying “a good run,” but we still don’t know how to talk about them. Where are the clear and distinct ideas? You can’t construct much of a system with notions of generosity and decency, and “self-respect” seems almost solipsistic. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any need for systems. The things speak for themselves. So perhaps we ought to tell stories instead of laying down the law, even if this risks cutting off the Western tradition and becoming just like everybody else. A good thing?

Many years ago, when I was engaged in a group reading of the novels of Anthony Trollope, I became preoccupied, as good Trollope readers will, by the concept of the “gentleman.” (There is a pretty good book on the subject, The Gentleman in Trollope, if you can get hold of it.) After much puffing in and out of the cerebral folds, this train of thought carried me to a simple understanding: the gentleman is someone who seeks to make other people comfortable, whatever that means. Whatever that means. Couldn’t be vaguer, as the statement of a rule, and yet, in any particular instance, it is usually very clear what will make people comfortable, at least to those who have given the matter their gentlemanly attention. (My closest approach to a general rule is that civility begins with the offer of a comfortable chair and a glass of water.) In time, my interest in the gentleman faded, but only because the term is problematic for many readers, with its overtones of masculine privilege and social snobbery. The gentlemanly ideal remains explicit in my understanding of generosity.

My virtues are messily interrelated. Where does generosity stop, and decency begin?  They don’t. It is indecent to withhold generosity. What I mean by this is not that I must empty my pockets to the beggars on 86th Street but that it is wrong to get people riled up with inflammatory news stories about Ebola or Obamacare. It is wrong to make people uncomfortable even when, from sheer perversity, that is what they seek to be. (It is like giving car keys to a drunk.) Nor does generosity imply unstinting selflessness. Self-respect imposes material requirements — again, wildly idiosyncratic — that must be met if generosity is not to degenerate into foolishness. Both decency and self-respect seem to rule out the pursuit of glory. Does that erase too much of the flavor of life? Or are video games the solution?

Plato asked his disciples to explain the movement of heavenly bodies in terms of uniform circular motion. It took centuries for bright minds to realize that the very condition, which I have italicized, made explanation impossible. The heavenly bodies that are closest to our planet travel in ellipses, not circles. Mere observation eventually triumphed. But Plato was never interested in what’s plain to see. He was haunted by what ought to be. And he built that obsession into the way that all of us, especially the smart ones, think.

Gotham Diary:
Bad Dreams
3 November 2014

Goodness — this picture looked fine in the viewfinder of my camera, and as a thumbnail, too, when I sent it along to the cabinetmaker. I had been asked to send photos of the pieces that are to be disassembled before the move and then reassembled afterward. Happily for me, the cabinetmaker is still very much in business, and just around the corner. I received no complaints from that quarter about the blur, which, this morning, captures my uncertain state of mind. I can’t tell if I already occupy this state of mind, or if I’d just like to. The disorientation of living in a half-packed apartment, with its overall air of advanced dementia, has begun to infect my sleep, with the horrible result that I wake up from a nightmare only to discover that it wasn’t a dream!

There is a third piece of cabinetry that I have to ask the workmen about, although I don’t want them to take it apart. I don’t think that it needs to be taken apart, but I may be wrong (elevators). It’s the china cupboard that they built for us about twenty-five years ago. For the first time in ages, it now holds all the china and tabletop crystal that Kathleen and I want to keep. A lot of the really good stuff was stored rather precariously in the drawers of a sideboard. This we emptied onto the dining table. Then we made space for it in the china cupboard by moving out the doubtful items. There weren’t as many of these as I feared. Of course, we had packed up three different sets of china to give away. Two of these were kept in the cupboard, and the vanished stacks of plates left some nice empty spaces. The remaining set, by virtue of having been kept in the sideboard, meant that much less to transfer. The doubtful pieces were odds and ends that I rather liked, but to which Kathleen was indifferent. We discarded most of them. Life will be so much easier with everything not only in one place but in the right place. A bit less everything is a small price to pay.

Kathleen wrapped a great deal of china in “bubble packaging material,” using, I thought, more Scotch tape than wrap. I myself did nothing. I took the weekend off. Kathleen told me to. I didn’t even tidy the bedroom, largely because Kathleen, whose way of taking the weekend off took the form of spending it entirely at home, was always in it. (It is the only habitable space in the apartment, aside from two dining chairs and my desk in the blue room.) So I just read and read and read, until I couldn’t read any more. I was very tired, and doubtless needed the rest, but by Sunday night I was almost in a panic. I kept seeing closets, particularly the back corner of one of the closets in the blue room. Stacks of plastic milk crates stuffed with papers. If I start dreaming about that sort of thing, I’ll need a straitjacket.

***

On Friday evening, I finished The Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s worth reading, despite its disagreeable subject, just for the excitement at the end, which, in Campbell’s treatment, packs all the wallop of Aeschylus but without any of the bloodshed. I had never really understood Thatcher’s downfall, except vaguely, as some sort of palace coup. I got it mixed up with the IRA bomb that nearly killed the prime minister during a party conference at Brighton — not really, but sort of. In fact, Thatcher lost a peculiar vote of confidence in Parliament. This vote, instituted back in the Sixties by Sir Alec Douglas Home, the lame, if not lame-duck outgoing Tory, had never been exercised, and a prime minister with majority support ought to have had nothing to fear from it. But, Parliamentary peculiarity that it was, more than a mere majority was required, and Thatcher fell four votes short. Her reflexive response was to insist on a second round, but before this could happen, she was  persuaded to resign by colleagues who could no longer conceal their massive cases of Thatcher fatigue. The local cause of her collapse was some wild talk about a single currency for Europe (this was in 1990, two years before the Maastricht vote). The general cause, though, was the sheer protraction of her regime. She was beginning to look like Walpole, only without the grateful friends.

I had been dying to be done with Thatcher, but, the book closed, I rather missed her, the old witch. Campbell’s book achieved its honorable objective, which was to make it harder to dislike Thatcher in any sweeping, absolute way. If nothing else, he made it difficult to say just what it was that “Thatcherism” accomplished. But the great blot remains undimmed: Thatcher, and the American Republicans who propped up Ronald Reagan, embodied a mortal lack of humane generosity. They cared nothing for those who could not care for themselves. Nothing — Thatcher herself most brazenly of all.

I want to waste as little breath as possible on the evils of the politics of heartlessness. The problem is that those of us on the other side too often don’t know what we’re doing. We create muddles, occasionally of Augaean dimensions, that wind up bestowing the heroic aura of Hercules upon grubbily selfish bean counters. The road to hell may not be paved with good intentions, but the road to Thatcherism certainly is. In political life, good intentions are never enough. Policies must be paid for, and paid for by reasonable means (ie, without mortgaging the future). The complexity of human nature cannot be wished away by political programs.

We also fail by accepting, in the interests of an alleged pragmatism, certain objectionable features of the landscape. Once again, we must assume the mantle of abolitionists. Just as former slaves were set on the road to full political personhood (a road that, to our shame, too many of them still tread), so we must now strip business corporations of a spurious “natural” personhood that grossly amplifies the economic and political power of a few hundred CEOs, who need to be cut down to normal size. As a correlative of this campaign, we must abolish paid political advertising of all kinds, before it makes the Internet too dangerous to use.

Now I’ve moved on to Beth Macy’s Factory Man, which follows The Iron Lady with almost frightening continuity.

Between 1997 and 2000, Bassett Furniture went from operating forty-two factories to fourteen.

“We used to brag about how many plants we had,” Rob Spilman said. “But Paul [Fulton] would say, ‘I’d like to brag about how few plants we have — and how much money we make’.” (226-7)

Capitalists are like big cats. They’re adorable when they’re little, but when they grow up, they eat their employees.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Preparing to Vacate
31 October 2014

There are still a few books on the bookshelf in here, but we’ve run out of 16 x 12 x 12 book boxes, so they’ll have to wait a few days. On the table by the window, there are two stacks of books, books that will be neither packed nor given away. They’re my temporary library, assembled in snatches during the packing.

I will be glad, I have to say, to see the last of this room. I have spent a long time in it, and I have tired of its darkness, which is partly the fault of an oddly-sited window but mostly, obviously, the consequence of painting a room in a dark color. (The ceiling appears to be white, but it is actually a pale shade of the same blue.) I am happy to trade the blue room for a new room. I’m going to paint the bookshelves in a color chosen by Ray Soleil for the living room shelves, Malibu Peach. What with the white walls, I may need sunglasses.

What I’ll miss the least is the sheer oldness, the palpable wear and tear. The carpet is twenty-five years old, and the paint on the walls nearly twenty. The only way to freshen things up would be to do exactly what we’re doing now: vacate the premises. And where would we put the furniture in the mean time? Not to mention the books. The very pictures on the wall take up acres when they’re anywhere else. We’ve been quite literally boxed in. I’m determined to keep that from happening in the new place. We won’t have a panic room, but I hope to preserve a panic space. When we don’t need it, we’ll call it the ballroom. (In humble fact, we will call it the “foyer.”)

The chair in the picture won’t be coming with us. It is one of four dining chairs made for us in 1990. They were not particularly well made, and we were relieved when Kathleen’s parents, downsizing themselves not many years later, sent us four of their eight chairs, made far more sturdily in England. This chair is the lone survivor of our set. Its left arm is broken, and the whole chair wobbles when I sit in. When someone else sits in it, the left arm pops out, a violation of the laws of hospitality. The green container that gives the chair its colorful chaise percée look is full of toys that Will used to play with. Whether or not he actually plays with them next time he visits, he will certainly hunt them down. I wonder where they’ll be. Almost certainly not in the green tub. But somewhere. I’m looking forward to seeing pictures of Will in his Hallowe’en  costume. Which of the three that his mother bought for him will he choose? Being me, I’m hoping for mix ‘n’ match.

I hope you can tell that the mahogany bookcase center right is empty. That’s why it’s hard to tell that it’s a bookcase.

***

Kathleen tells me that I’m holding up very well, that I’m taking the move much better than she thought I would. The awful truth is that, when I learned that we really would be moving, and where to, the news came as a deliverance. I’d been miserable for most of the spring and nearly all of the summer. Have you ever seen Roberto Rosselini’s wonderful (if bleak) Viaggio in Italia? At one point, Ingrid Bergman’s character is taken to see some pits in which lava bubbles at a low boil. That’s what this building’s elevators were like for most of the year, and still are, every now and then. Rumors about the building. Talk of leases not being renewed. The tale of a man who was stopped by security from trying to move out. It was quite sea-sickening. Kathleen was at work when most of this gossip fumed and sputtered, but I dreaded getting on the elevator, or passing a knot of tenants in the corridor. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the season of uncertainty began almost immediately after our neighbor committed suicide by jumping from her balcony. Did she see it coming? She was clinically depressed, I’m told. But I can’t be sure, especially at this remove in time, that she didn’t hear some preliminary remark, some vague suggestion that the building might be up for sale (as indeed it was), a sketchy comment that a healthy person would have overlooked, but that she, in her darkness, interpreted or over-interpreted. After she died, the chorus was invariable: “She was always complaining.” And what she was always complaining about was the building.

The news that we’d be moving came as a relief, not a shock. I had, I now see, been saying farewell to our home of thirty-odd years, day after day. I was wondering how much longer I’d be trying to keep it tidy. Reorganizing a closet or a cabinet felt dimly foolish, although I did it anyway, just as I will change the sheets and tidy the bedroom tomorrow — for the last time. The bedroom has been our living room for about three weeks, an island of calm. I can keep it that way for another week. Then it, too, will have to come apart.

How nice it must be to be rich enough to go away while all this happens, and to leave it to other people to see to. Yes, really — how nice! I can tell you that it has been rewarding, or something nearly as positive, to “go through my things” and to have whittled them down, but that’s true only because I’m stuck being my own housekeeper. If I weren’t, all this packing and sorting would be a senseless bore! A few weeks ago, I wrote a few pieces under the rubric “Broccoli,” in which I argued that the finer things in life are really quite pleasurable, not just good for you, and it was an argument that I can make quite sincerely. But if there is no longer anything aspirational about my appreciation of the arts and literature, I am still struggling to see the plus side of housekeeping. It has to be done, and it ought not to be done by anyone else — those are the ground rules, and they are broccoli. To be honest, I am trying hard to make broccoli more palatable. I’m a long way from sitting down to riz à l’impératrice.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Lila
30 October 2014

Before there was Lila, there was Colm Tóibín’s review, in the London Review of Books. I hadn’t got a copy of the novel yet, much less read it, so I ought to have set the review aside, because I prefer to read serious books fresh. I’m talking about books that I’m avid to read because I admire and follow their authors. There are reviewers whom I admire and follow, too, but I don’t want their commentary rattling around in my head while I’m discovering a new book.

I wasn’t consumed by curiosity to see what Tóibín would say about Marilynne Robinson’s novel. I had a fairly good idea, and it turned out that I was right, although he did not in fact say a lot about Lila itself. I read the review because I was hungry for Colm Tóibín. For reasons that other recent entries at the site might suggest, I’d have read anything with his byline. I came away from the review slightly bemused. It was hard to tell just what Tóibín made of Lila. He didn’t say anything really negative about it, but he didn’t rave. I realized that Tóibín must have written it with an upcoming date in mind: at about the same time American readers got hold of the LRB, he and Robinson would have had a public conversation at the 92nd Street Y. (Yes, I ought to have gone; I wanted to go. But, what with everything, I just couldn’t. Going out in the evening is still beyond me.) Tóibín and Robinson make a beautiful pair, at least in theory. He writes about the destructive oppression of the institutional church; she writes about the emptiness of life without churches. Perhaps Tóibín was keeping his options open.

After I’d read Lila, I reread Tóibín’s piece. I now saw his uncertainty in three dimensions. To pile on the metaphors, it — this uncertainty — was now, in light of the novel, enormously illuminating. The book and the review sat there in my mind, like masterpieces in a cathedral, shining upon one another, generating a blinding brilliance.

***

Structurally, it’s a clever review. Tóibín begins with a discussion of Larkin and Eliot, and their distinct thoughts about religion in modern life. Then he shifts into his own home territory. This means, first, Hemingway, specifically into Hemingway’s brief flirtation with Catholicism, and, second, Henry James, specifically the moment of transfigured humiliation at the end of The Aspern Papers. The purpose of all this is to showcase vibrant uses of religious language in secular literature. Wrapping up his introit, Tóibín writes of James,

It’s interesting that he used not only the word “soul” but also “absolution” and “angelic.” If he had wanted to use secular terms, he would have done so. Instead, he wanted to invoke something deeper and more urgently mysterious, beyond human explanation, extreme — and the lexicon he saw fit to raid was a religious one.

Only now does Tóibín swing round to Robinson. There is a lengthy discussion of Housekeeping, Robinson’s startling first novel — I remember being very startled, almost scared, too upset, in the literal sense, to want to re-read the book (I also remember recommending it right and left). There is something telling about Tóibín’s leisurely pace, although I didn’t see it at first. He is addressing issues raised by Lila, and examining them exhaustively enough so that when he finally gets round to the book under review, we’ll have all had more than our fill of Robinson and her faith. Gilead and Home, the novels substantially related to Lila, are also treated at length. I count roughly fourteen columns in the LRB review. Of these, only one and a half are devoted to Lila. Lila raises issues, as I say, but Tóibín declines to draw conclusions.

Let me bold and reckless: what this means, what this brevity, this lack of things on a great novelist’s part to say about a new book strongly suggest, is that it is much too soon to appraise a book of Lila‘s magnificence. What might have seemed to be a pendant, tacked onto two other now-beloved stories but telling a very different, and rather less agreeable (certainly less comforting) tale, turns out to be the explanation of the whole, the moment, I must say, of transfiguration. Lila doesn’t follow Gilead and Home so much as it consecrates them. And the experience is not merely aesthetic. It is as fully religious as the contemplation of a text by Augustine or Kierkegaard. And  yet it remains absolutely and simply a novel.

The parallels to Scripture, beginning with the humility of Christ’s birth in the stable and coursing through all the Bible stories that seem to come to a point in the figure of Mary Maudlin, tumble down like the beams of a collapsing structure. The structure was nothing less than my understanding of the possibilities of fiction before I read Lila. Or perhaps it was my understanding of the Gospels that gave way. The structure was not weak or unsound, but it was incomplete. It had to come down so that something more comprehensive could take its place. Construction will not be undertaken anytime soon, however. I am still nursing the bruises of all those falling beams.

Extensively bandaged though I might be, I want to focus on one aspect of Lila that Tóibín doesn’t mention. (I haven’t read anyone else on the book.) Lila works out on two time planes. In the foreground, Lila approaches the town of Gilead and comes to be known and loved by its Congregationalist minister, Reverend John Ames. (We know from Gilead that they will marry and produce a son.) In the background, Lila remembers her life before Gilead, a barely civilized childhood roaming the countryside in search of migrant work followed by a rootless subsistence in towns. As a young child, she is snatched from heedless relations by a wandering woman who calls herself Doll, although she is anything but pretty. Doll nurtures Lila with an intensity that is passionate and loving but not quite parental; Doll isn’t taking the place of a mother, but stepping in after the possibility of having a mother has been lost to Lila forever. It is after Doll’s death that Lila takes to town life, but she continues to keep the distance from other people on which Doll protectively insisted. Lila’s mistrust of other people is so absolute that the colorful word “feral” doesn’t begin to describe it.

From the beginning, Lila resists Ames’s outreach of loving kindness. She accepts small creature comforts from him, but always on the inner understanding that she’ll be leaving Gilead soon. She holds on to her plan of escape as though it were her only source of hope. This continues right to the end of the book, where she will only allow that her son will be raised as a proper Christian, and that she will stay with Ames for as long as he shall live. But she never surrenders entirely. She never fully accepts the balm that has been offered.

In this resistance, Lila dramatizes — vividly, hugely, with all the unforgettable power of a CinemaScope goddess — the soul’s resistance to grace. There is no allegory, and yet there is nothing but allegory. The stubbornness of humiliated, all-too-mortal pride to acceptance and love is arguably the deepest mystery of Christianity, the most terrible thing that Jesus discovered about people. At the same time, it is Christianity’s common yard; it is where every congregation stands and sings and repents — a place wholly taken for granted. It is this familiarity that Marilynne Robinson has exploded and enlightened. The shock of reading Lila will take long to subside, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a “believer” or not. (Only a simpleton would argue that a lack of faith in religious dogma renders Scripture insignificant.) The ash from the explosion, which is probably more like snow, or even dew, will settle on everything in your life. Eventually, Lila will become familiar, too. Everything always does. But the world will not be the same.

Beauty Mark:
Why Bother?
28 October 2014

In this biography of Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, John Campbell claims that his subject “was by no means a philistine.” Then he more or less takes it back.

Yet her taste in the arts was characteristically simple and relentlessly functional. She had no patience with complexity or ambiguity, no time for imagination. She thought art should be beautiful, positive and improving, not disturbing or subversive. … Her idea of the arts was essentially didactic. (335)

This rubbed close to the bone, because while I have no problem with complexity or ambiguity, and in fact insist on plenty of both, I do believe that art ought to be beautiful, or at least inviting. It ought to draw me in, to make me want to see and know more. I should not be wondering, as I find myself doing over and over again whenever I see the paintings of Pablo Picasso, whether some sort of insult is  intended, and, if so, directed at whom? Nor, as with Jeff Koons, should I have occasion to ask if the work is meant as a joke in the crudest, least witty sense — like a five year-old making farting noises. Gratuitous jokes and insults tear the delicate fabric of civil discourse precisely because they irritate it for no good reason. They pretend to an interest that they do not possess.

It’s the absence of complexity and ambiguity that makes Picasso and Koons unsatisfying as artists. Picasso’s dun-colored exercises of power over women and Koons’s glaringly plasticized consumerism are inappropriate, not complex or ambiguous. I don’t mean to say that they don’t belong in museum galleries. I don’t think that they belong anywhere. They are wastes of materials. Many of my friends feel the same way, however tacitly they defer to the published opinion of art critics. I was unable to find anyone willing to accompany me to a second viewing of the Koons show. What nonsense, everyone said. Why are you going? I went because I wanted to see the objects with my own eyes, to stand in the same room with them, to breathe the air around them. I wanted immediate contact, unedited by journalists, with these notorious creations. I discovered something that ought not to have surprised me: Koons’s pieces photograph “better” than they look “in person.” Shiny and sparkly on the page of a glossy magazine, they’re rather dingy in fact. What looks like stainless steel or even silver through the lens turns out to be cheap plastic, or its visual equivalent. (The balloon toys are the only exception — they’re as taut and polished as advertised. And people who stand in front of them for any time almost always begin to see them as fun-house mirrors, sources of amusing contortions. The cartoon animals thus disappear.) You cannot tell how drab and cheesy those statues of Michael Jackson and the like really are unless you see them for yourself. They’re unspeakably pathetic! Yes, I wanted to see what being in the same room with them would be like. When I found out, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I refuse to entertain the idea of art as a form of social criticism until everybody who claims to be interested in art stops watching television altogether and (yes, there’s more) clamors loudly for a just and equitable national infrastructure. Some things are just too uncomplicated and unambiguous to require the services of art.

In the novel Never Let Me Go, a controversy boils in the background of the story told by Cathy, one of the cloned children fated to die by serving as an organ donor. It seems that Cathy’s small cohort of clones, unlike all the others in what appears to be a nightmarish experiment in barbarism, are brought up to appreciate art. What is the point of that, ask the special school’s critics. What is the point of that, Kazuo Ichiguro’s deadpan text tempts you to cry out — the children are doomed. But then, so are we all. It is no more cruel to teach Cathy a sense of beauty than it is to teach anyone else, when anyone else might die in a senseless automobile crash long before Cathy makes her first donation. No one is going to make it out of here alive.

The point, in fact, of art is to ask, why bother? Why yield to the invitation of art and try to learn more about it? What is the point of that? The point is that you are breathing and asking. You are alive and curious. My difficulty with Picasso and Koons is that they foreclose these questions with their peremptory, “disillusioned” answers. The work of the late Thomas Kincade, replete with illusion, is just as peremptory and just as objectionable. Hipsters line up to see Picasso and Koons and even Kincade because they know that nothing is less cool than curiosity, than the open display of ignorance. The only thing better than having the right answers to a test is no test in the first place.

***

I suppose that I ought to beg pardon. Even I know that Picasso is a serious, substantial artist, as Koons and Kincade are not. If I’m going to beat him up, I ought to do so separately. Perhaps. But Friday’s experience of his starkly unpleasant neurosis about the bodies of women is still fresh. I’m wondering not why I don’t get Picasso but why everyone else is so complacent about his brutality.The significance of these subhuman portrayals seems to be pathological and perversely anti-erotic. Picasso is not telling us something about women that would fail to see if he did not point it out to us. He is telling us that he is troubled. For too long, I think, his totemic figures have been associated with clichés about the horrors and dislocations of modern times. But they strike a note that no other artist of his time or eminence ever sounds.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Blue Onion
27 October 2014

Over the weekend, a friend who has retired to Cape Cod called up, to say that he had been reading the blog (this blog), and WTF! — we were moving! At the end of the conversation, he apologized, because he and his wife were in town for a few days only, and wouldn’t be able to help us pack.

Everyone has said something like this. I am always slightly alarmed to hear it, because the idea of someone’s “helping” me with the packing is not as welcome as it is meant to be. Although I should desperately appreciate real help with this move, it would have to come from supernatural beings who know better than I do what to keep and what to discard. I suppose that if I were to pile up everything that we’re keeping in one corner of the apartment, I could say, “Please wrap this up and put it in a box.” But I should have to know what we’re keeping ahead of time. As it is, I decide as I go along.

Or I shall. Nothing besides books has been packed so far. At first, the house seemed to be nothing but a library, and, indeed, nearly seventy boxes have been filled with books. (I expect to fill a further twenty-five.) But the disappearance of books into boxes has highlighted the plethora of other things that seem to be everywhere, divisible into two groups, “ornaments” and “stuff.” As soon as I have packed all the books, I shall tackle the ornaments, and I’ve been saving the Times for weeks for just this purpose. Surfaces throughout the apartment will clear up as if in the wake of a rapture. Then there will only be stuff.

(Stuff, and the kitchen.

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting with All New Food, with not taking so much as a crumb from this apartment. Of course there would be exceptions: Parmesan cheese, for example, and that delicious lime vinegar that’s hard to get. Saffron, if there’s any lying about, and the dried mushrooms that don’t taste like cardboard. But canned and bottled goods int the pantry would not follow us downstairs. I will pitch the sourdough starter for a second time and order a new batch from King Arthur. (My plans to develop expertise with sourdough bread this autumn were potholed by last month’s illness.) The contents of the fridge — now that would be a good job to delegate to some helpful friend. “Just pitch it all and don’t ask me about anything.” The freezer, too.

Maybe — here’s an idea — I won’t wait until the last minute to implement this plan. I can pretend to be that friend!)

Once upon a time, when we were all young, moving was a communal experience, or so it seemed. Friends helped out, especially anyone with a truck. The other day, I came across photographs of every building that I’d lived in during my seven years in Houston; I moved, in those days, about once a year. (The pictures were taken later, after, greatly relieved, I had settled in New York.) I already had a lot of books — and a lot of LPs. But I didn’t have too much else, and moving was never a big deal. It was a kind of party, really, usually ending with sixpacks and wine. Or dinner somewhere (else). I don’t really remember very well; it has been nearly forty years since I left Houston for law school.

After law school, Kathleen and I and our best friend Barry packed up a U-Haul trailer. There was not a cubic inch of empty space when we were done. Somehow, the trailer made it to New Jersey, along with the car and Kathleen and me, and that’s where its contents were put into storage. For how long, I don’t remember — not very. I took a flat in Park Slope, and Kathleen spent the summer on a friend’s couch on the Upper West Side. In the fall of 1980, right after we took the Bar exam, Kathleen and her mother found a studio apartment in this building, and we’ve been here ever since. I kept the place in Park Slope, but lived in sin with Kathleen. Our plans to get married quickly were postponed by Kathleen’s parents’ relocation to San Francisco, so I didn’t feel too guilty. We maintained an elaborate ruse about my answering Kathleen’s phone whenever her mother called (which she did far more often than would happen after we were married) with the information that Kathleen, because she was “working late,” had forwarded the phone to my Brooklyn apartment. This was respected if not believed.

I remember a time, a weekend afternoon, when the phone rang, and it wasn’t Kathleen’s mother, but her brother, Kevin. “Mummy and Daddy and I are downstairs at the coffee shop!” he whispered in a sympathetic panic from a phone booth. “They want to come up and see your place!” Thanks, Kevin! I had five minutes in which to drag all my clothes from the closet to the floor under the bed. The very first thing that Kathleen’s mother did when she came into the apartment — and I do mean the very first, after saying hello and how are you — was to sweep open the closet door. “What a lot of space you’ve got!” she croaked with hollow triumph, undoubtedly noticing that Kathleen’s clothes were pressed into half the space available, but saying nothing.  On the night before the wedding, she came out and asked Kathleen if we’d been living together, and Kathleen said that we had. “Good,” was all her mother said, meaning “Good for you for managing appearances so well.”

We left the studio right after the wedding, moving downstairs to a one-bedroom, which we had for two years. Then, back upstairs, higher and bigger than ever. Another photograph that I came across over the weekend showed this apartment in the early days of our occupancy. We still didn’t have a lot of stuff. There wasn’t much art on the walls. The bookshelves were small. The draperies were home-made and looked it. The love seats that had been Kathleen’s grandmother’s were in desperate need of reupholstery. Sophisticated arrangement of what furniture there was could not entirely repress the air of student housing.

When I look around the apartment now, I’m reminded of two things. The first is the first Star Trek movie, which featured an unmanned spacecraft called “Veejer.” This was short, it developed, for “Voyager,” the probe sent from earth centuries before (in the movie’s time frame). On its travels, Veejer had picked up a lot of junk, and was nearly as big as a planet itself. (It had also conceived a lethal determination to cleanse its home base of “carbon units,” but that’s neither here nor there.) When I look at the apartment, or remember what it looked like before the eruption of corrugated boxes, I think of Veejer.

Then I think of the new apartment, which will not look like this one, and I think of Pauline de Rothschild. This elegant dame took a flat in the Albany toward the end of her life, and of course she furnished it in great style. She made a point of telling the journalist who wrote it all up, however, that, in contrast to the choice of 150 different china patterns at her French country house, she had selected just one for London — Blue Onion.

That’s what the new apartment is going to be like. No student housing, no impecunious exiguity. No exile’s warehouse, either. Just a few of the nice things that we have accumulated over the years. It’s the end of the blue room period and the beginning of the blue onion.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
With Cubist Chemise
24 October 2014

When I left the house, it was to deposit some checks at the bank, and it wasn’t until I got to the bank that I decided to head over to Crawford Doyle, in hopes of picking up copies of Lila and the new Wonder Woman book by Jill Lepore. It wasn’t until I was approaching Madison on 83rd Street that I decided also to stop in at William Greenberg for some chocolate-chip cookies, but not long thereafter I knew that I’d have lunch somewhere at the Museum. Waiting for the guard to look through my tote bag (which by now contained Lila but not Lepore, as it had not yet reached the shop), I wondered if I should be denied admission because of the cookies, but I was waved through absently. There was a solid knot of people waiting for tables at the Petrie Court, so I went downstairs to the cafeteria. I was starving.

After lunch, I went to find the Cubism show, the collection of pictures that Leonard Lauder has given (or promised to give) to the Museum. It is a very handsome collection, whatever the merits of the individual pictures. The Braques are quite likeable, the Picassos mystifyingly but typically colorless and misogynistic. (The more I think about Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, a repulsive and even, to resort to a contemporary shibboleth, inappropriate image, the more it seems only a matter of time before the bottom suddenly drops out from under Picasso’s reputation.) The pictures by Juan Gris and Fernand Léger flirt amusingly with commercial illustration. Overall, I’d categorize all but one or two of the early Braques as exemplars of Design, not Art. There is far too much thought in these works — too much telling and not enough inviting.

One sidelight of the show seems to me to corroborate this view. The first thing you see when you enter the gallery is a blown-up photograph of an arrangement of nine or so of the pieces, hung rather tightly on a paneled wall, above a comfortable modern sofa flanked by small but precious eighteenth-century French tables. I presume that this shows how Mr Lauder displayed the pictures at home (I didn’t bother to read the card). The grouping has an immense visual impact that (I believe) would be a good deal less harmonious if a true masterpiece or two were forced into the ensemble.

To me, the cubists’ frugality with paint is a visual correlative of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. It reminds me of skidmarks.

***

A friend has written to ask me to describe the new apartment. Beyond mentioning the north and south exposures, and the pleasant treetop views, I’m reluctant to go into detail, because, so long as the apartment is empty, its existence is speculative. Only when I fill it — or, even better, don’t fill it — with our belongings will it pop into life. I know what I’d like to do, and I hope that the space will accommodate my plans, but there’s no way to tell in advance. Kathleen suggested cutting out scaled bits of cardboard to represent the furniture, but I’m pretty sure that this would lead to confusion. How a room fits together is a matter of looks, not inches.

I will say that I’m in seventh heaven about the dining ell. I have never been happy about devoting nearly half of the living room to a dining table and its chairs, and now those things will have a corner of their own,  and the living room, I hope, will be much more spacious than the one we have now. The two chambers are a tad smaller in the new apartment, but spaciousness in private rooms is not so important. I have no hopes of creating an underfurnished atmosphere in the new living room, but I’m aiming in that direction.

If I’m sanguine about the furniture, I’m phlegmatic-to-bilious about the pictures. There are few stretches of unbroken wall space. We won’t be able to hang the large painting of a Houston yard in summer opposite our bed, which will be a loss no matter where the picture winds up. The long entrance hallway would seem to provide ample space for small framed works, but I’ve learned that cramming the walls of corridors can have a profoundly trivializing effect. The ideal would be to rotate all but a few things, but this is not really practicable in an ordinary New York apartment: where do you put pictures when they’re not on the walls?

The new kitchen is quite a bit larger — longer — and, in addition to its wonderful window, it has two entrances, one from the foyer and one from the dining ell. All of this (except for the window) means that it will be easy for someone to help me in the kitchen, something that is all but impossible where we are now. Whether anyone will help me remains to be seen. That’s to say that it will take me a while to relax my longstanding one-man-band culinary tyranny. People can’t help you if you don’t know what to ask them to do. (If they’re smart, that is, and know better than to volunteer in someone else’s kitchen.) For starters, though, it will be nice just to let someone stand in a corner and talk.

***

Yesterday, I found myself with an hour to kill. Now, this was extraordinary; the phrase “hour to kill” never comes up for me. Sometimes I’ll get dressed to go out a little ahead of time, and read quietly until I’ve got to leave, but I never think of this as killing time. There was no mistaking it yesterday, though. I had tidied up my desk, rendering my mind entirely unfit for any serious work, and there was an hour to go before Ray Soleil and our new friends from the UN would show up. So I sat down with a couple of shoeboxes of photographs.

(The “shoeboxes” came from a now-defunct outfit called Exposures. It trafficked in all the paraphernalia of print photography — albums, cases for slides, even shelving. Who knew that this business would dry up like the Colorado River, leaving countless boomers stranded with swollen collections of photographs that no one else in the world would ever want to see?)

The first box that I opened contained old Polaroid pictures, taken at two different periods. There were pictures from the Eighties, and pictures from ten years earlier, before law school. I set the later photographs aside and culled the earlier ones. I culled mercilessly. Dozens of pictures would have required mortifying dissertations to explain. I myself figured in entirely too many photographs in the character of the Life of the Party, my face a little blurred from drink. That might also explain why I no longer had names for many of the faces. It was exhilarating to toss Polaroid after Polaroid into the plastic Fairway bag that, when I was done, I tied up and tossed down the chute.

The second box contained — contains; I’m still working on it (Ray showed up early) — an astonishing number of photographs of Honolulu and environs, taken by Kathleen during a holiday of sorts that she spent with our good friend who teaches at the law school there. It was a working holiday, in the event; Kathleen was in the middle of a deal between players in London, New York, and Jakarta, and she had to rent a professional fax machine just to stay in touch. Where she found time to take nine million pictures of Diamond Head, I’ve no idea. Nor do I know what to do with the pictures, most of which, perhaps not surprisingly, are not up to Kathleen’s excellent standard. Now watch: Kathleen will tell me that these pictures weren’t taken on that trip. But will I be left holding the prints?

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Knowing the Enemy
23 October 2014

Having emptied two large bookcases, and piled up a great many books to discard, I’m disheartened by how much remains to be done. There is stuff everywhere. Take the sideboard in the image above.  How many boxes will its drawers fill? And where will we put those boxes, while we wait for the move?

There is no real free space in this apartment. There are only passing lanes.

Meanwhile, I pack ten or so boxes of books, and I’m done for the day. Exhausted! Yesterday, I also did the laundry, a regular job that doesn’t count toward the move. And I brought in a lot of heavy plastic tableware from the balcony, to run it through the dishwasher so that our new friend would have lots of choices for furnishing her bare kitchen. (She will be offered honest porcelain as well.) I scrutinized pots and pans. I’ll do more of that this afternoon,  along with generally tidying up incidental messes. The other night, Ray Soleil and I moved an armchair out of the apartment and across the hall. We had to move all sorts of other things to clear the way from the blue room to the front door. In the process, we made at least four incidental messes. I’ve got to straighten all of them out, or I shall go mad.

The bedroom remains untouched. You would never know we were moving. It is tidy and familiar. It will be the last to go.

***

When I had done with The Heather Blazing, I was struck by one thing that distinguishes it from The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster: not only is the central figure a man, but his carnality is noted in several graphic episodes. So is his hunger and, as an old man, his fatigue and wear-and-tear. Helen Doherty and Nora Webster keep their clothes on, as it were. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the author feels a shyness about women.

But it’s not that, I don’t think. It’s rather the development of a gay writer’s frankness and technique during a time of unimagined shifts in public attitudes toward gay life. Eamon Redmond, the High Court judge whose youth is recalled in parallel with his later life, in The Heather Blazing, is a complicated man in many ways, but not sexually;  sexually, he is simply straight. His sexuality is normal in the same way that his digestion is normal: he is unconscious of it except when it obtrudes, triggered by a young woman’s breasts or slim figure or smooth skin. It is not particularly intimate, as his wife, Carmel, complains. This is not to say that Eamon is absent when he has sex, but rather than sex does not open him up.

It does not occur to Eamon that opening up would be desirable. Toward the end of the book, at a point in the narrative when the observation drives home something that the reader already knows, but situated in a time frame that is neither youth nor old age, but an evening in the middle of Carmel’s first pregnancy, Eamon confesses to her that he believed that nobody ever wanted him. We have seen that he was cared for as a boy, by his widowed father and his extended family of aunts and uncles, and even that these older people meant to love him. But Eamon had grown up without a mother. He was very smart, but diligent rather than clever — the soul of responsibility at an early age. What he didn’t know, and the adults didn’t know, either, was that this responsibility was a carapace. Eamon was not only not a problem child, but he took very good care of himself. He was one less thing to worry about.

So, when he loses himself in the law, it is made all the easier by his skill at not listening too closely to what others say. He can shut himself off. Later, after  Carmel dies, Eamon cannot remember a single instance of her complaining about her father’s excessive drinking, even though he knows that there must have been many. Now, at least, even if it is too late, he is vexed by this failure.

Eamon’s highly selective attentiveness, engaged with legal concepts but not with personal intimacies, is stereotypical of bright heterosexual men. The scope of the professional intelligence which brings them worldly success seems to underline an equally worldly stupidity. The world excuses this clumsiness, made up as the world is of other equally maladroit men and the women who tend to them. In the course of the novel, Eamon issues two important legal decisions that come down heavily and even harshly on the side of conservative tradition. His wife and children are appalled, but he knows that his colleagues find his opinions to be eminently “sensible.” Eamon is a pillar not just of the law, but of heterosexual norms.

He is not a character that a gay writer might be expected to admire, but already we see Colm Tóibín treating an uncongenial subject with deep respect. Tóibin grasps that the attempt to understand a man such as Eamon Redmond requires him to honor Redmond’s experience, and Tóibín honors it so thoroughly that the dominating implication of the Fianna Fáil (Republican) Party in Irish political life throughout mid-century Ireland, a history of high-sounding but essentially tawdry compromises, especially with the Church, that must have disgusted the young writer, is itself presented as the result of honorable passions.

What we have in The Heather Blazing is an exalted case of Knowing the Enemy. I believe that if Tóibín were to tackle such a figure again, the result would be leaner and more revealing; having written so well about Henry James, might not Tóibín amaze the world with the fictional portrait of an even less widely known (but much grander) figure, Charlie Haughey? Nevertheless, to have accomplished so much in a second novel is a triumph. and the author has understandably moved on. In the short stories collected in Mothers and Sons and The  Empty Family, he has given us a gallery of men, none of them (as I recall) like Eamon Redmond, and most of them gay. But in his longer fiction, Tóibín has retained his interest in the obliquities of behavior and consciousness familiar of gay men of his age (and older), but not so much to younger men, by focusing on independently-minded women, whose dealings with straight men (and the world at large) have also been marked, and may still be marked, by such obliquities.

But women are not the enemy; they are less “other” than straight men such as Eamon Redmond. The alienation of the “merely personal” from the vitality of life doesn’t come into it.

In my current infatuation with Colm Tóibín’s writing, will I re-read Brooklyn (again)? And, if I do, will I be surprised to find that its themes have much more in common with those of The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and Nora Webster than I think they do?

Doctrinal Note:
Making the Bed
22 October 2014

I had the idea, yesterday, of devoting today’s entry to the question, whether and why it is a good thing to make the bed in the morning.

Almost anyone who notices an unmade bed — an unmade bed that he or she has rumpled by sleeping in it — will probably be driven to make it. That’s a curious phrase, to “make the bed.” It suggests that the assemblage of boards and blankets, mattress and pillows is not a proper bed until its elements have been arranged in an orderly fashion, with sheets flattened out and tucked in, and with pillows laid out neatly by the headboard. Sleep is disorderly; only the very ill and the dead lie in a bed without disturbing it. In some deep sense, probably akin to the motivation that compels us to cover ourselves up in public, an unmade bed is not a bed at all. It is just a mess.

Why make the bed, though, if it is only going to be unmade hours later? Why not accept the inevitability of mess, and learn to live with it? Why not let the soiled clothes and dirty dishes pile up until they all have to be washed at once? Doesn’t it make more sense to ignore problems until they must be dealt with, and then to deal with them in a batch? And is a mess really a mess if there is no one to see it but you?

There are some good reasons for leaving the bed unmade. Airing out the sheets and the mattress is important. The average person, I read somewhere, sweats the equivalent of a cup of water during a night’s sleep. If we were more concerned about hygiene than we apparently are, we would hang out our sheets and blankets instead of folding and stretching them on top of each other. In short, we don’t make the bed because it’s the healthy thing to do.

Why bother?

(I wanted to work my way toward a sunny upland in which the “bother” of making the bed would disappear, to be replaced by pure pleasure. I would sing of the joy of being in touch with the rhythms of life. Making the bed, and taking care of all the other household chores, would be endowed with an ecstatic aura. Simple things! The thrill of being alive!

It’s amazing, how the damage caused by reading New Age texts during one’s impressionable youth can still be felt decades later. There is no rapturous answer to “why bother?” There is only the bother.)

Kathleen and I talked about it last night. It is almost always I who makes the bed, but when I was in the hospital last month, Kathleen found herself doing the straightening up. She said that it was demoralizing to come home to a messy bedroom after a trying day. This prudential outlook is probably the most effective goad to good housekeeping.  It’s a kind of insurance against the vicissitudes of life: if a tidy house won’t always cheer you up after a bad day, at least it won’t make you feel worse. To put it the other way, you can afford to have a sink full of dirty dishes and an overflowing laundry hamper only if things are going really well. Can you count on that?

But there’s more to it than prudence.

I keep coming back to the importance of private life for the growth of true self-respect.

“Private life” seems to mean very little to people today. In a horrible manipulation of our visual wiring, the makers of television shows have taught us that nothing is quite as real as an image captured on a screen. News stories can be far more exciting, traumatic, and ultimately stressful for television viewers than they are for the people living through them in the real world. Television professionals know how to edit out everything that distracts from the point of a story — the drudgery, the unintended consequences. Social media demonstrate that ordinary people have learned the lesson. In learning how to present ourselves most favorably, we learn how to live most publicly.

Taking good care of yourself when no one is watching has become confused with taking good care of yourself as if everyone were watching. Solitude has become meaningless. But it is where each of us really lives. We are all visitors here, each experiencing an uncertain, one way sojourn on earth. The only good thing that any of us can lay firm claim to is self-respect, and self-respect has to be earned, over and over, every day. Its components are many and complex. The reasonable belief that we are making the best of what we have is a large part of self-respect. Our generosity to others is an important element, and a very tricky one, too, for generosity itself must always exceed the satisfaction that we derive from being generous. (In other words, it is impossible to be generous enough.) Increasingly, human self-respect depends on a sense of leaving the world — the environment, the planet — no worse than we found it. A hard and bitter responsibility this is, for generations raised on thoughtless exploitation.

I wrote yesterday that we have become the gods that we used to dread: it is we who can destroy the world. Fear and trembling will not be helpful in coming to grips with this dreadful destiny. Only self-respect can prevent our too-potent weaknesses from devouring us.

Self-respect begins in privacy, whether we experience privacy alone or in an intimate relationship with another. It is in private that we manifest what we have truly learned about living human lives. If we have learned little or nothing — if making the best use of our skills and interests is unimportant, if generosity is merely unprofitable, if the state of the world is somebody else’s problem — then we live in disorder and mess.

So: make the bed already.

Gotham Diary:
Boxed In
21 October 2014

“What have you got on for today?” asked Kathleen on her way out the door. “Panic,” I said.

Yesterday, I filled another ten boxes with books. Two and a half shelves were emptied — two and a half shelves of books stacked three deep. That’s seven and a half rows of books, with each box holding most, but not all, of a row. There was also a cluster of odd shelves to clear — shelves designed to hold stereo equipment but long ago given over to atlases and bibles and law books. They filled two boxes. I brought Kathleen into the blue room to show her the progress so far (not impressive), and she picked up a roll of heavy-duty tape. “Is this the roll that you wanted me to look at?” It was a big roll of Scotch Extreme Shipping Tape — beyond strapping tape? — and there had only been the one roll at Staples. I couldn’t find the edge, but Kathleen quickly did, so now I can pack some more boxes this afternoon, and at least clear out the central block of the big bookcase. We broke down and ordered an expensive lifetime supply of strapping tape from Uline. We’ll probably go through all of it. Moving day is about three weeks away.

Panic.

The cousin of a friend has just been appointed to a foreign mission to the United Nations here in New York, and she has arrived in town without much in the way of household goods — so she can take some of our plates. We’re getting together for dinner on Thursday. I shall put out the tableware that we no longer wish to keep, and throw in some pots and pans. (Against my better judgment, I’m giving away some small All-Clad pots. I never use them. Then there’s a gigantic Le Creuset dutch oven, a little the worse for wear but with years yet to go.) I hope that our new friend takes every last piece of it.

Tonight, we’re going to have macaroni and cheese for dinner. That’s what I make when I can’t think of anything else. We had grilled chicken last night, and very tasty it was. When I removed the chicken from the marinade (sesame oil, lime, soy sauce and canola), I replaced it with a piece of London broil, so that will be dinner tomorrow night, or perhaps over the weekend. We enjoyed the chicken picnic-style, with hunks torn from a baguette and chunks of cheese. It was very satisfying. Later, I fell asleep in my chair.

Falling asleep in the chair is better than not falling asleep in bed, which is what happens if I lie down too soon. If I lie down too soon, I am almost immediately disturbed by what I suppose might be called a primordial fear of wetting the bed. There never turns out to be much of anything in my bladder, but to the bathroom I must go. For several years before the doctor prescribed a pill that gets me to sleep but doesn’t keep me there (that’s not required; it’s the falling asleep that’s the problem), I would lose hours to this miserable phantom,  unless of course I’d had plenty of wine in the evening. The pill knocks me out nicely within about half an hour, and on most nights I seem to know exactly when to get out of my chair and slip into bed. If I fall asleep in the chair, no harm is done; I wake up an hour or so later, not the slightest bit uncomfortable, drift across the room, and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. If I get into bed too soon, I might have to make three trips to the bathroom for no good reason. Even without the dread of insomnia, it’s not very pleasant to get comfortable under the blankets only to have to toss them off and get up again.

Or maybe I’ll pick up some bratwurst at Schaller and Weber — an even more mindless menu, teetering on the edge of delivery. (“Delivery” is what “take-out” is called in Manhattan.) You can buy the bratwurst cooked, but I like to poach and then brown it myself. Cucumber and potato salads come ready-made. I wasn’t going to go out today, but I see that I have to pick up a prescription at Duane Reade, which is practically next door to Schaller and Weber.

The thing about delivery is that we are so tired of it that it is easier to cook from scratch. That is what we’ve come to.

***

A gratifying stack of books did not get packed yesterday: rejects! German Self-Taught. I’ve been carrying that around for decades, but I’ve never used it. The World As Will and Representation, in two thick Dover volumes. I am never going to read Schopenhauer, any more than I am going to cook from Mrs Beeton. I am never, I now see, going to learn anything from philosophy, except the utter uselessness of it. Now, I use the word “philosophy” narrowly, to describe systematic metaphysical thought. What all philosophers have in common — and this is why I don’t consider David Hume to be one of them — is the belief in an immaterial reality that serves as the foundation for the world of sense impressions that we experience. Philosophers hold that our impressions are delusive at worst and misleading at best if the underlying reality is not understood. In almost every case, a Creator underlies what underlies.

I do not know for certain that there is no Creator, or that the world as I experience it is not underpinned by reality of another dimension, but I do believe that thinking about such things is a waste of time — a rather terrible waste of time, considering all the problems that I see around me. I am well aware of the philosopher’s curse: none of those worldly problems will be solved until the metaphysical nature of things is fully grasped. What troubles me more deeply is the sheer need that men seem to have for this invisible order. Primarily concerned with exhorting educated Americans to act up to their intelligence, I worry that traditionalists like David Brooks and Ross Douthat are right, and that the elites of this country will never Rise to Occasion without a compelling belief in something larger than themselves.

I have found something larger than “themselves,” and it’s a nightmare: the humanity that swarms over the earth, empowered by technologies that it does not fully understand and fully capable of destroying the planet. We have become the gods that we feared. Only as an attentive and articulate society of individuals will we survive our colossal aptitudes for blunder. If I could stick a halo on that and make it blow magic smoke rings, I almost would.

***

Update: Now I can back boxes, all right. The delivery from Uline arrived this morning. Where to put the boxes when they’re empty and flat is already a problem. (Maybe we ordered the wardrobe boxes a bit too soon.)

Panic.

Gotham Diary:
The Sillies
20 October 2014

There was a lot of giggling and chuckling, and some shrieking, this weekend. The silliness of the world was upon us. Kathleen finally read Patricia Marx’s piece about tortoises and alpacas (mentioned below). I came across a very funny story in a rather heartbreaking novel, Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship — the punchline, so to speak, goes something like this: “We haven’t noticed any change, Sister Emmanuelle; it must be the convent” — which reminded me of another funny story, this one retailed by Ray Soleil, taken from the ongoing low-grade sit-com that he has going with his mother, in which other family members get to play occasional roles.

Ray’s brother: So, you pissed him off [meaning Ray]…
Ray’s mother: Did he call you? [meaning 'How did you know?']
Ray’s brother: No. I figured it out for myself. [unprecedented plot twist]

The whole story made Kathleen laugh — not just smile.

Then there was Will, on Face Time yesterday. He was in a very jolly mood, whispering to us about the three Hallowe’en costumes that his mother bought for him. (The summer’s favorite, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, has been discarded, and the smart money seems to be on Wolverine.) At the end of the call, he gave me the look of a pure scamp as he echoed his father and said, “Bye, RJ.” This has been going on all year. He is trying to get me to acknowledge the unwonted form of address, but I never do; I just ignore it. Sometimes, but not nearly so often, he calls Kathleen by name, but she ignores him, too. We keep our amusement to ourselves. Had we, at Will’s age, experimented with using our grandparents’ given names, we should have been exterminated on the spot. Nor should we soon have been forgiven for asking, as Will did his father, “When you die, can I have your money?” Old people were no fun when we were young, and they didn’t have any fun, either. It’s very amusing to pretend to be unaware that Will is trying, in a wholly minor and insignificant way, to be a little bit naughty. Not that we actually fool Will.

The silliest thing, though, was in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue. It wasn’t so much the submersible automobile, capable of propelling itself through what a Russian communiqué. badly translated perhaps, has recently called “the aquatic areas of the world’s oceans” — at depths up to thirty feet. It is difficult to imagine a use for this vehicle other than desperately simulating the James Bond experience (sold separately) by taking a spin in sparkling Caribbean waters; it is certainly no alternative to the Holland Tunnel. No, the submersible car itself is just dumb. It’s the price that’s a riot. $2,000,000. You have to look at the figure a couple of times to be sure. In a catalogue offering a wide variety of nonsense priced at $99.95, $179.95, or even $595.95, the seven-figure pricetag (no cents) stands out, and the mind begins to boggle. “And what card will you be using, sir?” “My Fort Knox card, but if I tell you the number I shall have to kill you.” &c. Imagining the purchase and sale of a preposterous toy, sight unseen, via an 800 number, for $2,000,000 is a flight of looniness that even The Onion rarely attains.

When I was a boy, the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue had a more humdrum tone. It purveyed labor-saving gizmos that sooner or later provoked my mother into asking, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”, as if, had she only had an extra fifteen minutes here or there to spare from her busy life, she might well have conceived the automatic Scotch-tape dispenser or the self-winding shower curtain. (Unable to recall actual gee-whiz products, I’ve been forced to invent.) No matter how impressed she was with the catalogue’s offerings, however, my mother never put down any cash American toward the purchase of one. This was very disappointing to me. Immured in my suburban idyll, I had learned that the only interesting thing that ever happened was the delivery of a box from the outside world.

I was shattered to discover the same item for sale in the pages of Hammacher Schlemmer and those of the Sharper Image. Another illusion broken on the rocks! Here I dreamed that their respective cornucopias were stocked with unique items! And what we they both selling? Sharper Image mentions “aromatherapy,” while Hammacher Schlemmer calls the thing a “Sonic Scent Diffuser.” Either way, it looks pretty nasty. Slice a caldera out of the top of an old smudgepot, insert a hole that spews white smoke from the base of the concavity, and see if it doesn’t put you in mind of the first stage of an alien invasion!

***

When The Blackwater Lightship appeared in 1999 — it was, as I recall, Colm Tóibín’s first American success — AIDS was no longer killing people right and left, so there was a retrospective relief in his telling of a young man’s agonies in the later stages of the disease. This sort of thing wasn’t happening anymore. Another thing that wasn’t happening anymore, or not so much, was the shock and dismay of discovering, in the context of a deadly illness, that sons and brothers were gay. Helen Doherty, the central figure in Lightship, has known that her brother way gay, but not that he was sick; his wretched condition comes as a complete surprise. Although she’s not on bad terms with Declan, Helen keeps her distance from her family, especially from her mother, Lily. Helen has married a nice man and borne two bouncing sons without introducing any of them to Lily. (In fairness, Lily declined at the last minute to show up for a planned reunion.) It is not that Helen hates her mother so much as that she can think of no other way, besides strict quarantine, to prevent herself from turning into the same sort of passive-aggressive witch.

Declan’s dying wish — that’s what it’s all but — is to spend some time at his granny’s guest house, on the sea north of Wexford, where he and his sister were parked while their father took months to die of cancer, nursed by their distraught mother. Two friends of Declan’s (neither a former lover) more or less commandeer Helen into driving her brother from Dublin to her grandmother’s. Luckily, Helen’s husband has taken the two boys off to his home in Donegal, as he does every summer. The Blackwater Lightship is about Helen’s unexpected week in Cush.

Cush, according to Google Maps, is a beach town outside of Cork, not Wexford, so I daresay Colm Tóibín has seen fit to protect the scene of his childhood summers from prying literary fans. His fictional Cush, somewhere near the quite real Ballyconnigar, appears in at least three novels — The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and, now, Nora Webster — and in each book it is a range of houses perched atop an eroding cliff of marl, some of them partially collapsed, all of them doomed. In each book, Cush is the modest summertime resort of a family from Enniscorthy, the cathedral town not far inland where the author was born, and which he writes about in all of his novels with Irish settings.

It was of The Blackwater Lightship that I was reminded unawares by Nora Webster. In addition to the physical settings, Tóibín reworks the themes of the earlier book, taking a very different point of view. The figure of the abandoning mother who has made her own way in the world, instead of dedicating her life to her children, moves from the periphery, where, as Lily, she is viewed unsympathetically by Helen, to the center, as Nora, a character for whom Tóibín demonstrates what it seems best to call a bottomless respect — an esteem tantamount to fondness but too discreetly “Irish” for overt displays. Nora and Lily are not the same woman at all, but their positions are strikingly similar, and the books, read together, evidence a writer deeply engaged with the shifting perspectives of a powerful myth.

Now I have turned to the third Cush book, the earliest: The Heather Blazing (1992). In this book, the central character’s mother dies when he is born, so the myth is partially, but not completely, averted. An old man looks back on his long life from the eve of retirement as an important judge. Like the other novels, The Heather Blazing comes from “a silent place,” but it is not nearly so closely situated to its point of origin as is Nora Webster. Still, a very good read.

Library Note:
Get Packing
17 October 2014

As a rule, I keep my mornings clear, because that’s the best time for writing. The rule has been hard to keep, and sometimes impossible, in the face of the impending house move. There are often things that have to be taken care of first thing, and once I’ve taken care of them I find my head cluttered with everyday questions that make thinking quite impossible. I wish that I could grasp this problem more intelligently, and claim a better understanding of why some kinds of mental activity make others difficult or impossible, and quite beyond the reach of “will power.”

I’ve become very fond of Hannah Arendt’s homely way of referring to her “trains of thought,” but it has become clear to me that this imagery, while very useful for sorting out different strains of ideas, must never be allowed to suggest that there is anything like track involved. Trains of thoughts are much more like all-terrain vehicles than reliable passenger lines. They make no scheduled stops at specified stations but plunge unpredictably into what, at the risk of exciting terrible groans, I must call terra incognata. The relationship between a developing sentence — a cluster of half-realized clauses that will require certain syntactical resolutions regardless of “intellectual content” — and a new idea is as earthy and intimate and I daresay carnal as a cerebral event can be, and just as difficult to describe. Like other earthy relationships, it doesn’t flourish in bustling, public places. All I can say is that writing in the morning has become as magical, or potentially magical, as making love used to be, a very long time ago, when my head was as green and spongy as a new twig.

Yesterday, I began putting books into boxes. I filled ten of them before running out of steam, and almost out of strapping tape. These are book boxes, sixteen by twelve by twelve, small but heavy when filled. We ordered fifty, and I’m sure that I’ll fill them all.

I was working on the part of a larger bookcase that I had organized quite recently, a process that involved a good deal of culling then. The books on the shelves were keepers, for the most part. I took stern looks at some fattish tomes — a Taschen picture album about Alchemy seemed particularly stinky — and left them behind, at least for the moment, but I did not question, as I might have done, paperbacks with esteemed imprints, such as Penguin and NYRB, that I had shelved together. There are books in these groups that I ought to weed out; I’ll probably never read them, or even re-read the books that led me to them. But I prefer to treat these uniform editions as libraries within my library, possessed of an occult integrity that does reflect, however dimly, overarching editorial outlooks. Unlike many of the books still on my shelves, they are not miscellaneous. So, among many other things, the translation of Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel that I put down twenty years ago and never picked up again, will be following me to the new apartment.

I console myself, at least with regard to my poor score for culling, that other shelves will yield many dispensable volumes. I try not to think about how sound this consolation is likely to prove. At the same time, I wish I had time to re-read certain writers, as a way of judging their continued membership in my collection. What about George Steiner, for example. Have I ever really thought about George Steiner? I’ve accepted him on the strength of his reputation, which was, I can’t help noticing, much brighter when he was still alive. Now he seems pious — if not a pious fraud, exactly, then certainly something of an asserter of the received ideas of the better sort of senior commons room. Like so many intellectuals after World War II, Steiner was mesmerized by the horror of that great old oxymoron, mass culture. He did not see how this insidious growth was going to attack the republic of letters; he thought that jeremiads might be effective. They never have been, not since the time of Jeremiah himself. But I’m making all of this up out of dim recollections; I haven’t read Steiner in years. His books certainly lend an Augustan tone to the line-up of spines, and they scream to any half-literate visitor that I am a Serious Person (if not at all a Theorist), but I’m not sure that there is much connection anymore between Steiner’s essays and my thinking. I wish there were time to revisit the matter. I must make time.

I pulled down Chris Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion the other day. I’ve had it since it came out, but not read it. The book begins with a horrified review of several “reality TV” shows. Hedges is dismayed that so many ordinary Americans seem to share the values implicit in these productions — much as, I suppose, George Steiner would have been. I’ve come round to the view that it is a waste of time to fault uneducated people for their viewing habits. My concern is for the mere existence of educated people. Are there any? Of course there are — but they’re in hiding. It is so not cool to be educated. And there are good reasons for that — as well as bad ones.

What I wouldn’t give to have Nora Webster to read— afresh, that is, as if I hadn’t already read it. Colm Tóibín remarked somewhere that his fiction comes from “a place of silence,” and Nora Webster is a demonstration of this paradox. Nora, a youngish widow whose unguarded moments were devoted entirely to her late husband, finds herself without meaningful contact with the world. She has plenty of responsibilities, and in her world (Ireland in the years around 1970), that is enough for a woman and a mother. But Nora is no more likely to immure herself in her family now than she was when her husband was alive. Her discovery of a new life, however, is necessarily not only accidental but inarticulate. She discusses it with no one, not even herself. From Hemingway, Tóibín learned a literary frugality that is formidable precisely because it never leaves one hungry;  and, from Henry James, a corresponding representational frugality that presents wholly plausible characters without ever resorting to the commonplaces of psychology. The existence of Nora Webster is as implacable as that of an ancient Greek deity.

Bon weekend à tous!