Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (III)

19, 20, 22 and 23 September

Monday 19th

Over the weekend, I indulged in an orgy of French crime film, or rather I indulged a long-held wish to watch three movies that I regard as a trilogy all in one go. Then I watched another one, with stimulating results. Here they are, in the order in which I watched them.

  • Jules Dassin: Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes), 1955
  • Jean-Pierre Melville: Bob le Flambeur, 1956
  • Jacques Becker: Touchez pas au grisbi, 1954
  • Louis Malle: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows], 1958

I also watched two more French films, Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), and Merci, Dr Rey! (2002). Because they’re much easier for me to talk about, I’ll begin with them. While I write, I’ll try to deal with my amateur’s ignorance about the others. I am simply unaware of most of the films that were produced in France in the 1950s, and have no reason to think that Rififi and the rest are highly-regarded and arguably comparable other than the plain fact of their having been reissued by the Criterion Collection. I have not surveyed the harvest of that time and chosen unusually good movies. I have simply watched what the producers at Criterion have chosen for me. It is for reasons like this that I am not to be mistaken for a scholar, or for a person who “knows everything.”

I loved Discreet Charm, as I’ll call it, from the moment it came out, because I found it funny and strange, and also obliquely grand. The focus on six people, three irregular couples, stretched a bit to include a seventh, reminded me of the symmetries of Metastasio (the grand-daddy of opera seria librettos). Couples make for doubled drama: as they interact with one another as individuals, they interact with everyone else as pairs. This is humorously demonstrated by Henri and Alice Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassell and Stéphane Audran), who, on the verge of welcoming their friends to an afternoon lunch, become so distracted by lust that they must climb down from their bedroom into the garden (because Alice is “too loud” when they make love). By the time they return, vaguely disheveled and bedecked with straw, their guests have taken off, frightened that their absent hosts might have been warned of an attack. Why any of these people might have reason to fear an attack is not specified, but it doesn’t have to be, because we have just had a scene in which the Ambassador of Miranda (a fictional Latin-American country that boasts neither pyramids nor pampas) (Ferdinand Rey) delivers a sack of pure cocaine to his friends, Henri and M Thévenot (Paul Frankeur’s character does not have a first name), in exchange for a suitcase of cash. Alice and Henri, sloppy hosts though they may be, are least happily married. Simone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) makes herself available to the attentions of Don Rafael. This may explain why her sister, Florence (Bulle Ogier), having no one to play with — her brother-in-law treats her like a child — wants nothing but to drink les martinis dry.

This bloc of soigné criminals, complemented by the local bishop (Julien Bertheau), a charming man who appears in the wake of the escaped friends and petitions Alice and Henri to let him do their gardening, is led through a series of frustrated meals. There is a tea-room scene that oughtn’t to be as funny as it is. The waiter takes an order for tea. The ladies chat. The waiter returns: hélas, it has been a busy day, and there is no more tea. Coffee is ordered instead. Now the ladies respond to the attention of an army officer. He begs to join them, because he wants to tell them his story. This begins the movie’s other thread, which moves from the narration (and onscreen representation) of personal history, to that of a dream, and on to a series of dreams that afflict the characters, so that, by the end, we’re not sure what happened and what was dreamed. When the lieutenant is through telling the ladies how his tale of revenge, he takes his leave and the waiter returns: no coffee. Not even any milk. All the tisanes have been consumed. Simone remembers an appointment, and leaves for an appointment. Don Rafael is waiting for her in his apartment, champagne at the ready. But Simone never gets any champagne, because Don Rafael wants to make love first, and then out of the blue Simone’s husband turns up. Everybody gets in everybody else’s way.

As I watched the film yesterday, I realized that it was the “bourgeoisie” in the title that got in the way of my understanding the movie. I certainly didn’t understand its significance in 1972. I thought that bourgeois was bourgeois, wherever you were, and that Buñuel was simply taking pot-shots at rich-y people. But it isn’t and he’s not. The bourgeoisie of Europe has long tended to ape the delegitimated but still very lively class of the nobility. But it cannot quite share the nobility’s devotion to the two institutions that the nobility still influences, the church and the military. Eventually, confrontations with these institutions will reveal the bourgeois as an outsider. The absurdities of Buñuel’s film reflect the failures of his bourgeois sextet to behave in truly aristocratic fashion. This is not to suggest that Buñuel admires the highest of the social castes. But he understands that aristocracy is something that you are born to. If it stamps you with bigotry, that bigotry is authentic. All that Don Rafael, the representative of a jumped-up extractive economy can do is to run a drug ring through his Louis XV office and paw unattractively at Simone. Henri and Alice have a gracious home, and they strike gracious poses in it, but nobody ever gets to eat a thing at at their table (except in nightmares), and Alice betrays her lack of the due consideration that a true lady would show when, in a small crisis, she forgets that her gardener is a bishop and orders him around like a servant. These people are fakes.

A deliberately enigmatic shot wrenches the six principles completely out of context and shows them walking along a flat road in flat country. It is repeated twice. In the body of the film, they never walk anywhere, and their cars even come equipped with drivers. But here they are, in the middle of nowhere, walking on a windy afternoon. They do not look comfortable but they do seem resolute. Sometimes, Simone is seen leading the band; at others, she is arm-in-arm with Alice. It doesn’t make any sense. But then neither does this bourgeoisie’s dream.

I went from Discreet Charm to Merci, Dr Rey! because of Bulle Ogier. She looks younger than she is in the Buñuel; in Dr Rey she looks her age, and she’s a great deal more fun. There must be an interesting back-story behind this movie, but I’ve never heard it. Andrew Litvack, according to IMDb, was part of the Merchant/Ivory team on several projects; in 2002, Merchant/Ivory backed his directorial début. Litvack also wrote the screenplay. The result is a consummate train-wreck, but the performances simply refuse to fade, and every now and then I have to watch Dianne Wiest play an opera diva who goes mad on hash brownies. I have to watch Jane Birkin practically swallow her lines in neurotic enthusiasm. I have to hear the phrase, “curb your narcissism.” And then there’s that staggering moment in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing herself, says that Jane Birkin’s character reminds her of the “ghastly” woman who dubs her movies in French — as indeed that character does. Redgrave is like a fairy-godmother descending on a troubled project to oblige the backers who produced and directed three of her best pictures. And not in vain, because, as I say, once you’ve seen it, you have to see it again. It’s too bad that Stanislas Merhar’s English is too heavily accented to make him plausible as the son of Wiest’s diva; and any attempt to explain the murder of Simon Callow’s character is bound to go nowhere, if only because it’s a real murder, involving a real death, and not a commedia dell’arte device. The snippets of Turandot that we get to see suggest a wicked travesty of all the misconceived re-conceptions of grand operas that have littered stages during the past forty years, but that doesn’t excuse calling the opera “Turandoe.” Lots of movies are called “zany,” but this one really is. In the event that you watch it and fall for it, too, I counsel caution in recommending it to friends.


Tuesday 20th

A no-comment comment on Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed piece today, “The Age of Distrust.” Okay, almost no-comment.


Politicians are going to have to work very hard to earn back the trust of the people. A serious issue exists with what Stephen Walt of Harvard University has called the “ruling elites in many liberal societies and especially the United States, where money and special interests have created a corrupt political class that is out-of-touch with ordinary people, interested mostly in enriching themselves, and immune to accountability.” This has to end.

(Note to self: who’s this Stephen Walt? Why doesn’t he write Op-Ed pieces?)


The answer is not to build walls. Western societies need to build education and innovation and opportunity. A time of great uncertainty is upon the world.

This is Élite Nostrum #1. Education, innovation and opportunity are great for those who can make use of them. But many people cannot. Many people whose jobs have been taken over by computers have been permanently replaced — in current economic terms. So long as we stick to those terms, these folks are out of luck.


Technology has prized the world open. Nobody — not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Trump — can shatter that interconnectedness.

This is nonsense. The idea that global interconnectedness is here to stay is both myopic and ignorant. Myopic: history is littered with the ruins of “irreversible” arrangements. Ignorant: shutting down the Internet is not impossible. And if you can shut down the Internet (by pulling a lot of plugs), then you can shut down connections between here and over the hill, much less global ones.

But the worst of it all is that we élites are just standing here talking amongst ourselves. We have no reliable way of piercing the bubble in which we have coddled ourselves. And the people outside the bubble: they can see us now; they have our number. They’ve taken a hostage: Trump.


The three French films that I regard as a trilogy, Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi are linked by strong similarities that are made even stronger by interesting differences in the ways that the similarities are deployed. Each film involves a heist, as well as the relatively cool-headed thieves who commit heists. One of the heists never gets off the ground, which in an important way constitutes something like the success enjoyed by the other two. All three heists are treated as engineering problems, of secondary interest. Only one occurs on screen, in Rififi, and it poses only one serious problem to the thieves. This is no Ocean movie, with hurdle after hurdle to surmount. Once the alarm at a jewelry boutique has been silenced, the thieves are pretty much in and out. In Touchez pas au grisbi, the heist has occurred before the movie begins, and nobody even suspects the actual thieves.

In all three movies, the thieves are undone by women. At least one member of each gang blabs to his girlfriend about the heist. (In Rififi, this blabbing is not verbal, but worse: the safe-cracker slips an ostentatious ring on a nightclub-singer’s finger.) Again, the variation in Bob le Flambeur is interesting: word about the intended heist gets back to the police, and the chief officer, who takes an interest in Bob and wants to keep him out of prison, intervenes in such a way that Bob may walk. (“With a really top lawyer,” says Bob in the greatest of last lines, “I may sue for damages!”) Bob has been distracted from the heist by a run of very good, and very honest, luck at the Deauville Casino; as he is arrested, page boys are stuffing his wads of winnings into the boot of the police car. Things do not work out so well in Rififi, in which almost everyone, the thieves and their rivals alike, falls on his own finesse. The end of Touchez pas au grisbi is slightly enigmatic: the gold that was stolen before the credits rolled has been retrieved by the authorities, and Max (Jean Gabin), although polished and dandy as ever, won’t have that nest egg to fall back on. But others have been blamed for the heist, and he does have the comforts of Betty, the rich American girl who seems to be in love with him, to fall back on. I must note here that it was not Max, but his partner Riton, who couldn’t keep his good fortune to himself.

Bob le Flambeur is the most amiable of the three films; there is not a lot of violence. The actor Roger Duchesne carries his film much more than his counterparts, Jean Servais (Rififi) and even Jean Gabin, carry theirs. His Bob is always presentable, if not as impeccably groomed as Jean Gabin’s Max, and, as befits a true gambler, always up for something new. Max’s posture is essentially defensive; he’s trying to hold on to what he has. Servais’s Tony le Stéphanois is the odd man out here: he is obviously not in good health, and he seems to join in the plot because he can’t think of a more interesting way to die. As if to prove the point, he finally steps forward at the end and claims the hero’s role. There is nothing in the other two pictures that approaches the desperate resolve of Tony’s drive back to Paris, with his three year-old godson jumping back and forth in the convertible, having the time of his life, unaware that his father is dead and that his mortally wounded godfather may die at any moment and drive the car into a tree. Having carried the boy out of the muck of gang warfare, Tony expires. You have to see this movie just for its ending.

There is a great shoot-out scene in Touchez pas au grisbi that highlights its difference from Rififi. I was very surprised when I saw it the first time, because I didn’t think that the French had the resources for an action scene in 1954; made by Hollywood, the scene would be better lit, but it could not improve on the camera work. It’s an intricate scene, involving three cars in the middle of a country night. But whereas the violence in Rififi is bleak and totally film noir, the shoot-out in Touchez pas au grisbi is a tournament, staged for our delectation. Since this is a story about criminals, the scene must end with a joke: Max’s ingots, which he fully intended to retrieve from his enemy’s car, are barred from him by the flames engulfing the vehicle. In Bob le Flambeur, of course, the joke is Bob’s legitimate piles of banknotes. I chuckle at the comparison.

All three films feature nightclubs — nightclubs on Montmartre, near the Place Pigalle. Unlike Hollywood nightclubs, these boîtes seem real, or at least patterned on genuine operations. They are not too big, for one thing; for another, we are taken backstage in at least two of them. Touchez pas au grisbi even has a floor show: a choreographed catwalk of pretty girls who will be available for one-on-one dancing later in the evening. (And yet the idea of unseemly behavior between men and women at the club seems refreshingly inconceivable.)

Finally, all three films have somewhat uncertain soundtracks. Georges Auric’s score for Rififi is too self-important, and moments of high tension are blessedly silent. Two men are credited with the score for Bob le Flambeur, and that may explain the often rather silly musical accompaniment. The prolific Jean Wiener provides Touchez pas au grisbi with a haunting harmonica melody that suggests a plausible cowboy link, but his music for the floor show has the art-déco sheen that characterizes, in even more stylized form, some of the orchestral music of Poulenc.


Then I watched Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. On a line between Bob le Flambeur, the latest of my trilogy films and also the most “independent,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout du souffle (Breathless), Louis Malle’s first feature film lies more than halfway to the nouvelle vague. Paris itself is different: it is smarter, more up-to-date — and more alienating. A very great deal of the action takes place either in an elevator (in a square, glass-faced building with all the mod cons), at a futuristic motel outside Paris, or on the highway in between. Cars are even more conspicuously American — or, in one case, a German Mercedes sportscar. The only old-fashioned scenes feature Jeanne Moreau, who, by the way, was the moll to whom Riton boasted about his heist, in Touchez pas au grisbi. Four years separate that movie from Malle’s, but Malle as well as time must be responsible for the transformation of a very capable and eye-catching actress into the bombshell that Moreau has remained ever since. As Florence Carala, Moreau walks the streets in search of her lover, unaware that he is trapped in an elevator but convinced that she saw him driving away with a girl in his car. (The driver was in fact the girl’s punk boyfriend.) Tthe lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), caged in the elevator, does not have a lot to say, but Florence does, both in speaking imperiously to other people — she is the wife of her lover’s boss, whom she has put her lover up to killing — and muttering desperately, blankly to herself. And yet if Florence’s background is the Paris of the boulevards, her soundtrack is the music of Miles Davis, famously improvised while the picture was projected for his band. Florence’s love is both deep and wrong, and it makes Moreau the star of the film, something unimaginable in the masculine worlds of Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi. Florence is even more fatal than the women in those pictures, and her pre-eminence is back-handedly attested by the the commissaire who arrests her at the end (Lino Ventura, also in Touchez pas au grisbi, where he plays Angelo, the principal bad guy). The policeman surmises that the lover will get off with ten years, but that the jury will put the bad wife behind bars for twice that.

The story of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is staggeringly claustrophobic, and not just because of the elevator. The two sets of lovers — the ultra serious Julien and Florence, the joyriding Louis and Véroniqueare trapped in very small spaces: quite literally, their guilt is established by the strip of film in a microcamera. But as a movie, Ascenseur a l’échafaud is open-ended. It is shot as though really anything could happen next. In a world with electric pencil-sharpeners, the old conventions become unreliable. You can’t be sure, as you almost always can be in the earlier movies, of how long any scene will last. The fact that the principal characters don’t know what’s going on, which chains them, is transmuted into freedom for the viewer, who does. Florence wanders about unseeing, obsessed by the possibility that she has lost Julien, but we see a woman who doesn’t seem to have a plan, who does not so much make the rounds of places where she used to meet Julien as happen upon them. When she is told that Julien has not been heard of at a given bar or restaurant, she does not stick around, but wanders off again. Eventually, she is rounded up by the police in some sort of vice sting, from which, still the respectable industrialist’s wife, she is easily liberated by the very commissaire who will later arrest her. It is ever so faintly absurd. The earlier movies could be heavily ironic, but absurd, never.


So much for crime. As I say, I went on to the two very different movies that I wrote about yesterday; and then, last night, I watched a third, which somehow seemed to belong: Danièle Thompson’s Fauteuils d’orchestra (Avenue Montaigne). If Merci, Dr Rey! is a train-wreck, Avenue Montaigne is a fairy-tale, implausible in not dozens of ways but only one: a vast compression of time and space. Avenue Montaigne is Groundhog Day without the reiterations. Everything goes right the first time. And the backdrop is almost too luxurious, too sophisticated to sparkle à la mode Disney. All the sets are real! Well, the big ones: the two theatres of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées and the auction house Drouot-Montaigne. I hate to say “cinematic feast,” but that’s exactly what this movie is.

Cécile de France plays Jessica, a spirited girl from Mâcon who arrives in Paris without prospects but who lands a rich fiancé in two days. She spends the first night in a rehearsal studio at the Théâtre and the second in bed with Fred (Christopher Thompson), the only son of a prominent shipper who is liquidating his art collection. The bed is in the showroom with the art. Both nests are handy to Jessica’s job, at the Bar des Théâtres, where women have never been employed before but where an exception is made for her. Dreams come true on a more exalted level when famous director Brian Sobinsky (Sydney Pollack, a famous director) finds that he cannot make his movie about Sartre and Beauvoir without the help of Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), the star of a French soap opera who wants to break into more important work. Sobinsky makes this discovery literally overnight. And why not? Hasn’t Catherine had the wit to bend her performance in a Feydeau farce to pique him? (Hilariously, when her character takes of her hat, her wig comes off with it, revealing the coiffure for which Beauvoir was noted: an onstage screen test.) In a third strand, a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) finds release from the straitjacket of concertizing by interrupting the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto and stripping down to his T-shirt. (The music world appears to have followed the pianist’s lead, as orchestras have dressed ever more casually.) Meanwhile, the singer-actress Dani putzes around on the eve of her retirement as a placeuse at the Théâtre, her earbuds binding her to the pop glories of the past. She takes them off, though, to soak up the raptures of the Emperor‘s slow movement.

Avenue Montaigne is the perfect feel-good movie: you couldn’t feel any better, and if it lasted a second longer it would kill you.


Thursday 22nd

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is not a particularly interesting movie to watch, but it must be watched, because so much of the action is silent. The climax — well, I thought that’s what it was — is silent. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) crouches in the attic loft of her home in Norfolk, England, as she watches a slide show. There is nothing spooky or disturbing about the attic. It’s the attic of any long-married couple, stuffed with stuff. But Kate’s husband has been spending time in it lately, and although Kate knows why, there is room for a small shock. Does Kate gasp or groan? I can’t remember which. In short, 45 Years shows us how domesticated the alienating cinematic techniques of Bergman and the new wave directors have become. We’re right at home with them. Color, far from adding interest, merely deprives us of a black-and-white frisson.

Tom Courtenay, moreover, plays Jeff Mercer, the attic-haunting husband, as if he were not acting at all, but as if 45 Years were a documentary, and he were in fact a retired bloke who hates to shave. I found him unsympathetic and uninteresting, whereas Charlotte Rampling, weathered though she is, is still very much an actress of coiled and deadly possibilities. There was no mistaking her for an anonymous old dear. This lack of accord between dramatic registers — whether Rampling is “acting” more or less than Courtenay, the two of them are not acting in quite the same way — might be a fault, but in fact it is the point. When the movie begins, Jeff receives a letter informing him that a body has been found — the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who fell into an Alpine glacier and whose body has only just surfaced in melted snow. Katia’s accidental death occurred years before Jeff met Kate, but Jeff’s attachment is no more buried than the girl’s body. In a typically domestic instance of bad timing, the news comes days before Jeff and Kate are to celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary at a large party with all their friends.

Jeff told Kate about Katia way back when, but he must have kept the story light, because the wash of his intense bemusement comes as a very unpleasant surprise to her. As he recedes from her, she tries to hold on to him. Instead of giving him space in which to mourn, she bridles at the unearthed rivalry with Katia. She takes it hard that Jeff and Katia were pretending to be man and wife when they hiked through Switzerland; she takes it even harder that Jeff would have married Katia had she not died. It has evidently never crossed Kate’s mind that she is not first in her husband’s heart, and to learn that she might never even have become second, if that’s what she is, stops her breath. She lashes out with the absurd claim, hotly reasonable to her in the moment, that Katia has governed all of Jeff’s decisions ever since. She wails that Katia has taken away everything that she and Jeff have together. In her most foolish move, Kate tells Jeff to open his eyes when they are making love, and he goes soft inside her. “That’s okay,” she whispers, as if she didn’t know anything about men.

After a few days of odd behavior, Jeff seems to regain his balance. He will not go to Switzerland to view the body. Perhaps he will discard the souvenirs of his time with Katia. But the fever has jumped to Kate. How long will it take her to decide whether she is celebrating forty-five years of marriage, or forty-five years of living with a man going through the motions? The movie ends by leaving that question conspicuously unanswered.

That’s one way of looking at 45 Years. It was, I suppose, the one that was easiest to write down. It’s not untrue, but it is incomplete. It’s too focused on the extraordinary suitability of Charlotte Rampling for the part of Kate; she is still beautiful enough to command an exalted self-assurance, and still as impatiently angry as she was in Georgy Girl. Everything is muted, of course, but it is all there. Stepping back from this focus, I can regain the ambivalence that I felt before I began to write. My initial impression, formed as the movie rolled, was that Jeff allows the news about Katia to puff him up to tragic dimensions. He makes a decidedly masculine fuss over substantially healed wounds; reminded of old suffering, he bravely suffers anew. When I began to wonder if those wounds had indeed ever healed, I thought even less of Jeff; he became exactly what Kate comes to fear he might be, a two-timing monster enjoying the best setup ever, with a long-lost adored one for whom he maintains a chapel of memories, and a foxy wife to entertain him in this vale of tears. The brute!

What can be said uncontroversially is that 45 Years shows us the fragility of a marriage of two people who are young at heart. Hats off to Andrew Haigh.


Friday 23rd

The sense of an ending is very strong. When I return from San Francisco at the end of next week, the top job will be to construct a workable schedule around revising the first draft of the Writing Project, finding an exercise program, and doing a better job of keeping house. It will be much more like normal person’s life than what I’ve been living for some time, and I mean to throw myself into it. I will be able to spend much less time here; more to the point, I won’t begin my days, as I’ve been doing for years now, by drifting into the book room, after I’ve read the Times, and sitting down at the computer to see what comes out. During the past year, I’ve written longer and still longer entries, getting up from the desk at two in the afternoon or so and wanting only to go back to bed — although I have not done that even once, unless ill. It has been the work of a booster rocket, propelling me from one state of ignorance to another, far more articulate one. Now it falls away, no longer necessary. The difficulty is that I don’t regard it as necessary; it has become a pleasure that I shall have to do with less of.

An example of poor housekeeping arose this morning in the form of a prescription renewal. I had to pick up a Lunesta prescription at the doctor’s office and take it to the pharmacy. There wasn’t time (before next week’s trip) for the scrip to be mailed, and, besides, I’d put off renewal until my stock was very low. Worse, I’d failed to notice that there were no renewals. The doctor’s office was swamped, and I had to wait for a few minutes to get the envelope for the pharmacy; I had to wait ten minutes at the pharmacy, too. The waiting didn’t bother me as such; I had Middlemarch with me, and even now I am dying to get back to it to learn about Peter Featherstone’s testamentary dispositions. But waiting is rarely just waiting. It is always a sign to me that things are not working well, or that, even if they are working well, they might at any moment be disrupted, just as the cable connection to the Internet was interrupted this morning. The interruption was brief, and I might never have noticed it. Indeed, I wish that I hadn’t noticed it, because it made me uneasy. Uneasiness is a feedback loop that I have to do my best to stay out of. There was nothing to be done about the cable outage, but I might have managed the prescription renewal better. Figuring how to do that is one of things that I have to see to when I get back.

It’s hard to tell when, exactly, I began publishing a Web site. I believe that it was in 2000, but it might have been the following year. By the end of 2004, I had a Web log, which is still out there, although I haven’t updated it in a few years. The Web site is still up, too, as is its embarrassing, unfinished — almost unbegun — successor. The beginning of this Web log is easy to remember, because it was designed in response to the new iPad. I had bought two, one of them for my grandson, who was about three months older than the tablet. (He will be seven in just a few months.) It seems that I’ve been here longer. What I ought to do is to tidy up all those other sites, but that’s tedious, lowering work, even worse than going through old photographs. The joys of old age. Don’t worry; I won’t be giving up on this — even if I myself no longer own an iPad. I’ll only be cutting back. I do need to get out more.

I plan to post the next entry on 3 October.


Can I say a word about Zazie dans le Métro, Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel? Someone called Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page as saying that it is Malle’s “best work,” but I suspect from the rest of the quote that Rosenbaum doesn’t think much of Malle overall, if only because he adds that Zazie is “certainly worth a look.” That’s not very enthusiastic, is it? My favorite Malle has always been Atlantic City, a supremely lucid film behind which real people stumble, but for a long time it was the only Malle I knew. I have always known the name of Zazie dans le Métro; who, having heard it, could forget it? But it was said to be absurd, so I stayed away. The attempt to make art out of absurdity usually produces a residue of cruelty.

The absurdity in Zazie is to a great extent nostalgic. Malle wants to enjoy the silliness of the original movies, which weren’t silly at the time but came to seem so as the medium grew more sophisticated. There is a great deal of overt longing for la belle époque, the “gay Nineties” and the early years of the new century. But there is also a very contemporary contempt for “story.” The characters who are invested in order and continuity, Mme Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are the victims of many pratfalls, while Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) has an altogether fluid identity, even if we never actually see him in the dress that he is said to wear as an entertainer. There is a guitar-smashing intoxication with destruction for its own sake, as when the bistro is torn apart near the end. There is contempt for tourism, exemplified both by the bus full of gargoyles and the insolence about monuments — they never do get St Sulpice right. And of course the Métro is on strike, so that Paris is unattractively choked with cars.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) herself is adorable, I suppose. I didn’t come to hate her, as I often do children in the movies. (Those kids in Jurassic Park — how I wanted the juice to reach the fence in time to fry them!) She grew on me, as did the movie. But if I never see her or it again, I don’t think I’ll regret it. I am not a fan of improvisational film. It’s one thing for an instrumentalist to weave spontaneous variations on a theme and to wander through the scales to see what happens, but film is far too cumbersome a medium to travel so lightly, and it is arguably a physiological distinction between how hearing and seeing are set up that we are less tolerant of visual racket. Right at the start, when Zazie’s mother’s boyfriend is lifting and turning her like a mad danseur, I asked myself why this constant twirling couldn’t be allowed to stop, what made twenty revolutions better than five? Whether or not Malle disciplined himself in the making of Zazie dans le Métro, the result looks extremely undisciplined, as if to say, or shout, Je m’en fiche de la discipline! It was a common feeling in those days, but I think we learned that discipline becomes burdensome only when it ceases to serve our humanity; it is we who are at fault, not the idea of discipline.

Maybe that’s why the most precious moment for me was the pang of watching Zazie sleep through her one Métro ride. I was sorry that she was missing the experience that she longed for, but I was happier that she was finally asleep, the poor thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fail Better Still
September 2016 (II)

12, 13, 15 and 16 September

Monday 12th

The disgrace is almost asphyxiating. It seems that a number of networks and cable channels are vying for ratings by celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay, the publicity of which was grotesque when the news was fresh. The little girl’s world of precocious beauty pageants was grotesque in itself (it was quite beautifully satirized in Little Miss Sunshine), but the media hugely amplified the lubricious element, tantalizing onlookers with the possibility that a sex crime might be involved. What kind of people are we?

That wasn’t how I intended to begin this entry, and it has nothing to do with what follows, except perhaps this: I want to ask you to use your imagination as intensely as you can, but I sense that the American imagination — the imagination of the liberal West, actually — has been so degraded by disgusting spectacles that it cannot be expected to respond to questions that lack a salacious charge. That means, I know, that I’m worrying about whether you’re up to my challenge, and I apologize for that, because I don’t really doubt that you are. It’s just that the sludge of recycled brainlessness gets so thick sometimes that it’s hard to stand up in it.

Over the weekend, I finally read Stuart Firestein’s Failure. I have had the book since it came out, earlier this year, but the right moment for reading it never seemed to come round. But then it did, and I swallowed it whole. To tell the truth, I couldn’t read two pages altogether without pausing for a revival-service affirmation; quite unlike even the most congenial reading matter, Failure often provoked moments of ecstatic clarity. I am not going to talk about it right now; its aftermath remains turbulent. I am going to talk about a tangent that it sent me off on.

I could label this tangent with the deadly term, “phlogiston theory,” but I’d rather not, even though that theory will play an important role in my challenge. The challenge began as one to myself: despite reading Herbert Butterfield’s chapter on the subject in The Origins of Modern Science three times, I could not explain “phlogiston theory” in a nutshell. For those of you who are unfamiliar with phlogiston theory, I will say at the outset that it was always, by our lights, completely wrong, so that it is difficult now, knowing what we educated people know, to imagine how anyone could ever have subscribed to it. That is one part of the difficulty. The other is the overthrow of the phlogiston theory. This is difficult to imagine, too, and for much the same reasons, but it occurred in stages, as discoveries were made by men who nonetheless failed to grasp the implications of their findings for the reigning theory. Although I was able to follow Butterfield’s narrative, I could not seem to hold it in my mind. So I resolved to read the chapter once again, and this time get to the bottom of my imaginative problems.

At the risk of fatuity, I will joke that the difficulty is elementary. What you have to do, before trying to understand phlogiston theory and the huge importance of its overthrow, is to see the world as every educated mind did circa 1600. It was still a world composed of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. By 1800, as a result of the overthrow of phlogiston theory, belief in the old four elements was impossible; new elements, the ones that we are familiar with, had begun to take their place.

All four elements were involved in phlogiston theory and its overthrow, but earth not so much. The element of fire was no longer regarded as the flame itself but rather as a substance — this is the earthy part — contained in all combustible materials that was released, as Butterfield puts it, “in the flutter of flame.” Somebody proposed that this substance was an oily kind of earth, and called it terra pinguis. Somebody else saw the need to go Greek: phlogiston means, roughly, “imflammable.” Phlogiston was this inflammable substance that, although it could not be isolated, inhered in combustible things and was released by combustion. It was the element of fire, somehow — while also, somehow, an earthy substance.

This inconsistency might seem damning to you, an indication that even scientists in the Seventeenth Century weren’t very bright. But that’s why I want you to exercise your imagination. I want you to imagine what how the world could be explained if you believed that both air and water were elements, irreducible substances. Next, I want you to imagine what it would be like to try to solve the problems raised by this elementary status, given the interesting twist that air and water are not elements in different ways. Water is a compound of elements. Air is but a mixture.

Water is created by the explosion of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, as I suppose many of you were reminded by The Martian. In this compounded form, oxygen is no longer available for breathing, even by fish. Fish breathe pure oxygen that has been dissolved in water; their gills extract it. Land animals don’t need gills because atmospheric oxygen is not compounded, but free alongside the other elementary gases (mostly nitrogen) that consistute “air.” What you learn in the course of demythologising water, in short, is not going to help you to demythologise air, and vice versa. Worse, air and its constituent gases are invisible. Worse still, you have to have reason to believe that the elementary status of air and water are myths in the first place.

The virtue of imaginary phlogiston was that it offered a relatively simple explanation for a common phenomenon, couched in terminology rooted in the doctrine of the four elements, that had the effect of organizing what might have been unrelated developments in scientific inquiry. Cavendish, Black and Priestly all made discoveries that were crucial to the overthrow of phlogiston theory, but their belief in the theory persisted nonetheless. Cavendish, for example, concluded that “common air” was four parts of phlogisticated air — a compound, as it were, of air and phlogiston released by combustion, and not to be confused — then! — with something called “fixed air,” or what we know as carbon dioxide — and one part of dephlogisticated air. Cavendish had the right idea, but the wrong terminology. His phlogisticated air turned out to be elementary nitrogen, which is not the product of combustion. It was Lavoisier who gathered together everyone’s findings, for the purpose of debunking phlogiston theory.

Why did Lavoisier want to do this? Because phlogiston theory was failing to make sense in the light of replicable discoveries. Oxygen and hydrogen were isolated (if not understood), but phlogiston never was. In order to account for mounting discrepancies between fact and theory, scientists did what they always do: they patched. They claimed that phlogiston worked differently in exceptional circumstances. Phlogiston theory explained x, except when it didn’t. Sixty or seventy years after its formulation, the theory was in tatters, but most scientists continued to work under its banner. Lavoisier, the rich, elegant tax farmer, resolved to give the theory the boot. What I ought to have said was that it was the overthrow of phlogiston theory that required the organization of widespread experimental findings. These were coming so fast and free at the time that it is not possible to say with much finality who discovered what, and Lavoisier discredited his own great work by claiming credit that was not his due — he was a synthesizer, not a discoverer. But the result was that the battle against phlogiston produced modern chemistry.

I believe that “the invisible hand,” which has come to mean something that Adam Smith didn’t quite have in mind, is the phlogiston of today. If I were a trained economist, and half my age, I should devote my life to attempting to repeat Lavoisier’s success.

But wait: did I just say “success”? Was Lavoisier’s overthrow of phlogiston theory a success? Stuart Firestein doesn’t say much about success in Failure, but I think that he makes an implicit case against its usefulness, and perhaps even against its existence. Success may be just as bogus as the four elements. I’ll come back to this tomorrow.


Tuesday 13th

What is success? Let’s not bother with that question. Everybody knows what success is. The better question is, can success (or its negative, failure) inhere in the character of a human being? Is it reasonable to speak of successful people?

One of the old Greeks — Solon, perhaps? — counseled against regarding anyone as a success until he died. Then you could draw the line under his achievements and shortcomings and make a permanent calculation. This sounds very prudent — don’t count your chickens, &c — but it is actually short-sighted, because it assumes that success is an immediately post-mortem assessment. It overlooks the possibility that the next generation, or the generation after that, may revisit the dead man’s life, and come to a conclusion that differs from the one reached by his survivors. Modern history involves constant re-evaluation. Jeremy Bentham’s corporeal remains may be (more or less) permanently preserved, as an “auto-icon,” at University College London, but his reputation is no less fluid than anyone else’s.

We all love two kinds of stories about success. The first one is about the outwardly successful person who is inwardly miserable — or who ought to be. The second story is about the person who touches the lives of everyone who knows her — this sort of successful person is a bit more likely to be a woman — with love and inspiration, but whose success as a human being goes unsung, because it is too local and complicated. The stories of Dorian Gray and Dorothea Brooke suggest that success does not really attach itself to people. If anything, it flows away from them, either turning to dust in the hand or spreading generously among truly loved ones. Not a few fairy tales insist that true success lies in letting it go.

This is all very high-minded; what about good old-fashioned money, pots of money? Isn’t the man who has lots of money, who has earned it, one lawful way or another, a success? There are plenty of people who think so. I would bet, though, that many such successful men and women would, upon the application of some gentle pressure, admit that their success is really a matter of controlling that money, of knowing what to do with it. The man with a gazillion dollars in the bank who spends his life sipping umbrella cocktails in a hammock is not likely to inspire the admiration that success deserves. Letting money sit in a vault is just another way of losing it — everybody knows that.


Kathleen, my wife, is very skeptical about success. “I’m supposed to be a success,” she sighs. And she is supposed to be a success; she wouldn’t have been profiled by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year if she weren’t. “But it’s really just one thing after another. You go on to the next thing.” Sometimes, Kathleen forgets how bored she would be if she didn’t have the next thing to go on to, but talk about success does invite dreams of hammocks. If successful people have to go on to the next thing, just like people who aren’t successful, then what difference does it make? The difference, I point out, is that Kathleen, as a success — or, as I prefer to put it, as someone associated with success — is engaged to go on to the very small number of possible next things that will continue her success, or her association with success. The person who fails must try something altogether different. Movie stars keep having to prove their stardom, in film after film. That happens to be the proof of their stardom. Actors who don’t establish stardom quickly aren’t permitted to make a second or a third bid.

Success is never attained, never achieved. A very good thing, too, say I, mindful of the French meaning of s’achever — to be achieved. It is said of those whose lives are over.

What Stuart Firestein appears to be arguing in Failure is that we diminish the bounty of success by trying too hard to avoid failure. It is easy to see why failure is avoided, at least in the world of scientific investigation that is his métier. Science is expensive. Laboratories require recurrent infusions of grant money, and grant money is not awarded to scientists who openly plan to design experiments that will fail. His nutshell advice is to reform the grant-award process so that decisions are made by other scientists, not necessarily in a related field, who look for proposals that are interesting and credible, rather than by administrators with a check-list of predictors of success. Firestein critiques the vogue for citing Beckett’s line, “Fail better.” Beckett is not cleverly suggesting that there is a way to fail that is tantamount to success. “Failing better,” Firestein writes, “meant leaving the circle of what he knows. Failing better meant discovering his ignorance, where his mysteries still reside.”

It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty. (27)

“Too often you fail until you succeed,” he continues, “and then you are expected to stop failing.” He might have added that this comes to the same thing as being expected to play dead.


Scientific failures are expensive in money; properly conducted — as clinical trials sometimes manage not to be — they are not expensive in health or happiness. It is different in most other fields. We all can learn from our mistakes, but mistakes made by engineers or central bankers or by judges can be costly in very undesirable ways. I read somewhere that the passengers who died in the early days of commercial aviation ought to be regarded as heroes for having contributed, so to speak, to the database that has made flying much safer than driving. Maybe so, but I’m not inclined to encourage experiments that kill people. (It might have been better, if such human sacrifice were going to be sanctioned, for them to offer themselves up to medical experimentation.) The moral of the aviation story as I see it is that there ought to have been more funding. And for my part, I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been made sick by my cooking.

But science at Firestein’s level is a branch of intellectual history — the proudest growth in the Western world. It not only costs nothing but money but also requires failure to grow. One of the reasons for Firestein’s advocating the publication (on a low-cost Web site) of failed experiments is that other people’s failures may very well inspire your success. He urges his students to consider failed experiments that have been reported in Science — fifteen or twenty years ago, when the technological resources were vastly more constrained. Failure, like success, can be reconsidered later. Revisited failures may be transformed into successes. But first you have to have the failures.


By a stroke of luck, I read a story by William Trevor yesterday that couldn’t be more on point. It’s called “Traditions.” It is set at an English public school. A group of boys have been capturing jackdaws and teaching them to speak (sort of) in a barn that is strictly off-limits. One morning, the boys discover that the birds’ necks have been broken. All but one of the boys suspects another student of committing this atrocity. The exception, a boy called Olivier, has another idea, one that he keeps to himself. It so happens that Olivier is in hot water with the headmaster, because he is doing poorly in his science classes — classes that he elected to take. Olivier offers to drop the science course, but this makes the headmaster even angrier: you don’t quit. If you sign up for science courses, you commit to doing well at them. You don’t fail, whether by doing poorly or quitting; you succeed, because success is a tradition at this school. The headmaster is incapable of grasping that Olivier has already succeeded in his science classes. He was curious about things, and so he learned about them. He could not be bothered with boring laboratory procedures. This unorthodox cast of mind is what has alerted Olivier to the identity of the culprit in the jackdaw case — and in other unsolved mysteries at the school.

Many a time in school, especially in college, did I drive teachers mad by seeming to play the dilettante, by taking what I needed from a course and flunking the rest. Even I was not particularly at ease about this habit, but there was no changing it. My curriculum was dictated by an inner voice that overrode official criteria. No doubt that inner voice required a seven year spell in the desert before confronting the requirements of law school, to which it deferred. I should not recommend Stuart Firestein to take on Oliviers as grad students, but I think that he would agree with me that we need to open up undergraduate education to more freewheeling minds, especially if the direction those to which those minds tend is toward the heart of the traditions, and not away from them. No matter how firmly I insisted on the relevance of coursework to my self-directed inquiries, I was the last to argue that “relevance” ought to shape the curriculum. I’m certainly not saying that colleges ought to be overhauled for the likes of me. But there ought to be more room for failing better.


Thursday 15th

Last night, Kathleen brought home two sets of print-outs of the proofed first draft of the writing project. 187 pages, 83 thousand words. A good beginning, I think — but also an uncomfortable ending, as this first stage of the work comes to a halt. For weeks, it was the center of my everyday life, even on the three days each week when I did not write. It felt “organized,” whatever that means in this context, from the start, and it quickly established its own rhythm. There were other things to worry about, but they were unusually easy to overlook, as I focused on the project. Now all of that is over.

Kathleen will read the first draft on a flight to California on Sunday; whether she finishes by touchdown (she probably will), the point is that she won’t be reading it here, with me hovering in the background. The timing of her business trip to Dana Point could not be more providential. It gives a term to the fallow period that must in any case, I think, follow the long burst of thinking and writing and (in proofing) thinking further that produced the draft. I have to set the whole thing aside for a few days — not that’s entirely possible; I’m already thinking very hard about enlarging the shortest section — but, thanks to Kathleen’s trip, I don’t have to wonder when it will be time to get going again. Coming all at once, her comments will change everything.

For I have been very careful to make sure that, when Kathleen does read the first draft, it will be fresh. I have resisted the impulse to read her the great little bits that seem so striking when they’re new but that, with time, settle into their texts. (If they don’t, it’s a problem.) I did, fairly early on, read three paragraphs from the second section that I thought were very funny. Kathleen thought they were funny, too, but my reading was interrupted by trying to make sense of typos and to fill in missing words. I decided not to repeat the performance. So I have shared what I have written with no one. I have not even described it to anyone but Kathleen. I have waited until it can be read as a coherent whole, a text that, while not perfect by any means, is fluent and comprehensible.

It occurs to me that this would be a good time to take a holiday here, as well. We still plan to spend the last week of the month in San Francisco, so I shall be silent then certainly. But I may begin tapering off before then. While Kathleen is away, I may set up the card table in the foyer and pile it with all of the extraneous stuff — in bags, in piles, and in desk drawers — that hasn’t found its place in this small book room. It seems that I’m the only person who ever walks in here freely; Kathleen won’t enter unless asked, and no one even comes to the “back half” of the apartment except to use the bathroom. I’ve taken advantage of this atmospheric privacy to make up for the absence of adequate closet space (the apartment’s one real drawback), but the joke is that that the only person who’s bothered by the bags and the piles is me. To me, they’re very noisy. They’re also in the way of the bookcases. Getting rid of them (how?) would not be a fun pastime, but this might be the time to have a go at it.

It seems to me, and to everyone that I know, that the United States is on the precipice of a national disaster. Every day, it appears just a little more possible that Donald Trump will win the presidential election in November. Why? Because he is the “honest” candidate. Charged with a wide array of failings, some of them arguably criminal, he simply shrugs, as if to tell his supporters, “If you don’t care, I don’t care.” And of course they don’t care. But what’s awful is that this comes across as candor, and candor appeals to many voters, not just to his supporters, as the key virtue, because it has come to be seen as the virtue so lacking in Hillary Clinton’s makeup. Don’t look now, but Hillary Clinton has foot-in-mouth disease; everything that she says, including “and” and “the,” sounds like a prevarication. She ought to stop touting her abilities and simply throw herself on the voters as —

As what? As a non-reality-TV-star? This is where Trump’s kind of candor highlights Clinton as the worst possible opponent — from her standpoint. She has only two ways of challenging him. Presenting herself as a capable politician and administrator plays into his hands; most people don’t really care about politics and administration right now. And to respond to Trump’s disparagements in kind is always going to be a losing battle. She’s a woman in an America that still wants to think of itself as a white Christianist homeland, and that is quick to take offense at language such as “basket of deplorables.” There is no good reason to regard Clinton’s remark as a gaffe, but the mere fact that it was questioned shows how sick the country’s political culture really is. Had Dwight Eisenhower said it, he would have been applauded.

In the end, it’s a contest between someone who wants to lead a gang and someone who doesn’t understand leadership, not with the visceral capability of Lincoln or FDR. Ordinarily, this would not be a great failing; in naming two presidents for comparison, I have not named most of them. But there is nothing ordinary about Donald Trump. Wanting to lead a gang isn’t “leadership” either, but it looks like it now, when appearances are all that matter.

Reagan, Bush, and now Trump: it’s impossible not to see an arc of mutation, as telegenic shams replace warty professionals in the top job. I’d really have to include Bill Clinton in this arc, too: he won because he was better at flim-flam than Bush’s father was. President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters by replacing the hope of his campaign with the rigor of fighting a recalcitrant Congress. How wonderful it would have been, had Hillary won in 2008, so that her vice president, Barack Obama, could battle Donald Trump now. Mind you, we’re talking only about campaigns here. But campaigns have been devouring administrations for forty years or more, as television’s broadcasting standards have become ever more dementedly sensational. I don’t know when I began to suspect that television might be more than just a terrible waste of time, that it might actually kill liberal democracy. But if Donald Trump wins in November, we’ll have had proof of its capacity to deal possibly mortal blows.


Friday 16th

While I was working on the first draft of the writing project, I was protected from chill winds and swampy miasmas. Bad news didn’t really get to me. Now, it’s different. Now, I’m overwhelmed by the awfulness of social failures. David Denby, in the London Review of Books, writes about the videos of white police shooting black men without objective reasonable provocation, and then treating the dead or wounded body as if it were still resisting arrest — handcuffing it, just to be on the safe side! James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker, explains why: police unions depend upon crime committed by black Americans to justify their budget demands and their refusal to reform police procedures. Is there a way out of this? Yes, according to Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root and a native of Forsyth County, Georgia, from which, in 1912, the black population was driven away by every kind of force. That’s one solution.

And then there are two reviews of The Girls, Emma Cline’s adaptation of the Manson Family murders, one in the LRB, one in the New York Review of Books. Both reviewers, like the author, are American. Both say much the same thing about the novel. But novelist Diane Johnson is far more enthusiastic than Emily Witt. Johnson complains, at the end of her piece, that the literature of California is “the Canada of American regionalism.” Witt gives a demonstration of this treatment by collapsing Cline into Didion, as if to say that nothing has been added. Johnson, of course, raised a family in Los Angeles; Witt appears to be a New Yorker — there may be nothing more to their different takes than that. Both Johnson and Witt regret the almost vacant impotence of fourteen year-old girls in a consumer society, as they wait for boys to notice them and make them real. Cline’s heroine, it seems, gives up on men.

In a William Trevor story that I read last night, “Bravado,” a very pretty girl, Aisling, walks home from a Dublin nightclub to her affluent neighborhood. Her boyfriend, Manning, calls her “drop-dead gorgeous,” which, without comment, she rather likes. Manning is the alpha dog of his pack, and Aisling likes that, too, although she thinks she thinks it’s silly. As they climb the suburban hills, Manning’s group spots a nerdy kid whom Manning dislikes. While the kid, also walking home from the nightclub, finishes peeing on an old lady’s house, Manning swoops down on him, knocks him over and kicks him. It turns out that the nerd has an unusually weak heart, and he dies. Manning goes to jail. Aisling visits the dead boy’s grave, ever more clearly aware that, although she was horrified by the violence of Manning’s attack, she was pleased by the obvious tribute — he did it to show off to her. And now she cannot bear this acquiescence.

These patterns of contempt and inferiority — I was sure, when I was young, that I would live to see them broken forever. I believed that consciousness would be raised, and that people would see these horrible follies for what they are. I now understand that my expectations were not reasonable. They betrayed, pretty clearly, a desperate optimism. If racism and sexism were not overcome, then American society would collapse from within. And that seems to be what is happening. Feminism and the fight for equal civil rights have wounded the old patriarchy, perhaps mortally, depriving it of the strength to restore the status quo ante. But beleaguered white men will believe that it is heroic to pull down the whole structure in the death-agony of their self-importance. Cops will continue to persecute the black drivers of automobiles with defective taillights until everyone else begins to see the police as an oppressive occupying force. Boys will go on badgering girls to show their breasts to that the quality of these features can be judged until mothers realized that they have raised their sons to be depraved. And all of it will be cycled into televised entertainment.

David Denby writes of the shootings,

Something more than ineptitude and panic is there in these acts: refusing to accept that a man is dead may be a way of refusing to acknowledge that one bears any responsibility for his death. Feelings of pity have been chased away, as far as we can see, by fear.

Are we still in the Sixties?


I feel that I learned a few things from writing the first draft. I put it that way because I only sense them; they are not very clear. And some of them are negative: I’m learning that there are things that I not only don’t know but don’t know how to talk about. One of these things is the human mind. The mind is something that we ought to be able to talk about, because each of us has one and many of us are reflective enough to have a sense of how minds differ from one person to another. The differences that I’m thinking of are not pathological; they have little to do with the health of the brain. They are not moral considerations, either, because morality is, or purports to be, standard, and we are shy of the systematic and legalistic standards that characterize traditional morality.

I’m thinking of differences that, while annoying, are harmless. Am I thinking of worldviews? We use “worldview” fairly freely, but do we analyze it with any rigor? Isn’t it the case that most talk about “worldview” boils down to an idea of what moral standards ought to prevail? There’s more to worldview than that, a lot more. Surely a worldview is literally shaped by the views that one has had of the world: I know that my worldview was changed, and not insignificantly, by a week spent in Istanbul. Although I had visited Guangzhou (Canton) very briefly, Istanbul was really my first experience of a Western-seasoned city outside of Christendom. Most of the impressions that I can talk about were either touristic or “curious,” the latter being notes of correspondence with the world I already knew (such as the pastry shop in Istiklal Street called “Markiz”), but I am haunted by inarticulate recollections of the very old city that Orhan Pamuk has struggled to commit to paper. I read My Name Is Red years before Istanbul, and was perplexed by much of it; Snow, which I read while I was in Istanbul, was far more intelligible, even if I couldn’t tell you how. l also know that my view of Europe shifted perceptibly when I stood at the water gate of the Dolmabahçe Palace, looking through the palings out onto the Bosphorus, and all the ships that were on their way to or from Black Sea ports.

“Mindset” is an equally vague word. Is there a way to give it substance? I am on the verge here of that hoary old psalm, “the life of the mind.” Strictly speaking, the phrase is ridiculous, because there is no other kind of life. “The life of the mind” is an ignorant stab at guessing what it must be like to read a lot of books and to think a lot about equations and syllogisms. Or, in the alternative, the poet’s life of words. The life of the mind is something that other people have. One might pretend to want it, too, but not very sincerely.

Our minds are all different, and we are forever misunderstanding each other. It’s annoying, but potentially enlightening. There is something wrong with the way we work together (most of us), because the differences between us too often get in the way instead of sparking greater understanding. Is it prudence or a lack of intelligence that makes us cling to what we know how to deal with and dismiss everything else? I like to think that it is a rectifiable ignorance, but how hopeful can I be about that, given the the hopes with which I began this entry — hopes that ought to have withered by now?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (I)

6, 8, 9 September

Tuesday 6th

Our luxuriously idle holiday weekend was somewhat marred for me by a pane that appeared on my computer on Saturday evening. It warned me that the computer was not running “genuine Windows,” and menaced interruptions unless this improper situation were set right. A link was provided, “to resolve online.” I did not click it.

One way or the other, this was bad news, and although I established contact with Jason, the greatest tech support ever, he was out of pocket until the following evening. That gave me a whole day to stew. If the pane was malware, which I strongly suspected, the bad seed might prove difficult to exterminate. At the same time, a legitimate warning made some sense, too, since just a couple of weeks earlier Jason had replaced the hard drive on the computer with a much more capacious one. The operating system had been “cloned” onto the bigger drive, but perhaps there had been a  glitch. Which was worse, poisonous software dementing the foundation of my computer, or the legal attentions of Microsoft?

It turned out that the message was genuine. We are now hoping that the second fix will work. If it doesn’t, Jason has a third in mind. I’m feeling very Jessie Royce Landis: “Roger, pay the two dollars.” How much can the licensing fee be? Maybe I’d better not smile when I say that.

In the past, I’d have bought a new computer sooner than upgrade the drive on an old one, but in the past, I was younger. I have lost the taste for learning curves, be they ever so minor. They’re no longer worth the trouble. A new computer simply presents me with a different way of doing the same old things — except of course when it makes doing the same old things impossible. I no longer want to do new things with a device. I have given up on the whole idea of the “personal computer.” What I have is something else. It is a glorified typewriter with a built-in filing system. It also has a feature that enables the kind of television that pioneers in that medium hoped it would be. The computer is an improvement — great improvement — but it’s basically old stuff, and I don’t want to do new stuff.

In the paper today, I read about how the new iPhone’s big new feature is actually an absence: no more headphone jack. That’s the rumor, anyway. Apple is the ultimate modernist corporation, devoutly committed to sacrificing convenience for cool. Maxfield Parrish was no modernist, but I think that it’s apt that his mural, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, is in the bar at the Palace Hotel, where we’ll be staying at the end of this month on a trip to San Francisco.


“Only connect…” That’s what appears on the title page of Howard’s End. Only connect what, though? Most people seem to think that Forster is calling upon people to connect with each other, but, if so, the call is indirect. At the beginning of Chapter 22, Margaret Schlegel hopes to help Henry Wilcox, the successful businessman whom she is going to marry, with “the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.” Without this connection, she believes (and the author is audibly breathing over her shoulder), we are part beast, part monk. A few lines down, the phrase on the title page makes its first appearance, rephrasing the formula. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Once the prose and the passion have been put into mutual relation, connections with other people will occur without effort. In other words, there is no need to try to like somebody, to be more generous or outgoing. This will take care of itself if you only connect with yourself. Unfortunately, it will take care of itself only with respect to other people who have also bothered to build their own rainbow bridge.

“Rainbow bridge” — an interesting allusion to Wagner. At the end of Das Rheingold, Wotan commands Donner to create a rainbow, which Donner does very theatrically by first making some thunder. Then the rainbow shimmers, and the gods can process from earth to Valhalla, their new home in the sky, to which the Valkyries (stay tuned!) will carry heroes slain in battle. It is one of those musically glorious moments in Wagner that glitter over detestable vulgarity — not Wagner’s, but the gods’. Wagner submits his opinion of the Valhalla project at the end of the Ring cycle — it goes up in flames, and the gods and the heroes die a final death. Valhalla has by then proved not to be worth the price that it has cost in blood and hate. Although the rainbow bridge certainly lights up the end of the first opera in the cycle, it is clearly meretricious rubbish, and we are coarse to be impressed by it. I doubt that this is what Forster was thinking when he connected his salvific idea to a bit of Wagnerian trumpery. To say that Forster wasn’t thinking of Wagner, however, is to accuse him of not paying attention. It’s a conundrum.

I re-read the novel almost in a day, and then we watched the Merchant/Ivory movie. I haven’t seen the movie in years, largely because I watched it almost obsessively when it was new, twenty-five years ago. We had our lake house then, and in my dreams, our house was like Howard’s End. The opening shots, in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing the successful businessman’s first wife, a woman who may be aware that this will be her last summer at her beloved birthplace, strides outside the house, her long violet skirts trailing in the sopping grass, haunted me without surcease. The camera caught that moment of twilight in which flowers seem lighted from within, with a sharp dimness that captures the ambiguity of the light, which fades without seeming to change. It became my favorite time of day, and I longed to be outside in it. I would walk around my house, too, and once or twice the illusion clicked in. The illusion was that my house had always been there for me, that the ground that I trod had always belonged to me. In an instant, it was gone.

The house used in the film looks nothing like the house described in the novel, with its “nine windows” (in three rows) facing the garden. Not like either of these was the Queen Anne house in the drawing on the cover of the paperback edition of the novel that I stole from a cousin’s library. Years later, I put the book back where it belonged, even though I was pretty sure that it hadn’t been missed. I liked the Queen Anne house best, but I knew that it was wrong.


Thursday 8th

Why, oh why, do I read the Times? Some days! Don’t miss the story about China. Economists are worried about China: should you be? If there was something new in this story, perhaps it was the mention of George Soros, who is worried, but that’s no surprise. Nor is it surprising that nobody really knows what will happen in an economy structured as China’s is. If it is, I say to myself, structured at all. China has a Fiat economy, and all it requires is a human being with sufficiently divine power to say “Let there be!” If, when that power slips from Xi Jinping, nobody else manages to assume it, then there will be catastrophe.

And then there is President Obama warning us that our environmental prospects are “terrifying.” I think that we have passed beyond the usefulness of observations of that kind. Aside from those who are determined to think otherwise, everybody already knows that the prospects are terrifying. We are on board with that. Now what? We can panic. We can stop driving cars altogether. We can turn out the lights, and never use the washing machine again. We can plant victory gardens and subsist on the produce — or try to. Panic? It’s not really an option. Back to now what?

And that is what I want to hear the President talk about. I don’t want him to use his official gravitas to try to convince, convert, or shame. Even if we all agreed that the prospects are terrifying, that would only get all of us to now what? We don’t need unanimity to start dealing with this next question.

I don’t have any answers, but I do offer one insight: any answer that proposes a solution within the lifetime of anyone alive today is simply a variation on panic. It is going to take several generations (at least) to undo or reverse the damage that two hundred years of Industrial Revolution has wrought. Therefore, what we need no less than technological wizardry (and, yes, a measure of abstinence) is a way of assuring the continuation of the corrective projects that we begin. There can be no guarantees: the men and the women of the future cannot be bound by our schemes. We have to begin building something that they not only can adapt but will want to.

That’s what terrifies me: all of our political arrangements have to be reconceived with this hope in mind. Democracy pales in importance, and even in virtue, beside the imperatives of stewardship.


I have watched Muriel, the movie that everyone seems to be writing about, now that the Criterion Collection has dusted it off, for the second time. I found it very, very clumsy. I tried to discern a virtue in this, but I could not. One of the clumsiest aspects of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film is its misuse of color. When you use color to score points, as Resnais tries to do in many ways, among them the contrast between the young and the old, you have to establish a base, not because it is philosophically necessarily but because the eye is not a reasonable organ. The color in Muriel, particularly the alternations between the dim and the bright, is noisier than Hans-Werner Henze’s score, and it results in a heap of banality. The lies that Hélène and Alphonse tell themselves and anyone who will listen don’t mean much in a a world of visual chaos. Muriel might just work in black and white.

Nor does the romance (or not) between the former lovers signify, since both of them are disabled by weak-ego problems. Hélène is a compulsive gambler. It’s a sick-making moment when you grasp that she is going to ruin her life at the Casino. For his part, Alphonse is a hopeless opportunist, a man who will always run off if something better comes along. To ask whether these two will be able to rekindle love nearly twenty-five years after it was broken off is almost idiotic. Just as Françoise, the young woman who is in some sort of cahoots with Alphonse, is bitterly impatient with him, so was I impatient with Resnais.

What makes Muriel compelling to me is Delphine Seyrig’s presence: Seyrig has the very odd gift of being absent, right in front of your eyes. There are moments in Muriel that make me think of her Joan of Arc, had she ever taken on the role. She would be very convincing at simulating dialogue with invisible, inaudible interlocutors. She is always elsewhere, even when she is trying to make you feel at home. Otherwise, her roles have little in common; even her absence is irregular.


Friday 9th

Occasionally, when the windows are open, we hear someone playing a piano nearby. Actually, I am convinced that there are two pianos. The somewhat but not very distant sound reminds Kathleen of Rear Window, but not me, not when they’re playing Bach. Again, I hear two people playing together. Or I think I do. One of these days, as soon as I hear it, I’m going to make my way down to 87th Street, a long walk from the apartment even though we overlook it, and try to place the source. It won’t surprise me if I can’t hear anything in the street, because (it won’t surprise me to surmise) the sound is traveling over the roofs of the buildings across the street from a room in the complex of Holy Trinity Church, on 88th Street. What’s more likely is that the music is coming from the handsome, understated Gothic building that projects from the church to front on 87th Street. A rehearsal room is exactly the use to which I should expect a room in a modern Episcopalian office annex to be put.

We were sitting on the balcony last weekend, and the pianists were going over the same passage of music with a strange insistence. Kathleen got quite tired of it. Sometimes, they played it very slowly, as if to master some difficulty. What difficulty? If we could have heard it more clearly, it wouldn’t have sounded like a trite seven-note phrase that any child could play, but that was all that was flying through the dozens of yards between us. I began to recognize it. It was Mozart, certainly, and it was a piano concerto, just as certainly, but which one? I kept waiting for the pianists to play on through the score, so that they would eventually hammer out a tune that would answer my question, but they did not continue. They looped over the same ten or twelve bars of what was clearly the end of an intense development section, always stopping short of the cascade that would lead to the recapitulation, in which the main theme would be stated at once, and I would know which concerto they were working on. It was maddening.

The pianos could be heard in the living room as well as on the balcony, so when I came inside to get something I went straight to the bedroom at the back, where I couldn’t hear pianos at all. I played the music in my head, and although I could break the pianists’ loop by a few bars, I couldn’t remember my way to the end of the development. Not to be able to name an utterly familiar stretch of music was unacceptable.

It was understandable, though. As you know, the development section of a piano concerto by Mozart comes in the middle of the first movement. Before it, there’s the exposition, in which an array of tunes fans out in contrasting keys. After it, the exposition is repeated, but with subtle changes in the keys, the effect being to resolve the exposition’s feeling of going somewhere into the recapitulation’s sense of having arrived. In the development, certain themes or sub-themes from the exposition are explored in a manner very similar to the jazz instrumental solo. The music is taken apart and the bits are repeated with tiny alterations, as if the composer or the performer were trying to hear everything that could be done with a figure of notes. Sometimes, in Mozart, the tunes that are subjected to development are clearly recognizable fragments from the exposition, but sometimes they are not, and every now and then Mozart yields to the impulse to see where his jazz will take him, and something that feels as unpredictable as a foxhunt ensues, with the piano flying up and down runs and scales. It would be tedious if it were not so acutely exciting. Harmonic pressures propel the performers across pages of notes, increasing with every bar, until the conflict can be stretched no further, and the music subsides back into the tonic, or home, key. What I was hearing was that sort of passage, a set of thrilling runs without much thematic significance.

The fragment that was drifting across the street from the two pianos was dramatically minor-key, so I thought of the two concertos that Mozart wrote in that mode. I ruled out the 24th, because its first movement is in some sort of triple time, and what I was hearing was resolutely common. So I listened to the 20th Concerto, in D minor, although I felt from the start that I was barking up the wrong tree. The overheard fragment belonged to the general area of the 20th, but not to its particulars. In fact, the development section of the 20th Concerto is given over to very clear restatements of leading themes of the exposition. The two concertos in minor keys could be ruled out, leaving eight or nine of the mature piano concertos to hunt through.

By now I was parked in the bedroom with the boxed set of all the concertos, played and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. I tried the 27th first, although I can’t think why; I knew that it was not the right concerto the moment I heard its gently waving opening, and I stopped listening at once. Then I gave the 23rd a try. This felt like a mistake just as the 20th had done, but this time I listened through the whole movement (which could not be more familiar). Until now, I’d had a problem holding onto the fragment while listening to the recordings, so that I worried that I might not recognize it when I heard it. I had already been fooled by a passage in the 20th Concerto that was very close. (Curiously, it came at the end of the exposition, not in the development at all.) The motifs that seemed so familiar on the balcony were at first impossible to remember in the bedroom. I finally pulled down the scores, which come in two stout Dover volumes that have held up magnificently over the years. They do have one drawback, I noticed: the bars aren’t numbered, so I won’t be able to tell you where to find the music that I presently recognized, except that it turned out to be the development of the 21st Concerto, the one that everybody knows by its midcentury nickname, “Elvira Madigan.”

Cuthbert Girdlestone, whose book on the concertos (also in Dover) is both poetic and microscopic, and whose idiom, I find, is often so uncongenial that I don’t recognize the music that he is talking about, indulges in a lot of sentimental fuss of linking the 20th and the 21st Concertos, but he point out that the minor-key phrase that forms the germ of the passage in the latter concerto by which I was now obsessed could have been stolen from the former. So I wasn’t wrong to be nearly fooled. It’s as though Mozart had not quite exhausted the vein of Gothic drama that he mined for the 20th Concerto, and introduced some of it into the majestic work that followed. (Girdlestone, in a mystic mood, calls the 21st Concerto “motionless.” Fiddlesticks.) In my search, I proceeded from the 23rd Concerto to the 21st because, the more I thought about it, and the more the 23rd sang its way through pages that could never have accommodated the my fragment, the more likely “Elivra Madigan” became, because its martial vigor could certainly find room for, nay, might even invite, its surging melodrama.

It’s funny. I never understood why Elvira Madigan was such a big movie. I don’t know that anyone ever watches it any more. But recording impresarios were quick to stamp the concerto with the name of the film that had made treacle out of its sublime second movement. When I hear the now all-too famous music, I try not to think of the pretty blonde who played one of the doomed lovers. But at the same time, I strongly associate the first movement with the penniless officer, the other doomed lover, in his Civil War-era uniform. I ought to rename the concerto after him, Sixten Sparre.

Now, of course, I can’t get the fragment out of my mind.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (V)

29, 30 August; 1, 2 September

Monday 29th

The image that I have chosen for this week’s entry is so peculiar that I feel I must explain it as best I can. You can see the sidewalk at the bottom right. I have aimed the camera at a flap of siding, or perhaps a coat of paint, that has peeled away from the temporary housing that was erected a few years ago around the foundation walls of the kiosks that will house the escalators connecting the street to the mezzanine of the new subway station that, according to the MTA Web site, is set to open this December. The curve and the shadow — and the grey — caught my eye. The housing was always an eyesore, but now it is a derelict eyesore. Not to be confused with a poetic ruin! I should be more outraged about the apparent expectation that we shall live “philosophically” with such ugliness, were I not aware that, the moment it’s gone, we’ll forget all about it. I shall, anyway.

There were two pieces in the Times today that ought to have made me fret about the dark future ahead — but they didn’t. The first was an Op-Ed piece about the decline of political history as an academic specialty. The second was about the falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings.

Political history, together with diplomatic and military history, used to be all there was to academic history. Thucydides provided the antique model, in which the attempt to tell a plausible, naturalistic story replaced the heroic epic, with its gods, goddesses, and improbable ordeals. Beginning in about 1500, historians began to offer explanations of the role played by warfare in the formation of the modern nation state that were rooted in documentary evidence, not in the tales that they had heard from their fathers. Most of this evidence was diplomatic, taking the form of dispatches sent home by ambassadors and other agents, and preserved in state archives. Diplomatic evidence was hardly impartial, but if you could sift through all of it, comparing and contrasting what the Venetian envoy had to say with the memoranda kept by a royal secretary, you could get some idea of what people were thinking when they formed this or that league against this or that great power.

History was a school — the school — for rulers. There was no other kind of history. First of all, it was only the history of the state that mattered. Nobody had an interest (worth funding) in the kinds of history that have blossomed in the last fifty years. Even more, it wasn’t until the late Nineteenth Century that the possibility of other kinds of history was recognized. It began to be understood that rulers did not operate in a vacuum — that is, as if power politics were conducted entirely within a Davos-like bubble. Rulers had to take account of powerful interest groups, some of whom were rich burghers, otherwise known as “ordinary people.” Social history, tracing the network of relations between cities and countryside, between commerce, industry, and agriculture, began to displace conflicts between sovereigns as the primary area of interest. One thing led to another. On or about December 1965, political history was found to be fusty.

I don’t fear, as the Op-Ed writers seem to do, that political history is threatened by oblivion. I expect that it will be reinvented in more suitable terms. Just as the kinds of history that are academically popular today developed in a process of seeking historical explanations in the thoughts and actions of ever more “ordinary,” ever less “remarkable” people, so the course of historical study will probably begin to retrace its steps on the socioeconomic scale, and eventually resume an interest the study of sovereign politics. This time, however, the kings and their ministers will be evaluated by scholars who are grounded in an understanding of the very particular societies that they ruled — an understanding that did not exist when all history was either political, diplomatic, or military. It will be no longer be the history of powerful men, even if powerful men remain remain, in the study of the past, the only active figures. We shall have then severed the link, which was not entirely tenuous even when I was born, between history and Homer. A good thing.

The falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings is a phenomenon of the art market, that bazaar in which the emperors of the economy spend fortunes on new clothes. That these omadauns don’t want to buy paintings by Reynolds or Rubens is very good news for museums, which is where the Old Masters belong. If Sotheby’s and Christie’s cut back on their staffs in this area, that is no bad thing for great works of art.

Perhaps it ought to be worrying that, as one dealer in Old Master painting laments, American schools are not producing graduates with expertise in the field. People who know a lot about it tend to be European. That certainly makes sense. There is still a great deal more fine old painting in Europe than there is in North America — a very great deal more. I don’t see how anyone could achieve genuine connoisseurship without living in Europe for several years at least, and making frequent use of European trains to visit the museums large and small in which most of the world’s fine art still resides.

Both articles confirm something that we all know: Americans are still mythomanes, viscerally attached to their just-so stories about the greatness of the United States. It has never been otherwise. How much longer it will be sustainable is, worryingly, a question for historians of the future.


Here are two paragraphs from David Brooks’s column on Friday (I include the first simply in order to make the second, more important paragraph easier to understand):

The U.S. military used to be pretty good at breeding this type of leader. In the years around World War II, generals often got fired. But they were also given second chances. That is, they endured brutal experiences, but they were given a chance to do something with those experiences and come back stronger and more supple.

They were also reminded very clearly that as members of an elite, they had the responsibilities that come with that station. Today, everybody is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing the actual elite is someone else. Therefore, no one is raised with a code of stewardship and a sense of personal privilege and duty.

Why is the second paragraph more important? Pardon my abominable conceit: because I’ve been saying it for years. Everyone is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing that the actual élite is someone else. I have been puzzling over this paradox for so long that I have arrived at the idea that something like a democratic paradise may be at hand. We have distributed discretion and authority so widely among the population that perhaps thirty percent of Americans help run “the establishment.” All they have to do is wake up to that fact. We are all in power, and we are all responsible.


Tuesday 30th

Now I can’t even remember why I picked up William Trevor’s Collected Stories. It had something to do with reading Elizabeth Taylor’s Collected Stories — reading them again, I ought to say. I thought about reading them all again, but then it seemed a better idea to read Trevor, most of it for the first time, instead. As I mentioned a while back, I remembered three stories very well. But although I know that I read more than those three, some in Collected Stories and some in the publications, such as Grand Street, in which they made their first appearance, no other stories seemed familiar. I can only surmise that I wasn’t ready for them; I didn’t really get them.

What does it mean, to “get” a story? It’s not the working out of a puzzle, or not only that. It’s not just being able to say that you know what’s going on and why the characters are doing the things they’re doing. It’s more than that, and yet simpler: it’s the feeling that you have entered the story’s situation, or the problem that the story poses, usually to a principal character; and, at least in Trevor’s stories, there is also another feeling, which is that, given the character and given the situation, things could not have worked out otherwise. This makes the stories hard going, because they rarely work out in a way that anyone would call favorable. Sometimes the endings are so bleak that you feel for a moment that the resolution must have killed the protagonist; how could anyone survive such a dreadful outcome? In “Kinkies,” for example, a blameless secretary is drugged by her boss; she tries to make her way home but falls in the street; she winds up in jail. It will probably all be sorted out in a day or two; the secretary will merely have to get a new job. But you can’t really believe that; the story leaves you convinced that the woman’s life has been destroyed.

You can get a story without getting all of it. There is always something new to notice when you revisit any piece of fiction, as long as a bit of time has been allowed to pass. Sometimes the whole story seems different, but I think that this is usually the case only with respect to stories that you read when you were young and are now reading in middle age or later. I don’t think that “Broken Homes,” which I mentioned last week, is going to change much for me. I might, perhaps, have a keener sense of how Trevor registers the difference between Mrs Malby’s respectable house-pride and her deeper conviction that the flat is a desert, having been wrecked by the deaths of her sons in the War, decades earlier. But I shall probably continue to see Mrs Malby as overwhelmed by unfamiliar demands on her discretion. What she has to be discreet about, of course, is her ageing; she doesn’t want to be packed off to an old-folks’ facility. But the proposal of the teacher, who seems to have entered her flat at random, requires an affirmative rejection that might make Mrs Malby seem irascible and unbalanced. It appears that she has no friends to whom to turn for support; perhaps she is too proud to have friends. “Broken Homes,” like all the best Trevor stories, packs a Chekhovian punch, by raising a serious problem of human existence and framing it in detailed particulars, so that instead of “human existence” we have “Mrs Malby.”

How many of the stories qualify as “best”? Everyone’s list would be different, and there are some very powerful stories, such as “Beyond the Pale,” that I would not put on my list. I ran through the titles last night, ticking off the favorites in my mind; when I was done, I had the feeling that I had chosen about a quarter of the stories. I’d like to halve that, making an expanded baker’s dozen and writing down the titles in a proper list. Instead of “Beyond the Pale,” which is a tour de force of unreliable narration, I should choose “The Grass Widows,” a story that is also set at a hotel in rural Ireland. Where “Beyond the Pale” is haunting and somewhat nasty, “The Grass Widows” is breathtakingly furious.

But before I say anything about it, I must mention that Trevor’s men come in two colors: weak, and worse. If there’s an attractive man, anyone like a true hero, in the pages of the Collected Stories, he has slipped my mind. There are wicked women, too, and even a few foolish ones, but by and large the women are victims. They are the victims of the cruel arrangements of men, yes; but, more than that, they’re the victims of their own clear consciousness, aware of how stuck they are. This is what makes “The Grass Widows” so intense. The wife of a pompous headmaster, vacationing at a hotel in Galway that serves a clientele of men who like to fish for salmon in the local streams, is disgusted when her husband refuses to check out of the hotel at once, even though it has obviously been ruined by the man who has inherited it from the genial proprietor of earlier years. The rooms have been divided by flimsy partitions, and the food is terrible. The fish haven’t gone anywhere, though, so the pompous husband talks himself round to staying, even though there is nothing for his wife to do. It is the height of the fishing season, and all the hotels are full; if they were to leave, the headmaster and his wife would have to return to England.

This is the situation at the beginning. A brilliant wrinkle gives the headmaster’s wife, overcome by anger with her husband, the opportunity for indirect revenge. She counsels a new bride, the honeymooning wife of a former student of the headmaster’s, to leave her husband at once, to go back to her parents’ home while there is still time to back out of a mistake. For the bride has made the same mistake that the headmaster’s wife made long ago. She expects her husband to listen to her, and even to indulge her. The headmaster stopped listening to his wife so long ago that he would not remember doing it. His wife has become more an appliance than a companion. While it is true that her “fate” is to be shut up at a remote hotel for a few weeks, nothing worse, Trevor haunts the story with horror by making the new owner greasily repulsive. When the riled older woman pours her melodramatic advice into the younger woman’s ears, you want the bride to jump from her seat with alacrity and to do what she’s told. Instead, of course, the young woman is dismayed by the impertinence of the headmaster’s wife, not by her prophecies.

Curious to see what might have been written about William Trevor’s stories, I came across William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction, by Gregory Schirmer (Routledge, 1990, 2015). As you can tell from the date, Schirmer’s study was published a couple of years before the Collected Stories, so that every story that Schirmer discusses appears in the collection. Schirmer approaches Trevor’s work as a struggle between modern forces of alienation and the deep longing for connection. It is an interesting thesis, but I don’t think that Trevor’s stories would command much of a readership today if alienation, that byword of the Fifties and Sixties, were at their heart. At the risk of sounding dissertative myself, I should say that Trevor’s stories are about attempts to clarify the confusion that trails from desire. People want things, but they don’t want the consequences, so they try to detach them, only to find that it can’t be done. Instead of pointing to particular stories as examples, I’ll just mention sex — sex and loneliness.

I don’t regard loneliness and alienation as the same thing. Alienation is more severe, but it is also more bearable, because it provokes a stance of defiance (however sham) in the men who feel alienated. What makes loneliness so awful is that the sufferer does not feel cut off from humanity, but on the contrary surrounded by it, embedded in it, and yet unable to attract attention. Many of Trevor’s women are plain. They are not just physically plain; they have no attractive features of any kind. The men who might assuage their loneliness don’t even see them — not as human beings, anyway. Trevor’s plain women are not saints; they do not offer their lives up to God. Although there are nuns in his fiction, they remain rather faceless, and in only one, “Kathleen’s Field” — the final story in the collection — does a Reverend Mother speak up. In this story, plain Kathleen is invisible to most men but handy for molestation by her married employer. One can imagine the Reverend Mother advising Kathleen to offer up his unwelcome advances; Kathleen is working for the man, without receiving wages of her own, so that her father and brother can take possession of a field that may eventually bring prosperity to the family — but only at this terrible price. The problem in “Kathleen’s Field” may indeed be that the employer is neither alienated nor in need of connections.

Schirmer is coy about Trevor’s also somewhat coy portrayals of closeted gay men. The “Complicated Nature” of a man called Attridge in the story of that name is obviously his homosexuality, which is also undiscussable. Attridge is accosted by a neighbor whose lover, she claims, has died in her bed; she wants Attridge to help her to dress the body and bring it down to his own flat, so that the woman’s husband will not be alerted. Attridge refuses at first, but then, after a few recollections of his ex-wife’s charging him with inhumanity on a trip to Siena, he changes his mind, deciding “to prove to himself,” according to Schirmer, “that he is capable of compassion, and thereby to protect himself from the truth about his emotional paralysis.” Schirmer regards Attridge as alienated; I’m not sure that this is altogether fair. How, even as recently as the Nineties, could a gay man of respectable standing not be “alienated”?

Skirting this issue is even more costly to Schirmer’s analysis of “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch.” It is good so far as it goes, but it misses the resonant horror of Raymond’s ironic protest.

“I’m not a homosexual,” shouted Raymond, aware that his voice was piercingly shrill.

Although Raymond will later convince himself that his accuser, Mrs Fitch, is a madwoman, we know for a fact that everyone else at the crowded party regards Mrs Fitch as an oracle, her pronouncements accurate no matter how unwelcome. With his outburst, Raymond has branded himself in their eyes as exactly what he denies being — and in a “piercingly shrill” voice. I’m not quite sure why, but this moment reminds me of the climax of The Bacchantes. To say that Raymond and Attridge are beset by confusing desires is an almost giggly understatement, but not without its tragic edge. These men were born at the wrong time.

There are two stories on my list that might not make it onto anyone else’s, “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart” and “Her Mother’s Daughter.” In the first story, set among cozy old rich people in Cap d’Antibes, is a rather cruel satire with an almost ponderous twist, but I enjoyed the awful Mrs Vansittart, who of course turns out not to be so awful after all. “Her Mother’s Daughter” appeals to me because I cast it immediately with perfect actresses. The put-upon daughter, Helena, who is not allowed to do anything remotely fun by her obsessively risk-averse mother, would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, while Vivian Pickles would be the mother. Playing the widow of a lexicographer whose work she is arduously and endlessly preparing for publication, Pickles would bring this Casaubon-like creature imposingly to life, while Bonham Carter would give the manuscript exactly the treatment it deserves.


Thursday 1st

Nobody asked, and nobody would ever think to ask, but I have an opinion — yes! — on Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the National Anthem. I think that it was a mistake. You will note, however, that I do not say that Kaepernick was wrong. There’s a difference.

Forming my opinion was very easy. I have great respect for social conventions, because, without them, our lives would be consumed by futile arguments and negotiations. Our rules of the road, which every driver is expected to observe in every particular, provide the model of conventional utility. Without them, a town in which there were only two drivers would quickly become a town in which there were not even that many.

At the same time, conventions work best when they are meaningless in themselves, because the purpose of a convention is to correspond to expectations, and thereby reduce — vastly reduce — the number of things that we have to think about during the day. On a staircase, there is a general convention of keeping to the right. This keeps the people going upstairs out of the way of the people going down, and vice versa. The important thing is to move through the staircase as easily as possible, not to declare a virtue in keeping to the right. Similarly, when I ask how you are, it is a way of saying that I notice you as someone in my world, and that I hope that you are doing well — well enough, among other things, not to want to hurt me. When you say that you are fine, you are merely acknowledging the connection, slight as it may be. This exchange of pleasantries is an important emollient in social life; it keeps, so to speak, everybody’s blood pressure at healthy levels.

It’s no wonder that teenagers have a hard time with conventions. Teenagers are discovering that there is meaning in life, and conventions are meaningless. (What a waste of time! And it’s so much more honest to refuse to say “thank you” if you don’t really really mean it.) It’s also no wonder that the adolescent orgy of meaningfulness is rarely sustained for more than three or four years. A life of uninterrupted significance would be suicidally exhausting.

The convention of singing the National Anthem before athletic games (and only then, at least so far as doing so as a matter of course is concerned) is not an ideal convention. It is in fact a regrettable convention, because singing the National Anthem ought to invoke sincere responses to the words and music — to its spirit. But conventions, once again, work best when they are habitual, when they are observed without a great deal of thought, or perhaps any thought at all. People do not attend sports events in order to express their patriotic feelings, and yet because of an ill-considered convention — one of a type that gives conventions generally a bad name — they are asked to do just that before any game can begin.

Worse, as Colin Kaepernick has brought to our attention, the third verse of the poem that provides the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (a poem known as “Anacreon in Heaven,” because the tune to which it was to be sung was called “Anacreon’s Grave” — and was a drinking song at that; it keeps getting worse) contains some very ugly thoughts, which I should hope no American would wish to express in connection with patriotic sentiment.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave….

The reference here is apparently to American slaves who joined forces with British invaders in the War of 1812 — the one war that, until Vietnam, the United States didn’t win. The fact that nobody ever sings this verse is precisely the sort of point that becomes a wet noodle when something meaningful is absorbed into a convention.

This is not the place to quarrel with the selection of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem. By 1931, when its adoption as such became official by Act of Congress, its status was assured by convention. The whole idea of national anthems, to be sung by civil populations in peacetime as opposed to armies on the march, is of course a recent one, going back no further than “Rule, Britannia!” which was itself generated by the wonderfully-named War of Jenkins’s Ear. The song suited the times and was spontaneously adopted. So it went with “La Marseillaise.” The modern democracies that sing such songs have had only a couple of centuries to examine their lyrics in the light of changed circumstances. The meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has passed almost completely out of general understanding — and I’m talking about the words that everybody knows. “La Marseillaise” is unpleasantly sanguinary; no two ways about it. And of course “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!” is an indefensible exhortation, as anyone contemplating China’s actions in the South China Sea will quickly agree.

However, the convention is firmly established, and the only question is how deeply rooted it is. Nothing could be better calculated to strengthen those roots than Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit the song out. Kaepernick is right to object to the song, right to point out that it is almost pointedly not “national.” It is the anthem of the white guys who buy tickets to the games, and who sing it as self-indulgently as their imaginary descendants suck on sugary drinks in Wall*E. But instead of flouting the convention, and thereby adopting the trademark gesture of an insolent teenager, Kaepernick ought to have approached the problem politically, gathering signatures on petitions, negotiating with club owners, making a fuss in the media — almost anything but what he did do.

The paradox of defying conventions is that the defiance converts something meaningless into something important — vital even. People cling especially hard to expectations that they’re only dimly aware of. The convention of singing the National Anthem before sporting events, as well as the now official, and no longer conventional, recognition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as that anthem, ought to be reconsidered, and scrapped or revoked. But Colin Kaepernick and his defenders have no reason to complain of the ugliness that he has caused.


Friday 2nd

Clare Hammond is a young British pianist with a double first from Cambridge and attractive way of playing her instrument — so attractive, that she was cast as the younger Mary Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in The Lady With the Van, Nicholas Hytner’s screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play. Once you see a YouTube clip of Hammond playing at St Hilda’s, Oxford, not too long ago, you realize that she is an actress as well. At St Hilda’s, Hammond is cool as a cucumber. In Lady With a Van, she projects the maidenly romanticism of a classical artist in the 1950s; you fall in love with her as she falls in love with Chopin. Well, I fell in love, anyway, and I had to have more. I don’t know why, in the wake of the film, Hammond hasn’t been contracted to record a Chopin album; perhaps she’s not interested. The three discs that she has made are comparatively esoteric. But I had to have something, so I bought Etude, an album of music that I was sure I’d never listen to. Aside from Karel Szymanowski, the composers whom she plays on this recital were unknown to me, but the other two other albums featured music that looked even more forbidding. Etude duly arrived from Arkivmusic and sat in a pile for about a month. Then, the other day, after the stack of CDs fell slipped and fell onto the floor for the umpteenth time, and I decided to “do something” about it, I put the disc in the player, as if to intensify the purgatorial spirit with which, having thrown away the plastic cases in which CDs are still packaged, I laboriously repackage the contents in my space-saving way. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Etude is not hard to listen to. Even the liner notes, written by the pianist, are good.

An ‘étude,’ or study, is a piece written expressly to develop the technical capacity of a performer and, as such, seems a rather dry proposition. [There follows a brief history of the form, suggesting that, however dry the proposition, realization has not been.] At its best, the étude combines the visceral excitement of technical display with expressive, coloristic, and compositional ingenuity.

The first three pieces are “transcendental études” by Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924) that will please anyone hunting for something new in the neighborhood of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Two of them date from 1900, but although the textures are luxurious they are not glossy: this is romantic, not post-romantic, music. Had the entire album been given over to music like this, I should have been very pleased, because in my old age I have become fond of the urgent, clamorous virtuosity displayed by so many composers of the period. While it continues to remind me of women wearing fraught expressions who sit in rooms lighted only by the gleam of polished mahogany, it has revealed comforts for which the younger listener has no use. After the Lyapunov, Hammond plays a set of six études by the South Korean composer, Unsuk Chin (1961-). It is unlikely that I will live to warm to this music, but it is listenable and even stylish. The set of Twelve Studies, Op 33, by Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937) was written in 1920, and it consists of very short pieces — the longest by far, clocking in at 1:47, is marked lento assai. Perhaps because of their brevity, these études went in one ear and out the other. Repeated listenings might change that. Sometimes, though, an étude is just for the pianist.

The revelation came at the end, with Five Études in Different Intervals, Op 68, by Nikolai Kapustin (1937-). Written in 1992, these pieces remind me very much of Leonard Bernstein, of all people, particularly Bernstein’s special take on boogie-woogie. The first one, marked “Allegro [in minor seconds]” brought Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” very much to mind. But the third, “Animato [in sixths]” caught my heart. Hammond does not saying anything specific about it in her notes, so I feel somewhat ludicrous about suggesting that it is some kind of Latin American dance, some rhythm that Kapustin, who studied jazz as a young man but who rejected improvisation, encountered somewhere, and then recast as his own. This étude is shorter than all the others, alas. In the YouTube clip that I mentioned, Hammond plays the étude in minor seconds. If she were to play the one in sixths on-screen, I’d like her to wear a little hat, minutely suggestive of Carmen Miranda. That would ignite me.


The writing project turned a corner at the beginning of the week. On Monday, I reached what felt like the end, for first-draft purposes, of the seventh and last section. On Tuesday, I began proofing the first section. My original intention had been to clean up the clerical errors, but I was so disappointed by the shapelessness of the piece that I decided that I must more seriously revise it, because it would still be the first thing that a reader confronted. I went ahead with the proofing, and then printed a copy — the first time I’d put word to actual paper. I also created the file structure that will help me keep the successive revisions of the project in manageable order.

You learn what you’re doing by doing it, never more so than when you’re doing something that you’ve never done before. At the outset, I had two goals, one general and one immediate. The whole point of the first draft was to “get stuff down,” and to see how much there was. (There was enough. The first draft piled up over eighty-thousand words, written between 21 July and 29 August.) Right away, though, I wanted to memorialize the experience that had inspired the project, and although I was not aware of it at once, I wanted to present this experience by reproducing the effect of a certain piece of music. It was pretty clear from the first draft that I had not succeeded — which was understandable enough, as the idea had not yet taken shape. Instead of a carefully calibrated crescendo (a move from everyday speech, as far as I dared imitate it, to my own idiom), I had just gone off on some irrelevant tangents. Going off on tangents might be a good idea, but I’d have to think of better ones. I made the first attempt yesterday, and now, I think, I have something to work with.

Aside from wanting to describe the moment of deep fulfillment that occurred two days before I began writing, I had no plan for the first section; I now think of it as an invocation, a summoning of the muse within myself to come and tell me what to do. The muse was able to provide me with outlines for the ensuing sections, so I expect to find in them a coherence lacking in the euphoric (you-had-to-be-there) beginning. Meanwhile, I shall replace the invocation with an invitation, aimed not at me but at the reader.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Lazy People, Poets, and Men of Action
August 2016 (IV)

22, 23, 25 and 26 August

Monday 22nd

For a few weeks, I’ve been reading William Trevor’s short stories. I had a go at them ten years ago or more, and I still remember three quite vividly, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” “Mrs Silly,” and “Torridge.” (I recall writing about “Torridge,” but I can’t find it.) Curiously, these stories still seem standouts; so far, I haven’t read a fourth that quite reaches their intensity. And yet all the stories are intense.

At first, this time around, I read at random, but then I got systematic. The system was peculiar, of course, so the results are eccentric. I’ve read (or re-read) all the stories from “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” which begins on page 333, to “The Property of Colette Nervi,” which ends on page 963. Half the book, in other words.

What I’m looking for, as I read, is a lead on Trevor’s transparent prose. The language is entirely self-effacing; never does it call attention to itself or distract in any way from the limpid flow of the tale. It is also free of negative defects: it is never tedious, never obscure, never heavily ironic. One imagines that William Trevor himself is mute. The artful construction of the stories is evident enough, if you care to work it out, but somehow the quality of the sentences makes structural analysis seem both pretentious and pointless, and also something of a child’s play. Anyone could do it. Anyone could show how the layers of disenchantment peel off, each one darker than the other before, in a story like “Teresa’s Wedding.” Anyone could remark on the horror of Raymond Bamber’s exposure, even though he denies it himself — made worse because he denies it himself — as the quality of Mrs Fitch’s calling him homosexual passes from drunken raving to incontestable truth, accepted by all once it has been revealed by her. But how this is made to happen on the cellular level is unclear, because the happening is too clear.

Not wishing to return to the kitchen herself, she ran the hot tap in the bathroom on to the sponge-cloth she kept for cleaning the bath. She found that if she rubbed hard enough at the paint on the stair-carpet and on the landing carpet it began to disappear. But the rubbing tired her. As she put away the sponge-cloth, Mrs Malby had a feeling of not quite knowing what was what. Everything that had happened in the last few hours felt like a dream; it also had the feeling of plays she had seen on television; the one thing it wasn’t like was reality. As she paused in her bathroom, having placed the sponge-cloth on a ledge under the hand-basin, Mrs Malby saw herself standing there, as she often did in a dream: she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called, and two touches of red on her pale face, and her white hair tidy on her head, and her fingers seeming fragile. In a dream anything could happen next… (“Broken Homes,” 529)

That is the shorter half of a paragraph that I came upon by opening The Collected Stories at random. It took only the first sentence to remind me of the story, which is about the ordeal that an elderly London woman undergoes in connection with a cockamamie social-outreach program that seems drawn from A Clockwork Orange. The old woman is the prisoner of her fear that she will be taken for senile and shipped off to a home. Her autonomy is everything to her. But her over-correction of possible orneriness or outrage subjects her to the barbaric invasion of derelict teenagers who set about repainting her kitchen, which doesn’t need repainting, with all the carelessness that one might expect. All the while, their transistor radio blares loudly. Two of the kids have sex in her bed. Most of the story is a nightmare. In a dream, anything can happen, but in this dream, only this can happen. Just like life.

Consider the sponge-cloth. It is the sort of detail that no one can relish for itself. We do not want to know more about it. Trevor never describes it. But it is mentioned three times. It is material evidence that Mrs Malby can take care of herself. Note that, while the sponge-cloth makes its appearance already in Mrs Malby’s hands, it is put away twice. The putting away of the sponge-cloth on its ledge is part and parcel of Mrs Malby’s housekeeping; she does not leave the sponge-cloth lying about. The sponge-cloth is something that she can control, unlike so much else in her flat at the moment. She cannot keep rubbing at the paint on the carpets. She is eighty-seven years old. Her tired, insulted mind wanders to television plays. (There is more about that in the remainder of the paragraph.) And yet her confusion does not infect her behavior. Mrs Malby’s helplessness is by no means complete, and yet we must wonder if this is an advantage. Neighbors will come to her aid, but their aid will be partial. They will fancy that they have done more than enough on her behalf; her kitchen will remain debauched — there is no other word for it. Mrs Malby may retain her autonomy, but she has certainly lost something that seems essential to it.

Mrs Malby and her plight rise vividly from the page, and yet there is not one unusual word on that page, nor one odd phrase or construction. There are no metaphors. There is only this: “she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called.” Hunched. This one plain word recalls the difficulty that Mrs Malby has had, at the opening of the story, in dealing with the slippery teacher who asks for her cooperation. Trevor never makes sense of this project, which evidently contemplates the improvement of misguided teenagers by giving them something useful to do. We can tell from the teacher’s way of not responding to Mrs Malby’s statements that he will not be supervising the teenagers; we can see through his progressive cant to the hash that the young people will make of the job. Mrs Malby is so disconcerted by the teacher’s visit — so worried about revealing herself to be an incompetent octogenarian — that she merely survives it, and takes no follow-up action to keep the delinquents out of her kitchen.

The wonder of the story, as it is of almost all of Trevor’s stories, is that Trevor writes as if it were told by a protagonist who, in plain human fact, could never tell it nearly so well. “Broken Homes” may be told from Mrs Malby’s point of view, but it is not written as she would have written it. This is the last thing on our minds as we read the story. It can only occur to us later, if we stop to reflect on it. While reading the story, we are intensely engaged by Mrs Malby and her terrible vulnerability. Trevor’s stories are urgent because we are gripped by their narrators, who come to life no matter how obliquely Trevor introduces them. It is not so much what the narrators tell us as the witness they bear to experiencing it. In a story like “Mags,” nothing happens and everything happens (even the title character is, to put it mildly, dramatically offstage). The boy who narrates “Mr McNamara” hates his father at the end, and yet he says, “I could neither forgive nor understand.” This wonderfully ambiguous statement states the boy’s feelings at the time while suggesting a future in which there might be forgiveness and understanding: what he has discovered is beyond the comprehension of a thirteen year-old’s mind. “It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us.” Then. I sometimes feels that Trevor’s ability to hang an entire story on a common adverb is the Irish gift for gab raised to its highest pitch.


Tuesday 23rd

Last night, we went to the movies.

Kathleen came home on the early side, and we walked up to the Orpheum for the eight-o’clock show of Jason Bourne. Kathleen had said that she wanted to see the new installment in the theatre, and when I saw that it was showing right here, I made myself available. It sounds uncomplicated, and it was, but getting to the point of actually going required a few changes. I had to waive my preference (which Kathleen cannot accommodate, obviously) for seeing movies in the late morning, when theatres are empty. And I had to get over the peculiar variant of agoraphobia that has afflicted me for some time. In the past two years, I’ve built up an enormous resistance to doing anything unusual, such as going out at night. Like an OCD victim, I’ve fretted about missing things and exposing myself to risks, but all I’ve done is to read. It had come to the point where even watching videos was rare.

One contributor to my screwy behavior was the upheaval outside, the mostly-nonviolent urban catastrophe that has given the intersection of Second Avenue and Eighty-Sixth Street the look and feel of a provisionally rehabilitated bomb site. It would not be terribly disturbing to pass through, but it is degrading to live with. The greater cause, however, appears to have been the late stages of gestation. Since I embarked on the writing project I’ve been a new man. Whatever the quality of the work that I’ve been doing, concentrating on it for several hours in the afternoon has shut down the anxious hum that was making life more of a challenge than it needed to be.

I don’t mean to go on about the writing project. That’s for every other Friday — although I will say that by the time of my next report, I may well be proofing the completed first draft, and preparing to print it so that Kathleen can read it. I really did mean to talk about Jason Bourne. And yet I missed a good deal of it. As can easily happen — another reason for staying home — my intestinal fortitude was under challenge. I had to slip away to the men’s room several times during the course of the film, dreading an unfortunate accident that never, thank heaven, materialized. I chalked it up, in the end, to the unpredictability of internal affairs and to the violence of Paul Greengrass’s moviemaking. An early set-piece, for example, involving a demonstration in Athens’ Syntagma Square, got on my nerves. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, because the incoherence of the rushing hand-held cameras was making me ill. I couldn’t really see anything, and I couldn’t keep track of what the characters were trying to accomplish. When the action went automotive, it was somewhat easier to follow, but I find car chases to be objectively tedious, along with the run of courtroom scenes. The only comfort came from watching Alicia Vikander direct the chase from a remote war room at the CIA, and wondering how long it would take her to form a relationship of some kind with the rogue asset played by Matt Damon.

Speaking of assets, “Asset” is the name of Vincent Cassel’s character. Is Cassel becoming the new Max von Sydow? When I see the actor’s head shots at IMDb, he looks handsome enough, in his jagged way, but in most of his films he does something with his hair, whether the hair on his head or his beard, that makes him look like a monster, a vector of deadly disease. He never smiles unless he is torturing somebody. He is recklessly destructive. I have learned to dislike seeing him on the screen; there’s no real drama, just unpleasantness. They couldn’t even be bothered to give his character a personal name. Also upsetting was Tommy Lee Jones’s face, which suggested terminal disease.

But, ah — Alicia Vikander. She had a basic look for this movie, a dutiful, wrinkle-free frown, but it never became tiresome. Perhaps Tommy Lee Jones’s face was there to emphasize the radiant smoothness of Vikander’s skin. As an older viewer, capable of recalling Jones’s smooth features in The Eyes of Laura Mars, I had an idea of what Vikander is in for, but at the moment she is Freia, the goddess of the golden apples of youth; she is youth itself, not just young. But it is an ironic youth, because it clashes with her apparent omniscience. Vikander is not at all implausible as a powerful orchestrator of digital resources, any more than she was as a preternaturally astute doll in Ex Machina. How can she be so savvy at such a tender age? The answer, of course, as you can see for yourself in the recent Vanity Fair piece, is that she is an intelligent actress. She knows how to fake it. Which we ought to be able to make out without the help of pieces in Vanity Fair. I kicked myself for reading it; I didn’t need to know that she was in a relationship with a co-star. Why can’t everyone learn from Meryl Street? To be the world’s greatest actress, marry somebody who tames heavy metal.

Yes, I have a question. Was Matt Damon in Jason Bourne? Was that really him? It wasn’t a cgi stunt? His big fight with Asset was so dimly lit that I couldn’t tell who was doing what to whom. The ostensible Damon said about twenty words throughout the movie. And he had two expressions, grim determination and sorrowed wonder. Jason Bourne might have been a lot more interesting if we could have focused on the interaction with Bourne’s father. Jason (or rather, David) had signed on to the nefarious Treadstone project because he believed that his father had been killed by foreign terrorists. Now, in the middle of this noisy and crowded film, he learns that the CIA murdered his father. Perhaps if we could linger on this issue for a bit instead of just registering it, we might progress beyond the pat responses. All the Bourne films, especially the best of them (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner) are about the self-invalidating curse of special ops: inevitably, the need to keep secrets means throwing all legal constraints aside in the name of patriotism. Men invoke principles to save their own skin. The spectacle of cynicism feeds the knowingness of audiences too wised up to trust civil institutions. The things we have to do to keep America safe!


Thursday 25th

For a long time, my attention has fastened every morning on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. This was my agora; as I circulated among the days four speakers, regular columnists and interested parties alike, I developed a feeling for the general consensus. I also noted the extent to which my own view of things differed from that consensus. Sometimes I wrote about this, but, whether I did or not, my focus on the world invariably sharpened, if only a little.

Lately, that hasn’t been happening, because I haven’t been inclined to circulate among the speakers. I’m not sure whether I’ve lost interest in the consensus, or whether I no longer believe that it is there to be divined from the Op-Ed page. Variations on What motivates Trump supporters are no longer interesting at all. Trump supporters are people who are going to be dead or gaga in twenty years; they’re the past, not the future. Inquiries into how Trump supporters took élites and their pundits by surprise usually fail to recognize the central role played by the morality of the world of television, which highly-educated politicos have until very recently regarded as something having nothing to do with them. Nicholas Kristof’s humanitarian commentary is more a long-term consciousness-raising campaign than the series of calls to action that it appears to be. David Brooks is ever more afflicted by social nostalgia: if we could only go back.

What perks me up is the mention of Richard M Nixon. Nixon was the architect of institutionalized American malaise — political contempt for the little people, incarceration of as many African Americans as possible, espionage as a means of communication. He knew that everybody hated him, but exploited everybody’s fears to rise to power, and then he hated everybody back. Nixon was the Bad Seed that improbably but ruinously occupied the White House. We ought to build statues of him, so that we can blow them up. Yes! But, really, this is not very interesting either. Nixon may have been excitingly awful in his day, but he has left us with a hangover that will not go away. A hangover is something that you want to get rid of. You don’t want to think about it.


Kathleen and I were talking about Jeffrey Toobin’s new book about Patty Hearst last night. Neither of us has read it, nor does either of us plan to read it. But the nub of Patty Hearst’s story is worth disagreeing about. I say that it was right for President Carter to commute Heart’s sentence and for President Clinton to pardon her, because it is unbecoming for children of the élite to be punished as if they were common criminals. Kathleen says that this is outrageous. Of course it’s outrageous from the standpoint of simple justice, but it respects our irrational belief that justice is not to be simplified. We really do like to think that some people are special; it is a kind of belief in paradise. And we accept that nothing in Hearst’s upbringing — nothing — prepared her for the encounters and situations that followed her kidnapping. This is not to say that we excuse her, or believe that she ought to be forgiven because she is basically a nice person. On the contrary, our mercy is somewhat contemptuous. We’re upholding her status, for our own sake, at the cost of infantilizing her. We’re saying — my imaginary old-fashioned friends and I — that she could not have known what she was doing. We don’t really forgive her at all; we simply feel that it is unseemly for a Hearst to be in a women’s prison when all she did was to do what she was raised to do: to follow the prevailing winds.

I do detest righteousness.


Meanwhile, is Damon Baehrel a fake? This week’s New Yorker arrived yesterday (finally), but I read Nick Paumgarten’s piece online, this morning, by clicking on a link in my inbox. I now get a message from the magazine every weekday, and, now that the Op-Ed page has dried up as a source of inspiration, The New Yorker has moved in with its desktop sampler. The stories of the day appear in rows of two, and the link to lead, at the top left, is the one that I usually press. This morning — yesterday afternoon, actually, but I don’t read mail in the afternoon unless it is personal — the lead was Paumgarten’s story about a fabulous restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Was I the only reader to remember the much longer piece by John McPhee, appearing in (I have ascertained) the issue of 19 February 1979, about “Otto”?

He carried the octopus inside. He said he has a cousin in the Florida Keys who puts octopuses in his driveway and then drives over them. “It’s just to break down the fibres. I don’t know what happens. I just know that it works.” He went into the restaurant and took down from a wall an August Sander photograph of an anonymous German chef, a heavy man in a white coat of laboratory length over pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes. The subject’s ears were small, the head a large and almost perfect sphere. On the upper lip, an aggressive mustache was concentrated like a grenade. The man was almost browless, his neck was too thick to permit a double chin, and his tiny black eyes — perhaps by the impertinence of the photographer — were opened wide. In his hammy hands were a bowl and a wooden-handled whip. “This pig-faced guy is a real Otto,” said the chef. “When our customers ask who is that in the picture we say that he is our founder.”

Otto’s restaurant, McPhee agreed to indicate, was more than five miles and less than a hundred miles from the triangle formed by La Grenouille and two restaurants that are no longer with us. Paumgarten tells us that Damon’s place is in Earlton, New York, near Coxsackie.

Compared to Otto’s place, Damon Baehrel’s is austere — his flour is arduously milled from acorns, he pickles things in pine needles, and butter and cream are avoided — but that is mere fashion. The essence of the stunt remains the same. Food is transformed from nourishment, which we associate with mothers, into an achievement, which is heroic. It becomes amazing. It is the best! food! ever! Today’s fashions limit culinary excellence to two categories: high-tech and locavore. Ferran Adrià is famous for his spray cans. Damon Baehrel farms his swamp.

Whether the food is actually any good or not soon ceases to be the point, because it is taken for granted. If you are not impressed, then you are just not with it. Now, I have never been near the kind of cookery for which El Bulli was famous, nor have I dined at Chez Panisse (which I take to be the original locavore dining hall), and it is not my intention to question the satisfaction that these restaurants have given to many, many patrons. I will go along with taking the great food for granted. It’s what happens next that interests me. Legends begin to encrust the edifice. Damon Baehrel gets all his meats from “Mennonite farmers.” John McPhee’s Otto claims that smoking chervil will make you high. But the indispensable rumor is about bookings. It’s impossible to get in, and yet everybody famous seems to have been. It’s as if Donald Trump were saying that you, the reader, are a loser, because you’ve never even tried not that it would do you any good. Damon Baehrel’s restaurant is said to be booked through 2025.

2025! It’s a sign of the times that Paumgarten is rather less trusting than McPhee. Having talked about the weird food (which tastes “sublime” — at least on the first outing), the writer wants to get to the bottom of the indispensable rumor. It soon becomes clear, whether or not anyone is going to come out and say so, that Damon Baehrel is a fabulist. If you tell me a story about unicorns, I do not accuse you of lying. So it is here. When Baehrel claims that he has just served dinner — a dinner just like yours — to a party of Japanese that left moments before your arrival, it is more agreeable to think of him as talking about unicorns. Eventually, inevitably, Paumgarten wearies of the operation.

Many of Baehrel’s dishes are trompe l’oeil, with foraged ingredients subbing for more traditional ones. Consider a favorite of his book publishers, the Morrises—what he calls “the phony egg.” “I use native components to build an egg,” Baehrel told me. “The egg white is cattails. The yolk is pickled heirloom tomatoes in a broth of wild parsnip juice. I use willow bark to make the home fries, and squash as bacon.” Though he did not serve this one to me, I have seen photographs of it. It’s uncanny. I have no reason to doubt that the phony egg is phony in the way he says it is. But in the context of all the other questions surrounding his operation the egg can seem like a provocation. Why not just serve an egg?

Why not, indeed. Maybe the fake egg is really and truly incredible, a bucket-list must. Maybe even I would like it. But what Baehrel is really serving up is a guyish wet dream, complete with all the manly accoutrements. You half expect him to hand out Davy Crockett caps and to build a campfire. You forget that he was raised in Massapequa, and is not the last of the Mohicans. You don’t just drive up to the door; you have to wait for the gate to open (which it does, on time and not a moment sooner). You devour sixteen courses, for which you pay four hundred dollars. It had better be good!

That story about the emperor’s new clothes becomes a lot easier to believe if you presuppose that there were no women watching the parade.


Friday 26th

For dinner the other night, we had rib steaks. My interest in rib steaks has shifted over the years. During the graduate school days of M le Neveu, I served a thick hunk of beef every Sunday night. I would run it under the broiler for about fifteen minutes, and the center would still be pink. I could count on my young cousin to eat most of it. When he moved on, rib steaks disappeared from our table. More recently, however, I had to deal with a cooking-gas shutoff that forced me to make do with electric appliances. Consumer-quality electric ovens do not do a very good job of broiling meats, I found. So I turned to an old, somewhat forgotten friend, Edouard de Pomiane, and decided to give his approach to galley cooking a try.

Pomiane calls for ten-ounce steaks. I had a hard time conveying this demand to the butchers. So I settled on inch-thick steaks. I found that, if I followed Pomiane’s timing (three minutes per side), the meat was grey, so I cut it down to two minutes per side with fifteen or twenty seconds more on the side that seemed less browned. This works very nicely, but the problem is that the medium-rare beef has no flavor at all, according to Kathleen. I know what she means. Good steak is not supposed to taste, but only hint at a taste. It is only when steak is well-done that it has any real flavor, and it’s a flavor that I detest. Kathleen’s difficulty was complicated by a pungent Béarnaise sauce, again made following Pomiane’s instructions. The sauce continued to scream vinegar long after the vinegar evaporated. Pomiane’s recipe for Béarnaise cuts down on the butter and calls for one egg yolk instead of three, so as to reduce the quantity of the sauce to the needs of two people sharing a steak (as Kathleen and I do), but I think that I’m going to look into cutting back on the vinegar and the shallot as well. When I blamed the Béarnaise for Kathleen’s inability to taste the meat, she protested that she hadn’t used any. But all you had to do was to be in the same room with the bowl of sauce to taste it.

The gas came back on before I could make a thorough study of Pomiane’s little book, French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Or, Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life (1930). Pomiane was born in Paris in 1875 to Poles by the name of Pozerski. It was his parents who adopted the aristocratic French moniker. Pomiane worked at the Pasteur Institute, where he studied bacteriophages. I have found no information about the domestic conditions that led to his familiarity with the rigors of cooking on a pair of gas rings. I can get quite lost imagining where these rings might have been found in his apartment. I expect that the apartment was not designed to include a kitchen; that, in the original position, food was cooked somewhere else, in a nether region never visited by professors at the Pasteur Institute, except for scientific purposes. Perhaps Pomiane’s apartment had been part of a larger apartment. In some closet or a pantry, with running water nearby, the gas rings might have been installed on a counter or a table. I used to imagine Pomiane as a bit of a rake, sweetening his ladies with succulent but quickly prepared meals before leading them towards the boudoir. There is really no evidence for that daydream in his book. He seems rather to be advising the busy man who needs a good dinner without a lot of fuss. Wouldn’t such a man, even in 1930, have some sort of domestic help? Pomiane often mentions expense, but not all frugal people are impecunious.

I am writing this book for students, dressmakers, secretaries, artists, lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers, scientists, and everyone else who has only an hour for lunch or dinner but still wants thirty minutes of peace to enjoy a cup of coffee.

The translation, by Philip and Mary Hyman, first appeared in 1977, and that’s when I got my first copy, long since lost. I could swear that Pomiane dismissed pasta altogether because it takes longer than ten minutes to boil a pot of water, but that’s not what I read in the 1994 edition. There is a brief chapter on “noodle” dishes, and, among his whimsically-stated preliminaries, specifying the things that you must do the moment you get home, the following appears:

Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What is the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee…

All this should be done immediately, because the time necessary to heat the water or fat shouldn’t count in the ten minutes it takes you to cook your meal.

Now, he says, you can take off your coat.


If you don’t mind, I’m going to say a word about the progress of the writing project, even though I mentioned it last Friday and ought to hold my tongue until next Friday. What I want to say concerns the discipline required to do a lot of writing. I have never been good about discipline, but I have been able to rely on habit, which is really just unconscious discipline. My observation is that I cemented the habits that I would need long before undertaking the writing project. During last winter, I made two decisions. First, I would not write on Wednesdays. Second, I would try to write two thousand words the days when I did write. Perhaps the second decision came first. I’m pretty sure that I did not make them both at once. I only knew that, if I wrote more, I could not write as often. Four days of work seemed fair to me, neither onerous nor indulgent.

When I took up the writing project, I intended to make my entries briefer than they had been, and much briefer than they have been. I wanted to save my strength for the writing project. But it turns out that writing a little more than a thousand words for the Web log has been a great warm-up. After lunch, I could return to the desk and write what has come to be a norm of three to four thousand words. It is true that when the afternoon session is over, somewhere between six and seven, I am either shaking with surprise or listless with disappointment, but the words are there, and whether they are great or not-so-great, they tell me more than I knew about the form that the writing project will take when it is complete.

I had worried that the effort would be too great, that I would break down and lose interest. There has certainly been a lot of effort. But there has also been a lot of pausing to listen, as if I were in a forest that seemed to be silent until I stopped and paid attention. Yesterday, for example, I found that I had reached the ideal moment for interjecting a tangential but indispensable discussion into the body of a long section about something else, to which I easily returned when the tangent was covered.

That is what it has been like, this writing project: a walk in the woods. I know that I am in a room in a city, confronted by three computer monitors and a keyboard. But I am really somewhere else, in the forest of my mind. If I am very quiet, and I look very closely, a path appears beneath my feet, and I follow it. Sometimes, I come to a fork in the path, and then I depend on what might be compared to a forest bird or the sound of a waterfall to decide which fork to follow. I do not always feel safe, and sometimes the forest gives way to the edge of a cliff. But, so far at least, the path has always been there. I am still not sure how I managed to enter the woods, but I believe that my habits of writing had a lot to do with it.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Floor Exercise
August 2016 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 June

Monday 15th

Last night, we watched more of NBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics, and as the hours passed by — diving, track, gymnastics — the show confirmed a thought that sprouted from last week’s Olympic evenings: television is a really lousy source of the kind of information that we call explanation. Explanations tell us how things relate to other things. They are very important to any understanding of the world. Sometimes, as at the end of a mystery drama, explanations are tremendously exciting, but usually explanations are more than a little boring, because you have to remember things that you weren’t thinking about. The explanation of taxes, for example, is not invigorating. Many unpleasant explanations must be grasped and accepted in order to move on in life. Many people who are stuck in loops of futility are actively resisting explanations that wound their self-esteem.

Television is a medium of entertainment. When it was introduced, there were high hopes that it would be something else, a means of education and enlightenment. I think that the lesson to be learned from the failure of those hopes is that education requires a personal commitment, a presence in the room, that watching television is simply too passive to simulate. Many kinds of things can be learned from television — I want to talk about Julia Child in a moment — but other kinds of things, such as explanations, cannot, because understanding an explanation is an act that the student (or whoever it is to whom the explanation is addressed) must perform, and there is a big difference between thinking that you have performed this act in the privacy of your own room and demonstrating that you have performed it by discussing it with others, ideally including the person doing the explaining. Where explanations are concerned, there will always be a test.

One day, perhaps, television will be revolutionized by a truly interactive overhaul. Without descending into utter chaos, television will work both ways, so that the producers of shows will respond to viewers directly. I cannot imagine how this might happen, and I doubt that you can, either. My point is that not until then will television be an all-purpose tool of learning. The only way that television has, at present, of telling us that A is more important than B is to repeat A’s name more often than it does B’s — much more often.

Julia Child was one of television history’s most interesting stars. She started as a kind of clown. Her cooking lessons were perfectly correct; she even conveyed the information that not all mistakes in the kitchen are fatal. But hers was an improbable presence, physically and, of course, vocally. She was obviously committed to sharing her expertise, and her improvisations were inspiring — by which I mean that many viewers dared to tackle recipes that would have paralyzed them without her example. On the whole, though, The French Chef was an utterly conventional cooking show, with all the usual apparatus in addition to the novelties from France. What made it special was the nonpareil star. Mrs Child was very entertaining.

A later engagement with educational television, however, resulted in a series of VHS tapes, now available in CD form (The Way to Cook — its title borrowed from that of her American cookery book), that reflected the insight that TV shows can be watched over and over. Exploiting the Groundhog Day possibilities of video, Mrs Child ran through quick demonstrations of certain culinary skills — making piecrust in a food processor, for example — in an anonymous laboratory setting wholly devoid of the first show’s charming atmosphere. If you don’t get it the first time, just watch her do it again, and keep trying. There is a fair amount of explanation, but no inspiration.

I’ll merely note that, if, having tried and tried again, you still can’t produce a satisfactory piecrust, you’ll have to go elsewhere for further help and explanation. What I want to highlight is that The Way to Cook is a great example of video that is not “television.” Try to imagine a television show that accommodated as many repeats as each and every viewer might require for comprehension. It’s technically unimaginable, and it would also be intolerably tedious for every viewer who got it the second time. I’m interested by the way in which limits to technology overlap the limits to passive watching — the point where boredom sets in. It’s also interesting that you can’t just tune into The Way to Cook on a network. You have to buy the CDs.

Television is good at being easy. This is not to say that it makes Simone Biles’s vaults look easy. But it transforms years of very hard work into a momentary miracle. You may react, as Kathleen does, by pounding the sofa cushion with your fist and demanding, “HOW does anybody do that?!” with the air someone who has just missed being struck by a falling grand piano. But the question passes with the gust of thrill. Kathleen’s amazement is consumed by her own gesture. Soon there will be another momentary miracle. I daresay that Biles’s achievement cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who is not a serious gymnast. Indeed, the commentators repeatedly hinted, even as they predicted the scores, that many of the considerations entailed in evaluating a performance are somewhat occult. It was much easier to suggest the caprice or discretion or just plain human inscrutability of the judges than to try to explain the subtle criteria, masked by the circus flash, that the traditions of gymnastics have developed over the years. Behind the amazing twists and turns that today’s gymnasts have learned to do, there lies a demand for grace and confidence that can’t be reduced to metrics.

So far, I have been speaking of kinds of information. It’s easy to show Simone Biles’s acrobatic mastery; it is difficult to evaluate it in terms finer than “wow” or its opposite, the sound that we all made when Daria Spiridonova missed the catch from one bar to the other and fell to earth. But wait. Was this the first time that NBC had featured a performance by Spiridonova? I feel that I’ve been watching the Olympics for weeks, and I haven’t seen her before. It seemed that last night was the home audience’s introduction to many of the competitors from other countries. We had seen Aliya Mustafina compete against Simone Biles on the balance beam, but we had not seen the Russian team go through its qualifying rounds. Of course we hadn’t — there wasn’t time. Nor was there time, I suppose, to speak to contestants whose English wasn’t very good. Which was a good thing, because, frankly, I got tired of hearing athletes being asked, as Abby Johnston effectively was, to tell us how they felt about losing rather badly. For reasons not difficult to infer, NBC introduced foreign competition slowly. The heart of its story was the reality show inherent in intra-Team USA competition. Poor Gabby Douglas, All-Around Gold in 2012, denied the chance to compete in 2016, an outcome widely decried as unfair but never really explained. The full explanation would have to resolve, one way or the other, the conflict of Olympic ideals with strategic considerations. We instinctively feel that there is no place for strategy in athletic performance — not, that is, before the starting bell has sounded, as was the case here.

How much of the Olympics did we get to see? As much as most of us could take. How else do you explain volleyball in two formats?


Tuesday 16th

The first thing I did yesterday morning was to call the box office at Alice Tully Hall and donate my pair of tickets to last night’s performance of Così fan tutte. I had done the thinking the night before, and would probably have called the box office before going to bed, had it been open. I hope that the performance was a great one — as Mozart’s most sophisticated work, Così deserves nothing less. It felt strange to turn down the chance to use tickets that I’d paid for to experience one of my favorite things. But it felt absolutely right.

Many times in our life together, Kathleen and I have groaned about the nuisance of having to drag ourselves to an auditorium when all we want to do is stay home, only to find, having pushed ourselves a little, that we had a great time and were really glad that we overcame our resistance. Last night might have been like that; in fact, it probably would have been. I didn’t know anything about the performers, but the odds were that if Mostly Mozart had scheduled them, they would at least bring something fresh to the familiar.

But the reasons for staying home were unusually strong. I am in the middle of a writing project that has brought me to a patch of difficult ground: I have to be able to think a lot and to suffer a little at the same time in order to keep going. Not that I know where I’m going, either! To do this in the face of early-evening plans — getting dressed, which has become a slight ordeal as my immobile back and mortal decrepitude narrow my reach; getting over to Lincoln Center by 7:30; and let’s not forget bladder management — is not possible, not if I want to write anything worth looking at the next day. When I’m writing hard, what I need to have in my immediate future is a bottle of chilled cucumber soup, a baguette, and a wedge of good cheese. I made the soup over the weekend, and it won’t be taxing to run across the street for the bread and cheese. Last night, instead of going out, I made a pizza, with a lump of frozen dough and a block of butter sauce (both homemade), a Boar’s Head pepperoni, a handful of mushrooms, and a package of grated mozzarella. It turned out to be the first pizza, or maybe the second, that I have really liked in the eighteen months since I began making pizza. Thanks to those eighteen months, it was very easy to make. It was the perfect follow-up to hours of difficult work.

Also, I could tell that Kathleen wasn’t at all keen on sitting through an opera. She knows Così and has seen it before. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” she says, “but I followed every note.” Nevertheless, it would have been our third evening out in as many weeks. Last week’s night out was a last-minute thing, a surprised response to an unexpected invitation. Two nights of Mostly Mozart in two weeks, even if Kathleen didn’t actually do the music part the second time, was enough of a sufficiency.

What clinched it, though, was the extreme undesirability of missing Simone Biles. Yes — it had come to that. I was passing up a beloved opera in order to watch television. To be sure, it was Kathleen who really didn’t want to miss it. She never grumbled. She merely corrected me. While I was shutting down the video setup on Sunday night, I mumbled that we’d be watching again tomorrow. “No, we won’t,” she said. “We’ll be at Così.” That’s when I began to think that perhaps we had better not be. Left to myself, I’d have gone to the opera. But I wasn’t by myself.

Ordinarily, I’d have traded a lackluster, fretful day for a night of glorious music, but there wasn’t anything ordinary about yesterday, what with the writing project (which I think has reached the halfway point of the first draft) and the drama in Rio. Ordinarily, if I had made the decision that I did make, I’d have been pricked by a pang of regret when I went to bed at the end of an evening at home. As it was, all I felt was the same grinding doubt and head-down determination that I’d felt the night before. And I felt awful about Simone Biles.

As you will have foreseen, I blame NBC. I blame NBC for the hoopla about Biles. Well, everybody was excited. It was the Biles buzz that, reaching Kathleen, got her interested in watching the Olympics. Interested enough, that is, to overcome my immense inertia, amounting to passive aggression at times, about turning on the television (which Kathleen doesn’t know how to do). But the NBC chatterboxes promised miracles. They betrayed their magic thinking after Simone’s mishap on the balance beam: one of them said, “And from now on, Simone will look at the scoreboard just like everybody else.” Had Simone Biles herself really inhabited a bubble in which perfection was the only imaginable outcome? Unlike the commentators, I am not here to speculate. Had her remarkable success — three gold medals at her first Olympics — gone to her head? Conversely, was she beginning to think too much? Was she now so consumed by the dissatisfaction that she had made the mistake of confiding to somebody’s microphone — it bothered her that her public balance-beam performances were never as good as what she could do alone in the gym — that she finally lost her balance and, to keep from falling off the beam, gripped it with both hands? These questions swirl in the mind, for anyone but Biles and her coaches, it’s silly to try to answer them.

I also blame NBC for popping Sanne Wevers on us. Where had this Nederlander been? Not on television. She had evidently impressed the commentators as an exceptional gymnast, but it seems that her routine was slightly unorthodox — “more ballet and less acrobatics,” as Kathleen put it — and therefore (perhaps?) not expected to attain a high score, even if she performed it perfectly, which of course nobody ever does. Whether or not there was a slot in which those of us who have been following the women’s gymnastic events might have had a foretaste of what in fact happened, one ought to have been made, because Wevers’s victory almost ruined the story, in much the same way that a creaky deus ex machina cheats us of genuine dramatic resolution. Where did this Odile ever come from, to steal the glory from our beloved Odette?

That the silver went to Biles’s teammate, Laurie Hernandez, was very satisfying. Without wanting Biles to lose, I had wanted Hernandez to win — something. It seemed to me that she performed as well as anybody else, even if she didn’t she didn’t give Simone’s impression of sailing through her twists and tumbles on gusts of effortless ectoplasm. Hernandez was clearly working. But she was very graceful about it, and she always landed where she ought to. At least that part of NBC’s story line worked out nicely.

The point of the Olympics is to provide a forum for excellence, and the exhibition of excellence ought to be an unmitigated delight. National pride aside — and, for most people on earth, even among those who get to watch the show, national pride usually doesn’t enter into it — we all ought to take pleasure in performances that approach perfection. But perhaps that is too cold for the average viewer. The average viewer doesn’t understand all the elements that factor into the scores; the average viewer hasn’t seen enough to recognize every kind of excellence when it occurs. And the medium of television cannot teach. But I think that the telecasts would be improved by keeping the commentary to a minimum. It gums up the show with soap-opera sentiment. My experience of the performing arts and those who perform them has brought me to the conclusion that performances are most satisfying when you don’t know anything that you can’t see on stage. Backstage is another world, for insiders. I don’t go to concerts in hopes of becoming an insider, somebody who “really knows.” I go to hear a piano concerto, period. I go to hear a noted pianist surprise me from the keyboard. Then I applaud and go out to dinner. I don’t want my dinner troubled by wondering whether the woman who gave birth to Simone Biles is even aware of her daughter’s excellence.


Thursday 18th

I read something in a magazine yesterday; today, I find it in the newspaper.

How long does it take to see something, to know someone? When we put in years, we realize how little we grasped at the start, even when we thought we knew. We move through life mostly not seeing what is around us, not knowing who is around us, not understanding the forces pressuring us, not understanding ourselves. Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s, September 2016.

“I look back at my life before 40 and deplore what I see; I hate myself for my lack of seriousness, my lack of productivity,” he writes, adding: “I knew nothing, understood nothing, had not grasped how one must start working and keep working, early on and every day, if one is to create something to show for one’s life.” Ian Brown (quoted) in a review of his new book, in today’s Times.

You can look back on your life and miss the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the readiness to jump in and the fearlessness about outcomes. You can remember health so good that it was simply a feature of your identity. Perhaps your youth was capped by beauty, “beauty which must die,” as the very young Keats put it. You can remember the joy, however wobbly and uncertain, of having a long future ahead of you.

Or, you can look back on your life and see that, when you were young, you had absolutely no idea about what was going on. You thought you did, and you could sound convincing. But instead of understanding, your mind held a bucket of speculation, illusion, and projection. Not knowing much, you were easily fooled by your own inventions. “Here be dragons.” And, if you were an American, you were applauded for the boldness of your convictions and the authenticity of your moralizing.

My understanding was no better than anyone else’s, except for one tiny difference. I knew that I was ignorant. It was a tiny difference because you cannot wallow in self-reproach. You can’t be dwelling on how much you don’t know. You have to be faking it and making it. You have to speak with assurance, at least to yourself. You have to keep going. You have to learn to look like you know what you’re doing. You have to be a fake, but only slightly aware of it. You have to hope that you can handle whatever happens. None of this is optional. There are no shortcuts that will spare you the mistakes of being young.

You can look back on your life and think of all the things that you wanted to do but never did. Or you can look back on your life and see days and years wasted on things that looked good at the time.

What I’m puzzling over, of course, is how you can distinguish the true understanding that comes with experience from the false understanding that gets you through it. How can I be sure that I am not just as deluded now as I was forty or fifty years ago? Can it be reduced to writing? And unless this wisdom is to be totally useless, how can I counsel a young mind to tend that quiet fire of ignorance?


As small consolation for missing Tuesday night’s Così fan tutte at Mostly Mozart, I was spared a third taste of the weirdness of my fiftieth anniversary of Mozart Mozart concerts. That first season, I went to concerts with enthusiastic devotion. Mozart was more than Mozart at the time. Mozart was an antidote. There were people who didn’t get it, of course, who thought of Mozart as a Meissen figurine; but, aside from them, there was a widespread desire for sublime meaninglessness, not art-for-art’s-sake but art-for-serenity’s sake. A recovery of beauty. There had been enough jagged and demanding modernism. There had been too much Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (The “three Bs, the three magisterial Germans.) And now Mahler. There had been too much tragic grandiosity. What was wanted was Alicia de Larrocha’s light andante at the keyboard. Small orchestras and young voices. Mostly Mozart promised the ideal August vacation for the world-historically-minded townsfolk of Manhattan.

It couldn’t last. After long years of wallpaper paste, it nearly expired. At the beginning of its comeback, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was wary of the festival’s overexposure. A diet of Mozart curdles the music, its richness cloying tritely. It turned out that Mozart was not a refuge. The Mozart who seemed to beckon with the understated elegance of the Age of Jackie went under a cloud, and emerged as a problem. A good problem: a workspace for interpretation, or the possibilities of expression if you like. The meaning does not lie in the music, waiting to be revealed. The meaning lies in the execution. If Mozart is the composer of music about music, what do you think he is trying to tell us? Go ahead, tell us. Tell us what you think, because nobody else does — wherein lies the greatness.

The only thing that’s fifty years old is the name, Mostly Mozart, which doesn’t — which can’t — mean what it used to do. Last year, I looked forward to elation: the festival and I would have an anniversary to celebrate. But an anniversary of what? Can we really remember?


I went to the branch of Morton Williams on First and 81st yesterday to buy Jones’s sausages. So far as I can tell, Jones’s breakfast sausages taste just what they tasted like when I was a boy. The only difference is in the package. The sausages used to be wrapped up, still linked, into a paper-covered bundle that would fit in a box just like the one in which you buy a pound (four sticks) of butter. I don’t remember how many sausages there were in a box; now there are twelve, and they are not linked, and I can’t believe that they really taste the same. They must have changed so slowly that I didn’t notice. Kathleen thinks they taste just the same, too.

Kathleen says that she and her brother were always trying to get their mother to buy Park’s sausages. Needless to say, this never happened. I, too, was drawn to an alternative: Rath’s. Rath’s sausages came in a tin, and were smaller and pinker than Jones’s. They were delicious right out of the can — the first two or three were. Then they got gross. What to do with the opened can?

I am always prone to “stock up,” so I bought two packages of Jones’s sausages yesterday, even though the freezer compartment is already crowded. If there is one bit of advice that I could pass on to today’s youth, it would be this: spend ten minutes every couple of days going through everything in the fridge. What have you got in there? How long has it been? When, exactly, do you think you’ll do something with it? Don’t wait until the fridge is a mess. Do a little bit of this every few days. It will alter your shopping; it will help you to use leftovers without feeling martyred. But this advice isn’t quite ready. I haven’t followed it myself.


Friday 19th

Gerald Grosvenor, the Sixth Duke of Westminster, died last week, but the notice didn’t appear in the Times until today. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the cause of death, which was a heart attack. The duke was only 64; it makes me uncomfortable when men younger than I am die of heart attacks. Hugh Grosvenor, who turned 25 in January, steps into his father’s many titles. The family business, the Grosvenor Trusts, owns most of the land in the Mayfair and Belgravia sections of London. Gerald Grosvenor was the sixth-richest person in Great Britain and the second-richest citizen.

The Grosvenor family’s ascent began with a strategic marriage in 1677; its fortunes mounted from there until Disraeli advised Queen Victoria to make the head of the family a duke, because he was almost as rich as she was. But the interesting thing about the Grosvenors is that that they survived until 1677. Their ancestor, one of William the Conqueror’s hunters, a fellow nicknamed gros veneur, was settled in the Welsh marches to maintain order. The family took root and held on throughout the disorders of the ensuing centuries. They seem not to have held a title until 1622, when Sir Richard Grosvenor, knighted by James I in 1617, was created baronet. You had to pay for this honor, so there must already have been disposable cash lying about. It’s the nearly six hundred preceding years of cultivating their own garden, or at least keeping the executioner at bay, that interests me. I wonder what kind of records there are, beyond who-married-whom and -begat-whom. Probably not very good ones. Good hunters know how to keep quiet.

Wikipedia is always so up-to-date. The page for the Dukes of Westminster notes that there is no immediate heir to the duchy. Young Hugh has not yet married. Not much is known about the new duke; according to his page, his private life has been protected. His parents were still married when his father died, although the Sixth Duke was somewhat embarrassed by the scandal that brought Eliot Spitzer’s political career to a crash (the two men were clients of the same escort service).

I wonder how many Grosvenors figure in the Seventh Duke’s ancestry. In the immediate past, not very many. His father, of course, in the preceding generation. His grandfather in the one before that — two out of six. But if you trace things all the way back, how many Grosvenor daughters show up in the tree? If you go back through his mother’s family, you run through a line of Russian Grand Dukes, before landing in the lap of Nicholas I. I should find it very exciting to visit Petersburg if I were descended from Nicholas I. Perhaps too exciting. I might just stay on the cruise ship and look.

Families are amazingly concrete abstractions. They don’t really exist, because so few people belong to the same family as anybody else. Your family becomes unique on the day you marry, unless your twin is marrying your spouse’s twin. Families are like mushrooms: they have no actual center and they turn out to be connected to all other families, a feature that drains the idea of the family of most content. That, however, is the view from outside. What could be more gripping from the inside? We identify with our families from the dawn of consciousness. Or so we think. In reality, we create them around ourselves. For most of us, the sense of family does not include persons belonging to remote generations. Even someone with a claim to descend from George Washington (which, officially, no one can do) is unlikely to know much about all the families that come in between. The Sixth Duke, however, would be an exception.


And now for a few coy words about the writing project. (Watch for capitalization down the road.) I have been writing a great deal. Since launching the first draft four weeks ago and a day, I have written 54,852 words. It’s gross to keep count, I know, but that’s the point: it’s gross, you can put your hands around it. As mentioned earlier, I am following Jane Smiley’s advice, and picking up each day where I left off the day before, without looking back. Yesterday, it’s true, I broke that rule, inserting two blocks of about a thousand words each at points in the section on which I’m working. Most of what I wrote, however, picked up from the end. I have three more sections in mind, one long (the next one) and then two short. I expect that they’ll roll out of me as quickly as what I’ve already written. It’s then that the hard work will begin.

The temptation to tell you the sort of thing that I’ve been writing is nil. When I get up in the morning, and at many other points in the day, I revel in the fact that no one has read a word, no one has heard a summary, or even been given a clue. Kathleen knows all about it, and I read a page and a half of the draft to her. Even that turned out to be a mistake, because I’m not proofing the draft, and my reading was interrupted by several faulty prepositions and even a few omitted words. I don’t think that close friends and regular readers of this site will be at all surprised by the result, but working in secret is far more satisfying than I expected it to be. I am happy to say that Hannah Arendt is not the subject, in case anyone was worried, and I’ll add that I hope that what I write will make people laugh. Nothing new in that.

The downside is that I have little to talk about. My mind is always pecking away at some point or other in the ever more expansive draft. At least once a day I feel that I have occupied its world, that I am no longer living here and now. The world of any writing project is always somewhere new, with its own landscapes and geography, maps and signs. I have never experienced such a big one, is all. At the rate I’m going, the first draft ought to be somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words, which is just right.

Now it’s time for lunch, and then I’ve got to buy bananas and paper towels at Fairway, among other things. After all that, I’ll sit down here and pick up where I left off yesterday. By the end of the day, the word count ought to have risen by a few thousand. We’ll see.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Blame It On Rio
August 2016 (II)

8, 9, 11 and 12 August

Monday 8th

As the Rio Olympics approached, Kathleen enthused about Simone Biles, whom she had read about somewhere, or perhaps seen somehow, and my trepidation was great. Would I remember how to turn on the TV? (It’s complicated!) And when would I turn on the TV? Who would find out when to turn it on? I foresaw tears of frustration, and they seemed very likely indeed when, having managed to bring NBC into our home yesterday, I was confronted by endless volleyball, and no women’s gymnastics. According to the Olympics Web site, the women’s gymnastic qualifications were taking place at that very moment. Kathleen’s attempt to capture the live stream (is that how one puts it?) was not going well. I crept into the bedroom and riffled through the Times. There I learned, after some tabular decipherment, that there would be gymnastics after 7 PM. Sighs of relief were heaved, and the promise was kept. There were other events, too — synchronized diving (?) and swimming — but we got to see Simone Biles and her Team USA mates, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian. We also got to see — and I’m writing to complain about this — Aly Raisman’s parents, sitting in the stands.

“Agonizing” would be more like it. I believe that it was during Aly’s performance on the balance beam. At one moment, Raisman seemed likely to slip off the beam, or at least to grip the beam with her hands, reflexively. She did not grip it or even touch it. She saved her routine and went on to get a score that qualified her to participate in the Games. The usual repetitions followed, in slow motion and so forth, with close-ups of the near mishap (feet and hands). Then we were shown her parents, to whom we already been introduced, watching their daughter with their hearts in their mouths. They angled away from one another, then pulled together; Lynn Faber looked desperate and Rick Raisman looked hostile — a good thing, I suppose, given that his fight-or flight trigger had understandably been pulled. I felt an intense sympathy that no amount of well-wishing for the contestants themselves could possibly have aroused. And in the same moment I was ashamed of NBC for having televised the moment.

This is why we have plays and re-enactments. The real thing, when it happens, is personal and private. Whether the Raismans ever come to be offended by the comments of friends and strangers who saw, thanks to not being there — since all eyes save the cameraman’s were on Aly — their helpless, wretched reactions to their daughter’s peril, I’m offended on their behalf. The decision to air the footage betrays the same kind of error in judgment that, endlessly repeated, has made Donald Trump the Republican candidate. An adult is supposed to know when irresistibly engaging scenes are nonetheless unfit for public consumption.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science. To say that I read it as an undergraduate is misleading. I still have the book that I annotated (somewhat less foolishly than usual, but foolishly still); but I also have a sense of the difficulty, or at least the subtlety of the text that I’m quite sure I missed in college. It was perhaps an inappropriate assignment at the time, because Butterfield’s lectures assume a familiarity with events in the intellectual history of the scientific revolution that I don’t think any of us had. The hallmark of such advanced books is that while the contributions of minor figures are sketched in fairly fully, the achievements of the great figures are scanted. In his lecture about Harvey and the circulation of the blood, for example, Butterfield covers the work of Colombo (discoverer of the “small circulation” between the heart and the lungs), Cesalpino (adumbrator of general circulation, but himself still very much in the shade), and Fabricius (discoverer of the venal valves). There is no such summing up of Harvey’s accomplishment. That is taken for granted. So I was still a little in the dark, at times, reading the book now. And Butterfield’s concision sheds a flurry of nuances that sometimes made me doubt that I knew precisely what he was trying to say.

But I had no such doubt about the exordium at the end of the tenth lecture, “The Place of the Scientific Revolution in the History of Western Civilization.” The place of the scientific revolution in the history of Western Civilization, according to Butterfield, is central, as in “the most important place imaginable.” The end of the essay is really very grand, especially considering that there are still two more lectures to go, and also that the final essay, “Images of Progress and Ideas of Evolution,” comes to a dead halt exactly where another rolling peroration might have begun. “Something similar to this is true when we of the year 1957 take our perspective of the scientific revolution,” Butterfield begins his big finish. What Butterfield means by “this,” I think, is the fact that hindsight, while sometimes prejudiced by subsequent events, is often simply informed by them. What follows is too long to copy, so I shall cut to the final sentences, in which “the new factor” refers to what educated people today have in mind when they think of scientific analysis, and the “other” ones are the theories deduced from philosophical, unobserved ideas about the world.

The new factor immediately began to elbow the other ones away, pushing them from the central position. Indeed, it began immediately to seek control of the rest, as the apostles of the new movement had declared their intention of doing from the very start. The result was the emergence of a kind of Western civilization which when transmitted to Japan operates on tradition there as it operates on tradition here — dissolving it and having eyes for nothing save a future of brave new worlds. It was a civilization that could cut itself away from the Graeco-Roman heritage in general, away from Christianity itself — only too confident in its power to exist independent of anything of the kind. We know now that what was emerging towards the end of the seventeenth century was a civilization exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as Nineveh and Babylon. That is why, since the rise of Christianity, there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared with this.

In 1957, Butterfield could say this without sounding smug. Today, it would be not only smug but foolish, as I think every educated reader will uneasily sense. Why is this?

What came to mind as I read of this triumph of science over religion — it is important, here, to pit science against religion, and not against faith — was something that I read somewhere — in William Doyle’s great history of the French Revolution, I hoped, but can’t find there — about the low expectations, as the Eighteenth Century approached its end, that the Roman Catholic Church would survive far into the Nineteenth. These expectations were of course shared by the kind of men who promoted the scientific revolution. They saw a decadent organization that no longer commanded anyone’s serious respect. The respect, that is, of anybody serious. The opinions of peasants were not consulted. Had they been, the counterrevolutionary revolt in the Vendée might have been foreseen; had they been, the emergence of a robust and even purified institution might have been anticipated. For Roman Catholicism emerged from the collapse of the ancien régime stronger than it had been ever since — one is tempted to exaggerate — the days of Innocent III in the Thirteenth Century. Far from being knocked out by the brilliance of the Enlightenment, the Church became the beloved shelter of swelling numbers of the Enlightenment’s opponents. This new Church, although it preserved almost all of its old structures, embarked on a new project, or perhaps it would be better to say that it reconsidered its original project. It forsook its old dreams of temporal power and embraced its pastoral mission. Orthodoxy was assumed, not tested. The doctrines of the Trinity and of Transubstantiation remained on the books, but were presented in popular, almost Disney-esque caricature that were too limp to provoke controversy.

Much the same occurred in the Protestant North, where the separation of church and state, however stoutly resisted, seemed to redirect energy toward a booming philanthropic evangelism. We associate the Nineteenth Century with the Industrial Revolution, but it was also a time of intense religious revival. It was not unobserved that the appeal of religion was steadily confined to the uneducated classes, that religious gestures were cut to suit uneducated minds, but in the absence of contrary religious activities among the educated (no Church of the Dynamo appeared), the disconnection between the two classes did not result in clashes.

As liberal democracy spread throughout the West in the years after the French Revolution, up to an including our own time, it became less and less reasonable to see economic classes as horizontally arranged, with the rich dominating the poor as the old aristocracy had ruled the peasantry. The division, it seems to me, tipped more toward the vertical. Rich and poor, theoretically equal under the law, stood side by side. The rich continued to arrange things in their favor, and, incidentally, to the disadvantage of the poor, but it became possible, and, during the three decades following World War II not at all uncommon, for people of poor background to educate themselves into the élite. For a long time, this new dispensation, this complex sequel to the chaos that erupted in 1789, functioned without friction attributable to religious differences. Religious observance was painlessly accommodated by ostensibly secular régimes. It was an option that those so inclined were not discouraged to indulge. Children everywhere were taught that the earth revolves around the sun, and that the laws of gravity apply everywhere with equal force. If these doctrines were contradicted by Scripture, disputes were repressed. It was reasonable, in 1957, to speak as Butterfield does at the end of his essay on the historical impact of the scientific revolution. Ironically, it was at that very time that other outcomes of 1789 were culminating in social alterations that would tear apart the old accord, and reveal the educated view of things as a powerful but minority opinion.

Men had learned to live with religious differences that pertained to matters of faith and world-view. But they had not been prepared to reconcile differences that could not be kept private, nor be contained by a consensus regarding public behavior. I am speaking of racial equality and the authority of women.


Tuesday 9th

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there was a good deal of discussion about the suitability of aligning the campaign for the equality of former slaves with the campaign for the equality of women. That this discussion was never resolved reflects the asymmetry, or perhaps the incomparability, of the issues. On the one hand, men of African descent who had been enslaved sought political equality with men of European descent. This was partly a racial problem and partly a re-enfranchisement problem, for the former slaves had been free men in Africa. On the other hand, women of European descent sought political equality with men of European descent. This was entirely a problem of gender, and its roots were wholly distinct from those of the problems faced by the racial-equality campaign. The only overlap occurred if the equality of women of African descent played a prominent role in both campaigns, which I believe it did not.

The problem of gender is a problem of authority. Although the existence of matriarchies in remote, prehistoric times is postulated, none survived the introduction of writing. Recorded history invariably repeats the inferiority, however slight, of women. And whatever variations might be found concerning the administration of the household, women have never exercised authority outside of it; in other words, men have not been called upon (it may be said that they have refused) to submit to the authority of women outside their immediate families.

This is so universal that it does not appear to be an inherently religious principle, but at the same time it is a feature of every religion, or at least it is contradicted by none. It may be imagined that no religion espousing the equality of women as to authority would advance beyond the confines of a tiny cult. There are glimmers of such a cult in early Christianity; a freedom from what we call sexism is discernible in the teachings of Jesus, and women played important roles in the early Church. But this was arrested. Religions don’t so much preach the inferiority of women; they accept it.

Accidents in the course of events in the West since the Middle Ages have put women in positions of authority, but these have been seen as God-sanctioned buttressed her legitimacy by marrying the king of Spain, who became the King of England), and almost guaranteed by the even more remarkable accident that her potential successor and rival (the mother of her actual successor, in fact) was also a woman. Such a fact-pattern is extremely unlikely, but it happened, and thanks to the glory of the Armada’s defeat while Elizabeth held the throne, it conditioned Englishmen to being ruled by a woman. And yet Elizabeth herself would never have agreed to take the advice of another woman. Three English queens would come and go before the fourth — again, coincidentally — would be called upon to accept a ministry headed by a woman (Margaret Thatcher). With such a history, it hardly seems anything but inevitable that the campaign for women’s equality should be born speaking English.

Whether or not they were triggered by accidents, there are also developments in English history that reflect a deliberate intent to extend equality to women. Unmarried women have always had the right to dispose of their own property. Married women attained this right in the 1860s, long before the grant of the franchise. Before the end of the Nineteenth Century, there were colleges for women, at the English universities and across the United States, and by the middle of the Twentieth Century women had achieved academic equality with men. This means that, within the confines of academia, men recognized the authority of women over themselves whenever it was decided that a certain woman was the right person to exercise authority in the given time and place. I find it significant that this first bloom appeared where it did. For it was the men of the modern university, committed as it was to the secularism that prevailed among the intellectuals of the West, who were among the first to discard, along with what many of them regarded as religious superstitions, an even older prejudice.

And it was within such institutions as universities that the advance of women was sheltered. I’m reminded of the observation that Nancy Mitford made to an out-of-town snob: the great ladies of Paris were never seen in public. They never appeared on the street because they were driven from courtyard to courtyard, and they didn’t have to go shopping because merchants came to them. The advance of women in the Anglophone world occurred somewhat out of public view; it took place in élite precincts. Women had no trouble establishing their abilities, but they flourished only where they dealt with educated men. Educated men, in turn, were the only men likely to marry educated women, and they were also likely to have daughters upon whom higher education would not be wasted. Educated fathers without sons could find themselves eager for their daughters to have access to rewarding careers.

Every now and then, an accident would thrust a woman into public prominence. Most of the women who served as elected officials did so by way of taking places vacated for one reason or another by their husbands. (Lady Astor; Margaret Chase Smith.) And I expect that a study would reveal that women reached high-level office long before they did the same at the small-town level. Almost always, women assumed public authority accidentally.

In my lifetime, there have emerged generations of women not content to wait to be transformed into Joan of Arc by the call of heaven, and they have made the entirely unprecedented demand for the right to exercise authority when otherwise qualified to do so. They were not going to wait to take their fathers’ or their husbands’ places in business or public affairs. They refused to recognize the need for anyone’s permission to allow them to make responsible decisions. And the first momentous issue to arise in this new climate was geared to register the shift. Unlike anything else that a woman might need or want, an abortion is starkly general. Any abortion is, physically speaking, like all other abortions, in that a fetus is removed from a woman’s body. Personal circumstances have no bearing on the medical procedure. What’s more, the right to have an abortion must necessarily be publicly sanctioned. Affluent woman usually had access to abortion even when it was illegal. But the right to abortion is not a matter of access. It is a question of authority, and it asks this question at the very heart of relations between the sexes. No wonder the controversy over abortion in the United States has been such a big deal!

The curious thing to me is why “authority” is not an issue in abortion debates. Nobody objects to women’s demand for the right to abortion by claiming that they lack the authority to decide to have one. The debates have shifted their focus to the right of the fetus to live. This has always struck me as spurious, at least in origin. I am unable to believe that more than a small minority of men would ever be seriously concerned about the lives of fetuses as a matter of principle, without intending to assert the right to tell a woman what to do. As it happens, men who oppose abortion tend to support the death penalty. This inconsistency about the preciousness of life is dealt with by comparing the innocence of the fetus with the guilt of a murderer, but the comparison is a category mistake, because the preciousness of life is either unalterably inherent in every human being or a delusion. The right to life engages the support of women, and it reminds us that in the campaign for the equality — let us call it the campaign for the authority of women, many men support the campaign while many women oppose it. Many women are determined not to submit to the authority of a woman. A woman in authority challenges their right to a protected place in life, a place inferior only with regard to matters that don’t interest them. But nobody argues that authority is the problem.

Has secularism advanced so far in the Anglophone world that it is no longer possible to say why it is inappropriate for women to exercise authority? Not “impossible to say &c without being laughed at,” but simply impossible? This would explain the stubbornness of resistance. All the conceivable arguments have been raised and refuted; there is no point to talking about it further. This hardly means that the bone-deep objection goes away.

I have said that the roots of opposition to racial equality and women’s equality are different, but it seems that objections to the exercise of authority by racially exceptionable people faces the same problem: there is no reasonable ground on which to object. So other grounds are sought. The specious “birther” opposition to President Obama’s legitimacy are similar to the right-to-life argument; it shifts the opposition to more tenable ground. If Obama fails to meet constitutional requirements as to birth in the United States, then the racial issue doesn’t come up. Similarly, the right-to-life argument circumvents the authority issue by making murderers of the aborting mother and her assistants. These phoney arguments can never be settled, but they spare their proponents something worse than ridicule — what?


Thursday 11th

Last night, I got to hear baritone Thomas Meglioranza sing for the first time in ages. He gave a pre-concert recital of songs by Hugo Wolf at Geffen Hall, accompanied by Reiko Uchida. It is a sign of Tom’s self-confidence that he shares the stage with such a superb pianist. Tom was superb, too, and he still reminds me of Bobby Short, which I mean as a great compliment, because, just as Bobby Short’s did, Tom’s voice declares that he is very happy to be alive and singing. Tom sang a selection of Mörike lieder as if they belonged to the Weimar cabaret repertoire that he explored a few years ago, which could not, I think, be more appropriate. Wolf is considered one of the pillars of the German lied, but I’ve never understood why. He reminds me of that wonderful Anna Russell routine about the difference between the French and the German art song: with the German, you get soggy poetry set to magnificent music; with the French, you get magnificent poetry set to wispy music. With Wolf, the middle term drops out: soggy poetry and wispy music. That’s very unfair, I know, and “Die ihr schwebet” from The Spanish Songbook is quite ecstatically beautiful. But there is always a laughing-academy aspect: this art is disturbed — and not in the way that Die Winterreise is disturbed. If you squint, you can hear Pierrot Lunaire just around the corner. You can hear everything about to come crashing down. The last song on Tom’s bill, “Abschied,” ends with a crazed Viennese waltz, dancing on long after the singer has stopped laughing at the old man he has just kicked downstairs. Wispy poetry. Great performance, though.

As I was in the taxi on my way to the pre-concert, I heard about the eejit who was at that very moment climbing Trump Tower with the aid of suction cups. The reporter on the radio, who sounded every inch a New Yorker, said that the fellow “seems to know what he’s doing,” which is our way of saying, “Let’s see how far he gets.” But the police don’t have that kind of sense of humor. Treating the climber as a madman, they took him to Bellevue and would not disclose his name. He gave my day a lift, anyway.

Since the pre-concert was going to bring me to Lincoln Center anyway, I had the idea of taking Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil to dinner at Shun Lee West. It was only a short walk from Kathleen’s office, so the four of us had a jolly night. We hadn’t seen each other in ages, possibly not since Easter. Ray told some good stories, one of them about new chandeliers at a famous fashion emporium and one about a long-ago funeral. Funerals came up because Fossil is going to yet another one; this time, it’s the father of a very good friend at work. I don’t understand attending funerals of people whom you have never met; it seems wrong to me. Wrong to do and wrong to expect. Hundreds of people attended my mother’s funeral in Houston, but it was out of respect for my father, who was still a pooh-bah. When he died, long after his retirement, there were no crowds. Shabby and mixed-up.


On Tuesday night, Kathleen met me at the midtown storage unit and packed a box of craft books that she does not want to keep. We had dinner at a nearby pub, and didn’t get home until nine o’clock. We turned on the TV, hoping that we hadn’t missed the women’s gymnastics. Of course they wouldn’t tell us, so Kathleen sat through two hours of swimming. She was able to do other things, but even in another room I was distracted by the racket. Finally, at eleven, we got to see the Final Five win their gold medals. We also got to see a few Chinese gymnasts, as well as Ellie Downie, who had had taken a bad tumble a few days earlier. It was good to see the competition. I have to say that the Chinese contestants fanned my admiration for Team USA.

As always, it’s hard for me to pay attention to protracted sporting events, so, between the breathtaking leaps and twists in the “floor” acts, I imagined what a Paul Taylor dance, choreographed with these moves, might look like. Then I realized that Paul Taylor’s choreography might have inspired a few of them already. This was particular true of Laurie Hernandez’s routine.

This morning, a man who was recommended by Housing Works brought his van and an assistant to the midtown unit and carried off the fifteen boxes of books that I have been packing since the middle of May. While he was there, I discussed my next step with him, and we agreed on a plan for dealing with all the stuff on the tippy-top shelf, which runs around three sides of the room. With my immobile neck, I can barely see it. Kathleen’s wedding dress is up there somewhere. She plans to give it away. It took her a while to accept the unlikeliness of knowing a young woman who would want to wear such a dress. Certainly none of the young women whom we actually knew would wear it. Kathleen’s gown covered everything below her neck and above her wrists, much of it voluminously.

Also on the top shelf are yet more boxes full of old papers. My heart sinks at the prospect of going through them. That, however, will be the end of that.


There’s an extremely interesting piece by Tom Crewe, in the current London Review of Books, about Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters, and the Labour Party. Crewe captures the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s fans about as well as I’ve ever seen it done.

There was again a palpable feeling in the air, difficult to convey in print: the closest equivalent I can think of is the experience of attending a gig — a narrowed, concentrated attention, a consciousness of shared knowledge and understanding, that peculiar sense of security you have when surrounded by people who like what you do.

Well, it might have been done better: the final “do” rather threw me for a minute; “like” would have prevented ambiguity. Nevertheless, that peculiar sense of security that you get at a jazz performance is probably the last pleasure to be looked for at a political meeting, for it signifies that nothing political is going to happen. I daresay that Trump’s rallies are almost rank with it. Trump’s supporters draw from their sense of security the boldness to behave like thugs.

Jeremy Corbyn has been acting the saint in Parliament for several decades, and I have no strong objection to that, but for the peculiarity of British arrangements that makes him ipso facto eligible to head the government. At the moment, that’s what would happen if Labour Party candidates won a majority of seats in an election, which is why there is a movement to dethrone him. Corbyn’s unlikely leadership of the Labour Party, a position that he holds despite the scorn and contumely of almost every fellow Labour MP, is symptomatic of the disarray of politics in the liberal democracies. Corbyn himself is a saint because he refuses to do what almost everyone else does as a matter of course these days: he doesn’t permit economic considerations, other than a concern for the underpaid and the unemployed, to affect his judgments. He makes the pragmatic and accommodating Tony Blair — the all too p & a — look like the Whore of Babylon, which is probably why Labour Party civilians saddled him with a leadership role that he seems constitutionally incapable of exercising. Corbyn doesn’t do deals, which means he doesn’t do politics. There is a place for such stubbornness in legislatures, but none whatever in the executive. Corbyn has proved to be unable to manage a shadow government, and is widely blamed for lackluster participation in the Remain campaign. A good man, undoubtedly, but unsuited to govern.

What Jeremy Corbyn has not done is to make a case for putting economic considerations where they belong, subordinate to political goals. The idea that economic well-being will solve political problems is bankrupt, because only politics can prevent well-being from being concentrated in fewer and fewer pockets. What’s curious to me is that people seem willing to consider alternatives to capitalism, when what capitalism needs is an overhaul. An overhaul of capitalism appears to be unimaginable. And when capitalism is discussed as a theory, along with corporate structure, the air gets very musty, because its the capitalism and the corporation of 1850 that is being described. The terms of orthodoxy were set long ago, so damn the torpedoes. You might as well let the Vatican run things.


Friday 12th

Watching the women’s gymnastics events last night, I was more irritated than ever by the commentators, because I had already heard all their snippets of “background” and “color” several times by now. It was almost disgusting to hear the contestants described in heroic, courageous, determined — statuesque — generalizations while the very objects of this adulation experienced their ordeals, their disappointments, and their very particular triumphs right in front of us. I blew my stack whenever one of the three sonorous but invisible voices informed me that Simone Biles was feeling proud and confident. Not must be feeling no speculation required. The commentators knew. Almost as bad was their regurgitation of the well-coached boilderplate with which the young women had been taught to respond to fatuous questions about “what it’s like to be back at the Olympics” (often asked of Aly Raisman) or “how are you feeling now that you’re actually in Rio?” These routine breaches of the protocols of meaningful and truthful reporting constituted almost all of the padding between events.

One might wonder if the producers of the show fear that viewers would wander off to some other outlet if the commentators stopped talking filling the stretches between events with their babble. I should think that anyone bothering to tune in to the women’s gymnastics competitions would be willing to wait for the next jolt of acrobatic excitement. To relieve the slight tedium of doing so, the viewer might welcome brief announcements about what was going to happen next and how long it would be before it happened, but there was precious little of that. Instead, the commentators said things that sounded knowledgeable while carefully skirting the risk of boring viewers with too much detail. I never did understand the reasoning behind the scoring or the multiplicity of competitions from four basic events (vault, balance beam, unequal bars, and floor). The commentators might have told me how many points Aly Raisman needed to win a medal, but they never explained a thing. Undermining one’s belief that the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sport, the commentators groused about the caprice of the judges, and complained whenever they “took too long” to produce a score. Mind you, I didn’t try very hard to understand what was going on (beyond the thrilling immediacy of the tumbling and so on), partly because I knew that I was an outsider, someone who didn’t follow gymnastics; it is important, in sports commentary, to reward the devotés by excluding the uncommitted. I also knew that I was watching a patchwork of videos stitched together by NBC for the entertainment of American audiences within the space of an hour or two. Making sense was not an objective. The only way to endure the production was to uncouple my mind and pretend that the commentators were sources of useful information.

Am I trying to say that my experience of the Olympic Games this week has reinforced my sense that the depraved standards of television production made Donald Trump the Republican candidate? You betcha. When uncoupling the mind becomes routine, a catastrophe like Trump is inevitable.


Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times was straightforward: the Republican establishment (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) continue to support Trump because he’ll lower taxes and make the rich richer. Set aside the unspectacular record that the Republic Party has racked up at actually realizing such fantasies. Assuming that Krugman is correct, the ability, if that’s what it is, of diehard Republicans to reduce all issues to their effect on taxes is simplistic beyond belief — and at the same time, a sad old story. At a revealing moment in Ocean’s 11, the “bad guy” is asked if he would give up his lady love if it would get him his money back, and he says, “Yes.” Money, money überall. You’d almost think you can eat it.

These Republicans live in a bubble, or at least expect that they’ll be able to move into one if need be. The movie for this vision is Elysium. The 0.1% have offshored themselves to a glistening space station, the ultimate in gated communities. The very air they breathe is better! They share nothing with the groundlings. They extract value from the earth, and then they take it away, so that it doesn’t provide the earthbound with so much as the passive benefit of a lofty building’s exterior. There is nothing new about this dream; you can see it at work in the Quest del Saint Graal (c 1210), depicting a world from which the common people and their stink have been erased. Or, later on: everybody knew that the French government was bankrupt in the late 1780s, but few of the untaxed noblemen who “worried” about this crisis seemed to think that fiscal problems would undermine their way of life and separate many of them from their heads. Elysium‘s paradise, by the way, doesn’t last, either.

Fossil tells me that the phalanx of Republicans with whom he works every day are virtuosos at seeing awful truths as “out of proportion.” This is how they handled Trump’s winks to the “Second Amendment People.” They shrugged off the obscenity as a misunderstanding. Or they appeared to do so. I suspect that it must be exhausting for a smart person (as all of Fossil’s Wall Street colleagues by definition are) to defend stupid propositions — exhausting enough to make a smart person stupid. I suppose we must be grateful. Imagine the horrors that Republicans might concoct were they capable of taking the long view.

I take that back: Republics have taken the long view, on at least one issue. They have always understood that populists and progressives and other Democratic types who want to feel good about their society tend not to understand the role played law courts in making a good society possible, and for the past fifty or sixty years they have waged a tireless campaign to fill state and federal benches with pro-business judges who are reliably anti-anyone else. These judges are not necessarily social conservatives, but their focus, as Paul Krugman’s column might lead you to expect, is to keep money in the right pockets.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (I)

1, 2, 4, and 5 August

Monday 1st

For years, I have not read White Noise. It has been an ongoing thing, of which I was always aware: “I have not read White Noise.” I missed it when it came out — I was on a different wavelength in 1984. But I was sufficiently tuned in to hear the big noise that it made, and, eventually, I bought a copy of the original hardback, complete with dust jacket, at the Strand, for $2.95. But I did not read it. “Don DeLillo” sounded too much like a sports writer. Later, I would read Underworld, but I would hate it. Such bloat! And of course it did start out at a baseball game. But it taught me that White Noise must have been very good indeed, to create the kind of reputation that would mislead a writer into thinking that he could do anything. I gave my copy of Underworld away.

I was wondering if I’d given away White Noise as well when I found it on last week’s visit to the storage unit. (I’ve packed fourteen boxes of books to give away, and have an appointment with someone to come pick them up and haul them to Housing Works next week.) Yesterday, I sat down with it, and wound up reading almost all of it; I read the last forty-odd pages this morning. I was expecting a more difficult read. It might have been a difficult read thirty years ago, I suppose. Now it was easy. It was like a well-planned ride at an intellectual amusement park. It was also, obviously, the template for a wide range of novels, ranging from the work of Tom Perrotta to that of David Foster Wallace. Its structure seemed to have been the model for And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s first, and I think best, novel. Its relish for the absurdity of American life brought George Saunders so much to mind that, in one or two sleepy moments, I thought that White Noise was his. I was left wishing that I had read White Noise a long time ago, because then I should have been able to assay the frequent references to it. It has come to be regarded as a book that every literate American ought to read. A nasty little corner of me hoped to find out that this status was not deserved, that White Noise was a meretricious entertainment. But it is no such thing. It is a good book, and whether or not it is a great book, it has had an undeniably great impact.

The novel’s setting, in a fictional town overwatched by a small but eminent college (College-on-the-Hill), turns out to be a weird stroke of genius — weird because it’s not easy to say when the stroke actually struck. Now, in any case, it is impossible not to see Don DeLillo taking the place of his narrator, Jack Gladney, with a dozen or more future novelists sitting on the lawn surrounding a very famous creative writing program — somewhere in Iowa, maybe, or in upstate New York — while he instructs them, not how to run a Hitler Studies department, but how to open a novel with the delightfully shocking surprise of something like a Hitler Studies department. I can hear him noting that this arresting invention need not become a distraction in the foreground. “Hitler Studies” is a joke, and it knows its place. (Hitler qua joke — who’d ‘a’ thunk it?) I envision the future novelists taking furiously comprehensive notes. I can even smell the grass stains.

It was fun to read a cutting-edge critique of the usual suspects that nevertheless lacked the Internet. Typing out “Internet,” just now, I shuddered to think that it sounds like a word that DeLillo might have made up for White Noise; it has become a retrospective target of his satire. The novel’s ridicule of supermarket tabloids does a very good job of standing in for the nonsense of today. Jeanne Dixon — that’s who she was. I was trying to remember her name last night, chatting with Kathleen. Do you remember how the year always began — or maybe it always ended — with a list of Jeanne Dixon’s predictions? DeLillo rolls out a bundle of parodies; I love the one about Elvis because it describes Graceland as “his musical mansion.” But gold has to go to this one:

UFOs will raise the lost city of Atlantis from its watery grave in the Caribbean by telekinetic means and the help of powerful cables with properties not known in earthlike materials. The result will be a ‘city of peace’ where money and passports are totally unknown. (145)

Do tabloids still publish predictions? Where have all the psychics gone? Were they, too, victims of the Internet’s creative destruction? Atlantis has sunk beneath the horizon of the culture’s imagination. But the magnitude and worthlessness of random crap have not diminished. We have replaced glimpses of the future with the glare of present reality.

Nevertheless, if White Noise provides the template, it does not contain the contents. The novelists of the future, having become the novelists of now, have had to mine that from other sources. What distinguishes George Saunders, you might think, is his soaring imagination, which effortlessly surpasses DeLillo’s; but it is really his aching humanity that sets him apart. In Saunders, you laugh at the language, never at the characters: his characters are no joke. And when I think of a novel written in a very different tradition, to wit by Penelope Lively, White Noise hardens somewhat into an extremely elegant toy. Almost everything in it can be understood and criticized by Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s brilliant fourteen year-old son. (Just what kind of a joke was Hitler Studies?) Did part of DeLillo suspect that Heinrich would grow up, shed his callow rigor, and grow a heart?


Tuesday 2nd

In Sunday’s Times, N Gregory Mankiw published an “Upshot” entry about “trade skeptics.” Trade skeptics are voters who disagree with economists about globalization, free trade, job offshoring, and so forth. Economists like Mankiw want to know why. Mankiw cites a couple of recent studies, conducted by political scientists, not economists, linking trade skepticism to xenophobia and to lack of education — the usual suspects. These studies apparently rule out joblessness, or loss of jobs to globalizing trends, as factors leading to trade skepticism — according to Mankiw. I find it hard to believe that he is right.

I am in no position to run studies of my own, but then I’m pretty skeptical about studies, and polls, too. I believe that they are hopelessly tendentious, designed, whether consciously or not, to prove a point, not to discover one. I believe that they are skewed by their participants. And, in this case, I am haunted by the echoes of George Saunders’s recent New Yorker piece about Donald Trump’s supporters. Saunders reports a lot of conversations with ordinary people. (Disclosure: I chatted with Saunders once at a book signing. I trust him.) Many of these people offered an anecdote about a friend or a neighbor who had been laid off. Then, too, I’m haunted by what I’ve read about plant closings. The Philips plant in Sparta, Tennessee. The Carrier plant in Indianapolis. The plants in Warren, Ohio, that George Packer writes about in The Unwinding. A quick Google search turns up plenty of job-loss-related trade skepticism.

I suspect that the political scientists find no correlation between trade skepticism and job loss due to globalization because of disciplinary preconceptions. The political scientists query voters on political views. Knowing someone who has been laid off is not a political view. Nationalism is; isolationism is; even racism is. But worries about job security do not register as a political factor. They might well be excluded in advance, simply by the design of the study.

But even if the studies are nonsense, Mankiw is a serious economist, an adviser to President George W Bush and a professor at Harvard. His opinions appear regularly, and I imagine that he wields considerable influence in Republican circles. What this Sunday’s upshot piece says — and it actually does say it — is that, with the expansion of higher education, fewer voters will be trade skeptics. Trade skepticism may be a political problem now, but it will go away when more people go to college.

Is that because college-educated people think clearly enough to agree with economists on the benefits of free trade, or is it because, until recently, college-educated people have been far less vulnerable to job loss attributable to free trade?

I am not opposed to free trade on principle. I’m opposed to the mainstream view of free trade because it nurtures unrealistic expectations of education — both higher education and re-education or re-training. First, we have probably reached the point at which those who are capable of pursuing a college education are doing so. Second, there is little evidence that re-training workers leads to a restoration of their status quo ante. They may get jobs, but the jobs are unlikely to be as good (in any sense) as the ones that were lost. Advocates of free trade never proceed beyond breezy statements of their nostrums. They never point to studies showing that displaced workers have fully recovered. They don’t seem to regard as the sense of job security as a factor.

Gregory Mankiw’s opinion is that uneducated voters are bigoted — and bigotry, as we all know, is a kind of stupidity. If the United States withdraws from the globalist carnival, it will be down to stupid, uneducated Americans. End of discussion.

I hope that more educated people will disagree. I hope that more educated people will become “studies skeptics.” Most of all, I hope that educated people will learn to treat those who aren’t as human beings like themselves.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday night, we went to a Mostly Mozart concert at Geffen Hall. On the program were Haydn’s 59th Symphony, Fire, which I didn’t know, and two works by Mozart, the 25th Piano Concerto and the 40th symphony. Thierry Fischer, conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, stood in for the ailing Andrés Orozco-Estrada. I’m not familiar with Mr Orozco-Estrada, whose somewhat hoopla’d début this was to be, so I was free to take what Mr Fischer had to offer without the burden of comparisons. In the event, I’m not sure that comparisons would have occurred to me. Fischer had an entirely new approach to everything. Even the unknown-to-me Haydn sounded unusual. Just now, I found a recording in my library, led by Trevor Pinnock, and it sounds exactly like what I’d have expected, and nothing at all like what I heard on Tuesday.

First, Fischer displayed a penchant for sforzando piano, a trick of following a suddenly emphasized sound by an equally sudden withdrawal. In practice, this worked to prevent the suggestion of shrillness that can accompany Mozart’s dramatic outbursts, replacing mere agitation with polished insistence. Second, Fischer was willing to alter tempos for expressive purposes. This is a commonplace for the big Romantic orchestral works, and its application to something as early as the Fire Symphony (1768) might be regarded as anachronistic — but perhaps not, given that this symphony is one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang experiments. Ten or fifteen seconds into the first movement, the texture of the music undergoes a bizarre change, passing from a clackety, almost late-Baroque tonic simplicity to a mysteriously chromatic iridescence. In a blink, the orchestra appeared to be playing a different piece of music. This was very startling, and almost irritating, the first time, but as the gesture was repeated its experimental urgency seemed better-controlled — by Haydn, I mean, as well as by the musicians. It’s a shock that you’re supposed to get used to — and Haydn’s symphonies are full of such. There’s another shock, in the slow movement of the Fire I think it was, when the languid strings are interrupted by a bizarre blast from one of the horns. That didn’t make sense, but I’m not sure that it was a mistake.

The third characteristic of the evening’s performance was a plush lambency, a melting clarity, that muted all abruptness. This must have at least in part owed to the orchestra’s skill as an ensemble, but Fischer depended on it. The two Mozart works, which are of course enormously familiar, sounded altogether new and different, the Symphony especially. “Melting clarity” sounds like a muddle, I know, but what I mean is a way of going from here to there that is at the same time both perfectly lucid and perfectly suave. And I suppose that what I’m trying to get at by “plush lambency” is the physical, organic nature of the sound. Nothing could have been less mechanical, or less “precise.” Fischer’s final trick was a knack for distant thunder. I heard it all evening, but I can’t explain it. It was as though Fischer had exported all the excitement to an offstage band. Some may prefer the violence of a storm overhead to the menace of distant thunder, but, at least outside the opera house, I do not.

The pianist, Martin Helmchen, suited Mr Fischer’s style down to the ground. A delicate presence at the piano, he was almost a dandy of exquisite nonchalance. I have found that it is very difficult for pianists to put their personal stamp on Mozart’s late concertos. Today’s piano did not exist when Mozart was writing. In particular, Mozart’s pianos lacked the burly lower registers that Beethoven would be the first to enjoy. It’s for this reason, I think, that the concertos are always a little more interesting when recorded. Mozart’s brilliant runs, moreover, are so demanding that merely to get through them coherently is an achievement. In the end, pianists are either headlong or elegant. I am mad about the exuberance of Daniel Barenboim’s recordings of the concertos, but I can delight in elegance when it shows reserves of power. That’s what Mr Helmchen and Mr Fischer did on Tuesday. Helmchen also played a cadenza to the first movement that I’d like to hear again.

As to the G-Minor Symphony, I can say simply that the first three movements were so unlike anything that I had ever heard before that the finale was almost boring in its regularity. From the beginning, the blend of strings and winds was amazing (a word that you’re not supposed to use when writing about this sort of thing). The strings produced a warm and enveloping sound that provided a luxurious mounting for the colorful gems spun by the clarinets, the bassoons, the flute, the horns, and, more quietly, the oboes. Tempos were brisk, which allowed Fischer to make a statement just by leading the trio of the minuet at a slower pace. (I had never noticed that Mozart keeps the clarinets out of the trio. It took the sight of the two musicians rather ostentatiously cleaning their instruments, finishing just in time, to bring home the point.) Altogether the magnificence of the performance was enhanced, rather than the reverse, by the rigor with which Fischer took all the repeats.

Through all of this, there was the performance of the man sitting in front of me.

Later, recovering from her nightmare, Kathleen said that the familiarity of the music helped get her through the fear that we were about to be blown to kingdom come by a terrorist bomb. This was no idle dread. The man sitting in front of me was an odd bird to see at a Mostly Mozart concert. Somewhat ferret-faced, with thinning but almost lacquered waves of fine black hair running back from his temples and a goatee of stubble, he was a medium-sized man of very firm build. Fifty at least, he might have been an exceptional athlete of some kind. He might have been a coach, too, but his manner made this seem unlikely. He could not sit still. For some reason, Kathleen noticed this more than I did. He swept sweat from his brow, his arms were alway in motion, and if he wasn’t peering up at the balconies, as if to make contact with an accomplice, he was peering restlessly into his large red Century 21 shopping bag. What I noticed was his attire. He wore dark crocs, black pants, and, most dissonantly, a black V-necked T shirt that had reinforced seams at the shoulder. It’s the sort of shirt that is usually sleeveless. This one, thank heavens, wasn’t. But although the items of clothes might seem similar, the man sitting in front of me could not have been less like the sloppy, gangly kid in a white T, jeans, and trainers who sat not far away. The man in front of me carried himself, agitation notwithstanding, as if he were wearing a suit — suitable attire. He was unaware that he wasn’t.

When I returned from having slipped away at the interval, I found Kathleen on her feet, which was odd, since she is usually placidly reading or just staring into space. The man was not there, but his bag was, and it was scaring Kathleen to death. What to do? We mentioned our concern to three ladies who were chatting in the row behind us; they looked nervous for a moment before relapsing into their conversation. I, too, should have regarded the bag with very mild concern had I been alone. But Kathleen was channeling Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. I knew that, if we said something to one of the ushers, we might risk bringing the concert to a premature end, and perhaps creating a dangerous furore. And although I was quite aware that the bag owner’s entire demeanor bordered on the inappropriate, I remembered that we were, after all, in New York City. Nevertheless, I had caught Kathleen’s discomfort, and could hardly bear standing near the bag. My compromise was to lead Kathleen to the rear of the auditorium. “But now no one’s watching our bags,” Kathleen complained. I pointed out that we could keep an eye on them from where we stood. When the man returned, we followed him down to the aisle back to our seats.

Later, I told Kathleen that she ought to have asked to leave the concert then and there. I’d have missed a great and very interesting performance, but then I shouldn’t have known it. And it was only music, only a symphony that I’ve heard possibly too many times. She did ask to leave the moment it was over. I hate walking out on ovations, but I didn’t think twice, given Kathleen’s wretchedness. As we scooted across the lobby, Kathleen said that she was glad after all that we hadn’t “done anything” (complained to the management); I said that the man clearly didn’t belong at the concert. At that very moment, the man who clearly didn’t belong at the concert walked right past me, reaching the escalator first. It would have been nicer not to know that he was standing ten steps behind us than to see that he was ten steps ahead. On the way out, he paused unaccountably at a turn in the traffic, and we very nearly did the same. Then he headed out into the night. It was we who struck out the different course, crossing the plaza to the State Theatre side, from which we stepped down to the crosswalk at 63rd Street. At our post-concert dinner at PJ Clarke’s, Kathleen had two glasses of Cabernet.

Really, what do you do in this day and age? It’s difficult to describe the situation, because everything depends on one’s own physical response to another person’s physical presence. Kathleen is a good judge of people, and she has spent more of her life in New York than I have. But her experience has been battered by the phenomenon of support for Donald Trump. It is inexplicable to her. I try to explain it — it is anything but inexplicable to me — but my explanations don’t take root; she always reverts to an understanding of the world in which people who say the things that Trump says in public are shunned. That Trump is saying these things not only in public but as a candidate for the presidency is simply intolerable. Then there is the understandable worry that what has happened in Paris and Brussels and elsewhere is going to happen here.

When I came into Geffen Hall, someone poked a flashlight into my tote bag but didn’t dig into it. Someone else ran a wand up and down with an apologetic air. These interferences inspire no confidence whatever. I do not believe that the civil state and the security state can co-exist, which is why I believe that dangerous materials ought to be, as they used to be, far more difficult to acquire. Opposition to gun-control is framed as the right to bear arms, but of course it is fueled by the desire to sell arms. As for bombs, I often wonder if the “household materials” that are said to be all that one needs to wreak mayhem might be adulterated in some way so as to make combustion impossible. Behind all of this is the far more important task of recognizing troubled minds before they sink into criminality. This is a social concern, a local matter, the requires closer connections among neighbors. To some extent, every town has to be a small one. The decision to intervene in a stranger’s life ought to be a civil, social one, not the response of security professionals. Let them deal with the guns and the bombs. The shooters themselves are out problem. We must learn to accept that.

I said to Kathleen that if she had really known the music, she would have been furious with Thierry Fischer for taking all those repeats.


Friday 5th

Bear in mind that Tuesday evening’s bomb scare found me more susceptible than usual because I had just seen, and then read, My House in Umbria. The novella is by William Trevor; I had not read it before. The film, directed by Richard Loncraine (for HBO), is an old favorite. Maggie Smith plays a woman with a past, now going under the name of Emily Delahunty. The film promises to be a breezy light comedy on the order of Under the Tuscan Sun, but within five minutes its subject becomes survivorship. Mrs Delahunty (never married) is one of four survivors of a terrorist blast on a train. She and the three others retire to her ample farmhouse in the country, not far from Siena. How she came to acquire this villa and what she does with it make one strand of the story; the other concerns the uncle of the little girl whose brother and parents perished in the explosion. He is played by Chris Cooper, an actor who consistently holds my attention even though I find him almost painful to look at.

The film has a happy ending that I knew better that to expect in the novella. Otherwise, the two are very close, with great swathes of dialogue lifted verbatim from one to the other. The screenwriters tweaked a few details, but by and large the movie is one of the more faithful adaptations — but for the ending, of course, which only the conning magic of cinema could make convincing. The book, however, is richer, as books usually are. Much richer, given the author. Mrs Delahunty is an unreliable narrator, of course. She is also the author of romance fictions. And she has prophetic dreams — doesn’t she? In the book, the subject of a paragraph can shift from one of these things to another without any notice, and the result, given a soft and light texture, is the portrait of a life all of a piece. Of a life that was all of a piece, before the event. Or, rather, before the aftermath of the event, the four survivors gathered in the house, almost a family, the closest that Mrs Delahunty has ever come to belonging to one, dissipates.

The movie has a feel-good air that, until the most recent viewing, muffled the focus a little bit and made it hard to see — made me want not to see — just how drunk Mrs Delahunty often is. Maggie Smith is ruthless about this; when I finally saw it, I wanted to look away. Mrs Delahunty believes that if she can find the right pitch, she will capture the uncle’s attention; she seems incapable of recognizing that he views her with a distaste that turns into disgust the harder she tries. It is embarrassing. On a sort of meta level, the uncle, Thomas Riversmith, is the kind of man who doesn’t want to watch this kind of movie. He doesn’t like soppy stories about survivors that involve dreams and astrology, and he couldn’t care less about sunny Italy. He wants to watch something else, anything else. When you see My House in Umbria through his eyes — through Riversmith’s piercing but hollow eyes — it becomes a much darker affair.

Why buy one Trevor when you can buy two? I ordered Fools of Fortune along with My House in Umbria. It is a novel about the Troubles in which the Republic of Ireland was born, and about an expulsion from paradise. As such things go, it is beautifully understated. Two young cousins fall in love but cannot say so; they don’t really wake up to the fact until they have been parted. When they are brought together later for a funeral, the boy is almost deranged with shame and grief, so, again, there is not opportunity for more than a blind leap. The novel is presented in the form of the letters that the lovers cannot write. I don’t feel sure about why, but it seems as though they can’t settle for writing; they simply want to be together. And so they don’t write the letters that they promise themselves to write. With almost tragic grandeur, they decline to “stay in touch.” On the surface, there’s a good deal of fuss about how awkward situations could have been avoided if they had only stooped to making plans for the future, but as the fuss subsides it appears that plans were indeed made, if not jointly. Then the novel drifts off into uncertainty; what we’re told may be the ravings of the lovers’ deranged daughter.

A great deal of the middle pages of Fools of Fortune follows some boarding-school high jinks that might have made for one of Trevor’s lapidary stories. I don’t know how much its detachment from the novel would take away, besides mere length.


The writing project that I announced two weeks ago has been coming along more quickly than I anticipated. At the risk of seeming gross, I can say that I’ve piled up nearly 25,000 words, with the first drafts of two sections complete. Plans for four or five more sections, as well as the expectation that there will be no more than that, have taken shape.

It has been more than twenty years since my last attempts to write something with an end as well as a beginning. Three plays were completed; a strange novel with supernatural inclinations that I could never gratify was not. In one theatre producer’s opinion, the plays were saddled with bloated expositions; I took too long introducing characters and situations. It was mortifying to hear this, of course, but I saw that the producer was right. The light, however, had gone out, and I never undertook repairs. I meant to, but the Internet came along, and everything changed.

So I am shy about trying again. My project is neither a play nor a novel — I can say that much. Regular readers of this site would find much of what I’ve been writing familiar. Much of the joy of writing it has so far come from not worrying about repeating myself, because it doesn’t matter if I’ve already said something somewhere else (that would be here). Now, everything that I say has its place in a much larger context, a much longer piece of writing. When I first planned this project, several years ago, and even had a go at writing bits of it, the going was very hard, and I was not optimistic. I knew that I must try, but it was hard to muster enthusiasm. I did not wait for enthusiasm; I took to writing longer entries here. That required a lot of thinking, and sometime near the beginning of this calendar year, the thinking and the writing began to chug along in synchronization. Knowing what you think is also knowing how you want to say it — that’s how you know.

I follow advice that I remember reading in Jane Smiley’s book about novels. Every day, you pick up where you left off, and write your daily allotment of words or pages. It is important to settle on an allotment. I used to fear that I might just write to fill pages, stuff that would have to be cut out later. With experience, however — and this is where the past year’s blog entries have been so helpful — you begin each day with a lively awareness of how far you are going to go. You might not know how much ground you’re going to cover, but that’s something different. You may have to go back and fill in. But — and this is the second prong of the advice — you don’t go back. You may re-read a little, to check something out, but you do not try to re-write anything. If you notice, as I did yesterday, a point that ought to be opened up and filled in with material that you overlooked in the moment of writing, you make a note of it, but you carry on. It’s likely that the material that needs to be inserted didn’t flow because you need to think about it some more. Meanwhile, it’s important to proceed, to build the edifice of a complete first draft.

Sometimes I think that all of this is easier than it might be because I’m so old, because I’ve read so much and, here, written so much. Sometimes I worry that I’m in for a dreadful reckoning, for the discovery that I’m no more skilled at this than an undergraduate with literary aspirations. But I can say that I am almost perfectly untroubled by one worrying botheration: it never occurs to me to wonder if anybody would be interested in what I have to say. I’m interested.

When the first draft is complete, but not until then, I’ll start looking for readers. Now you know as much as I do.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Three Laws
July 2016 (IV)

25, 26, 28, 29 July

Monday 25th

Was ever the Times so depressing to read? I say this at least once a week, as the feeling of being closed in and doomed intensifies. Whether the Russian hackers were out to help Trump or Sanders (I suspect it was the former), they did what they could to push the United States a little closer to chaos. Photographs of Bernie protestors in Philadelphia made me swelter with rage at the left, that race of unherdable cats (and just about as mindful of the general good). In her generously cut green suit, Hillary Clinton looked like a severely grass-stained Pierrot, just come in from a night of sleeping rough in the rain.

In  contrast to this confetti of sad banalities, the LRB has published a grave lament by John Lanchester on the folly of Brexit. The piece takes such a long view of things that it describes the American situation almost as well. Lanchester hammers a bit on the problem of élite inattentiveness; unfortunately, it’s problem that we’ve all awakened to too late, Lanchester as well. Although our top writer about economic malaise today, Lanchester came late to the party, via notes for a novel that he was going to write about the City after the Crash of 2008. The notes were so intriguing that he switched to non-fiction, and he hasn’t looked back; his last piece for the LRB was a brilliant assay of Bitcoin.

It may be abominably conceited of me, but I want to point out the one insight in Lanchester’s essay that had never remotedly occurred to me.

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing?

The answer to this conundrum is something that I’ve read in the background of several recent discussions of the state of our political economy. We have been putting too much emphasis on the economy, and overlooking whenever possible the political. I speak of the liberal democratic governments that have prevailed in the West since World War II. This emphasis made a lot of sense round about the time I was born in 1948. Ideology was seen to be counterproductive when it was not simply poisonous. The unstable governments of the Fourth Republic in France made party squabbles look pointless and noxious. Meanwhile, improving everybody’s standard of living seemed to lower the vehemence of election issues. The complacency of affluence conduced to a bi-partisan élite that sent its barely-distinguishable two parties through the revolving doors of administration. So the sun shone on Les Trente glorieuses, the thirty postwar years of economic boom.

But the affluence was transitory, and it was never universal. This ought to have signaled a revival of interest in political solutions, but the only true politicians standing were cranks, extremists of right and left like Jean-Marie le Pen and Ralph Nader. Mainstream officials were economists down to the ground, whether they understood the subject or not. And yet economists had no way of solving the growing problem of superfluous people, workers no longer needed by the “healthy economy.” The economy was healthy only if the root significance of “economy” — household — were ignored. From a traditional point of view, “global economy” must be an oxymoron. One global economy; hundreds of nations. In the more prosperous nations, there came to be more and more people for whom making a living became deadening or impossible.

Immigrants, considered strictly as workers from elsewhere, and not necessarily as strange-looking outsiders, embody the dislocation between economics and politics today. They embody economic reality. Unfortunately, the global economy is wholly undemocratic. Nobody votes for its leaders, who would of course be the first to deny that they lead anything — I see now, quite clearly for the first time, that this denial of belonging to the élite that I regard as the élite’s identifying feature, represents the eclipse of politics in today’s liberal democracies. It makes sense, because the élites are participating in and reaping the rewards of the global economy; national politics are nothing more than an annoyance. But they are the only means for the un- and underemployed to express their wretchedness. It was foolish of the élites to leave all that liberal-democratic machinery in place. An essentially organic machinery, it has degraded not like a metal turbine but like a body politic: it has developed a tumor, tumors everywhere. What else can become of millions of superfluous people?

I see now that the puzzle that is Hillary Clinton can be solved quite neatly by the new dichotomy inherent in “political economy.” She is an assiduous economist. There is no trade problem on any scale that she cannot master. But she is careless about politics. Like a good economist, she wants results, and she often gets them, too. Like an economist, she does not particularly care what her sausage factory looks like, because everybody knows it’s a sausage factory, so please! But only the people who can afford to eat sausages are willing to accept her nonchalance. The excluded keep virtual kosher: sausage is unholy.

Last night, I found myself looking for a novel to read. Glancing at the fiction case, I perched on Ian McEwan’s novels. I haven’t read one in a while, and I haven’t re-read anything except The Innocent. It was after I first read The Innocent that I started buying new titles as they appeared. The very next one was Black Dogs. I didn’t know that “black dogs” was Churchill’s term for the depression that he suffered, and I’m not sure that McEwan’s dogs are quite the same. For I came away from Black Dogs somewhat uncomprehending. I wasn’t sure that I got it. This sense of failure would not trouble me again until Solar, but then the failure was McEwan’s, I thought, not mine. So it made sense to give Black Dogs another try.

I didn’t get very far last night, partly because I didn’t start until late, but mostly because I was almost immediately blindsided by a wallop of remorse. In one sentence, McEwan told me — had I but listened; had he — what we were doing wrong in 1992, we readers of good novels. We were worrying about ourselves. And we identified ourselves by what we were not. In this sentence, the narrator is musing on an ailing but glamorous woman who left her beautiful home in France for a nursing home in Wiltshire.

I did not know how she could bear it, giving up so much, settling for the dullness here: the ruthlessly boiled vegetables, the fussy, clucking old folk, the dazed gluttony of their TV watching. (12)

If, perchance, you grew up surrounded by boiled vegetables and gluttonous television, you crammed for your A-levels and left that world behind you forever. Your past became a graveyard, populated by inert family members who must be periodically propitiated but otherwise not thought of.

I see this all the more clearly now for the time that I’ve been spending with Alan Bennett’s BBC films. I’ve had a boxed set for years: I bought it for A Question of Attribution, but I never watched anything else until this weekend. (What treasures!) One of the films is a documentary, Dinner at Noon, in which Bennett visits a hotel in Harrogate and revisits his shopkeeping parents’ self-abasing attitudes toward outposts of posh. Suave on the outside, Bennett has nevertheless inherited their misgivings about fitting in. He, too, got out of their world. But he woke up sooner than anyone else, I think, to the danger of allowing the longings of those whom you have left behind fester. And if part of him never accepted that his position in the world of the great and good was secure, he was realistic enough to understand that it was secure enough. So he stopped running away from Leeds, and became instead its ruefully smiling informal historian. And he knows, I’m sure, that the TV watching is a political, and not an economic, problem.


Tuesday 26th

“We don’t own it, do we?” This is what Kathleen when I told her that the DVD of Lily in Love did not cost very much. We had just watched it, or, rather, I had; as I expected, it put Kathleen to sleep. But it was a protest sleep: she couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer. She couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer playing a ham — two hams — given that he himself is already a ham. The film is a very light comedy, with few big laughs, so it’s not surprising that the biggest laugh of all comes at the very end, just before the credits roll. There are photographs of the leading actors, with their names in larger type over their characters’ names. Even Playbills aren’t quite so theatrical. Plummer is featured twice, once for playing Fitzroy Wynn, a Broadway star, and once for playing Roberto Terranova, an Italian actor whom Wynn concocts, with prosthetic aid, in order to get the lead in a new movie for which his wife, Lily, has written the screenplay. Maggie Smith gets third billing, for playing Lily. Elke Sommer, also in the picture, can’t have been happy about having her name obliterate her mouth.

Lily in Love was made in 1984, although it has a distinct Seventies air, even before the location moves to Budapest. I think that Maggie Smith’s performance makes the film seem older, too, because she seems so young. She turned fifty that year, and yet most of her movies were still to come. She had made The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Travels With My Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978), and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and a number of other pictures, but she had never really been an ingénue. In the very next year after Lily, she would play Charlotte Bartlett, the preposterous maiden aunt in A Room With a View, thus inaugurating (if Travels hadn’t already done so) her career as an eccentric old lady.

Lily in Love stands out in Maggie Smith’s oeuvre as a film altogether without eccentric old ladies. Maggie Smith plays a normal, attractive woman — if a playwright living in a Brooklyn Heights mansion with her ultra self-absorbed leading-man husband can be said to have access to normality. She doesn’t look young, exactly, and the role of an established professional doesn’t call for her to be girlish, but she doesn’t look fifty, either. There’s an amusing scene in which, popping her eyes while sighing romantically, she reminded me of the grossly underrated Glenne Headley, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She wears her coppery hair in the bob that Anna Wintour has never given up. She wears blue jeans.

Whether or not Frank Cucci’s screenplay had Norman Krasna’s My Geisha (1962) in mind, it attempts a retread. In the earlier film, directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Yves Montand and Shirley MacLaine in one of her most engaging roles, a Hollywood comédienne is passed over by her film-director husband (Montand) for a screen adaptation of Madame Butterfly. The husband flies off to Tokyo to audition unspoiled talent — and so does his wife, with an assist by their agent (Edward G Robinson). In no time at all, Lucy has put herself through geisha school, making My Geisha one of the classics of the genre that I call “Hollywood Loves a Makeover.” The director snaps her up and falls in love with her — an infidelity that Lucy and the filmmakers grapple with tenderly. Of course you know how it comes out.

The agent in Lily in Love is played by Adolph Green, and, this time, he has to help the husband to deceive the wife. When I saw Lily in Love the first time (it had just come out), I was amazed at the metamorphosis of Fitzroy Wynn, a trouper marinated in middle age, into sleek Roberto Terranova, but the second time, all I saw was “work,” and I cringed lest Lily actually touch his face and cause it to peel off. How long does it take Lily to recognize her husband? The movie is unclear about this, because, title notwithstanding, it is not about her. It’s about her husband, and Lily’s being in love (or not) is not a matter of great importance. I ought to say that the script, the lines that Maggie Smith is called upon to deliver, express an ambiguity. Smith’s face itself does not. It pops with ironic deadpan, arched eyebrows, and a mouth that is dying to giggle.

That’s why I’m not sorry to have an otherwise bad, and, what’s worse, dreary, movie in my library. As a public service, somebody ought to make Lily in Love freely available for streaming, so that everybody who’s beguiled by Downton Abbey, The Lady in the Van, or either of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotels can see what kind of career Maggie Smith might have had if Hollywood went in for attractive, intelligent women.


A word about Ruth, a novel that Elizabeth (Mrs) Gaskell published in 1853, the same year as her much better-known Cranford. Ruth is a social novel that was clearly intended to alter public opinion about one of England’s truly ironclad conventions. Unmarried women who gave birth to children were cast out of polite society, and their children were branded as bastards. It did not matter how young, inexperienced, poor or dependent the woman was — she was out. Respectable women and their families (their husbands excepted) could not meet her, in public or at home. No plague victim was ever so absolutely shunned.

Gaskell invokes plague itself to redeem her heroine. Having been discovered as a fallen woman in Book III (as triple-deckers go, Ruth is not so very long), the saintly Ruth takes up work as a nurse, and when typhus hits the town, she takes charge of the fever hospital and saves many lives. The town fathers fall over themselves in acclamation and gratitude. Of course, Ruth has to die anyway — there are limits — and Gaskell kills her off with a shamelessly melodramatic plot device that works like a charm. Tears will be shed! Everything is tied up in a most satisfactory parcel: Ruth was too good for this gross sublunary sphere anyway. Her little boy will be apprenticed to the town’s leading surgeon (himself a bastard!), and patriarchal Mr Bradshaw will pay for her tombstone.

Ruth shows just how good a writer Gaskell was, because as a piece of work it is simply ramshackle. You wonder how much Gaskell knew before she began writing it. I have never read an agreeable novel so devoid of foreshadowing. We’re all taught that foreshadowing is a good and clever thing that novelists do, but Ruth shows us why. The introduction of a good many of the characters has the same effect as bumping into someone in a dark corridor. A functionally significant minor character, Richard Bradshaw, passes almost inconsiderately from being a faceless child to being not quite the virtuous young man that his father thinks he is to being a loose-living young man to being a forger. What could be more villainous than forgery? Trollope would have crucified the fellow, but Gaskell dispatches him to Glasgow and a second chance. On another front, the political bribes that are spent in order to assure the election of Mr Bradshaw’s candidate for Parliament, are never brought home to roost on that high-minded dissenter. The parcel, as I say, is satisfactorily tied up, but it could have been bigger, more comprehensive.

Ruth herself was hard for me to take. She is said to be ravishingly beautiful and very sweet, also pious. Something must have happened to me when I was growing up that made it impossible for me to regard pious, sweet women as beautiful, or at any rate as attractive. I didn’t quite dislike Ruth, but it was close. I read the book dutifully — Kathleen had liked it — until Mr Bradshaw’s daughter, Jemima, emerged as a figure of interest, and, shortly after, her intended husband, Mr Farquhar. Jemima’s fits of impassioned jealousy, which do not make her unsympathetic, were far more frank than I expected them to be, and even when he was ranting about righteousness Jemima’s father never spoke in formulas. The scene in which he denounces Ruth and everyone complicit in her deception is very, very good.

In my reading pile is Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. I have never read any Scott and I don’t expect to care for it. I’m hoping that Ruth will have loosened me up a bit. I shouldn’t want to be like unforgiving Mr Bradshaw!


Thursday 28th

These are days of fear and trembling: I am old enough to be shocked, still, by the suggestion of a political bond (no matter how opportunistic) between the leaders of the United States and Russia. So it is not surprising that Pankaj Mishra’s piece about Rousseau, in this week’s New Yorker, threw my bowels into an uproar. The last mists of confusion about Rousseau were dispelled. I had always wondered how the Age of Enlightenment produced him, but now I see: he was the movement’s Wicked Fairy. He was the outsider who fastened on its weaknesses. He understood that it was more interested in the liberty of ideas than in the liberty of men, and he detected a certain hypocrisy in its disdain for the uneducated. The philosophes claimed to promote the Rights of Man, but Rousseau grasped that their conception of “Man” was limited pretty much to the sons of affluent businessmen such as themselves. This went double or triple for Voltaire.

Instead of recognizing the prophetic (Wicked Fairy) aspect of Rousseau’s work, I fastened on the defects of his person, which were many. He made virtual orphans of all five of his children. He had few lasting friendships. He was a Victim. Oh, if only I’d paid more attention to the Victim business.

Yet, because Rousseau derived his ideas from intimate experiences of fear, confusion, loneliness and loss, he connected easily with people who felt excluded. Periwigged men in Paris salons, Tocqueville once lamented, were “almost totally removed from practical life” and worked “by the light of reason alone.” Rousseau, ont he other hand, found a responsive echo among people making the traumatic transition from traditional to modern society — from rural to urban life.

Let me come quickly to my point, which is that Enlightenment ideas are paying dearly, these days, for their exponents’ arrogance.

What was disdain in the early days became contempt in more recent times. When education was the preserve of the privileged and the wealthy, it was accepted that not everybody had the opportunity to improve himself by being a good student — few had it, in fact. After World War II, however, different measures in different countries — the GI Bill here — opened up higher education to academic merit, and while the privileged and the wealthy continued to have an edge in access to and benefit from university training, students who were the first members of their families to get beyond high school became not uncommon. It was perhaps inevitable that the success of these new arrivals would calcify the status of those who were not academically gifted. In fact, the condition of “not academically gifted” was all but denied. With effort, it was thought, anybody could get a degree, and then get the job that the degree was thought to lead to. People who didn’t go to college became shirkers. For twenty years now, pundits have been telling the unemployed and the laid off to go back to school to learn the new skills that we need today, and whatnot.

Thomas Friedman is an egregious offender against the dignity of ordinary people. No one is more blithe about the inevitability of a global economy. No one so good-hearted is more wrong-headed. His column yesterday carried an explicit banner at its head: “Web People vs Wall People.” There is nothing new or unfamiliar in the piece, and you may be forgiven for wondering why I call attention to it; I can only point to Mishra’s review of the latest book about Rousseau. With that in mind, the following snippet of Friedman seems worse than clueless.

Web People instinctively understand that Democrats and Republicans both built their platforms largely in response to the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal and the Cold War, but that today, a 21st-century party needs to build its platform in response to the accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet.

As such, the instinct of Web People is to embrace the change in the pace of change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. In particular, Web People understand that in times of rapid change, open systems are always more flexible, resilient and propulsive; they offer the chance to feel and respond first to change. So Web People favor more trade expansion, along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more managed immigration that attracts the most energetic and smartest minds, and more vehicles for lifelong learning.

As I wrote the other day, the immigrant embodies the global economy. He or she moves from this nation to that nation almost as if nations didn’t exist. Friedman tells us that this immigrant is likely to be more energetic and smarter than other people. He does not ask us to think about those other people, the ones who don’t migrate, because they have nothing to offer, or the ones who, in the immigrant’s new country, likewise lack the skills that would allow them to travel, whether abroad or around the corner, to a high-tech outfit, in search of a better life. What about these people? I call them the superfluous people because, to the extent that they do not or cannot avail themselves of effective job-training programs, they do not figure in the accounting of global economics. In the absence of global politics, the superfluous people have no representatives in the counsels of decision.

So is it any wonder that, despairing of the current dispensation, they turn to a demagogue who fires up their resentments? We can blame them for surrendering to the demagogue, and of course we can blame the demagogue, too — if we’re lucky, we can arrest him and contain him. But there is no getting around our fault. We who wish to continue running things as we have been running them refuse to take honest account of the superfluous people.

There are social ways of being superfluous, too, as Mishra points out. It hasn’t been helpful of our newly diverse, socially enfranchised progressives to mock and taunt the straight white males who don’t belong to the élite. (The ones who do can fight back.) What President Obama said about clinging to guns or religion was unbelievably regrettable, even if it was appropriately framed by clauses of sympathy. I might have done as badly myself. How many times have I railed against the apparent “right” to be stupid?

In the course of writing this Web log, I have discovered three laws. First, there will always be an élite, no matter what, and no matter how composed. Second, the quality of an élite depends not on its makeup but on its commitment to the happiness and prosperity of all the people in its charge. Third, a decadent élite eventually provokes chaos. I think that everybody already knows this, but this is hard to square with everyone’s refusal to admit belonging to the élite. Hence: a fourth law. Until you understand that the élite is not “somebody else,” you must write out my laws ten times a day.

I have no proposals for dealing with the superfluous people, no great ideas or whizbang solutions. I can see only that mainstream discussion of political and social problems has little or nothing to say about these people. That is, it has nothing genuine to offer. It cannot even manage to be polite — to listen to the aggrieved. This has been the classic élite failing since the Enlightenment — for what do ordinary people know that is not mere superstition?

We need to start listening, to make a habit of listening. If you want to know how, George Saunders set a remarkable example (with all due modesty) in another New Yorker piece. What these people will tell us, I think — even if they’re not aware of doing so — is that our ideas about the relation between economics and politics is, at best, decrepit. It’s the society, stupid.


Friday 29th

Question for regular readers: Remember Elizabeth Taylor?

In my keenness to re-read Penelope Lively’s novels, I have felt unfaithful to Taylor; I’d read everything once and that was that. I have re-read In a Summer Season, and the rather long story, “The Ambush.” When NYRB books published a collection of Taylor’s stories, I ran through the table of contents and, missing “The Ambush,” decided not to buy the book. It would have been grand to have a lightweight collection of superb Taylor stories, but how could such a collection exclude “The Ambush”? Or “The Excursion to the Source,” also not very short. Worse, the NYRB collection reprinted “Hester Lilly,” a fifty-page novella that, to my mind, represents an experiment that Taylor did not repeat. Nicola Beauman, Taylor’s unauthorized (but excellent) biographer, believes that Taylor ought to have stuck to short fiction, and that the time that she poured into her twelve novels might have yielded a rich harvest of stories instead. I see the point, but I don’t altogether agree; the later novels are very strong, and then there is the nonpareil Angel. But “Hester Lilly” is both too long and not long enough. A rich harvest of stories might have taken its place in the NYRB selection.

Leafing through the doorstopper of The Complete Stories, I’ve read a few that also appear in the NYRB. Three come from the 1958 collection, The Blush, and two of them are jokes. I made a hash out of trying to tell the jokes to Kathleen last night; perhaps her being on the verge of sleep made it hard for her to appreciate them. One joke is funnier than the other, but the other is the bigger joke. In “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There,” Rhoda, a girl who feels painfully shy, is obliged to deputize for her mother at a commercial banquet honoring her father, the manufacturer of “homemade” cookies. At the high table, Rhoda is seated between her father and the mayor of a Midlands town. The mayor is wearing his gold chain or collar of office, and, finding that she is able to make small talk with him only if she never looks him in the face, Rhoda fastens her eyes on his chain. The only thing that she can think to talk about is her Burmese cat, Minkie, but even the cat’s connection to the town of which the man is mayor does not rouse much interest. After dinner, there is a dance. Rhoda notices that the man with the collar has left — because she doesn’t see the chain anywhere. A man asks to dance with her, barely concealing that this is an act of duty. As they waltz somewhat stiffly, she chatters on about Minkie. The man is rudely silent. Only afterward does Rhoda discover that the mayor has taken his chain off.

How mortifying for Rhoda! Now she’ll never go to another party! But I found it very hard not to sympathize with the mayor, not least because Taylor emphasizes the long-suffered routine of such dinners. She points out that the mayor doesn’t eat much of the turbot or the chicken — staples on such occasions, according to Rhoda’s mother. When the lady on the other side of the mayor asks him which ice cream flavor “crops up most often,” he answers, “jovially,” that it’s vanilla, eight to one. He has already told the girl that he does not care for cats, and yet here she is on the dance floor nattering on about Minkie again. How often do dimwitted young women crop up? Probably not as often as eight to one, but there are surely too many of them. I’m not sure that I was intended feel tenderly for the mayor, but I thought it quite ingenious of Taylor to get me to do so.

The other story, “Perhaps a Family Failing,” is about a mésalliance. The daughter of the abstemious Mrs Cotterell has just married the oafish son of gin-soaked Mr Midwinter. At the reception, every guest gets one (1) glass of port, with which to toast the happy couple. Driving the twenty miles to the honeymoon hotel, the thirsty groom pulls the car over at a public house. The bride forbears to complain. The hotel reached, the bride prepares herself to sacrifice her virginity. The groom goes down to the bar. Hours pass. The bride fumes in her flimsies, longing for Closing Time. But just before Closing Time, two patrons lose control over their respective dogs, and in the ensuing commotion, the groom is bitten, and then bitten again. Already fairly drunk, he is dazed by the wounds, and he is grateful when someone offers him a lift back to his parents’ house. He has completely forgotten the wedding.

Well, that’s why God provided for annulments.

Both of these stories are so rich — I keep coming back to that word, as if Taylor were serving extraordinarily savoury cakes — that I shan’t have spoiled either of them for you. Another story that appears in the NYRB collection is “The Voices.” At a modest hotel in Athens, a woman recuperates from a recent illness — depression? Instead of seeing the sights for herself, she lies in bed and eavesdrops on the touristic commentary of the women in the next room. Sisters, they are a perfectly matched pair of old birds, one vague and the other caustic It does sound like ideal therapy. But it is brought to an end by a sneeze. I also re-read “Summer Schools,” which, incidentally, also involves the discomfort of an abstemious woman in a drinks-driven environment, as does “Girl Reading,” the most glamorous tale of the bunch. Etta, who lives with her mother in a gloomy Thames Valley town perhaps not unlike Reading, where Taylor grew up, is invited by a school friend to spend a week at her roomy, idyllic home, also on the Thames, right on it. The river may be the same, but it is pointed out twice that the weather is different. Etta’s rapturous week is spent studying her friend’s older brother and his fiancée, hoping to see what love looks like in life, as opposed to books, while in turn her friend’s other brother, only a year older, moons over Etta. Very subtly, the comfortable stability of the friend’s home is called into question. The engaged couple is hardly a picture of married bliss, and there are perhaps too many cocktails being downed on the terrace. For Etta, however, a problem arises when her plans to return home are changed. Instead of taking the train, she will be fetched by her mother, in a borrowed car. Etta knows that her mother and her friend’s family will not mix.

Again, everything is done to present the mother sympathetically. The father is long dead, and the mother has had to scrimp and save and work long hours to afford her daughter’s school fees, only to lose her, effectively, to the easy-going ambience of wealthy people among whom the girl is unlikely to hobnob — unless, of course, she manages to escape the mother’s world altogether. When Etta is at home, the house is drab and lonely, and we understand her longing for livelier surroundings. When Etta is not at home, however, the house is even drabber and lonelier, and the mother feels it. It’s a triumph of sorts that she does not spoil the end of Etta’s visit. The tension of the averted awkwardness makes the mother’s sacrifices heroic.

Three stories that I’ve re-read don’t appear in the NYRB volume: “In a Different Light,” which begins on a Greek island and ends in the Thames Valley (what plays in stays in), “Mr Wharton,” which shows what might become of Etta and her mother a few years down the road — but only if Etta weren’t such a reader — and “A Nice Little Actress.” This last demonstrates the formidable concision with which a grown-up voice can refresh an old story. Iris is a bored suburban siren. She seduces a young musician who waits at the bus stop outside her house. The musician, rapt, decides to kill Iris’s husband, largely roused by Iris’s amorous complaints, inventions mostly. By the time he’s ready to act, however, Iris is bored with him. This is on the fifth and final page of the story. A page earlier, we’re told

She always took his love fiercely and crossly as if she bore him some grudge. He mistook this for passion.

Iris thinks that she might have made a good actress, but she is just a phony. The story is extremely sordid, but it’s over before it stales.

I found myself wondering if Taylor’s world might not be as vanished as Jane Austen’s. All the stories are haunted by the aftershock of terrible austerity, the austerity of the Depression, the austerity of the War, but most of all the odd austerity of victory. Reading Taylor’s novels in the order in which they were written is like watching the rising sun deepen the colors of things. At Mrs Lippincote’s, A View of the Shore, and, especially, A Wreath of Roses are pale books in which not many real comforts are on offer; in contrast, In a Summer Season and The Soul of Kindness have rather opulent backgrounds. It is not that the later novels are happier, but they are more vibrant. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is not quite so jolly as the lovely movie that Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend made of it, but it does twinkle. I find that this true of the stories as well. But who remembers this austerity? Who remembers what a demoralizing blow the near bankruptcy of Britain was? How quickly the Empire evaporated! And yet how intractably the demands of respectability continued to strangle spontaneity.

The other night, I watched My House in Umbria, an HBO movie that came out in 2003. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least, but I only just realized that it is not set in the present day. I had assumed, why I don’t know, that the men wore jackets and ties and the women dresses and scarves because they were simply nice people, living in civilized Italy (not too civilized for a terrorist bomb, however). Old cars were kept in good repair. What finally broke this spell was a chance detail, hitherto unnoticed by me. I will simply say that it is the steering wheel of an American car in America. Suddenly I understood that the film’s setting was late mid-century — 1965, perhaps. I’ve ordered William Trevor’s novella of the same name; it came out in 1991. We shall see.


For ages, I’ve wanted to make a delicious pound cake, something to remind me of the pound cake that tasted like heaven, literally, in Bermuda in 1955. But it has been a long time since my last cake of any kind — barring angel food, which I make whenever my bottle of egg whites fills up. (And why does it do that? Spaghetti alla carbonara.) I used to make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s poppy seed pound cake, but I baked it in a lovely glass kugelhopf mold from which it always emerged intact. When the mold inevitably shattered, I could neither replace it nor find a substitute; no matter what I did, some part of the cake remained stuck in metal molds. So I stopped making the cake, which will sound stupid to anybody who doesn’t cook a lot.

Beranbaum’s recipe is reprinted in the Guarnaschelli edition of The Joy of Cooking — the only edition I’ll touch — and when I went looking for a pound cake recipe I chose one nearby. I was very disappointed by the result, and after one slice threw the cake away. I can’t think what I did wrong, but I wasn’t tempted to try again. I turned instead to James Beard’s much more complicated recipe in American Cookery. Well, it’s more complicated because it calls for eight separated eggs. Eight! I often separate four or five eggs, to make a soufflé, but eight is asking for trouble. I resorted to a special cup with a trapdoor bottom, also useful for degreasing the juices of a roast. I broke each egg into a teacup, one at a time, then ran it through the separator. The white dropped into a ramekin, and then the intact yolk would be tipped into a measuring cup. So would the contents of the ramekin. Five vessels I had before me. It seemed to take forever.

I composed the batter in the bowl of a KitchenAid stand mixer. The mixer was certainly up to the job of combining a pound of butter with nearly the same quantities of flour and sugar, not to mention the eight egg yolks. But the bowl was too small for folding. Next time, I’ll turn the batter out into a large Mason-Cash bowl. Then I’ll be able to spoon on the beaten egg whites and, slipping a spatula along the bottom of the bowl, scoop up the batter over the whites, gently but comprehensively. The second adjustment to what I did yesterday will be to run the oven a little hotter. It took ninety minutes for the larger loaf to spring back to the touch. James Beard said that it might take seventy-five, at the most. As a result of the prolonged baking, the crust was a bit thick. I’ll also remember to put in somewhat more flavoring. I’m shy about overdoing extracts, but I wasn’t bearing in mind that I was making two rather dense loaves.

So the pound cake is a bit pallid, but the crumb is incredibly light. The cake seems to melt on the tongue. I had completely forgotten that that was part of the heaven in Bermuda.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
New Dispensation
July 2016 (III)

18, 19, 21, 22 July

Monday 18th

Not too long ago, after Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan inflicted yet another crackdown on journalists, generals, or other dissidents, I predicted (to Kathleen) that he was going to have a coup on his hands if he didn’t ease up. Kathleen and I talk about Turkey regularly, having spent an extraordinary week in Istanbul in 2005, when Erdoğan was still new to office. He embodied the hope that cultural Islam and liberal democracy could work together. There were signs of the strongman to come, but we preferred to look on the bright side. Our emphatically secular Turkish hosts, however, did not see a bright side. Keeping up with Turkish affairs after our return, we came to share their pessimism.

On Friday evening, Kathleen called to say that she was leaving the office and would be home soon, and, by the way, there was a coup in Turkey. For about five minutes, I all but chuckled with self-congratulation. Then my dancing in the streets came to an end. Like most political dreamers, I had savored the delicious prospect of the End of Erdoğan. I had not given much thought to the Beginning of What Next. Whatever might be next, the confused and very limited reports that were available online did not promise a smooth transition. As Friday ticked into Saturday, I found myself hoping that Erdoğan would reassert himself and crush the coup. Which was bitter medicine indeed, since the man is an exemplar of the kind of leader who may be ushering today’s liberal democracies into vastly more repressive states of illiberal populism.

I want to contrast Turkey with China. China is very large country with some very large problems. Its financial health appears at times to depend on the structural integrity of a house of cards. Its élite is peculiarly unmeritocratic, composed of the children of long-dead revolutionaries, many of whom suffered disgrace. A vaulting national pride, if checked by the consequences of official miscalculation, could easily turn rancid. But if China “collapsed,” its own mass would absorb most of the energy released. The disaster would probably not spread to neighboring countries. It may be conventional to translate the Chinese for “China” (Zhongguo “中國/中国”) as “Middle Kingdom,” but a far more accurate rendering is “Central Country,” where “central” has the powerful resonance of the statement, “The sun is the central body in our solar system.” In this sense, however, China is greater than the sun, because it already contains its own periphery. And it has a history of collapsing every two to two hundred and fifty years.

Turkey is not a small country, and it has its share of problems. But it is no central country. It is a fragment of the Ottoman Empire, which was run — “governed” would not be the word — by a Turkish dynasty until shortly after World War I. Most provinces of the old empire are today’s Middle-Eastern trouble spots. Turkey also shares its borders with some remnants of the more recent Soviet Empire, whose local instability has been squeezed by Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s most serious internal problem is a border issue of sorts: Kurdistan. Kurdistan is yet another poisoned fruit of the treaties that refashioned the Middle East after World War I. Kurdistan does not exist, of course, but the Kurds were promised by the diplomats that it would come into being at some point. Like almost every other conflict in the Middle East, the question of Kurdistan was postponed by larger twentieth-century upheavals, and then forestalled by the Cold War.

That was my first thought: disarray in Ankara would provide Kurds with an excellent opportunity to rally to their own nationalist cause in Diyarbakir. More violence! What would Russia do? What about Greece, with its islands, like Lesbos, within sight of the Turkish mainland? What if one thing, as it always does, led to another? What if opposition to the military coup led to a surge in support for Da’esh (ISIS)? Good grief! This was no time for Turkey to be falling apart.

Unhappy but relieved by the suppression of the coup, I thought of Simon Winder and the “second step.” Discussing the revolutions of 1848 in his charming history of the Hapsburgs, Danubia, Winder pointed that, while everybody seemed to want to overthrow the government, whichever government that might be, there was no consensus on what ought to happen next. The success of revolutions, he surmised, depends on the viability of an agreed-upon second step. Military coups prove the point. A consensus among a small number of top brass, together with the kind of expert plan of campaign that military organizations formulate as a matter of course, all but guarantees success. In Turkey, however, President Erdoğan has been purging the Army for ten years, and the resulting fragmentation of leadership is militarily anomalous. When I first heard of the coup, I was amazed by what must have been a profoundly secretive and extensive conspiracy. Except there wasn’t one.


I wonder if I could get a job at the Strand Book Store. I know I could pass the quiz. They have a test, you see, to weed out illiterate applicants. It is not a difficult test. Well, I didn’t think it was. The Times actually printed five versions of the quiz, and I was midway through the third one when I realized that the answer-pattern was constant. You had to match authors and titles; the first author went with the sixth title, and the last author went with the fourth. The “trick” question was that there was no title for the second author; correspondingly, there was no author for the eighth title. So, bully for me. The Times reported that there is no quiz for applicants at Barnes & Noble. There’s a colossal understatement in there somewhere.

To give you an idea of what I do find challenging, here is a sentence from Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats:

I call this new form of conceptualization an advance because in Melancholy each of the mistress’s companions is defined by a post-positioned clause which has a restrictive intent. (161)

What this means in plainer English is that the beauty of the mistress in the “Ode on Melancholy” will die, that Joy is always “bidding adieu,” and that pleasure is “metabolized to poison not after, but during, the moment of the ingestion of that pleasure.” When Vendler speaks of “advance,” she is referring to the ways in which the “Ode on Melancholy” surpasses the achievements of the four odes that Keats had already written. In the warmer half of 1819, Keats wrote six odes, four of them extremely famous: the “Ode to a Nightingale,” the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the “Ode on Melancholy,” and, finally, “To Autumn.”

At the beginning of her book, Vendler tells us what inspired it.

The polemic impulse from which this book began arose when I read Allen Tate’s judgment that the ode To Autumn “is a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say.” I thought that To Autumn said everything there was to say. (13)

I bought The Odes of John Keats because it was advertised, along with other books by Vendler, on the back jacket of her book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have always admired the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and I tried, in college, to commit the “Ode on Melancholy” to memory. For reasons not clear to me, I have always exempted Keats from my constitutional dislike of Romantic poetry. Keats can be as Romantic as it gets — I believe that what I mean by “Romantic” is what Vendler calls “luxurious” — but there is a firm foundation beneath the flowers. I have had the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Keats’s Poetical Works since it cost $1.75 — all but a few years of my life.

I did not know that Vendler was also inspired to write about Keats by her study of Wallace Stevens, the subject of her first book, On Extended Wings. So much the better. Wallace Stevens has become very important to me. This is not to say that I “love his poetry.” I don’t “love poetry.” But I live, if not on words, then on phrases, and poetry is the most concentrated kind of verbiage. The words in poetry — and by “poetry” I mean metrical verse; free verse I find just about as disagreeable as public nudity — are made to work hard, as is the reader of Helen Vendler. The reader of Helen Vendler must learn to sense at least a few of the words that a poet has not used for the important ones that he has.

Wallace Stevens liked to kid people who complained that they didn’t understand his poetry by saying that it didn’t matter, so long as he understood it. He also joked that the only way to understand it was to have written it. Vendler expressly recommends copying out poems in longhand, an exercise that I have yet to attempt. It is true that copying good poetry, even at a keyboard, is always surprisingly difficult, because while it usually sounds familiar (that is, it reads as regular English), it comprises numerous tiny departures from ordinary speech. Word-order might be inverted, or a somewhat uncommon verb be substituted for the one that you “remember,” even right after reading the line. In the “Ode on Melancholy,” one of the verses that I did manage to memorize does not read,

Though seen by none save him whose strenuous tongue

No; it reads “Though seen of none save him…” In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner starts out by telling us how clever he thought he was to select Marianne Moore’s three-line “Poetry” for a classroom memorization assignment. In the event, he failed to recite it accurately not just once but in three attempts, much to his classmates’ smirking satisfaction. There is something of the tongue-twister in these lines from Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was was she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word,
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Something of a mind-twister, too: I always want to say, “Since what she heard…” The deviation from expectation is what makes poetry surprising and fresh, and you miss it if you content yourself with reading a poem and turning the page. The great problem of poetry is that there is far too much of the very good stuff, more than anyone could ever practicably deal with in the manner that the enjoyment of poetry requires. You can read Shakespeare’s sonnets all the way through — in fact, you must, to savor Shakespeare’s grasp of the phases of love, as if they were the colors of the rainbow, leading from one to the next. But to delight in the sonnets, you must wrestle with them. You must memorize them of course, but you must also spot the instances of Shakespeare’s saying this and not that.

What I can’t decide is whether to equip myself with a biography of Keats. I don’t know much about him. How, in the space of little more than twenty-five years, can there be much to know? He must have been reading or writing all the time; except he can’t have been, given his professional studies as an apothecary and a surgeon. I did see Jane Campion’s Bright Star once, but it seemed more about Jane Campion than about Keats (although Abbie Cornish was lovely). The problem is that Helen Vendler’s book on the odes gives me the feeling of having overheard bits and pieces of a truly fascinating conversation. It may be that I have heard all the truly fascinating bits and pieces.

There is one development in the series of Keats’s odes that even the untutored eye can discern. In “To Autumn,” there is not a single reference to classical mythology. No goddess is mentioned, no Tempe or Arcady. There is only the harvest, and the stubble-plains from which it has been reaped. I am reminded of a passage from “Credences of Summer,” the poem that made Wallace Stevens important to me (not least because I was listening to a recording of him reciting it): This is the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more. It is entirely possible that Vendler will quote this in her remarks on “To Autumn,” which I’m about midway through; she has been quoting Stevens throughout the book.

I don’t love poetry; I love language, and poetry is to language as love is to a lover. Had I but world enough and time, I still wouldn’t get through the half of it.


Tuesday 19

I must be doing something wrong. When I type in, nothing happens. If I ask Google, it returns a number of strange links, only one of which, to a story at Advertising Age, appears to be germane. Perhaps things are not quite up and running.

On page A5 of today’s Times, there’s a full-page ad for — for what? For Captain Morgan Rum? Or for a campaign to amend the constitution, to lower — and not, presumably, to eliminate altogether — the age restriction that denies eligibility to serve as president of the United States to persons under thirty-five years of age? The story in Ad Age asks if this is a serious political undertaking or a marketing stunt for the rum. Given the presence of Donald Trump on the scene, I don’t think it makes much difference.

When I came of age, the jungle drums counseled us not to trust anyone over thirty. As I have a higher regard for Millennials as a generation than I do for fellow-boomers, I am not unwilling to consider a petition to lower the eligibility age. Although my personal experience supports the view that wisdom comes only with time, I see so little evidence of this in the people around me that it seems foolish to generalize from the one instance of me. Millennials do seem to regard current derangements with a healthy, scoffing WTF. They bring truly fresh minds, uncluttered by received ideas, to the problems that face us all. They are not invested (yet) in the sunk costs of their careers (also known as the status quo), and they are not distracted by the novelty of computers, any more than they are aware of the coeval novelty of themselves.

But the good side is the same as the bad side. What do Millennials know about anything? Knowledge is a kind of investment, and the very freshness of the generation suggests to me that any investment in knowledge has so far been provisional. Worse, I am almost certain that the kind of knowledge that I should call humanist — knowledge about human nature and its limitations, and especially about the compulsions to and the frustrations of human cooperation — is likely to be dismissed by Millennials as useless old crap. Given the state of humanist education, one almost has to hope that Millennials would have nothing to do with it. This is no bar to lowering the eligibility age, however, as the Millennials’ elders are much worse: they think that they understand humanism. They don’t call it that, and of course it isn’t, but the jumble of pseudopsychology and playground heuristics that guide older people when they stop to think, which we must be grateful doesn’t happen more often, is piled precisely where humanist insight ought to be. No one today is in a position to say that merely being older than thirty-five increases the strength of one’s understanding. If a horde of kindergartners could be shown to be able to cancel Donald Trump’s political viability, I’d vote for the little kiddies.

It is impossible, really, to look at the Captain Morgan ad without weeping tears of hope. Covering a little less than half a page of the Sunday Review section of the other day’s Times, there was a piece by Stanley Fish for which I really think the Captain Morgan ad, however rum, may be the only antidote. Now, as we go through life, we inevitably encounter a few people who, try as they might, never fail to strike us as assholes. It is not that they do foolish things from time to time; rather, they are, existentially, assholes, incapable of being anything else. I am sure that I am so regarded by a number of the people into whom I have bumped in my scores of years. And I am sure that Stanley Fish will always represent to me the asshole of the most inveterate type. He will always be the overseer, or whatever he was at the time, of Duke University’s Social Text, the learned journal which accepted Alan Sokal’s parody of deconstructionist jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” for publication in a 1996 issue. Fish will always be the idiot who defended the journal, in the Times, thus:

When Professor Sokal declares that “theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS,” he is at once right and wrong. He is right that sociologists will never do the job assigned properly to scientists. He is wrong to imply that the failure of the sociology of science to do something it never set out to do is a mark against it.

My point is finally a simple one: A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn’t reach into, and therefore doesn’t pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies. Just as the criteria of an enterprise will be internal to its own history, so will the threat to its integrity be internal, posed not by presumptuous outsiders but by insiders who decide not to play by the rules or to put the rules in the service of a devious purpose.

This means that it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. Remember, science is above all a communal effort. No scientist (and for that matter, no sociologist or literary critic) begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume, the models he will regard as exemplary and the standards he tries to be faithful to.

Lest you find dealing with this historic eyewash a struggle, I shall turn to what Stanley Fish had to say this weekend. His subject was historians. He was angry — perhaps that is too strong a word — at the historians who signed a public letter denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy, not because of the opinions expressed but because the historians claimed to be speaking ex cathedra, as historians, as though historians had any special insight into things. To Stanley Fish, the historians’ opinions were no more and no less valid than anyone else’s. He praised Ruth Bader Ginsburg for having made her deprecations of Donald Trump not from the bench but off the cuff, in her capacity as little old lady.

To demonstrate the historians’ ultra vires, Stanley Fish took the trouble to outline those skills and protocols for which historians are professionally qualified to call themselves experts.

No, it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

There is nothing wrong with this summary, except everything, because the whole point of history is elided. Stanley Fish mentions the kinds of expertise that, as experience has taught, will help the historian to do his job well. But what is his job? Would Stanley Fish limit it to “build[ing] a persuasive account of a disputed event”? Perhaps. All history is somewhat disputed, or at least certainly disputable, because what we know about the past isn’t very much. But it happens to be all that we do know, and historians are the people who know what there is to know about the past. Some historians confine themselves to finding out more. Others, however, tells us what can be said about what we have been through as a species. They know our stories and they tell them well.

It is true that the idea of the historian as a storyteller has suffered a massive loss of prestige over the past several generations, along with the idea of history as literature. Stories and literature sit ill with the scientific urges, and pseudoscientific claims, of modern historians. At the same time, comprehensive histories — stories with lots of detail — are deemed boring by the public (they almost always have been). This is not to say that literary history has died out. One spine that leaps out from my bookshelf is Christopher Clark’s compelling account of the run-up to World War I, The Sleepwalkers. Nearby stands Andrew Thompson’s rather elegant life of George II, one of the kings of England who doesn’t get mentioned at all in 1066 And All That, and also the subject of a myth about standing up for Handel’s “Hallelujah!” (It cannot be said with certainty that George ever even heard Messiah.) But Thompson gives us a man who might quite intelligently take more interest in his position as a benevolent despot, as Elector of Hanover, than in his constitutionally checked role in a somewhat bourgeois game of politics. No, literary history is not dying. But how many Millennials are reading it? Who is teaching them to read it?

Who is making the case for history? Donald Trump’s claim, that he will be able to make America great again, bristles with historical questions. When was America great, and who said so? What did greatness really entail? If it is impossible to go back in time, how can greatness, or anything else about America’s past, be re-created? Donald Trump’s listeners are not interested in these questions. But his opponents ought to be. It seems to me that one of the constraints that keeps the Democratic Party earthbound and uninspiring is the belief among many active Democrats that America has been a disappointment, which is one way of looking at things. I prefer to regard this country as a promise, if indeed a promise that a disappointing minority of Americans have felt moved to keep. It was a promise already broken by slavery, broken again by the Jacksonians, and by the Redemptionists, and by a host of cranks and charlatans. It is a promise that Abraham Lincoln fought to keep (although I believe that he was mistaken in his objectives). It is a promise to which FDR and LBJ gave a great deal of material realization. It is a promise that Republicans since Nixon have refused to recognize as such, much less to honor. But it is a promise that is endlessly renewed. I say all of this not as a historian but as someone who has learned a great deal from historians.

Nothing, nothing could be further from Donald Trump’s language than the idea of the United States as a promise. The word itself would not pass from his lips.


De fil en aiguille, say the French. From the thread into the needle, or “one thing leading to another,” only homelier, without the agency of leading. A while ago, I got round to watching Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt. That in turn led to watching Side Effects, in which Rooney Mara is almost as spellbinding as she is in Carol. It also led to re-reading Edith’s Diary, a novel by Highsmith that I had grossly misremembered. It led to checking out IMDb, to see what other movies have been inspired by Highsmith’s books, in addition to the well-known Hitchcock and Ripley entries, and coming across something called The Two Faces of January.

The novel was published in 1964. The movie, written by Hossein Amini (Drive, Shanghai) and directed by him as well (it’s his only feature to date), came out in 2014. My movie attendance had already fallen off by then, but it surprised me to have missed a Highsmith adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac. I am something of a completist about Oscar Isaac, so I had to see this movie. I ordered it, sight unseen from Amazon, and when it arrived, Kathleen and I watched it. We liked it — Kirsten Dunst is also very good in it — but we felt that something was missing. In other words, I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. I decided to read the novel.

Reading the novel after seeing the movie was one of the most exasperating experiences of my life. Why? Why? Why? Why had Amini fiddled with Highsmith’s story? Before I had finished the first couple of chapters, I was aware that every deviation made by Amini from the novel was a mistake. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climactic events at the Palace of Knossos, as I shall coyly refer to a surprising sudden death. Where Amini follows Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is lucid and exciting; where he differs, the movie muddles uncertainly. It almost goes without saying that the novel is vastly more exciting than the movie.

This is because of Highsmith’s trademark ability to capture the weird and creepy shifts in an anxious person’s state of mind. In Edith’s Diary, Cliffie oscillates between triumph and despair with almost insensate giddiness; in the end, it’s always luck that decides. In The Two Faces of January, there are two anxious people. One is anxious from the start; the other, by allowing a relationship to develop with the first, soon has good reason to be anxious as well. Highsmith, of course, can describe these flutters in luxuriant detail, and it is relatively difficult for a filmmaker to capture them. But that is what directing and acting are all about. And here I regretfully come up against the second objective problem with the adaptation. Much as I admire Oscar Isaac, he is not at all suited to play Rydal Keener, the damaged and aimless young American who forms a triangle with an American swindler and his much younger wife.

Rydal is a classic Highsmith creation. He could be Cliffie’s first cousin. He is not a narcissist, but he is wrapped up in a wound that he suffered as a teenager — a wound exacerbated by a father to whom the swindler bears an uncanny resemblance. (The father has recently died, as we learn in the movie as well. But the movie does not make it clear that the swindler looks like the father twenty years ago — that, as is never doubted in the book, the swindler could not possibly be, actually, the father. Instead, the movie plays with this uncertainty, an intrusive red herring.) It occurred to me as I read that one of Oscar Isaac’s recent costars, Domhnall Gleeson, would have made a much more plausible Rydal. Oscar Isaac is simply too solid, too sure in his body, and far too sexually confident to impersonate a man confused about his lovability.

The Now A Major Motion Picture edition of the novel describes Rydal on the back copy as “an American expat working as a tour guide, and running cons on the side.” The Rydal actually within the covers is neither a tour guide nor a con. He is a Yale law-school graduate who is bitterly running through a legacy from his grandmother before returning to the States and settling down. He is more a mark than a con.

The game might be called Adventure. It depended on meeting the Right Person, male or female. Something would take place when his eyes met the eyes of the Right Person, there would be a shock of recognition, one of them would speak, they would have some kind of Adventure together — or there wouldn’t be anything in the eyes, and absolutely nothing would happen. (12)

Rydal is smart, but not in Oscar Isaac’s character’s street-smart way. He is more of a Sherlock Holmes, working things out in his mind. He is scarily good at figuring out what is likely to happen next. This gives him strange powers over the swindler, who, at the beginning of the novel, is at the point of beginning to crumble into his own plinth, as if sinking in quicksand. Again, the book’s finale is far more breathtaking than the shoot-out in the movie, even if the latter is set in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It is the perfect dissolution of a broken character — I actually thought of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where the judge reveals his nature as a cartoon character by dissolving in acetone, Highsmith’s swindler dissolves in booze — never have I read a more convincing account of the horror of a blackout.

One final remark — I really don’t want to spoil this treat for anyone; read the book, see the movie concerns the title. Do you see the word “January” in the title? Yes, it’s also a reference to the ambiguities of Janus, but it happens to be the month in which the action is set. In January, it is cold in sunny Greece, and cold is a leitmotif of the story. The movie’s summer whites suggest a carefree way of life that no character in the book experiences for an instant. (Kirten Dunst would have looked so good, shivering in a mink stole!)

I haven’t said anything about Viggo Mortensen. You might not recognize him, not only because he has graduated from cute young man to Joseph Cotton, but because he acts like Joseph Cotton, too. There is something finely wrinkled about his tentative behavior. As in the book, he loses his grip joule by joule. He, too, would have looked terrific in a more faithful adaptation, suddenly terrified of death and confessing his sins as if that would keep him going. Viggo Mortensen would have lit up at the end.


Thursday 21st

This will be brief. I have already written my quota of words for the day. (I don’t begin to think about winding down until a total of two thousand is in sight.) But what I’ve written today is not going to appear here. I’ve kept it apart, as the start of something larger and longer, where it will be out of view for a good while. At a certain point, I shall ask a few friends to take a look, and then I shall decide whether to resume what I’ve been doing here, or to continue with the new thing. I hope to be able to do a bit of both — a thousand words there, a thousand words here. These things always take a while to figure out, because I’m making it all up. The process, I mean, not just the contents.

At some point, I’ve known, I was going to have to take a break from long entries here in order to begin work on the memoir that I’ve been sketching for nearly a year now — or for four years, or for ten, or fifteen, depending on how you want to look for beginnings. The difference between the sketches and the memoir proper is that the individual chapters of the memoir must be written in sequence, from beginning, through middle, to end. Everything must be introduced before it can be recognized, and each sentence must grow from the ones just before it. A great deal of the material in the sketches will be repeated, but I expect that it will be rewritten from scratch. I certainly have no intention of cutting and pasting the various entries at this site.

I expected as long ago as September that I’d be ready to begin with a serious full draft either by the summer of this year or never at all, and in the past couple of weeks I have felt stirrings of a change. Change is all that the shift has in common with giving birth: once there was nothing or nobody, then there is something or somebody. The commonplace of exploiting the image of gestation is misleading. I am not so overflowing with ideas that I must write them down. I have been writing them down. Now I need new ideas, ideas that come to mind only de fil en aiguille. I can pursue those ideas only by never putting down the needle and the thread, and also by writing privately. It is a great pleasure to write a few excited paragraphs and then to press the button that will publish them, and, as I say, I hope to continue doing that. But the new writing that I want to do requires a quiet that is at odds with publication. It is ridiculous for me to feel guilty about cutting back on the flow of verbiage here — not least because of abominable conceit — but I console myself, and, I hope, the regular reader as well, with the reflection that we shall all have more time for other things.

I had hoped that it would happen at the beginning of a week’s entry, or, better, on the first of August, which this year will be the first of the week as well as the beginning of a month. August is the month for vacation. Last year, I returned from it with the determination to write as great deal more. Now, somewhat earlier than I had hoped, I am determined to write somewhere else.

I don’t mind telling you that I wrote about Keats and Woolf today, and that the way that I wrote about them was the way that I should write about them here, not as any kind of expert in literary figures but as sources of interest and pleasure. I experienced a rather thrilling conjunction the other night, reading To the Lighthouse after having finished Helen Vendler’s book, The Odes of John Keats. Thinking about it yesterday, on my midweek day off, I realized that I had arrived at the moment of decision: would I write up the experience as yet another blog entry, or would I mark the event as an auspicious point of entry, a way of beginning? I was queasily uncertain. By this morning, as I finished reading the Times, I was almost nauseous — although waiting to hear that Kathleen had landed in Portland (yet another long weekend away, but the last for a while) certainly contributed to the sea-sickness. Her call came just as I sat down at the desk, before I could pull the petals off too many daisies.

I will be honest about one thing: I am not sure how much longer I could continue writing altogether publicly, in the face of Donald Trump. I was reading Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers last night, and his insistence that Greek science committed Platonic suicide as a way of dealing with an insupportable political mess was hideously convincing. Regular readers must know how I feel about Plato, but Koestler quite leaves me in the dust, he is so appalled by the desperate, soul-crushing mind-shift that was engineered by the Academy. Thanks to Aristarchus of Samos, heliocentric theory was on the verge of adoption; the measurements were astonishingly close, given the lack of telescopes and whatnot. But the educated public slipped the other way, favoring an unchanging universe moving in uniform circular motion around a degenerate, mutable earth, for which the only hope was a strong aristocracy. Two thousand years later, or nearly, that world-view would be effortfully overturned. But now the liberal democracies that grew up with what we call modern science seem as disordered as the ancient Greeks, and here is Donald Trump in the big ring. I need to do at least some writing about which I am not forced to consider how it will sound in a circus.


Friday 22nd

The second day of work on the new project was rather harder than the first, but not as hard as I feared it might be. I was afraid because yesterday’s work, like most good beginnings, was somewhat visionary, and written in a state of exaltation. Today, I had to pay a great deal of attention to small details of construction and pace, and I felt that I was continuing according to the principles that guided me yesterday. I won’t know until there’s more whether I have succeeded in managing the tonal complex that makes a long piece of writing coherent. I met my quota within a reasonable time, and ended with a thought to be taken up when I resume. The regular reader would have found more than a few familiar items, but I didn’t have to care about that.


At lunch, I was reduced to reading Vanity Fair — a sweet but nothing piece about the Umpteenth Marmaduke of Shaftesbury that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for his father’s lurid murder some years ago — because two rather educated boors were having a political discussion from opposite ends of the bar. One of them was a Republican who went to Yale with Scooter Libby — I was stunned; that’s my vintage: it’s amazing how youthful voices remain almost to the end — while the other was sympathetic but more of an Independent. I believe that the topic for most of the conversation was FBI Director James Comey’s role in an alleged fix to exonerate Hillary Clinton, legally if not otherwise. But then the talk turned to Obamacare, and there was a dispute about the quality of American medical care. One guy argued that everybody able to afford it comes to America for treatment. The other insisted that Americans are going elsewhere for treatment.

I was tempted to put in my two cents. The United States is a paradise of specialists, while other countries are doing a better job at managing routine procedures. This makes sense: our country has become the land of stars, where celebrity standouts attract global attention. It has given up on competition, in favor of a never-ending pursuit of leverage. If you can bring this product to market before anybody else, or add that killer-app feature, or win the lottery, or get born with the fine-motor skills of a neurosurgeon, or write a book that, while soporfically dull from any literary standpoint, ignites a fashionable allure for debasement in millions of bosoms, if you dare to behave like Donald Trump; in short, if you do that one thing, then you win the jackpot. You suck up the air that any competitors could breathe: there is only you. I’m not saying that these are the thoughts of working Americans. But I think I’ve caught the American Dream 2.0. It is libertarian and antisocial. Pull up the ladder behind you! I should be very upset if I believed that most Americans shared this dream; most people don’t dream Dreams. But it’s pretty lousy.

As for the medical alternative, there’s good money to be made by suppliers and saved by consumers in an industrial approach to common woes. My favorite is the Shouldice Hernia Centre in Ontario. Could anything possibly be less glamorous? I’ve read that the clinic’s recidivism rate is very low: almost all hernias remain repaired. There are specialized American hospitals, of course. For my Remicade infusions, I visit the infusion unit at an institution that began as the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. But really, what has rheumatology got to do with that?


The two guys arguing at the bar were educated and articulate, but they were still talking too loudly, interrupting one another, and in general sounding like Fox News. What will become of Fox News, now that Roger Ailes has been deposed?

That’s not the real question, of course. The real question is whether opportunistic jingoism will find an equally gifted manipulator. If I were Dante, I’d make room at the bottom for Roger Ailes, right alongside Dick Cheney. This pair of Foo dogs did more to disturb the tenor of American politics than, well, anyone else, ever. They may not have been the worst at heart, but they rode the dragon of television on their apolcalyptic adventures, and were therefore more effectively destructive than mere mortals had ever been. Both perfected the manly art of shouting down while refusing to listen. Cheney was so good at it that he hardly raised his voice. Ailes was even better, though, because we never even heard him. He had an army of proxies.

If you shout “Fire!” in a theatre, are individuals in the audience to be forgiven for their participation in a deadly stampede? I pose this extreme question to underline the difference between panic in a theatre and the response of viewers sitting at home. Or between the involuntary audience hearing the malefactor’s cry and the voluntary audience listening to the entertainer’s cry night after night. There is a lack of connection between the urgency of the message and the prevailing civil calm. Roger Ailes, according to James Poniewozik (writing in today’s Times), operated on the principal that “an aggrieved group needed constant grievance, even in victory.” Surely the audience must take some responsibility for this addiction.

Surely we must begin to recognize, and treat, this addiction.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2016 (II)

11, 12, 14, 15 July

Monday 11th

For the first time in the more than ten years that I’ve been writing The Daily Blague, I’m beset, thinking about the sniper in Dallas, by the fear that anything that I say can be taken out of context as the affirmation of a stance that I am weighing and considering, but not adopting. A Times headline asked, “But whose side are you on?” (or words to that effect). I especially don’t know the answer to that question, and explaining my perplexity may be the best way of beginning the discussion that I think ought to be taking place — instead of the several that are already ongoing.

I single out for scorn the camp-meeting enthusiasm that proclaims our basic American unity. I don’t believe that Americans have the right to claim unity. Such unity as Americans have enjoyed has never amounted to more than dismissively tolerant cohabitation within very roomy borders. Americans have not had to put up with fellow-citizens of markedly different views. They have been cushioned from opposition by geographical and economic distances. They have been free to repudiate any commitment to national unity in the company of their friends and immediate neighbors. This is not to suggest that Americans have taken to advocating sedition. It is merely to note the ballrooms of hypocrisy that stretch behind polite speech about pulling together in a crisis. We do, I think, pull together in a crisis. But if there is no crisis, we prefer to forget about each other. And when it becomes necessary to recognize that there are Americans who want to do some things differently, we resort to contemptuous, caricatural language that smacks, politically, of anarchy.

The geographic and economic distances that I mentioned have largely collapsed in the age of pervasive media, just as television networks have flattened the difference in regional accents. But there remain secretive but powerful pockets of resistance to unity, and a fellow named Sam Polk opened the lid on one of them in a piece in the Sunday Review section of yesterday’s Times (“How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down”). Polk reports the routine small talk that focuses on objectifying women and treating sexual intercourse as a kind of victory. The point wasn’t, I think, to tell anyone that Wall Street men talk like this among themselves — what Times reader could have been unaware of it — but to connect it to the difficulties that women face in advancing their careers. Polk was very personal about this.

But a few years after I left Wall Street, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we learned that it was going to be a girl, I burst into tears. My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused.

If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were being disparaged during my eight years as a trader.

What I want to say about Dallas right now — as distinct from what I might have to say after I’ve thought about it more, and over more time — is that this kind of talk, on Wall Street and elsewhere, extends to blacks and all other “minority” groups who have not historically prospered there. As a white man who worked on Wall Street (in no very exalted position) for seven years, I heard plenty of such talk, coming from all directions. I have no reason to believe that it suddenly came to an end when Bill Clinton was president. I no longer hear it, but I know it’s there. Sam Polk makes this impossible to doubt.

Another thing that I want to say about Dallas is to remind readers of the purpose of this site, which is to discuss and critique the culture of the American élite. I have spent my entire life in the élite, and I know it well. I know that it has not been doing its job. When asked for a response to Dallas, a Wall Street friend told me that it took him by surprise, that he had thought that race relations were “better” than they are, and that he had been preoccupied by the markets lately, and not been paying much attention to the general news. It was not a surprising answer. Dismaying, yes, especially because of the implicit shrugging-off of élite obligations. If you want to know who the élite are, you will know them by their insistence that they work too hard to familiarize themselves with “issues.” They leave that to journalists. As I always says, the American élite comprises all the people who deny belonging to it.

My own claim to belong to the élite might seem grandiose, given my rather vacant CV. But I grew up in an élite town, attended élite schools, and participated in élite rituals. I rarely did this with any enthusiasm. I didn’t think that it was anything special until I was in my forties. Then I began to understand that my economically comfortable life had conditioned me to an outlook that few Americans, or people anywhere, could or would share. Had I merely stumbled along within that outlook, without becoming aware of it and, as a result, trying to grow a brain, I should now be excoriating the stupidity of Donald Trump’s supporters and the self-destructiveness of Leave voters. I should have simply gone on looking at the world with the élitist’s rose-colored glasses — and it would never occurred to me to regard myself as a member of the élite.

Instead of that, I set myself up as the scourge of the élites — a jocular way of putting it that I hope harmonizes with my intended victims’ insistence that they are not élit(ists).


In one of the many articles about tensions between American police and black Americans, one officer insisted that “we do not get up in the morning wanting to infringe someone’s civil rights.” (Or words to that effect.) This was a way of saying that policeman harbor no peculiar animus against blacks, that they’re not “out to get them.” I take this statement to have the same value as a Wall Street executive’s insistence that his firm is an equal-opportunity employer. I think that it’s very important to both the cop and the trader to protect the civil rights of people like themselves, people whom they see as orderly, and to protect these rights against infringement by unruly elements, people unlike themselves. People with a different way of speaking, dressing, walking, standing still even. This double standard is reinforced, and reinforced again, day in and day out, by what Sam Polk calls “bro talk.” I am not promoting a conspiracy theory here. I am describing the behavior of segments of the American élite. I haven’t spent any time in precinct houses, but I do know Wall Street. Sadly, I know Wall Street better than my wife does, although she has actually worked there her entire adult life. Only now are she and other women her age (sixtyish) beginning to suspect that they may have been victims of sexism in the workplace. They feel rather foolish about the possibility of having overlooked this. Perhaps they could not have continued on Wall Street if they hadn’t suppressed their inklings. Come to think of it, I can remember when Kathleen worked with young black lawyers. Those associates have somehow not turned into partners. Why is that? Where did they go?

I am trying very hard here not to appear to be making a case for Black Lives Matter. I believe that blacks are not treated equally in the United States, and that the prosecution of black Americans includes more than a small measure of persecution. This mistreatment is simply wrong, and it must stop. And so must I stop, right there. I am not competent to dilate on the problems faced by black Americans. I have no experience of those problems, not even at second- or third-hand. I have no right to righteous indignation.

What I can do is to call attention to what I increasingly regard as the decadence of the American élite. I know about this first-hand. I know about highly-educated professionals who ignore the world of humanist high culture and immerse themselves instead in the working man’s world of sports, not out of any solidarity with working men — the professionals buy the best seats, and don’t turn down invitations to skyboxes — but because the world of sports is the world of adolescence, of boys playing games. For men of a certain age, Arnold Palmer stands atop the plinth that might be more usefully graced by William Shakespeare, the man who played with the words that tie us together instead of with balls. As indeed highly-educated professionals are aware. But Shakespeare is unshakably adult.


Americans are like addicts who can’t begin the recovery process because they won’t acknowledge the nature of their addiction. Americans are addicted to a view of their history that will always stand in the way of genuine unity. It is the story of a bogus union that was formed during a so-called revolution (actually a war of secession) and then nearly sundered by a so-called civil war (also a war of secession) that was won by “the Union.” It is a story that acknowledges “slavery” but not the lives of slaves, nor the counting of black lives as “three-fifths” of the value of white lives for census purposes, while of course withholding the franchise from blacks altogether, nor the degradation of black lives after the grant of so-called “freedom.” It is a story that treats Jim Crow as either a necessary social crutch or a boys’ club rulebook that got out of hand — somewhere else. It is a story that cannot even be bothered to lie about Native Americans; Native Americans occupy precisely the place of a malarial swamp that required draining.

It is a story in which Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest hero, for holding the “Union” together. I think that Lincoln was a fine man, but perhaps the worst president, for exactly that reason. What followed the victory of the “Union” was a series of social abscesses, festering under the pretension of social harmony. We are still lying about this, still telling ourselves that things are better than they really are. (Just for the record, I am quite certain that Andrew Jackson was the worst president — an early Trump.)

It is a story in which the United States has become an exceptional nation, the world’s superpower (lately incapable of winning wars, however), the victor in the Cold War (which more and more shows itself to have been the greatest stabilizing factor in postwar life), and an example to the world of how to conduct a democracy (no comment). And the people who tell themselves this story are so stuck in it that they cling to it even when they realize that some of the chapters are maybe a little misleading. The people who tell themselves this story are charged with managing the country, but almost everything that they “know” about the place is not true.

We have become obsessed with personal responsibility. Personal responsibility explains why people spend so much time working that they have neither the time nor the energy to attend to public affairs — except where “personal responsibility” (ie, enrichment) is involved. There is no thought of “public responsibility.” I am not talking about welfare or charity here — or not about those virtues only. I am talking about paying attention to the truth. And the truth is that the American élite denies its own existence. It pretends that “the élite” dress up in haute couture and diamonds and get driven around in limousines. It imagines that a gathering of “the élite” looks like the Academy Awards. This is perhaps a hapless default, for in fact the American élite does not gather. How can it, in its state of denial?

If you can read this, you are one of the élite. Armed with the foregoing ideas, give all the thought you can to healing the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump and Micah Johnson.


Tuesday 12th

It was foreseeable that we Baby Boomers would by and large fail to shoulder the public responsibilities of a functioning élite. We were raised in an atmosphere of social fantasy. It was assumed by our elders that things would be different in the future, if only because they would be so much “better,” whatever that meant. It was obvious to them that we had “advantages” that had been denied to them. They told us that things were easier for us than they had ever been for any generation, and we agreed: we set our defaults at “easier.” When we encountered difficulties that our parents had not foreseen (most notably, climate degradation), we resisted the tedium of sorting out priorities and methodologies. If I were a comedian, I would joke that Boomers who took mind-altering drugs were quick to acknowledge the threat of global warming, while those who did not lacked the imagination to grasp it. But there’s a piece in today’s Times about the disarray among those who don’t deny it.

The oldest Boomers were teenagers when the great civil rights legislation was enacted. We heard the nation’s leaders proclaim the end of segregation, and we took this as a done deal — if we lived in a region where blacks were inconspicuous. We smiled when liberal white Americans gestured to accept black Americans into their world. We frowned when black Americans declined to adopt the folkways of liberal whites, although we recognized that they had a point. We saw that wondrous progress into a future of racial harmony was stalled by a deal-breaking insistence on racial unison. This wasn’t our fault. We found other things to worry about.

We worried about authenticity. Who am I, really, and how do I know? We became a generation of self-absorbed individualists, hypnotized by doubts about our place in the world that soon ran up against the need to make a living. Countercultural experiments soon demonstrated that, beneath the scruffy hair and the seedy clothes, few of us were willing to abandon bourgeois supports, or to inflict the discomforts of roughing it on our children. But we were haunted by the insincerity of our accommodation. This unwillingness to commit explains a lot about our failure to lead — to behave as the élite ought to behave.


Questions about personal authenticity are as inappropriate for adolescents as exposure to adult sexuality is for younger children. Adolescents, quite rightly, are confined to the scale of adult approval. They can do the things that adults want them to do, or they can disobey. That’s about it. The very word “adolescent” means that, in the process of becoming adults, they are not adults yet. The mismatch between physical capability and social inexperience seems to get wider every day; it could that the dawn of true adulthood has been postponed into the late twenties at the earliest, and it is not altogether funny that 35 is the new 21. One certainly hopes that thirty year-olds will not behave as if they were half their age. But it might also be recognized that the social fontanelle does not close in our world until the onset of what used to be middle age.

Most college students are essentially incompetent to answer questions about authenticity, and ought to be protected from them. I re-read the foregoing sentence with reverberating astonishment: it is exactly the sort of thing that an illiberal dean of students would have argued in favor of banning access to pornography, back when I was in college. I certainly don’t mean to protect anyone from something by pretending that it isn’t there. Nor by insisting that it isn’t yet time to deal with it. But university is for learning about the world, not for deciding about the self. A student who arrives on campus with a well-buffed identity is simply going to waste a lot of people’s time.


We Baby Boomers believed that we invented sex, and this was not as wildly wrong as it looks. For we grew up with contraceptives that were both reliable and unobtrusive to men. We had sex without fear! And so we got to discover that inadvertent reproduction is not the only thing that is problematic about sex. Observing that it is orders of magnitude more likely for me to have friends who are seven years younger than friends who are three years older, I wonder if the “the Pill” is not the explanation. Anatole Broyard writes about this eloquently in Kafka Was the Rage, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. “One of the things we’ve lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on between men and women, the men pleading with a girl to sleep with him and the girl pleading with him to be patient.” (136) Boomers never had to bother to coax. Relieved of the fear of pregnancy, nice girls discovered that they liked sex, too, and, what’s more, they discovered that men could be better at it than they were! This was a surprise that we have not yet, ahem, got over; it has complicated the hell out of feminism.

Now that, for all its failings, the élite has managed to junk Augustinian laws about what adults can and cannot do as sexual beings, sexual preference has become one of the first things that a young person can learn — something that, formerly, countless people never discovered (never hoped to discover) in their entire lifetimes. But this is not to say that every young person ought to settle on a sexual identity, that there is an obligation to know who you are by the time you are twenty-one. The only obligation that I can think of is that you ought to settle these matters before embarking on parenthood. But sexuality is only one of many matters that must be settled before children are allowed to come along. I speak as a Boomer who had settled few of those matters when his daughter was born — with as much regret as love for my daughter, pride in her achievements, and delight in her company allow.

But I don’t want to suggest that my peculiarities were caused by membership in a generational cohort. Being a Boomer exacerbated some of my faults, perhaps, but it had little to do with my oddity, because I was born, not “at forty,” as my mother used to say of my father, but at some indeterminate late-adolescent age. From the beginning, I was as crazy and mixed up as any teenager, madly impatient to grow up and bored to sobs (literally) by anything to do with childhood. I was writing to my daughter yesterday that one of my few childhood food memories is of pound cake and tea at the cozy Bermuda resort that my family visited in 1955, when I was seven. A lemon freshness made the pound cake and the tea so unlike anything that I had ever tasted before that it may have been then that I lodged the protest that would eventually make a cook out of me. At the age of twelve, I developed a troublesome passion for tea — troublesome for my mother, who disapproved of my laboring in the kitchen. I would have nothing to do with teabags, so not only did I buy tins of Twining’s Earl Grey at the fancy-food store on Park Place but I required two teapots as well, one for steeping. A world of delighful complication opened up.

I would sip tea in my room while struggling to read by candlelight. My particular strain of adolescent puritanism — no matter what drives their frenzies, puritans are people who have not yet grown up — regarded electricity as vulgar. Well, electric light, anyway; I might have read by candlelight, but the Water Music was playing on the phonograph in the background. What was I reading? I have no idea; whatever it was, it was over my head. When my mother got sick once, she was given a book of light verse that was illustrated by Edward Gorey. Light verse did not appeal to my mother, and the book was soon mine, along with a passion for Gorey. (I read my first complete Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar — published under another title — in one of my mother’s Vogues.) By the time I began reading The New Yorker, in the summer of my fourteenth year, I had outgrown my fastidiousness about lighting, but I lacked the fortitude to get through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. My eyes glazed over at the mention of DDT, at the dismay occasioned by its toxic effect on wildlife. My premodern lack of interest in the natural world seems connected somehow to an elided childhood. I am enchanted by the song of birds, so much more common in Manhattan now than it was thirty years ago that I am indebted to Carson; but I don’t want to know more — what the birds look like, what they’re called. But some of my earliest thinking concerned modern man’s ability to mess up the world in ways that had nothing to do with the Bomb.

Not that skipping childhood is a good idea — I don’t at all endorse it. It was simply something that happened to me. And it did not make me a precocious adult. On the contrary. I mark the launch into adulthood to the winter of 1975-76, when I realized that going to law school would probably be the most reasonable thing that I could do, and the landing, ten years later, to the death of my father. Even then, there was something provisional about my adulthood. I held on to certain foolish behaviors until an excess of martinis caused me to fall and nearly break my neck, an accident that is still not ten years in the past, and I within hailing distance of seventy!

Growing up isn’t entirely a matter of leaving youthful vices behind. It also took me a long time to know my own mind. One could say that it took me far too long to stop dabbling. But I didn’t know what else to do. When the Wall Street firm that I worked for folded, I half-heartedly looked for work in a field that I had discovered but not really been trained in. Kathleen claims that we decided at about that time that I ought to be a writer, however long it took to accomplish that. For, although I could write, I didn’t know what to say. This was not a case of having nothing to say, but rather the opposite, of not knowing where to begin. I believe that in the entries that I’ve been logging at this site since last September lie the beginnings of knowing where to begin. The salient aspect of this beginning is indeed why it took so long to reach. For I do not believe that it was always there, right under my nose. And yet —

“Swimming against the tide,” “going against the grain” — these images seem pathetically anemic when I consider the course of my own thinking. If I’ve been swimming, it has been up the face of a waterfall. For everything that I have learned in life, ever little bit of it, has taught me, somehow, that the flight from éliteness is not only a terrible mistake but an impossibility. It is in fact a kind of puritanism — the kind of puritanism that forced me to try to do without lightbulbs, and that also (little did I know how not-uncommon such bravado is) induced me to swear in writing (on onion skin paper, the only available substitute for parchment) that I would never smoke, drink, or drive a car — when I was thirteen. Like all puritans, I forswore things that I thought were bad but that I didn’t know anything about. I endeavored to prevent mistakes and regrets with the violence of Procrustes.

In 1789 the Western World inaugurated a serious experiment in equality. The notion that all human lives are equally precious is not intuitive, but like a genuine religious conversion its adoption seems irreversible. (I argue that this notion re-introduced the teachings of Jesus to Christendom and engendered a new Christianity that today’s evangelicals dismiss as unorthodox.) And yet it is obvious that the impact of human lives varies so enormously that no two lives are equally important. How to reconcile the ideal of equality with human multifariousness is now our central problem. Denying the existence, the virtue, or the necessity of an élite seems as blind and arbitrary as denying instances of the Pareto curve. Given a multitude of human lives, the emergence of an élite seems to be statistically inevitable. And yet almost everyone in my lifetime has wished that the élite and the idea of the élite would go away. One result is the monstrosity of Donald Trump, a born élitist who has exploited every élite advantage to advance his fame or notoriety — he doesn’t care which; no one has ever thrived so luxuriantly on the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. (Until there is, let us pray.) The worst thing about the flight from éliteness is the evaporation of leadership. Leadership is the opposite of demagoguery: it inspires people to take pains for a good cause. Leaders may be hypocrites — brazenly, in the case of lame FDR — but their importance lies not in their authenticity but in their beneficent persuasiveness. Most of the people alive today have lived in a world without leaders.

What Shakespeare said about greatness in Twelfth Night applies to éliteness. There may be many more élitists (meaning: members of the élite, not advocates of “élitism,” of whom there is no need) than there are truly great people — many, many more — and those who have been born élite, or who have had éliteness thrust upon them, may find that they have to work harder than those who are merely saddled with greatness. But it must be recognized as an inexorable condition, at least by those who are familiar with it because it is theirs. The small privileges of belonging to the élite — the deference that must never been taken for granted and always ritually declined — are dwarfed to the point of invisibility by the huge and arduous privilege of belonging itself.


Thursday 14th

Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth is in my reading rotation at the moment. Kathleen picked up the novel in her travels and liked it. I’ve never read a novel by Mrs Gaskell that I didn’t like, and yet I’ve never gone on one of my jags, running out and buying everything of hers that I can find. So I still haven’t read, for example, North and South. I had not heard of Ruth at all. The editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Tim Dolin, naturally claims that it is underrated. I’m not especially keen on it, especially now that the villain, or the heavy, or the whatever-he’s-going-to-turn-out-to-be (maybe just a man, if you know what I mean), has made his appearance. I’m in no mood at all for Mr Bradshaw.

I will say that Gaskell introduces Mr Bradshaw with sly éclat — you won’t forget this about him:

The country people came in sleeking down their hair, and treading with earnest attempts at noiseless lightness of step over the floor of the side, and by-and-by, when all were assembled, Mr Benson followed, unmarshalled and unattended. When he had closed the pulpit-door, and knelt in prayer for an instant or two, he gave out a psalm from the dear old Scottish paraphrase, with its primitive inversions of the simple perfect Bible words, and a kind of precentor stood up and, having sounded the note on a pitch-pipe, sang a couple of lines by way of indicating the tune; then all the congregation stood up and sang aloud, Mr Bradshaw’s great bass voice being half a note in advance of the others, in accordance with his place of precedence as principal member of the congregation. His powerful voice was like an organ very badly played, and very much out of tune, but as he had no ear, and no diffidence, it pleased him very much to hear the fine loud sound. He was a tall, large-boned, iron man, stern, powerful, and authoritative in appearance; dressed in clothes of the finest broadcloth, and scrupulously ill-made, as if to show that he was indifferent to all outward things. His wife was sweet and gentle-looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission. (126)

Lord, how I detest this man! A page or so later, Ruth — a young woman in trouble who has been rescued by and is staying with Mr Benson — receives a gift of cambric from Mr Bradshaw, and her immediate instinct is to refuse it. I posed three questions to Kathleen.

  • On a scale of one to ten, with one as the worst, how wicked is Mr Bradshaw?
  • (I forget the second question.)
  • Is Mr Bradshaw in the novel until the very end?

Kathleen’s answer to the first question was “three.” Oh dear. “You were counting zero?I asked hopefully, reformulating my question after the fact. The third answer was unintelligible, because it turned out that Kathleen was slipping off into asleep. I closed Ruth and picked up something else.

I’m sure that I must have encountered a heroine in the act of refusing a gift from someone whose generosity she did not welcome, but I can’t think of one. Ladies refuse to receive letters and packages all the time in fiction, but we are not privy to their decisions; we’re usually looking over the shoulder of a disappointed lover. Ruth’s expresses her wish not to accept Mr Bradshaw’s cambric with surprising alacrity; after all, she has never spoken with him. He can hardly harbor the usual designs. And yet one agrees at once with Ruth. It is curious — although this is not noticed by Ruth or Mr Benson — that the cambric does not come from Mrs Bradshaw.

“It’s interesting,” Kathleen said of Ruth when she finished reading it. I have to agree that it is — intermittently. To conjure an image from Mrs Gaskell’s day, it is like being driven along an avenue, from which unexpected sights can be glimpsed in the distance, by horses who want to veer off the road and plunge the carriage into the worst sort of Trollope. The worst sort of Trollope is that author’s tendency to get carried away, to put it mildly, by the pure virtuous steadfastness of his nubile heroines. Mrs Gaskell seems equally obsessed with Ruth’s innocence, which is so extreme that the moment of her deflowerment is never directly referred to. By the end of Volume I, Ruth, seduced in East Anglia and abandoned in Wales, is pregnant, but for all she seems to know about it the Holy Spirit may have been the father. But then Mr Benson, a deformed man with a great soul, says something earnest, and I sit up. Sally, the Bensons’ housemaid, a woman old enough to have brought them both up, is a particularly saucy-mouthed servant. But I think that I have yet to strike what it was that provoked Kathleen’s “interesting.”


There is a page-and-a-half story (very big deal) in today’s Times by Nicholas Confessore. You can read it online, but you’ll miss the headline in the print edition. I am thinking of stepping out and asking the nice men who are working on the subway station if they have a crane that might help lift my jaw back into place:

Trump Mines Grievances Of Whites Who Feel Lost

Then, in smaller print,

His Charged Words Allow the Disaffected to Vent Feelings Usually Unspoken.

It’s almost as if the editorial staff at The Onion had taken over. “Area Man Hails Trump As Much-Needed Demagogue.” How about “Sky Is Blue On Sunny Day”? Why Now? Kathleen and I asked when we saw the paper. What took them so long to state the obvious? Confessore may have answered that question quite well, with his references to Pat Buchanan, a presidential candidate, albeit better-mannered, whose message was essentially the same as Trump’s. Buchanan was ahead of his time; most white voters confidently dismissed him as a crank. Now that most white voters seem not to be confident about anything, the supremacist message is much more appealing. I do wish, though, that the Times’s editors were quicker on the draw than the average voter. Confessore’s story is at least six months overdue.

Confessore writes of conservative white resentment that it includes “a sense that an America without them at its center is not really America anymore.” It has become commonplace to dismiss this feeling as retrograde and unwelcoming; the United States is a land of diversity. “Diversity” is probably one of the more unexamined concepts in the current-affairs lexicon. My sense is that the cooperation of people of different backgrounds flourishes most robustly when the term is not bandied about. Diversity is not encouraged by self-conscious effort. Self-consciousness emphasizes feelings in which the advantages of diversity are likely to wilt. And of course it is monstrously hypocritical to impose diversity in neighborhoods far distant from one’s own unexceptionably affluent suburb.

The very word diversity is sharp and definite. I should prefer a word that sounded vague. Vagueness is much on my mind these days, although I am trying not to be vague about it myself. Partly it’s a consequence of my battle with the complex of words that are based on “élite.” This is a very old battle, going back fifteen years at least, with a never-ending skirmish over the word for a member of the élite. If you believe, as I do, that élites are as inevitable as ice cubes on the surface of a scotch on the rocks, that there is no way of preventing the emergence of an élite over time — three generations at most — no matter how levelling a political system sets out to be, then it is simply horseshit — sorry! — to talk of élitism and élitists. Élites require no support, no advocates, no theorists. Élites are as inevitable as death and a good deal more inevitable than taxes. You can make the leaders of today wear sackcloth and live in hovels. It doesn’t matter. Their grandchildren will wear designer sackcloth and have servants to clean their hovels.

And yet what else to call a member of the élite but an élitist? You give it a try. It is no help at all to go back to the French from which we have taken the term, because élu, which is what you can call a member of the élite in that language, is never ever going to join its relative as an borrowing in English. It’s both too slight and too difficult to say. Also, when spoken as an American is likely to say it, it sounds too much like “hello.” (I actually considered “halo” for about twenty minutes.)

So why not find another word? This is everyone’s suggestion. But it turns out that there are no real synonyms for “élite.” When C Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956, it made sense to identify “the élite” with a small coterie of leaders in various fields — politicians, business executives, and military officers — but that only shows how quickly things change, for the whole problem with today’s élite is that it is utterly devoid of leaders. Leadership is in fact frowned upon by many members of the élite. So is any act or demonstration of power. This explains the élite’s denial of its own existence. Which would work — banishing the term to the world of fantasy — if people, members of the élite among them, did not complain so much about the villainies of “the élite.”

The weirdly cosmic vagueness surrounding “the élite” as a term turns out, I finally see, to be an advantage. There was a time when someone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college could be ipso facto excluded from the élite, but those days are over. There are no rules of thumb, no shibboleths, for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. I often quip that, if you can read this, you belong to the élite, but that is not to say that every member of the élite can read this. I can only wish it were so, while recognizing with tears in my eyes how very not-so it is. The vagueness surrounding the insider/outsider switch does, however, make it easier to speculate on what it is that we need élites — members of the élite — to do.

There is another interesting aspect to this vagueness. Once upon a time, the people in charge were men with armed supporters. They knew who they were and you knew who they were. The natural trend of any society, however — barring invasions and environmental catastrophes — is to socialize people, to raise them to internalize the laws under which the society operates, minimizing the need for displays of external constraint. A society which has less reason to fear manifestations of power (which are always to some degree violent) will feel freer; truly socialized people are so unaware of their internal self-regulation that they feel free even as they observe every social convention to a nicety. Some people, it is true, have so much difficulty resolving this apparent paradox that they cannot live with social conventions; they must go off into the wilderness. But even they do not feel free not to care for themselves. Nobody except rapt intellectual adolescents regards suicide as an act of freedom. (Although it may of course be an act of liberation — liberation from extreme illness and pain, not from the wholeness of life.)

In the Western World, the postwar era that began in 1945 saw an unprecedented expansion of social freedom. Governments operated with ever-lighter hands. Decisions perceived to be arbitrary were not only denounced but resisted and repudiated. The loss of authority by religious and other institutional leaders nearly amounted to complete evaporation. The effect of all of this was to put more people in charge of smaller jobs. Nobody is in charge of everything, not even nominally, and that’s a good thing. But several generations of this freedom have produced, inevitably, its corresponding élite. People who are educated, affluent, locally influential, capable of forming interest blocs — there are many more such people than ever before. But like the society of which they are the élite, they don’t have a very clear idea of “the big picture.” Perhaps there is no big picture, just a lot of small pictures. But that’s not a good thing, because it opens the door for a very bad man to project a big picture of hatred and resentment — the worldview of those who are rightly sure that they do not belong to the élite. They can be sure, as I’ve said, because nobody asks them. Nobody asks a woman living in a trailer park if she is in charge of anything greater than the trailer park. Nobody asks a man hanging out at a garage if he is running anything. For decades, nobody has been asking such people anything at all. Worse, nobody has been really thinking about them — except to think how to bring the existence of such people to an end.

To the member of the élite who sits at a desk puzzling out ways to bring the existence of such people to an end, this is a matter of helping people to become other, more desirable kinds of people. To the person in the trailer park or the garage, however, it is a matter of personal extermination. The same goes for Americans who no longer feel that they’re at the center of America.


Friday 15th

The other night, Kathleen and I got to spend some time with the new baby of old friends, a beautiful three month-old child. It was very hard, when I was looking at her, to resist the thought that she was looking back at me, but I managed. I knew that she was seeing bits and pieces of me — although I couldn’t say which — and I should go so far as to say that she was aware of me as yet another human being. But her mind was not yet sufficiently organized to sort the particulars in a retrievable way. She would never remember our first meeting. She was experiencing, not learning. I knew this because I wasn’t just looking at her. I was also thinking about the weirdness of infancy.

Infancy does not occur in other animals, or rather, it doesn’t last for long. Newborns must be autonomous within a very short space of time, a matter of weeks at the most. For a number of reasons too well known for me to rehearse, human beings are born long before they’re ready to take care of themselves. When they become what we call toddlers, somewhere in the second half of their first year, they begin to be people in the world — small and helpless, but people. They respond when called by name; they learn to walk, and so on. But their presence as infants is dramatically unclear. In the first few months of life, a baby’s neural circuitry is inchoate, at least so far as higher-order functions such as consciousness are concerned. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying things when I say that few of the connections (synapses) that characterize the brain of an eight year-old, much less an adult, have been made. And the wiring is uncertain. I have never seen an infant who did not, for at least a moment or two, seem to gasp in dismay, prompting me to do what adults always do, and fill in the lack of inputs with projections of my own experiences, in this case, the dreadful surprise of a power outage. It seems to me that the baby’s circuits have crashed, and taken down the sense of familiarity. Bearings are altogether lost. It lasts for a only an instant, and, if you’re lucky, it does not lead to tears. The system comes back on, and the baby knows where it is.

The really weird thing about infancy, though, is how we adults forget it. Although I know that there was a time when my grandson behaved in much the same way as this lovely little girl, with the same alternations of contentment, sleeping, crying, and confusion, I cannot remember it. Or, rather, I cannot associate the things that I remember with my grandson. My grandson, at the moment, is eternally six and a half. He is a fascinating (to me) instance of someone poised at the brink of “the age of reason,” and, being the boy he is, he is not going to cross the border until he has worked out the angles to his satisfaction. There are a few little souvenirs. I remember him poring over his brand-new iPad, sitting at the glass dining table and swinging his legs. I remember how he used to say, with the strangest blend of insistence and tonelessness, “Up, up,” meaning that he wanted to be picked up. I remember being able to understand what he was saying on the telephone. But when I think of him, he is who he is now. He has sucked up his infancy and his toddlerhood like a self-cleaning snail. Our friends’ child will do the same.


As I mentioned last week, one of the books that I brought home from storage last week was Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed. Koestler did not actually write a book with this title; “The Watershed” is the fourth part of his survey of the origins of modern cosmology, The Sleepwalkers (1959). Some gang of bright lights decided that the thick central portion of The Sleepwalkers, which tells the story of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), ought to be excerpted in a book of its own, as part of a series of “up-to-date, authoritative, and readable science books.” I shan’t know why until I read the intact original; it’s still in print, and I’ve ordered a copy. When it arrives, I may get rid of The Watershed. It is riddled with embarrassing marginalia and underlinings, almost all of which reveal an intellect in its toddler phase.

I’m not sure that I knew what a watershed was, when I read the book in college, and even now that I understand what Koestler is trying to say, I question the metaphor. Koestler’s subject, so brilliantly exemplified by Kepler, is the transition from one comprehensive world-view to a very different one. Kepler does indeed stand at the watershed of the new dispensation — way up there in the hills among countless little streams that have not yet been collected into a big river. But he also stood in the twilight of the classical outlook, which had been developed nearly two millennia earlier by Aristotle and Ptolemy. Twilight is not a water image. If you insist on finding a water image for Kepler’s relation to what had gone before, the Nile delta (or the Louisiana bayous) seems most apt — which is fine, but rather impossible to hook up to a watershed.

The just-so story about modern science is that the Aristotelian, Ptolemaic worldview had to be “overthrown” in order for new ideas to thrive. What new ideas? I come back to the clock, the history of which captured my fancy last fall. (30 September 2015) Koestler quotes Kepler likening the universe to a clock; whether he was the first to do so, it was an idea that would capture the attention of almost every intelligent mind over the next two centuries. The kernel of explosive novelty here is that the universe worked like a machine. It partook of the same substance as that of sublunary earth. It was not composed of “ether”; it was not exempt from the laws of physical causality that operate on earth. For this reason, Kepler could not permit himself to do what astronomers had been doing since antiquity: fudge. His preliminary theory about the orbit of Mars was plausible enough until he submitted it to the test of some rare observations that Tycho Brahe had made. The result was an eight-minute error in the arc of the orbit. That would have been negligible in the old days, when ten minutes was an acceptable tolerance. Tycho’s precision instruments, and the multitude of observations that he had made with them, drastically reduced the permissible margin for error. Eight minutes was too gross. Years of work (calculations made without the aid of a computer) turned to ash.

Tycho is perhaps the real draw in The Watershed, partly because he was such a character (but then, so was Kepler), mostly because he stance in relation to science is modern. Tycho was mad for metrics. He discovered just one thing: “that astronomy needed precise and continuous observational data. (88) Copernicus deployed a total of twenty-six astronomical observations in support of his heliocentric theory. Tycho amassed thousands of observations, whether or not in support of any theory. Tycho did have a theory, but aside from being wrong it was unoriginal — as indeed was Copernicus’s. Almost every imaginable theory had been put forward in Classical Antiquity. Most theories were discounted because they flouted higher-order theories about how the world must work, such as Plato’s notion (not original) that the planets must move in uniform circular motion. Kepler was perhaps to abandon this pair of notions (uniform motion, circular) in a statement about reality. Kepler didn’t claim that astronomical phenomena made sense if you imagined that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits, and at such varying speeds that equal areas of those orbits were swept in equal amounts of time. Kepler claimed that planets really did travel in ellipses, and sweep equal areas in equal time. He did not undo Aristotelian theory so much as replace the Aristotelian universe.

And yet he never shook off the quasi-mysticism that had surrounded numbers since Pythagoras and before. Kepler never abandoned the idea that the orbits of the planets are at such a distance from the sun that — fasten your seatbelts; there are going to be some bumpy words — the orbit of Mercury can be fitted into a dodecahedron, that of Venus into an icosahedron, that of the earth into an octahedron, Mars into a tetrahedron, and Jupiter into a cube, leaving the one-sided perfect solid, the sphere, to Saturn. This is pure moonshine, and Kepler could never have demonstrated that it was true, but he never really tried. Perhaps he knew better than to try.

Galileo, however, is in contrast a wholly modern figure, and Koestler loathes him. Galileo represents a serious problem of modern science, which is that great genius is exhibited by “moral dwarves.” When Koestler is finished with him, Galileo is lost to heroism forever. He is a brilliant opportunist who never says thank you but who will use the worst language in the world if you cross him. Koestler explains that Galileo never in fact languished in Vatican dungeons, but he doesn’t mention the house arrest that confined Galileo to him home and garden for decades, which I used to regard as undue hardship. Not anymore.

Koestler quotes a remark of Alfred North Whitehead that seems to me to explain a great deal of what’s distinctive about the Western World.

All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in “irreducible and stubborn fact; all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization which forms the novelty in our present society.

Koestler makes the case for Kepler as one of the first men to harmonize these habits of mind.


Although I sound like a know-it-all most of the time, I am really the one who is learning here. Yesterday, for example, I learned, as I wrote, that my idea of “the élite” is much larger and more comprehensive than I might have thought when I first took up my battle with the word, which struck me as a puzzle because the first thing that I noticed about it in general, journalistic use was that nobody admits to belonging to it. There are minds that would respond to this phenomenon by postulating the existence of a small band of conspirators, secretly running the world from mountain fastnesses — Davos! But I knew from my own life that that wasn’t true. Davos is just a lot of hot air, and a group of three or more people cannot be counted on to keep a secret. But it was only this week that I realized that I can see no reason to exclude from the élite anyone who has any discretionary authority whatever over how other people behave. This means, for example, that everyone who writes code for a smartphone is a member of the élite. It may mean that the school nurse is a member of the élite. Anyone to whom discretion over anything has been delegated is in the club.

Club? Anyone to whom discretion has been delegated has been saddled with responsibilities. We are living in a world that likes to pretend that this isn’t so. Whenever possible, people claim to be acting under orders. But it is rarely true. Every police officer makes countless personal decisions, and I daresay that most officers make very many good ones and very few bad ones. But I should be happier if I had reason to believe that policemen knew more about the development of the society that is under their supervision. Why is our world like this and not like that? I dismiss out of hand the idea that men in blue are intellectually incapable of overcoming a few popular mythologies.

Anyway, I saw that it is possible for the number of members of the élite to exceed that of the non-members. This is a fantastically good thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Simplex Heritage
July 2016 (I)

5, 6, 8 July

Tuesday 5th

Over the weekend, I read Ben Lerner’s tract, The Hatred of Poetry. I haven’t read Lerner’s poems, but I did like his two novels, or at least I read them with interest. I didn’t much care for the protagonists, very well-read men with no sense of direction. The Lerner of Hatred is no different. Again, he writes very well, but the things that bother him are not the things that bother me. Which is fine with me but not, perhaps, with him; for he is preoccupied by universal truths and realizations of the ideal and I am asking myself, why? Why is Ben Lerner concerned by what Plato has to say about poetry? Why, in the Twenty-First Century, is anyone?

I am always going on about the importance of history: we can never know enough about the past. But this is not the same thing as looking to the past, especially the distant past, for “answers.” The past is full of mistakes that we must hope not to repeat. Plato was a contemptuous misanthropist who had a few big ideas, all of them wrong. Unlike Aristotle, who stumbled through fields of learning with an open mind but inadequate tools, and whose thoughts are full of insight even though his understanding of science is hopeless, Plato was an mechanic with a horror of the organic squishiness that makes life possible. His political thinking, in particular, is nothing but a catalogue of errors, as we have good reason to know, looking back as we can on recent attempts to realize the totalitarian potential of Plato’s ideas.

Ben Lerner, instead, “acquired my idealism via Platonic contempt.” The Hatred of Poetry is a book about the peculiar idealism that mourns the failure of “Poetry” to transcend human limitations. If it were a meditation on Keats’s “ditties of no tone,” it might actually attain to poetry itself, instead of being a whine in prose. To hate poetry because it doesn’t live up to its superhuman billing — how is this not merely childish? How is it unlike the addict’s inevitable frustration with the need for ever more powerful stimulants, or John Ashbery’s lament that life cannot be one endless orgasm?

But I digress. I wanted to rap Ben Lerner’s knuckles about something completely different: his take on the first line of a terrible poem by William Topaz McGonagall, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Now, the poem is really and truly terrible, but what Lerner has to say about its first line made me uneasy. Here is the first line:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay

Inane it might be, but it reads fluidly enough. Not to Lerner, though. Lerner devotes a paragraph to describing what he sees as a “mishmash of meters,” “the mismatch of duple and triple measure” in this line. This would be more compelling if another the first line of another poem, widely, I believe, considered to be competent at least, did not surface like the great Tay whale:

They that have power to hurt and will do none

There is no questioning the manifest superiority of the beginning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, and McGonnagal’s verse has an extra (but insignificant) syllable (“the”). But the two lines read much the same to me, so far as mere meter is concerned. True, “will do none” could, and probably ought to be read spondaically, as a series of equally tonic words, but Lerner’s criticism focuses on the first three feet, where Shakespeare and McGonnagal are identical. Why didn’t Lerner think of Shakespeare? He’s the poet, after all.

What I can’t answer is why I knew about McGonagall, why I had a copy of Pegasus Descending, the collection of very bad verse that Lerner mentions, in my library. How did I learn about this awful stuff, which really is too ghastly to be funny?


We are approaching the time for setting aside this experiment and consolidating its conclusions in some other form. It’s not that I’m repeating myself, although I certainly am repeating myself. It’s that some things have become very clear in the past couple of years, and have become clear because I have tried to abandon conventional forms while still attempting to make sense. The forms are those of journalism, such as the review, the political analysis, the (brief) history of current affairs or of the development of scientific understanding, just plain news stories, and, latterly, the personal history. Journalism is a sprawling field. I want to write as though it were small enough to fit inside me — because it is.

I want to write about how everything that I know is connected to everything else, and about how the connections, while intelligible, remain unique to me. How to make my difference clear to another reader — clear, that is, and not an irritation that provokes reflexive disagreement, or shock or disgust — that is what I’m after. How to write a text that is neither larger nor smaller than I am — how, quite literally, to take my own measure. But: strictly as a social being, as person who reads and writes. I don’t want to write about myself at all, except insofar as I have responses to some of those phenomena that might be apparent to everyone.

Growing up in the ever-more permissive Sixties, I watched so many barriers fall that I wondered if they all would. I very nearly lived in a commune, an undertaking that attempted the dissolution of boundaries between people. Eventually, I learned that the body is an imperishable boundary — imperishable so long as the body is alive. When the body dies, the boundary disappears because the person inside it ceases to exist. This is very hard to accept as a practical matter, as I’ve learned with age from the death of friends and acquaintances. How can it be that these people no longer exist? Conversely, how did the world ever fail to contain my grandson? I never had the same doubt about my daughter, because I was so young myself when she was born; and nobody near me had died since childhood, when I was too young to know my grandparents well enough to lose them. When my own parents died, it was after many-staged illnesses that prepared me for their deaths. But when an old friend died a few years after the last time I’d seen him, when he looked as healthy as ever, I couldn’t compute. He left a vacuum, a vacuum powerful enough to tempt one to dwell on thoughts of the afterlife.

One of these days, I, too, shall leave a vacuum. I want what I write to fill that vacuum. I want it to sound like me. And yet I don’t want it to be about me, because I don’t really know anything about that. To know about me, you have to be somebody else. What was it like when I came into the room? I’ll never know, not really; and, what’s more, I should prefer not to know. What was it like “to be me”? Forgettable, for the most part. Such thrills and ills as there were will remain fantasies to you, fantasies that you conjure from I say about the thrills and that you resist when I talk about the ills. Insofar as I was just myself, not connected to something that others could see as well, I was nothing, nothing but a organism of processes generally ubiquitous but personally unique, broadly understandable but incomprehensible in detail. My shorthand word for all of this part of life is “plumbing.” The effects of good or bad plumbing can be apparent to others, but the experience itself does not admit of articulation, precisely because words are shared but plumbing is not. Because I can’t tell you about it, I’m not interested in it. Good fortune is largely a matter of unobtrusive plumbing.

What is special about my life — the reason why an account of it, and especially my account of it, might be interesting — is the unusual opportunity that I have had to live as a philosopher. With academic or systemic philosophy I have had nothing to do — nothing since nodding over Hume. But instead of a career I have had a pasture. I have not tried to accomplish anything except the expression of ideas, and I believe that I have been blessed with the ability to judge those expressions. (The persistence to improve them appears to have come of itself.) When I find myself saying the same thing several times, I begin to wonder why, and curiosity carries me to another level of connection. One thing that I should like to work out is an internally consistent but extended discussion of what it means to be “conservative,” and the connection between a “conservative” outlook and the accrual of experience over time. I should like to write about the conservative outlook without using the word “conservative,” if for no other reason than my hunch that every truly conservative person is profoundly liberal.

I have come to understand — we all know this, but few of us have the time to understand it — that everyone is different, that “e pluribus unum” is an impossibility even in the case of a pluribus of two. At the same time, it is not at all problematic if you stop thinking about identities and consider instead a multitude of interactions within a system of conventions. There would be no Interstate Highways if e pluribus unum were not in some way quite readily realizable. At the same time, the system of drivers, all following the same rules at any given moment, is not as interesting as the system of audience members in a theatre or a concert hall, responding to a performance. The most interesting, the most vital conventional systems are those in which discussion takes place. In discussion, people undertake to express their differences without permitting those differences to create interference. Language is the grandest convention of them all.

Another thing that I have come to understand is that there will always be an élite, or a constellation of élites, or however you want to put it. (By “always,” I mean the foreseeable future.) There have always been élites, but they used to be taken for granted. We tend to fixate on the élite now because our social conventions allow the élite to exercise its power so obliquely that we don’t know exactly who they are, the people with power. And what do we mean by “power”? A policeman certainly has a kind of power, but does he belong to the élite? No. And yet the Mayor or the President is almost certainly never going to tell you what to do. Power is very widely distributed in our society, and its efficiency depends upon its not being felt very often. The élite of today, in fact, is comprised of all those people who claim not to belong to the élite — for it never occurs to those who really don’t belong to insist upon the fact.

There is an understanding abroad that membership in the élite entails vague but oppressive responsibilities. My hunch is that the responsibilities are oppressive only because they are vague; no one has worked them out in detail. We have an educational system that is still based on a model of academic scholarship that has no bearing on the lives of most people, least of all the élites who oversee the organization of society. Sciences and professions are all very well, but all the specialized skills in the world are not going to turn on the lights without an understanding of the human nature that expresses itself in millions of different ways. Permit me to replace “human nature” with “human variety.”

For example, I was thinking, yesterday, of one of my billionaire projects. I have about five or six of these: what I would do if I were a billionaire. One thing that I should do would be to start a new kind of college. I’ve touched on it before. Students would have to be in their twenties, with some practical work experience behind them, the point of the experience being not the job itself but the contact with other working people as well as the responsibilities of maintaining adult autonomy — seeing to one’s own food, clothing, and shelter. Classes would consist of seminars, in which readings would be discussed. Et cetera and so forth.

I was thinking about the teachers. I should want to pay the teachers well, but I should also want the flexibility to hire and fire teachers readily, in order to find out what works. What kind of people ought to teach? I’m assuming, you see, that we don’t know. The question I was left with was why anybody would sign up to be a teacher in my highly unstable college. What if I guaranteed salaries for a few years? As a billionaire, I could afford to do that. (I should be spending little or nothing on the construction of “facilities” — seminars would take place in apartment living rooms.) But how to distinguish teachers who tried to teach well but failed from opportunists who went straight to the guarantee after a deliberately sloppy performance? In no time at all, my fantasy had crashed. Human variety makes it impossible to predict what would happen, in the circumstances stated. Clearly, there need to be more circumstances.

This is what, among others, behavioral economists are trying to grasp. What are the circumstances in which people will act simultaneously in their own interest and for the common good? There can be no answer that predicts the behavior of every person on earth, but there can be answers, probably, that predict fairly well what large groups of people with some shared background, or perhaps complementary backgrounds, will do. I myself am not deeply engaged in such inquiry. All I want to do is observe that theories about how people behave are always going to dampen our awareness of the circumstances in which they do behave, at least when theories proliferate, as they tend do to, from earlier theories, and not from the study of circumstances. I don’t think that we know very much about how to study circumstances, and I think we’re wasting our time on theories. You have only to consider the popularity of Donald Trump to see what I mean.


Wednesday 6th

At first, I was going to blame the weather, but it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. In fact, I’m staying home today (and writing) because I’m convalescing. It has been about a week since I felt this good, or this far from bad, and I want to enjoy it. Running down to the storage unit and packing more boxes of books to get rid of would be virtuous, certainly, but everyday virtue rarely justifies a relapse. What is my malady? I usually call it fatigue, and leave it at that. “Fatigue” is the name that I can put on a plumbing problem. I am, or have been, after all, tired. For about five or six days, including almost every moment of the holiday weekend, I was so tired that my appetite for living curdled, and took on the worrying coloration of its opposite.

If I try to explain the symptoms further, I will inspire in you the kind of fantasy response that I wrote about yesterday. If I were to describe what I called the thrills in my life — and it will be a test of your adulthood that you can figure out what I mean by that — then you would respond, helplessly, with fantasies of your own, and no greater understanding of me. If I were to describe the ills, I wrote, the result would be “fantasies that you resist,” and one of the best ways to resist imagining the pain of others, to forestall painful sympathy, is to play doctor. I tell you what hurts, and you tell me what to do, or what I ought to have done, or how I have jeopardized my life itself by behaving stupidly. And you might be right. But the indulgence would not make the world a better place. As it happens I am well attended-to by real doctors. And good ones. They are not going to make me live forever; on the contrary, they are going to take the full measure of me and deal realistically with that.

So fatigue it is. I stayed in bed after Kathleen left for work, not least because she told me to. I dozed and then I slept. When I woke up, I felt comfortable, which was good, but the comfort was too lively, so I got up, and here I am. I’ll stay here today, and visit the storage unit tomorrow, when, if today goes well, I’ll be stronger.


There is a remarkable juxtaposition of articles in this week’s New Yorker. Both concern presidential campaigns. Adam Gopnik writes about Iceland’s. George Saunders writes about Donald Trump’s. And that seems par, at first, because Gopnik is level-headed (although very colorful, as befits a former art critic), and Saunders is, well, “imaginative.” I avoid science fiction and fantasy as a rule, and I observe this rule with something like grim determination, but I make an exception, which I don’t even try to explain, for George Saunders. Somehow, Saunders does not cause the horripilations that make those genres creepy and illiterate. Perhaps that’s because he is really writing fairy tales. Fairy tales always have a strong moral point. They do not end on a note of “what does it all mean?” Everything that Saunders writes convinces me that he knows what it all means, and my only fear is that he will tell it more explicitly than he does.

So the editors seem to have done the normal thing, assigning a sober writer to a sober subject, and allowing the surrealist to have fun in the dark carnival of resentment that Trump sets up wherever he goes. But something happens, and this is the remarkable part. It is Adam Gopnik’s story that strains credulity. As someone tells him, Icelanders suffer from “ecstatic numeric aphasia.” I don’t know what this means, but it has something to do with the fact that there are about as many people in that country as there are in his congressional district here in New York. How can you have a country with so few people? The internet tells me that there are more people in Wyoming, and more than twice as many people in Alaska — all still well under a million each. There is that other question: why does anyone live there, where “any good June day” dawns “overcast and in the forties”? Is Iceland a joke?

This is not a question that comes up in George Saunders’s piece. Saunders has only one question, and he poses it as a statement at the very end. I have been asking the same question myself in these pages for several years, every now and then, but Saunders writes with much greater authority, because (a) he is not only a published author but a respected writing teacher and (b) he got in his car and went to the rallies: his report is what they used to call “first hand.” “Trump Days” is a triumph of journalism. And yet it seems wrong to speak of triumph in a context of such sadness and confusion.

The piece “has everything.” There’s the data-driven nitty-gritty of Saunders’s response to the claim, made by a husband-and-wife couple of Trumpies (as Saunders calls the supporters throughout), that there are more people “on welfare” under Obama than there were under Bush. Saunders checks this out, and learns that it is correct, but far from the whole picture. The whole picture is made up of data that support inconsistent conclusions. The whole picture is too complicated to understand in less than a semester of lectures at Johns Hopkins or the University of Chicago. There is almost no point in trying to discuss it publicly. I was thinking along these very lines the other day, when I was wondering over dinner with Kathleen how many Americans believe that Hitler “took over” in 1932-3, that he seized power by non-democratic means. How Hitler did in fact come to power is also a very complicated picture, but it seems to have been effected according to the rules — which were, of course, immediately scrapped. The point is that Americans, and advocates of democracy everywhere, seem to believe that nothing bad can happen if there are genuine, honest elections. The consequence is that the fact of Election Day relieves Americans from doing the kind of homework — about economic issues, immigration issues, about how Washington works, all of it. Everything is more or less too complicated to understand, unless you’re like me and have all the time in the world plus a patiently educated mind plus a conviction that sound bites are meaningless. And yet every voter is expected to make an intelligent choice.

When Saunders talks to Trumpies, he asks them to back up their claims, and the supporting evidence always turns out to be pathetic. Claims about globalization and immigration turn out to be validated, for their proponents by something as piddling as the layoff of a friend’s friend last week — one. Or a neighbor who keeps goats and chickens, endangering the Trumpie’s property value; whether “documented” or not, this neighbor is “not assimilated.” The interesting thing, of course, is that the Trumpies are so forthcoming with these ludicrous vapors. You wonder why they don’t mind being challenged. The reason for that, it seems, is Saunders’s manner. He asks them without interrogating them. He may not support Trump, but he does feel their pain.

Something is wrong, the common person feels, correctly; she works too hard and gets too little; a dulling disconnect exists between her actual day-to-day interests and (1) the way her leaders act and speak, and (2) the way our mass media mistell or fail entirely to tell her story. What does she want? Someone to notice her over there, having her troubles.

That would be George. At several points in “Trump Days,” Saunders gives the impression that all that the Trumpies want is someone to listen to them. If they believed that their elected representatives had their interests at heart, they would not be showing up for Trump’s raucous rallies. But they have no reason to believe any such thing, and those of us who enjoy more prosperous and informed lives have had every reason to know about this problem since the time of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, of which Trump’s campaign is the latest fart. The Southern Strategy convinced Southern voters that the African-Americans among whom they had lived their entire lives were alien others, and probably pathological criminals. (Why did they fall for it? Why did Bosnian Christians believe overnight that their Muslim neighbors were preparing to slaughter them?) Over the ensuing decades, the Identi-Kit picture, as it were, of the Other has shifted, and it no longer comprises every brown face as a matter of course; Trumpies aren’t lying when they deny that they’re racists, if that’s what you mean by racist. But they are no less anxious about the Other, and they feel no less betrayed by an élite that has given the Other free rein to compete for jobs and health care.

Saunders writes two extremely good paragraphs about the American and the Other, and the violence that half of America “has always held … nearby.” But this does not exonerate failed American leaders. There are no American leaders. We have only demagogues, politicians who exploit native weaknesses for personal gain. Representation is notional, and election districts have been so extensively gerrymandered that the question of representation abscesses beneath a bandage of apparent homogeneity. Politicians derive their credibility from other politicians. They make no attempt to lead their constituents — to inform them, to advise them, to counsel them, or, most of all, to educate them. All of this requires a degree of inspiration that only an élite alive to its responsibilities can instill in its young. But our élite is just like every other group in the country: benefits are welcome; burdens are shunned.

There is a moment of delicious personal history, when Saunders admits to having been a fan of Ayn Rand in college, where he was an aggrieved budding Republican, trying to concoct a story that would find heroic qualities in his thoroughly lack-luster academic performance. (Tell us about your Emmaus moment, George.) There is the perfect metaphor for describing Trumpies:

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.

The autobiographical detail and the dream metaphor both conspicuously lack leaders, figures of natural authority who might nip fabulist inclinations in the bud. Leaders are people whom we admire. Who is there to admire in the land of television? Increasingly, only cynics are admirable, because they get away with stuff.

That’s why all the exposés about Donald Trump’s personal and business history are so much less devastating than pundits used to expect them to be. Isn’t Trump saying, at each rally, something like this: “I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, because that’s what it takes to get ahead in this world; but, because I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, that is the one thing that I am not going to say, because it’s true.” You cannot deny that this is an exciting message. To use the language favored by the politically correct, it is “transgressive” — electrically, ecstatically so.

I found the ending of “Trump Days” to be very surprising. I had thought that anyone capable of writing the vividly critical fiction that George Saunders has produced would have long ago accepted the very dismal possibility that America might be “fragile,” might be “an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.” For a moment, Saunders sounded like one of his distraught characters, like the dad in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, etc, etc) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

And after all that, look where we are.

Is unfortunate.

In this unforgettable story, the experiment may not have failed, but it is no longer worth pursuing. At least the picture painted by “Trump Days” is not that bad. Really not.


Friday 8th

“So,” said Kathleen after dinner last night, “are you happy to have the gas back on?” Then she said, “Silly question.” But it wasn’t entirely silly, because, as I sat there a moment, before removing the plates, I was conscious of having worked to put this meal on the table. I’d had three of the four burners on the stove going, and the oven as well. I had timed everything nicely, something that is always harder than it looks. I had wanted to serve dinner pretty much the moment Kathleen walked in, an objective that ruled out those holding patterns that permit me to sit down for a spell and read. I had been on the go.

But yes, of course, I was happy to have the gas back on. Well — I was already beginning to take it for granted. After two months, making do with electric appliances — an oven just big enough not to be labeled “toaster,” a rectangular, immersible frypan, a hotplate, and an electric kettle — had gone from being resourceful and unfazed to tedious and demoralizing. Two months had shown that about half of my already reduced repertoire of dishes for two simply didn’t taste as good without the gas. I don’t altogether know why. I do know that the electric oven simply wouldn’t get hot enough to broil chicken, which is what I decided to make the minute the Con Ed men left (I had a packet of brined thighs and drumsticks in the freezer, and enough time to defrost them in a teriyaki marinade). Last night’s chicken was crisp and juicy and delicious. It was a dish that I resolved not to attempt until the gas came back on, and I was right.

I suppose that I felt the relief of any good cook. If I had to work more, I didn’t have to think so much.

I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it seems that electric heat cycles (much as gas ovens do); the heating element is either on or off. When you turn the dial to a particular level, you simply evoke a ratio between the two states that will average in the desired temperature. This was particularly noticeable in the electric frypan, which turned out to be good for breakfasts and not much else. The strips of bacon would sizzle, then they would stop sizzling. Then they would sizzle again. In this way, they cooked very nicely, but of course it seemed half the time that they weren’t cooking at all.

I had intended, at the outset, to expand my electric-kitchen skills. But I never baked anything in the oven except potatoes. I never attempted a soufflé, although I hope to do so now. It would be great if the electric oven could function as a second oven — the feature, to my thinking, that distinguishes a real kitchen from a mere galley. I meant to make a crumb cake, and to bake a loaf of white bread (for French toast), but I never did, partly because I wasn’t feeling well. (I had begun to feel better this week, so who knows.) Any experiments with the electric oven going forward will be cushioned by the confidence that dishes cooked on the stove will be as tasty as usual. And I won’t be wondering, when are they going to turn it back on? Have they forgotten me?

We thought that the outage would last longer, especially given the size of the building. All those lines to test; all those apartments to access! The worst part was learning, last week if not earlier, that the gas had been restored to some apartments. If there had been a posted schedule, the delay would have been more bearable, but of course there wasn’t.

Anyway, it’s over. The frypan (having been immersed in the dishwasher) and the hotplate have been tucked back into the cabinet over the refrigerator, behind a row of cookbooks. I’m thinking of getting a new hotplate; maybe there’s a better one out there. (I’ll know what to look for.) The one that I have been using got rather dirty in hard-to-clean ways. The frypan, in contrast, is pristine. The electric oven will keep its counter space, as of course will the kettle. I’ve always had an electric kettle, to boil water for tea and coffee, but I decided to leave the old kettle in the old apartment when we moved downstairs. Rather, I decided not to replace it — not right away. Instead, I used this fabulously expensive stainless steel kettle from England — I regarded it as the Aga of teakettles. I like to think that it was the last status acquisition that I shall ever fall for. It had a piercing, irritating whistle, and it took forever to heat up. Perhaps you’ve seen it. The base of the kettle is ringed by a dense coil, the purpose of which I never could imagine. By the time I put it away, on top of the cabinet over the refrigerator, I had extracted the maximum of pleasure from seeing it on the stove.


As suggested here, the day before, I meant to go to the storage unit yesterday. But as I was reading the Times, I learned that Con Ed would be coming (to do what, I wasn’t sure), and that I ought to stay home. But I didn’t want to stay home; I wanted to go the storage unit, not only to continue the project of boxing up books to discard, but to look for the two thick literary biographies by Hermione Lee (of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton) that I couldn’t believe I’d banished from the house. Where else, however, could they be? I looked everywhere, and then I looked everywhere again. They must be in storage! The itch to find them made every other occupation irksome. I could not write. I could not see to a thousand little tasks, of a hundred different varieties. I could barely read, so antsy and floundering was I. Imagine my delight — you can’t! — when the doorbell suddenly rang at about twelve thirty. The men were in and out of the apartment within ten minutes, and I was out of the apartment within the hour.

The books were there, in a teetering stack on my old dresser. My old dresser was part of the “suite” of bedroom furniture that I grew up with, and it’s odd that I still have it. My parents, clearly already afraid of where my emerging sensibility might carry me, thought it best to offset my delicacy with the robust atmosphere of the Old West. My twin beds, nightstand, and dresser were finished in natural oak; I already preferred mahogany, or at least something that didn’t require sunglasses. Now I can appreciate that the finish was the full extent of the cowboy element. The pieces were not ungracefully routed with motifs that, while perhaps not actually Mexican, belonged in a proper home and not a bunkhouse.

I got rid of the twin beds and the nightstand in 1977, after I moved back into my parents’ house. This move was not the retrograde action that it might have been. First of all, my mother was dying, of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. We knew it, but she didn’t, and my helping out at home was part of the ruse. What she was told was also true: I was bound to get into law school somewhere, so I’d be leaving within about a year. (As it happened, she died a week before the first letter of acceptance arrived.) After she died, I made a few changes (all paid for by Dad, of course). I replaced the twin beds with a full-sized mattress and frame, with a simple headboard. But I kept the dresser. Now that it was in Texas, where it belonged, it looked okay. I went off to law school, and time passed. Later, when my stepmother moved back to Brooklyn after my father’s death, and my sister divided the furniture in his apartment, the dresser was shipped back to New York. I used it in our bedroom at the lake house, and then brought it back to the apartment when the lake-house chapter came to an end. A few years ago, I sent it to the storage unit. I have tried to find another home for it — I hoped that my grandson might grow up with it — but there were no takers. It sits in storage still, and who knows what will happen to it when we finally evacuate the unit. There is absolutely no room for it in this apartment.

Anywhere, that’s where the books were. I remembered taking huge loads of very good books to storage when we moved into this apartment. The decisions were not always very good ones. I’m sure I thought that I could always bring books back — which is true, but which overlooks the awful inertia of storage units, which can go unvisited for years, if there is no program of periodic stock-taking. There was another inertia at work as well. Once we got the apartment looking good, we relaxed and enjoyed it. Everything stayed more or less where it was, for about a year. Only this spring did I begin questioning the arrangement of certain kitchen cabinets, for example. At about the same time, I got serious about cataloguing the books that I can’t see because they’re ranged behind rows of other books. Until these recent developments, the effect of the combined forces of resistance was that the theory that I could bring back books anytime I wanted to was disproved by my ignorance of where the books actually were.

(I pause to consider the reader of a century hence: will the problems of owning a lot of books still be familiar? If not, will it be because people have learned to live without books, or because book technology has made better use of technology? I envision a GPS system that can locate any book instantly, that could even find books that I wasn’t looking for — as my own hands did yesterday, uncovering, in the process of sorting books, Ivan Morris’s edition of The Pillow Book, Koestler’s book about Kepler (which Kathleen and I had been talking about), and Balzac’s Le Curé de Tours. In the future, will libraries be enriched by the inevitability of forgetting what is in them?)

I wanted Lee’s biography of Woolf because I wanted to refresh my memory of Sidney Saxon. This member of the Bloomsbury Group so enthralled the others with the flow of his magnificent conversation that a stenographer was hired to take down his every remark, sitting in a chair in the corridor outside the drawing room. It was discovered, to general dismay, that the flash of the man’s talk did not transcribe very well; in fact, there was nothing at all remarkable in the whole extent of his utterance. My memory was indeed in serious need of refreshment, because there wasn’t anybody called “Sidney Saxon” in Woolf’s life, and the Saxon Sydney-Turner who was seems unlikely to have spellbound anyone; his Wikipedia entry notes how little he talked at meetings of the Apostles at Cambridge. So, of whom am I thinking? And why did this anecdote seem pressing? I shall have to re-read Lee.

Right now, I am reading Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz. It has been in my fiction pile for a very long time. Since November 2012, to be exact — as I just found out by “trying” to buy it again at Amazon. I forget the impulse behind the purchase. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like the novel before me, which is indeed a masterpiece. I don’t think I’d have bought it if I’d known. I managed to turn Kathleen resolutely against the idea of reading it by telling her, last night over crispy broiled chicken — no, it was the curried squash soup that we had as a first (because I manage a first course with a real stove)! — about the suave merchant and his rigorously disciplined family. To tell the story that Mahfouz tells, but without telling it exactly as he does, is to ruin it, to make it sound like an awful nightmare. To read the actual novel is a strange delight. Sure, you can indulge your outrage, shooting off on anti-Islamic tangents (the patriarchy! the misogyny!). But the whole point is to enter the family, not to criticize it; to appreciate, as best one can, what it must be like to grow up in a certain kind of world.

My copy of To the Lighthouse is missing. I’m sure I’ve lost it somewhere.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Act IV
June 2016 (III)

27, 28, 30 June; 1 July

Monday 27th

On Saturday, I finished reading three big books, one in the afternoon, one in the evening, and one after dinner — which may explain why I watched Carol last night. It’s a film that Kathleen hasn’t wanted to see; Todd Haynes’s melancholy isn’t what she looks for in a movie. But Kathleen was in California, having left before dawn for Dana Point. My own expectations were mixed. I hadn’t read The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s second novel (which Carol adapts), but six or seven other novels (aside from the Ripleys) have left me with the sense of a strangely resentful writer. Highsmith always has a story to tell, but she is impatient with the need to write it all down. She can’t wait to be done, but she does want to linger over the discomfort. Having read a bit of biography, too, I know that Highsmith was very unhappy in love — and liked it that way. I met her once, at a book signing for the last Ripley, not long before her death. I told her that my favorite novel was Edith’s Diary. (It still is.) She almost moaned in response. “That was a very difficult time for me.” But when weren’t times difficult for this involuted woman?

And I haven’t been much in the mood for melancholy myself, lately; I’ve been producing enough of my own. But I myself was very curious to see how Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would play together onscreen. That turns out to be just what the movie is about. Carol gives Blanchett an opportunity to make over the imperious carapace that she donned for Blue Jasmine, and Mara responds with a more attractive version of the girl in Side Effects. Blanchett is leonine; Mara is mousey. Which is to say that Carol is hungry, while Therese wants to be swallowed up. I think that the key to the film is that these two women never quarrel. They are always warm together, even when Therese seems to think that this might not be a good idea. How long their harmony will last is not an interesting question, because the only answer is that it will last as long as it lasts. The interesting thing is to watch how it starts. The two actresses and their director make this so compelling that I was almost disappointed when carnality plowed its way upstage.

There are two sides to the beginning of any romance, and, correspondingly, two ways of presenting it. Every new love, especially for the young, “feels right.” This gratifying sensation not only sanctifies the relationship but absolves all transgressions. At the same time, new love is a betrayal or an abandonment of everything familiar: old friends and old places lose their appeal. There is a shame in rejecting familiar, once-cherished things. This is the side that Todd Haynes lingers over. True, his lovers are women in a time of intolerance — such intolerance that they are almost lucky to huddle beside the distraction of Joe McCarthy’s antics — but their guilty excitement will be familiar to anyone who has surrendered to someone new before quite closing off relations with someone old. Haynes materializes their giddiness in the rain-spotted windows of automobiles, through which the camera cannot hold its focus.

Cate Blanchett plays the wealthy matron who encounters Rooney Mara’s circumspect shopgirl on a Christmas-shopping errand. Draped in a rich mink that is nevertheless outshone by her impeccable blonde coif, Carol is the picture of a predator, but she turns out to have more to lose than Therese does. Therese, a budding photographer, travels light. Carol cannot: she has a four year-old daughter, and she must share the child with a rich businessman who refuses to understand why Carol prefers the company of other woman and resists her desire for a divorce. I must say that Kyle Chandler is perfectly cast as Harge Aird, the exasperated husband. Everything about his face — his boyish manliness, his pink cheeks and his five-o’clock shadow, his petulant heteronormativity — makes him a dangerous opponent. When he insists on taking the child to his parents’ house for the Christmas holidays, Carol comes up with the idea of inviting her new friend on a Lolita-like tour of American motels. It doesn’t take long for her to be tracked down, and for her transports to be taped by a detective. When Harge moves for permanent and total custody of the little girl, Carol heels to his whistle. Her best friend and old flame, Abby (Sarah Paulson) flies out to drive Therese (and Carol’s Packard) home.

While we’re on the subject of men, Jake Lacy deserves credit for his compleat impersonation of the annoying boyfriend, the kind with expectations where his ears ought to be. It is impossible for me to avoid surmising that the great attraction of lesbian life isn’t the absence of men. I understand that it is more positive than that, a matter of genuine same-sex attraction. But there is still an asymmetry between men and women here. Todd Haynes is electrically alive to the intolerable presumptuousness of men. What amazes me is that a man born in 1961 has developed such an expertise regarding the look and feel of the United States ten years earlier. In one of the early department-store scenes, Blanchett is clearly meant to stand out in a sea of frumpy, discontented women — but that’s how I remember them, and I’m about the age of Carol’s daughter. Where did all those sagging, sore-footed women go? It’s a good thing that they went away.


Now for the three books. The last shall be first, as it was the first that I began to read. This was back in the fall of 2014, when Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald came out. I had read three of Fitzgerald’s novels before; now I read the rest, alongside the biography’s engrossing discussions of them. Until, that is, I got to the last one, The Blue Flower. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to read The Blue Flower. It had something to do with German Romanticism, of which Fitzgerald’s hero, Friedrich von Hardenberg (who adopted the nom de plume Novalis), was a principal exponent. It had something to do with everybody’s dying young of tuberculosis. It had something to do with the title; I can’t think why, but the title seems hopelessly wet. It wasn’t until last month, May 2016, that I finally got to it. Only then could I finish Lee’s biography; for I could hardly follow a highly literate essay about an unread book. On Sunday, looking for something to move on to, I found Lee’s book in a pile on the book room desk, and was soon done with it.

Something else that kept me from The Blue Flower was my very protracted detour into the work of Fitzgerald’s younger friend, the other Penelope — Penelope Lively. I have even re-read a few of these. If I can’t think of anything else to read, I know that Lively will entertain me in the most agreeable way. Whereas I don’t know what to make of Fitzgerald. Which is fine, especially as I do know that I want to re-read Innocence, and perhaps Human Voices. Fitzgerald reminds me of other writers, or, rather, her subject-matter does. Innocence inspired me to re-read Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday, a book set in much the same time and place. The Beginning of Spring sowed the idea of re-reading The Idiot. Fitzgerald seems to disappear into her widely-ranged contexts; she is the very opposite of Ivy Compton-Burnett, who writes not only the same novel but the same sentences over and over (to strangely hypnotic effect). And yet Fitzgerald’s own life was wilder by far than any novel. Between her promising youth and her réclame as a spiky grande dame of letters stretched a middle age of distinctly problematic character, much of it the doing of Fitzgerald’s feckless husband, who was disbarred in the early Sixties after it was discovered that he had been stealing money from his chambers. For years, the Fitzgeralds lived in a council flat, while Penelope taught at posh private “crammers.” The air of disgraced gentry was, I thought, rather sordid. Fitzgerald survived, it seems, on motherhood and scholarship. And on pretending to be a nitwit. I died laughing when I read, in Lee, that she explained to an interviewer that she had founded everything that she needed to know about Novalis “on the Internet.”

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life did work a strange and utterly unexpected catharsis, however, not unrelated to questions of sordor. “There are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no one will ever know,” writes Lee of Fitzgerald, in a closing paragraph that follows hard on reference to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, “where Fitzgerald had been before me.” I don’t know that there are many things that I don’t want anyone to know about me, but there are more than a few. Now that I am old and falling apart, surviving on Remicade and five heart-related medications a day, I am more or less the person I always wanted to be. I didn’t realize how distracting and “not for me” being young was until I had left youth behind — far behind. (This, I think, went with the territory of being born when I was.) Along the way, I made some mortifying mistakes, about some of which I feel mortally shamed every time they come to mind, which is not rarely enough. I hope that they will be forgotten, and I am certainly not going to do anything to preserve their memory. This is part of a broader move to simplify the past by getting rid of most of the evidence of dead-ends, in which my early life abounded. If I preserve the bound National notebooks that I’ve mentioned from time to time, it’s because they say nothing at such great length that they would be funny if they weren’t so tedious, and barely more eloquent than my grandson’s scratchings at the age of two. Aside from that pile of rubbish, there isn’t much else. I haven’t written in books in decades; my current method of flagging interesting passages with Post-its as I read, and later transcribing them into Evernotes, is working very nicely, and contributing to the sense that my literary remains will be almost entirely digital.

Ideally, then, there will be no need to find a home for my “papers.” Pardon me the appearance of grandiosity, but Hermione Lee reminded me of something very important, which is that I want to have nothing further to do with the Lone Star State, and would sooner vanish from the memory of man altogether than find refuge at the Harry Ransom Center. I don’t care if it’s the most prestigious archive in the world (if it is); I want nothing to do with it. This disinclination, verging on abhorrence, was almost elating on Saturday night. It brought the oddest sense of relief. Not, as I say, that there is any danger that I  might “wind up” rubbing shoulders, or at least bones, with such illustrious departures. My life is starkly devoid of the trappings of celebrity, fame, or even the mildest buzz. Letters that I get from time to time are always kind — no one has written to complain, so far — and I like to think that readers who like me would prefer keeping me for themselves to “discovering” me. For my part, I should prefer that admirers who happen to live in Texas go through the motions of pretending to live somewhere else. (For you, George, I make a solitary exception.)

It is possible that I am alive today because I spent my reckless twenties in Houston; in New York, who knows what kind of conflagration might have consumed me. Houston kept me out of the kind of trouble to which I was drawn. This doesn’t change the fact that I look back on it as a complete exile, from which it took the highly uncharacteristic effort of getting into and going through law school somewhere else to return. It took seven years to build up the strength for that effort, to make an act of will that still surprises me. While in Houston, I married and had a child, thanks to whom I now have a grandchild. If my daughter moves back to Texas (something very unlikely, it seems to me), I shall have to reconsider my aversion, but, short of that, I am quits with Texas. That my parents are buried in Houston is simply yet another act of betrayal on their part; I have never forgiven them for changing “their song” from “Got A Date With An Angel” (irresistible, but already somewhat venerable when they were married, in 1942) to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”


Tuesday 28th

For reasons that I’ll get to shortly, I have been haunted by Verdi’s Otello. This has brought Woody Allen’s Match Point to mind, and, last night, to the screen in the bedroom. The movie’s soundtrack consists almost exclusively of old opera recordings. At the beginning and the end, and also at a dramatic moment in the middle, we hear Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. There are bits and pieces of things that are unfamiliar to me, and a few things that ought to be familiar but are made strange by the antique technology. The climactic murder scene is accompanied by a great swath from Act II of Otello. Iago, having opened Otello’s mind to the unthinkable, persuades him that his wife has been unfaithful. The music comes in on Otello’s “Desdemona rea,” and proceeds right to the unforgettable duet, “Si, pel ciel.” The singers are Janez Lotric and Igor Morozov; the recording, issued by Naxos, appears to be unavailable. Woody Allen deserves some kind of award for brilliant appropriation. On the screen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing the upwardly mobile former tennis pro who finds himself in a bit of a jam, falls apart as completely as Otello but then, as his own Iago, stiffens his resolve. It is utterly harrowing.

And yet the horror of this picture is that, even though the bad guy gets away with it, it is so satisfying. The bad guy will have to deal with the burden of a very unpleasant memory for the rest of his life, but the odds are that he will manage. We have seen this movie before, of course: in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the film that introduced Allen’s first corpse (Anjelica Huston), the eminent ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) silences a blackmail threat with the aid of a hit man hired by his no-good-nik brother (Jerry Orbach). And gets away with it. In Match Point, the bad guy has to do the killing himself. He nearly gets caught, but is saved by a piece of evidence that, thanks to a fortunate bounce on the net, as it were, is found in the wrong pocket. Well done!

Well done? What kind of moral degeneracy does this film induce? When the video ended last night, it was late, but I went out onto the balcony and sat for a little while, enjoying the kind of spring rain that we never had this spring. There seemed only the slightest, most negligible difference between the West End of London in which the movie was set and my own 87th Street. Even in the night, the honey locusts were low green clouds. The sound of the occasional car splashing through the wet seemed very Continental. All was in order.

I know that there are many people who would argue with a sneer that nothing could be more characteristic of a Woody Allen movie than the murder of two women by a man whose domestic happiness is at risk. The very fact that the murderer is badly shaken by what he has done, they would add, only makes it worse. What good are his tender feelings, if they don’t preclude his pulling the trigger? But I don’t see Match Point that way. The moral of the story of Match Point is that some people are lucky. Like the unlucky, they do not get what they deserve. A murderer is a bad person — we get it. But, having put his own life at the mercy of luck, he presents a thrilling spectacle, much like a tightrope walker, as the consequences of his act arrange themselves, as it turns out, in his favor.


The second book that I finished on Saturday was Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. I have mentioned this book a few times, and I’m not going to say much about it now. It is a readable and, so far as its subject makes possible, lucid biography. My slight disappointment with it is unfair, simply an indication that I was hoping for a somewhat different book than the one promised by Sperber’s subtitle. For what interests me about Marx isn’t the man himself — I already knew enough about him — but the posthumous evolution of his ideas, at the hands of Friedrich Engels and someone I hadn’t heard of, Karl Kautsky, toward the doctrines spouted by Lenin. Marx’s theories do not hold together, but they sparkle with piercing insights. He was not a very good philosopher, but he might have made a great satirist.

The first book to be finished on Saturday was a novel published in 1978. I don’t know that I have ever read a book that cried out to me for annotation as loudly as Brown Megg’s Aria. I didn’t require annotations in order to enjoy reading the novel, but, aside from Fossil Darling, from whom I learned about the book, I can’t think of anyone else who wouldn’t. I learned about the book in this way: I found it among Fossil’s books when I spent a few days at his apartment, in the summer of 1980. He graciously put me up while I looked for my own apartment. It took about a week to find one, and during that time I read Aria. That is how I remember it; what actually happened — I might have borrowed the book a little later — doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I read and liked Aria then, just on the other side of law school (three years) from my classical radio days.

The world of Aria was still very familiar to me, if only as a matter of hearsay. At the radio station, we gossiped about the luminaries of the music world (and the companies that paid them) just as the guys at ESPN must gossip about jocks today. I knew, for example, that the novel’s fictional record label, “Melos-Doria,” was derived from the role played by Dario Soria, together with his wife, Dorle, in the foundation of Angel Records, in New York in 1953, and that both labels began at about the same time. I knew that the great but now-voiceless Edith Cavalieri was based, very roughly, on Maria Callas, and that it was canny of Meggs to mention Cavalieri’s rivalry with Callas, so as to forestall libel suits. I knew that the casts of opera recordings were determined almost as much by caprice as by judgment, and that scheduling conflicts produced endless upsets. I knew, in short, that making records was a very complicated business. (One thing that I did not yet know was that RCA declined Rachmaninov’s request to record his Symphonic Dances with Artur Rubinstein because, in wartime, there would be “no demand.”) All the details in Aria rang interesting variations on true facts. Even the conductor’s name — Ponti — looked like a nod toward Sophia Loren’s husband, the film producer Carlo. I have never forgotten Aria since, and I have often thought of re-reading it. A while ago, I got a copy of my own. But it was only this month that I picked it up.

When I say that I had never forgot Aria, I mean that I never forgot that it was “about” the making of a studio recording of Verdi’s Otello, in Rome, and that the record producer and hero, Hurston (Harry) Chapin, faces many exciting vicissitudes. The drama of opera, so to speak. In fact, there is a good deal more to Aria than this. Of the novel’s four hundred sixty pages, only about a hundred are concerned with the actual recording. The rest is pretty exciting, too, and so vivid that I have to remind myself that many of its particulars have vanished so completely that nobody misses them. (EG: WATS lines.) Even more surprising, I recognized that Aria was written in a highly transitional cultural moment. Much of it could not have been published much sooner; nor, I think, would it be published today.

Wasn’t I just echoing, last Friday, an old frustration, that novels are always about love? Curious, considering that I was already well into Aria. Aria is above all a novel about work. Like any book about work, it is about a very narrow line of work. I am not entirely sure that anyone still follows Aria‘s line of work, or perhaps rather that the hero’s line of work — organizing the recording of an important opera — has not evolved into something else. Studio recordings have become uncommon for a number of reasons, but the principal cause of the shift toward live recordings is the great improvement in microphone technology — or so it seems to me. Today’s record producer faces a slate of engineering problems. Some opera house or other has already put together the cast, an undertaking rather more formidable than setting up recording equipment. Back in the day, however, live recordings had a distinctly inferior sound. Studio recordings were preferable partly because mistakes could be spliced out, but even more because ambient conditions could be optimal. An old church in the Holborn district of London, Kingsway Hall, became the sound studio of choice for many of the great EMI recordings of the Fifties and the Sixties. It was not much to look at, and when the tape reels were turning there were very few people in the room who weren’t engaged in singing or playing or checking sound levels or otherwise making the recording. In other words, nothing could have been less like a grand opera house packed with an eager audience. In those days, record producers were artistic quartermasters, engaged in manifold logistical conundrums and beset by loose ends at every turn.

But how much will you learn about a classical record producer’s line of work from Aria, a novel that assumes that you already know the business?

“Well,” said Harry with studied calm, “we certainly can’t break the act. Act IV is always complete on the final side. How do the other companies do it?”

“Other people don’t make it run thirty-four minutes, and they don’t do it in quad. Oh, you can squeeze it on, I suppose. But you won’t have any level — you’ll be hearing nothing but clicks and pops and background music. You don’t want that, do you?”

He was aware of his pulse again. In the new pared-down Chapin form, even the slightest change in emotional rhythm was noticeable. “No, I don’t want that,” he said quietly.

“I kicked it around with Mr Rose,” Poole went on, “and he says there’s a Victor set that starts Act IV on the fifth side and then runs it on over, making two pretty reasonable running times.”

“The act shouldn’t be broken,” Harry said petulantly. “On musical and dramatic grounds.”

“Okay, then,” said Poole.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, it shouldn’t be broken.”

“So what do we do?”

“So you tell me where you want it broken.”

Harry remained silent for several minutes, fingering through he master score. Oh, yes, this was the new Harry Chapin, who did not become unnecessarily exercised over trivial business decisions. “Oscar?”

“Yeah, Mr Chapin?”

“Break it after the ‘Ave Maria.’ You’ll have to redistribute sides four and five, too, or else five is going to be too long. You start side six there — right after ‘Amen!’”

Maybe I’m a worrier; maybe everybody understands what this is about. CD recordings of opera still involve multiple discs, and while it is somewhat unusual to break up the acts — the overall unit of opera — it is routine with Wagner and not uncommon with Richard Strauss. In the days of LPs, however, discs were playable on both sides, and there were lots of breaks. On the rare occasions when producers opted to squeeze Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onto one LP, there had to be an inevitably dreadful break in the middle of the long but lyrical slow movement. Act IV of Otello, in contrast, is relatively brief, with the troubled calm of Desdemona’s preparations for sleep followed by Otello’s swift act of madness and almost as swift collapse into remorse. But the conductor whom Harry Chapin has engaged for this recording, Gian-Carlo Ponti, is a plodder, a pedant, really, a young man who already thinks of himself as a high priest of music. Hence the thirty-four minute duration. Hence the need for a break. I will say that Harry’s choice for the break is the right one. But it’s a good thing that we don’t have to deal with these problems anymore.

(And “quad” — who remembers quadraphonic sound?)

Strangely enough, though, the parts of Aria that are not about work are the parts that would make it difficult to publish today, and that would have made it impossible to publish ten years earlier. In most lives, work is balanced by love and friendship, but love and friendship occupy a tiny part of Harry Chapin’s life. (He gets on best with his associate, Norman Rose.) His marriage is on the rocks, not that this bothers him very much. That’s one problem: it doesn’t bother him that his marriage is on the rocks. In fact, we discover that his marriage is not nearly as rocky as he would like it to be. Harry spends most of his non-working hours in a vast territory that merits the name, “Expense Account.” This is the aspect of Aria that has dated even more severely than the technical details.

Harry is a connoisseur of the great red wines of France. This sets him apart, in 1978, from most American men, even the rich ones; but what separates from Americans of today, or really almost anyone anywhere who knows about wine, is the quantities that Harry consumes. He drinks prodigiously, and suffers hangovers accordingly. He is certainly no picture of health. Many of his friends ask if he is putting on weight, because he is. At the same time, he is a relentless philanderer, whose only redeeming feature is the conviction with which he falls in love with every new face. What with all the wine, Harry has performance issues, and it’s clear that an awful reckoning is imminent. Author Meggs obliges magnificently, with a heart attack on the roof of St Peter’s in Rome. Harry survives, but without regrets: his new régime of healthy living is simply an updated ode to his vanity. And the conglomerate that owns his record company picks up all the checks.

If Harry’s high living is hard to believe, that’s because the constellation called “glamour” glistens with very different stars today. Well into the Seventies, opera held onto the status of top art form that it had achieved in the later days of the ancien régime. Back then, only royal and princely courts could afford to support opera houses, and only during a season. The thing about opera, aside from artistic merit, was that it was staggeringly expensive for something that left no trace when the curtain came down. Everything about opera was staggeringly expensive. Singers lived famously extravagant lives. Productions vied for costly special effects. If you weren’t spending money, you weren’t getting it. Harry’s life of first-class travel to biggest suites in best hotels with round-the-clock catering could still be taken for granted when Brown Meggs wrote Aria. All right; it was a little over the top. But only a little.

The satisfactions of Aria are, however, all work-related. There is an extraordinary scene near the end when Harry, whose label is facing a lawsuit, sits down with the plaintiff’s attorney plus two lawyers on his own side and silences them all, dictating the terms according to which the parties will move forward. The lawsuit itself is vaporized by his inexorable conditions. “Bravo!” you shout when he is done — and the plaintiff’s lawyer is fairly crawling out of the room on hands and knees. You are shouting because you understand the background; the novel has taught you exactly why Mme Cavalieri’s complaints against Melos-Doria records is piffle. This moment, and not the heart attack atop St Peter’s, is the climax of the novel. That’s to say that the climax is for lawyers and other negotiators.

Aria is the opposite of an historical novel: it opens a window on a world so vanished that without notes it is incomprehensible. Because I lived in illo tempore, I don’t need the notes, but I feel that I ought to write them while I can. (But I have forgotten so much of the detail since 1980.) At the same time, I’ve grown up a bit myself, and Harry’s immense condescension toward women, which breaks out into open misogyny whenever he is crossed, is both hard to take and fascinating, fascinating because well-written evidence of attitudes such as Harry’s are hard to come by. Few people were conscious of them as such at the time, and far fewer could afford them. The laws of fiction operational in those days said, “This is how it is.” The laws in force today would insist upon punishment for Harry. The women in his life would gang up on him, and his liver would give out. Instead, Harry gives every appearance, at the end, of having forsaken wine and women for song.


Thursday 30th

As I was reading the last chapters of Patricia Highsmith’s 1977 novel, Edith’s Diary, this morning, I was reminded of a movie that I couldn’t place. In the movie, a young woman whose marriage has broken down becomes unnaturally concerned about some political or social problem. Her life is a mess, but she can’t be bothered with that: what is her little life compared with the coming catastrophe that she is alone in foreseeing? We in the audience know that the catastrophe is indeed coming, but we also know that the woman’s hysteria — that’s what her friends call it — is abnormal.

The novel came to an end. I closed it and set it aside so that I could get up from my reading chair. I walked through the apartment toward the plate of bananas in the sunny dining ell. Even before I got there, I remembered the young woman and the movie: Kay, played by Joanna Pettet, in The Group, Sidney Lumet’s film of Mary McCarthy’s novel. At the end, Kay, searching the Manhattan skies for Nazi aircraft, loses her balance and falls out the window to her death. In the novel, Edith, who has been mountingly preoccupied by a hatred of Richard Nixon and bewilderment at the American evacuation of Saigon, trips on the stairs, and falls to her death.

Edith is carrying a metallic bust that she has sculpted of her son, Cliffie. It is an idealized portrait. She seems to have no idea that this bust might convince the doctors, to whom she intends to offer it as proof of her good health, that she is in fact in dire need of psychiatric care.

It is almost impossible to avoid regarding the deaths of Kay and Edith as mercies.


The other day, I wrote about telling Patricia Highsmith, at a book signing, that Edith’s Diary was my favorite of her novels. And then I added a parenthetical note stating that it still is. The falseness of this boast weighs heavily on me today. Oh, Edith’s Diary is indeed my favorite of Highsmith’s books — of which, to be honest, I have not read that many. But the novel that I thought I had in mind when speaking to Highsmith, the novel that I claimed as still my favorite, just the other day — this novel does not exist. To say that Edith’s Diary is not what I remembered is problematic, because while I did remember the major plot points, as well as the final fall down the stairs, I recreated everything else. In my version of the book, which posed as a recollection, Edith’s diary is the only text. We read the entries without confirmation or refutation from another point of view. We don’t know what is really happening in Edith’s life, but — here’s the brilliant part — Highsmith subtly signals to the reader that Edith’s diary entries are no longer truthful about the son whom we understand to be a disappointment. It is quite a trick! The entries become ever more far-fetched, the dissatisfactions of Edith’s life (which we know about, somehow) erased by her fantasies of wishful thinking. At the end, Edith is as demented and doomed as Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard. Trusting the son whom she has fabricated in the diary, Edith is traduced by him.

Quite a book, that would be. But I’m terrified by the unconscious abandon of my adaptation.

First of all, the diary entries take up very few pages, certainly fewer than fifteen or twenty (in a text that runs to three hundred). Most of the novel is narrated quite conventionally in the free indirect style, mostly from Edith’s point of view, but occasionally from Cliffie’s. Today, I think, Cliffie would be diagnosed as having a borderline narcissistic character, but he is not the psychopath that I invented. Nor is Edith the silly suburbanite that I remembered.

While I transformed Edith’s Diary into a lurid horror story, the novel is in fact the eerily gentle account of a woman’s dislocation under stress. Unfortunate things happen to Edith, but what makes them unfortunate is her inability to get anyone to help her with them. When her husband, Brett, falls in love with his secretary and, in the friendliest, most regretfully sympathetic way, leaves Edith, it’s hard to see who could help to patch things up; but Brett leaves a big problem behind, in the person of his uncle George, a self-absorbed old man who occupies the spare room in Edith’s house. Edith’s attempts to move George to a nursing home, while they have Brett’s support in principle, never get any traction, because Brett (interestingly, a journalist) doesn’t know how to do anything but talk. So the unfortunate thing that happens to Edith is not just the departure of a husband whom she has always thought she loved. It is Brett’s abandonment of the problem of what to do about the sick man in her house.

This wearing reality is severely crimped by a terrible coincidence. On the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Cliffie, driving while drunk, runs into a pedestrian, breaking both of his legs.

From that night onward, Edith had two on her hands, George and Cliffie, because Cliffie’s license was suspended for a year. He was grounded, as he put it. This Edith had learned the same early morning, when the Bruswick Corner police plus the Hopewell Township officer delivered Cliffie. He was plainly under the influence. Edith was ashamed, though she thought she had long ago lost the capacity for that, because Cliffie was a grown man, independent of her. Cliffie looked in fact half asleep, though the half of himi that wasn’t asleep focused on her, as if he were trying to gauge, if he could, her reaction. Edith was concerned about the man who had been injured… His name was written down, at Edith’s request, and left along with other papers for Cliffie to sign tomorrow, because as the police said, he was not in a condition to sign anything.

The following day, Robert Kennedy’s death was announced. Cliffie was asleep when Edith left for the Thatchery at a quarter to 2. Edith worked doggedly, with more of a head-down attitude than usual. “Don’t think, keep moving,” was her frequent advice to herself, and she sometimes added, “Don’t look for a meaning,” because if she did look for a meaning for even half a minute, she sensed that she was lost, that she had turned loose of her real anchor which was not Brett, but a kind of firm resignation. Edith didn’t know what to call it, but she knew what it was, knew the feeling. The feeling was one of security, the only security she knew now, or had now. (Chapter 18)

Highsmith’s approach is descriptive, not analytical. Edith’s relation to her parents, who are not even mentioned until well into the book, is oddly, inexplicably distant, and this strangeness is emphasised by Edith’s close and loving relationship with her great-aunt Melanie, whose niece her own mother is. We’re left to work out the possible consequences of that by ourselves. Edith’s early married life, and her early motherhood, are also glossed over. By the time we meet her, she knows that her little boy, then ten, is a liar with a weak and lazy character. Yet she seems to accept this as an everyday problem to be dealt with, not as grounds for medical attention. In the seventeen years that follow, Edith’s apparently placid nature is taken for granted by everyone. Only when it is too late do her ex-husband and her best friend, Gert Johnson, realize that Edith is headed for a breakdown. Their attempt to intervene are hopelessly condescending.

We’re told that Edith graduated from Bryn Mawr, so her attraction to progressive, and eventually left-wing politics is no surprise. Having moved from Greenwich Village to leafy Bucks County, Edith and Brett set up a small local newspaper, The Bugle. This soon fails, but later on Edith and Gert revive it and make a success of it. This is the weak spot in Edith’s suburban carapace, and what the bugle announces is the failure of Edith’s sense of proportion and appropriateness. Starting out as a successful homemaker, good cook, and enthsiastic gardener, Edith slides away into extreme political positions that have some occult connection with her increasing domestic derelictions. As her house takes on a shabby air, her newspaper trumpets unpopular opinions about birth control and abortion; toward the end, Edith is contributing to Ramparts (a radical mouthpiece that provoked my father to insist on the cancellation of my subscription, lest the postman be scandalized). Edith loses her job at the gift shop and is “boycotted” by most of her friends.

I like to think that Highsmith is not interested in assigning blame for the unraveling of Edith’s life. Arguably, it did not unravel at all — Edith simply tripped on the stairs; it could happen to anyone. She denied, through her fake diary entries (in which Cliffie goes to Princeton, marries a nice girl, has two children and a great engineering job in Kuwait), that she was unhappy. Who doesn’t try to overlook unhappiness? She is actually the first person to say, albeit jokingly, that she may be going nuts, but so long as the house is shipshape and the Bugle‘s editorials aren’t insulting, it’s simply the case that nobody has any time for Edith, because Edith is just another woman. Everybody admires Edith’s ability to handle the complexities of her life (until she doesn’t and they don’t), but nobody lifts a finger on her behalf. The way of life that Edith and her friends and family share does not provide for practical assistance. The housewife is either functional or sick. Her resentment burgeons and grows invisibly for years, but instead of rebellion, it leads her into confusion, as I think resentment usually does.

The unmooring that Edith feels manifests itself most alarmingly in lapses of short-term memory; this is eventually compounded by the difficulty of keeping the difference between real life and the events described in her diary distinct. Even she is upset to realize that she has knitted two little jackets for her invented grandchildren. Edith seems to suffer the violent displacements that seem to result from child abuse. There is no suggestion that Edith was abused as a child, but the novel never wanders from a world in which housewives, even the Bryn Mawr grads among them, are infantilized, making them dependent upon prospective abusers. Brett may be a bland nice guy with the best of intentions, but his selfish desertion of Edith, his uncontested insistence that the happiness of his life is more important than the happiness of hers, such a violation of the contract that Edith thought she signed at marriage, is a crushing blow, and Edith’s appearance of taking it so well really indicates that she is not taking it at all: her reactions to what Brett has done do not manifest themselves until the independence of Brett’s new life does, in the form of a new (and large) New York apartment, a baby daughter, and of course the uncle in the spare room who cannot be dislodged.

The second turning point in Edith’s Diary is the death of George. Highsmith keeps the details murky, to mirror Edith’s desire not to know what happened, but it’s clear enough that Cliffie gives George an overdose of codeine. This is actually Cliffie’s second attempt to kill “the old vegetable.” The first attempt fails because Edith steps in. The second one succeeds because she doesn’t. And, from now on, mother and son are a team, each protecting the other. When Brett insists that there ought to have been an autopsy, and even voices his suspicion of Cliffie to Edith, she dismisses him as a nosy stranger, and Highsmith does what she can to encourage the reader to share the same view. It becomes, frankly, an inverted example of abortion: Brett is far more exercised about George’s right to live than he ever was about the quality of George’s life or its consequences for his wife.

Edith’s Diary is, after all, a horror story, but it is a horror story from which excitement has been almost entirely drained. Instead of excitement, there is, every now and then, clarity. The clarity of the paragraph in which Edith comes to an end is unbearable.

She was aware that she didn’t scream, although she was terrified. It seemed a slow motion fall, she saw herself slanting head downward at the same angle as the stairs, and she thought of Cliffie as a small boy of eight and ten, potentially handsome as he was now potentially handsome, like the statue she held in her two hands. She thought of injustice, felt her personal sense of injustice combined now with the crazy, complex injustice of the Viet Nam situation — a country in which corruption, as everyone knew, was a way of life, normal. Tom Paine. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot … Her head struck hard, yet gracefully (she believed) on one of the bottom steps or the floor, and the lights went out for her.

Graceful to the end — a death worthy of her diary.


Friday 1st

My most recent Facebook update is two weeks old. It’s a link to the report filed at Political Scrapbook by Jared Yates Sexton after Donald Trump’s appearance at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. The report is actually a series of tweets posted by Sexton as the rally deteriorated into alarming disorderliness. In today’s Times, Sexton offers a toned-down but more thoughtful account of the Trump phenomenon. He suggests that Trump’s rallies have become “safe spaces” for Americans who feel suffocated by political correctness. Given the low-grade violence, occasionally erupting into fisticuffs, that Sexton tweeted about during the Greensboro event, “safe” doesn’t seem to be quite the right word. It’s like focusing on the calm in which the flame of a match can start a bonfire. But I see what Sexton means, and I’m intrigued.

Sexton closes his piece with more counterintuition:

Commentators have tried to cast Mr. Trump as a master manipulator, using his supporters to carry him to the White House but having no real interest in improving their lives. That may be his intention. But the reality is the other way around: His supporters are using him. Indeed, as I got in my car to drive home, I realized that since leaving the coliseum, of all the things I had heard people say, there was one phrase I hadn’t heard his supporters utter even once: Donald Trump’s name.

It would be nice to think that the Trumpsters are actually laughing at their man, at his weird hair and piggy eyes, at those hands that, along with being child-sized, are obviously innocent of manual labor. It would be jolly to know that the Republican Party has been saddled with a most unwelcome candidate by lords of misrule.

There has been a running joke, ever since last summer, that Donald Trump was going to pull a volte-face on us and claim that his campaign was only a joke, a wheeze: “Just kidding!” We passed the point at which such an outcome might reasonably be hoped for some time ago, but that is what seems to have happened with Boris Johnson in Britain. Having done more to inspire the move to Brexit than any other single figure — his distorted reporting from Brussels, full of tabloid-style nonsense, set the tone for British journalism on the subject — Johnson now reveals that he hasn’t a clue what comes next, and that (oops!) some of his facts and figures may have been mistaken. Sarah Lyall, who was the Times‘s London correspondent in Johnson’s palmier days, writes in today’s paper about the Falstaff who would be Hal with elegant glee.

Meanwhile, Members of Parliament who identify with the Labour Party are plotting to dethrone Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to the leadership of the party by the rank and file last year. It will be remembered that Conservative Members of Parliament brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990, by taking advantage of a twenty-five year-old party rule, never intended to be put to use, to withdraw their confidence in her premiership. Do Labourites have a similar rule? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Nevertheless, something can usually be stitched up. The next election is going to be fierce, and the Labour establishment believes that the adamantly leftist Corbyn will inspire a landslide loss.

If our political stage were more like Britain’s, then Donald Trump would take the place of Neil Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which stands to the right of the Conservative Party on issues of globalism and immigration. Instead of forming his own party and laying the groundwork — UKIP is twenty-five years old this year — Trump simply hijacked the Republican rostrum, and the Republicans, weirdly helpless, let it happen. Donald Trump was a magnet for UKIP-like disaffection, and his supporters knocked off the establishment candidates one by one.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the postwar political order seems marked for replacement. Notwithstanding the Trump insurgency, I hope that the reorganization begins with clearly distinct new parties. What are the issues? What’s more important, race or jobs? If un- or underemployed white men were able to get satisfying jobs, would they drop their resistance to the advance of other kinds of people? Are such jobs even conceivable? Or do we simply wait for the boomers to die off? What is the future of patriotism? Of nationalism? When will the French Revolution ever end?


The current issue of the London Review of Books is devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s discovery of the real Satoshi Nakamoto (the mythical/mysterior inventor of Bitcoin), a coder from Australia by the name of Craig Wright. “Is he Satoshi?” asks the cover. According to O’Hagan’s account, he seems to be; he has been acknowledged as such by two highly reliable members of the Bitcoin Space, Gavin Andresen and Jon Matonis. But when Wright was presented in a public “reveal,” he sabotaged his own performance in an easily detectable way, costing his sponsors a great deal of money. At least, that’s what I think happened. I had a very hard time following the story, not because O’Hagan writes less than lucidly but because the motivations of computer people often fail to tally with my expectations of humanity. For one thing, childhood traits persist well into middle age — and are not regarded as childish by peers. There is something about these men that reminds me of Creationists and Trump supporters: they’re not interested in common sense or received wisdom. (You have to receive received wisdom before you can transcend or amend it.) Where children used to have childhoods, they had superheroes and Dungeons and Dragons. If I read O’Hagan correctly, even Wright’s grasp of math is uneven.

Without Kathleen’s engagement in several Bitcoin/block chain projects, I doubt that I’d be paying attention to this story. (Maybe I’d go straight to the movie. There’s certainly a movie in O’Hagan’s piece, although the ending may have been left open. In a way, it’s a story that can end only if and when Wright is assassinated.) It’s bitterly ironic that the Internet, which was presented to us as such a dewily beneficent contribution to human betterment back in the Nineties, turns out to be great terrain for men being men. Pow! Zam! You will not be surprised to learn that Craig Wright, although probably a genius and hopefully the owner of many patents, is a terrible businessman. That is why he agreed to out himself as Satoshi. The sponsors would pay off all his debts in exchange for some of his intellectual property and the tsunami of publicity.

By now, everybody under thirty knows that “satoshi” is the Japanese word for “Ash,” and also the name of “the main protagonist of Pokémon manga and anime series” (Wikipedia). As to “Nakamoto,” it was the surname of an eighteenth-century Japanese iconoclast (for whom there is no Wikipedia entry.) The Wikipedia entry for “Satoshi Nakamoto” has been updated to include reference to O’Hagan’s exposé, but dismisses it as inconclusive. In a sense, the story has to be inconclusive.

Wright said he had never expected the myth of Satoshi to gather such force. “We were all used to using pseudonyms,” he told me. “That’s the cyberpunk way.” Now people want Satoshi to come down from the mountain like a messiah. I am not that. And we didn’t mean to set up a myth that way.” Satoshi was loved by bitcoin fans for making a beautiful thing and then disappearing. They don’t want Satoshi to be wrong or contradictory, boastful or short-tempered, and they don’t really want him to be a 45-year-old Australian called Craig.

Wright is generous in giving credit to the men who contributed to development of Bitcoin, so much so that I agree with Kathleen, that “Satoshi Nakamoto” denotes a loose band of contributors. Wright may very well have contributed, along with plenty of code, the name. He and his colleagues seem to have created a puzzle (who?) that can never be solved — not, at least, until a Bitcoin transaction can be faked.


It has been a long time since I read a novel by Anne Tyler. I thinker of her as an Eighties writer, whatever that means. For a few years, I read each new one as it came out. Then I began to feel that they were all the same. Baltimore was a big part of the problem, because no city confuses me more. Is it a northern city or a southern city? To put it slightly differently, is it a local city, with its own little ecology, or is it part of something larger, and, if so, what? Geographically, Baltimore belongs in the Northeast Corridor, or so they say. Whatever the trains may do, I’m not sure that the corridor really extends beyond Wilmington, Delaware. Sometimes, I’m inclined to limit the span to New York and Boston. I can imagine what they think in Boston: what corridor?

But I’ve just read what I think is the latest from Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, and it surprised me. It seemed less like the Anne Tylers that I remember and more like the Penelope Livelys that I’ve been re-reading. For one thing, there is no sad sack in Spool. When I think of Anne Tyler, I think of mildly disappointed people in trying family situations, unable either to light the hearth with cheer or to cut loose. There are no such people in Spool. Well, there may be one, but he is much too rude and opaque to be a sad sack, and he is far more disappointing than disappointed. Everyone in Spool is pretty lively.

And then there’s this house. The house, built during World War II, stands on a leafy lot in a very nice part of town. It is simple and unostentatious but perfectly proportioned. The rooms are spacious and airy, ventilated by transoms as well as ceiling fans (but no air-conditioning). The main attraction, at least during the warmer months, is a deep and wide verandah. The house is quite literally the embodiment of a family — the builder’s family.

The Whitshank family emerged from rural yeomanry in the 1920s, when J R Whitshank (known as “Junior”) came to Baltimore. He was followed, five years later, by Linnie, the young woman who had fallen in love with him, back in North Carolina, when she was thirteen. Junior prospered as a contractor, and they had two children. Their daughter, Merrick, schemed her way into the more eminent reaches of Baltimore society, while their son, Redcliffe (“Red”) followed in his father’s business. Red married Abby, the daughter of a hardware store proprietor, and they had four children. Or was it three?

The structure of the novel is palpable. Each chapter has its own topic, as it were, that renders it a distinct part of the overall narrative flow. Two preliminary chapters introduce the family, now centered on Red and Abby (Junior and Linnie having been killed in a grade-crossing accident in 1967). First we meet Denny, the third child and the elusive member of the family. Denny spies on everybody else but maintains rigid secrecy about himself. He also stays away from the house, roaming around the country in a variety of half-hearted pursuits. The novel begins with his calling home from college to tell his parents that he is gay. Having said that, Denny hangs up. His parents argue: is it possible? Red thinks not. Abby wants to know if there is someone in his life. Both want Denny to settle down. They want to know who and where he is — the most natural of parental concerns. The chapter is a chronicle of Denny’s sporadic appearances, sometimes with a daughter, Susan (who he confesses to his mother is not actually his child), that ends in the novel’s present, which is the year 2012.

The second chapter tells the two stories that everybody in the family knows. There is the story about the house, and then the story of Merrick’s social climbing. They are pretty much two sides of the same story, because Merrick climbs her way out of the house and, despite (or perhaps as underlined by) a couple of appearances, out of the family. (There turns out to be a third well-known story — how Abby fell in love with Red — and it is told later, after the present action winds up and nearly comes to an end.) The action gets going at the start of the third chapter, in which Stem, the fourth and youngest child, moves his family into the house in order to watch over his parents, who are beginning, it seems, to fail. In the fourth, Denny shows up, having voiced his complaint that the caretaker’s duty is his, since Stem is not a real member of the family. This is a surprise to the reader, of course, but not to anyone in the book; the thing that most of his quasi-adoptive family does not know about Stem (Stem included) is revealed later. In the fifth chapter, the simmering competition between Stem and Denny erupts into a fight at the beach house that the family rents every summer. In the sixth chapter, there is an accident, followed by a funeral in the seventh. In the eighth and last main chapter, the family decides to leave the house. At the end of the book, when we return to the present, Denny gets on a train heading north to New Jersey, where an exaperated woman awaits him, and the winds of Hurricane Sandy gather overhead.

In the five chapters that separate this story from its ending, Tyler tells Abby’s story, set way back in 1958. Then she goes back further still, and retraces in detail the story of the house. Or, rather, this time, Tyle writes about the journey to the house. This is a much darker story, complete with danger, violence, and privation, because there is no family as yet: we are told how it was created. The official family story of the house never mentioned Junior’s intense resistance to re-uniting with Linnie when she surprised him by showing up in Baltimore. He remembers her as the author of the worst episode in his life, in which he was obliged to walk, half-naked and barefoot, many miles through the night, in fear of his life. Linnie’s father caught the two of them together in a barn; Junior was twice Linnie’s age. Junior’s love, moreover, was pretty much confined to Linnie’s voluptuous bosom. Beyond all that unpleasantness, Linnie is disinclined to put aside her back-country ways, whereas Junior longs to be accepted by his neighbors on Bouton Road. Linnie rather sublimely ignores Junior’s countless snubs, and he learns that she is “the bane of his existence” — his way of saying that he can’t live without her. Junior may not be an endearing man, but Linnie wrests a family from him, pretty much as God wrought Eve from Adam.

As it has been so long since I last read Anne Tyler, I can’t generalize, but A Spool of Blue Thread pulls off a neat trick — although perhaps it isn’t a trick at all. The novel runs through all of the familiar domestic rough spots, and its characters are often thoughtless and self-aborbed, indignant and resentful. But however much Denny, for example, acts like a jerk, it is not a palpably gender-linked jerkitude. The men are more competitive than compassionate, and the women vice versa, but not to hyped-up degrees. (There is not the faintest whisper of second-class personhood that imprisons the heroine of Edith’s Diary.) Amanda, the eldest of the younger Whitshanks, and her husband, Hugh, would be equally disagreeable, if we saw more of Hugh; Amanda rather takes after her dreadful aunt. Gender doesn’t explain very much of what goes on; mothers and fathers are loving in their own ways — but loving. These family relationships are not qualified by sex. Maybe that’s because their author is aware that they begin in the union of the two.

Many thanks to Kathleen for picking up the book on her two-day trip to California!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Clean Starvèd
June 2016 (II)

20, 21, 23, and 24 June

Monday 20th

All weekend, I pondered the reality behind a paragraph in the New York Times Book Review. The book under review was Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir; the reviewer was Dayna Tortorici.

Valenti’s commitment to holding the line for a certain common-denominator feminism in hostile territory is admirable. This is thankless work, and after more than a decade of it she is clearly tired. “I know I’m meant to be the bigger person,” she writes in “Sex Object,” her latest, addressing the anonymous men who flood her inbox with threats and insults. “I know you’re not supposed to hate people because hate is bad for your soul.” But so is knowing that “whatever you work on, whoever you are, the nameless horde of random people who go home at night and kiss their wives and children would like for you to disappear.” Likewise, of the men who approach her after speaking engagements: “I have become too exhausted with men online to interact with well-meaning information seekers in real life.” Of putting on a brave face and laughing off offenses: “This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore.”

In last week’s New Yorker (I am not changing the subject), there’s a cartoon in which a doctor shows his patient an X-ray and says, “That’s the racist bone in your body you claimed you didn’t have.” The doctor might just as easily have said to the man (for the patient is, as almost always, a man), “That’s the misogynist bone in your body…” The sad truth behind the joke is that there are no such X-rays. There is no way to tell, no doctor to consult, if you’re worried about hidden contempt for or hostility toward different kinds of people — different from you, the straight white male. How can you be sure that you’re not fooling yourself? Happily, the answer — You can’t — is the answer to almost every search for certainty about what’s going on in your mind. So, what you have to do instead is to listen to those different people, and to try very hard to hear them clearly. Stop there. Only in rare cases — invitation-only, probably — is it a good idea to stand up as a well-meaning information seeker. You ought to remain silent, if only to make up for the jerks who write insulting, abusive, and anonymous comments online.

In any case, I wasn’t thinking about Valenti or the many other women who have been subjected to mindless vitriol. I was thinking about the sources of that vitriol. What motivates men to write such things? I can barely imagine phrasing them, but even if I did, I’m certain that I shouldn’t write them down and post them in a comment, hiding behind an opaque screen name. There can be no justification at all for gratuitous offensiveness that splutters with hatred, nearly devoid of true criticism. If it makes you feel better to get this kind of thing off your chest, see a priest or a doctor.

Being targeted by nasty trolls is, I suppose, preferable to being dragged out into the market square and burned as a witch. That’s my way of saying that there might be nothing really new in this online ugliness. But it does seem new. It seems to be a weird way of combining the invisibility of merging with a crowd and the privacy of pornographic fantasy. In fact, it just now occurs to me that many of these commenters might be masturbating after posting. That, sadly, would explain a lot. Everybody else may have already figured this out, but I haven’t heard anyone say so.

Oh, dear. Little did I foresee that this is where my meditation might lead me. My solution to the practical problem, anyway — how to stop such behavior, if not the impulse behind hit — is to work to narrow the availability of Internet anonymity to the few areas where it is necessary.

Meanwhile, the Donald. (I am not changing the subject.) Last week, I was shaking in my boots, worried that he’d make his way to the White House. Over the weekend, I was assaulted by reassurances that this will never happen, that, now that he has no one to fight but Hillary Clinton, Trump is merely flailing. There is still room for him to maneuver as the scourge of the Republican Party, which in turn has not quite accepted the fait accompli of the primaries. But he cannot expose Clinton as he exposed his Republican rivals. There is nothing to expose, except possibly some further venial sins for which Clinton has characteristically refused to apologise. If anything, the T-shirt slogan, “Trump the Bitch,” exposes the unattractive nastiness in which the Trumpsters almost helplessly indulge. Nevertheless, I refuse to relax into complacency.

The Republican response appears to be divided between those who believe that Trump can be tamed and led and those who know that he cannot. This really is objectively reiterative of Hitler’s rise to power. The army, the plutocracy, the shreds of the aristocracy — all these right-leaning nabobs thought that taking charge of an uneducated rube from the poorest part of Austria would be a walk in the park. In their defense, there was little history to work with. Trump, in contrast, has been seducing and abandoning investors for decades, and charging them handsomely for the right to be impoverished by him. (Perhaps he anticipated the hedge fund’s two-and-twenty: he used everyone’s money but his own to fund his projects, and he collected handsome managerial fees — all the way to bankruptcy.) He has never submitted to any kind of second-fiddle role. He imagines himself (as I think Hitler did) to be the entire orchestra. The rest of us, including the Republican senators who expect to guide him, have only to listen.


On Friday night, we watched Gorky Park, mildly astonished all the way through to bear in mind that the movie was released thirty-three years ago, in 1983. To us, it still looks fresh. It may be set in those days, but the language of its filmmaking hasn’t dated very much. But then, how should we know? How can we sure to distinguish low-budget features from a style that might strike twentysomethings as antiquated?

Back in 1983, I still regarded Soviet Russia as a drab, repressive society in which everybody was miserable. I see things a bit differently now, and Gorky Park looked different accordingly. The state security system (whether KBG or otherwise) could be ferociously brutal on occasion, certainly, but it was for most people, most of the time, an irritating inconvenience, not a dread of midnight knocks at the door. And I saw more clearly that Gorky Park‘s background is the profound internal corruption that within a decade would spell the end of the régime. If there’s a lot of murder in Gorky Park, it’s because of the unimaginable financial stakes of breaking the Russian monopoly on sable fur. (A monopoly that appears to be somewhat factitious, as wild sables, who produce the most valuable pelts, seem not to flourish outside of Siberia.) Dreary, Russia might have been, but then so were (and are) vast parts of New York’s metropolitan area.

I used to find the ending very sad. Poor Arkady Renko, having solved the case and cleared out the bad guys, has to “go back,” in order to guarantee Irina Asanova’s “escape” to the West. But it is difficult to imagine Arkady’s finding contentment in the Europe or America that is thumbnailed by the American villain, Jack Osborne, as a place where everybody enjoys a pre-luncheon apéritif at a gracious restaurant. Irina will probably find that this is all too not true. We might have suspected as much in 1983, but now we can be certain.

I don’t mean to get sentimental about the Communist experiment in Russia. But it seems that the experiment didn’t do much more to Russia, in any permanent way, than Prohibition did to the United States. We forget that Russia and the United States were yoked in a competition by the Western European imagination in the Nineteenth Century, as both countries grew at a fantastic pace. One of the new giants represented the future; the other, the past. If it were possible to develop an American level of wealth while retaining what was already for Europe a pre-modern autocracy, then the future of liberal democracy would have appeared to be less robust. The termination of the Communist experiment, far from “winning the Cold War” for America, has revived this old competition. It does not seem to be the case that Russia is flourishing any more under the autocrat Putin than it did under the autocrats Romanov, but once again there is a luster, or at least a bling, that is anything but drab. Liberal democracy does not seem, at the moment, to be secure anywhere.

Charles Wheelan’s book, Naked Economics, arrived over the weekend, and I learned something from the back cover that would have stilled my hand from clicking on “Add to cart” had I known it then: Wheelan is a former “Midwest correspondent” for The Economist. I subscribed to The Economist for years. It cost the earth, was almost as boring as US News and World Report to look at, and mindlessly pro-business. On the good side, its coverage of foreign affairs was far more acute than that at the Times, and it was also less Yanko-centric. In the end, however, I concluded that the newspaper’s party line made it impossible for Economist contributors to register unorthodox developments. To put it another way, this party line held that the global economy entered a new phase, a new world order, with the Industrial Revolution, and that this era would last as long as any that preceded it. I don’t agree. I haven’t read his work, but I’m inclined to agree with what I hear about Northwestern’s Robert Gordon, that what we have seen in the past two centuries is comparable to the huge inflation that troubled the later Sixteenth Century, caused by the influx of the New World’s gold and, mostly, silver resources. The inflation was real, but it was the punctuation between two eras, not an era unto itself. So it is with the mechanical transformation of the Western economy, in which (reversing the earlier inflation, as it were) goods became ever more affordable. To take one example: indoor plumbing has become a default amenity in the West. Nobody thinks of building a house without a bathroom or a kitchen. But the economic growth that produced this amenity may be over, may no longer be necessary. When every house has a bathroom, there is nowhere to grow.

In characteristic fashion, I picked up Naked Economics and began reading in the middle. The chapter on “Human Capital” is lucid but implicitly retrospective. It simply is no longer true that college education provides the ten-percent return-on-investment that Wheelan posits. Once upon a time, yes, but no longer. Even if a degree still led to better jobs as a matter of course, that would change if the majority of shirkers changed there ways. “The poverty rate for high school dropouts is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates.” What would happen to the absolute poverty rate, though, if nobody dropped out of high school? What would happen if college degrees ceased to be scarce? I think that we’re already seeing what happens, and yet Wheelan begins his discussion of human capital by pinning its value to scarcities. He cites Bill Gates as a monument of human capital. This is perhaps an unwise choice, not only because Gates dropped out of Harvard — and what, pray, is The Economist‘s view of Thiel Fellows? — but because Gates’s unusual access to powerful mainframe computers during his high-school career was lubricated by his parents’ prestige. Bill Gates may be more like the Sultan Brunei, cited by Wheelan for being rich arguably without human capital of any kind, than Wheelan supposes. Indeed, to increase human capital in any significant way, at least in the developed countries, would seem to require a scarcity of people.

For a couple of hundred years, it certainly seemed that an economy that nurtured individual self-interest, encouraging everyone to make money any legal whichway, would lead, overall, to widespread prosperity. There might be occasional turbulence, but even in the Crash the economy did not actually crash. It now seems, however, that more than markets are at stake. Growth and self-interest have produced environmental hazards: the economy’s use of petrochemicals alone may have doomed life on this planet. As I never tire of pointing out, in planetary, or even evolutionary time the Industrial Revolution occurred last week, and we still don’t understand it. There’s much more to fear than the proponents of command economics.

Gorky Park deploys its Soviet setting as window-dressing; its story really concerns the combat of a man of principle with an opportunist. The opportunist is suave and self-assured — is it conceivable, by the way, that Gorky Park would have been made without Lee Marvin’s participation (as Osborne)? — while the man of principle (played by the then somewhat new William Hurt) is sallow and undernourished. The opportunist mocks the man of principle, but the man of principle seems to welcome the mockery, if only as an intensification of their struggle: mockery itself is a kind of weakness, perhaps a sign of fear of failure. (Even if Osborne’s mockery is extremely understated, it is still there.) In the end, Osborne does not kill Arkady, and neither does Arkady kill Osborne; the battle is settled by a third party, Irina, when she surprises Osborne with shots from a revolver. But the man of principle is also the best policeman in Moscow, and his survival may simply stand for the proposition that crime doesn’t pay, at least when the cops are doing their job.

In 1983, Kathleen and I thought that Joanna Pacula, who plays Irina, was just another pretty face. The other night, she struck as exceptionally beautiful. Is this just a sign that we’re getting old?


Tuesday 21st

The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s second novel, sat in my fiction pile for several months. I did not look forward to reading it, because I was sure that I should dislike it. Everything that I knew about it broke one or another of my rules of decorum about fiction — a protocol that has carved itself out of decades of reading. No historical fiction, for one. I read too much plain history, involving too many period documents, not to find that the dialogue in historical fiction is unbearably anachronistic, not only littering the page with unlikely language but stuffing impossible thoughts into characters’ heads. You may hear Thomas Cromwell, but I hear Florence Foster Jenkins. No opera fantasies. Ever since James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, this genre, of which I think Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case was the last that I read, has provoked an allergic reaction that used to make me tear through books in a fury, because I always finished what I started, and couldn’t wait to be done. (I am wiser now.) No dabbling in the occult. I shan’t stoop to explain that one.

Every review of The Queen of the Night promised a slew of violations, together with an impression that the steam of carnal passion would be rising from every page. In short, I was led to expect an overwritten, stilted, and sordid travesty of grand opera, “loosely based” on the story of Jenny Lind. You may be asking why I bought the book. The simple answer is that Alexander Chee is a Facebook friend, our link established long ago in the mists of social networking, not long after I read, and was impressed by, his contribution to an anthology called Boys to Men. I also read his first novel, Edinburgh. For years, I read status updates on the book’s progress; a lot of research went into getting things right. By the time The Queen of the Night was was published, I felt bound by honor to buy it. But I didn’t want to read it.

And now I have just read it, just finished it this morning. I did not dislike it, not at all. Well, there were two things that bothered me. Chee’s use of personal pronouns in his first-person narrative was occasionally ungrammatical. I’m a stickler about that. It’s okay for a character to be quoted as saying, “It’s me” to another character, but I prefer that characters not think it. The other bother was the novel’s Paris, in which everything — the Bois de Boulogne, the Marais, the Jardin des Plantes, and the various palaces — seemed to be only a few steps from everything else, and the Seine could be crossed without comment. In my Paris, no one ever crosses the Seine without comment. Like the Thames, it is a monumental cultural marker, and the heart of the city that it divides is nevertheless on one side only, not the other. There you have it, my calendar of complaints.

This is where I’m supposed to complete my surprise at not hating the book by claiming that, in fact, I loved it. But I didn’t love it, either. My positive response was milder than that, something close to beguilement. You might say that I was enchanted by it, if you meant it very literally, for indeed I read it as if the rules didn’t matter, even when I could hear them snapping underfoot. I can only think that the spell was cast by the well-aged patina of Chee’s prose. Although the subject matter is cosmopolitan and quite adult, the tone is that of a classic book for children, written in the days when publishers were expect to provide “improving” texts for young readers, and when a certain distance from the vernacular was the surest way of establishing a setting in illo tempore, the sense of another time and place not quite contiguous with our own. The Queen of the Night opens in 1882, and then goes back to the American Civil War, and Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie, appear in it, as do Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, and Pauline García-Viardot and her two husbands. Don’t forget George Sand! But historical events and personages, however accurately described, seem to be breathing the air of another world — the world of stories. The Queen of the Night is not a historical novel, after all, because it is not trying to tell us how things really were back then. If the details are sedulously correct, that is only to prevent the knowledgeable reader from stubbing his toe against a blunder — and waking up.

Chee cannot resist the conceit that his novel is in fact the opera, Le Cirque du Monde Déchu, that has been written as a vehicle for the soprano who is the novel’s narrator. Or at least its scenario. As I see it, the opera and the novel are as unlike as two art forms taking time to experience could be. Novels are baggy; even mediocre operas are well-tailored. I propose a compromise: tapestry. Alexander Chee has digested a great deal of information (and affect, if that is not also information) about Parisian high life in the Nineteenth Century, and then, like Keith Jarrett at Cologne, sat down to weave a tapestry of magnificent consistency.

The period covered by the novel witnessed the birth of celebrity — of people famous for being famous. There is a highly polished example of the birth of a celebrity in the novel. It appears in the eleventh “scene” of the fourth “act” of The Queen of the Night. After her début as Amina, in La Sonnambula, enthusiastic admirers unharness her coach horses with a view to pulling it through the streets themselves, something that actually happened to Verdi after the première of Macbeth. Instead, there is pandemonium, and the soprano, from girlhood in Minnesota an accomplished equestrienne, mounts one of the horses herself. As she gallops along, her trademark, a general’s overcoat, billows out behind her, as does the train of her gown. A caricature of the event appears in next day’s paper: La générale et la légion. I can’t believe that Chee didn’t consider this as a possible title, which I hope is what the novel will be called in a French translation.

(Yes: that’s the note I’m looking for. The Queen of the Night reads like a translation. This is not to say that its English is inept, but only that it hints at things that can’t quite be translated, tiny mysteries that we accept when we read foreign fiction in translation.)

Musicians were among the first celebrities. At first, they were freaks just like all the other momentarily notable. Did you know that the violinist who first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, an immortal masterpiece superior to every one of his symphonies, interpolated a little sonata of his own after the first movement — a sonata for violin played upside-down? As the century progressed, the circus atmosphere was left behind; music became an art form to be appreciated in silence. But Chee has reversed this progress. Le Cirque du Monde Déchu is, after all, an opera about a circus, with a heroine who does acrobatic tricks while singing and riding a pony. It’s as though the Barnum era followed that of the Palais Garnier, and the sleight of hand is carried off so well that it doesn’t seem to be a fiction. Or do I mean, a fantasy?

Female singers were certainly the first women to make public spectacles of themselves (and not their crowns), and they quickly learned to dress in a manner that the aristocracy, had it the wherewithal, would seek to imitate. There are a lot of dresses in The Queen of the Night. The very first, a gown by the House of Worth, is a disappointment to the woman wearing it, so she contrives an ingenious way of disembarrassing herself of it (a pair of dueling Dukes have a fetish for reducing flounces to shreds with their sabres) and she reappears in the second, a creation of the dressmaker Félix, a creation of Chee’s. In the third act of the novel, our heroine is a grisette in the service of Empress Eugénie, and she gets to handle a lot of imperial apparel, all of it lovingly described. Chee writes about clothes and fabric very well, by which I may simply means that he knows when to stop for the likes of me. It is not that he brings the dresses to life, but rather the attentiveness with which they are made. That was the point of haute couture in the Nineteenth Century: expensive women ventured forth covered with virtual banners announcing their awareness of this or that favored detail. There was nothing about a high-end dress that was “just a dress.”

There are a handful of aristocratic ladies in The Queen of the Night, but none of them is French. The Empress sets a rather low bar. There is also the intriguing Comtesse de Castiglione, who can shift from being a Good Fairy to a Bad one at the speed of light. Mostly, there are demimondaines, filles en carte — courtesans and prostitutes. This is the fluid world of the Belle Époque at night. There are revels at the maisons closes, balls, nights at the opera, and even offstage hunts, all of them presented with a blur that conjures the self-defeating longing of children who are staying up far past their bedtimes and trying to glimpse the grown-ups through the banisters. Indeed, nothing comes across as so pleasurable as a good sleep.

The men are — men. The ones we see up close are very good-looking, but their regard for women is nothing if not objectifying. Only poor old Turgenev seems to know what love is — and maybe Verdi, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Here I want to tread very carefully. The Queen of the Night favors women, but it presents them with something of the self-importance of men. It’s the difference, slight perhaps, between saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because it’s important [to be aware],” and saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because I’m important [just being me].” The heroine mixes this up nicely. She doesn’t think that she is important. But then, she must be, because she has invited the anger, or the luck, of the gods. Fates and curses are mentioned almost as often as fabrics. Somehow, Chee manages not to be melodramatic about this. The vividness of his heroine’s life, beginning with an early, despairing orphanhood, proceeding through “such like circumstances” worthy of the Lord High Executioner, and culminating in murder, is damped by the pursuit of her vocal artistry, itself an inexplicable gift. The delight of singing opera beautifully — not just listening to it — is beautifully described. Chee deserves a special award for presenting, as one of the most dangerous of the plot’s points, the singing of the Queen of the Night’s first aria: the music lies outside the singer’s Fach, and we are carefully prepared to grasp this esoteric, if quite fatal, risk.

At times, The Queen of the Night feels like a puzzle, or perhaps a cypher, that might be decoded given the proper insight. I myself, however, wasted no time trying to interpret the tale in other terms. Chee writes in an afterword that “this novel is meant as a reinvention” of The Magic Flute, and I’m glad that I read that before sinking my teeth into the novel, because nothing is sillier than trying to explain the peripeties of Mozart’s opera. If I haven’t said much about the plot, or even told you the heroine’s name (which it isn’t) — why, I haven’t even mentioned “the tenor” (also nameless)! — it’s because these are all elements of the ineffable tapestry; and it’s important to say only that Chee has a clear idea of what he wants you to know. He explains things just as the great storybooks do, so that even if you know all about the opera mentioned, or the political events in the background, you won’t object to reading what he has to say about them. If you ask me, The Queen of the Night is a reinvention of Consuelo, the novel that George Sand is said to have written about Pauline Viardot. I wish it were easier for Anglophone readers to assess the weight of that compliment.


Thursday 23rd

This weekend, I was more than a little amused to see that, in her favorable Book Review review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Penelope Lively touched on the very paragraph that I quoted in full when I wrote about the book last week. Even better, though, she wrought from it a small but invaluable teaching lesson.

I must confess, though, that I did get a touch irritated with Joy at a certain point, frustrated by her inability to do anything about an apartment apparently awash in papers, with files marked URGENT, with unopened letters and so forth. Come on, Joy, it’s just a matter of gritting your teeth and getting down to it! And here I can speak with a certain authority, being myself an octogenarian. But I am my own sort of octogenarian, and that is the whole point. Old people do have certain collective features — mostly the age-related disabilities — but otherwise we’re as distinct from one another as are people of any age.

As are readers: “that is the whole point.” I admire Lively’s native personal optimism, which shines through her fiction and memoirs; I can only wish that I shared it. I try to grit my teeth and open the mail as it comes in, but it’s a gruesome business, because I always expect the bill to be much higher than it is (or, conversely, find that I was wrong to expect it to be lower). I shudder every time the land-line rings: what fresh hell? And an unexpected knock at the door makes my heart pound audibly. That’s just who I am, or whom I have become after a life of low-grade, restless irresponsibility. (Vissi d’arte.) Considering Aaron’s serial bankruptcies, Joy’s horror of opening envelopes is perfectly understandable to me. But so is Lively’s impatience. And, what’s important, Lively has the sense to recognize Joy as someone else, and not to expect her to be a character with whom Lively might have the dubious pleasure of identifying.

This is the difference between youth and age. A young person is a bundle of physical attributes with only a few instances of initiative to recall. The young person’s life is a history of following instructions more or less well. On the cusp of adulthood, it is understandably pressing to know how to sort oneself in the world, and fiction has been found to ease the agony of this puzzle by providing the comforts of what we call “identification.” Girls indulge it more readily than boys, probably because bluff and bluster play much smaller roles in the lives of women. What literate girl has not identified with Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre — despite colossal differences in circumstances? It’s easy to “identify” with fictional heroines, however, only because there is no real identity to get in the young reader’s way. In the end, boys and girls aren’t very different after all; both are looking for exemplars to imitate.

It is the aged who have identities — even as they’re on the point of losing them. It is the elderly who have piled up successes and failures, victories and defeats, escapes and losses, and, unless they are very foolish, they do not seek to identify with anyone else. Proud of their achievements, ashamed of their lapses, they do not wish to share pride or shame with anyone. They are willing instead to acknowledge the experiences that they have shared, roughly, with others. Of course there are old people who have not learned much from their experience, and who are as annoyed as any ten year-old by the exasperating habit people have of being different. But wisdom begins with the understanding that everybody is different, really and truly, and that however well we observe the conventions that make it possible for us to work, live, and love together, we are fiercely unique. Each of us lives alone in his or her own body, and that is that, no matter what expectations of the afterlife might be.

In this world of chaotic, multibillionic diversity, it is the job of fiction to persuade us that the differences of others can be borne, sometimes with amusement, so long as different people share one’s commitment to the basics of “humanity” (what I call humanism). No killing, things like that.


During our short stay on Fire Island two weeks ago, I read the books that I’d brought with me. The two big books, Peter Ward Fay’s history of the first Opium War and (as mentioned) the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, took me to the eve of the last full day. Then I had to cast about for books in the house. I found Camus’s The Stranger, which I had never read — it turned out to be a different sort of book from what I expected, a curious failure of my antennae — and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s great story, also for the first time. It was like being in high school. Then I turned to the book on the nightstand at my side of the bed, Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage. I liked this so much that I ordered a copy of my own the moment I got home.

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir was assembled, after Broyard’s death, by his widow, Alexandra, from material that he had been working on during his illness. The book, she tell us, was to end with the death of Broyard’s father, and how it brought Broyard “back down to earth.” Broyard never got to that part. The book ends, instead, with a chapter that becomes more amazing every time I read it: clearly, there is much to absorb. At the end of a collection of chapters about the romantic and intellectual experiences of a fairly rootless young man (his daughter, Bliss, would later write a book, One Drop, that offered a persuasive explanation of this rootlessness), filled with vivid portraits and jazzy excitements, Broyard settles down to tell us how disappointing it all was, because the two never mixed — romance and argument. Like Augustine centuries before him, but quite without Augustine’s piety, Broyard loved his male interlocutors but had nothing to say to the women he slept with. Broyard had the advantage, at least, of finding out how it might have been different, when the old Augustinian settlement (sex is okay as long as you’re trying to have children, but not otherwise) finally began to crumble in the 1960s, with the advent of The Pill.

“To someone who hasn’t lived through it, it’s almost impossible to describe the sexual atmosphere of 1947.” This sentence doesn’t say very much, but it announces a possibility of which most people are unaware: sex changes. I don’t mean the physical side, varied as that always is, but the emotional side, the human context in which sexual acts take place. For Broyard, this context was always frustrating, and I’m talking about after sex, because he “hadn’t yet learned how to just be with girls, to exist alongside them, to make friends — and so once my desire was satisfied, I was bored.” He had the redeeming decency to feel guilty about this, but he wasn’t helped much by the girls, either, who for their part had been brought up to listen.

Men and women hadn’t yet learned to talk to one another in a natural way. Girls were trained to listen. They were waiting for history to give them permission to speak. They led waiting lives — waiting for men to ask them out, for them to have an orgasm, to marry or leave them. Their silence was another form of virginity. (145)

Broyard would learn this later. We all would. (Now, perhaps, my recollection of college bull sessions in which the mere existence of the female intellect was disputed will not seem so improbable.) There must have been young, sophisticated people who knew how to talk, but there can’t have been many of them, and almost by definition they would have known well enough to keep their intimacies to themselves. Most girls — and Broyard is talking about “nice” girls — were brought up to be virgins forever. The only scrap of information that married women gained with their new status was that men are truly bestial. (Or not bestial enough.) The only way to be truly married is to share a lot more than the bed of a spouse. Again, those lucky few who were truly married had every reason to keep their good fortunes to themselves; they would not have been envied. They would have been denounced as depraved.

In this regard, Broyard’s 1947 stands for the end of a very long era in human history. Or the beginning of the end. Sometimes I fear that it is still winding down. If women aren’t quite the listeners that they used to be, men haven’t taken up the slack. But it’s deeply comforting to read proof of one man’s growth.


On a very gentle tangent, I should like to say something about Jill Lepore’s short piece, in the current New Yorker, about women and the Republican Party, but the piece is too condensed for me to say much. There’s a lot of learning in those pages, and most of it makes very interesting connections. One thing stands out, however: the pivotal role of Phyllis Schlafly in driving women away from the Republican Party, the party to which they flocked for so long. Schlafly’s successful fight to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified by thirty-eight states required for passage (thirty-five ratified it, not counting the five states that rescinded ratification) not only divided but confused long-standing features of political life, and, worse, it continues to inhibit political advance. There ought to be a name for women like Phyllis Schlafly: educated, attractive, comfortable, and free to do just about anything they they like, but utterly opposed to extending their freedom to other women. Perhaps there is: “Schlafly.”

In Lepore’s penultimate paragraph, the string of historical observations is suddenly punctuated by a cry of pain.

With the end of the ERA, whose chance at ratification expired in 1982, both parties abandoned a political settlement necessary to the stability of the republic. The entrance of women into politics on terms that are, fundamentally and constitutionally, unequal to men’s has produced a politics of interminable division, infused with misplaced and dreadful moralism. (The New Yorker, 27 June 20016, page 26)

I realized when I read this that I had gotten so used to the status quo that I no longer saw the problem clearly: inequality produces instability, and this instability has been mounting in recent decades because the Republican Party has no raison d’être other than to maintain inequality. The moralism, as Lepore tries to show in her extremely concentrated capsule, was introduced by women, on behalf of themselves and of slaves, and it was a force for the good until, as I was just saying, the old Augustianian dispensation broke down. The moral voice in American politics was split by this rupture; some used to advocate equality (as women always had), while others used it to preserve a moral order that earlier women never thought of questioning — not in public, anyway. Since most people prefer what they already know, the moral order has attained a value far exceeding that of speculative equality. It’s hard to argue against stable families; whatever its long-term effects, the end of the Augustianian order certainly produced a lot of miserable children, torn by divorce. It’s hard to ague that children don’t flourish in the light of their mothers’ undivided attention. It’s hard to see how reproductive polarization can be reconciled with gender equality. It may not be impossible, but it is hard, and voices like Schlafly’s have been emphasizing the difficulties. Not to mention the fact that the moral order being defended fits in so well with the corporate order. Many Americans behave as if they wished that it were still 1947.


Friday 24th

The other day, there were three interesting obituaries on the same page of the Times. I had never heard of the deceased, which simplified the interest; there was no pang of regret for people of whom I’d known when they were alive. It’s just possible that I did hear of Bill Berkson, once or twice, long ago, but I have completely forgotten it if so, and I usually don’t forget. (I tend to confuse.) Berkson, who died at 76, in San Francisco, of a heart attack, was the son of two people in the news business. His father was the publisher of the Journal-American, the Hearst organ in New York, and his mother was Eleanor Lambert, the creator and curator of the Best-Dressed lists. Frequent guest at his parents’ many cocktail parties, Berkson grew up knowing everyone worth knowing. His epitaph might well be his own claim to be the only person who attended both Woodstock and the Black-and-White Ball. Something tells me he wasn’t, but the claim is still a reasonable one.

In later life, Berkson moved from the New York Schools of art and poetry — his “scatter” style was inspired by Frank O’Hara — to the Bay Area, where he continued to write verse and criticism. A 1957 graduate of Lawrenceville, he seems to have avoided the Draft.

Among the bold-faced names appearing in the obituary, which was written by William Grimes, were two that fascinated me when I was a kid: Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. Imagine being called “Jinx Falkenberg”! She was a tall drink of pulchritude who, with her husband, hosted radio and TV shows. I was grateful for the mention, because I worry sometimes that I have made Jinx up.

At the top of the page, the death of a slightly younger person was announced: that of Lorna Kelly, who died here in town, of a stroke, at 70. (It would better to say that she was even more slightly older than I — two years or less.) There was a good reason for me not to have heard of Kelly: in 1980, the year of my return from the heartland, she “parted company” from Sotheby’s, where she had served as a colorful auctioneer, specializing in netsuke. Born in Isleworth, London, Kelly came to this country as an au pair and worked her way up. When the chance to take the rostrum at Sotheby’s arose, she stopped drinking and divorced her husband. Four years later, she had had enough (I suppose), and, after leaving Sotheby’s, she went to India, like Woody Allen’s Alice, to work with Mother Theresa. She continued to “work with” AIDS victims in Manhattan and death-row inmates in Texas.

Margalit Fox concludes with a flounce worthy of the Telegraph:

Of all the rigors she faced in her work overseas, it was a domestic undertaking that, for the voluble Ms Kelly, very likely proved the keenest test of her spiritual commitment.

As the Times reported in a 1991 profile, she once traveled to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York, where she spent the next 100 days in complete silence.

At the bottom, Kimiko Freytas-Tamura sends off Benoîte Groult, “French Feminist and Writer Whose Books Explored Women’s Liberation.” We’re always hearing that they don’t have women’s liberation in France, possibly because of their famous expertise with traditional arrangements. Whether love always has something to do with it or not, there do seem to be far, far fewer unattractive or even plain women on the streets of Paris than there are on New York’s. In a picture dating from 1993, Groult certainly looks charming enough. She died, at Hyères, where Edith Wharton had her winter quarters, complete with a now-ruined garden overlooking the Mediterranean, at the age of 96. (No cause is stated; when you’re very old, you’re permitted to die of refusing to go to the hospital, which is how I hope it was for Groult.) Her mother was a niece of couturier Paul Poiret; her godmother was Marie Laurencin. Groult married four times. The first two husbands died in office. The third gave her two daughters (or vice versa), and the fourth a third.

I’m afraid that I must rap the obituarist’s knuckles.

She was 55 when her book “Ainsi Soit-Elle” (loosely translated as “As She Is”) was published in 1975. It became an instant best-seller in France (it was never published in English) and sealed Ms Groult’s reputation as a leading feminist.

No doubt; but the book’s title would be better translated as a gendered take on the formula into which the Hebrew “amen” is translated in French. Ah, women!

Call me terrible, but going through the paper and finding this kind of a lineup is almost as good as a great Op-Ed page. I have to say that I dislike reading about deaths sooner than eighty. Poor Anton Yelchin! I didn’t see him in Star Wars (it ought to go without saying), but I admired him in The House of D and Fierce People. For a Jewish kid from Petrograd, he certainly looked like a Brooks Brothers preppie. I was appalled to learn of his demise, but part of me wonders what else can you expect of those Los Angeles canyons? Having grown up in Bronxville, which bears resemblances to LA in this regard, I should never buy a house with a steeply-graded driveway. Even if it doesn’t snow out there. Sic transit!


Speaking of love, I remember being frustrated as a young person by the inevitability of love as a subject — the subject — of opera and lyric verse. Why did everything have to be a love story? Is that all people are interested in?

It’s easier to explain why poets and composers are. Love is unique among human experiences in being available to everybody. Sure, there are birth and death, and almost everybody has a mother, but aside from the love story that pops up the moment you propose to separate a mother from her child, or to confuse mother and child about one another’s identifies, there’s not much to carry one away. Lots of people never fall in love. Denis de Rougement all but argued that love is a Western invention, but he was talking about a certain kind of love: the love that takes place outside of marriage. This sort of love is not to be confused with mere infidelities or “affairs.” According to Rougemont, Love in the Western World is gripping and tragic. Somebody has to die. Certainly there must be plenty of misery. In the beginning, only aristocrats had time for this sort of thing, but by degrees, “romantic love” came to be heard of by everyone, culminating with the folly (in Rougemont’s eyes) of trying to conflate love with bourgeois marriage.

Along the way, poets and composers discovered that, at least among poetry readers and opera audiences, the understanding of love is universal. Everyone already knows all about it. If you write an opera about work, say, you have to spend the first act just describing the job. Boring! With love, you can start right away — most famously with the Marschallin and Octavian in bed together. That wouldn’t be very interesting, of course, if we did not know that Octavian is destined to fall in love with someone else in the second act, but it certainly is gorgeous. And then the first act does end with a quarrel and a misunderstanding, so there’s hope even before the Presentation of the Rose. The point is: love has a lot of problems, and almost everybody knows all about them.

To put it another way, if love is your subject, then you don’t have to worry about “meaning.” What’s it about, whines the lout. The first thing that any literate person learns is that “What’s it about?” is a stupid question for many reasons, most of them rooted in laziness or category mistakes. But the secret behind this condescension is that, where love is the subject, it is never the subject. It is merely the gateway.

These thoughts are inspired by a month or so browsing more deeply than usual through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with the inestimable assistance of Helen Vendler. I have owned The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets since it appeared, in 1997, but only recently have I learned how to read it. First lesson: begin with the Introduction. I tend to regard Introductions as Afterthoughts, but that is a mistake where Vendler is concerned. In her Introductions, she sets forth her goals, which she does not repeat later on. She tells you what she is going to do and why, and usually this generalized information is not only important but prerequisite to whatever follows. If she is writing about Wallace Stevens (On Extended Wings, her first book), then you must begin with the Introduction, which discusses the nature of Stevens’s “longer poems.” In her Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, she explains what she is not going to do. Among others, she is not going to search for their meaning.

However important “meaning” may be to a theological hermeneutic practice eager to convey accurately the Word of God, it cannot have that importance in lyric. Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of “meaning” at all, in our ordinary sense of the word. “I have insomnia because I am far away from you” is the gist of one sonnet; “Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death” is the “meaning” of another. These are not taxing or original ideas… Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels. (13)

She goes on to dismiss the ideas that the 126 sonnets to the “young man” are meant to code homosexual behavior, or that Shakespeare hates the dark lady of the remaining 28. Whether Shakespeare was gay or drawn only to women who had slept with lots of other men is simply not the point of these poems, because “the feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feelings attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essential feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric.” (16) Vendler announces that what interests her is summed up by the phrase “arrangement of statement.”

Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed.(14)

It is much more than good to know this before tackling her commentaries of the individual sonnets.

Somewhere in the Introduction (I think), Vendler refers to Sonnet 75 as having an unusual structure. Most of Shakespeares sonnets consist of a series of three quatrains, followed by a couplet. There are also sonnets built on Petrarchan lines: an opening octave (eight lines), followed by a sestet (six). Sonnet 75 is an outlier: an opening quatrain, then six lines of alternative experiences, followed by a quatrain that is really a return to the opening statement, with the usual couplet sendoff at the end. I was piqued by this and immediately turned to the sonnet, and was captured by it even though Vendler says that she considers it “otherwise [than as to structure] unremarkable.” Here it is:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;

Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.

Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

I have inserted spacing to make the structure more apparent. The conceit is the relation between a miser and his treasure, which is troubled by conflicting desires to protect and to adveritise. It is the pair of images expressed in the ninth and tenth lines that knocks me out: “clean starvèd for a look” has a punch that vaporizes the poem’s distance in time from 2016. It is the best way of putting the thing, of describing the feeling, or contrast of feelings, that I can imagine. One day I wear myself out staring at you; the next, I despair of seeing you at all. I should go a little further, and read in the implication that, having basked in your attention, I am now dying because you won’t look at me. This particular conundrum of desire is very familiar to me; it describes all the successive agonies of my adolescence.

Having pronounced the sonnet unremarkable, Vendler proceeds to show how wily it is, how persistently self-correcting. For, if a miser possesses treasure, the same cannot be said of the poet’s relation to his young man. The tip-off is in the first two lines, which mention organic necessities that, far from piling up, never cease to be necessities. In fact, the poet has no control whatever over the young man. The self-correction is most explicit in line 11: “Possessing or pursuing…” This is followed by a return to organic notions: pining and surfeiting, of “gluttoning” and starving. I call this having your cake and eating it — not the poet and his young man, not the miser and his wealth, but Shakespeare and his words. Sonnet 75 consists of two poems written in parallel. Which is, like almost every one of the sonnets in its own way, a neat trick.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
June 2016 (I)

14, 16, 17 June

Tuesday 14th

Writing is usually the second thing that I do every day. The first is reading the Times, which primes me by restoring a sense of the Grey Lady’s idea of the status quo. Since my idea of the status quo is quite different, the Times usually gets me going. Today, however, there was shopping that had to be done, and then bills to be paid; and, besides, I didn’t get up until half-past eleven. (I’ll let myself sleep late tomorrow, and then that will be that for jet lag.) At this point, my mind is in a material groove, piloting the ship of moi through the thousand islands that fill my stream of consciousness with practical distractions.

Returning from vacation is the best time for instituting new routines. Between the shopping and the bills, I lugged out the oversized whiteboard and wrote down all the things that I could think of doing today, in green ink, and several things that I’d like to do tomorrow, in red; and, with a black marker, a terse mention of dinner, indicating that my prep plans are up in the air. Tonight, I am going to make a sort of Stroganov, with cubes of filet mignon, mushrooms, shallots, sour cream and sage, poured over linguine. I’m going to make it up as I go along. I’ve got to remember to pull some frozen chicken pieces out of the freezer, so that I can marinate them tomorrow. You see what I mean by practical distractions; I could go on in this vein for hours. And once I had told you everything that there is to tell about the fascinating decisions that I get to make every day — for I am no longer in the closet about being a bureaucrat at heart — I could describe the improvements in the corridor, which climaxed only today in the installation of new baseboards, quieting the hitherto irritating border between the new carpet and the new wallpaper. New ceiling fixtures are yet to come, but because it is so much easier for me to look down than up, I may not even notice. I am very soothed by the baseboards.

I had hoped that the baseboards would be in place by the time we got home yesterday, but I was too tired to care that they weren’t. And happy, too: it will be a while before I go anywhere near an airport. Kathleen is thinking of an autumn jaunt to Bermuda, and I shouldn’t mind that, because the flight is not only short in duration but domestic at the New York end (US Customs has a beachhead at St George’s). And it has been a while since we’ve been. Kathleen has even threatened a return to St Croix for Thanksgiving. But I shan’t be imprisoned on a lengthy flight until the end of the year at the earliest.

I do hate to travel. I like being in other places, but even taking a taxi to Lincoln Center is a trial. Is there anything so boring as sitting in a vehicle of any kind through bumps of track and pavement and grinds of turbulence, always at the whim of someone else’s catastrophe and the ever more strangulating embrace of the security industry? I think that you have to be young not to notice the gross theft of liberty involved. Even walking isn’t a sure thing, as I’m here to testify after six years of subway-station construction right outside the front door. Nothing about life is certain, but modern motion seems to be about locking oneself into a schedule of uncertainty.

On the flight out, there was a computer glitch. I distinctly heard the captain discuss this with an IT technician, but they decided to do nothing at the time, because only the routine safety videos seemed to be affected. So we pulled out from the gate, tested the engines and whatnot, and then decided on a reboot, because it turned out that the thrust automation also wasn’t working. The pilot could have managed the plane in flight without this feature, but until it was in working order, he would not be permitted to depart. It did not take long to fix, but it did take a while for another vehicle to come along and pull us out again. We took off about an hour and a half late. Coming home, the plane was fine but the manifest was off by one passenger. This took ten minutes to clear up, but, remembering out outgoing delays, I was tearing my hair, virtually. Both flights were bumpy. Both flights were delayed, en route to the gate, by runway traffic. Sitting still in a plane anywhere but at the gate is torture for me.

Between driving out to Bay Shore (from which to ferry across to Fire Island) and back, and then the trips too and from JFK, I have seen enough of Long Island for the time being, especially the ultra-drab parts of Steinway that flank the Grand Central Parkway. How do people manage to live there? It is not a matter of poverty.


We stayed at the Palace Hotel, on Market Street. It’s a grand old pile that, unlike the St Francis, is in grand new shape. Plus, it is not on Union Square. Union Square used to be a center of elegance, but now it is crowded with people who are not dressed for San Francisco. (They’re not dressed for anywhere, except perhaps for one of those space stations in Wall*E.) Nice as the Palace was, though, we didn’t spend much waking time there. As soon as we were dressed, we took a taxi to the other end of town, and then, hours later, we returned via Uber. Megan and Ryan live in Outermost Sunset, a block and a half from the Great Highway, on the other side of which stretches a Pacific beach — although it does not stretch so far as it used to do, thanks, says Megan, to El Niño. The beach has been so extensively eroded that stone debris from an ancient graveyard, dumped as ballast along the shore a long time ago, once again basks in the sunlight. I spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with my daughter. I took a few pictures of my grandson, standing next to Kathleen. Will comes up to her chin. Because he is quite lean, with a swimmer’s body, he doesn’t look big — except, of course, in his kindergarten class picture. There, he and a few other boys standing in the back row look like troublesome fellows who have been held back repeatedly, who perhaps ought to be in middle school by now. By himself, though, Will does not look a day older than his age, which is six-and-a-half.

Whether Will is unusually self-conscious or not, I can’t say — I rather doubt it — but his sensitivity to perceived insult brings home to me how detached my everyday speech is from literalness. Almost everything that comes out of my mouth in casual social discourse, is exaggerated, insincere, inverted, ironic, and derogatory, and yet meant to be understood as utterly friendly. Genuinely friendly, as literal friendliness would sound altogether bogus. When I was a boy, this was the tone taken by affectionate adults, especially older men. We were called monsters and devils; we couldn’t do anything right (except that we were praised whenever we actually did), we were smart alecks and mad scientists bent on blowing up the world, and the people who told us this, we knew, loved us. At least we entertained them. They did not, as their elders had wished in the olden days, to whisk children altogether out of sight. My parents had many friends who wanted to make me part of their world, even if they had no intention of entering mine. This explains, perhaps, why I feel most comfortable with a cocktail in my hand.

Maybe it was just me. It occurred to me during an after-dinner discussion at Megan’s kitchen table that I really lacked all the ordinary inputs for being a child. I did not want to do any of the things that children were supposed to want to do, and yet I could not yet do the things that I would quite soon love to do and that I have loved doing ever since. I was too little for grown-up books, and I was only a little bit better at sitting still than the other boys were. The anguish of my childhood is exemplified by my never-realized yearning for Resonance Chessman.

Oh, how I wanted to have a set of Resonance Chessman! My mother’s cousin, Kitty, who came down from Manhattanville to babysit (and who took us to fabulously inappropriate movies, such as North By Northwest and Teahouse of the August Moon when they were new), would always correct me: Renaissance chessmen. Why the word “resonance” should come more easily to my lips is a good indication of how hopelessly at sea I was, because I certainly didn’t know what it meant. Resonance Chessmen were in fact rather medieval in appearance, which shows how the Fifties could be no less confused than I. In reality, I was not an ardent chess-player. I didn’t know yet that I had no gift for chess, and no interest in developing and possessing the skills required to play chess well, but I did suspect, guiltily, that my desire for Resonance Chessmen did not involve much playing of chess. To be honest, I’d had treated them as Resonance Tchotchkes. What I really wanted was to be old enough to own a set of Resonance Chessman. And when I did become old enough, Resonance Chessmen, and even Renaissance chessmen, were no longer very high on my wish list; in fact, they weren’t on it at all. By the time I could have owned a set, I knew that Resonance Chessmen were simply tacky, that one ought to play chess with a strong and simple wooden set of orthodox chess pieces. I spent a lot of time trying to cajole someone into buying me a set of Resonance Chessmen, but no one ever did, possibly because of an interdiction from my mother, but just as possibly because my true desire leaked through the  pleading, and it was understood that ownership of a set of Resonance Chessmen would not by itself make me old enough to regard a set of Renaissance Chessmen with fastidious disgust. Childhood was an interplanetary flight through waste and dreck that simply had to be sat through.


I re-read the Patrick Melrose novels on Fire Island — all but the last, At Last, which was published separately at the time that the first four were bundled together. (At the bookshop in San Francisco Airport yesterday, I saw that all five have been collected in one volume, and I’m thinking about trading in what I’ve got for that.) I was reminded that Edward St Aubyn is in a class by himself as a prose magician.

Watching the Road Runner and the stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake, Patrick was reminded of the early innocent days of his drug taking, when he had thought that LSD would reveal to him something other than the tyranny of its own effects on his consciousness. (Bad News)

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about LSD, except that the number is a great deal smaller than the number of tabs swallowed, and now I see why. I could tell you that LSD was surprisingly boring, and that I was humiliated by my persistent failure to experience a terrifying hallucination. (The worst that ever happened was that the sounds of insects on a summer night became unbearably loud, and made me think of mastication rather than sexual attraction; it sounded as though gigantic bugs were about to leap from the bushes and devour me. So I had to go indoors.) But it would never, I think, have occurred to me to get to the point of LSD as well as St Aubyn does, which is that LSD is all about LSD. It is the very opposite of a gateway to insight, or to anything else. You might as well wait for a sub-par garage band to become musical. The thing is, St Aubyn has not only a way with words, but something to say that can be expressed only with the words that he invariably picks. It is arguable that this gift is not put to such glittering use in his other fictions, which can be too earnest (On the Edge) or too clever (Lost for Words). But every now and then in the Melrose novels, St Aubyn outshines his only conceivable competitor, Evelyn Waugh, for surgical virtuosity. “Stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake” is a perfect description of the pointless futility with which Wile E Coyote comes back again and again and again, hoping that, this time, it will be different. It not only never is different, but it becomes less and less interesting. It is all about dust, and nothing but dust.

The idea of taking drugs for pleasure never crossed my mind, which I suppose saved me from early destruction. Even after I accepted that enlightenment was not really on offer, I cherished LSD for its alternative consciousness, however tedious that might have been. Once I gave up on wild hallucinations, I took to challenging regular life. Could I go to a lecture, could I participate in a seminar, while tripping? Could I pass for straight? Yes! Amazingly, yes, I could! It was arduous work, and completely pointless, but I could do it, just as I could make a round trip to my dorm room, having shown up for philosophy class only to learn that a paper was due to be handed in at the end of the hour, returning with said paper in hand (and get an A for it). (Not while tripping, however; I could not write under the influence of LSD.) I was still, in my early twenties, too ignorant to know what to do with what I knew.

I keep wondering, just as I once kept taking LSD, if there was something, a voice to listen to, that would have taught me what I needed to know sooner than I learned it for myself.


Wednesday 16th

Some regular readers, I suppose, may have been dismayed by my rattling on, Tuesday afternoon, about Resonance Chessmen, instead of commiserating with souls made sore by the mass shooting in Orlando. I am certainly very sore. But I am frightened, too, because nothing is being done about the disgrace of accessible assault rifles. A little piece in today’s Times reports that an academic study shows that the legislative response to mass shootings is not only nil in states controlled by Democrats, but worse where Republicans rule: Republican-controlled legislatures actually follow up mass shootings with laws that make it easier to get guns. This tells me one thing, loud and clear: gun control is not the issue.

The National Rifle Association, professing to deplore mass shootings, argues that America would be safer if everyone were armed. This notion is preposterous on its face, but what keeps us from laughing at it is the suspicion that the United States has become an every-man-for-himself sort of place. We cannot count on anyone else to protect us. Police and other security services probably do protect us, far more than we know — and so, very quietly, do our civilian neighbors — but thanks to our entertainment news media, we see only instances of incompetence. Step back a bit, and it appears that government at large doesn’t work. Officials are either too wealthy from corruption to care about doing their job, or too squeezed by low tax revenues to be able to do them.

What is to be done? There seem to me to be only two “options.” The first is to wait for a beneficent leader to emerge, someone capable of rousing us all to resume the hard work of participating in a democracy. Without a committed, pluralistic drive to create a genuine government-by-the-people, the nation will continue its drift toward breakdown. Rather than wait for one leader to inspire the country as a whole, I should advocate nursing a large brood of local leaders, working in some kind of local councils or committees to improve matters close to home. This would not be easy: we should all have to learn the good manners that silence cranks and bores. The conclusions reached by councils would not be binding, but they would have to be literate and resilient. Those who found the debates tedious or taxing could vote themselves off the island, while those of us who worry that nothing can be done would have something to do.

The other option is to call a Constitutional Convention and reconfigure the United States. It seems reasonable to call this the “nuclear option,” because the decommissioned order under which we limp along today might very well be replaced by nothing but civil strife. The usefulness of this second option is to refocus our attention on the far more appealing alternative, which requires no formal changes of any kind: leadership in local councils. In the Seventies, we might have called it “consciousness-raising for citizens.” We certainly do need to regard citizenship as something more than the accumulation of trivial knowledge required to pass the US Citizenship Test.

The murders at Pulse are also a reminder that gay lives don’t quite matter, just as police shootings of (generally) young black men tell us something similar about race. The United States is still a nation that likes to see a straight white male face in the mirror. Whether this can ever change is open to question; the prejudice is one of the deepest roots of the European West to which we belong. We ought at least to be aware of that.

Do I have to do everything? Why don’t you take the initiative? Get together with a couple of friends and grapple — just for practice! — with the thorny problem of establishing protocols for the use of mobile phones in public places. Set up a Web site, and invite contributions to a position paper. Behave yourself generously, and don’t take any money from anybody. Participatory democracy is nothing if not self-funding.


It is possible to imagine better ways of conducting government and civil life. It is difficult to imagine how ageing could be made less burdensome to everyone, especially since we no longer believe that people with disabilities ought to stay at home and depend on such family as they have. It has been a very long time since I left my apartment for the great outdoors (or returned therefrom) without passing someone assisted by a walker. (The abundance of squalling infants simply enhances the air of hospital living.) It is not always convenient to be stuck behind someone shuffling along with a walker, but I’ll have to get one myself, eventually, if my heart holds out. I see myself on both sides of this problem.

Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, glances at many of the indignities of old age, but it focuses on the one problem that ought to be easy to fix. Taking its title from a Philip Larkin poem which opens with the preceding line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the novel turns the spyglass around and remembers the last line of the poem (“This Be the Verse”): “And don’t have any kids yourself.” The person being addressed with Larkin’s wisdom is Joy Bergman, an eighty-six year-old Jewish New Yorker who lives on the Upper East Side. (That is the novel’s outstanding flaw: everything about Joy screams that she lives on the Upper West Side. But unless you live on one side or the other, the distinction won’t mean very much.) Joy has two children, a son and a daughter, and she loves them to distraction. They love her, too, of course, but they mostly drive her crazy.

Schine is a social satirist who pulls her punches, producing mild but funny reads in which the familiar foibles of brainy New Yorkers are warmed over in well-written prose. In contravention of all spoiler laws, I should like to say that the final scene of They May Not Mean To is both the most characteristic and the funniest. Joy is in traffic court, which is apparently where you go if you’re ticketed by a policeman for peeing in public. Joy might very well have peed in public: she depends on Depends. But it is unlikely that a cop would pull her over, as it were. No, Joy is the “emissary” of her grandson, Ben. Ben seems to have been something of a luftmensch, although now, by the end of the book, he is studying for the LSAT and planning to go to law school — in New Orleans, where he has been a bartender for too long. It is Ben, on a visit to see his grandmother, who peed in public in such a manner as to invite official reproval.

I’m not really sure of the effectiveness, vel non, of sending your grandmother to answer charges in traffic court, but muddle is brilliantly sidestepped by a clerical error. Instead of “Ben,” the court clerk reads out “Bea.” Joy, who has been itching with discomfort at the idea that anybody might regard her as the guilty party, tries to correct the mistake.

“It’s not me,” Joy was saying. “It’s my grandson…”

And then she looked around at all the men and women whose cars did not have taillights or headlights or side-view mirrors, all the men and women who had made mistakes on their registration papers or had read a form wrong or who had forgotten to mail some paper or who’d just never gotten around to going to the garage to get the muffler fixed, and she thought, This is humanity, all these people with shining sweaty bare shoulders and Life Savers and New York Posts folded into fans and excuses and worries and troubles and fines, and here they were all together. Everyone was so kind. Everyone was so helpful. It was really very cosmopolitan. Here she was surrounded by her fellow citizens, part of them, one of them.

“Bea Harkavy,” the voice boomed. “Public urination.”

“Is that correct?” the lawyer asked Joy.

“Oh yes,” said Joy. “This is exactly where I belong.”

Things could be so much worse; the novel could be much darker. To take just one plot point, Aaron, Joy’s late husband, rammed his thriving family business into bankruptcy, and not just once. He was a charmer without much of a head for business, one of those blind optimists who really believe that, next time, things will work out. I can’t say much more about the matter, except that it happened a long time ago. Schine does not discuss it. We are spared the easily-imagined recriminations. We’re told that Joy managed to “protect” an inherited upstate house from Aaron’s creditors, and also that she salted money away in bank accounts that Aaron didn’t know about: two sentences. Quite a few more sentences remind us that Joy is just about broke. This is probably what saves her from the fate she dreads most: being placed in a home. She certainly doesn’t have the money to pay for assisted living, and it seems that her children don’t, either, although they both have nice careers.

The children are Molly and Daniel. Molly, Ben’s mother, gave up marriage to a man for companionship with a woman; worse, she moved to Los Angeles. We are told again and again that the Bergmans are a tight-knit family. The jacket copy begins, “The Bergman clan has always stuck together.” Nevertheless, Molly is in Los Angeles, breaking her mother’s heart and feeling guilty about it. It is clear, however, that these are part-time pains. Joy has plenty to keep her busy, and she talks to Molly every day. Molly is one of those New Yorkers who, having discovered sunny California, never come home. (Everything about Molly, except her sexual preference and her religion, firmly reminded me of one of Kathleen’s oldest friends.) Molly’s companion, Freddie, is the daughter of a once somewhat-well-known character actor whose hands are Roman enough to have expelled him from two homes. Daniel works for an environmental organization. Molly, we know, is an anthropologist who digs things up; I have no idea what Daniel’s actual job is, or what his training was, or why he followed his undefined career. He lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and their two daughters, Ruby and Cora.

When Daniel and Molly discuss their mother, whom they expect to fall completely apart when Aaron dies, they say ill-considered, ungenerous things; it is not hard to imagine them re-enacting the parts of Goneril and Regan. They insist that they have their mother’s best interest at heart, but in fact her condition annoys them. Their solutions are anodyne: Why not join a poetry group at the 92nd Street Y? They worry that mourning will kill her — until she runs into an old flame, and is suddenly perceived not to be mourning enough. The old flame, Karl, is a prosperous gent who was also a friend of Aaron, and pretty soon he’s proposing. Joy responds with an elegant answer that just might start a real-world trend, and I’ll save that for you to read. Molly and Daniel, however, are beside themselves with irrational hostility to Karl. They think that he’s after her money; when they remember that he’s the one with the money, they convince themselves that he just wants a nurse. Sympathizing with Joy, I wanted to wash their mouths out with soap.

But I remembered what it was like, after my mother died. It was clear that my father was not going to spend the rest of his life alone, but I felt that our family (certainly no tight-knit clan!) was being invaded by the strange women whom he dated. There was nothing strange about them at all, of course, except that they were there, and my father evidently came to the same conclusion, because in the end he married a woman whom my sister and I, and even the woman who introduced them, regarded as an adventuress. I found her to be profoundly uncongenial, and relations froze into implicit hostility when my father died, about five years later. Being nice to Florice dragged me into a new dimension of phoneyness. To say that I had major issues with my mother is an understatement, but this did not stop me from roiling with suppressed outrage on her behalf. Had she known — ! I was just about as infantile as Molly or Daniel. (And I must say that Florice took tireless good care of my father during his long decline, cleaning up no end of messes and changing sheets in the middle of the night. She was an excellent wife.)

The real problem is that grown children believe that they are supposed to know what’s best for their ageing parents. They feel that taking care of their parents is their duty, even when their parents haven’t asked for any help or behaved with serious unreliability. Rather than help out in moments of crisis (which come along at a steady clip for the elderly), children prefer to stabilize the situation, usually by forcing their parents to give up their own homes, the last thing any sane person wants to do. Children think that they Know Better.

Would Schine’s novel be better if it were darker? It would be easier to write about, perhaps. But I for one was grateful that the punches were pulled. Joy was never evicted, never incarcerated, never condemned to dependence. Her children said a lot of silly things, but nothing much came of it. The ending, as you can see, was sunny — New York sunny. While all the really bad things weren’t happening, I could enjoy the humor and the wisdom and the occasion to consider the ironic benefits of living a long life.

I flagged a wonderful paragraph to copy into my commonplace book, and I’ll share it with you.

Then she hobbled back to her apartment. There it all was, her mess, waiting, turrets and towers of mail, its banners of Post-its and crumpled tissues. It was an eclectic collection: Everything had been or was to be filed, but the names on the files had little to do with their contents and few hints for what should be added. There were multiple files labeled, for example, Urgent!!, although some were labeled URGENT, all caps, and a few Urgent! with just one exclamation point. There was a Pay Today file and a Pay Immediately file, a Miscellaneous file and a Miscellany file. There were Medical, Medicine, Health, Health Care, Health Insurance, Doctors, Doctor Bills, Medicare, and there were files by illness as well: Diabetes, Cancer/Joy, and Cancer/Aaron. Inside were flyers for Roundabout Theater and YIVO, Time Warner, DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon, and free shingles shots from CVS. There were unopened envelopes with requests for money from starving children, dogs, cats, and abandoned farm animals, newsletters from Israel and Trader Joe’s; literature from city council candidates, mayoral candidates, cemeteries, the Neptune Society, and juice fasts. Bills and tax returns, X-rays and lab reports showed up, too, here and there, as well as clippings of art reviews by Adam Gopnik from the 1980s. (181)


Thursday 17th

Lumbering through Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, I’m learning nearly nothing that I didn’t already know or suspect. Without ever making a study of Marx, whose quoted words seem always to combine sarcasm and obscurity to repellent effect, I have more or less helplessly picked up the basics, namely, that Marx was a bourgeois who was never able to support his family, and that his theories about history and economics were outdated by the time of his death, in 1883. If I seem to have judged him in advance, Sperber has presented no information that would overcome my impression of a man so immature that he argued against improvements in social welfare, lest they derail or delay the “inevitable” collapse of capitalism that must necessarily precede a utopia for workers. Marx was an advocate of proletarian causes who had little but contempt for actual proletarians.

Actually, I did learn something: Marx was beset by a terrible skin disease that I didn’t know about. Sperber surmises that it was that it was the autoimmune disease hidradenitis suppurativa,

whose effects are similar to acne, but on a much larger scale — fist-sized growths, not small pimples, destruction of the outer layer of skin, not just redness and scarring. The disease is painful, disfiguring, and even today very difficult to treat.

My heart really does go out to the man: what a terrible burden! Especially for a bourgeois paterfamilias, swaddled in all those Victorian woolens! And to think that even today’s medicine might not have helped him very much! I do pity the man, but my opinion of “Karl Marx” hasn’t changed. I’m simply mystified by his posthumous influence.

At the same time, I’m reading a great deal that I don’t understand. For example, Ricardo’s “theory of differential rent”: “rent on land was equal to the difference in yield between the most fertile and the least fertile piece of land.” These lucid words roll about in my mind without making any connections. The theory seems both obvious and absurd. Sperber’s expression of an opposing theory about rent, “the rent on a piece of land was equal to the return on the capital invested in it,” seems at first to make more sense, but it soon fades into tautology; and I have no idea why this theory is labeled “absolute rent.” I smell the ancient urge to generalize about particulars: a boy’s game. The real mystery is that anybody cares about these statements. Do they say anything about the world?

As a student, I avoided the study of economy. It looked like a kind of engineering; there was no need to grasp its principles if you weren’t going to make promises about how things work. I didn’t really know what the term “political economy” meant, but I grasped the idea behind it, which is that an economy is shaped by political decisions. But you can make these decisions, I thought, without understanding the thing called “economics” itself. That’s because your decisions are based on a knowledge of what has and has not worked in the past: history. Economics predicts; history serves more modestly but reliably to avoid repeating mistakes. Economics is for dreamers and fantasists. It is, as far as I can see, a study of epicycles.

Nevertheless I have ordered a book, Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan. I have read a bit of it at Amazon, and I expect to take issue with it. For example, in his introduction, Wheelan refers to the joke that ten different economists will answer any question with ten different answers. Then he refutes the joke by insisting that all economists would agree that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of rent control. This is nonsense. Perhaps it was true at one time, many decades ago. But the truth is that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of a land-ownership policy (I’m speaking of small building lots) and a bureaucratic carbuncle (do they still call it “red tape”?) that together make building anything but the largest or most expensive buildings more trouble than they’re worth. So say I. But Wheelan’s book promises (on its cover) to impart the principles of economics without boring charts and graphs. It will give me a benchmark.

Until the Industrial Revolution transformed the relation of resources to markets with the wizardry of machines, there was not much point in studying economies, because you couldn’t do anything about them. Even so, the first wave of modern economists preceded the Industrial Revolution by about a generation. It is hard to say whether Smith and Condorcet developed new and powerful intellectual tools for grappling with things as they were, or whether they had an intimation of things to come. I prefer the latter suggestion, because I have come to believe, without much empirical (historical) support, that the Industrial Revolution was the answer to a question that was in the air, and not a surprise package that materialized accidentally. In either case, though, economics remains a relatively young field of study. Properly, it is a branch of the humanities, a study of human affairs that applies rigor and consistency to the problem of avoiding the determinism of the physical sciences. It does seem to have taken us two hundred years or more to let go of the dream that people are predictable machines, just very complicated. You can predict a lot of human behavior, but not enough of it to generate a “science.” And why would you want to?

You would want to if you wanted to make the world simpler, easier to understand. But “easier to understand” is an illusion, useful in solving particular, small-scale problems, perhaps, but deadly when generalized. The world is never going to be easier to understand. Only more difficult; only more manifold. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. But we don’t really need to understand the world in order to thrive in it; we come equipped with common sense, the ability to distinguish plausible and implausible statements. Nobody’s common sense is perfect, of course; and the guideposts to plausibility change over time. Right now, I feel, common sense is jammed by disagreement about the inherent superiority of straight white men; to put it another way, the default status of the straight white male is under broad reconsideration. But we can understand this without understanding the world. The proper study of mankind is man.


Yesterday afternoon, after writing here and dithering about what to do next, I hailed a taxi and lugged two heavy bags of books to the storage unit on 62nd Street. As usual, I asked the driver to take the FDR Drive. To access the FDR from 86th Street, you drive down to the end, at the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park, and turn right onto East End Avenue. When East End Avenue ends, at 79th Street, you turn left and then right, and you’re on the Drive. Ordinarily, the trip is a zip, ten minutes max, but there was a problem yesterday, and at 82nd Street and East End the taxi began to spend more time stopped than moving. Once we reached 79th Street, we moved most of the time, but very slowly. As we crept down the Drive, I remembered reading about an expansion at Rockefeller University, involving yet another installation above the Drive. There was a photo in the paper showing a large piece of prefabricated structure being swung into place by an enormous barge-borne crane. Perhaps that was what was slowing things down. But it turned out to be a serious accident, underneath New York Hospital’s Greenberg Pavilion, which is also built over the Drive. I spotted an ambulance, but I couldn’t see the cars involved. The driver — who had been telling me, in answer to a simple question about the traffic, why he hated Bill DeBlasio, and complaining that, whenever liberals are in charge, a dubious if not criminal element always pops out of New York’s woodwork (so to speak) — noted that “a taxi was involved.” It was almost immediately time to get off the Drive, at 63rd Street. When I paid and thanked the driver, he thanked me back, “for being patient with the traffic.” I ought to have thanked him again, because he was the reason for my patience. I simply dropped into a state of listening to him. Although I am no Sherlock Holmes, I’d say that he grew up in Queens, and very likely attended Catholic school, not long after I did. He spoke with what I can call only a bitter correctness. He did not ramble and he eschewed profanity. He believed that the facts, if clearly stated, would speak for themselves — and they did. When he told me about having to change cars on his subway ride home, or about crowded trains with an all but empty car, the problem in both cases being a stinking homeless person stretched out on the seats, I felt his grievance: this sort of thing oughtn’t to happen. What is to be done about homeless people? We need a committee.

At the storage unit, I remembered my plan, which was to go through the LPs that lined two shelves in the corner where I wanted to stack boxes. This would get the LPs out of the way and into boxes. I packed most of the records, but I saved too many, uncertain about Kathleen’s attachment to jazz albums that to the best of my knowledge have not been replaced by CDs (because the CDs were never issued). She will have to go through what I have set aside for keeping. There were one or two classical LPs that I couldn’t let go of. On one of them, one of the most enchanting things in all of Bach, a duet in the 78th Cantata, is performed a little differently, not by solo singers but by a chorus of women, while the through-bass is tinkled on a harpsichord, not a positif organ. This is how I first heard this music. Like so much of Bach’s choral music, it makes me think of paintings by van Eyck and the other Netherlandish masters of the Fifteenth Century. They painted such lovely angels, angels that look as though, if they could sing, they would sing Bach. I have made this association since I was a teenager, and I have always been puzzled by the Gothic or medieval mood that so much of Bach projects. A bit of the puzzle clears up when I recall reading that, in England, the Gothic never went out of style: consider Tom’s Tower at Christ Church or All Souls, both Oxford colleges. Which reminds me of something funny that I read the other day. Somebody was reviewing a new book about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, an English uprising that was duplicitously calmed by the young king, Richard II. Although the book was said to be very good, the author was chided by the reviewer for making an unnecessary and quite erroneous remark about the view of the spires of distant Westminster Abbey that the rebels and the courtiers must have shared from the East London field where they gathered for parleys. The spires of Westminster Abbey were not raised until more than three centuries later. The architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who also designed All Souls.

While I was writing yesterday, Kathleen called from Washington. She was sitting in a restaurant having lunch, and she wanted me to know that she had her phone and her wallet with her. On past trips to Washington, she has left one or the other in the train; both times, her property has been turned in at Lost and Found. The man who found her phone actually left a message on my cell phone — mine was the number most recently called — to say that he had found the phone and knew where to take it, so that I could tell Kathleen where it was when she managed to call me. Kathleen was in Washington to deliver a presentation about Exchange-Traded Funds to the Enforcement Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since Kathleen has worked on the creation and development of ETFs with most other branches of the SEC, I wondered why they couldn’t get a staffer to bring Enforcement up to speed, but perhaps it was cheaper to ask Kathleen to volunteer. It was certainly an honor. Kathleen has never worked at the SEC, and so she lacks the entrée of an alum. (It’s a matter of prestige, like clerking for a Supreme Court justice.) The problem with Kathleen is that this little paragraph is probably going to be the only announcement of the event. Not only does Kathleen fail to blow her own trumpet — she must have left it on the train.

On the phone, Kathleen was in no hurry to get off; she was waiting for a waitperson or for her lunch to arrive. I, however, was writing, and I had no news of my own. The conversation ebbed into an exchange of declarations of love. “Lots and lots and lots.” After a few volleys, I fell silent, and we soon said our goodbyes. What happened next was totally typical. As I put the phone down on the table and returned my attention to the screen, an inner voice blared a malediction: What if that’s the last time you get to talk to Kathleen? You are going to regret your hurry to get off the phone for the rest of your life! You’ll be sorry!

It wasn’t the last time. But why are we like this?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
May 2016 (IV)

23, 24, 26, 27; Vacation Alert

Monday 23rd

Said I to the psychiatrist, “I should like my life to be a work of art.” This was a long time ago.

The psychiatrist did not prescribe institutionalization, so I never learned what he made of my statement. Or of me. The only other conversation that I recall from my time with that doctor concerned my willingness to pay for my sessions, instead of my parents. I was horrified, extremely unwilling, and said so. This was all their idea.

Of the five psychiatrists and one psychologist whom I was to consult in my life, I liked the first — this one — the least. He lingers in my memory looking something like Nelson Rockefeller, but thinner and, if possible, more suave. He said almost nothing, ever, but it must have been very difficult to sit through my blabber. I’d say that I was a self-absorbed suburban adolescent gifted with some intelligence and a borderline narcissistic disorder. Self-esteem being what it is, I like to think that his diagnosis wouldn’t have been severely worse.

I liked the last psychiatrist best. When was he? A little more than ten years ago; it was during my time with him that I published my first site. He oversaw a painless withdrawal from Percocet, which had been prescribed when the ankylosing spondylitis was discovered. He persuaded me that my personality did not belong on the Asperger’s spectrum. (More narcissism?) We had great conversations. Finding more and more satisfaction online, however, I came to the conclusion that I was too old and too functional to fix, and I stopped going. I did pay off my bill. I always meant to write him a thank-you note, and I still think of doing so, every now and then.

I was wrong about being too old to fix. A few years later, I drank too many martinis and passed out on my feet. When I awoke, I could hardly move. For a week, I walked around with a strange pain in my neck. The surgeon who looked at the X-rays sent me straight to the hospital, and operated the next day. There were two further lessons, after-dinner slips in the bathtub, from which I was rescued by doormen. Nevertheless, I’m not quite sure what a psychiatrist’s interventions would have prevented.

These dangerous slips and falls were caused by my pursuit not of art but of fun. I don’t mean to evade responsibility for my misdeeds, but simply to be intelligible I feel required to point out that I grew up in a culture that inextricably bound up the prospect of fun with the presence of booze. It has taken a very long time to develop a better idea of fun, and to make that idea prevail.

The desire to make a work of art out of my life was, of course, ridiculous. The only excuse for such fatuity is that I didn’t understand art very well. But instead of laughing at my preposterous pretentiousness (or vice versa) — as I have been doing for forty years or more — it has now occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to find out what I was trying to say. This would not entail developing a better idea of art. Nor would it involve delving into old notebooks. It’s a matter merely of acknowledging that in a foolish statement can be found the seed of a life to come.

Here are the aspects of art that are not very hard to detect in my ambitions: an overall meaning, a high degree of internal consistency, and a positive claim about the goodness of humanity. In this pursuit, I was saddled with several drawbacks. In addition to my ideas about fun, I was cursed with a short temper and a shaming anxiousness. I ought also to mention an inordinate fondness for sitting in comfortable chairs.

It is at this point that a professional writer, as distinct from a would-be work of art, would insert a very funny, astonishingly illustrative story. I’ll keep my eyes out.


Meaning. I wanted my life to possess meaningfulness. This is not at all the same thing as wanting to lead a life that other people will hail as “meaningful.” To lead a “meaningful life,” one does meaningful things. I’ll leave the list to you. A sacrifice of the self is almost essential: the meaningful job comes first. That’s part of what makes life meaningful to observers. A life of “doing without,” a humble life of quiet service (but not so quiet that nobody notices — and I don’t mean that cynically), a total commitment to a highly demanding career of service. There are no absolute anchors that will guarantee that a life lived thus-and-so will be judged to have been meaningful. You can go to medical school and join Doctors Without Borders, and most people will admire you, but there will always be those who wonder what you were running away from. This is not to suggest that the meaningful life is not worth pursuing. But everything about the ambition to lead one is tricky.

The meaningfulness within my life is no great secret. It is a matter of reading and writing. Of reading and writing as I wish. During my radio days, I had a little gig with one of our advertisers, a neighborhood bookstore that I patronised when I could afford to. The owner (who was not the manager, but a sharp little woman who was good with figures) would hand me three books a month, and I would write reviews that, as I recall, would take up half a page in the radio station’s program guide. I got to keep the books, but of course they were books that I should never have read on my own, and for which my regard was nothing like what the reviews suggested. Because it was such a tiny job, it didn’t do any harm, beyond the small contribution to journalistic dishonesty, but it taught me that I could not make a career out of writing to order. We all have to make a living, and I would prefer to make it from remuneration by readers than from my wife’s kind support, but our economic outlook does not facilitate the creation of such institutional grants — and, no, I am not soliciting individual contributions. We have no way of providing the independent writer with credentials, save posthumously. Historians often achieve what publishers alone cannot.

However clear my gifts as a reader and a writer may have been when I was young, it took until just about the day before yesterday for me to have a coherent idea of what I ought to be reading and writing. Like everyone else, I was seduced by literary buzz, and I read a great many novels that have long since been given away. Like everybody else, I believed that I must try to write a novel. I also wrote three plays. I don’t think that it was particularly dim of me not to see, sooner than I did, that humanism was my theme, because humanism, as I have mentioned elsewhere, has come in modern times to be fought over by warring camps of cranks. This is not the time to dilate upon what humanism means to me, but I’d like to point out that the sustainable social generosity that is its principle object has also shaped my personal behavior. My private life takes place on a very small scale. I know few people well, and no more than ten percent of what I say (in person) is aimed at ears other than Kathleen’s. So I view my personal behavior as primarily a matter of dealing with strangers.

Is there much to say about internal consistency? I think that I have achieved a good measure of this. I am not confused by competing or contradictory aims. But it seems to me that internal consistency ought to make me an easy fellow to understand, and that is not the case. I suspect that I should be much easier to grasp if my internal consistency did not depend so heavily on a thoroughgoing rejection of television and the advertising business model upon which it rests. Just the other night, some old friends made an untiring attempt to convince me that, with the installation of a little box, I should have all the convenience of Netflix — or was it the Internet as a whole — at my fingertips. I tried to point out that Kathleen and I endeavor, but often fail, to see one movie a week. Sometimes there are binges, but it is more common for us not to see anything. This weekend, for example, we meant to see Flirting With Disaster. But we didn’t, because by the time dinner was done, it was too late for movies. (Just as I have learned that I can no longer drink unlimited cocktails, so has it been made clear that I need about two hours to wind down from a movie, thus risking the postponement of bedtime into the small hours.) No matter how easy it is to watch this or that great show, Kathleen and I don’t have the time, because it is more important to do other things. I don’t have to say what I’m too busy with; Kathleen settles the stress of her career with the tonic of playing Diana at eBay. (Or is it Sisyphus? She so rarely finds anything to capture.) The organizing principle of not watching television is simply too bizarre for even our closest friends to imagine.

Manhattan can be very noisy. Sirens alone are a constant nuisance, and helicopters can be unbelievably annoying. The backup of cars entering the garage directly below our windows prompts a great deal of exasperated but useless horn-honking. But the apartment is often silent as a tomb. Music is increasingly special, meant to be listened to, not merely to provide an aural backwash. (Certainly not when we are reading.) I have come to treasure silence. And I know that most of my friends would treasure it, too. But first they would have to wean themselves from the racket of television. Which in turn would mean forswearing the notion that television spouts the authorized version of reality.

Reading and writing may look like solitary activities, but that is only because they require solitude. They are in fact social, intensely social, though at a remove in time and space. By this I mean, among other things, that the dead can speak to us in living voices, and that we can speak in living voices to future generations. It is customary, in this connection, to rattle off something about timeless truths, but I don’t believe in timeless truths. I believe in evolution. Change may be imperceptibly gradual, but it is change just the same. There is a constant danger that changes will render language incomprehensible. Can you read Chaucer “in the original”? For that matter, how fluent is your Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Browne? Ivy Compton-Burnett? Language actually changes very quickly, in evolutionary terms. The generally well-educated reader cannot be expected to read, unaided, writing more than three hundred years old. Three hundred years! We’ve been jotting things down for more than five thousand. Almost all of it has to be translated into one “modern language” or another. And yet the truth, as we know from poetry, can never be translated. That is why reading in another language, whether foreign or an earlier version of one’s own, is enlightening.


Tidying up on Saturday, I straightened up a pile of art books in a low étagère, exchanging a few with books in the tall case on the other side of the foyer. This bookcase has not been organized since we moved in, and it wasn’t really organized even then, as I unpacked boxes of art books and stuffed them in as best they would fit. There are exhibition catalogues — Fragonard, Degas, Turner and so on. There are also children’s books, which are often as tall as art books and which are, in their way, art books themselves. Then there are the shorter texts (shorter in height): Arnheim, Panofksy. Haskell somewhere in between. There are also a few outsize ringers, such as a Shakespeare encyclopedia and a Geography of the World. In the dead center there is a disgrace, a book with a spine torn so badly that the discolored binding is what you see instead of the title. The book has been in this condition for a very long time, and, eyeing the bookcase prior to giving it a once-over, I thought that I really ought to get rid of it. I knew what it was: Michael Levey’s Rococo to Revolution, a Praeger Art Book from 1966. I pulled it down, and, next thing you know, I read half of it. Also, the cover completely broke down, front and back no longer attached to the book nor to one another. I shall not be getting rid of the book. I had somehow lost sight of the fact that most of my favorite painters worked in the Eighteenth Century, from Watteau to Fragonard. Boucher, Tiepolo, Gainsborough, Chardin, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. Even Longhi, sometimes. Levey does not discuss all of these, because some of them — Canaletto, obviously — do not fit on a line from rococo to revolution. But they all share an Apollonian devotion to clarifying daylight.

Rococo to Revolution, loaded with illustrations, some of them in color, was an expensive paperback in 1966: $5.95.


Tuesday 24th

Last night, I got through a second reading of Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace. One of my gloomy books, the others being The Idiot, Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, and T G Otte’s The July Crisis. Crankshaw blunders in his final chapter: he writes that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated “in the middle of July.” The mistake makes me wonder if other assured-sounding details are also wrong. The book is tendentious around the edges — writing in the Seventies, the author clearly believed that the Soviet régime in Russia was simply illegitimate, But his sorrow seems to justify it. If the book is a prolonged lamentation, it is brisk and buttoned-up, martially tragic. Crankshaw doesn’t think much of any of the four Tsars who acted the autocrat during his period, but he is especially contemptuous of Nicholas II.

His shrinking from personal violence, one may believe, meant no more than his shrinking from telling the truth to his ministers and advisers. It is desirable to be clear about this. Nicholas was not fit to rule, and by 1903 he had finally demonstrated that his conduct after Khodynka Field was a fair example of what was to come. That he was a dear and loving father of his family is not in question. And very soon now he was to be faced with the tragic and desperately painful burden laid upon his shoulders by the discovery that the infant Tsarevich was a haemophiliac. For after ten years of married life, after bearing four daughters in succession, Alexandra Feodorovna, amid scenes of almost hysterical emotion, had given birth to a son and heir in July 1904. But although the stresses of the Tsar’s private life contributed much to what appeared to be the collapse of his authority and the delivery of Russia into the hands of the Tsaritsa’s favourites, venal or vile, towards the close of his reign, that authority in fact never existed. He had nothing to stand on but his inherited majesty. (337)

What made me decide to hold on to the book was this extremely felicitous passage a few pages later:

Our story may seem to have run ahead of itself again. But in fact it is the subject that is disintegrating, vanishing into thin air, leaving nothing but the terrible memory of the blood-stained cellar in Ekaterinburg and the haunting image of the last Tsar, deposted, and staring pas the camera into nothingness as he sits under guard on the tree stump. (389)

At one point, Crankshaw expresses surprise that nobody thought to shoot the Tsaritsa while the dynasty was still in power; she was certainly the worst single thing that happened to it. I have often wondered why Nicholas II himself was not removed in this way, as his great-great-grandfather Paul over a century earlier. But if I’ve stopped feeling sorry for Nicholas, my only feeling for his wife is one of execration.

At several points in his chapters about Nicholas II, Crankshaw faults the Tsar and his intimates for failing to realize that times had changed, that, for example, the peasantry no longer worshiped their “Little Father” with blind devotion. But even if you can sense that times have changed — so far, 2016 has been a year in which I can sense little else — it is difficult to assess the change, or to grasp its direction. What is changing into what? Only historians will know the half of it. I know that I ought to rustle up a go-bag, so that I’m prepared for that apparently inevitable emergency, but I can’t imagine enduring the physical stress of escaping an endangered Manhattan. My very sincere hope is to have died before the bad things happen. That has always been my hope. When I was younger, though, the bad things that might happen seemed remote and speculative. Now (if I may be allowed to mix ancient mythological catastrophes), the sacrifice of American government by a coven of male Lucretias puts me in mind of burning Troy. I also sense something deadly in the smartphone. Would it be correct, or even intelligent, to put any weight on these intimations of misfortune? I should prefer not to be a cranky bore.

Every time I step out of the building onto the street, I feel irrelevant. This is a new sensation. It’s not that I used to feel relevant: I didn’t feel anything one way or the other. But now I feel that I am no longer in the swim. It is a positive, oppressive thing. Kathleen often claims that she has become invisible: a little old lady. I’m not invisible, certainly, but I feel like a natural obstacle, not a human being, as I make my way among the other pedestrians. This isn’t because nobody looks at me. I can’t tell if anybody’s looking at me. When I walk, I can only see the sidewalk. But everyone who passes by is on the phone. Nobody is present.

I used to read when I walked. Books! I was very good at it. I, too, was not present. But I was the only one. Now it is everyone, and I have completely outgrown the feeling that walking down the street is a waste of time, dead minutes that ought to be put to some use. What change am I really sensing here? Is it merely the change of becoming an old person?

For me, being an old person is going to be somewhat different. I have no life of accomplishment to look back on; the accomplishing is happening now. It could not have happened sooner.


Reading Jonathan Sperber’s obscenely long — sixty-one pages! — chapter about Marx in the 1860s (“The Activist”), and feeling my eyes glaze over as yet another squabble is aired, it occurred to me that there were simply too many issues in the Nineteenth Century. Well, and no wonder. The ancien régime had been pulled down in France, but it flourished almost everywhere else in Europe right through to World War I. This was also the age of unimaginable industrial expansion, first in the form of large mills and other factories, then as railroads, and finally as a shower of domestic innovations that transformed intimate life. The economic consequences of this surge accelerated at their own velocity; it was madness to pretend that they could be made to stand still long enough for even summary analysis. Marx was very naive, I think, to believe that the deft use of traditional (if late-model) philosophical and rhetorical tools would enable him to predict what he thought to be inevitable, inherently necessary. He had this thing about “workers” — did it ever cross his mind that rising levels of prosperity would, without any help from revolutions, transform workers into his detested petits bourgeois? He blinded himself to the possibility not just of Archie Bunker, but of generations of Archie Bunkers.

Marx also had a strange faith in solidarity. Despite his own prickly narcissism as to small differences, he believed that these workers of his would band together, would unite, and would not only take the reins of power but govern themselves in peace. But people do not band together unless they have to, except when nothing is at stake except personal satisfaction. What makes it possible for people to cooperate in folk-dancing groups or battle re-enactments is precisely the fact that these activities are pointless, recreational. People do not band together to form banks, to be run as a cooperative enterprise of which no single person is in charge. Marx himself was never a worker. He was a journalist and a political organizer. What did he know about workers? What did workers know?

What bewilders me about Marx, and the Nineteenth Century behind him, is the eager confidence with which brainy people rushed about with explanations of immense changes which they could only partially see and with answers to the terrible problems that these changes engendered. A veritable chaos of confidence! There had never been so many steam engines, powering mills and railroads; there had never been telegraphy; there had never been mass-produced newspapers. And yet everyone seemed to be sure of the consequences of these novelties. There had never been universal franchise. There had never been an overt, political struggle for women’s rights. There had never been an acknowledged connection between language and patriotism. There had never been slavery, not as there was slavery in the South once the steam-powered mills of England developed their appetite for cotton. Democracy had never been attempted on anything like the scale of the United States. And yet everybody knew that it was all going to work out grandly. Everyone was going to be free and prosperous and literate and happy.

There were just a few little kinks to be worked out. As we all know, if you have a number of problems to solve, you must prioritize them, and work down your list. But what if the list is collective? Who decides which problem must be solved first? It turns out that the person who decides is the person supported by the most power. There is no guarantee that this person is right. For many passionate thinkers in the Nineteenth Century, nationalism was the most important problem. Looking back, we can see that these thinkers shared a weakness: they minimized the size and importance of groups within any area in which a language was generally spoken. They were willing to write off the clusters of Germans, for example, who could be found almost everywhere in Central Europe. Nationalist thinkers were inspired, and then deluded, by the idea that everyone in the nation spoke the national language. Later, nationalism developed its ugly racist force. You might speak the language perfectly but still not belong.

If we look at the invention of nationalism, there is good reason to view the concept with alarm. Nationalism was invented by French Revolutionaries. In 1789, France was still very much a patchwork of different languages and customs, held together by recognition of the monarchy. When the monarchy was removed, something called “the nation” was inserted in its place — but what did this mean? What was the nation? Saying that it was French didn’t get you very far, not until Napoleon, that savior of the Revolution, imposed standards of universal education. This highly coercive nationalism traveled with his conquering armies and was implemented more or less throughout Europe. It became a terrible problem for the Austrians, a minority in their own empire. Hungary fought for national independence in 1848. It lost, but subsequently accepted the institution of the Dual Monarchy, in 1867 (the year after Austria’s defeat by Prussia), as a substitute. The main thing now was that there were no Slavic nations, just Russia. Hungary could accept its partnership with Austria because there were no other partners. But then, as the Ottomans receded, the Balkans south of Hungary became dotted with Slavic states — Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania. Oh, dear. Nationalism is still, to this day, a terrible idea. Nevertheless, everyone but a few old reactionaries was certain, as long as two hundred years ago, that only great things could come of it. Why? Because it was the new idea, and dynastic allegiance was the old idea. In fact, nationalism’s destructive powers were not fully revealed until the dynasties were swept away, one hundred years ago.

My point is not to critique the idea of nationalism, but to suggest that people are overly confident about dealing with new problems. There is now a great deal of certainty about environmental degradation. It is either catastrophic or non-existent, and if you believe that it is catastrophic, then there are certain steps that must be taken right now. That is to say that there is a list of actions that must be taken in a certain order, and it is imperative to recognize this list right now. The problem is that not everyone’s list is the same.

I am a great believer in deliberation. The ability to deliberate is a gift, like any other, that few people are given. Most of us are too impatient, too dominating, or both. I beg your indulgence; until quite recently, our common ideas about universal franchise were either unknown or abhorred. Then people began to dream of them. I dream of a deliberative body, one that, like the Académie Française, elects new members upon the death of old ones. The members, whatever their training, are not experts — except at deliberation. When faced with a cosmological problem — asteroid alert! — they consult astronomers. For more complex problems, they consult a wider range of experts. Then they deliberate. They argue; they write position papers. Eventually, they agree, or they agree to disagree. But they explain their judgment as lucidly as possible to the world at large. They cannot make anything happen; they can only persuade. Here my dream stops, with plenty of important details still to be worked out. Perhaps you can help.


Thursday 26th

My intention was to write about Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece in The New Yorker, but this morning’s Times brought the breathtaking news that Daphne Guinness has released an album, which will come out this week. You know, songs — although Guinness’s vocals are described as sprechstimme, which basically means not singing. The problem for me, should I buy the album, which is called Optimist in Black, is to decide which collection it belongs to. Do I put it with the unlistenable CDs by Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, or do I slip in among the Mitford books?

Where are those CDs? Birkin and Rampling are both English actresses who are domiciled in France. Their French is adorable. Since Birkin was married to the great Serge Gainsbourg, it’s not hard to see why she might have been tempted to sing. I don’t know the explanation behind Charlotte Rampling’s ventures, but it doesn’t really matter, given the particular aesthetic that her singing embodies. It is an anti-Wagnerian aesthetic. Singing is suggested by coy, hushed breaths. At least, that is what I recall of the thirty seconds in which I exposed myself to Rampling’s CD. I adore Charlotte Rampling, which is why I bought the CD, but the shame does burn. I bought the Birkin album (there are several) because Jane Birkin was going to appear in a New York venue, and I was thinking about buying a ticket. The CD was an inexpensive hedge: I did not buy a ticket. It was all I could do to suppress the imagination of disaster: how Kathleen would glare at me if she were to accompany me to such an event. I do not adore Jane Birkin, but I am very fond of her, which is perhaps even nicer. I think that she makes Merci, Docteur Rey, my most favorite train-wreck of a movie.

I have Jessica Mitford’s CD — Decca and the Dectones. To be fair, it was made as a fundraiser, and one can only hope that it was a success at that. The elderly writer and union activist tries very hard to sing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” There are passages of genuine song, if rarely in tune. I’m listening to it as I write. The CD is dated 1995; Mitford died the following year. If you can imagine Margaret Rutherford singing a Beatles song, you’re halfway there. Mitford’s accent is about ten times plummier, and curiously most pronounced when she “sings” that “oh – oh, oh, oh.” I can’t believe that I found it so quickly, in a CD case, about three feet tall, that stands just beneath my work table. The case is full of other curiosities – Karl Zéro and Bea Lillie, just to name two — that I really ought to listen to more than I do. That’s where Optimist in Black ought to go, if I take the plunge. The Birkin and Rampling albums, too, if and when I find them.

And Florence Foster Jenkins, to name another. (Who’d ‘a’ thunk that Meryl Streep would make a movie about her? Although the role really belongs to Broadway star Judy Kaye, who claimed to have wrecked her voice learning to sing like Jenkins, for that wonderful but short-lived show, Souvenir.)

And Mrs Miller. Don’t forget Mrs Miller! These boots are made for walkin’!


Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece, “The Big Uneasy,” is clearly written by a young man. Someone more my age would have been less appalled by the evidence of illiberalism in today’s student bodies. I was there when the latest wave of it started, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much in fifty years. The personnel are different: almost all of the students interviewed by Heller are “of color.” In my day, the activists were just smart-ass white guys who had discovered an alternative to athletic prowess. Alternative excellence, however, still does seem to be the point.

I am very conservative about education, in case you hadn’t noticed. This does not mean that I espouse a “conservative” curriculum, although a list of books that I believe undergraduates ought to read would probably suggest that I do. I am certainly not a conservative in this regard: higher education is the duty that civilization owes to the future. If its élite is to function properly (and, repeat after me, there will always be an élite), then it must understand the world. It must be taught what civilization amounts to — how it rises and how it falls. In right-thinking countries, education is provided at no cost to qualified students, and nobody dreams of calling the student a “consumer.”

In exchange for this free education, students agree to learn what is taught. They accept on principle the assumption that, going in, they know nothing. Higher education makes no sense at all if you believe that students learn what’s academically important from some other source. Students who believe that colleges and universities do not know what’s important are wasting everybody’s time. They are not ready for/do not belong in college. That is really the end of it. Even though the activism of the Sixties made very small waves at Notre Dame, I saw enough to be terrified of the idea that students and teachers ought to switch roles. And I, as I have written elsewhere, was a terrible student myself.

Terrible as I might have been at following the curriculum, I never believed that nonsense about discovering myself. I was in school, very consciously, to learn the history of ideas: that is why I signed up for Great Books. (And I did read most of those that were prescribed.) I knew that I was young and unformed — I certainly hoped that I was unformed — but I did not expect school to turn me into an adult. I learned more about being an adult from the struggles of other students. It did not occur to me that what we were learning in class amounted to opportunities chosen or declined in the same way that our friendships and dating experiences closed some doors while opening others. There was nothing limiting about learning; only the time for learning was limited.

It also did not occur to me that I was being brainwashed. This is a delicate point, because brainwashing is very much the point of all education. In elementary school, kids are not encouraged to develop private writing systems or secret languages. No: they are taught to write as much like everyone else as possible and to add numbers in a way that arrives at the only correct answer. The coercive aspect of education diminishes as education progresses, but there is no denying that the debates about the correct way of thinking that flourish in universities take place on a settled platform of axioms and received ideas. Some students, in any time, are certain to suspect that this platform is creaky and in need of replacement; more than any other students, they need the guidance of gifted teachers to encourage them to postpone reformative projects until they have completed the course. Discourse occurs within agreed-upon parameters, without which there is no discourse but only shouting and babble.

Nathan Heller is concerned that a number of Oberlin students are pursuing parameter resetting rather than discourse. One student confesses that she no longer has much interest in hearing the thoughts of people who don’t think the way she does. That’s perfectly natural; it is the very inclination that, for the four years of undergraduate learning, a student is expected to submit to constant challenge. I have so far stressed learning as a matter of taking in information about the world, but the capstone of the undertaking is learning how to talk about it, and learning how to listen to others talk about it. The curriculum is a salient parameter of academic discourse. The reason for accepting it without argument is to foster the possibility that there will be a great deal of argument about what it all means. None of this has been brought home, on Heller’s evidence, to the Oberlin students he talks to.

Here are a few great lines from Heller’s piece.

At some point, it seemed, the American left on campus stopped being able to hear itself think.

“I’m actually still trying to reconcile how unhappy I’ve been here with how happy people were insisting I must be.” (Soon-to-be ex-student)

“Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” (Teacher)

“This is the generation of kids that grew up being told that the nation was basically over race.” (Teacher)

“One of the hypocrisies of the call for a globalized curriculum is that the people calling for it don’t give a flying fuck if a subject is being taught properly.” (Teacher)

Carey, like Bautista, went to élite schools on scholarships; she says that, for her, the past few years have been about “unlearning” most of what she had been taught.

American universities have always been able to boast of large populations of students who are the first members of their families to receive higher education. The diversity of American universities does something to cushion the shock of entering university culture from a disadvantaged background. Many first-time students (so to speak) go to schools with strong religious affiliations, for example. Many choose to stay close to home. Heller’s Oberlin students, in contrast, seem like the victims of a malignant experiment, yanked from socioeconomic deprivation into a zone of shimmering sophistication, one of the principle aspects of which is their mere presence in it. Cyrus Eosphoros, the trans man and projected dropout who expresses his unreconcilable unhappiness in the quotes above, complains of being “proof of concept for other people.” It couldn’t be clearer that Eosphoros was not ready for Oberlin, and that Oberlin did nothing to compensate. Possibly because I was so happy to get away from home, I have always believed that it is important for boys (especially) to attend boarding schools, which were called “prep schools” because they prepared students for the rigors of college life. Surely some kind of orientation is crucial to students’ success. Oberlin is an unusual school from almost any perspective; I’m sure that a lot of kids from affluent white families are shaken up there. The academic atmosphere of disruption and play must strike some scholarship students as pointless and/or frivolous.

Heller writes, “The historic bracket that opened in the the sixties is starting to close; the boomers’ memoirs of becoming no longer lead up to the present.” I’m not sure what this means, but I know that the era in which leftist boomers grew up to run academia is ending. Academia is now run by people who were given tenure by boomers. These replacements may be even more expert at teaching the boomer curriculum, but the very fact that they were students of the boomers — those boomers themselves were never really students at all; they came to “liberate” — signifies a falling-off in passion. Meanwhile, it has finally been acknowledged that boomers indulged in a lot of wishful thinking where race was concerned. Quite aside from dreaming that the nation’s sociopolitical problems were solved or on the way to being solved by the civil-rights activism of the Sixties, boomers cherished the old American dream of opportunity. Heller’s students seem unilaterally to reject the opportunities provided by Oberlin; perhaps it would be better to say that they reject the very idea of academic opportunity. They don’t jump at the chance to take a place in the white man’s world. They wish that the white man and his world did not exist. And who can blame them? Why, though, are they having their noses rubbed in it?

We boomers might have been told too often that we were special, but what really marked us apart was the way in which the world was made special for us. Unlike all previous epochs, it was a world of endless opportunity. This is usually seen as a side-effect of postwar affluence, but I see it now, as I’m coming to see many different things, as having roots in Cold War strategy. We were to be healthy and strong and bright — but not just for our own sakes. We were to flourish as individual Americans, but there was an ulterior motive: we were to show up the collectivized Russians. Everything that they did over there, except playing chess and musical instruments, we were supposed to do in the opposite way. We collaborated as members of a team, not as bees in a hive. Sure, there was a massive intensification of science education after Sputnik, but the generosity with which liberal arts studies were funded did not begin to slow down until it became clear that the Soviets were not going to prevail. It just about ended along with the Cold War. I don’t think that I’m being cynical here, but only realistic. Which is why I don’t regard my education as some sort of trick designed to make me fall into step with the march of the brave and the free. I was lucky to grow up, not as a boomer, but in the Cold War, and to have benefited from my side’s extensive, if self-interested, generosity.


Friday 27th

Perhaps it is a character defect, but I find myself maddeningly incapable of deriving any satisfaction from the disgrace of Kenneth Starr, who has been “stripped” (Times) of his title as President of Baylor University. And why? Because some of the school’s football players have been getting away with sexual assault. Predictably, the interests of boosting a winning football team have taken priority over more ethical concerns. Irony corkscrews through the story: Starr will retain his position as chancellor, because that job is, how shall I paraphrase it, more of a religious thing. (Baylor is a Baptist school.) I ought to be smirking at least. I always sensed that Starr was a great humbug, and that his very participation in the persecution of Bill Clinton trivialized it. Now I know.

But the ironic part of the story is but a small wave, followed by a much larger one: once again, it has been demonstrated that college football is incompatible with college life. There is not much to say about this; I ought just to let the wave knock me down, and try to remember that for lots of other American’s, it’s all great fun. It must be something like the taste for blood. Very bright people are more than keen on their favorite schools’ football games, especially the ones that their favorite teams win. I went to Notre Dame (twice), so I ought to know what it’s like, but I don’t know what it’s like; it’s sports, dammit, and what the hell is it doing on campus? I have to remember that for many people, college is primarily a social institution. This is especially true for professionals, who go on to pursue advanced degrees in extremely rigorous institutions. College, in contrast, is a time for fun, punctuated by occasional nightmares of cramming and exams. These bright people are deaf, absolutely deaf, to the idea that lucrative, pre-professional sports programs may be toxic to the schools that foster them, that the mere proximity of gigantic stadiums to libraries may deform young minds, may normalize extremely questionable behavior, and may dim moral objection to a game that does ruin young minds, literally. You can say all of this, and these very bright people will respond just like other addicts. They will not listen until catastrophe strips them of that option.

And television. If I wanted to be prosecutorial, I might point out that college football was a sideshow, of interest to no one but alumni (Notre Dame an interesting exception), and that professional football was a great deal less popular than baseball, until television made it easy to follow games without leaving home, and eventually transformed games into television shows, so that, if you did take the trouble to attend, you were, potentially, part of the cast. (Since Friday entries are supposed to be relatively lighthearted, perhaps I ought to ease up on the scolding for a sec to remind readers that my old pal Fossil Darling was caught snoozing at the US Open by a lingering cameraman — during the women’s games, of course. He was spectacularly identifiable to many of his friends.) I might try to make something of the connection between two encroaching aspects of American life that I fear are threatening our future. But it’s no longer a case of threatening the future. The damage has been done. Now that Donald Trump is the “presumed Republican candidate,” my worst fears have been realized: American voters have confused politics with entertainment. And why not? What do they see of politics that isn’t filtered through a medium that converts everything into entertainment? And what have established politicians done but transform themselves into characters out of a telenovela, prone to fibbing?

Television is not really addictive, but it is extremely habit-forming, with the habit pertaining not to following certain TV shows but to simply having the the thing on. I’m intrigued by the blurriness of the language that surrounds this subject: what does it mean “to watch television”? What is television? As I think of it, television is a system that integrates a range of components. Watching Laura on TMC is watching television, but watching a DVD of Laura is not. The latter experience lacks many of the components of watching television, and the component that strikes me most at the moment is television’s endlessness. If you watch Laura on a DVD, the show will come to an end. At a certain point, you will have seen everything that the DVD has to offer. You must either insert another DVD or turn off your television equipment. At the end of Laura on TMC, there will be something next, and if the TMC people are doing their job, you will want to watch whatever is next. Meanwhile, you will be treated to a gentle barrage of anchoring symbols that locate you in the realm of TMC’s brand. TMC’s brand is a significant component of watching Laura “on television.” It is much more than a label. It is a dual outlook, a split vision. Half of it is a “philosophy” that viewers can relate to; at TMC, the reigning philosophy holds that they don’t make movies the way they used to. The other half is an outlook upon the viewers, an inquiry into the viewers’ likes and dislikes that will help TMC to make its philosophy even more attractive. If you are watching TMC on a computer, your click will be added to the total. Watching television can be interactive in a surprising and unsettling way.

Ever since I woke up to the malignity of television, in the mid-Eighties, I have asked for only one thing of the medium: no news programs, no serious interviews, nothing but fluff. Seriousness is compromised by television because the medium cannot bear the hesitations of doubt. To shrug your shoulders on television is to annoy and terrify viewers, because they have become habituated to regarding the screen as the source of authority — its altar, as it were. If you are going to shrug, you must smile dopily, sending a message that viewers will read to mean, not that you are in fact a dope, but that whatever it is that you don’t know isn’t worth knowing.

I have also asked very bright people, the people who run things, not to watch television, and especially not to have it running in the background.


Last night, I began reading the fourth part of The Idiot, and I was immediately beguiled by Dostoevsky’s discussion of what Marx would call the petit bourgeois character. He begins by pretending that it is difficult to write about perfectly ordinary people in a way that makes them interesting. What does “ordinary” mean, if not “not interesting”? Then he shifts from the writer’s vantage to that of ordinary people, whom he immediately divides into two groups. The first is untroubled in its “impudence of naïvety,”

this stupid man’s unquestioningness of himself and his talent…

The second group, “more clever,” is not so sure. The urge to be singular, the belief that one is capable of doing great things but prevented from doing great things by the static interruptions of a nonsensical world, burns just as passionately in the breasts of both groups, but the “more clever” are at least sometimes aware that their capacity for greatness is imaginary. Dostoevsky pulls in to focus on the Ivolgin siblings, Ganya and Varya, who are both “more clever” ordinary people, as if to demonstrate his thesis that the “more clever” are the less happy. What he does instead is to show that ordinary people can be written about in a way that is very interesting indeed.

I’m still not sure what Ganya and Varya are talking about when they allude to something about their scapegrace father that they would prefer to keep secret — I haven’t got that far — but the dread and regret in their conversation made the mystery almost as hair-raising as the one that opens Act II of Lohengrin.

There is a great deal in The Idiot that I find it hard to grasp — impossible to grasp, really, as fully as I grasp whatever Jane Austen has to say. Aglaya Ivanovna is evidently the child of cultural forces that have gone with the wind. I don’t know quite what it means to call Prince Myshkin an “idiot,” although sometimes it seems almost clearly to mean that he is some kind of holy fool. At others, he appears to be a troubled Candide. The minor characters are often so surprising that they’re almost implausible — I’m thinking of the boxer, Keller, who is not altogether the brute that he appears to be at first. (But who — in life — is altogether the person he appears to be at first?) Almost everyone appears to be slightly insane — suffering from false consciousness, no doubt. Lizaveta Prokofyevna’s relation to respectability is wildly unsteady, not because she does anything at all improper but because she admits to doubts that her English counterparts would suppress. On top of everything, there is a wild-west character that suggests a society coming into being, a patina of manners that is not very thick, but yet thick enough to interfere with everyone’s sense of what it means to be Russian.

I am not trying to understand this world. I am trying to understand the story, yes, but instead of treating The Idiot as, how shall I put it, a window on the Russian soul, I’m seeing it as a gallery of strange people. Strange, but not exotic: I’m not romanticizing the differences. When I read Dostoevsky in college, I thought that my failure to understand his characters signaled my own lack of sophistication; when I grew up, I thought, I would know better. Actually, I know less, because there is more to see when you stop awarding yourself a high handicap and stop permitting inexplicable behavior to pass unconsidered. I consider it, but I do not press to decipher it.


The clock ticks, as it were; the minutes pass. I want to get back to The Idiot, but I have to decide what to make for lunch first. I’m stuck in the apartment, waiting for handymen to come and fiddle with the valve at the back of the stove. I don’t really mind being stuck at home today; I was out a lot this week, and there is no reason to be out in the warm weather, no errands that need doing today. There is plenty to do here, although waiting is always enervating. At the same time, it woke me up well before eight o’clock. I had heard grumbling on the elevator about waiting for handymen who didn’t show up, so I didn’t hasten to make an appointment.

I went for an annual physical checkup the other day. The doctor, who is very conscientious, asked me how I was doing, and he listened to me for a reasonable amount of time before cutting me off to quiz me on medications. I hadn’t quite got to the point of what I was trying to say, which is that how I am doing is elderly and out of it. A lot of the “out of it” owes to not watching television. I know that I am not missing anything important (the sound of Kardashians?), but I also know that I am missing more and more of what people are talking about. In other words, I have lived too long. Please do not misunderstand that for a suicide note. Living too long is a condition like any other — like my fused spine, for example. You live with it; you adjust.

During the next two weeks, I shall be taking a vacation break. I won’t say more about it, because I’ve found that things that I look forward to have a way of not happening if I mention them here. I shall return on Tuesday, 14 June — assuming, of course, that I survive the vacation, which, given that air travel will be involved, is by no means certain to me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Ladies First
May 2016 (III)

16, 17, 19, 20 May

Monday 16th

If you had asked me yesterday who Julius La Rosa was, I should have recognized the name but been unable to place it. A gangster? A restaurateur? A mayor of Newark? Today, I know, thanks to an obituary in the Times, that Julius La Rosa was a singer. I don’t remember any of his songs, but I feel that I can place him comfortably simply by reciting the fact, gleaned from the obituary, that he married Perry Como’s secretary.

More intriguing is the fuss that Robert McFadden, the Times writer, makes about Arthur Godfrey. The obituary is even subtitled, “Singer Who Found Success After a Public Firing.” We go back to a day in 1953. On his national live radio show, Arthur Godfrey had La Rosa sing something. Then he told his audience that it had just heard “Julie’s swan song.” Right there on live radio, he fired the guy. And not because La Rosa couldn’t sing. What interests me about this episode is its disinterment of Arthur Godfrey. Who was Arthur Godfrey? I can tell you one or two things that I remember. Arthur Godfrey was plump, saturnine man with a gentle sense of humor. He had a TV show when I was a little boy. I had forgotten the ukelele. Arthur Godfrey was just there, along with Art Linkletter and George Gobel and Dorothy Kilgallen.

I remember the morning after Dorothy Kilgallen died, reportedly from an overdose of “barbiturates.” It came on the news as I was in the carpool, going to Iona Grammar School. Except not. Kilgallen died during my freshman year at Notre Dame. That I did look up. What I probably remembered just now was listening to Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick in the car. (Woody Allen spoofed it in Radio Days). Dorothy Kilgallen was also one of the panelists on What’s My Line, the TV show on which fancy people like Kilgallen had to guess what ordinary people did for a living. When the contestant was a “mystery guest” — a celebrity, as we should say — the panelists donned little black masks to cover their eyes. I’d love to say that I’m recollecting all of this, but I’m cribbing from Wikipedia, because my memory is so unreliable, especially about these figures in the early landscape. I knew about them at the time, saw them and heard them, but I didn’t think much about them, and when I went to boarding school and lost access to regular doses of television, I began to forget about them.

I have not looked up Arthur Godfrey. I am going to treat this as a version of the “Orson Welles” problem that I mentioned in January. In the case of Orson Welles, I could remember a great deal about him, but not his name. I could have looked it up in an instant, but I waited it out. It took “more than a day” to remember. I don’t think that I’m going to fare as well with Arthur Godfrey. I know his name, and have a picture of him in my mind, and suspect that he hosted a variety show. Was he the one with the talent show? Who was the one with the talent show? Do you remember The Gong Show? I saw it once, maybe twice, and was glued to it by horror. Before I could see it a third time, it featured in an episode of the Carol Burnett show. Carol was playing Eunice, one of her stable of characters. Eunice was going to sing “Feelings” on The Gong Show. Or was it “Memories”? Vicki Lawrence played a cantankerous grandma in these skits, the very woman I’d have liked to see get the “Good Man Is Hard to Find” treatment. It occurs to me now that Eunice and her family were Trump supporters ante lettera.

In the opinion section of the Sunday Times, Neil Gross wrote a piece that asked “Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?” The answer, in a word or two, is “critical discourse.” In the pursuit of almost any advanced degree, students must master critical thinking, an approach that tests every assertion and accepts nothing as given. Once critical thinking becomes second nature, the critical thinker has a very hard time remembering how unnatural it is. It is easier, I think, to remember what it’s like to see the world as a child than it is to see the world without critical habits of mind. This obliviousness is what drives the rest of the world crazy. It isn’t that highly educated people think differently. It’s that they can’t imagine how to think otherwise. They equate “thinking otherwise” with “not thinking.” And this is insulting to ordinary people. Educated people ought to think differently; otherwise, what’s the use of education? And for that very reason, highly educated people ought to bear in mind that ordinary people do think normally. Neil Gross is almost elementary:

But Dr. Gouldner’s new-class theory should alert Democrats to a lurking danger. It is probably right that something like a culture of critical discourse can be found in the workplaces and households and in the publications read by Americans who have attended graduate or professional school. The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.

The twist is that normal thinking involves placing a good deal of reliance on authorities. Normal people — people without advanced degrees — haven’t got the time to evaluate policies, and they know it. Nor have they undergone the really rather painful drilling that inculcates the habits of critical thinking — so lack of time is not the only problem. Normal people expect authorities to have the answers. But today’s élites, including the lot of highly educated people, are markedly anti-authoritarian. They neither recognize authorities as such nor occupy positions of authority with any comfort. (They recognize credentials, which is not always a good idea.) The highly educated critical thinker has a nagging sense of her own ignorance, in fact. Tapped for the answer to a question, she will begin with a self-deprecating formula. This drives normal people almost as crazy as the obliviousness does. If you’re not an authority, who the hell is? Didn’t you go to school, like, forever?

It would be fun to go through today’s paper with a fat wax pencil and circle all the instances in which highly-educated Times writers and quoted pundits declare that Donald Trump’s oratory is nonsense — by the standards of critical discourse. Even now, the professionals don’t get it. They can’t believe it. If Donald Trump is willing to present himself as an authority, then a mass of normal people, starved for this very quality, will support him. It’s as simple as that.

What isn’t simple is claiming authority with a critical mind. It’s an uncomfortable fit, as I said. Playing the authority, highly-educated people come across as scolds or snobs, because they are annoyed by being asked to be authoritative. There is also the aristocratic angle. Like the earliest feudal aristocrats, round about the time of Charlemagne, critical thinkers are trained to fight. They do so with arguments, not weapons, but they can be just as ferociously single-minded. Unlike aristocrats, they don’t pay lip-service to loyalty, but while this dispenses with a lot of malodorous hypocrisy, it does not assist the struggle, which is to provide normal people with the authorities they crave. If you and I are both highly-educated critical thinkers, and I set myself up as an authority for normal people, you may take issue with my claim. This is where Donald Trump has the advantage on me. He will not respond to your arguments with arguments. He will sneer, and call you a loser and an idiot. He’d call me one, too, except in this example he is taking my place.

Kathleen used to work on deals with a Bay Area woman who could discuss her own Republican Party loyalties with candor. Presented with an unattractive Republican Party candidate, she told Kathleen, she would just “hold her nose” and vote the party line. It has been interesting to watch Republican stalwarts, from Paul Ryan to “social conservatives” decide to do the same. Unfortunately (for people with my point of view), this gift for olfactory occlusion is not common among Democratic Party supporters, especially the highly-educated critical thinkers with so much to lose.

This is why, I think, I’m so drawn to the wish that highly-educated critical thinkers would resolve to set a good example to society at large. As it is, they set such a poor example that disaster would ensue if it were followed.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Maeve Brennan’s Herbert’s Retreat stories for the second time. I read the seven of them in the order in which they appear in The Rose, a book that collects several groups of Brennan’s stories. Every other Retreat story features Leona Harkey and her pet critic, Charles Runyon. Two of the remaining three provide comic relief from this gruesome pair. The story in the middle, “The Joker,” is as cruel as the others but also quite sad. Isobel Bailey may be just as fatuous as the other residents of the Retreat, but there is something sincere about her desire to be Lady Bountiful. Unlike the other women in the sequence, she is neither a harpy nor a gold-digger. As a result, “The Joker” is pathetic rather than comic. It is also closer to the New Yorker norm.

If these stories aren’t better known, one reason might be the frequency with which Brennan sings sharp rather than true. There is an extravagance that invokes the discomforts of science fiction. Do people really talk like this? Did they ever? When Brennan writes that the thirty-nine houses in Herbert’s Retreat are two hundred years old, or even older (or, at least, that some of them are), is she simply mistaken, or is she quoting the Retreat’s misleading publicity, as it were? The houses were built to look “two hundred years old,” certainly, but this is merely to say that they are much newer, and designed in the Colonial Revival style that took hold toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. An American house dating from the Seven Years’ War would be almost uninhabitably rudimentary. So it is, too, with the claim that only the Best People own the houses. You’ll have to take their word for it.

In the story that I wrote about on Friday, “The Anachronism,” the housemaid is English, but all the other maids in Herbert’s Retreat are Irish. Brennan was Irish herself, but not the same kind of Irish. Brennan was a new kind of Irish; the housemaids would have disapproved of her, if only because she went out for drinks with the men she worked with. Her lady-writer gig wouldn’t have cut the mustard, either. Brennan’s Irish housemaids seem more authentic to me than their employers do, but I grew up among the employers, and never really knew an Irish housemaid. So I tend to take Brennan’s word for the latter. It is typical of Brennan to emphasize the asymmetry between masters and servants, with the masters delusive about the admiring good will of the servants, who in fact loathe them.

Bridie (Charles liked to refer to her as ‘that splendid Irishwoman of Leona’s) clumped in with the tray. The glare of pure hatred that was her characteristic expression descended in full on Charles silky gray head, but he was indifferent and she was silent, respectfully handing him his orange juice, pouring his coffee and his hot milk [...], and departing. (“The Servants’ Dance”)

That sounds right, but how should I know?

Even John Cheever’s famous story, “The Enormous Radio,” is more realistic than the pure farce of “The Divine Fireplace.” Here we have four members of the ruling class and one Irish housemaid, and when the Irish housemaid says to herself, at the beginning of the story that she will narrate to a busful of fellow servants on their way to Mass,

There will be murder here today [...]. No, no, I’m wrong [...] — not murder today; the murder was last night.

you know she’s right, if you’ve read the story before. Perhaps there are no actual corpses in the house, but it is difficult to imagine the survival of any of the relationships. In the living room, a young woman wearing a rather insubstantial party dress is passed out on the sofa, while a raw steak curdles juicily in the middle of the carpet. In the kitchen, the stove has been yanked away from the wall, shorting out the entire house’s electricity, and a debris of brick and blaster clouds the air. Who knows where all the car keys are — the lady of the house took them into “safe keeping” at the end of the evening. We never hear much about that. Stasia’s narrative is cut short by the arrival at church, as Mr and Mrs Tillbright, Mrs Lamb and Miss Carter bear the steak away to the living room, where they propose to grill it over the fire. They are all very drunk. They have all said terrible things. Anyone who has ever awakened after too much partying with not enough recollection of the party will cringe horribly as Brennan’s merciless dance of death gets going. Mr Tillbright comes home two hours late with that young woman in her party dress. The young woman, having made a lot of catty remarks about life in the country, announces that she has to be at another party at eleven, and Mr Tillbright implausibly insists that he will drive her to it after dinner. Instead of making allies out of Mrs Tillbright and Mrs Lamb, who are dressed in relatively shapeless country outfits, Phoebe Carter seems to provide the perfect occasion for them to launch mutual insults. When Mrs Tillbright learns from Mrs Lamb, who was a good friend of the first Mrs Tillbright, that there used to be a fireplace in the kitchen, and that her husband never told her, she throws a tantrum. “I want that fireplace, and I want it now.” Really, it’s as though Captain Smith decided that he just had to have the iceberg.


Tuesday 17th

Why am I so bewildered by discrimination against women, by the notion that, when it comes to the things that men do well, and that are worth doing, women are lesser mortals? Why do these diminishing ideas strike me as ridiculous? I’m assuming that my own good sense hasn’t got much to do with it, because I’m actually a bit of a lunatic, and may not be doing women any favors by sitting here talking about them. I’m also assuming that it may have been the women in my life.

I was thinking about Sister Suzanne Kelly yesterday. Sister Suzanne taught History of Science at Notre Dame, and also moderated the Great Books seminars that took up the bulk of our time and attention in what was then called the General Program of Liberal Studies (“GP”). Sister Suzanne was a remarkable woman, working in a remarkable moment. The moment proved to be transitory, or at least premature: Sister Suzanne was not the harbinger of gender equality (or normality) within the Roman Catholic Church. So far as that was concerned, she beat a path to a dead end. But we did not know that at the time.

Sister Suzanne was a nun, a “splinter Benedictine” I think we used to say. She was one of a handful of highly-educated nuns who left not so much the cloister as the habit. They did not cover their hair; Sister Suzanne’s was dressed in the common mid-Sixties style to which the Queen of England has hung on all these years. They did wear black and white, but their white blouses had short sleeves. They wore low pumps — well, Sister Suzanne did. I don’t know how to convey how amazing this was. Sister Suzanne could be mistaken for an ordinary woman! Until you entered into discussion with her, that is, and discovered that she was a lot smarter than you were, and not shy about it, either.

I ought to add, I suppose, that Sister Suzanne was rather pretty. Perhaps “handsome” is the word. The point is that she was good-looking, and not at all plain. You never suspected for a second that her vocation might be rooted in unattractiveness.

Sister Suzanne had a favorite word, “weasel.” She used it to describe tendentious, flimsy, or spurious arguments, and she directed it quite often at me. “That’s a weasel term,” she would say, as though it were her job to point out when people farted. It was certainly as clear to me as it was to her that the charge was deserved. At that stage, I was like a lawyer who will say anything on behalf of his client, and rely on the judge to assess its validity. Sister Suzanne’s impatience with weaseling may, I’ll concede, have been a tad womanly. Women have good reason to find wearisome the mere cleverness of male show-offs. Over time, I’ve come to feel the same way.

I knew that Sister Suzanne was exceptional. But then, I was exceptional, too. Most of us were, in those classrooms. The fact that Sister Suzanne was a woman was, I’m afraid to say, remarkable. But it was not distinctive. Those of us with ears to hear came away from our classes with her with the sense that there was no positive difference between the thinking of a man and the thinking of a woman. The sexes might have different weaknesses, but their strengths could be matched.

Mine was an extraordinary experience; most students at Notre Dame never came across anyone like Sister Suzanne.

Was Sister Suzanne Kelly a feminist? That’s a tough question at the best of times, but I think that I should have to say “no.” I say that because I believe that feminism has to accommodate motherhood. Regardless of her costume, Sister Suzanne led a celibate life, and did not have to juggle the balls of home, family, and career. All she had to worry about was her career, just like a man.


The Book Review this weekend seemed to be full of books about women, but the Table of Contents mentions only three. There are books about particular women (Teffi, Frances Stroh), and a book on sex in Shakespeare that seems to be about spanking, but I’m not thinking of them. I’m thinking of these:

  • Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen; reviewed by Sarah Ruhl.
  • How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices, by Therese Huston; reviewed by Sheela Kolhatkar.
  • We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler; reviewed by Laurie Penny.

Kolhatkar writes,

There’s an enormous double standard when it comes to how men and women are perceived as decision-makers, and those differences can hamper much more than a woman’s career. One obstacle is the perception that women are indecisive, encumbered by their need to build consensus, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence and an inability to handle stress. The fact that Huston’s book even exists reinforces this point. Imagine, for a moment, an alternative universe in which it was felt necessary to publish a book called “How Men Decide” that dissected the male decision-making process. The very idea is laughable. Everyone knows that men simply stride onto the battlefield, survey the landscape and charge. Even if they flame out, they usually get credit for trying.

Not too long ago, I read a book that provoked some thoughts about “dithering” that are highly germane to the issue of how women decide, and I refer the indulgent reader to them here. (Search the page for “Ridley.”) Having just read what I wrote about Elizabeth I in January, it seems even more pungent in the context of Sister Suzanne and the three books that I’ve mentioned. My idea is that the first thing necessary in an evaluation of decision-making by women is to clear away the encrusted crap of masculine weaseling.

My second idea is to consider how long it has been since the world of modern decision-making came into existence. Not very long — no longer, in fact, than the professional classes, mentioned yesterday in connection with Neil Gross’s piece in the Sunday Times, have been around.

As Gross writes, the modern professional classes were developed to handle the affairs of rich people, and to handle them with discretion. That is, the professional man combined expertise in a given field with the ability to put himself in the place of the man who hired him, and to make decisions that bound that man. Prior to this development, rich people had to make their own decisions. They did, mostly, what other rich people did. Since the number of rich people was almost as limited as the number of investment opportunities, wealth management was not very complicated. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, especially when it began to produce very wealthy heirs who, unlike warlike aristocrats and agrarian country squires, might very well have grown up without an inkling about the source of their wealth. The professional’s ability to put himself in the place of a rich person was held to warrant the professional’s high fees.

Let’s say, then, that professional groups as we know them date to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Their roots run further back, but not by more than a few decades. By 1900, professionals were in place. Now let’s make something else perfectly clear: for the purposes of this discussion, a professional is someone who brings nothing but professional training to the table. Insofar as a professional is independently wealthy, he is outside the scope of the argument. This is a very important point, because it is intertwined with the history of ownership. As a general rule, married women (in the West) could not own property until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Men owned almost everything. Ownership obviously conveys a very real power. The power of professional training is a good deal more tentative. Owners of some kind or another must be impressed by a professional’s skills and reputation before delegating responsibility to him. And if men are the owners, they will be inclined to favor male professionals. But this prejudice was contested almost from the beginning of the professional class. Women might have understood why they did not own things — that was the way things had always been. But this professional thing was new, and women proved unwilling to sit by while men claimed, in effect, to be more proficient at professional training. If there was one thing that smart women knew for a certainty circa 1900, it was that they were better students.

This sketch of historical developments is intended primarily to demolish any traditionalist defense of the superiority of male decision-making. Until 1900 (say), the right to make decisions at all was limited to property owners. Such tradition of decision-making as there was was carried forward by the tiny population of owners. Most men did not make decisions; on the contrary, they seemed prone to beating their wives. The fact is that we do not have a long record of professional decision-make to examine. Men have not, in fact, established themselves as default decision-makers. I don’t think that a book about how men decide would be laughable at all. As Kolhatkar states, “…the evidence shows that groups come to better conclusions when there are more women involved.” Does it? I hope that Huston’s book shows that it does. And let us not forget that the ability to make good decisions is not at all the same thing as appearing to be “decisive.” The very usage is ridiculous. Reducing decision-making to a habitual character trait makes it sound like a tic.

When my distant cousin, the late Alicia Gallagher, graduated from Columbia Law School and began looking for a job, she was rebuffed by all the prominent Wall Street firms. Why? At that time (the Forties), even the secretaries at those law firms were men, and the firms did not maintain toilets for women. Now that’s masculine decision-making!


Enough of all that. I want to say a word about Gambit, the 1966 Ronald Neame caper comedy starring Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, and Herbert Lom. Kathleen and I watched it on Friday night. I was reminded of it by something the Alan-Alda lookalike said at the cocktail party last Wednesday. He wondered aloud if he had ever re-read a book. Ever. Part of me was aghast, but I was able to keep that reaction to myself because I know that it is not uncommon among readers. (Which is another way of lamenting that most people don’t read books at all.) I thought of the related challenge, encountered occasionally at Facebook, to name films that you would consider watching again. In all fairness, the quality of the books and films that most people read and see is pretty low; it takes some education to read the kind of books that are worth re-reading. I don’t know what to say about Hitchcock, who pointedly made films to be seen the second time — I always think of Hitchcock as a popular film-maker. I usually mention his films when the subject of watching movies multiple times comes up. But Gambit is an even better example of the rewards of the second look.

There are good things to say about Gambit. It ought to be required viewing for all would-be entrepreneurs and prospective criminals. It is an object lesson in the fat-headedness of disparaging feminine decision-making. Most of all, though, it’s hilariously funny, and much funnier the second time. The story is divided into two parts, which might be called “dream” and “reality.” In the dream, a smooth customer called Harry Deane (Michael Caine) proposes a caper to a showgirl called Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), the object of which is to distract an immensely wealthy sheikh (Herbert Lom). The dream also tells us something that Harry does not tell Nicole: the purpose of this distraction is to make it possible for Harry to steal a priceless portrait bust. Framed by shots of Harry and Nicole in a Hong Kong cabaret, in which Nicole says nothing, the dream also features a silent MacLaine. She is, all things considered, very good at shutting up. She snakes through the dream like a goddess, the perfect helpmeet. In the dream, everything ticks along perfectly, the obstacles to success little more than toy hurdles.

Reality takes over when Nicole opens her mouth in the Hong Kong cabaret. She is no goddess. She’s a working girl with an inquiring mind, and she wonders if Harry isn’t a crook. By the time they reach Dammuz, where the sheikh and his portrait bust are to be found, Harry is sick and tired of Nicole. At the same time, from the very moment of arrival, it is clear that things have changed since Harry — now “Sir Harold” — formulated his plans. There is no representative of the hotel to greet him. No Rolls-Royce to ferry him. No respect at all, title notwithstanding. When Nicole offers helpful suggestions (sometimes peppered with a dash of mockery), you can seem Harry straining to resist the urge to twist her head off. Because the dream was such smooth sailing, the discomfort of reality is very funny.

But what’s really funny is watching the dream the second time, knowing how things are going to work out in reality. The dream becomes astonishingly mendacious, like an advertisement for, say, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to refer to another movie. Harry and Nicole seem to be campiing their way through a silly silent movie. The elegance that was so impressive the first time round is now clearly sham, mere tinsel. And the sheikh (in the dream), with his fez and his monocle and his dinner suit — pricelessly wrong. The second time round, the dream isn’t impressive, as it was the first, but dim-witted. And it, too, is very funny. This time, you’re laughing at Harry from the start.

Oh, the look that Shirley MacLaine puts on Nicole’s face when it dawns on her that Harry intends to try to steal the portrait bust! She looks fit to burst! Her explosion involves only the smallest muscles. She — cannot speak.

At the end, Nicole, no longer pretending to be Lady Dean, remains silent throughout an entire scene. Or nearly: at the end, she says, “Thank you.” It is quite elegant. You don’t have to be watching Gambit the second time to notice that.


Thursday 18th

For about twenty years, I’ve been arguing that the Democratic Party ought to have folded its tent and retired from the scene in the late Sixties, once it had completed its projected reversal of federally-sanctioned unequal citizenship for black Americans, largely in the South. I had the impression that the party had lost its way after that victory. But I hadn’t much of an argument. An image, nursed, for all I know, in my ignorance, came to stand in the place of argument. I had this notion that mother octopuses, having raised their brood to autonomy, simply perish of exhaustion, quietly ceasing to tax their environment. However misinformed the image, it was a terrible substitute for the clear answer to the question why? that my assertion prompted. Only yesterday, as the racket made by the chairs that Bernie Sanders’s supporters threw in protest echoed in my head, did what I ought always to have gone on to say become clear.

Throwing chairs — did that really happen? Rather timidly, I searched for a You Tube clip, but stopped almost immediately, satisfied with this snip from another Times story.

But the state convention, held at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, deteriorated into chaos after nearly 60 of Mr. Sanders’s potential delegates were deemed ineligible amid a dispute over the rules. The convention concluded abruptly after security staff no longer felt it could ensure the safety of the participants, many of whom were yelling and throwing things.

That will do. Now, please don’t think that I’m refreshing my call for an end to the Democratic Party because of hooliganism. I’m not sure that the story itself has any direct bearing on what went on in my mind. It clearly served a catalytic function, though. When the racket stopped, I understood, for the first time, that the campaign for civil rights was, for the Democratic Party, a suicide mission. The suicide was at least partially successful: the party lost one of its two principal voting blocs, that of white Southerners. Almost immediately, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” held out a net for voters who felt that their interests had been betrayed by the party to which they had been loyal for a century or more.

Now the suicide was completed by the emergence of genuinely left-wing policies in the Democratic Party program. To pick a relatively mild one, Eugene McCarthy proposed, in his 1972 presidential bid, to impose 100% estate taxes. You have to remember that there was a lot of chair-throwing in those days, or at least the expectation of it. Bombs went off; an armored car was held up, not by common criminals, but by political terrorists. This leftism repelled the other great Democratic-Party voting black, blue-collar labor. Labor was increasingly unprotected by union negotiation, and workers came to share the Southerners’ sense of betrayal.

When Bill Clinton won in 1992 — with a lot of inadvertent help from Ross Perot — he ran as a Third Way candidate. It is a pity that this Third Way never became a party, neither here nor in Britain. Roy Jenkins’s hopes for a third-way party were dashed by the trumpery of the Falklands War — very unfortunate timing. After that, liberal progressives like Clinton and Blair resolved to work within the frame of the established parties of the left, which necessarily made them look like connivers and hypocritices. They weren’t Democratic (much less Labour) so much as they were kinder, gentler exemplars of good old Rockefeller Republicanism. But their party machinery — and this is what truly ought to have come to an end in the Sixties — demanded ritual gestures that repelled moderate conservatives.

The Democratic Party has limped along, trying to present itself as benevolently egalitarian while staggering under the burden of association with “big government.” This has worked far better in presidential campaigns than it has in congressional races. People vote for presidents with their hopes, but for their legislators with their pocket books. Now the Republicans are in a position, as Jon Stewart pointed out the other day, to complain about an incapable government that they themselves have hobbled. Voters seem disinclined to force Republicans to “own” the conditions that they have brought about; incapable government still seems like a Democratic Party failing. With her mandarin backbone, Hillary Clinton seems fated to prefigure an inexorable bureaucracy that, if it were actually to function properly, would be monstrously effective. Talk about bad timing.


Last week, I wrote about the terrifying scenario behind the movie Kingsman, and I thought that I exhausted the usefulness of the reference when I suggested that the free Internet access offered in the film had the same pernicious effect upon social responsibility as the reduction of politics to a form of mass entertainment. But there remains something deeper to be mined, something even more disturbing. It has been noted since the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, but instead of being questioned and discussed since then, it has quietly come to be taken for granted. But it was a little thing, a matter of interest, in 1960. It is now unimaginably more.

Pundits are not the only ones to complain about the absence of traditional authority in “today’s world.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever complained about it, but I’ve expressed a good deal of anxiety about the nature of an inevitable replacement. What would take the place of the authority that was founded on the now hopelessly corroded foundation of religious patriarchy? All the time, it was right there in front of me. Except it wasn’t, because I so rarely turned it on. The TV screen is our authority, and the cameraman the god who makes sense of everything.

I wrote a paragraph or two about this two years ago, but I see that I was very discreet about sources, so much so that the inference might have been drawn that I had been inside Madison Square Garden, which I haven’t, ever. It was Kathleen. She attended, for business reasons, a Knicks game at the Garden. Her party occupied a skybox, so she was relatively comfortable. But she was a bit disconcerted to find that everyone, not just everyone in the box but everyone in the arena, was watching a screen. The game was proceeding on the court, but hardly anybody seemed to be looking in that direction. From the regular seats, eyes seemed to be fixed on the JumboTrons suspended over the players. In the skybox, all eyes were fixed on one of the many smaller screens mounted in every direction. Kathleen had the sense that they all might as well have been in a windowless basement room.

In that case, of course, they’d have missed the cheering, and the cheering is a vital part of the game. But watching the game appears not to be vital. Why? My theory is that we have developed a reflexive preference for the mediatized image. This is not because we’re boobies. It’s because the mediatized image is the work of expert cameramen. These professionals, as athletically deft as the players they follow, know where to look. They know where things are going to happen. They cut out the inconsequential action. They present clear and compelling images of the game.

It is the display of these images on a multitude of screens that converts what the cameraman sees into something as close as we’re likely to get to objective reality — what really happened. And not only that, but also the relative importance of everything that did happen. Fans in the seats are in constant view, but because the camera is following the players and not lingering on the fans, it is difficult to maintain a sense that every fan is a man or a woman with a private life — who in hell cares about the fans! (But let them keep cheering.) Referees are something else. They, too, tend toward fanlike immobility, or at least they move slowly. But the camera looks at them. The mere shift of the camera’s gaze from herds of running men to a figure standing still, but now up close and in focus, signals trouble. We have learned to interpret the work of the cameraman at lightning speed.

It is not that nothing is real until it has been seen. Rather, nothing is real until it has been registered and implicitly approved by a cameraman (and by the producer who cuts to his camera) and then fed to a world of screens. Nothing is real that cannot be seen by everyone at the same time.

Will it make a difference now that everyone can watch the same YouTube clip any old time? I wonder — I really do. Ought we to worry a tad less because our great common mediatized experience is a football game, larded with commercials, and not a political event? Against that, how worrisome is it that an entertainment heavyweight can send ratings soaring by participating in a presidential debate, even though he is a political clown? (In my view, any political event is subverted by mediatized presentation.)

A person comes upon a newsworthy disturbance that is already being captured by a cameraman. This person immediately pulls a smartphone from a pocket or a handbag and locates the broadcast in a browser. Following my argument, we can say that the person is now — only now — in touch with reality. Can it also be said that the person is protected from the disturbance by the mediatized image on the connected phone? Feels protected? If you watch something on TV, are you implying that this is not happening to you?

Television makes it possible for all of us to see things from the same point of view, something physically impossible in the real world. It is the cameraman’s point of view, infinitely distributed. But it comes at the cost of actually seeing things. Sometimes, it is not important to be there in person. Much of what appears on television is utterly trivial. Sometimes — in scientific contexts, I surmise — it might be very useful to share a single image. But I believe that it is harmful to homogenize our experience of importance, and I insist that it is mistaken to wait to be told what is important until it appears on a screen.


I have read the Gospel of Mark, in the translation of Richmond Lattimore. Lattimore, who died in 1984, was an eminent translator of Homer, but he began translating the New Testament (beginning with Revelation) in the course of teaching Beginning Greek. I am reading the Gospels (and perhaps the rest of the New Testament as well) as a simple matter of cultural literacy. Raised Roman Catholic, I had no direct experience of Scripture until I went off to a Presbyterian boarding school. Sporadic attempts to familiarize myself with it were blocked by the tediousness of translations. I read the Book of Esther in the Authorized Version, and notwithstanding the occasional lambent passage I had no idea what was going on. Ten or fifteen years ago, I came upon the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, in the Jewish Publication Society’s edition. My eyes were opened. The language of the translation was supple but grave, clear but not simple-minded. Looking for the same sort of thing in the Testament that we cannot expect from the JPS, I settled on Lattimore and J B Phillips. I read a page or two of Phillips, and liked it, but I turned to Lattimore because he begins with Mark, now understood to be the first evangelist.

I read Mark in two comfortable sittings. I’m inclined to say that it is a short, simple narrative, but many of the simplicities go unexplained. Why does Mark attend to Jesus’s missionary itinerary in such detail? The impression of constant recrossings of the Sea of Galilee is curious. I also hoped for some explanation of a recurring dual phenomenon: Jesus asks or warns those whom he has helped not to say anything about him, and yet they all do. Jesus is vexed by the size of the crowds that follow him about. Another recurring vexation is “this generation” — “this adulterous and sinful generation.” This is also curious.

At roughly the halfway point, Jesus announces that “the son of man,” meaning himself, “must suffer much.” He would also “rise up after three days.” Instead of a discussion, there is the Transfiguration. I had always wondered where that fit in. In the eleventh chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and visits the temple, upsetting the moneychangers. In the twelfth chapter, he has a confrontation of sorts with the religious authorities. The tonal shift is complete: what began as a sunny “road” narrative has become menacingly dark, with miraculous highlights. Instead of healing the sick, Jesus makes predictions about the End Times. But he never speaks of himself as God, or as the son of God. And when God calls Jesus the son in whom he is pleased (as after the baptism in the Jordan, for example), he is clearly using the word in its Mediterranean sense, where sons are anybody who will listen to an old man.

In the fourteenth chapter, the Last Supper is reported, and then the night in the Garden of Gethsemane; most of the Passion is contained in the following chapter. Everything seems to be there, from the cock crowing three times to the split in the Temple veil, but the pace is brisk, as if a student were struggling to make all the necessary points in a short space of time. In the sixteenth and final chapter, more than half of which (according to Lattimore) appears to be a later addition, the Resurrection is not witnessed; the tomb is already empty. And it is only the two Marys (neither of them Jesus’s mother) who visit. They are told by a young man in a white garment that Jesus has already gone. He then directs them to tell Peter and the others. And that is that.

Matthew and Luke, I understand, adapted Mark and enlarged upon it. Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism — there’s not a word about his birth or childhood. For those, we must look to the next two Gospels.


Friday 20th

Friday already! Once again, the week has zipped by. The most memorable event was a problem with the hot water on Tuesday night that had me worrying how long it would last. A couple of hours turned out to be the answer. I spent those hours in a puddle of anxiety, dwelling on decline and fall. Almost as memorable: the following night, Kathleen bought some airline tickets, so now we’re going to spend a long weekend in San Francisco next month. We can’t wait to see our grandson, who is now taller than an emperor penguin — I read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece about Antarctica yesterday — and who therefore doesn’t seem very tall to me. I am hoping that he will say something outrageous. Grandparent-grandchild privilege prevents my giving examples, but I tell everyone that I get my personality from him. I almost believe this myself.

But when I look over the week’s entry, Monday and Arthur Godfrey seem very distant. Surely it cannot have been this past Tuesday that I wrote about Sister Suzanne Kelly! Even yesterday’s topics feel remote. Perhaps Antarctica had something to do with it. The piece will be of interest to anyone who was engrossed by The Corrections. Alongside his trademark sourpuss travelogue, Franzen tells us how he came to treat himself to an expensive Lindblad cruise. He came into some money when his godfather died. His godfather was his father’s sister’s husband, and Franzen came to be very fond of him. Uncle Walt’s is a lovely story, and I have no intention of spoiling it. But: Aunt Irma was a piece of work. The second time that Franzen mentioned Aunt Irma’s penchant for formal furniture, I registered a connection to Enid Lambert. I seem to recall that Franzen insisted, when his novel came out, that The Corrections was not “autobiographical,” and I came to agree, on the strength of his nonfiction autobiographical sketches. But the extremely vivid portraits of Enid and Alfred Lambert are written with a child’s mercilessness. I now suspect that Franzen harnessed that mercilessness to a novelist’s imagination and spun the figure of Enid from his Aunt Irma. He never suggests having done so in the Antarctica piece. It’s just a hunch. But I shall definitely clip the piece out of the magazine and tuck it into my copy of The Corrections.

Then there is The Idiot. I raced through Part I, thrilled by its Figaro-like massings of characters, all set in one very long day, but could hardly drag myself through the early chapters of Part II. The two big scenes, first on the terrace of Lebedev’s dacha in Pavlovsk, and then in the Epanchin’s dacha, bewildered me; I’m surely not the only reader to find that Prince Myshkin is the only one of Dostoevsky’s characters in this book who is not an idiot. Now that I’ve passed into Part III, and a duel may be in the offing, I’m beginning to feel like one of the inmates. Is Aglaya in love with the Prince? Is the Prince in love with Nastasya Filippovna? Is Nastasya Filippovna insane? By the way, I learned what a fool I’ve been making of myself, ever since I began reading Russian novels. I’ve been stressing the wrong syllable of feminine patronyms. Perhaps because of my recent frolics in Italian (see “sdrucciolo”), I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong when it occurred to me to compare how I said Ardolionovich with how I said Ardolionovna. That didn’t make sense, and, to be sure, I was wrong to say the latter. But Ardolionovna is hard to say; it pushes the ‘v’ and the ‘n’ too close for the comfort of my Anglophone tongue.

Because I was reading The Idiot, I pulled out Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift To Revolution 1825-1917, which I came across while reshelving some history books. Reading both at the same time might have been a good idea, but it certainly made for a depressing experience. I almost miss the Soviet days, for it was possible then to believe that Russia was growing in a new direction. I did not, in fact, believe this, but the possibility was comforting. Now we might as well be back to the days of Alexander II or Alexander III. The communist experiment has been set aside. Did I mention that Crankshaw’s Shadow prompted me to resume a book that I put down months and months ago, Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life? Sperber keeps saying that Marx is brilliant, but I see only a quarrelsome bookworm. I just had a look at the opening passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. I always wondered what this title could possibly mean, since 18 Brumaire VIII (9 November 1799) was the date of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup. The solution to the puzzle is contained in Marx’s second sentence.

Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”

Ah. I considered buying the book, but I’m not sure that it is a book, since even the first page is littered with analphabetisms redolent of very cheap Kindle editions. Marx’s brilliance seems limited to sarcasm. He reminds me of Robert Moses, who built highways (some ruinous) without ever learning to drive.

As Chou En-lai said (and I like to put his name in Wade-Giles when I repeat this), It’s too early to tell. “Capitalism” remains an unknown quantity. It is the kind of poorly-defined term that everyone is sure of understanding. Today, it means “big corporations.” But it no longer conjures images of steel mills and automobile factories. For one thing, those factories that haven’t closed down altogether have gotten a lot smaller. And many big corporations, no matter how many “knowledge workers” are on their payrolls, don’t employ many workers. In this, capitalism has reverted to its pre-Industrial-Revolution profile, before the invention of “capitalism” as a term. In those days, it meant amassing enough money to buy low and sell high. Capitalists didn’t manufacture anything — they contracted out. Aristocrats didn’t grow their own food or shepherd their own flocks; they simply rented out their landholdings. The curious thing about the Industrial Revolution is not that it was made possible by capitalism, but that it transformed capitalism, by raising the amounts invested and the risks of failure to unimaginable levels. When people talk about the roller-coaster dynamics of capitalism, they are talking about the disasters of nineteenth-century experiments with credit. (I’ve always regarded what happened in 1929 as a crisis of consumerism.)

Has capitalism degraded the environment? I find it sloppy to think so. Mass consumption is the culprit: mass consumption has produced massive exhaust. I do not see a connection between commercial banking and the blight of plastic bags. You can work one out, but it will bypass the actual culprits: thoughtless ordinary individuals. Is capitalism responsible for income inequality? Certainly not. Today’s income inequality is the direct result of élitist amorality. You can see it in the upwardly-shooting multiple that ties rank-and-file pay to executive compensation. (“Compensation”! For what?) When I was a boy, the chairman of AT&T lived in a sober house around the corner, on a quarter acre just like everybody else. I’m not saying that he wasn’t “wealthy,” but wealth carried far fewer zeroes in those days. Tax laws and other regulations had nothing to do with the subsequent change in climate.

And yet I do believe that, in most sectors, capitalism has had its day. The only way to prevent the predations of private-equity firms is to eliminate the profit, the rente, the return on investment. I’m not saying that enterprises oughtn’t to “make money”; but the money left over, when all the bills have been paid and, yes, the managers handsomely paid, ought to be treated as capital, not profit. It belongs to the enterprise, not to investors. Obviously, you need investors to get things going. But when growth levels off, then it’s time to exchange equity for debt, and then to pay off the debt and be done with it. No large enterprise ought to be in the business of enriching investors. It doesn’t work.

That’s to say that it doesn’t work for anyone but the investors. It doesn’t work for workers, or for the towns that workers live in. It doesn’t do anything for customers, either. An enterprise ought to be in the business of providing goods and services that customers want while adapting these goods and services as needed with a view to stabilizing the lives of workers. Business enterprises know best how to train and retrain their workers, and they know best how to conduct research into product and service development. Investors’ demands for higher returns, at the expense of this training and research, is a horrible, even damnable distraction. When you get down to it, investors are business pollution.

So how is a rentier to make any money while eating bonbons on his chaise longue? There used to be something called “clipping coupons.” Bonds. Debt. When you buy a bond, you are guaranteed a return, in the form of an interest payment, for your investment, which is called a loan. That’s where your engagement with the issuer stops. So long as the interest is paid, you have nothing to say. It is not very exciting, and that is a very good thing. Rentiers who crave excitement can always invest with venture capitalists.


This evening, we are hoping to catch up with old friends whom I haven’t seen in ages. Originally, of course, I was going to serve a nice dinner. As recently as last week, I was still planning to cook, notwithstanding the lack of a proper stove. But in the course of fixing breakfast over the weekend, I learned that there is still much to learn about operating electric appliances in a kitchen not wired for the purpose. I didn’t throw any circuit breakers, I’m happy to say, but that may have been thanks to surge protectors, which did shut off when I tried to do two things at the same time. I may have four appliances — a kettle, a hotplate, a frypan, and a convection over — but as a rule I can use only one at a time. If the gas is out for a long time (as I expect it to be), I shall gradually develop an expertise of workarounds. But gradually, and certainly not by tonight. So we’ll go out.

Since I won’t be doing the ironing, we won’t be watching a movie. But we watched one the other night. Passing by the Video Room on Wednesday, I stopped in and rented Joy. David O Russell’s latest movie features some principal members of the little rep company that he has been building up since Silver Linings Playbook. In American Hustle, these actors, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert de Niro, were united with two of the stars of The Fighter, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and it’s interesting to think of The Fighter, because, as in Joy, parents can be the source of the worst career advice. I wanted to smash de Niro’s head in for his shambling, Teflon apologies to his daughter, Lawrence, pretty much as I had wanted to shoot Melissa Leo.

Joy is an interesting blend of realism and kabuki. The performances — the ways in which the characters speak and move — is realistic, but the set-ups are very stylized, so that scenes that seem natural on the surface are inflected with ritual power. Characters encounter and confront each other. They brandish arguments instead of swords, but they are framed in a formal manner. A clear example is the graveyard scene. When Joy, flush with newfound success at QVC but devastated by her grandmother’s death, sits down next to her father, he mumbles about some business trouble that she’s facing, and how he has attempted to “help her out.” What he has done is to send Joy’s resentful half-sister, Peggy, to deal with the problem, something that Joy knows Peggy will screw up. And voilà, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm, also a member of the rep company) arrives in a taxi, straight from the airport, dressed in black but carrying a wildly blue suitcase. Peggy takes a seat on the other side of the grave and stares at Joy with mindless defiance. Was Russell thinking of Kurosawa? The ensuing argument takes place in Joy’s living room, where it belongs, but its initiation in a scene of actual ritual fuels the rest of the film — the dénouement to which it directly grinds. If we didn’t know going in that things are going to work out for Joy — Joy Mangano, the true-life inventor whose story Joy adapts, was an executive producer of the film — we’d never make it to the end.

Watching Lawrence play the scene in which Joy introduces her fantastic mop to QVC viewers is an experience of great cinema. At first, Joy is abashed; as she was warned, the lights are very bright, and she can barely move. Her Pygmalion, played by Bradley Cooper, is losing it — he has given Joy’s mop a second chance and it is sinking! The situation is saved by “a call.” A viewer calls and is put on the air, to talk with the person selling the product (who might be Joan Rivers — played by her daughter!). This caller is in fact Joy’s oldest friend (Dascha Polanco); we’re not told if the maneuver was preconcerted by the two women or a desperate save by the friend. Anyhow, it works. Joy perks up, slowly at first. As she finds her rhythm and gets into the shtick (and the orders start pouring in), Lawrence shows us that some things are better than sex. She is mesmerizing. It’s like watching a horse nose its way to the front near the finish line. Russell is very good at getting you to root for his characters, but Joy isn’t fighting anyone but herself. She’s fighting her doubts and what she has internalized of her sister’s doubts and her father’s doubts and her father’s girlfriend’s doubts. (The girlfriend is played, with indie bravado, by Isabella Rossellini. She is all kabuki.) Joy is fighting the natural instinct to cut and run. You know just how she feels. You know as if it were you, standing on the stage. And you’re as thrilled as she is.

I must mention two other performances. Diane Ladd is superb as the grandmother, and I apologize to her for thinking that she was dead just because she wasn’t there at the Oscars last year to stand with Bruce and Laura on the red carpet. I guess it’s a case of old-fashioned divorce. There is nothing remarkable about a superb performance by Diane Ladd, except, of course, the performance. The other delight was Virginia Madsen, who was truly wonderful as Joy’s dotty, self-absorbed mother. She exemplifies the movie itself: the weird strangeness of banal people.

How can I buy one of those mops?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fatal Addiction
May 2016 (II)

9, 10, 12, 13 May

Monday 9th

For a few months, my reading has been either serious (The Idiot, Wallace Stevens’s longer poems) or demanding (Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful Sagittario — but in Italian, and without a translation) or both. The other night, at the point of going to bed, I found that I had nothing to read, nothing that I could bear to read. Everything in the pile or on the Kindle was at the same time stimulating and exhausting. My mind churning, I would have to put down whatever I was reading because I couldn’t take any more. Thought provocation was killing me.

I’ve had a rough time getting to sleep lately. Sometimes, Lunesta doesn’t seem to work; either I’ve taken it soon, and the effect has worn off before I’ve climbed into bed, or I’ve ingested something incompatible, such as a chocolate or a cold remedy. Sometimes, I’ve forgotten to take the pill actually; I’ve set it out and then assumed that I’ve swallowed it, only to find it on the nightstand hours later. On Saturday night, I had taken the pill and wanted to go to bed, but I had nothing to read, and the idea of having nothing to read was terrifying. So I sat in my reading chair and let my mind wander. This is something that I have been doing too often, but only after an hour of bedridden sleeplessness. I thought, on Saturday night, that I would do my sitting-in-the-dark before I got into bed. It turned out to be a not-bad idea. I wondered, briefly, if more structured meditations might be helpful.

Meditation is the only thing that makes sense of my first idea of better bedtime reading material: I wondered if reading the Gospels would be good. I’ve been meaning to read the Gospels for some time, but only if I could find a literate translation. The Authorized Version is more about King James’s secretaries and the glories of the English language than it is about Jesus, and modern translations are pap. I wanted something that would bear comparison with the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament). I had asked one or two friends, but I’d drawn blanks. Last night, I had the brilliant (!) idea of scrolling through Amazon, where, indeed, I found not one but two candidates, and bought them both: renditions, in chapters but without verses, by J B Phillips and Richmond Lattimore. I was able to “look inside” both books, and was electrified to read, in the Phillips, which begins with Matthew, the exhortation of John the Baptist: “You must change your hearts and minds!” I was very sorry not to have a German New Testament, to see how close Luther’s translation was to Rilke’s “Du musst dein Leben ändern.”

But I wanted to read the Gospels in book form, not on the Kindle, and now that I had them (or should have them in a day or two), I realized that they would not make very good bedtime reading, not, in any case, night after night. A new idea appeared, rather blasphemously in juxtaposition: funny. I needed light reading. How about another Penelope Lively, I wondered, leaning over the chair in front of the small wire bookcase in the bedroom in which all of Lively’s novels are lined up. Hmm — Lively is sparkling, but not funny; and her stories certainly have their harrowing moments. My eye wandered a bit, and settled on a thick book, lying on its side: an omnibus volume, the compleat collection. Really, I thought, as if on a dare. I had to pull out four books that were lying atop it, and when I extracted it, I had to keep the row of upright Livelys from tumbling into its space before I could replace the others. I sat down in my chair and opened the book, leafing page by page to the start of — could this work? — E F Benson’s Queen Lucia.

I have not read the Lucia books — or, as they’re better known now that they have been dramatized a couple of times, the Mapp and Lucia books — since the tome in my lap was published, in 1977. I went on to read a lot of other Benson, and then a biography of the writer (and his seemingly all-gay family); then came Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales (and Nigel Hawthorne) to sing their way through Donald McWhinnie’s gorgeously costumed production. The idea of re-reading the Lucia books seemed merely laborious. My favorite line appeared very early, on the third page of the omnibus text. Here it is, at the end of a description of the “famous smoking parlor” in Lucia’s Riseholme cottage:

with rushes on the floor, and a dresser ranged with pewter tankards, and leaded lattice windows of glass so antique that it was practically impossible to see out of them. It had a huge open fireplace framed in oak beams with a seat on each side of the iron-backed hearth within the chimney, and a genuine spit hung over the middle of the fire. Here, though in the rest of the house she had for the sake of convenience allowed the installation of electric light, there was no such concession made, and sconces on the walls held dim iron lamps, so that only those of the most acute vision were able to read. Even then reading was difficult, for the bookstand on the table contained nothing but a few crabbed black-letter volumes dating from not later than the early seventeenth century, and you had to be in a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind to be at ease there.

My regard for the last clause is boundless; it encompasses everything from Shakespeare to Victoria (the queen of italics), and not excluding Pope. Trying to conjure a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind is easier, I’ve discovered, if you try to imagine someone else thus afflicted. The whole passage concludes:

But Mrs Lucas often spent some of her rare leisure moments in the smoking parlor, playing on the virginal that stood in the window, or kippering herself in the fumes of the wood fire as with streaming eyes she deciphered an Elzevir Horace rather too late for inclusion under the rule, but an undoubted bargain.

The first time I read this, I had no idea what an Elzevir Horace might be (okay, a very dim one), and I am still ignorant of the “rule,” but the funniness was plain and powerful, and it still knocks me over. Benson’s deployment of fussy phrasing is brilliant; for the most part, his sentences are straightforward and unadorned. It is clear that he does not identify with his heroine; he poses rather as a practical, ordinary man who thinks that windows are for seeing out of. You wouldn’t find him kippering himself with streaming eyes just to read about Postumus and his wine cellar. At the same time, he is alert to Lucia’s imposture, and able to register the hard-headed shrewdness of her apparent flights of fancy with grains of businesslike language, such as “no concession made,” or, in the following line, an almost burlesque interruption:

Though essentially autocratic [pardon the dangler], her subjects were allowed and even encouraged to develop their own minds on their own lines, provided always that those lines met at the junction where she was stationmaster.

There is even a nice touch of Foreign Office calculation:

With the memory of the Welsh attorney in her mind, it seemed clearly wiser to annex rather than to repudiate the Guru.

I hope that these excerpts do more than make you smile (or, better, laugh); I hope that you can see how completely impossible it would be to try to film them. This is humor that can be seen only with the special blindness of the reader. We could drag a camera into a room that met the smoking parlor’s description, but it would just be an old dim closet full of Jacobean tat, a period room in which no person born after 1900 could be expected to spend more than a few cursory minutes, dull minutes completely lacking in occasions for giggling. There is no way to show Lucia acting as a stationmaster, or annexing rather than repudiating. These images are lively on the page but dead to the point of nonentity beyond it. So it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve watched the serializations. Sure, they’re very funny, too; but it’s a different kind of funny, and, relative to Benson’s deft brushwork, incomparably coarse.

As for bedtime reading, the Lucia books might be ideal, precisely because they have been adapted for television. I can drift off to sleep long after my short-term memory has stopped working, but I won’t have to re-read anything when I pick up the book the next night. I know the story. Most of it, anyway; a lot gets left out. Lady Ambermere, for example, the local grandee who has witnessed Lucia’s transformation of a peasant village into an upper middle-class suburb without the slightest interest; to Lady Ambermere, there is not much to distinguish Lucia from her agrarian predecessors, save that none of the latter would dream of imitating Lucia’s “push.” Riseholme as a whole gets cut, because nobody seems to know where it is; while Tilling, as everybody is aware, is a town with Cinque Ports luster on the Sussex Coast; you can go there if you can find “Rye” on the map. (Ray Soleil and Fossil Darling paid a visit, and it is just possible that Ray’s frantically Lucian frame of mind threatened for a while to be permanent.) But even if I can’t remember arriving at the point where I left off, and have to go back a page or two, it’s no trouble, because the only serious thing about the Lucia books is the writing. And it is richly pleasurable, completely undemanding writing.

After a few pages of the omnibus edition, I realized that I must switch to the Kindle. My fear that only the one-volume abridgment of the stories would be available in Kindle format were allayed immediately. Although I figured that the cost of the omnibus had been amply amortized over nearly forty years, I was no less delighted than Lucia would have been to find that the Kindle edition could be had for a mere ninety-nine cents. In no time, I was tucked in with the lights out, already so sleepy that trying not to laugh out loud was no longer much of a problem. I was sure that I should soon be asleep, and soon indeed I was, with nary a twitch.


Kathleen and I watched The Big Short on Friday night — Kathleen had not seen it before — and, as the film came to an end, I found myself weighing how much wind the popular resentment of the bank bailout might have put in Donald Trump’s sails. Twenty-four hours later, I had moved completely beyond conventionally political estimations of Trump’s campaign. I had read Mark Danner’s piece in the current New York Review of Books, “The Magic of Donald Trump.” For the moment, I am going to quote only one early passage.

Observe the celebrity known as Donald Trump saunter onto the stage at Boca Raton, twenty minutes after his helicopter swoops in. The slow and ponderous walk, the extended chin, the pursed mouth, the slowly swiveling head, the exaggerated look of knowing authority: with the exception of the red “Make America Great Again” ball cap perched atop his interesting hair the entire passage is quoted from the patented boardroom entrance of The Apprentice, something that does not escape the delirious fans, even if it does most journalists. If when you see that outthrust chin you shiver with intimations of Mussolini, well, you were never a fan.

(“But what about me?” wails Silvio Berlusconi when this is translated for him.)

Danner’s piece made me sit up and recognize the extent of my self-censorship. I try very hard not to talk about “television.” That is, I put a lid on shrieking with alarm about its perniciousness. What would be the point? I should only alienate or bore readers. Every now and then, I say, as simply as I can, Turn It Off. Danner’s piece made me realize how this restraint had prevented my saying what I think, or even knowing what I think, about the Trump campaign, which is that it is proof positive of a mass addiction to the stress and depravity of popular network shows, particularly the ones that go by the modifier “reality.”

As I repeat every year, Kathleen and I watch television only once in any twelve months. We watch the Academy Awards show. Some years the show is more entertaining than others, but we always have a good time, and we always stick it out to the end. The cheesiness of the production, by which I mean not so much the antics on the stage as the camera work and the what-do-you-call-it, the animated doodles that are superimposed on the live images at the end of each segment, together with the voice-overs reminding you that you are watching the Academy Awards show and promising what’s up next, is no more wearying than the more self-indulgent expressions of thanks delivered by shocked, exultant winners. The show itself is relatively harmless.

What I mean by “television” is the stuff in between those doodles and voice-overs. This includes commercials, of course, but it also includes bigger, more complicated doodles and much louder voice-overs. These remind you what network you’re watching, and what shows are coming up. The tone of these reminders is fraught with a furious mental violence that suggests what it must be like to suffer schizophrenic attacks. It is a whirlwind, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable. I get up and leave the room, ostensibly on the usual errands to the bathroom and the kitchen, but mostly to escape the racket. It is not lost on me that this racket is the medium’s ligament. People who watch a lot of television, who sit while one show bleeds into another, are exposed to a lot of this pandemonium, which of course ceases with repetition to be at all disturbing. My hunch is that it also ceases to be negligible: viewers develop a dependency, and addiction.

I have never seen a reality show, but Kathleen has been told by many colleagues and fellow workers about the fun of watching Donald Trump scream at the other people on the show. Some people like it because they’re yelled at themselves, and, like the little girl in Mommie Dearest scolding her dolls, they find relief in passing it on, watching other chumps suffer belittlement. Some people like it because they dream of yelling at their bosses some day — the people who yell at them. The net is that people find a great deal of satisfaction in Trump’s behavior. There is no word for this other than “depraved.” I could not watch The Apprentice for a full minute, but I know that if I were to manage to watch it for several episodes, I’d begin to find it entertaining. So I am not going to watch it “just once,” to “see what it’s all about.” I have conducted that experiment. I was once very dependent on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a night-time soap opera in which almost everything that happened was either ridiculously implausible or profoundly unimportant. I hung on Louise Lasser’s every word, but I hung more on her dropped jaw.

There was a piece in the Times this morning in which data pundits like Nate Silver acknowledged that they’d wrong, again and again, about Trump. Perhaps there was something defective about their polling, such as the absence of young people, untethered by landlines. As I read the piece, I thought, You admit you were wrong but you are still wrong. They’re still wrong because they continue to approach Trump politically. And when they ask their questions of the general public, the general public is prompted to put on its voter gravitas, something that very well might not accompany them into the voting booth on Election Day. In the voting booth, they may be seized by an echo of the delirium that Danner mentions. Their voter’s selves may fall away like horror-film pods, revealing reality-show habitués. Hillary Clinton could well lose by a landslide, and never have seen it coming. But I see it coming.


Tuesday 10th

Now that I see Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency as a “reality show” from the front of my mind, not the back, the spectacle makes sense. As a political figure, Trump is an authoritarian, bullying buffoon. Transcripts of his remarks betray a mind more concerned with sending a miscellany of surreptitious messages than with making consistent sense. The commentariat was right, then, when it began, last summer, to proclaim that he would not go far — as a political figure. In fact, he never went anywhere as a political figure. It wasn’t that he played the political game badly, but rather that he never played it at all, and this, this faithfulness to his bearing as a reality show’s Master of Ceremonies, has assured his supporters that This Time, It’s Different.

The difference ought to have been clear from the moment that the weekend press shows allowed Trump to phone in. I remember those long-ago early days, when Meet the Press was pretty much the only show of its kind, and Lawrence E Spivak was the host. It was the most boring TV show imaginable! That was its certificate of authenticity: it established that television could be serious and adult. But it couldn’t last, because television is a kind of entertainment.

Entertainment occurs when a handful of people do something while a larger and entirely passive audience watches. In a theatre, on or off Broadway, this audience is very much a living thing, breathing, coughing, signaling to the acute ears of actors that certain nuances are favored over others, a favor that may be completely negated by tomorrow night’s audience. Paying constant attention to the deep-forest sounds that rustle from the audience, actors retune their performances accordingly; this is what keeps a play fresh throughout its run. In the early days of television, shows were performed in front of live audiences, but it did not take long to see that the small “live” audience got in the way of the much larger one watching at home, and the laugh track was substituted. This was part of televised entertainment’s slow drift away from the criteria of performance to the absolute numbers of ratings. The complicated response of a live audience was reduced to a single unproblematic factor: on or off. Was the TV set tuned to this broadcast network or to that one? Otherwise, the television audience was passive to an extent never experienced, and I wonder if it hasn’t changed the nature of entertainment, at least within the context of television.

Mr Spivak would never have allowed phone-ins. He wouldn’t have understood why anyone would wish to decline the opportunity to sit in front of the camera and so become “known,” recognizable, to viewers. Donald Trump, however, is already known to viewers. He has no need for further publicity; on the contrary, he publicizes not himself but his fellow entertainers.

Since I have never seen a reality TV show, and am not about to watch one, I can’t pontificate at length. But the old idea, that entertainment is some kind of “pretend,” that men whose real names are Joe and Mary, and who really live in studio apartments with no views, pretend to be people called Marmaduke and Isadora, living in stately homes with vistas replete with hedges and fountains, has given way to something entirely different. Now entertainment is a view of the actual, edited and filtered perhaps, and by no means comprehensive, but a view that has nothing to do with assumed identities. Someone called Donald Trump, a man who lives in an ostentatious apartment on Fifth Avenue, appears on television as himself. In the old, theatrical, model, the audience provided the element of reality. Everyone sitting in the audience was aware of being surrounded by other similarly-situated “real people.” (This assumption could be fiddled with for dramatic surprise, but only very occasionally.) Sitting in the theatre, the audience was taking a break from reality, devoting its attention to a show that was no more real than a dream. Now, however, it is Donald Trump who constitutes the reality. He is really there, more substantially than we who are sitting at home. We can see him, but not the other people in the audience. We cannot be sure that there are other people in the audience. Looking across the street, we may see a television screen that is showing the same show that we are watching, but we cannot be sure that there is anybody in that room across the street. But there is no doubting Donald Trump. His voice will do perfectly well as a substitute for his presence. The voice of Donald Trump is an apotheosis, the voice of a god. He is not participating in a political process but observing it (and guiding it) from on high.

Like the pandemonium that I wrote about yesterday, this reconstitution of reality, this relocation of reality to the other side of the TV screen, is strongly addictive. The pandemonium indicates helplessness, as you, the viewer, endure it for however long it lasts. (And, the longer it lasts, the less desire you have to escape it.) The displacement of reality signifies that you are not as real as what you see on the screen. You already knew that, for you are only you, a nobody, while Donald Trump is a god, or at least a billionaire, or at least someone through whose fingers a great deal of money has passed in various directions. Watching Trump, you are in the presence of reality. How can withdrawal from that reality not be painful?

In politics, the audience is not passive. Members of the audience stand up when the speech — the performance — is over, and ask questions that the speaker is expected to answer. Reality is in the audience. The speaker sketches promises and possibilities; the members of the audiences bring him back down to earth with when and how much. They want to hear the details that were omitted in the speech, and only when they do does the speech become real. Until then, it is hot air.

Donald Trump could not possibly thrive in politics. He has only one answer: trust me. Trust him, because he knows how to get things done. Some day, perhaps some day soon, an exact accounting will be prepared, listing the projects that Trump, having assured us that he knew how to get them done, got done — and the projects that did not. In the meantime, we can only trust him, or not. Politically, we are probably disinclined to trust him. But what if he is not really asking us to trust him? What if he is saying is: watch me. What if he is saying, with his stupendous aplomb, I am who am. What if?


On several occasions on this Web site, I have mentioned a movie called Kingsman: The Secret Service. Among the few things that one can say for sure about this movie is that, despite a starring role (or possibly because of it, as those who have seen it will understand) for Colin Firth, it did not “do well.” I venture to suggest that Kingsman was a confusing film. It was not at all difficult to figure out what was going on at any particular moment; the confusion was in the packaging. What kind of film was the audience led to expect, and did the film satisfy that expectation? Whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second was “no.” As a result, the film’s varied and inventive scenes of extraordinary violence had a gratuitous air, and were easily dismissed as “gross.” Although I was massively haunted by Kingsman, I never even began to undertake to persuade Kathleen that it was worth watching. For her, it would never be. That is why I am going to write about the nightmare at the heart of Kingsman as best I can, so that nobody will have to watch the movie to understand why I keep coming back to it. To the extent that I succeed, I shall have contributed to the demonstration that it is not a very good movie. And yet I must acknowledge that the scenes of violence that I am not going to paraphrase cannot be paraphrased: they are as unspeakable as they are unforgettable. At such moments, Kingsman becomes an astonishingly powerful film. Please bear that in mind, while I talk about not so much scenes as a concept. Since this concept is my real subject, I am going to dispense with the names of characters and the actors who play them.

Some science fiction is required. Imagine a sociopathic billionaire — easy peasy. This billionaire believes that the human population of Planet Earth must be, at the very least, culled; and he has invented a kewl way to get the population to cull itself, without the use of outside force. Well, there is an outside force. But it is not an army or a bomb. It is a signal. When emitted by a smartphone, this signal blocks all human emotions except hostility and fear. Thus stripped down, people can be counted on to try to kill each other. All the billionaire has to do is press a few buttons.

He presses a few buttons from a mountain fastness, into which he has herded cooperative fellow billionaires and other members of the deserving élite. I am not going to talk about them, except to propose a rebus. (Take the mountain-fastness party scene, and the scene from Being John Malkovich in which everyone looks the same, and the head, complete with its interesting hair, of Donald Trump: the result would make many viewers wickedly happy.) All you need to know is that the Top People are preserved from the cull. (Fat lot of good &c.)

As I said, the fatal signal is delivered via smartphone. This is the key to the nightmare, even if it is not particularly essential to the concept. (The billionaire could just as easily have erected transmission towers, or even co-opted existing ones. The signal effects everyone, not just smartphone owners.) In order to place the necessary operating system in the maximum number of smartphones, the billionaire offers free Internet and phone access to anyone who signs up. So, of course, everyone does.

The corollary to that wise old maxim, You get what you pay for, is that, If you don’t pay for what you sign up for, you don’t know what it is.

Owing to glitches, the signal is never activated for very long. There are a few rather cartoonish scenes of random, insincere-looking violence, ostensibly occurring in major cities around the world. (They bear no resemblance to the blitzing orgy of malevolence that ensues when the signal is given its test run, on a sort of pilot audience as it were, from which only one man emerges alive.) The culling scenes are redolent of laddies half-heartedly throwing each other from rooftops. In a much more engaging parallel thread, a mother who has been warned ahead of time to lock her baby in the loo and slip the key under the door is overtaken by a pathological desire to break down the door and murder her child. (She gets far enough in this endeavor to remind us of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) What’s going on in the mountain fastness while the signal is activated, or about to be activated, or hobbled by glitches, is far more engrossing than the crowd scenes.

But you do see enough. You see people having fun on the beach, and then turning feral. And you know that this however-awful thing is happening because everybody signed up for the free access.

And, Mr Keefe, this has exactly what to do with Donald Trump and the presidential campaign? Good Lord, do I have to spell it out?

Free access = entertaining politics. Donald Trump is not to be confused, however analogous his position in this argument, with Kingsman‘s sociopathic billionaire. The film’s evil genius depends, after all, on a science fiction trick currently unavailable to the Donald, who would hardly wish to cull his audiences anyway. But it would appear that Trump’s supporters have confused serious political consequences with rejuvenating entertainment. Unlike the movie’s suckers, the Trumpistas ought to have an inkling of the disasters to which their fearless leader’s proposals would almost certainly lead, and certainly, no “almost” about it, in concert.

You won’t get anywhere by dismissing Trumpistas as “stupid.” They are addicted.


Thursday 12th

With most books, I know where I stand. I am here, the author is there. We differ to thus and such a degree. Under the impression that I understand what I’m reading, I move along as briskly as possible, noting interesting passages (but never in the book itself; I do not write in books, not even to print my name), and getting through the dull parts as dutifully as possible. Without my paying very much attention, I judge the book page by page. I do not feel that this judgment encompasses myself as well.

Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture has been unusual in that regard. I don’t know where I stand with relation to the book at all. I agree, strongly, with this; I disagree just as strongly with the following sentence. The confusion owes to the meaning and use of the word “conservative.” I think that it’s fair to say that this word, at least in English, is undergoing a great deal of stress, as people with very different outlooks either lay claim to it or label others with it. I am not the only man to feel that the self-styled conservatives in American politics are anything but; at the same time, I know that my own conservative inclinations do not stretch so far as to cover a good deal of the traditional ground. I am somewhat conservative — and Roger Scruton is somewhat reactionary. Reading the Guide is often an awful muddle.

The difference between a conservative and a reactionary is implied by Tancredi’s famous remark, in The Leopard: everything must change in order for everything to stay the same. That is conservatism. The reactionary simply wants to go back to the way things were — no change! Tancredi’s paradox describes fairly well the course of human history, but for all the massacres and mayhem. But only historians and their students have access to the perspective from which to observe the way in which things really do remain the same by constantly changing.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, not a historian. He knows about a lot of things that have happened, but he does not see them as a historian does. The historian’s principal struggle is to understand remote events as they might have been understood at the time, by people who did not know what was going to happen next. This is the one universal truth about the history of humanity: the future is never known. Everything else about human history is a matter of local context, about which we can only guess the grosser outlines. People always need to eat, but their ideas about what foods are good to eat, and how they ought to be eaten, and when, and with whom, shift slowly but, over time, distinctively. That’s just one example.

Roger Scruton has an idea about art. He sees art as rooted in religion. I myself do not; I root art in play — play that is eventually ordered and controlled by social authorities. But we won’t go into all that. Scruton’s idea is undeniably familiar. If I disagree, I do so quietly; I can follow his use of this idea to see where it takes him.

Where it takes him is to this:

In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite. Religious art, religious music, and religious literature form the central strand of all societies where a common religious culture hold sway. Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge — as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance — it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining. When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable. (18)

This familiar indeed — so familiar, in fact, that I discovered, when I read it again yesterday (for I am grappling with Roger Scruton), that I had outgrown vague resistance and developed some sharp objections. Here’s the sharpest: when was religion ever healthy in the European West? Beginning wherever you like — with the conversion of Constantine, say. The conversion of Constantine, you might have thought, ushered in a reign of peace. But that is not what happened. Emerging from persecution like fugitives from a sewer, Christians erupted into a mass of contention. Constantine was so vexed by the Christians’ inability and apparent unwillingness to agree on the basic principles of Christianity that he summoned a conclave of bishops to Nicaea, where, somewhat under imperial duress, a creed was hammered out. It took nearly a century for this creed — a minimal statement about the nature of God — to be generally accepted in the European West. Centuries later, a squabble over the placement of a particle, -que, would lead to a schism between the Roman Catholics of the West and the Orthodox Christians (including Russians and most Balkans, such as Serbians, but not Croatians or Slovenians; I hope that you’re getting the picture) that persists to this day.

Say, then, that the Nicene Creed was generally acknowledged at the beginning of the Fifth Century. Were peace and harmony ushered in then? No. As I see it, peace and harmony have never been ushered in. Christianity, both as to its doctrines and its administration, has always been contentious. Even during the period that Scruton hints at so clearly that he doesn’t see the need to name it.

He is thinking, let us imagine, of the Twelfth Century — the age of the first great cathedrals. It is true that very little remains from this time that does not have some ecclesiastical bearing. Nothing at all survives that could be called “nonreligious art.” Bishops and their agents controlled the production of art to the extent that kings and other secular potentates commissioned nothing lasting that did not belong to a religious context. This was the great Age of Faith, when song was chant and poetry was liturgical.

This was also the time of Abelard, the wildly brilliant but dangerously undisciplined philosopher who wrote a book called Sic et Non, an exercise book designed to teach students how to argue hot questions. For there were hot questions, and the hottest question of all concerned the role to be played by reason in religious matters. We may think that we see an Age of Faith, because the cathedrals are so grand. But the impression derives from extraordinarily widespread illiteracy: aside from the clergy, no one had the training or the platform required for the dissemination of ideas. And the clergy was at war with itself over the hot questions. So dubious is the very idea of an Age of Faith that at its climax, in 1277, there burned, at Oxford and Paris, bonfires of proscribed writings. The most famous author to go up in flames was Thomas Aquinas, who had died a few years before. His work survived destruction and was rehabilitated; he remains the semi-official theologian of the Roman Catholic Church. But the hot question itself was consumed; never again would faith be supported by reason, much less challenged by it, within the Church itself.

Now, you might argue that for a religion to be “healthy,” there must be robust debates about doctrines and practices. But the Church rarely stopped at debates. From the time of Augustine, bishops exploited their extensive temporal powers to enforce their rulings, with violence if necessary. You will recall that some people were burned at the stake. The Reformation of Christianity, largely but not exclusively an event of the Sixteenth Century, did nothing for the cause of peace and harmony. Perhaps Scruton regards the Reformation as a sign of religious decline, since it did take place during the later phases of the Renaissance (and was clearly fueled by Renaissance thought). But I am unable to find a sustained period of “healthy” religion — which, I insist, must be free of secular violence — in all the history of Europe until the rulers of the West imposed religious toleration upon their subjects, over the strenuous objections of churches everywhere. Even then, religious intolerance persisted in many of New England’s colonial settlements, where, as the Chinese might say, the king was far across the sea. I cannot call this “healthy.”


Roger Scruton, as I say, is not a historian, or even the follower of historians. This is clear at the beginning of his chapter on “Enlightenment.” He points out in the first paragraph that Kant defined the term in 1784; as in most cases, the movement was given its name as and when it came to an end. This means that most “thinkers of the Enlightenment” were unaware of being any such thing. To be sure, they were aware of advancing new and contrarian positions, often at personal risk. They were conscious of membership in something called “the Republic of Letters.” They knew that an old order was in a critical state of decay, and they called this order “feudal.” The United States, also defined at the end of the “Enlightenment,” was the European West’s first experiment in post-feudal possibilities. But you will have to look very hard and long through the writings of “Enlightenment thinkers” to find anyone who seriously advocated universal, or even majority, suffrage. Upon examination, most of these figures turn out to be no less élitist than the aristocrats whose secular (as distinct from social) power was slipping away.

When Scruton looks back upon the Enlightenment, he is mindful of the consequences of the movement’s philosophy. He knows what happened after 1789, which he regards, as so many people smart enough to know better do, as a culmination of the Enlightenment. Here he would agree with Marx: the bourgeoisie overcame the aristocrats so that a new order could prevail. Again, a very retrospective take on history. The bourgeoisie did not in fact overcome the aristocrats. It had no idea of doing any such thing. Instead, it watched, appalled, as the aristocratic props of the civil order collapsed faster and more violently than anyone had imagined. They collapsed in yet another peasant uprising, only this uprising was the one that could not be put down by royal authority. Royal authority collapsed with the aristocratic power. The habit of spending money that wasn’t there was brought to its inevitable end: just as we can thank the Bourbons for supporting the American cause, so French republicans must thank Americans for providing the occasion on which the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself. It will not, I hope, be argued that the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself to make it possible for the Enlightenment to prevail.

The Enlightenment, as it was lived, was a response to a problem that began no later than at the end of the Fourteenth Century, when the Last Crusade’s cavalry was mowed down by Turkish artillery, at the Battle of Nicopolis, in 1396. From this moment, the aristocracy made no functional — military — sense. More than a few aristocrats would dismount from their horses and direct their troops from the rear, as generals, but most of the actual fighting would be done by career soldiers, ordinary men who knew how to fight on their feet. For four hundred years, European monarchs (Britain aside) struggled with the increasing uselessness of the aristocratic order in which their thrones were inextricably bedded. Four hundred years! The Enlightenment was an aspect of the final stages of this struggle. Its success derived from its statement of the obvious.

What is too often overlooked is the very great feudatory role played by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops and abbots enjoyed extensive aristocratic powers. What’s more, unlike the secular aristocracy, churchmen acted in concert. Literally owning the schools, the French episcopacy was able to shut down higher education for nearly a century. It is no wonder that public intellectuals like Voltaire would attack the Church, not because it espoused what Voltaire chose to call “superstition,” but because its feudal powers, its secular force, gave these superstitions muscle. In short, the thinkers of the Enlightenment objected to religion because religious authorities interfered in affairs that ought to have been none of their business.

“History” that explains events in terms of their outcomes is not history. It is retrospection, looking back in hindsight, and a childish waste of time.


Friday 13th

It is something like a fever — a fever that I’ve read about, but never actually suffered. (Literature can be thicker than life chez moi.) When it rages, I read thirstily from three vaguely-related books: Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx, Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace, and T G Otte’s July Crisis. These are all more or less about the fall of the old régimes that survived the ancien régime after 1789. They tell the end of the story that began in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society.

When the fever subsides, I have nothing to read. Without the fever, I cannot bear Marx’s obsessions or the soul of Russia or anything to do with Serbia. It’s all just narcissism really. I shuffle through the book pile. The Idiot. I’m halfway through that. Prince Myshkin arouses my sympathies, but everyone else seems ill-mannered. Which reminds me. I was reading about someplace the other day, and it was pointed out that, wherever it was, formality and deference did not characterize social life. The comment suggested that, where you find formality, you will find deference, that there is something hierarchical about good manners. (Good manners and formality are hardly synonymous, but in this case that is what I took “formality” to mean.) I disagree! Good manners have one objective only: to make other people comfortable. To be easygoing, but not sloppy. To take an interest, but without prying. To listen sincerely. That has always been the hardest thing for me. I tried to be a good listener last night. I was talking with someone at a party. He could have been Alan Alda’s brother, and, in addition to this resemblance, he told me that he was a commercial real estate broker specializing in Queens properties. That’s another story. We were standing near the window, and he said what a fine day it had been. Yesterday, he went on, he had to go to a funeral in Newark, and it was nice there, too.

I let a few beats go by. I had to flush an instant response out of my mind: I don’t know anybody, so I never go to funerals. It is true that I have been to very few funerals in my life. Again, another story. When my mind was clear, I asked, “Was it a friend?”

“It was my aunt,” he replied brightly, “and she was 108 years old.” He spoke the number in a jocular manner, “one oh eight,” something like that, so that I was briefly confused. It was a great relief to everyone, he said. The aunt had been in a nursing home for three years, but she had all her marbles — a phrase that is never used except in connection with the lucidity of the very old. His own mother, my interlocutor continued, had suffered some kind of dementia. She would tell a story and then tell it again five minutes later. He mentioned a story about turnips. His mother would tell her story about turnips. Then (he said) the family would sit down to dinner and someone would say, “There are no turnips.” This would prompt his mother to tell her turnip story again. I was wondering if “turnips” actually happened or if “turnips” were something that he had snatched out of the air in order to make his point. Still slightly confused, I found it very easy to remark that I already repeat myself (implying that I was not very old nor yet demented). My companion by the window nodded. “It does get hard to remember things,” he said, with a rueful laugh. “Oh, that’s just a part of it,” I said. “I like my stories. I’m always in the mood to tell my stories.” He laughed more ruefully. I really wanted to ask him what he thought of the film, A Most Violent Year, which, in my mind, I could imagine him in. But the conversation turned to NPR podcasts. He said that he was a big fan. TED talks. Terry Gross. “Oh yes,” I said, non-committally. I mentioned that I used to listen to NPR all the time, but then “the towers fell,” meaning the World Trade Center towers, atop one of which rose a gigantic broadcasting antenna, “and we lost reception for a while.” I got out of the habit of listening to the radio. Actually, I got out of the habit of listening to the radio because I began writing on my Web sites. You cannot write and listen to talk radio at the same time.

At this point, a very old friend whom I hadn’t seen in some time walked up, and I spent the rest of the time at the cocktail party talking to her. Later, after dinner with Kathleen, I found myself in the subsidence phase of my fever. I thought about what to read. There emerged the desire to read a story about someone in New York, not now but a while ago. I thought of Dawn Powell, whom I haven’t read in a while. Then the desire took a sudden lurch, and I set out to find the book with Maeve Brennan’s “Herbert’s Retreat” stories. (I don’t want to spend the rest of the morning perusing old entries, but I did find this in the archive.) I read “The Anachronism” aloud to Kathleen.

“The Anachronism” is a strange construction, probably because the central figure, aside from being an awful person, is slightly difficult to bring into focus. Liza Frye is a thirty-nine year-old married woman, two years older than her husband. The Fryes have been married for seven years. Before that, Liza was “sick with lack of money.” The things that money can buy did not really interest her; it was “position” that she longed for. Having married Tom Frye, she insisted that they move to Herbert’s Retreat, because she had been there once, and all the established women had looked down on her (she felt). By the time the story gets going, Liza is consumed by status anxiety. Everything that her neighbors say or do is a potential slight. This dreadful immaturity is at odds with her age, and I kept slipping into seeing Liza as a young, inexperienced woman. In fact, she is not young, and she is beyond the reach of experience. Oh, and she has her mother living with her.

Liza and Mrs Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together — Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance.

Then there’s Tom. We’re told early that Tom’s “real life was spent away from home anyway.” But this doesn’t mean what you think. He doesn’t have a great job; he doesn’t have a mistress; he doesn’t even have an eccentric hobby. Tom’s “real life” consists of spending the day at a snooty Fifth Avenue club to which he has belonged since he was twenty-one. His father belonged to the club before him. His grandfather, however, the man who made all the money, did not belong. Every morning, Tom sits in the chair by a window that was formerly occupied by the club member who personally saw to it that Tom’s grandfather was not admitted. Tom reads the papers. Every day, Tom has a two hour lunch by himself. Then he goes back to the chair and looks out the window. At five, he calls for his car and drives home to Liza. Brennan’s point seems to be that there are people whose lives are so dull that they are not worth writing about. Nor does Brennan bother to fold Tom into the story. He disappears after the description of his day at the club, only to be summoned to fetch a housemaid, whom Liza has imported from England, when her liner comes in.

This housemaid, Betty Trim, is supposed to be “the anachronism” — the very incarnation of old world deference. She has been spotted, working in a London hotel, by one of Liza’s neighbors, who then writes her up for the Herbert’s Retreat newsletter. Liza decides that she must have this maid in her otherwise all-modern house. The negotiations between Liza and Betty, concerning salary, length-of-contract, transatlantic passage, bonuses and so on, amount to a pile of “top this!” gestures. They reminded me of something else by Maeve Brennan, a spoof so stupendously funny that I can’t believe I didn’t quote it here last year. (I did summarize it.)

William Maxwell, Brennan’s editor, received a letter from a reader who wanted to know if any more Herbert’s Retreat stories would be appearing in The New Yorker. Brennan got hold of the letter, and Maxwell’s brief reply (“we hope to have something by Maeve Brennan in a forthcoming issue”); she added the following:

I am terribly sorry to have to be the first to tell you that our poor Miss Brennan died. We have her head here in the office, at the top of the stairs, where she was always to be found, smiling right and left and drinking water out of her own little paper cup. She shot herself in the back with the aid of a small handmirror at the foot of the main altar in St Patrick’s Cathedral one Shrove Tuesday. Frank O’Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving a penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out and saw our poor late author stretched out flat and he picked her up and slipped her in the poor box. She was very small. He said she went in easy. Imagine the feelings of the young curate who unlocked the box that same evening and found the deceased curled up in what appeared to be and later turned out truly to be her final slumber. It took six strong parish priests to get her out of the box and then they called us and we all went and got her and carried her back here on the door of her office.

There is a distinctly pickled fragrance to this flow of blarney. (“He said she went in easy.”) But there is a brilliance to its twists. Imagine the feelings of the poor reader who received this letter — which is all that can be done because the reader never received it. This was an “internal use only” document, a highly compressed satire of The New Yorker itself, where heads are mounted at the top of the stairs and writers spend the afternoons impersonating priests. (Well, the implication is, they might as well.) Imagine, too, the response of Maxwell’s and any other editorial eye to the egregious afterthought of “the door of her office.” (Did they take it with them when the priests called? Of course not. Brennan hadn’t thought of it yet.)

Anyway, in the story, Betty Trim and Mrs Conroy come to an understanding. Here’s the story’s end:

In the living room, sitting in sepulchral silence, Tom and Liza were first startled, then appalled, by the sudden screeches of laughter that came at them from the kitchen — screeches of laughter that was rude and unrestrained, and that renewed itself even as it struck and shattered against the walls of the kitchen.

Considered alongside the run of New Yorker stories, this and the other Herbert’s Retreat stories have a recklessly intentional gimcrack quality; there is an inconsequence, a one-thing-not-leading-to-another that I associate with inscrutable old myths. What holds “The Anachronism” together isn’t subtle. It’s the brutal fascination of dreadful Liza. What keeps you reading is the promise of an adroitly-placed banana peel.


Our gas crisis got written up in the Times, where the story differs from what we were told. (I didn’t know that our hot-water heater was gas-fired, and that we have Con Ed to thank, seriously, for relenting about that.) I can’t say that I did much cooking this week. I still haven’t used the electric oven — about an inch higher inside than the largest toaster ovens; big enough for roasting a medium-sized piece of meat — for anything but toasting. On Tuesday night, we had a chef’s salad for dinner, and then we went out the next two nights. Tonight, I am going to warm up a quiche. I should like to make a crumb cake. But I’m recovering from Wednesday’s burst of energy.

I went to the storage unit on Wednesday and bought fifteen book boxes in the lobby. Also, a tape gun. I went upstairs to the storage unit but had to go back downstairs to learn how to use the tape gun. The agent at the desk did not find this odd, and she even complimented me for not having gone through a lot of tape trying to figure it out myself. Back upstairs, I taped the bottom of a box. The first book to go in was an extravagantly large folio called The English Florilegium. I expect I bought it cheap at the Strand. It’s a lovely book, but somebody else will appreciate it more. My host last night reminded me of something that I’d completely forgotten, and still don’t remember, doing. At a Christmas party some years back, I piled up books under the tree and instructed guests to take them home. My host had taken the catalogue to the Artemesia Gentileschi show at the Museum. I do remember buying that big book, and the buyer’s remorse that ensued. Tiepolo and Canaletto aside, I am not keen enough on Italian painting to collect catalogues. (Oh, and Veronese.)

Finding a second book to put in the giveaway box was harder. I had made two piles on a shelf, one of keepers and one of discards. But they both had keeper books in them. Didn’t they? As my eyes narrowed, it became clear that there were discards in one of the piles, and then I sort of snapped into realizing that all of the books in that pile were discards. When I filled the first box, I taped a second box. I did not tape the first box shut. Nor, when I finished filling it, the second.

I know that there is a book in the second box that I may retrieve. It is called Darlinghissima, and it contains the correspondence between Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray. This is another book that I bought cheap at the Strand. When I bought it, I knew who Jannet Flanner was (of course), but nothing about the other woman. Only yesterday, a day after putting Darlinghissima in a giveaway box, I came across a very rosy mention of Murray in Sybille Bedford’s late memoir, Quicksands — which I find myself calling Graveyards, why? I adore correspondences, with the letters of both writers appearing in the same book; and Flanner and Murray must have known a lot of people about whom I know a thing or two, and they might teach me a third.

Nevertheless, the giveaway is underway. When I have packed all fifteen boxes, I’ll summon the handy service that already carried off the plus-sized items that were cluttering up the unit. I’ll have to call them, because fifteen boxes of books will be very much in the way.

I wrote a note to Ray Soleil, to tell him that I had finally gotten started with the boxes, and that I hoped to be out of the unit by the end of the year. He had the cheek to urge me to finish by the fall, “before the weather turns.” Easy for him to say.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Robert the Wet
May 2016 (I)

2, 3. 5, 6 May

Monday 2nd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A page or two earlier, Vendler ascribes to Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Thursday 5th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving it all away yet again.

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

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

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


Friday 6th

Yesterday’s entry was not one of the best; I wasn’t feeling altogether well. “What is to be thought?” I wrote, intending to bring Lenin (and Chernyshevsky) to mind. They wrote, What Is To Be Done? Well, aside from voting, there is not much for the citizen of today’s representative democracies to do; in fact, one factor contributing to the avalanche of support for Donald Trump is the monopolization of political activity by professional officials.

In today’s Times, I read a much better-expressed version of my own thoughts, in Paul Krugman’s column. In “Truth and Trumpism,” Krugman ticks off a few of the regrettable perspectives that journalism is likely to propose in the coming weeks. Indeed, I mentioned one of them yesterday, the Times article that sketched Trump’s first hundred days. In today’s paper, there’s a piece about the security briefing that Trump may receive now that he is alone on the field of Republican candidacy. There is no need for any of this now. Additionally, Krugman warns us against “centrification” and “false equivalence.” These are both symptoms of a decayed understanding of enlightened fair play. Both will tend to minimize Trump’s distance from the political center, by making him (and his supporters) look less radical than he is and more like Hillary Clinton. I do not mean by what follows to compare Trump and Hitler except in this regard, that both emerged from outside traditional political contexts; that was Hitler’s initial appeal and it is also Trump’s. We must fight the tendency to regard Trump as an insider simply because he has gotten this far in the process. He is bringing the outside in with him, instead of adapting to the inside.

In the course of this discussion, Krugman showed me something that we, you and I, can do during this election season. We can remind everyone we know of this:

Finally, I can almost guarantee that we’ll see attempts to sanitize the positions and motives of Trump supporters, to downplay the racism that is at the heart of the movement and pretend that what voters really care about are the priorities of D.C. insiders — a process I think of as “centrification.”

That is, after all, what happened after the rise of the Tea Party. I’ve seen claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by Wall Street bailouts, or even that the movement was largely about fiscal responsibility, driven by voters upset about budget deficits.

In fact, there was never a hint that any of these things mattered; if you followed the actual progress of the movement, it was always about white voters angry at the thought that their taxes might be used to help Those People, whether via mortgage relief for distressed minority homeowners or health care for low-income families.

Now I’m seeing suggestions that Trumpism is driven by concerns about political gridlock. No, it isn’t. It isn’t even mainly about “economic anxiety.”

Trump support in the primaries was strongly correlated with racial resentment: We’re looking at a movement of white men angry that they no longer dominate American society the way they used to. And to pretend otherwise is to give both the movement and the man who leads it a free pass.

Donald Trump seems to be silent on the subject of black Americans, but this can be seen as a way of giving his supporters a free hand to fill in the blanks. What we can do is argue that the omission of blacks from Trumpaganda is disingenuous. It’s all right, for some reason, to denigrate Latinos and Asians in the United States, but, after the Sixties, blacks must be treated with honor and respect. This party line has done no one any good, neither blacks, who have not benefited in any more material way from the lip service — indeed, it has tended to make them look unworthy, when in fact they’re only human — nor the vast bloc of Americans who, too young to remember the civil rights struggle itself, simply don’t see a problem. It seems a tall order to ask black leaders to draw the truth from the Trumpistas, but someone will have to make the angry white men acknowledge that their loathing is not limited to Latinos or Asians — no, indeed. The only people who have been served by false piety about black Americans are those who have quietly stoked racist bigotry.

In an adjacent Op-Ed piece, “A White Church No More,” evangelist Russell Moore writes, “This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” One thing that we can do is to man those searchlights and turn up the wattage.


Friday is supposed to be the day for lighthearted entries, but I’m not really in the mood. Some knucklehead knicked the wrong pipe during the renovation of an apartment on the other side of the building, and as a result they had to turn off all the gas. Translation: the stove in the kitchen is a temporarily non-functioning appliance. Happily, I am not unprepared. Last year, poor Fossil Darling went without gas in his apartment for several months, because it took that long to locate a leak that a Con Ed worker investigator discovered in the wake of the dragnet that followed that big explosion on the Lower East Side. I was certain that a similar leak would be found in this badly-ageing pile, so, after a spell of freaking out, I bought three electric appliances: a hotplate, an electric water kettle, and a large rectangular frypan thing. I took everything out of the boxes, to save room, and stowed the three items in the cupboard over the refrigerator. If know anything about kitchens, you know that the cupboard over the refrigerator, being high, hard-to-reach, and small, is just about useless, but it was a dandy place for my new, unnecessary equipment. And there it was when I needed it. I had to lug all the cookbooks off the top of the fridge to get to them, but I did not have to use a ladder. The kettle and the hotplate have already shown themselves to be in working order.

I boiled water in the kettle just to make sure that it worked. I used the hotplate to finish boiling some eggs. I was going to make a Thousand Island dressing yesterday, so I had to boil at least one egg; I boiled three. I was fiddling around in that part of the apartment — reorganizing drawers in the pyramid, if you must know — and not paying much attention to the boiling eggs. Suddenly, though, I noticed that they were not boiling. The timer was still running. I thought at first that water might have splashed out of the pan and put out the fire. Odd, but possible. Not so, though. None of the burners lighted.

Someone in the management office told Kathleen that “they’re working on it, but they don’t tell us anything.” So I am looking into ovens. (Don’t call me Hansel.) I have never been a toaster-oven person. My mother adored hers, but it was the rattiest, dirtiest thing, out of place in our spic ‘n’ span home. I suppose that it didn’t bother her because the mess was confined to the inside of a small metal box. “Small” is another part of the problem. I bought a very large electric oven through the late, lamented Chef’s Catalog, but it still wasn’t really large enough, and although the copy explained that it was a “professional” unit, and that “professional” meant, “no insulation,” I didn’t take that very seriously. The thing turned out to be horribly dangerous to use; I was always risking serious burns. Nor did mounting it on an eye-level shelf help. I left it in the old apartment. I have a chicken in the refrigerator, prepped for roasting. It occurred to me about twenty minutes ago that I can brown and braise it in the frypan thingy. I will miss making pizzas.

Also, did I say that there is no hot water this morning, either.


In April, I started a new notebook: the triumph of optimism over experience. It was part of the series of Field Notes “memo books” devoted to great American crops. Cotton, in this case. I kept it on the Pembroke table next to my reading chair, along with a pen. The idea was that I would make notes of things that occurred to me during my evening reads, and also in conversation with Kathleen. I was tired of running into the bookroom to look things up, something that I never do on the smartphone — I. Just. Won’t. I do use Evernote on the phone, but it’s still easier to write things down, illegibly and incompletely, than it is to type on a tyny keyboard.

So I made notes, and even remembered to look things up in the morning. I discovered that the former Camilla Shand is an “HRH.” I discovered the meaning (and pronunciation) of “seneschal.” (You’d think I’d have done the latter long ago — and perhaps the problem is that I did, long ago.) The first note is dated 3/15-16. Sporadic notes follow, until 4/8/16. (“Memling — Memel?” I haven’t checked that one yet. Kathleen adores Memling, thanks to that show at the Frick a while back.) Then the inevitable happened: the notebook, cotton white thought it was, became part of the furniture.

It was rescued from this moribund state last Monday. I was reading A Fairly Good Time. I flagged a passage with a Post-it, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out why. So I made an accompanying note.

Rigobert: Gallant 96. AFGT — Rodibert — my feelings about Robert. A Friday thing.

On page 96 of the NYRB reprint of A Fairly Good Time, you will find Shirley on a “gray street.”

She saluted the marble bust of an entirely forgotten figure of the Third Republic. She and Philippe had given a name — Rigobert Arcadius — and acknowledged him their private high priest.

Rigobert is one of those Frankish names that has not come down to us in shorter form. (Rigbert?) Rodibert is one that has. That’s why you don’t see “Rodibert” very much; it is presented in its modern form, “Robert.” I don’t know where or how long ago I first came across the full spelling, but I can’t say that I’d have preferred it. (I’m overlooking its persistence in Spanish, because that’s not how I found it.) In any case, “Rigobert” started me thinking about “Robert,” and how much I hate it.

A Friday thing? Well, the hot water has come back on, so my mood has improved. I always knew that there was something fishy about “Robert,” because my parents so insistently called me “Rob.” The name was, my father later insisted, not their choice; I came from the Foundling Hospital with it. They added “John,” after my uncle, but it never occurred to them to call me “Robert John.” That started at Notre Dame, where a group of us, probably having read too much Dostoevsky, decided that there were too many Michaels and Johns, as indeed there were. Of course there were too many Bobs, too, so I became Robert John. I had never been a Bob. I don’t know how anybody stands it. I have met Robert Shiller, and he is a man of such quiet probity that you have to assume that he lacks the vanity to consider his own name. Of course, he may have been called “Bob” by the people who loved him when he was growing up; I suppose that might do it. Otherwise, I can see no difference between “Bob” and “Drip” or “Ooze.” It is a label of insignificance.

It was lucky that I went straight from Notre Dame to Houston, because they have a thing for double names in the South as well. Long before I left my Lone Star exile, however, I had shorted things to “RJ,” and that’s who I remain. I briefly toyed with changing it to “Archie,” because you wouldn’t believe how many secretaries and receptionists wrote that down on “While You Were Out” slips. Archie is not a very classy name, it’s true — that’s why they changed it to “Cary” — but it is also just too boyish for me. Besides, when I was young, I had the same red hair as the comic-book Romeo, and although I am a terrible flirt, my seductions are conducted along less naïve, fresh-faced lines.

Dynasty — I almost forgot. For ten years or more, I was JR to everyone who didn’t know me.

I hate “Robert” mostly because of “Bob,” but the name by itself is still pretty wet. No pope, tsar or Chinese emperor has ever been called “Robert.” There was a rash of Roberts between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. The first King Robert of France was a usurper who was booted out within the year. The second and last royal Robert got himself excommunicated. To make amends he became “Robert the Pious.” Both of these men were descended from Robert the Strong, one of Charlemagne’s leading lieutenants. He came from the Rhineland, as did Charlemagne, who moved him around until he settled in Anjou. I’d like to know more about Robert the Strong, because he is an eminent example of the kind of local bigwig who punched through the mists of time and landed in history proper. But even Robert the Strong does not inspire me to like my name. Robert the Devil, by the way, was a forebear of the Conqueror. There’s an opera about him, but it’s never put on anymore. That’s how it’s getting to be with the name “Robert.”

I also thought (much earlier) about spelling it backward: amazingly, this works. “Trebor.” I can only imagine how different my life would have been as “Trevor.” Possibly, it wouldn’t have been different at all: I’m pretty Trevor-ish as it is, don’t you think? Or do you think I should be more like Bob Shiller?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (IV)

25, 26, 28, 29 April

Monday 25th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 26th

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

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

The nanny was English.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And who doesn’t have enough staff?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 28th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Friday 29th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!