Gotham Diary:
‘n’
October 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 19 October

Tuesday 17th

Kathleen insisted that the movie wouldn’t disturb her. She didn’t want to watch it, but given her powers of concentration, she could ignore it. She could get on with her computer searches, and perhaps even take a nap. In the event, however, she crept out of the room about halfway through and stretched out in the living room. The movie was simply too loud, she said — not complaining. You will think me barbaric, not having turned the sound down a bit, but in fact the movie was too loud because the dialogue was inaudible at normal levels. This was not the problem that it might have been with a domestic film, because I was entirely dependent on the subtitles to understand what people were saying. But I did want to hear the sound of voices. So I’d turn up the sound a bit, and then, bam, there would come another outburst of rock ‘n’ roll. I knew that these music bits never lasted very long, but the contrast between whispered conversation and Bacchanalian revel was too much for Kathleen.

What kind of a movie is quiet, except for sporadic explosions from a noisy rock band? Well, one kind would be the movie that’s about the lives of young literary lions in Norway. I had been reading about this way of life in Volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, and when I was through with the book I remembered that there is a movie about it, Joachim Trier’s Reprise (2006). I was very taken with it when it came out, and I bought a copy on DVD. Now I itched to see it again.

Where Knausgaard’s book is about a writer living on the margins of a literary herd in Bergen, Reprise concerns two writers at the heart of a small club of still-boyish men in Oslo. Phillip and Erik have known one another forever. Phillip has been published. Then he has suffered a psychotic episode. At the beginning — more or less; there is a great deal of time-frame flipping in the early scenes of Reprise, so much so that the movie threatens to be difficult to follow — Phillip is being fetched by his friends from a hospital in the countryside and returned to his flat in the town. One big question is whether he will get back together with his old girlfriend, Kari, whom everybody seems to blame for Phillip’s breakdown. The other big question is whether Erik will publish his first book, Prosopopeia.

Now, I wonder: in today’s America, could even a writer as exalted as Philip Roth publish a book with that title? Even if you know what it means, you wouldn’t want to be telling friends that that’s what you’re reading. In a sly way, prosopopeia could be said to be what every fiction writer does: speaking in another’s voice. This may or may not be a little joke intended by Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt. A larger joke, also possibly unintentional, is that literary Norwegians might tolerate such pomposity because they’re still amazed that there is such a thing as literary Norway. I remember watching Reprise for the first time, and sensing in its unscratched sheen of prosperity the breeze of North Sea oil, which transformed one of the poorest countries in Western Europe — and one of the most recently independent — into a fairly cosmopolitan society. With a population smaller than that of Greater New York, Norway boasts a literary culture that supports the publication of novels in a language that relatively few people can read — and not just bodice-ripping romances or fantasy witch-fests, but novels with titles like Prosopopeia. Or, in the case of Knausgaard, Min Kamp, a jokey reference to Hitler’s screed, Mein Kampf.

And yet, to a man, these blithe spirits are aficianados of progressive rock. Even when they’re barely competent, like Knausgaard himself as a drummer (“I managed to produce a variety of beats for a variety of songs” — how I howled with laughter when I read that!), they all seem to play in bands. In Reprise, they sing along rowdily, as if they wouldn’t know a thesaurus from a slide rule. The music is always very loud and upbeat, and yet the lyrics are anthems of despair — well, of lost or unrequited love, anyway. It is not subtle stuff. Even the women join in from time to time: Tonje, Karl Ove’s first wife, is also a drummer.

This commerce between high writing and low music is not uniquely Norwegian, of course — Jonathan Franzen has rhapsodized the joys of knowing about bands whom no one else has heard of — but Knausgaard has done a great deal, intentionally or not, to suggest its unhealthiness, especially for a writer who seems to have nothing to say. Noise is not good for the sensitive mind. At the very best, it is a brutal, addictive anaesthesia.

***

Not that I think for a second that rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block, which stretches throughout most of the thirteen years covered in Some Rain Must Fall. The cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block is obviously youth. At the start, he is only nineteen. What does someone who is nineteen years old have to write about? Hopefully, nothing. But if there is some interesting trauma, it will probably exceed a young person’s powers of perspective and description. Setting poetry aside, writing requires both experience and distance, and it also requires, I have found, the experience of a lot of writing. I lingered over a moment, late in the book, in which Knausgaard hit on the nature of the problem and the appropriate solution, as I remembered doing many years ago:

After a few days in the house I realized that I could forget about writing. I tried, but to no avail, what could I write about? Who did I think I was, believing I could create something that would interest anyone apart from my mother and my girlfriend?

Instead I wrote letters. (553)

Ah, those letters! All that writing! Endless and bad it may have been, but, once I was out of school, it was the only teacher I had. It was also, for me, an effective teacher. I don’t know why this was so, and I feel very lucky to have had it. For what I write has a way of loitering in my mind afterward in a way that brings shortcomings to the fore. Bad sentences nag me. It’s not necessary to go back and correct them, or at least it wasn’t in those early days, when my letters were too voluminous to read once, let alone twice. It was enough that I didn’t repeat my mistakes. Later, writing for the KLEF Program Guide, I had the music to write about. And I had readers, too. The existence of actual readers demanded best behavior: if I was going to say something, it must be something worth reading — thinking about, judging. I had learned from the English teachers at boarding school that I had a gift for saying nothing and saying it very nicely; I had to make sure that I didn’t discredit my columns in the program guide with any of that.

What’s irritating about the literary life described in Some Rain Must Fall is the expectation of prodigies. Publishing a masterpiece at the age of twenty-five isn’t virtuous, but suspicious. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to become a vessel of the Zeitgeist, a temporary medium for the fashions of a moment. Consider poor old J D Salinger, who wasn’t really all that young when his career took off but whose career ended when he was still fairly young. Consider The Great Gatsby, which was the novel of a moment, which it perfectly captured but which was not followed by other equally remarkable moments for Fitzgerald to transcribe.

What were they thinking, when they invited Karl Ove Knausgaard to participate in the Writing Academy at Bergen University when he was only nineteen? The reader notes that, in 1988, the Writing Academy was in its second year of operation; perhaps there was not much collective experience of thinking about these things. It turned out, I think, to have been a terrible step for the writer, confirming his doubts and misgivings while filling him with unnecessary frustration. Where were the mentors? In Reprise, a mentor materializes for a moment. He is the (fictional) writer whom Phillip and Erik most admire: Sten Egil Dahl. A recluse, he tells Erik that television is no place for the discussion of literature, and he also praises parts of Prosopopeia (which has indeed been published). After their encounter, Erik realizes that he must get away. He leaves Oslo for Paris, writes like a monk for a year, and then returns to his friends as a seasoned writer. I am not entirely convinced by this success story: Erik is still very young. But there is no doubt that Dahl’s advice invigorates him. No such figure appears in Knausgaard.

I have thought a lot about the absence of mentors. Like Knausgaard, I wouldn’t be the most amenable beneficiary of good advice. But there are objective explanations as well. Social arrangements have been fluid for too long, and minds that might have provided mentoring in the past have developed in circumstances of confusion. Which way is up? What a mentor must provide above all is assurance about one’s own inner voice, which one not only doubts but which is so easily drowned out in the din of jockeying youth. The very best mentor conveys the patience and conviction required to sit quietly in a room, at least part of the time, listening to that voice. But what have the old men of the past several generations known or wanted to know about youth and their voices? What was the Twentieth Century, if not a parade of bright young cohorts exploiting the latest in popular culture, from jazz to rap, as earplugs against the wisdom of older minds?

***

Wednesday 18th

In the closing pages of A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the author’s mother survives a heart attack that, when it struck her, left her thinking that she had had “a fantastic life.” Hearing this, Karl Ove is astounded.

If I keeled over now, and had a few seconds, perhaps minutes, to think before it was all over I would think the opposite. That I hadn’t accomplished anything. I want to live. But why don’t I live then?

There is His Struggle in a nutshell. Will he work it out? There’s still another volume to get through, written years ago now but coming out in English only next year, and who knows when if I wait for the paperback. The struggle, as I see it, is this: can you live if you are trying to accomplish? I’ve written about this before, always with the French verb achever in mind. It means what you think it means. But make it reflexive, s’achever, and what literally means “to achieve oneself” signifies death. To accomplish your life is to complete it, to end it, as if it were a project. Ever since Plutarch at least, men have been educated to regard life as a block of marble from which to chisel out the statue of a man of notable achievements.

The difficulty for the writer is the immateriality of the achievement. A book is not like a bridge. It is the very opposite: it ceases to exist the moment it is published. Writers complain about this all the time, but I don’t think laymen (or other writers) pay attention. When you finish a writing project — when it is sent out into the world — you’re done with it, it has nothing to offer you anymore. A writer is someone who writes, not who has written. To read something that was done with ten or twenty years ago is to have the odd conviction that it was written by someone else — as indeed it was. The written book is a bubble that pops, leaving its author gasping for a new project and leaving behind nothing else, except of course the money and fame, if any, that never mean anything to a writer. Only writing really matters.

The trick for the writer — and this is what I hope Knausgaard will realize before all that smoking kills him — is to learn how to live alongside the writing, to accept that writing will never lead to real accomplishment. If you are a writer, then writing is how you live. For most writers, this requires some peace and quiet, some distance from the madding crowd. But it does not require monastic withdrawal. Nor more than any other profession, writing is not going to be all there is to life. But it will be a well of misery if the writer hopes to pull up accomplishments.

***

Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to one of several entries that I posted two years ago, after finishing A Man in Love. Scroll down to the final section, the one with the bullet points. What I said then still seems to hold as a description of how Knausgaard creates an architecture capable of infusing his highly vernacular story with literary interest, and also how he makes reading My Struggle so comforting, even during the most harrowing scenes. I must, however, repeat the last line: What will it be like to re-read the damned thing?

***

Reprise, My Struggle, rock ‘n’ roll, casual misogyny — speaking of which, if I may interrupt, I noticed an ad for Emirates, the airline, that featured a young man snoozing in a first-class pod, looking great but unshaven. Well, more than unshaven. That stubble thing. Now, I have a pretty full beard myself, trim I hope but about two inches long at the chin. Stubble is not a beard. It is a signal that always reminds me of Tom Ford’s confession that I cultivated his stubble in order to look his age. Without the stubble, he looked twelve years old. But I see something different. The message is not “I am older than I look,” but “I am not a girl.” And the point is not to clear up confusion. The point is to make a gratuitous statement. It’s rather like that prayer with which some Jewish men are said to start the day, Thank God I am a man, or words to that effect.

Men adrift.

Thursday 19th

On a weekend in 1961, my sister spent her allowance on two 45 RPM records. I was disgusted by her choices, and had to be told to stop saying so. Thus came to an end my belief that being a white man entitled me to tell other people how to live.

I knew that there was pop music, of course. My father listened to it all the time, on WNEW. An announcer called William B Williams had a show, called “The Make-Believe Ballroom.” My problem with this show was that the music he played wasn’t any good for dancing, and by that I mean the kind of dancing that people did at a night club. I had never been to a night club, but I had worked my way through several years of dancing school, fox-trotting and waltzing and cha-cha-ing with girls in party dresses. (We would learn the Twist the following year — a silly dance, I thought, because you couldn’t hold the girl.) William B Williams played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, now recognized as centerpieces of “the American Songbook,” but still, not really dance music. I preferred the bands that my parents had grown up with: Eddie Duchin and Tommy Dorsey. I had unearthed my mother’s 78s in the attic, and, amazingly, they were still playable, although with the undulations of a fun-house ride.

I knew about Elvis, yes. We had done silly imitations of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” in kindergarten. I thought it was revolting. From the very start, I longed to live on a planet where the phenomenon of Elvis Presley was unknown. I am still convinced that it would be a better planet. When I think of the late Duchess of Devonshire’s notorious passion for Elvis — she visited Graceland the way normal people visit Chatsworth — I conclude that Elvis must have served as a sort of plumbing purge, a clearing-out of clogged cloaca. Useful, perhaps, but nether.

But to have my sister bringing such swill into the house! It was as though she had succumbed to a white-slaving Orphic cult. I had always known that she was not artistic, but who but a degenerate could stand to listen to “Tell Laura I Love Her”?

Years later, I would decide that the other song that she bought that weekend, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was really rather sweet, if totally dumb. When I say “rather sweet,” I mean it. Only rather. You could get diabetes from Ray Peterson’s hit. At the time, though, I thought that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” set African culture in a bad light.

***

The next bad reaction was prompted by Bob Dylan. He was as revolting as Elvis, certainly, but mystifying, too, because he was so unmusical. I don’t mean that his voice was ghastly or that his tunes were jejune, although he and they were certainly those, but rather that he was so unpleasant. Rude. Listening to Bob Dylan was like offering a guest a glass of water and being told to piss off. As with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” I could not understand voluntarily subjecting oneself to the experience.

In 1968, I found myself in Houston, and Fossil Darling found himself in Austin. He came down a couple of weekends, but mostly I went up, driving my new Beetle along the endlessness of US 290 with the radio on. I would listen to whatever was playing. Steppenwolf. The Doors. Blood Sweat and Tears. Jose Feliciano. It was part of the penance of being in Texas.

Aside from one-hit-wonder Grace Slick, and the Mamas and the Papas (and, come to think of it, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66), women’s voices were rare in the more sophisticated pop that I was learning to tolerate. Someone had given me an early Joan Baez record, and I kind of liked it, but not much — not as I would love her collaboration with Peter Schickele, Joan. I knew of Judy Collins, too. Everybody knew “Both Sides Now.” But I kept the writer of that song, Joni Mitchell, at a distance. There was something off-limits about Joni Mitchell. It seemed to me that she was writing either for angry women or for men who were up to no good. As a fun person whose depressive tendencies were already well tended by Bach and Wagner, I had no room for Mitchell’s critiques. And, yes, I thought that she sounded shrill at the top of her voice. It would take Kathleen to change my mind. Or, rather, it would take Kathleen to make me a fan. I never disliked Joni Mitchell. She just wasn’t fréquentable.

There is no need to say that I loathed the sound of Janis Joplin, and was relieved when she died, because she was clearly not going to stop screaming otherwise. Soon after that, Ellen Willis announced that rock was dead, which was also a relief, and kind of funny, too, a sort of fuck you to the burgeoning Rolling Stone. What would it have to talk about now?

No, that’s right; almost forgot. I disliked the Rolling Stones, in pretty much the same way that I disliked cauliflower. I always loved the Beatles, but the Beatles had nothing to do with any of this.

***

Well, almost.

Reading the Times today, I felt an oddly coincidental synergy. Here I am, thinking about rock ‘n’ roll much more, this week, than I usually do, wondering why such music would put anyone in the mood for love, when the Times presents me with two pieces, in two different sections of the paper, about the semi-surreptitious homosexuality at the bottom of things! On the one hand, so what? So what if the managers of famous rock bands were gay? That’s the now hand. On the then hand, we have nothing but scandal and professional suicide. Would the Beatles have been welcomed by Ed Sullivan, in their cute suits and mop haircuts, if it had been known to the television audience that manager Brian Epstein was a lonely gay man? Not bloody likely. Might the macho of the Who have been deflated by the widespread outing of manager Kit Lambert? Epstein and Lambert didn’t just book gigs for their bands, they managed them. The musicians knew, but weren’t bothered by it. (I can hear Ray Soleil chirruping, “More for me!”) They welcomed the input. Arguably the evaporation of general hostility to gay men may have begun in the offstage warrens of rock venues. It used to be thought that gay men posed a security risk because of their vulnerability to blackmail. Rock bands appear to have provided a counter-conspiracy, a black hole in which blackmail wouldn’t work. When you recall the homophobia of the time, it seems remarkable.

That’s all in Jim Farber’s Styles Section piece, “The Gay Architects of Classic Rock.” Just to imagine the title appearing in, say, 1968 is stupefying. Joe Coscarelli and Sydney Ember have a somewhat lighter story to tell in the Styles Section. The gay aspect of this story is certainly not news; Jann Wenner came out a long time ago. Nevertheless, his plausibility as the editor of Rolling Stone would have been dented if not totaled by the revelation of his sexual preference when he launched his epochal magazine. The now and then are the same, so far as homosexuality goes. The now part of Jann Wenner’s story is that he’s really beginning to remind me of Donald Trump. He’s feuding, see, with the latest author to attempt a biography, Joe Hagan. Like the president, he wants attention, but only the right kind of attention. Seasoned pros will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the publisher and the chief executive share not sharing this view.

***

At the end of this period of my life — my first youth — my sister more than made up for “Tell Laura I Love Her” by discovering Laura Nyro and introducing me to “Flim-Flam Man.” I was impressed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Rentrée
October 2017 (II)

10, 11 and 12 October

Tuesday 10th

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Ishiguro is one of the most interesting writers of the past several decades, and everything that I’ve read (which is just about everything) has stuck in the mind. What makes the award especially delightful to me, however, will sound somewhat carping: it illustrates a hunch that I have about the Prize, which regards all the writers in the world as eligible, regardless of the language in which they write. Aside from books written in Swedish, the judges at the Swedish Academy necessarily read the finalists in translation, or in what for them is a second language. The entry at Wikipedia quotes Alfred Nobel’s specification: “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Ideal.

It reminds me of a friend’s experience during a year-abroad program in France. His French was really quite good, and I thought that it was a great compliment that natives would say of him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere — ie, you don’t sound like an American. But that’s not what they meant, really. They meant that he didn’t really  have a French accent at all, because a French accent betrays origins in a part of France. My friend came from an uncanny valley that was — nowhere. Another word for his accent: ideal.

A moment’s reflection suggests to me that, when Nobel was endowing his prizes, the idea of an ideal literature was attractive. A universal literature — we would say global. The things about a book that were peculiar to the language in which it was written were like friction in classical physics: negligenda. At best they were unimportant; for the most parts they were faults, the features that make any language incomprehensible to outsiders. The Nobel Prize for Literature stands for the proposition that ideal literature is the most worthwhile literature.

I am not going to dilate on the shift in sophisticated attitudes on this point. They are best summarized by the statement that poetry dies in translation. Either you read Dante in Italian or you settle for a prose rendering. Same for Homer, Racine, or Goethe. I have a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Nederlands. It is extremely faithful to the original, and quite a few passages sound as though someone very drunk were slurring his English. But one of my favorite lines, 95/9 —

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got

— misses, if not by a mile, then by a great many yards:

O welk een woning kregen die ondeugden

First, of course, a woning is just a house. “Mansion” is the most distinctive word in the poem, as certainly befits the beautiful young man whom the poet addresses.

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got,
Which for their habitation chose out thee, [!]

It’s a brilliant, Shakespearean-sexy, image: the grand house occupied by wicked inmates. Second, at the end of the line, the almost guttural outburst, as if of contempt (but also keeping company with vices), is completely missing. I don’t mean to fault the translator, Albert Verwey; he’s done a great job. I keep the little book by my reading chair, alongside the originals in Penguin, for the purpose, all too rarely pursued, of keeping up my Dutch. But while it is conceivable that one or two of Verwey’s lines are better than Shakespeare’s, most of them are simply not the same. They can’t be.

The thing about Kazuo Ishiguro is that he writes his unforgettable books in a toneless, everyday English that has little to lose in translation. Am I saying that he writes poorly? No. The maxim about poetry’s death does not extend to fiction as a rule. Some great novelists are not particularly poetic: it is a matter of style. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy come to mind. Eliot and Hardy create intense moods, certainly, but those moods are shaped by language — masses of it — of a distinctively indicative nature. Trollope has a style that, being more pronounced (even if it is really a rather unstylish style), pales without its native ironies. As for the end of the range furthest from the noble Victorians, I can’t imagine Edward St Aubyn in any language but English, or Alan Hollinghurst, either. But Ishiguro’s fiction is announced not by a highly educated writer but by rather ordinary people. A great deal of his fiction’s power comes from the pity of watching ordinary people endure extraordinary trials — trials so extraordinary, in fact, that the narrators can’t quite fully grasp them.

Indeed, Ishiguro’s literary artistry may consist of nothing more (nothing less!) than a knack for avoiding the trap of first-person narration, into which almost everyone who tries it falls. Sooner or later, the narrator says something that is beyond his or her imaginative reach, and we see the writer’s hand at the puppet-strings. This doesn’t happen in Ishiguro’s work. Ordinary people generally fall into two speaking styles. One is relatively inarticulate. “I don’t know how to put it.” The other is given to something like cant. “We had the most marvelous time!” Both make for unreadable copy. The ability to describe an experience or to recount an episode in a voice that is both interesting and true is very rare. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, and Kathy, in Never Let Me Go, are astonishingly convincing. One is a vain and pompous old man, the other a passionately caring woman. It is tempting to say that they stay out of the way of their stories, but their stories emerge from their ingenuousness — in Stevens’s case, a failed disingenuousness. In Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant, the story emanates from a consciousness that has been damaged somehow.

It’s not irrelevant to remember that Ishiguro is a writer whose first language, like that of Jhumpa Lahiri, is somewhat uncertain. Until he was five, he lived in his native Nagasaki, but then his family moved to England, and his schooling was entirely Anglophone. As Lahiri writes, in her Italian book, In Altre Parole, a language that is spoken only at home and never with other school children is not really “first.” In Ishiguro’s case, there is the further complication of his first career, as a rock musician. It is hard to think of a creative field in which English is more routinely blunted and compromised.

Kazuo Ishiguro, then, is an ideal writer for the Nobel Prize. If that statement smacks of mockery, it is not aimed at the writer. Not only does he deserve the Prize, he saves it.

***

The publication of Autumn, the first book of a new cycle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reminded me to get a copy of Volume 5 of My Struggle, which has been out for a while. Subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, the book is divided into unequal parts. The shorter first part deals with Knausgaard’s undistinguished year at the Writing Academy in Bergen, to which he was admitted at the age of nineteen. (What were they thinking?) Only afterwards, in the fall of his first year of university proper (surely a case of carts before horses), does he wake up to what was he was so hysterically unaware of at the Academy:

There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and that it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. It was also impossible to adapt this urgency to the slowness that reading required. (272)

I have to work this into my writing project somehow: it’s as good a motto as I’ll ever find. Knowing nothing is simply the state of nature at the age of twenty, and the slowness that reading requires only intensifies over time.

***

Wednesday 11th

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s new memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate, I’m finding it hard to think straight. Gopnik and his wife, Martha, arrived in New York at the same time as Kathleen and I, and, what’s more, we lived across the street. Unbeknownst, of course. They got married, at the end of 1980, about ten months before we did. We still live across the street, but they left, for Soho and the Upper West Side, long ago. These little coincidences simply cast the many differences in a stronger light. Adam Gopnik rather quickly found himself and began his remarkable career at The New Yorker. I discovered the nature of my career only the other day, writing to a friend. (I am a Terminologist. A couple of hundred years ago, I’d have called myself a Moralist.) As a thinker, I think it fair to regard Gopnik as a hard-headed realist, nobody’s fool, but I’m feeling an edge of cynicism in the memoir that I’ve never sensed in his writing before.

As I wonder why that might be the case, I mull over the decision, to which I recommitted myself again and again when I was young, to resist the very idea of “going into journalism.” I was certainly afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, but this anxiety had little to do with my abilities. It was more a matter of feeling uncomfortable around journalists. My exposure was brief, an hour or less at the Blair Breeze, my prep school’s newspaper, and more frequent visits to the Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine. For the Scholastic, I wrote a couple of theatre reviews one year, and I visited the office only to drop off my copy. I don’t know what I was doing at the Breeze. In both cases, I thought, I don’t want to be here. I was uncomfortable in the same way that I was uncomfortable in locker rooms. To me, there seems to be something horribly mindless in the hustle of men working together in a crisis (and what is the production of a newspaper or a magazine but a permanent crisis?) — purposeful, yes, but mindless, too, blithely unaware of something. I still don’t think of journalists as writers. Writers are people who spend most of their lives in solitude, writing. Ideally, I think, writers are neither seen nor heard. They’re just read.

Of course, what I do here is a sort of journalism, literally. I reflect daily on the state of things. But my thesis, my political position if you will, is that the state of things is widely misunderstood because people have little or no grasp of how it came to be, or, worse, have a very mistaken idea. Adam Gopnik throws around the term “capitalism” as if it explained the state of things, when what I think he means is “the advertising model of generating revenue.” But there is a little cocktail-party Marxism in there, too, as when he jokes that the point of shop talk is to focus attention on the talk and away from the shop. These observations of mine are a kind of anti-journalism, because they are explicitly historical. It is always history, and never journalism, to urge listeners to rectify the names.

I don’t actually have much to say about the state of things per se. Donald Trump is in the White House, a state of things so awful that to discuss it is to wallow in despair. The story of how he got there, however, is not only amazing but less accidental-seeming the better you know it. Things might have worked out differently, had people — and here I mean, specifically, liberal élites — not been burdened with misconceptions about their fellow Americans. I have seen little evidence of any effort to clear up these misconceptions. For example: Americans who are unhappy about Trump seem to believe that it explains something to point out that he lost the popular vote. But what does it explain beyond the obvious, which is that under our Constitution it is possible to lose the popular vote and win the election? It has happened several times in our history. Get over it! Another example, which I mean to look into one of these days, is élite obliviousness about the problem of “political correctness.”

But I digress.

I’ve always felt foolish about my unwillingness to “go into journalism,” because I don’t know much about it and have no real experience of it. So it’s a relief of sorts (as well as a blow of sorts) to hear what Adam Gopnik, who has had a lot of experience, has to say.

I sensed then an essential truth — or at least as essential as truths can be in the magazine game. Magazines are — or were, when they mattered more — essentially vehicles of fantasy, far more than even the most hardheaded ones can be of fact, or information of any kind. Every magazine in a sense only exists next month. They sell fables of aspiration, and get their power from being quietly attuned to a social class just beneath the social class they seem to represent. Playboys do not read Playboy, and voguish women do not obsess over Vogue, and twelve-year old, not seventeen-year-old, girls read Seventeen. Our magazine [GQ], ostensibly directed to an audience of upwardly mobile young executives, was read by high-school students. But had we addressed them directly we would have failed, as the Playboy of those days would have if it had taken off its smoking jacket and put on the baseball cap its readers actually wore. An elaborate artifice of shared fantasy had to be sustained in order to sell advertising pages, which was, of course, the aim of the enterprise. The final artifice was … next month. Everything we did, we did in order to sustain the illusion of next month’s issue. (104)

(Every magazine? What happens when you feed The New Yorker into this algorithm? Is the magazine really aimed, after all, at the little old lady in Dubuque?)

***

Thursday 12th

The dust jacket of Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York carries an alarming photograph. We see everything but the head of a man in a suit and tie, seated in a Breuer chair. Where his head ought to be — what is it? I thought of Jerry Uelsmann, the virtuoso of photomontage. Was the thing supposed to be a bug? A surrealist cloud? Only when I held the book up to strong light did I grasp that the picture is a wedding photo. If you want to see a companion shot that shows the handsome faces of both bride and groom, it can be seen via Google. Both photos were taken by Gopnik’s brother, Blake. You probably didn’t need me to tell you any of this.

Meanwhile, who knew — everybody but me? — that Jennifer Egan went out with Steve Jobs when she was an undergraduate? That explains a lot, I think, about the “prescient” aspects of Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel, is at the top of the pile; whether I’ll wait to read it until I’ve finished with Knausgaard 5 I don’t know. On the way from England are the new St Aubyn and the new Hollinghurst. I’ve never had such a sense of rentrée.

Knausgaard writes something that helped me to get a little bit closer to why I am really, totally not a novelist.

The clock chimed twelve. Someone was up and in the hallway, a door was opened and closed, the toilet flushed. I liked being in other people’s homes so much, I thought, I always had, although what I saw there could seem unbearable to me, perhaps because I saw things I wasn’t intended to see. The personal life that was peculiar to them. The love, the helplessness that resided in that, which was usually hidden from others’ eyes. Oh, trifles, trivialities, a family’s habits, their exchanged glances. The vulnerability in this was so immense. Not for them, they lived inside it, and then there was no vulnerability, but when it was seen by someone who didn’t belong. When I saw it I felt like an intruder. I had no right to be there. At the same time I was filled with tenderness for them. (325)

I have never much liked being a guest in other people’s houses, no matter how comfortable the arrangements, for precisely this reason. I feel everything that Knausgaard reports, but without the tenderness, which seems to alleviate his sense of being an intruder. I don’t want to know what other people’s families are like. As I used to say, when people would ask me if I intended to explore my birth parentage, “one family was enough.” Also, I don’t want anyone to know how many times in the night I’m trying to open and close doors, flushing toilets. I’m happy to read about these things, and sometimes even curious. But I want it sorted out in prose, knowing that it will all be over before I turn the page.

My problem with Knausgaard is a ridiculous one. I happened to see a YouTube clip of his appearance on Charlie Rose’s show. All the photographs that I had seen of him before that showed a scowling, rather undernourished young man, a punk with a vocabulary. His hairdresser was clearly none other than Mother Nature, on one of her hurricane days. But sitting at Charlie Rose’s circular table, wearing a rather sporty light-colored jacket, about as far from leather as you could get, and possibly even a tie, but certainly a pressed dress shirt, with the hair on his head scrupulously barbered, he looked like my internist’s younger brother, assuming there is such a person. He was polite, slightly impish, and definitely out to please. The terrible thing is, this image comes to mind all the time when I’m reading the novel. It’s not at odds with his persona, really, but it makes him a rather unconvincing fan of the latest rock music. It’s impossible to regard him as the rebel he wants to be.

That is surely the secret of My Struggle. It’s not “my struggle to be a rebel,” but just the opposite: “my struggle to be a loving husband and father, not to mention a serious writer, given all the nonsense that masculinity is saddled with in this generation.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Beautiful Decorative
October 2017 (I)

3, 5 and 6 October

Tuesday 3rd

Two extracts from the same Op-Ed piece, “The Disastrous Decline of the European Center-Left,” by Sheri Berman. Don’t try too hard to make sense of them; merely observe that each refers to liberalism.

These new center-left politicians celebrated the market’s upsides but ignored its downsides. They differed from classical liberals and conservatives by supporting a social safety net to buffer markets’ worst effects, but they didn’t offer a fundamental critique of capitalism or any sense that market forces should be redirected to protect social needs.

***

But the decline of the center-left has larger implications. Most obviously, it has created a space for a populist right whose commitment to liberalism, and even democracy, is questionable.

In the first quote, Berman distinguishes New Labour from “classical liberals and conservatives,” who are grouped together for the purpose of making a point about safety nets, which in Berman’s view, apparently, are contrary to classical liberal policy. In the second quote, Berman regrets the populist right’s lack of a commitment “to liberalism, and even democracy,” the implication being that the commitment to these values of the center-left — this would presumably include New Labour —is robust.

I’m not sure that I would have caught this inconsistency if I hadn’t been struggling to pin liberalism down. Perhaps you don’t see the inconsistency even now that I’ve pointed it out. Perhaps it is not so much an inconsistency as a change in context. In the first quote, Berman is talking about economic liberalism; in the second, political liberalism. Are these two versions of the same thing, or two things, “twin births” as Domenico Losurdo has it (in Liberalism: A Counter-History). Which one is the “real” liberalism? Which kind of liberal are you? Am I?

It’s a serious problem. This persistent ambiguity contributes a great deal of confusion to political discourse, making “liberalism” everything and nothing, whatever an unreflecting speaker takes for granted. Unlike most words that have been misused so extensively that they must simply be avoided by careful writers (fulsome is my best example, as it means quite contradictory things to people who use it without being aware of this), “liberalism” can’t be done without. We need a convention to determine its proper application. Failing that, there’s me.

I had the image of a pair of horses in harness, pulling a carriage. The horses are definitely two different animals, and the smoothness of the ride depends on the health of each. This metaphor would construe political and economic liberalism as associated but different. But because political and economic liberalism came to dominate Anglophone life at the same time (in the Eighteenth Century), it’s easier to think of them as two aspects of the same thing, and I had another image. Political liberalism looks up, wary of the power of capricious monarchs. Political liberalism curtails the power of tyranny from above. Economic liberalism looks down and out, assessing the property that makes the liberal régime prosperous and also the vagrants who, owning no property and having no investment in the commonwealth, threaten tyranny from below. Political liberal concerns itself with constitutions and the rule of law. Economic liberalism protects individual property owners from interference of any kind, even from the well-meaning state. Essential to the liberal DNA is a preference for indirect solutions, for making the most of favorable winds, for counting on enlightened self-interest, for muddling through.

For a long time, liberals looked in both directions. Over time, though, humans invariably specialize, and inevitably liberals who looked mostly in one direction or the other saw different things. By the postwar period, dissonance between political and economic liberals on the subject of social welfare became so grating that the latter began to call themselves “neoliberals”: they sought to restore the outlook of the previous century. Political liberals, moving away from exclusivism, were determined to complete the project of endowing all members of society with equal access to and protection by constitutional law. While economic liberals wanted to continue to exclude (and even to punish) the vagrants, political liberals sought to improve them, out of existence as it were.

More recently, the gulf between liberals and neoliberals has stretched to encompass contrary attitudes toward the environment. Political liberals are aware that economic liberalism, to the extent that it failed to constrain predatory capitalism, has made a mess of the world, and endangered the Earth itself. Neoliberals appear to be in denial. Meanwhile, the fear of tyranny, so reasonable three hundred years ago, his become chimerical. In the absence of dictators on the one hand and hordes of unwashed “human garbage” on the other, the constitution itself has assumed the role of tyrant, or at any rate it has become the big gun that populists and elitists try to aim at one another.

And the meritocrats, brainchildren of the liberals but zombies without political consciousness, continue to pile up wealth in the coffers of the lucky. Nothing succeeds like success.

What does any of this have to do with what just happened in Las Vegas? Perhaps it’s an indication of how deeply-dyed my political liberalism is that I’m not jumping up and down calling for gun control. Do I believe that Americans have a right to possess automatic or semi-automatic weapons? No, I do not. But the weapons are out there, not least because we are a world-leader in arms manufacture. I don’t see in gun control the effective restraint that’s needed, and to me ineffective laws are a matter of great shame. What upsets me about these shootings is their reflection of an entertainment culture (comprising video games) that makes killing look exciting, even to people who have never held a weapon. The intensity of calls for gun control suggests to me a desire to look away from something far more troubling.

Rectify the names!

***

Thursday 5th

Venerable man of letters Robert Gottlieb was found slumming, over the weekend, in the candycane lanes of romance fiction. Why, he didn’t say. His omnibus review of recent titles ended, however, with a lengthy account of Danielle Steel’s The Duchess. I have never read one of these productions, but I’ve noted the dependability with which passages quoted from Steel’s books reveal a dislike of writing, a wilful rejection of all the wonderful things that words can do, matched only by Stephen King. What struck me as new in The Duchess was the ghost of a parody by Robert Benchley that, for sheer awfulness, made me laugh out loud. Note the chill of dreadfulness (or is it camp horror?) when Gottlieb’s prose yields to Steel’s.

It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, “helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.”

Which is worse, “beautiful decorative pieces” or “existing heirlooms”? I have to vote for the latter. A duke with a castle — the Grosvenors really ought to bring a trademark-infringement suit against Steel and her publisher — has a collection of “heirlooms” (shades of Lizzie Eustace), and the best adjective that the author can come up with to describe its appeal is the utterly redundant “existing”? What a failure of the imagination!

But then it occurred to me that Steel’s readers are not looking for imagination. They already have plenty of their own, such as it is. What they’re looking for is armature, support for their own “existing” dreams. They don’t want Steel to call the furnishings that they long for “beautiful” or “decorative” when she can say that they’re both, even though these words are uninformative singly and together. “Pieces” is almost a Mad-Libs blank, only instead of calling for a noun or an adjective it specifies “dream item” beneath the line. Fainting couch? Butter churn? Louis XV lava lamp? Marie-Isabelle will love it!

This isn’t literature; this is sales. It isn’t about the experience of beauty; it’s about the ownership of beautiful decorative pieces. This is the language of QVC.

And The Duchess is probably cheaper than the stuff on TV.

***

On today’s Op-Ed page, Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Santa Barbara, suggested why gun advocates are so much more effective at political discourse than their gun-control opponents. Did you know that there are “more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds”? These are places to which people are drawn by their sense of who they are, not by a desire to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment. They do not come together in order to “take action.” (Not yet, anyway.)

My friends who support the N.R.A. did not join a club because of politics. They joined because they wanted somewhere to shoot their guns.

The problem for gun-control advocates is that what they want to do, or to have done, is entirely negative: they want guns to go away. They have no positive affiliation with each other. They believe that guns have little or no use in civil life. Gun owners, in contrast, are linked by a sense of vulnerability that, however meretricious a product of NRA propaganda, feels real to them, and my suspicion that it is altogether unreasonable to look to semi-automatic weapons for self-protection does not entitle me to disrespect their point of view. Such is my commitment to political liberalism. Also hampering gun-control activism is the liberal distaste for identity politics. Yes, you read that right. Whatever the Democratic Party says, liberals do not engage in identity politics. They promote something altogether different: respect for other people’s sense of identity. The conservative identity politics that makes people bond at the shooting range is, as Han says, “intimately tied to questions of race and identity.” Their own identity.

I do hope that the Route 91 massacre will seriously crimp the argument that guns make people safer. Guns wouldn’t have protected anyone from the attack.

***

Friday 6th

Last night, I downloaded the most recent Inspector Rutledge novel, No Shred of Evidence, onto my Kindle. I discovered Charles Todd’s detective mystery series in the summer of 2014. Proof of Guilt, the fifteenth entry, had just come out in paper, so I decided to give it a try. Completely hooked, I realized that I must read all the books, and in order, something that I appear to have done — if Amazon’s records are reliable — in little more than a month. Torn, after swallowing the fourteenth book, The Confession, about whether to re-read Proof of Guilt, so as to follow the thread faithfully, I set the whole business aside. It wasn’t until last month that I took it up again. Classically, the trigger was a reference to Todd in David Remnick’s long piece about Hillary Clinton. Todd was mentioned, along with Donna Leon and a writer who wasn’t familiar to me, Louise Penny, as Clinton’s favorite sleuthers. I was casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime, and enough time had passed since the 2014 binge for several new titles to accumulate; so, presently, I found myself in the fen country around Ely, with a windmill creaking in impenetrable mist.

This morning, I clicked on a link to a Guardian story about tech innovators who have succumbed to alarming concerns about the noxious effects of the attention economy. Paul Lewis cites an astonishing factoid: “research shows” that “people” “touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” When I read this sort of thing, I feel that I am peering into the future. Where I live, the phone is still, mostly, a phone. But of course where I live is in a seventy year-old body in a very quiet apartment where even the landline seldom rings and the Times is delivered to the front door every morning. Oh, and the television is almost never on — accent on never. The music is usually Schubert or Brahms, but it doesn’t play when I am reading.

In short, I am living in a Charles Todd novel, relatively speaking. The Inspector Rutledge mysteries are set in the wake of World War I. The first one takes place in June, 1919, and the next one in the following month. Then August, September, and so on. The Todds — it is hard for me to speak of “Charles Todd,” because the books are actually written by a man called Charles Todd and his mother, Caroline Todd (I note with relief that they live in different Eastern States) — have now reached the fall of 1920, but nothing has changed since the previous year.

The countryside is unspoiled, and the villages and small towns blend into the landscape. Nice people live in genuinely Georgian or Tudor houses situated on extensive acreage. Telephones and automobiles are rare, and enjoyed only by the very wealthy. Photographs are more common, but hardly the ubiquitous “images” of today. England is a redoubt of respectability, but the stylish sophistication that would climax on the eve of the next war is already in evidence. It is also confined to the élite. Most people are servants or agricultural workers. Education is unusual, and liberal education is the preserve of the gentleman, that apogee of British manhood. Needless to say, Ian Rutledge is a gentleman. If he is not so grand as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Whimsey, he is still too grand to be an inspector at Scotland Yard. He comes from the professional gentry, and would not be out of place at a royal garden party.

Since these are mystery novels — richly-detailed rather than fast-paced — there is always something exciting going on, and Inspector Rutledge is easily as busy as anyone tapping a phone 2,617 times a day. But behind the action there is a quiet world, which I am pretty sure is the basic draw. The only thing that disturbs this world is the weather, which is often pretty bad. Indeed, the Todds take us back to a time when the weather really was the only thing to talk about. What we call distractions were known as attractions in those days; they were much harder to come by.

By the time I encountered the Internet, I was already immunized against media dazzle. I remember being horrified by the political blogs that, around fifteen years ago, were being updated every few minutes. I already understood that there is simply not that much news in the world — not real news. And I regarded advertising with something close to fear and loathing. What horrified me much more than those updates was catching myself smiling at the pretty picture of life presented in commercial announcements. It was also disturbing to note that people who managed to read through television shows always looked up when the ads came on. The advertising model of content packaging — instead of paying for access, you put up with the ads — obviously tended to dumb content down toward the lowest common denominator. Valuable content, regardless of how much advertising it carried, remained tremendously expensive. Subscribing to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of books runs $300 a year or more.

So, while Ian Rutledge leads a life that is rather more advanced that than of most of his countrymen, I lead one that lags behind. Although no cosplay is involved, even I catch the fragrance of nostalgia. When Kathleen gets home from work, the candles in the living room are lighted, and the Times awaits her on her favorite sofa — which belonged to her grandmother. After dinner, we often talk for longer than it took to eat, our companionship at the table undisturbed by devices. Then we read. If the phone rings in the evening, it’s an emergency (usually related to Kathleen’s practice). Every now and then, I take a peek at the Times online at bedtime — for example, to see how the Catalonians are doing — but as a rule, the world could come to an end and we wouldn’t know about it until we read the paper in the morning. It is not paradise, but it is closer to paradise than it is to dystopia.

Paul Lewis’s Guardian story, “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: the Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia” is frightening, to be sure, but I think I have the answer. But first, you have to turn off everything except what you’re reading right now.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
I Forgot Ward’s Island
September 2017 (IV)

26 27 and 28 September

Tuesday 26th

Now that David Brooks has said it, I hope that he’ll stick with it, and hammer at it until a few other columnists pick it up and see that he’s right.

Donald Trump came into a segmenting culture and he is further tearing apart every fissure. He has a nose for every wound in the body politic and day after day he sticks a red-hot poker in one wound or another and rips it open.

Although I’d quibble with a lot of Brooks’s finer points, I believe that I have been trying, for several years, to say what he has expressed in one column. The meritocratic dispensation that has governed the United States for fifty years, guiding people and institutions away from provincial moralism and toward open-minded acceptance of different backgrounds, has discredited itself, because it has also encouraged a startling self-centered economy that rewards unusual talent and punishes the merely ordinary. We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us any of this.

Or maybe we do, since so many Americans are responding to Trump’s eye-poking with indignation and outrage, as if these were still sufficient to stop him. But they have the opposite effect.

He is so destructive because his enemies help him. He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose.

How long will it take intelligent Americans to stop reacting to Trump and to get on with the serious business of designing and implementing a new dispensation? One in which, for starters, nobody mistakes Hillary Clinton for an inspiring political leader, or allows an unseasoned Barack Obama into the White House?

The football imbroglio is far more menacing than most Americans want to imagine, however they feel about “taking a knee,” and I tremble to think how ruinously its undigested contradictions could erupt on an unthinking population. Football is no longer a game that involves big guys and a torpedo-shaped ball, but a cultural phenomenon that engulfs masses of people in a stew of money, racism, and entertainment — and the “money” and “entertainment” parts are just as ugly and rooted in bad faith as the “racism.” Why, one thinks to ask, do games begin with patriotic displays the likes of which are not encountered in other social contexts? The game of football has now been hijacked by the venerable but gratuitous ritual that precedes it. It has always seemed to me that the function of the national-anthem business, whatever its purpose, has been to get fans in the mood for a fight. What else is the point of a cheer, in the absence of real danger?

If I were a poet or a symbolist, I would declare that the phenomenon of American football, at both the collegiate and professional levels, marks the meritocratic dispensation for destruction. As a realist, I simply worry that the mass of fans will sink into an unguided frenzy, a replay of The Bacchantes. While it rages, the president will claim to be surprised and bewildered by the charge that his words set it off. And his disingenuousness will not be altogether baseless. Donald Trump is the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s nakedness. Ever since the beginning of his campaign in 2015, he has been telling us things that are true, even if they are mixed up with lies. Right now, he is telling us that many football fans believe that the players ought to keep their political concerns to themselves. Who can doubt it? And yet who can doubt that many players believe that there is nothing political about the inhuman mistreatment of their brothers and sisters? Football has encompassed a host of inconsistent objectives because it is flush with money and thrills. The last thing it needs is scrupulous examination. I cannot imagine, in fact, that it will survive the generation that is coming of age with images of Aaron Hernandez’s damaged brain. But if football is not quite too big to fail, it is too big to fall apart. The NFL owners are nervously aware that it might.

***

In the current issue of Harper’s, thirteen writers have filed reports on the state of their part of the nation. I’ve read only one, myself: Marilynne Robinson’s, from Iowa. Robinson appears to have an acute understanding of the economic and political issues that divide Iowans, and I think that she would make a very effective adviser for candidates opposing the ideologically-besotted Republicans who have gerrymandered their way into power there. I would have only one word of advice for her: keep it local. I think that her views would be far more digestible and popular if they were not associated with a national organization of liberal bent. If Robinson and her friends established an Iowa Statehouse Party, and concentrated on matters of local governance, while avoiding issues that have little or no direct bearing on local affairs, they might be able to turn out the behemoths. In short, they would campaign for Iowans, not for issues.

***

Wednesday 27th

My theme for today is a conundrum: liberal leadership.

Last week, I postulated that liberalism began as the solution to a prolonged conflict between the kings of England and the leading English noblemen. An institution was required to regulate the royal council, to make it less vulnerable to royal whim. The institution was found in parliament, which, in typical English fashion, had already existed for centuries. There was no need to invent anything. Now parliament was repurposed. It developed an entirely new function: providing a leader. In the new arrangement, the king could consult with anyone in the world, so long as that person was the leader of Parliament (or not inimical to the leader) — who presently came to be called “prime minister.”

At the time of this arrangement, Parliament was still very much the tool of the great men of England. Commercial and urban voices were commanding more respect, but they were easily co-opted, often by marriage. Ordinary Britons were not involved in Parliamentary politics for a good long while. Not until 1867, nearly two hundred years after the liberal solution was inaugurated, did the electoral franchise spread to the broad mass of Englishmen. By 1867, the conflict that inspired liberalism was a ghost, and “liberalism” had moved on to other things, notably to ideas about global free trade. These ideas divided the two large parliamentary parties, but although one was called “liberal” and the other “conservative,” both organizations were liberal in nature. The conservatives, it is true, had sharper notions of ecclesiastical authority, but other kinds of authority were odious to both parties, at least as brought to bear on men of property. Despite a lot of things — imperialism, workhouses, the Irish potato famine — the United Kingdom had a worldwide reputation for being the homeland of liberty, largely because, if you were a gentleman with an income of £200 per annum, nobody could tell you what to do.

Liberals did not command; they persuaded. They believed that coerced support is unreliable — which it is, if the people doing the coercion don’t have their hearts in it. Liberals approached the body politic as if it were a club, dependent on the voluntary cooperation of all its members. Everybody was encouraged to believe that the healthy existence of the body politic was the first concern of the leading men, that high officials would never allow selfish motives to risk harming the political organism. This did not guarantee, however, that politicians would know what to do in the event of accidental emergency. The worst kind of emergency was found to be not war but the upheavals regularly engendered by the vagaries of economic liberalism, which came to be better known as “capitalism.” That is, political liberals turned out not to be the people to turn to for help when economic liberals (“businessmen” and “industrialists”) lost control of their affairs. Whether politicians or executives, liberals were averse to giving orders, to exercising authority. Financial downturns became serious threats to the body politic when the liberal economy employed almost all workers in large, interrelated blocs, adversely affecting all business sectors at once. By comparison, the command economy (socialism) seemed a lot more humane.

In the wake of the disaster that the popular mind dates to 1929, liberals developed a network of safety features that constrained the spread of collateral damage. They were designed, however, to prevent market fluctuations from putting people out of work. They were powerless to prevent the disappearance of jobs for other reasons, of which two very serious ones developed in the Postwar era. Both were inevitable in a liberal climate. Workers in the developed West were replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere and by machines. A third development was more difficult to foresee. Liberals have always been noted for their respect for the kind of education that imparts liberal values along with useful skills. These liberal values, which probably don’t bear close scrutiny, provide a kind of ballast of tradition, however bogus, that steadies the liberal course through the uncertainties of innovation. It is not at all ironic that the government of the most prosperous kingdom in history erected its official, central palace — Westminster — in an antiquated style that was yet not at all Antique but original to Europe itself: the Gothic (initially a term of scorn). This complicated attitude toward the past was swept away, however, by the meritocracy of the Twentieth Century.

It is only lately that I have seen how tightly the growth of liberal democracy and the liberal economy has been intertwined with the idea of automation, of things happening independently of human agency. The industrial technology, which is not just a matter of machines but also of social organization, is impressive enough. Our constitutional devices, with their checks and balances taking the place of human arbiters — “a machine that would go of itself,” ours was called — reflect great psychological ingenuity. But the capstone of liberal thinking has got to be the systematic gestation of an élite class by competitive examination. Such examinations slowly but surely drove out the “liberal values,” and the new élite soon demonstrated an astonishingly single-minded expertise at taking care of itself. The question is whether liberal solutions to this latest setback will be forthcoming.

***

Thursday 28th

Questions: Who is James Ward, and who paid (how much) for that Op-Ed page ad?

It took up more than a quarter of the space in yesterday’s paper. (I can’t find it online.) Boxed in black like a memorial notice, and printed in a font so distant from Times style that there was no real need to post the “Advertisement” disclaimer, the unbroken slab of type, with the name “James Ward” at the bottom, followed by an email address for “jamesoliver037,” promised not to be a crank letter.

Opposition to “Diller’s Island,” [sic] has often been portrayed as the work of a small group of obstructionist eccentrics, scheming behind the scenes…

Then it went on in the usual manner of crank letters. Which isn’t to say that I disagree with James Ward about “Diller’s Island”! What caught my eye was the reference, smack in the middle of the text, that I feel that I’ve been seeing not infrequently of late.

The proposed plans for Diller’s Island would also, apparently, have involved, at least intermittently, loud amplified music, given the developer’s stated intention to provide New Yorkers with a truly “dazzling” experience (in this age of hyperconnectivity, it is really necessary for every experience to be dazzling? [sic]; see Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”)

I had been asking the same question myself, ever since an editorial lamenting the collapse of the project, about two weeks ago, ended as follows:

Maybe Mr. Diller’s decision to pull the plug is reversible. Or maybe another person with deep pockets will put up money for this project or something similar. Private money is not necessarily to be shunned. It’s not as if the city is awash in government funds for new parks or other captivating public spaces.

Unlike Mr Ward, who devotes slightly less than half of his notice to grumbling ruminations on improper collusion between elected officials and private developers, I am not deeply invested in shunning private money. But whether or not the city can afford to create “new parks or other captivating public spaces,” there’s no question that it already has plenty of them. Not that I’m any more comfortable with “captivating” than I am with “dazzling.” Those are words that, at least so far as public spaces go, I associate with theme parks and other bogus attractions. For an honest cheap thrill, crossing the Main Course of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour can’t be beat.

As I recall, the plans for Diller’s Island showed an undulating pancake that appeared to float several storeys above the surface of the Hudson. It was dotted with various landscapes — parklike groves, an amphitheatre? and other play spaces. There was nothing urban about it, and nothing real, either. It brought to mind the projections of the future that were a feature of the 1939 World’s Fair. It looked like something that New Yorkers would expect to find far out of town, somewhere near the Pacific Ocean perhaps. It also looked like something that would draw lots of tourists, as an island of relief from the New York experience. It looked ridiculous. Probably harmless — here again I disagree with Mr Ward — but ridiculous.

What I couldn’t make up my mind about is the Neil Postman name-check. It’s a little off-base. Postman was talking about television, television news in particular, and about the dumbing-down that, in his view (with which I wholeheartedly agree), the television medium itself necessarily imposes on civil discourse. He was not talking about the problem of having fun when you go out to have fun. And yet. Isn’t that precisely the problem with Diller’s Island? There’s an unwonted shift in the meaning of “fun.” Wires seem to me to be crossed if going to a park leads to the experience of being entertained. There is a slippage, a displacement of the self — a dazzlement, perhaps. I go to the park to walk among lawns and trees, with maybe a few flowers. There are other people in the park, but I don’t go there to meet them. We enjoy the park together in silence — not that there’s anything wrong with striking up the odd conversation. Lots of people in Carl Schurz Park sit on benches staring at open books. They’re captivated, if at all, by what they’re reading, not by the public space.

I thought of the High Line. My friend Eric arranged for me to walk the High Line several years ago, and a few weeks ago I returned the favor by introducing him to Carl Schurz Park. It was a sunny, late summer weekend afternoon, and there were lots of people in the park. It wasn’t as crowded as the High Line had been, but then it is only a local park, much used by its neighbors but unknown to most New Yorkers (much less tourists). The High Line is quite something else — I don’t think I need dilate — but what strikes me is that, among its many charming features, Carl Schurz Park boasts a finer example of the only thing that the High Line has going for it, which is a promenade. Now, a promenade is a very good thing, a vital element in urban life that has gotten short shrift in auto-mad America. It is to be hoped that promenades like the High Line will eventually alert the people walking on it that they are not in fact encased in the cabs of SUVs, and that what they are wearing is an aspect of everybody else’s landscape. As promenades go, however, the High Line is either cramped or vacant. I don’t think that it’s ever actually vacant, but when it’s not cramped, and you can take in the fixtures and the plantings, it looks abandoned, which I believe is part of its design.

The promenade at Carl Schurz Park, in contrast, is the grandest passage on the John Finley Walk, an intermittent pathway along the borders of Manhattan Island. A lengthy terrace stretched across the top of a structure through which pass, one atop the other, the downtown and uptown lanes of the East River Drive, the promenade is possibly higher above the East River than Diller’s Island would have been above the Hudson. There is nothing to look at except the river and the sky. There are some buildings, but aside from the towers of Long Island City, off to the southeast, they are not very tall, and the manmade part of the view is dominated by the Queensborough Bridge, or half of it, twenty-five blocks away. If you turn around, you have the Triborough Bridge, Hellgate Bridge, Manhattan State Hospital, and even more river and sky. Everything seems to make the river wider and the sky higher. It is the most spacious Manhattan spot that I know, always exhilarating to step out onto from the arbors of the park.

Every now and then, a tourist boat swans along. If you wave, they wave back. It’s as close as most of them are going to get to where you are, but they probably think you’re a tourist, too.

In the end, James Ward couldn’t resist pulling the kitchen sink right out of the wall, and the stove with it, and hurling them both at Diller’s Island with the T word.

And, speaking more generally, for a city which prides itself on its liberal political heritage, this lock-step lining up of local and state politicians, their developer friends, and Hollywood royalty, together with the concomitant dismissal of legitimate local concerns, reeks more of a totalitarian approach to governing than the bottom-up and democratic process one should ideally look for in a city of our size and stature.

“Bottom up”? As I say, paid for by whom?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Je Promets
September 2017 (III)

19, 20 and 21 September

Tuesday 19th

Rolling Stone has always been something of a tease for me. Handsomely laid out, studded with impressive photographs, it looks like the sort of thing that I’d like to read. But it isn’t. Alive to most forms of music, I am resistant, to put it mildly, to rock. I object to the very idea of “popular culture.” I find denim astonishingly uncomfortable — why do people wear it? (And then, there’s what it looks like. The world is not your living room.) Rolling Stone is not, and never was, for me.

So I almost skipped Sydney Ember’s story in yesterday’s Times. Adorned by a dozen or so of Rolling Stone’s always iconic covers, the article seemed designed for the Styles or Arts sections, but it was in Business. “Rolling Stone, Once a Counterculture Bible, Will Be Put Up for Sale.” It was only when I’d gotten through the whole paper that I went back, micro-provoked by the last part of that headline. Will be put up for sale. I went through the article quite carefully, but the headline told the whole story. There was no mention of counterparties, bidders, failed negotiations, or any other newsworthy elements. The story was a glorified want-ad, published at no cost to the beneficiaries, the magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner, and his son, Gus, who currently runs things.

A few years ago, the story told, an outfit in Singapore called BandLab purchased a 49% interest in Rolling Stone. But BandLab’s role in the present story was that of an inert gas. It had no comment to make on the proposed sale of the Wenners’ remaining interest, not even “no comment.”

If I were a cynic, I’d say that the Wenners have been disappointed in their let-us-say preliminary encounters with bankers, and that a friend at the Times has cast for them a much wider net, one that might capture the attention of an idle billionaire who didn’t know, until he read Ember’s story, that it would be not only cool but possible to own Rolling Stone. But I am not a cynic. I am a critical thinker. It’s quite enough for me to ask questions. In this case: how does this piece meet the newspaper’s editorial standards?

It struck me right away that this questionable story, or perhaps my reaction to it, provides a little case history of critical thinking. In the absence of Critical Thinking for Dummies, how do you learn to think critically? What happens when you do? Any good high school teacher will probably tell you that it involves not taking things at face value, and a degree of low-grade skepticism, calm rather than fanatical, is certainly an essential ingredient in critical thinking. But familiarity with the context — particular knowledge, that is, rather than universal principles — is essential, too. I read the Times every day, and have been doing so for more than forty years. I have a good sense of “how the Times works.” For example, a piece about a new play that appears in the Arts and Leisure section the weekend before the show opens is not a review. It is a puff piece, aiming readers’ attention in the direction of productions that are likely to be successful or controversial or at least “interesting” — unlike, that is, the run of new offerings. Everything in the paper tells me something about the editors who put it there. There is nothing mysterious about this; it simply takes exposure over time to get a feeling for it.

It is not hard to imagine a very different piece about current events at Rolling Stone: two short columns of print, with no accompanying illustration at all, much less all those covers and two large images of Wenner père et fils. This other story would mention the name of a bank or a brokerage that has been retained to represent the magazine’s interests. At least the ghost of a real transaction would flicker between the lines. Such is the story that many years of reading The New York Story has led me to expect. Instead, I see something rather more like a Facebook update announcing that Sydney Ember’s uncle wants to unload his vintage Chris-Craft, a pleasure boat on which he and his friends have enjoyed many good times. (If Ms Ember actually has an uncle who owns a Chris Craft, I apologize.) Had the piece appeared in the Styles or Arts sections, my critical-thinking apparatus would never have been engaged, because in those contexts, the story contains real news. End of an era, and all that. But idle billionaires dismiss Styles and Arts as fit for — never mind.

Critical thinking doesn’t stop at resisting face value. It formulates what experimenters might call a control, an alternative that, all things considered, makes more sense because it conforms to recognized patterns. This alternative is not an abstract construction but the residue of experience, and by “experience” I mean a mode of paying attention, not just sitting through something. The paradox is that critical thinking is ignited without conscious thinking. This is what a good high school teacher might mean when cautioning that critical thinking can’t be taught.

It can only be learned.

***

Wednesday 20th

The week before last, an item in the New York Times Book Review caught me eye. A new novel called The Party, by Elizabeth Day, seemed to be just thing the thing for me to read at bedtime. It was compared to The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, and even to Brideshead Revisited. I downloaded it at once. Hours later, it seemed, I had read it. I had been unable to stop reading it, but rather in the way of not being able to stop eating potato chips. Much, much shorter than the novels by Highsmith and Waugh, it even made Fitzgeralds’ classic feel massively substantial. The reason was that Day delivered everything required by a certain fictional premise, but no more. The Party is a gorgeously garnished skeleton key.

A few days later, I wrestled with the fictional premise. What would be a good title for the archetype? The Clerk and the Prince came to mind and stayed there, even if I’m not happy with it. In this story, which, by the way, must be set in Britain — Gatsby and Ripley are not really prototypes at all — a reasonably attractive boy of unprepossessing background meets a golden boy of rather grand family at school, or later, at Oxford. The two boys become great friends, meaning that the ordinary boy spends all his holidays at his pal’s family’s castle, gradually burying his own origins (for shame!). It goes without saying that his homoerotic attachment to the semi-conscious prince is unrequited, not least because it is unknown.

After coming down (Americans, typically upside-down, call this “graduation”), the boys, now men, have adventures of varying kinds; this is where the author gets to ad lib. But the ending is invariable. The grand friend, sometimes alone and sometimes with the force of his whole family, turns on and rejects the bloke from nowhere, who is revealed as a fraud and a poof, and shamed utterly, unto the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Need I spell out the moral of the story? Don’t be getting above yourself! This is a very satisfying precept for Britons, most of whom have the good sense not to try.

A beautiful example of this story, with many brilliant grace notes, is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I’ve just put down for the second time. The Line of Beauty came out in 2004, but is set twenty years earlier, during the Thatcher era, when greed was good and need was naughted. A further decade later, it seems obvious that the years in which homosexuals demanded recognition and rights also saw a revival of opulence — baroque on ice, as it were. The last opulence died with Edward VII, and was obliterated by the Depression. Postwar modernism kept austerity fashionable for a good thirty years. Then — poof! London and Paris and even bits of New York were re-gilt. Presently, Daphne Guinness emerged on her half-soles.

The essence of the archetype here is longing, and The Line of Beauty is stuffed with it, longing of all kinds. The longings for sex rather sparingly noted; at the beginning, what Nick is really longing for is the end of his virginity. Hollinghurst gives greater space to his hero’s more sociable ambitions. Nick Guest longs to be both Henry James and a Henry James character, the observer who is paradoxically more vital than what he observes. He wants to be acknowledged as that most Icaran of figures, the natural aristocrat, the man of instinctive good taste and fine judgment who requires no pedigree. He longs to know more than he does, to speak better French and to understand finance, for example, and he longs to stop making a fool of himself, as he does repeatedly in a closed world that not only insists on credentials but rather gruffly dismisses Nick’s brand of discernment. Nick also longs to be the middle child of Gerald and Rachel Fedden, a complicated if outwardly harmonious couple. Gerald, who is an MP and devoted fan of the Iron Lady, struck me this time round as an amusingly prophetic edition of Donald Trump, a little nicer perhaps but just as prone to destructive boredom. Rachel is the daughter of a exalted Jewish banking family, in full possession of the inside/outside ironies of ineffable but exotic grandeur. Their actual children are the beautiful but simple Toby — the original object of Nick’s fascination, true to prototype — and the manic Catherine, a painfully clever girl whom Nick is mad to trust. Nick spends four years embedded in the Feddens’ Notting Hill pile, but what he treasures most is the key that admits him to the adjacent Ladbroke Square Gardens. Longing seems to carry betrayal within it; perhaps this is the significance of the perfume that Hollinghurst has invented for his novel: Je promets.

At the end, Nick is consoling himself — such is his abasement — with the expectation that a recent test will show him to be HIV positive. Hollinghurst writes about the plague at the lowest possible pitch, as if to minimize the pain of remembering those days and losses, but in a way that captures the averted glances that became a tic of the times. From almost every vantage, it was rude to acknowledge the presence of AIDS. Many wished to deny it, of course, or to dismiss it as just deserts, but for this very reason those who were not ashamed and who did not regard it as divine retribution also hesitated to speak up, lest mention of the disease further diminish the afflicted. Only those close to death could treat it as an everyday thing, and nothing obliged them to do that.

The Line of Beauty satisfies the demands of the archetype, but then transcends it, enveloping us all in the folds of a universal pathology, the one that draws us to “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding Adieu.” What could be riper than the nostalgia of a twenty-five year-old man!

More anon.

***

Thursday 21st

Ten years or so ago, I became obsessed with the use of a term, élite. It was difficult to say what this term might be describing, beyond a hostile but shadowy gang that monopolized the levers of power. It was impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to this crowd, which seemed more and more to be the invention of openly powerful people who felt thwarted in their designs. Who wanted, in short, more power. The “élite” was a bogeyman that hid behind a screen and countermanded the instructions of potentates. A few things could be said with certainty: the élite was highly educated, and it lived on the East and West Coasts. Universities and film studios were hives of the élite. I wasted a lot of time looking for a synonym — a more informative word that would pin down the identity of “élitists.” Eventually, I came to terms with the idea that the élite was comprised of everybody with discretionary authority, the right (or power) to decide whether or not to do something. Almost everybody who complained about the élite was part of it.

Now I find myself engaged in a similar but brisker struggle with the term “liberal.” I am not trying to understand what “liberal” means, however, but only to keep track of how different people use the term. It has always been a tricky, even unconsciously ironic word. It is supposed to describe those who cherish freedom from tyranny. But the first thing to learn about the meaning at its root is that liberalism is not democratic, and that “liberal democracy” is more than slightly oxymoronic. Unlike “élite,” which dates only to the Postwar era, “liberal” has a history that stretches back more than three hundred years.

Or more: it’s my current hypothesis that liberalism is one final outcome of the most persistent and destabilizing political problem of the Middle Ages, which is to say of the formation of Europe on the periphery of old Rome. I call this the “great men” problem. What was the relation between the monarch and his most powerful subjects? Often — notably in the case of the Norman conquest of England — these great men had helped the king to secure his throne; they weren’t just strong, they were owed. To read the history of France and England during these long, slow centuries is to follow the uneven oscillations not only of power but of the theory of power, between the ruler as “decider” and the ruler as first among equals. The issue was always the same: when does the king have to pay attention to what his important subjects have to say, and who are the important subjects? Accidents of birth were responsible for many of these swings, perhaps most of them. Sometimes, rulers were not only strong men but materially fortunate. Sometimes, rulers were weak men and deprived of resources. Sometimes, kings got to decide when and where councils would meet, who would attend them, and what business would be decided. Sometimes, all of this was decided by powerful noblemen. The advantage of having a strong king was the same thing as the disadvantage of having a strong nobility: nobles were something like cats, hard to herd. Battles of nobles against the king quickly degenerated into battles of nobles against nobles.

Over time, aspects of the problem were institutionalized, as for example in the English Parliament. The king always had a council of some sort, but membership in the council was somewhat arbitrary, decided either by the king (whoever this might be at the time) or by leading noblemen. Membership in the House of Lords, in contrast, was not arbitrary, and, for a long time, noblemen sponsored most of the representatives who sat in the House of Commons as well. The king, it was determined after much tussling, had nothing to say about parliamentary membership*; birth determined the Lords and the Commons were duly elected. During the later years of the Stuart Dynasty (which lasted for most of the Seventeenth Century), the great men of England decided that membership in the king’s council would be determined by parliament. The great men of England, acting not as hot-headed knights-errant but but as participants in an orderly assembly, would check the potential tyranny of the monarch — that is, any attempt by the king to establish his council to suit himself — simply by showing up regularly in the Palace of Westminster and going through certain motions. A cascade of accidents, not least of them the accession to the throne of a German-speaking princeling, conduced to the cementing of the arrangement. We have called this solution to the great men problem “liberalism” ever since.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Mark Lilla means by “liberalism” in his good little book, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla does not refer to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the liberal slaveholders that they were. (He does not mention them at all.) Liberals disavowed chattel slavery some time ago, but until the 1960s there was nothing about the liberal outlook that ordained a position one way or the other, and what happened in the 1960s was so uncharacteristic of liberalism that the term has been close to meaningless (by meaning too many different things) ever since. What happened in the 1960s (and began in the previous decade) was liberal engagement in the process of securing civil rights for citizens who were denied them — black Americans. But it did not alter the foundation of liberal thinking.

The foundation of liberal thinking remains the belief that the organization of men of property is the best defense against tyranny. We may define both “men” and “property” differently. “Men” now includes “women,” and property is more likely to be intellectual than material. But for all this, the idea that men of property are the best defense against tyranny retains its power because such “men” have the greatest stake in the commonwealth, not so much singly as in the solidarity of liberal government, which is clearly defined and established.

An inevitable side effect of the liberal belief in orderly government is that it makes “men of property” out of those who participate in it, meaning those who hold representative office and other important posts. Lilla has nothing to say about men of property, certainly, but an essential part of the program that he proposes for restoring liberal democracy in the United States could not be more liberal: he presses the need to run for office. To win elections. To keep the orderly government going, and to prevent it from being manipulated by enemies of liberalism in projects of civic dismemberment. This is the point on which “liberal” ceases to sound partisan and begins to describe a function. Many conservatives are liberal in this sense, even if, today, many more are not. To sit in the US Senate on the understanding that you will compromise some of your principles in the interest of a greater national good is essentially liberal. To sit in the Senate on the understanding that not even the least of your scruples will be compromised is to compass proto-tyranny.

Given the great shifts that have occurred in the social and economic life of the West since, say, 1689, the year of the “Glorious Revolution” through which modern liberalism was inaugurated, it is not surprising that liberalism is no longer the viewpoint of great landowners who believe that great landowners, working together, ought to run the country. But liberalism has never shaken its conviction that some people are better fitted for political life than others. This is, once again, a functional matter, not one of party platforms. In this, liberals oppose democrats, who believe that everybody ought to participate in government, or in any case that nothing should be allowed that privileges the participation in political processes of some people over that of others. On this point, the liberal is inclined to throw up his or her hands, mutely insisting that, given human nature, privileges are unavoidable. Liberals don’t believe that a world without élites is possible. Lilla does not make such an avowal explicitly, but it would be hard to find a passage in The Once and Future Liberal that does not address a reader who is not only educated but who also subscribes to the intellectual consensus of liberal tolerance. Indeed, his subtitle, After Identity Politics, points to the bulk of his discussion, which is an argument against the illiberal intolerance that has vitiated the sense of American citizenship. Identity politics is the democratic outlook with the smallest possible “d”: no interest group includes more than one person.

To a liberal, the complaint that representative democracy makes national citizens of us only one day in four years is wrong-headed, but only to the extent that it is a complaint. The liberal complaint, which Lilla does make, is rather that representatives and other officials fail to pay attention to their constituents every day. It is the liberal politician’s job to understand and to lead the people who vote for him, and it is liberal government’s purpose to confer power upon those who are both interested in and skilled at exercising it in a humane and orderly fashion.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Almost nothing. The one thing that the monarch could do — a step never resorted to — was to pack the Lords by elevating sympathizers to the peerage.

Gotham Diary:
Last Entry?
September 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 14 September

Tuesday 12th

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations… but don’t worry! I haven’t got very far, and I don’t have anything to say, yet. I’m too busy trying to learn something.

Wittgenstein does, however, have an excellent bedside manner. He is calm and curious and he never shouts. Unlike Plato and Kant, he does not squint at you as if to say that perhaps you do not deserve treatment. Nor does he give the impression, which I always get from Descartes, of a well-behaved madman, the crackpot nature of whose theories threatens to reveal itself at any minute. The medicine that Wittgenstein pours out does not taste horrible. Regardless of whether what he’s saying makes any sense, he is reassuring. He has made my problem with philosophy go away, at least a little.

A very popular feature in the Times Magazine every Sunday deals with “ethical” questions that readers submit to such experts as Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Should I tell my sister that her husband is having an affair?” I never read it. The urge behind these questions is always, plainly, gossip. Insofar as gossip serves as a social regulator, making sure that nobody gets away with any fast moves, that’s as it should be, but it’s wrong, I think, to confuse gossip with the distinction of right from wrong. As an American, I have lived my entire intellectual life in an atmosphere of gentle pragmatism, which is governed by two principles — you do what you can, and you can always do better — and one caveat: if you beat yourself up, you’ll be no good for anything. I am rarely troubled by doubts about the right thing to do under the circumstances. This may account for my problem with philosophy: it bogs down under circumstances.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, however, I have at least been able to put philosophy in perspective. To be exact, it’s a perspective that relates philosophy to other ways of using words to settle questions of right and wrong. The law is one. By “the law” I mean the professional practice of law, with all of its technicalities and terms of art, that is brought to bear on everyday problems in and out of courtrooms. In the West, we have two very different types of everyday law, one that speaks English and one that’s inherited from the Romans. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of philosophers and theologians, we in the West settle our disputes in court. Many laymen feel that this is a mistake, but it has the advantage of operating without violence.

Poetry is another mode of talking about truth. Poems aren’t very good at deciding cases, but they remind us of the peculiar dimensions of the human space in which we live. The morality of poetry is a morality of diction: not of right and wrong but of good and better.

I don’t know what to do with philology or linguistics. Is philology just linguistics applied to ancient texts, a history of Western languages, in effect? Is linguistics a species of philosophy, or a branch of biology? What do we want these disciplines to tell us? The difference between philosophy, even as Wittgenstein practices it, and linguistics seems to be philosophy’s working assumption that there is something permanent about the language that the philosopher uses. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky appear to believe something of the sort, but I think they’re mistaken. The only thing that languages have in common — the different languages, with their simplifying labels (French, Urdu, &c), that people speak today, but also the different languages that each language has been throughout its history — is the need to provide a reliable medium for communication. Solutions to this need have varied widely.

Meanwhile, “Platte!” “Slab!”

***

Wednesday 13th

It may be that language is too fluid for philosophy. Not only does it change over time, but it means different things to people who have been brought up differently. This used not to be a problem, because all literate persons had the same education — there weren’t very many of them. You may imagine than literacy used to be an elitist preserve, but this did not become the case until the Renaissance (in the West). Many medieval grandees could neither read nor write, and many more, while they could get by if they had to, and if the context was familiar, preferred to have their reading done for them by secretaries. Only last night, I was reading, in Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, that Aramaic was the language of the Persian court secretaries, because the Persians themselves “were illiterate.”

So, when Socrates was holding forth, or, more to the point — since Socrates was opposed to literacy (yes he was!) — when Plato was writing things down, there weren’t very many people (and all of them were men) who were capable of following his arguments, and almost all of those people had been educated in such a way that Plato could take a lot of things for granted, such as the idea that heavenly bodies must move in uniform circular motion. Plato’s only argument for this notoriously non-observational proposition is that heavenly bodies are perfect, because they are up there — above the moon, to be precise. Only a savage would demand to know how Plato knew this.

Philosophy flourished in the Middle Ages because it was conducted in Latin, which everyone had to learn as a second language. Modern philosophy, which dates from the death of Latin in the Renaissance, is divided into two main schools, deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology speaks German (and other “Continental” tongues); utilitarianism speaks English. Each of these schools makes much more sense in its own native language than it does in the other.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, created a third school of philosophy at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by concentrating on words rather than ideas. I’d like to say that he came to language from mathematics and logic, and wanted to know the extent to which language could be as exact, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I bring up Wittgenstein only to point out, what may seem an ephemeral observation, that when I read the Philosophical Investigations, with the English on the right-hand page and the original German on the left, I am amazed that anyone could regard them as related languages. Certainly there are many similar words. But the habits of thought that are reflected in the structures of sentences are not at all alike. This may not be because English and German are “different,” but rather because educated speakers of English and German have developed widely different styles of assumption and expression. It’s faintly comic to see what happens to a sentence in German in which Wittgenstein is struggling to pin down the significance of utterly ordinary, sub-literate expressions — “Slab!”, for “Bring me a red slab.” — when it appears on the facing page. The simple expressions are much the same, but the explanatory language in which Wittgenstein presents them are not. How can we be sure that we understand him?

There has always been a tension in philosophy between description and prescription — much like the struggle that is familiar to us from the dictionary wars, but of much greater scope. The dictionary wars are waged by those who believe that dictionaries ought to lay down the law on correct usage against those who expect no more than a record of how words are actually used. (Although I believe in using words correctly, I do not expect dictionaries to guarantee my usage, so certain words, such as “fulsome,” hopelessly compromised by widespread contradictory usages, must simply be avoided. I remain, however, a stickler for inferring what other people imply.) Does philosophy describe the world, or does it tells us what to do? Aristotle got as close as anyone to having it both ways: if you know what is good (that is, if you have observed the world correctly), then you will do what is good (thus obviating moral decisions). There is also a further tension, between the universal and the particular. Philosophers are people who, in my view, are inordinately interested in universals, in finding out what is always the case everywhere and under all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is always the case everywhere under all circumstances, nothing at all. But lots of things are usually true, so I concern myself with those.

If I have a pressing philosophical question, it’s this: what is critical thinking, exactly? What are the rules — or are there rules? Reflecting on what I’ve written here today, I’m tempted to say that critical thinking is the attempt to account for the coexistence of as many particulars as possible. As such, critical thinking is always sailing toward chaos, but never reaching it, because it organizes and settles whatever it touches. I hear an echo here of Freud’s psychotherapeutic mission, to reveal (and thereby tame) as much of the unconscious as possible. I would say, somewhat patly to be sure, that critical thinking transforms complication into complexity. Never mind what that means; just observe my taking two words that have evolved from the same root, from one original idea as it were (complico, to fold over or embrace) and turned them into a pair of contradictions. That is how language evolves. It is also how language so naturally destabilizes philosophical statements.

***

Thursday 14th

Old joke:

— I know what’s in every book in every library in the world.
— What?
— Words.

But that’s just it: words exist in books, yes — but what about outside of them?

I remember receiving a scolding letter, while I was in college, from my father. It was crisply typed by his secretary. “For all intents and purposes,” he wrote, prefatory to some unpleasant judgment. But never mind. I’d always heard the phrase as “for all intensive purposes.” Kathleen would later confess to the same misunderstanding. Not until we saw the phrase in print did we grasp our mistake — if mistake is what it really was. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference, given the way the phrase is, or used to be, flung about.

Certain languages, such as Turkish, are described as “agglutinative,” because the parts of speech are fused into single words, so that the statement, “I have just come inside out of the rain,” may appear as one word. But is this so very remarkable? What may distinguish Turkish is that the agglutination is written. If I say to Kathleen, “Would you mind setting the table for dinner,” she will register this as a formulaic clump. There is nothing in the request to analyze, because there are no variants to discriminate. Assuming that I am speaking in the late afternoon, I am not proposing that she set the table for breakfast; nor do I want her to set the books in the book room in order, or to make the bed, or to do anything in the world except a very regular task. (Nor do I have to explain what setting the table for dinner involves.) In her mind, she is not diagramming the sentence to make sure that its logical import doesn’t elude her. She does not even come up with an answer: with the “would you mind” part of my statement, I am telling her that she mustn’t say “no” unless there is a problem that I’m unaware of. But this “would you mind part” is not really detachable from the rest, either, because what I am really asking for is her acknowledgment, via participation in the presentation of a meal, of her status as a member of the family. (In fact, I never ask Kathleen to set the table for dinner.)

In §20 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein muses on something like this point.

Someone who did not understand a language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard something giving the order “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole sequence of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building stone” in his language.

This is not so very different from intensive purposes, and it raises the question, to which we have only the roughest, crudest sketches of answers, of how it is that children learn language. Most of what we know is merely evidence showing when and that they do learn languages. We know, for example, that they go through a phase of applying general rules to exceptional cases (abundant in English) and so seeming to revert to more childish usage by saying — after having spoken correctly for some time — “I goed to the park.” But what do we know about learning? What do we know about all the judgments that children learn to make as they pass from toddlerhood to kindergarten? It seems to me that children learn to speak much the same as they learn to walk, more or less unconsciously. That is, the effort itself is largely unconscious. No one will ever know how language is learned.

What complicates things is a second phase, undergone by those children who will grow up to be readers. Those children begin paying explicit attention to learning language well ahead of their uninterested classmates. They are often aware of learning new words, and of learning that some words are quite ambiguous. Wittgenstein hits on one of these words — equally ambiguous in German and English — in §29:

Don’t say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ explanation.” That is just as if you were to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one.”

Last is a tricky word, and, rather like my opposed pairing of complicated and complex, it can mean contradictory things. It can mean “final,” but it can also mean “latest,” which is emphatically not final. I must say that Wittgenstein seems to be floudering here, if not actually going under. He does not take the time to express the distinction. Throughout the book so far, he writes about ostensively teaching simple phrases (“That is a slab.” “Bring me a slab.”) as if ordinary speakers of the language and sophisticated, highly literate speakers such as himself, went about learning in the same way. But of course no ordinary speaker would be at all interested in his speculative investigations into the operation of language. For the ordinary speaker, language is a presence not unlike the sky or the moon. It is simply there. The ordinary speaker’s relation to language is neither dynamic nor analytical. At best, it is comic.

I watched a funny old movie yesterday, Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). It is the adaptation of a Broadway hit of the same name, written by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and it refreshes the familiar social frictions of a wedding by focusing on the nonsense that is spoken by all parties concerned. The parents of the groom, Bea and Frank Vecchio (Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano) exemplify the total incapacity of ordinary speakers to make sense of new situations. They cannot learn to speak more clearly; they can only wrap up what they know in stranger formulations. Their elder son brings dismay into their kitchen by saying that he wants a divorce. He says that he wants to be happy. His parents mock this: they don’t want to be happy. Then why do you stay together? asks the son. After a moment of nonplussed reflection, they reply that they are “content,” as if this solved anything. Later, the son confides to his father that he feels like a stranger to his wife, and she to him. The father agrees that this is how things are. You start out as strangers, he says, and then, over time, you become deeper strangers. It is all deliciously absurd. Far from springing from witty aperçus, the humor of the dialogue is a mordant commentary on the failure of ordinary language to keep up with new demands.

As if to prove my point by contradicting it, there is a bridesmaid (Marian Haley — can she really have made as few movies as IMDb lists? I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else) who is always quoting from books — voguish books of the period, by Khalil Gibran and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. But she drops their nuggets of wisdom like so many indissoluble pearls into her neurotically detached contributions to the conversation that she is trying to keep up with a randy usher who, for his part, only wants to “score.” This woman is bookish without being literate.

In a certain light, Wittgenstein looks like a precursor of Claude Shannon, trying to work out the circuitry of language at its most basic level. For Shannon, the great insight would be to grasp the consequences of Boolean relationships between propositions, which he could translate into the mechanics of digital electronic switching. Shannon learned a new way to write down what we say, one that stripped away all the complications of literacy. So far, I find the author of Philosophical Investigations incapable of developing any such novelty. As stripped down as his examples are, his explanatory language, the language of his own thinking, remains richly, ambiguously literate.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Jolly
September 2017 (I)

5, 6, 7 and 8 September

Tuesday 5th

Just now, I’ve been reading the opening paragraphs of Now, Voyager, the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was adapted for the classic Bette Davis film. Prouty wrote Stella Dallas, too, and Stanley Cavell, in Cities of Words, claims that these novels are better than their current oblivion suggests. The opening of Now, Voyager is certainly more sophisticated than its author’s name suggests. Indeed, I had to make myself stop reading. It does not promise to be a great novel by any means, but it clicks along smoothly. It begins at Gibraltar, not in the Vale mansion (and not in Rio, either), and Charlotte is on a terrace, surrounded by beautiful views (including “the proverbial flower-filled urn with hanging vines”), dressed in one of Renée Beauchamp’s outfits, waiting for her new friend to return from sending a cable. It is a much more inviting start than the one offered by the movie.

Earlier, I was looking at Castle Nowhere, a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The dialogue, between a white man and a spirit, was not so promising. The prose was somewhat starchy, in the earnest American way that Henry James learned very early to parody, thus distancing himself at the level of the sentence from his native countrymen. Woolson wrote six novels and four collections of stories, plus a great deal of travel writing, journalism, and verse, before defenestrating herself at Venice in early 1894. At the time, some of Woolson’s friends thought that James could have saved her. They thought that he had “led her on,” raising hopes of marriage and companionship that in fact — in the actual history of his friendship with Woolson — had she entertained them, would have been groundless. In The Master, Colm Tóibín presents Woolson as James’s best reader, treasured by him as such. Theirs was a friendship of writers. But few of the men and women in their world could have understood such a thing, and James was uncomfortably aware of being in the position of a cad.

I am asking myself, of course, if I ought to read on. Prouty comes with a high recommendation: Cavell’s is exactly the sort of tip that I pocket carefully. About Woolson’s work, however, neither James nor Tóibín has anything to say. James does not appear to have been Woolson’s best reader, and Tóibín doesn’t even provide titles. In a very quiet way, The Master refutes the prejudice, generally shared by American men at the time of James’s youth, that only women wrote “stories,” by showing that only James wrote stories worth reading — worth reading, that is, a century later. Like every successful novelist, Woolson wrote for her contemporaries. Like many great writers, James has had a posthumous readership educated for him. In recent decades, his sexuality — a same-sex preference that in the opinion of Tóibín and others remained virginal, but that earlier men of letters felt would tarnish his luster if disclosed — has had the unexpected effect of normalizing him, of saving him from the condescension now heaped on dead straight white males. He remains challenging to read; today’s readers are even less likely, without some training and much conscious effort, to find him congenial than Woolson’s readers did. But he is read, and read, I think, with pleasure.

If James is great because he is read, it does not follow that he is read because he is great. Nobody is, outside of school. Henry James may be “great” because he wrote complex studies of the American character as it was revealed against European backgrounds. He may be “great” because of his highly sophisticated grasp of the issues of good and evil. But he is read, if you ask me, because his stories are scary. They are charged with ineffable menace; the invisibility of wickedness in James is what saves him from melodrama. So does his hard-headedness about romance, which never triumphs, in his books, over the power of money, comfort, and propriety. The horror of losing self-respect to disgrace is vastly closer to the general reader’s everyday concerns than the threat of brigands or vampires, and James’s great trick is presenting that horror with all the relish and excitement of tall, gothic tales. Nothing, really, is as thrilling in all literature as the cat-and-mouse game played by Princess Maggie and her step-mother at the end of The Golden Bowl. Learning how to hear James describe it — accepting that his immense obliquity is simply the most powerful way of dramatizing it — is unquestionably worth the effort.

One does not expect such payoffs from Prouty or Woolson.

***

Wednesday 6th

The strangest thing about Henry James’s second-most-famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” is its title. For years, I assumed that this referred to an inglenook by a fire in an old English inn, wherein some venerable sportsman told tales to any who would listen. (In those days, I couldn’t be bothered with mere stories. I must have novels.) In fact, it refers to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and some sidestreet between Washington Square and Fourteenth Street, specifically to a large house there, wherein the protagonist of the story was born and grew up. In his early twenties, this fellow, Spencer Brydon, departed for Europe, where he has remained for thirty-odd years, sustained by the rents of his family’s Manhattan properties. Now he has returned. It would be vulgar to put too much effort into determining why he has returned, but it will suffice to say that he is supervising the renovation of a parcel not far from the “jolly corner” and the erection there of an “apartment house” (author’s quotes) that will make him really rich.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, jolly about the large house on the corner, especially once we learn that Brydon believes that it is haunted by his alter ego, the man that he would have become had he remained in New York. This is an intriguing fancy, and, again, we mustn’t put too much weight on it. By that I mean, we mustn’t ask what sort of man would entertain such an idea? The point is that Henry James is entertaining it, and that he manages to be entertaining about it. Brydon is presented, to be brisk about it, as a version of Chad Newsome, the supposedly wastrel heir in The Ambassadors who turns out to be far more polished (if no less depraved) than his family back in Massachusetts fears. Brydon is a sportsman who has hunted big game and visited the tombs of the Pharaohs. He has enjoyed and suited himself in a world that does not frown on pleasure. Now fifty-six, he is perhaps too creaky in the joints for the joys of his youth.

“The Jolly Corner” appeared in 1908, inspired by James’s visit to the United States five years earlier, after an absence (punctuated by a return occasioned by his father’s death) about as long as Brydon’s. Brydon is, as one can well imagine, astonished by the transformation that New York has undergone since 1870, an era of, among other things, massively increased urban densities. The city has spread upwards as much as outwards; it is no longer a town, as even many of the most charming neighborhoods of London’s West End are still towns.

He had been twenty-three on leaving New York — he was fifty-six today: unless indeed he were to reckon as he had sometimes, since his repatriation, found himself feeling; in which case he would have lived longer than is often allotted to man. it would have taken a century, he repeatedly said to himself, and said also to Alice Staverton, it would have taken a longer absence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guilty, to pile up the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses, for the better or the worse, that at present assault his vision wherever he looked.

In the heart of the story, Brydon stalks his alter ego in the deserted house in the middle of the night — and is stalked by him. If I understood James’s art better than I do — and I’m not sure that I want any such thing, lest it break the spell — I could explain how James invests his fairly incredible fantasy with horripilating detail and how he makes these details pay. There is a protracted confrontation with a closed door — surely Brydon had left it open — that precipitates the climax. Then there is the alter ego himself, standing, assuming that Brydon is not dreaming or dead, at the base of the stairs. None of this is what makes “The Jolly Corner” interesting to me. I’m interested in James’s grasp of the alter ego, and the problem that it poses for Brydon. In the very first line of the story, Brydon complains that everyone in New York wants to know what he thinks of the place; he senses, rightly, that he’s being invited to speculate on the life that he would have lived had he not fled to Europe. It seems to be generally assumed that this life would have been a life of accomplishment rather than idleness; had he stayed, Brydon would have shouldered the wheel of progress and become a billionaire. This is America’s view of itself: it inspires prosperity.

James isn’t having it. His view of Brydon’s alter ego is of a stunted, damaged knave. For want of big game and pyramids, not to mention the effortful refinement of European pleasure, Brydon might very well have taken to cards and drink and worse. In an unforgettable image, one of the hands covering the face of the alter ego, when it finally stands before Brydon, is missing two fingers, as if they had been shot off: Brydon’s prey would have been his own self. It is obvious to me that Europe saved Brydon’s life, and made it as well, so that he will be free, if he so chooses, to remain in New York without being destroyed by it. He will also be free either to tear down the house at the jolly corner and to build another apartment house or to re-occupy it. The alter ego has been exorcised. Its very confinement to the empty house represents the emptiness of the life that Brydon left behind. As I’ve suggested, this is an idea that James takes up at much greater length, and without the apparatus of midnight stalks, in The Ambassadors. Paris does not make Newsome a better man, perhaps, but it certainly makes him a more civilized, sociable, and thereby worthwhile man.

What interests me even more about “The Jolly Corner” is the economy with which James captures, in the one sentence that I have quoted, and for all time, the extraordinary disorientation that Americans who lived through the transformation of urban life after the Civil War did not feel, precisely because they were living through it. It is this disorientation, I maintain, that we must all learn to register, now that the nature of change has become so much less palpable than it was for two centuries. We will continue to build big things, but not so many of them; most of our efforts will be on the microscopic level of smartphones and DNA manipulations. The current of everyday change has slowed down, and, I suspect, it will continue to slow down further. Now we can acknowledge the violence and the disruption with which that current, running so much faster, altered human society since the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. We can begin to take stock of how very many developments we have not quite kept up

Thursday 7th

My personal interest in immigration issues is not very great. Emigration is my thing. I wish that I could just go live in Amsterdam without any fuss, not because I identify as Nederlander (I don’t), but because I simply like it there, grey skies and damp and all. I feel terribly sorry for British men and women who have settled throughout the EU — they’ve been living my dream, and theirs may well come to an end with Brexit.

Now, as for my political interest in immigration, my objective is, like any sensible person’s, a rational, consensus-backed program that encourages the inflow of future citizens, no matter what their skills or background (so long as it isn’t violently criminal). This objective is not worth talking about, because, as everyone can see, there is no consensus in the offing, not remotely. So I sit the matter out. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not paying attention. On the contrary, because I’m not emotionally invested in the arguing, I can see things a little more clearly.

Here’s one thing that I see, and I’ll pass it on for what it’s worth. It’s probably nothing new, but it’s easier to see now that the Democratic Party has all but dropped out of the political equation. We hear that the Republican Party is divided on the immigration issue between nativists — a bloc almost as old as the United States itself — and “business interests.” Nativists want to restrict immigration to a trickle. “Business interests” are said to rely on immigrants, especially seasonal migrants, for cheap labor, much of which, it is pointed out, is not competitive, because Americans won’t take the jobs. Agriculture is the key sector in this argument, with the advocates of open immigration warning that, given a shortage of migrant workers, agribusiness may arrange for prison populations to be put to work in the fields, a disgusting revival of slavery. You’ll note that these advocates are not harmonizing with “business interests,” but instead diametrically opposing them.

You’ll also notice, if you listen, that there is no actual “business interest” policy, no single position to counter that of the nativists. And you’ll also see that these “business interests” have, in the past, shuffled their immigration concerns off to Democratic Party proxies, thus sparing the need for a stated “business interest” policy. In fact, different businesses have different objectives, and there is no positive point around which coherence might develop. By this I mean that, having argued for unfettered access to cheap labor, “business interests” have nothing more to say on the matter. They have no position, for example, on the welfare of immigrants — whether, that is, and to what extent it ought to be extended to them.

As I considered this, I saw something behind it, which explains the absence of a clear “business interests” position on immigration even better than the diversity of actual business interests. Business divides laws into two groups. Laws that involve property rights and laws that are enforced, in effect, by accountants are tremendously important to business, and such laws are comprehensive to the point of unintelligible detail. Every contingency is provided for. Other laws, in contrast, are of little or no interest, so long as they are ineffective. We may gather laws in the latter class under the rubric “regulation.” Regulation, very simply, purports to restrict business to a certain degree of operation within and impact upon society at large. Business dislikes restrictions. More precisely, the men and women who run any particular business dislike the regulatory constraints that pertain to them, but are indifferent to constraints that don’t. This makes perfect sense. The tricky part, as I see it, is that business has learned to count on ineffective regulation in general. In particular, a business will resist regulation by society. But in general, it shrugs: have as much regulation as you like, the more the better, because the more there is of it, the less effective it will be. It doesn’t really matter which policy is chosen, so long as it cannot really be implemented. This is why “business interests” have been happy to leave pro-immigration advocacy to the Democrats. There was no need, so long as the Democrats were players, for “business interests” to invest in any specific immigration policy, or to risk awkward confrontations with nativists. “Business interests” could reap the rewards of Democratic Party fecklessness and Capitol Hill gridlock.

Now what?

My purpose here is to sharpen the point that “business interests” ought to have no role in political discourse. The men and women who run businesses are, of course, citizens like everybody else, and are no less entitled to be heard. But: no more, either. When “business interests” have a say in public affairs, then these men and women are able to make use of business resources to wield undue influence in political campaigns of every kind, whether electoral or legislative (ie, lobbying), and, even worse, to corrupt regulation by means of regulatory capture, promising docile regulators lucrative futures within the business fold.

That rich citizens can sway elections by opening up their pocketbooks is a serious political headache without an easy solution, but removing “business interests” from the political scene requires nothing more than the revocation of a Supreme Court opinion that is not, in fact, an opinion at all. Without this support, businesses would no longer have the standing of natural persons, and therefore no standing to participate in politics. The polarity of regulatory capture might even be reversed.

Given the pro-immigration stance of “business interests,” some liberals might feel that this is not the time to be barring them from political action. That would be — and I say this as a committed liberal — a typically liberal mistake.

***

Friday 8th

In law school, the property-law professor started off the semester by comparing the feudal tenures that were still part of the syllabus in those days — is it possible that they still are? — to “Chinese music,” which, according to him, was comprised of tones whose differences were too subtle for Western ears to distinguish. Having listened to a fair amount of actual Chinese music, ranging from xiqu (“Chinese opera”) to erhu solos, I wondered where he got this idea. The Fu Manchu Book of Chinese Inscrutabilities seemed a likely source. (He was wrong about the tenures, too.) Nevertheless, “Chinese music” came forcibly to mind as I reached the final pages of Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words.

I felt as if I had endured an endurance test. Whether I had passed the test, I couldn’t say. I had certainly learned a lot, but I couldn’t be more specific than that. I wished that I were younger, so that I could comfortably imagine re-reading the book, with greater comprehension, in twenty or thirty years. The persistent problem, as I’ve already written, wasn’t that I couldn’t understand what Cavell was saying. I couldn’t understand why he was saying it. I could not trace his thinking from one sentence to the next. But I began the book expecting that I wouldn’t make it through, that it would be too tedious to keep at. It wasn’t ever tedious. It was like driving along a leafy avenue on a sunny day. I came to relish not always knowing what was going on. And I could feel myself growing, vaguely, somewhere.

So much for that. It turns out that Cities of Words was not the book about “comedies of remarriage” that I was looking for. Cavell’s The Pursuit of Happiness is. When I have read that, sometime soon I think, I’ll get out the yardstick.

***

The Master is billed as a novel, so it’s entirely possible that Colm Tóibín made this up:

There began then a conspiracy between them, a drama in which each knew the roles and the lines and the movements. Henry learned to walk slowly, never to run, to smile but never to laugh, to stand up hesitantly and awkwardly and to sit down with relief. He learned not to eat heartily or drink his fill. (151)

This comes from Chapter 7, which concerns the James’s brothers’ various responses to the Civil War. William, the eldest, buried himself in medical school. The two younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, fought, and Wilky was severely wounded. For a while, Henry was without an excuse, and the conspiracy that Tóibín postulates was a tacit agreement between Henry and his mother to create the impression of back ailment serious enough to keep Henry out of uniform. Eventually, Henry’s father took him to a back specialist in Boston, and Tóibín tells us that James exacted his revenge for the doctor’s brusque diagnosis of perfect health by using him as a model for Dr Sloper, in Washington Square. What Tóibín doesn’t tell us is that James ever resumed eating heartily, if indeed he had ever done such a thing. He never went to war.

I remember reading this passage the first time, and feeling sorry for James. The second time, last week, I felt only envy. How I wish that I had been capable of acting the invalid. My restlessness always gave me away. Sick people, in case you haven’t noticed (I hadn’t), are not twitchy in the way of boys under confinement. They are wan and enervated and reluctant to move. My career as an academic malingerer came to an end the day I spent the afternoon, while my mother was out shopping, rearranging all the furniture in my room.

I had to wait for age to take care of things. I must say that it has done a pretty good job.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Asylum
August 2017 (V)

29 and 31 August

Tuesday 29th

Forty years ago this month, I left Houston forever. There were occasional visits, but they came to an end when my daughter graduated from high school in 1991. I have not been back since. I shall probably never see it again. From what I can tell, it has gotten bigger, but not really changed very much.

Although Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country — a status attained while I was living there — there is nothing urban about it. There is a curious, architecturally remarkable downtown, but relatively few people live there. Surrounding this and a few other islands of tall buildings is a vast sprawl of suburbs. Again, it was vast even then. A house address with a ludicrous number — 15926, say — was not unusual. The effect of this infinite homogeneity was to make a large population center seem very small, small in human terms: ordinary and forgettable. It is now clear that this ordinariness masked the imprudence of lodging so many millions of people on a crust of clay that has been steadily subsiding toward sea level. Climate change and rising sea levels are certainly playing their part in the havoc at Houston, but misguided land use has been even more critical.

Comparisons might be made to New Orleans, much of which lay below sea level long before Katrina struck. Quite aside from being incommensurately smaller, however, New Orleans was supposed to be protected by levees and other earthworks. Had these features been maintained in good repair, the city would have survived the storm; the scandal of Katrina is that they were not. In contrast, there is nothing to be done — there has never been anything to be done — about Houston’s vulnerability to floodwaters. It just sits there, a basin waiting to fill. It is hard to foresee how long it will take to drain, once the rain stops.

So many things haven’t changed about Houston — “more of same” is no kind of change — that I’m hoping for a fondly-remembered weather pattern to come to the rescue. Every September, there would come a night during which the temperature dropped twenty degrees or more, and the air dried out to temperate levels. People like me who had grown up elsewhere would feel human for a little while, before Houston’s damp and not very tropical winter set in. That’s what Houston is going to need — what it needs right now. Perhaps changes in climate now stop that cold front closer to Dallas; I hope not.

It is no wonder that ordinary people have a low opinion of government, although, to be honest, there is not much of it in Houston to begin with. As everyone knows, there is no zoning, so that Houston shows us what a developers’ paradise looks like. No American city can compete with Houston as a triumph of free-market growth. To me, the recklessness that Houston embodies is morally indefensible, as shocking an offense against the principles of civic life as any that this troubled country has ever committed. Now that the city has sunk into catastrophe, of course, scolding is perverse: there are people to save and to restore to human life. I ought to be happy: I can give up being angry at the the thought of Houston.

I hope that thoughtful Americans everywhere will be mindful that what made Houston so dangerous was fully in place before Donald Trump made himself notorious, in a very different city, by demolishing the salvageable signage of a long-beloved department store, Bonwit Teller.

***

Thursday 31st

At the moment, I’m reading Henry James’s important story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” If I’ve read it before, I’ve forgotten it. In a late chapter of the book that I am reading, Stanley Cavell pairs it with Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I’ve never seen the movie, either, although I’ve got a DVD handy. Amazingly, I am nearing the end of Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. A great deal of it has slipped right through me, but I have stuck with it.

I read two sentences, from the chapter on Aristotle, to Kathleen last night, taking pains to remain in the syntactic current despite the pull of their many backwaters. When I was done, Kathleen said, “That was two sentences?” Then she pronounced it “bullshit.” The words were sleek and smooth, the texture jargon-free, and yet I had no grip on what Cavell was talking about. Here is the second of the sentences; the reference is to Wittgenstein’s insistence, in his Philosophical Investigations, that language is “a public, shared fact.”

It is as the teacher exhausts what can be said, and teacher and pupil fall silent with each other (then and there, subject to limitations of time, imagination, patience, good will, and to what we might call tolerance for anxiety), that one feels it becomes the responsibility of teaching to provide a reason for, a point, an aim, in speaking at all; a responsibility of philosophy, so far as philosophy, as in the Investigations, conceives of itself as instruction, instruction however in what no one could manage just not to know. (371)

…what no one could manage just not to know. What is that, that no one could manage “just not” to know? Just not? I’m lost. There must be an invisible pause, a breath, that conceals the missing nuance that would explain this statement to me. Why not simply say that teachers must explain why teaching is not only important but possible? Why not excise everything that follows the semicolon? So often, what confuses me about Cavell is his belief that what he is saying needs saying, and not just saying, but belaboring. Too often, he fails to teach me the importance of his lessons.

And yet I have kept going because I suspect that it might not be altogether useless to try to understand his patois. There are moments when I see through the apparent philosopher to the engaged writer. There are passages in the chapter on Plato (on pages 326 and 327) where Cavell seems to say that he is at least as attracted to Plato’s myths (such as the Cave) as to Plato’s arguments, that the myths illustrate more forcefully than the arguments do certain “turns of philosophical thinking that I have found myself convinced by.” I do wish that Cavell would explain, succinctly, what he takes “philosophical thinking” to be. And, as I complained the other day, I wish that he would unpack, with the greatest particularity, what he means by “reason” and “rationality.” It would be wonderful to have answers to these questions, and there are moments when I feel that I am about to stumble upon them in Cavell’s text. But they are too obvious to him not to take as given. Perhaps if I read the book again, in a year or two. After all, I didn’t understand The Golden Bowl right away, either.

***

The other day, I watched a movie that Cavell does not, and probably would never, discuss: Star! This film came up in John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, his account of a year spent hanging around Twentieth Century Fox; Star! was one of the titles in production at that time. At that time, I had no desire to see it; I had made a point, a stink even, about not seeing The Sound of Music. I was deeply confused about Julie Andrews, and it’s not hard to see why, if you listen to her 1962 album, “‘Don’t Go in the Lion’s Cage Tonight’ and Other Heartrending Ballads and Raucous Ditties.” The ballads are creamy and sweet; the ditties are hilariously indelicate. I was besotted, when I discovered this LP in college, by “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” which Andrews doesn’t even sing, and by “Waiting at the Church,” in which Andrews positively snarls. I could live without “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” Which one is the real Julie Andrews? Star! revealed that the public preferred the creamy and sweet, and Andrews’s own star power was tarnished by her impersonation of gritty Gertrude Lawrence, whom even in the late Sixties was all but forgotten. In many ways, the movie is a study in the difference between a star, who gets up on stage night after night and kills the people, and a celebrity, whose private life must always be at least slightly more interesting than anything he or she does for money. Julie Andrews was (and is) a star; for all of her long career, she has been something of a throwback, more interested in hoofing than in preening. For me, Star! is a sharply-executed monument to regret.

We’re asked to take it on faith that Julie Andrews shares Gertrude Lawrence’s determination as a trouper, and I see no reason not to do that. It’s also clear that Andrews venerates the vernacular traditions that shaped Lawrence and her chum, Noel Coward. But Julie Andrews is too pretty, and her voice is too pretty (or it can be) for her to be confused with the likes of Vera Charles, the dragon in Mame who, even though she’s fictional, seems much closer to Lawrence. Lawrence seems to have been almost reckless in her avidity for fun and life, but there is simply nothing truly reckless about Julie Andrews. She can act it, but she cannot be it, and Star! winds up being about her, not Lawrence. You almost forget that Andrews is there when Lawrence shows up drunk at a surprise birthday party and insults everybody, but the moment passes, and you find yourself reflecting that Julie Andrews would never behave like that.

The thoroughness of Star! as a flop is even sadder because the production numbers, which take the place of songs in a true musical, are so well done, and remarkably free of anachronistic missteps, to which the studios were awfully prone in those days. Great effort was evidently taken to re-create the look and feel of old entertainments, and if the coloring were not so lurid, success would have been complete. (Although I am not entirely persuaded by “Limehouse Blues.”) Unfortunately, the movie cannot inspire a revival of interest in the theatrical “review” — almost a variety of circus — that was so popular before the Depression. So it hangs on the story of Lawrence’s life, which is not interesting enough for Julie Andrews to disappear into it. What we’re left with is her valiant determination to put on a show. Julie Andrews is the heroine of this movie, and her false position sinks it.

Well, it sank it. Star! is definitely worth watching, all three hours of it, and perhaps someone will find a way of seeing it that counteracts its box-office disappointment. For the moment, I can’t get over how often Julie Andrews reminded me of Kelly Reilly. That was a surprise.

More anon.

***

But maybe not now. Not only is it the Friday of a holiday weekend, with Kathleen transferring her summer and winter wardrobes from one closet to the other, but I have just received the first comments on the writing project. (Only Kathleen has read it, and that was in far more rudimentary shape, nearly a year ago.) The comments are positive! And I am disposed to celebrate by basking in feeling good. There is much to be done, but not today!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
More Conversations
August 2017 (IV)

22, 23 and 24 August

Tuesday 22nd

It was good to survive yesterday’s eclipse. I must have been hoping for a more crepuscular dimming of the afternoon light, because at a certain point it struck me that nothing had happened and that nothing was going to happen. Lots of people stood on street corners with their iPhones, special glasses, and even a kitbashed cereal box; the general mood was one of lighthearted glee. Free entertainment? Considering the terrified awe with which such an event would have been greeted a thousand or more years ago, I asked myself if it is necessary and inevitable that familiarity brings inconsequence in its wake. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the fact that the earth moves. Watching the moon blot out the sun is a discomfiting intimation of mortality, and I don’t mean my own.

I am now well into Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. I have not yet discovered the key to the title, although, reading ahead, I encountered the phrase in the essay on Pygmalion, which manages to be dense and hard to follow even without the baggage of philosophical exposition. Sometimes, of course, Cavell is hard to follow because he isn’t as clear as he might be about whether he is stating his own thoughts or summarizing those of his subject, with whom (it will turn out) he disagrees. Sometimes, he is hard to follow because he writes like Henry James; I want to say, jeeringly, that he thinks he’s Henry James. (I should talk!) In order to follow his train of thought through one paragraph, I nearly used a red pencil to underline the the thoroughfare of his sentences. This is not that paragraph; the book is full of them:

The imperative to conversation is meant to capture the sense that, even when the veil of ignorance is lifted, we still do not know what “position” we occupy in society, who we have turned out to be, what our stance is toward whatever degree of compliance with justice we have reached. To know such things is to have a perspective on our lives, on the way we live, and this is precisely the province of what I call, of what interests me in, moral perfectionism. The idea of conversation expresses my sense that one cannot achieve perspective alone, but only in the mirroring or confrontation of what Aristotle calls the friend (what Nietzsche calls my enemy, namely one who is, on my behalf, opposed to my present, unnecessary stance), what Emerson calls the true man, the neutral youth, my further, rejected self. My sense of this outlook can be put this way: Without the register of moral perfectionism Rawls’s theory cannot reach its goal of being able to say (to oneself, if no further) that one is above reproach, or rather, to do what that claim, were it sayable, is meant to do. (174)

“Above reproach”! Heavens, what a ride that phrase took me on! And then, inevitably I suppose, there was the comparison of the rules of morality to the rules of baseball. Scratch a philosopher, and a boy with a ball will emerge.

Coming up for air, I mused on the lack of interest that women seem to have in perfection, as well in the existence of universal truths. In my experience, even the most educated women glaze over a bit when these abstractions are harped upon. I perceive that they share — perfection and universal truth — a binary characteristic, and I already suspect that the male mind, at least as it is acculturated in the world that I live in, has a penchant for binaries. Perfection is simply the absence of every conceivable imperfection, while truths that fail to describe all situations at all times are not universal. Either they are or they aren’t. On/off. What I would call the woman’s view is the far more complicated project of doing better. We can always do better, and this is somehow a weightier truth than the unlikelihood of our ever doing quite as well as we might. I am not yet certain that Cavell’s impossible phrase, moral perfectionism, does not hide, behind its reliance on conversation, the suspicion or anxiety that there is something to be learned about how to think from women, something that might conduce to the abandonment of a philosophical tradition that is based not so much on a masculine viewpoint as on the notion that men are more fully human than women — that women don’t count. Cavell’s book, after all, is thematically devoted to the study of a series of films, some of them “comedies of remarriage” but all of them involving men and women. In the comedies, the friendships are invariably heterosexual, usually masquerading as romances. Without needing to say that men and women are equal, in the sense that they are the same, Cavell recurs to the suggestion that, for most of us, the best mirror is a member of the opposite sex. Our moral standing is not to be judged by impersonal standards but by the highly contingent judgment of a spouse. (Hence: comedy.)

Beyond the universal truths and the pursuit of perfection, there is the overpowering trend of Western philosophers to address the individual in isolation. In one delicious parenthesis, Cavell observes that “the featured four examples Kant presents after introducing the first formulation of the categorical imperative seem to me fantasies of essentially isolated, friendless people.” (133) Perhaps it is this very impression of Cavell’s that ought not to be set aside in a parenthesis. The default stance of rigorous philosophy since the pre-Socratic thinkers has been that of the isolated male for whom friendships are merely accidents of existence. In the perspective of the development of relations between the sexes, this stance seems little advanced beyond the idea that only high priests ought to be taught to read. Its vision is exhausted.

I suspect that women also resist the supposition, raised by positing the idea of perfection, that human beings are defective. I must say that I snorted loudly when, in his chapter on Kant, Cavell wrote of beasts and angels. Comparisons of human beings to beasts and to angels is, in my view, supremely stupid, as well as totally unhelpful. The idea that humanity occupies a step in the great chain of being between beasts, who have no spirit, and angels, who are all spirit, is as quaint as the “science” of the four humors. It can no longer be entertained in serious discussion. Human beings are what they are, the latest versions of a species; the same might be said of the cheetah or the oak. The geological record suggests that extinction, not perfection, is the end of the line.

And while we’re talking about women (actually, I am always talking about women), permit me to vent the outrage that succeeded a sudden insight that I had late last week, which was, that if any of the women whom I have known well in my lifetime were in Eve’s Edenic position, she would have done everything she could to hinder Adam from screwing things up by dallying in the vicinity of the forbidden tree. It might have been a losing battle, but she, unlike the tart in the Bible, would not have been caught dead chit-chatting with the serpent. In short, far from being the first, archetypal woman, Eve is nothing but a squeeze, a misogynist’s idea of the joke of God’s setting out to provide Adam with a helpmeet. What gave edge to my outrage was the sudden displacement of quietly reading a book of ancient wisdom by the sense of being stuck at a loud table during a Las Vegas floor show.

And while we’re talking about perfection, let’s remember God’s apology after the flood: I’ll never do it again. The God of the Hebrew Bible is nowhere represented as perfect. Like his cousins in the Greek pantheon, he bristles with characteristics that would be regarded as shortcomings in a mere mortal. (Even Jesus, if you read the synoptic Gospels all the way through, is prone to tantrums.) Linking up perfection and divinity was the brainwave of learned converts to Christianity in the ruins of the Roman Empire. Consecrating their cake before eating it.

***

Wednesday 23rd

Meanwhile: Reason. What is this thing called Reason, really? I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s the concept that makes philosophy indigestible. My brain cramps whenever it is introduced, because writers’ invariable confidence in the very existence of Reason seems more foolish with every passing year. Reason itself is never analyzed. There seems to be no need to expatiate on what Reason really is. Everyone knows what it is. Everyone but me.

In the Nineteenth Century, poets and others complained about Reason because, basically, it took the mystery out of things, rendering all of life predictable and prosaic. There was a (now) very understandable anxiety about the nature of feelings. Did they express meaningful passions, or were they nothing more than the gossamer illusions of faulty machinery? Reason, by rectifying everything that it was used to examine, suggested that passions were a kind of madness, an obstacle to the achievement of the “advanced civilization” that railroads and other amenities seemed to promise. My problems with Reason have nothing to do with any of this. I am no Romantic.

Western philosophers have been declaring Reason to be a human characteristic, or at least a masculine characteristic, for millennia now. It was never good enough to recognize reason as a tool, like so many other human inventions. No: to the philosophers, we came into the world bodily equipped with Reason, as well as with speech. We didn’t make use of Reason; we were intrinsically Rational (unless we were mad). In terms of physiological evolution, these claims don’t hold up, but philosophers continue to talk as though human beings were created in their present form.

But reason is a tool, and we have taught it — the powerful part of it known as Boolean Logic — to computers. It cannot be argued that human beings are more rational than computers. Now that the pressure is off, in fact, it appears that the human mind is for the most part an unstable memory bank, with each memory prone to reconstruction every time it is summoned. There is nothing rational about the contents or organization of the mind. Growing up in civil society, we learn to apply a handful of mental rules of the road. If today is Monday, it cannot be Tuesday. If I leave you standing at the foot of the stairs that I climb to my bedroom, I cannot return to your side by climbing another set of stairs. If Britain has a powerful navy, and navies are the ultimate military power, and Britain so chooses, then Germany, for all its North Sea and Baltic seacoast, is landlocked. These reasonable statements are highly personalized — Monday, Tuesday; you, me; Britain, Germany — expressions of the laws of physics, discovered long after man was declared a rational animal. In fact, the Scientific Revolution was, implicitly, a protracted demonstration of just how unreasonable people really are.

And yet Stanley Cavell will go on, when talking about Kant, as though Reason really were a light in the mind that reveals certain obvious, self-evident truths.

***

We watched Gaslight last night. I hadn’t seen it in years, and Kathleen had never seen it at all. In Cities of Words, Cavell discusses George Cukor’s movie in between the chapters on Mill and Kant. Perhaps because of his preoccupation with words, he overlooks the connection between Gregory’s increasing impatience with Paula with the frustration of not finding the jewels in the attic. (I suppose that most first-time viewers, even after they begin to suspect Gregory of something, imagine that he is stumbling about the attic simply to make “inexplicable” noises that will drive Paula crazy.) Nor does Cavell reflect on how Gregory’s discovery of the jewels on the climactic night of the story becomes, almost immediately, Paula’s triumph over him. Not only has the detective exposed Gregory’s dastardly campaign to reduce his wife to maddened self-doubt, but the underlying purpose of this campaign has at long last met with success. In an alternative telling, Gregory could walk right downstairs, out the front door, and away from the scene of his crimes, a free man carrying priceless stones. That is not, of course, what happens. What happens is that, walking instead into his own room, he becomes distracted by the broken lock on his desk. This leads, through scenes of intricate peripety, to his being tied up in a chair.

Cavell describes what happens next as Paula’s

concluding cogito aria to her husband, the man in the audience to whom she communicates her unspeakable hatred — as her aunt had communicated her undeclarable love to her lover by displaying on the stage the jewels sewn into her gown, whose significance only the two of them understood — Paula invoking her madness as her excuse not to be able to help Gregory escape. After this tirade, adopting the abuse of language, coating it wholly in irony, she is essentially silent, and the detective’s last words to her, asking to come talk to her sometimes, furthers the sense that she is going to have to learn to speak again, where that means learn to trust and entrust words again. (115)

Kathleen and I both wished that this “cogito aria” lasted a little longer. Ingrid Bergman is never less than magnificent on screen, but in Gaslight‘s earnest parody of a mad scene she is grandly, and of course suitably, operatic. When she finds the brooch that she feared she’d lost at the beginning of her troubles, and pretends to regret that it is no use as a knife to cut Gregory free, she unloads in a moment of fury the compressed bill of particulars against him. She remembers every episode of his treachery, and every episode is a log in the pyre of her hatred. There is nothing left of him when she is done; even the “fire in my brain” of his longing to possess the jewels has been consumed. When she cries out, “Take this man away!”, it is one of the great Amens of cinema.

I wonder how long it will be the case that Charles Boyer’s virtuoso performance as a vile cad will draw so much of its power from the cultural condescension toward the mental capacity of women that still prevailed in 1944, when Gaslight was made. His initially smooth and humoring dismissals of Paula’s alleged lapses succeed in deflecting suspicion for as long as they do (at least to the first-time viewer) not only because he is suave and sympathetic but also because women are like that. How did Henry Higgins put it? “Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!” It doesn’t take much to reduce Paula to a similar conviction. In fact, of course, Gregory is feeding his wife false premises. If he gives her the brooch, and she loses it without knowing how or when, there is no room for the fact that he did not give her the brooch at all, but slipped it into his pocket. If it weren’t so wicked, Gregory’s sleight of hand would delight us with it magic-act flouting of reason.

What really upsets Paula, moreover, is not that she is losing her mind but that losing her mind justifies her captivity in the house that she never leaves and in which she never entertains, her only feminine companion being the fantastically insolent parlormaid. When Gregory momentarily projects a visit to the theatre, Paula quite unreasonably forgives him for his snarky hostility. If she’s out of her mind, the loss of Reason is a very distant second to the need for fresh air. It is only after Gregory contrives for her to humiliate herself at Lady Dalroy’s, thus marking her as a social pariah (insofar as she is too sick for polite society) and foreclosing further public encounters, that Paula begins to sink into a mad-like melancholy.

In short, it may be that women have the reputation of being less rational than men because they quite reasonably find it to be less important than other things, such as the smiles of friends.

More anon.

***

Thursday 24th

The lead editorial in today’s Times ends with this paragraph:

On Tuesday, buoyed by his crowd in Phoenix, Mr. Trump was back to raging against just about everyone who crossed his field of vision, 77 minutes worth of anger that began, as the evening wore on, to exhaust even his most fervid listeners, who began quietly to fade away.

I wish I knew how much weight the final clause carries. Did fervid listeners really fade away? And what does it mean if they did? What if they left, not because they were bored, or not because of that, but because they wanted to continue to support the President? What if they left in a state of satisfaction, having heard what they wanted to hear, which is that their man is willing to break things, come what may?

How many Americans feel that way? How many believe that they only way forward is through the rubble of an unworkable present? I suspect that this number is much greater than that of outspoken Trump supporters. Established institutions, the Times preeminent among them, continue to warn against breakage as though this were not precisely what many Americans want.

We all agree that the country is divided between an élite that wants to maintain, and then improve, the status quo — count me among this group, no matter what I say — and a bloc of disaffected voters who resent having been ignored. There is also a third crowd, and I suspect that most Americans belong to it right now. They’re the ones who don’t care. For them, politics is noise that has nothing to do with anything. It goes on and on and it never changes anything. My question is this: what will they do when something breaks?

What if, for example, a government debt default has unforeseen consequences? Let’s go back to 2008. When Wall Street stood around and let Lehman Brothers fail (because Richard Fuld and his crew were so widely detested), nobody imagined that the repercussions would intensify minute by minute until even the short-term credit market, without which ordinary economic life in this country would come to a stop, was threatened. It took high-level, cooperative intervention to stave off that catastrophe. Wall Street and the White House worked together — fast. Can we count on anything like that if something breaks later this year? Even to ask the question is to shudder. To return to my broader question, what will ordinary Americans do when political breakdown turns out to have a big, sour everyday impact?

As I say, count me among the élite, even if it is carrying on like a pack of ninnies with the ocular acumen of Mr Magoo.

Permit me to sign off with a bonbon: Wealthy liberals tend to run for office themselves, while wealthy conservatives tend to hire agents to do the work. This is why each side regards the other as fraudulent.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Everything
August 2017 (III)

15, 16 and 17 August

Tuesday 15th

One of the books that churned to the surface during the evacuation of our storage unit was philosopher Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. From the movie buff’s standpoint, this is the big book about screwball comedy, which Cavell renamed “the comedy of remarriage.” Cities of Words — when I have an idea of what the title is supposed to mean, I’ll let you know; but perhaps you can tell me — is not concerned with how those movies were made, who wrote or directed them, not even who starred in them. Rather, it’s about their moral structure, the big questions about life that they try to answer. Each even-numbered chapter deals with a particular film, some of which, such as Stella Dallas and Gaslight, are not even funny, much less screwball. The odd-numbered chapters discuss individual philosophers, beginning with Emerson, and continuing through Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls, and so on, if “so on” has any meaning here. The relationship between the philosophers and the movies, needless to say, is revealed only by reading the book.

Emerson! Was I going to keep the book, or give it away? Giving it away would be realistic, because keeping it would be aspirational. This is the kind of book that you buy not because you want to read it but because you want to have read it. You want to have learned what it has to say, but you don’t want to wade through the prose. The only way to deal with such books is to put them at the top of the reading pile: do it now. Get it over with.

So I cheated, of course. I read a few of the movie chapters: The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story. It’s amusing to watch an a graceful but professionally non-jocular person handle these comedies. He is not really a connoisseur of comedy, so many of the funniest bits go unmentioned, but he has some provocative insights. He does not like the term “screwball,” as you may have guessed from the rechristening, and à propos of The Awful Truth he ventures to suggest that, since screwball comedies always involve “madcap heiresses,” if there’s a screwball comedy in this picture, then it’s the subplot of Jerry Warriner’s romance with Barbara Vance, possessor of “millions of dollars and no sense.” The perversity of this notion — there can be nothing less madcap than life with the Vances — is funny in itself. Cavell’s account of The Philadelphia Story is so richly humane, so celebratory of Tracy Lord’s triumphant moral trajectory, that the very idea of laughing while watching the film recedes into unlikeliness. When I got to the end of the chapter, I could not remember a single funny thing about it.

So far, so good; interesting, anyway. But: Emerson! My distaste for American prose writers of the Nineteenth Century, especially the famous early ones, is rugged. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville are all very bad dancers, by which I mean that when they take you in their arms they convey no sense of where they are going, and so end up stepping all over your toes. Their sentences have no center of gravity; their decorative touches are often misplaced; their uncertain reach for highfalutin tone is embarrassing. Consider this, from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

[Great works of art] teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.

Hey, Sister Bernadette! We need a diagram!

I tried reading a book by Stanley Cavell once. Little Did I Know is (I think) an intellectual memoir. I gave the book away a long time ago, so I have to trust my rickety memory when I say that it’s a portrait of the philosopher as Henry James. There’s a story in there somewhere, but ruminations on the nature of thought in America, together with something about becoming a Jewish-American mandarin, get in the way. At the time when I was trying to read it, moreover, my suspicion that philosophy generally is just rubbish was breaking through to consciousness. It was foolish, after my experience with Little Did I Know, to buy a copy of Cities of Words.

On the other hand, I certainly know the movies well enough. (Although, to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t seen Stella Dallas, ever.) Perhaps the movies would illuminate the philosophy. That’s probably not what Cavell had in mind. But I resolved to give it a try. I would read the philosophy chapters up to the point where one of them stopped making sense, and then, if that happened, I would chuck the book. I would start with the second philosopher, Locke.

But the chapter devoted to Locke is a continuation of the chapter about Emerson, so I had to go back to the beginning after all. And I had to check my attitude about Emerson at the door, because the point of this exercise was, after all, to deepen my understanding of the movies, not to amass evidence of transcendentalist inanity. And as I crept patiently through the pages, I had to admit that a rather lovely idea was taking shape in my brain. I was really learning something from Stanley Cavell! It’s too soon to put it in my own words, so I’ll have to give you his.

Moral perfectionism challenges ideas of moral motivations, showing (against Kant’s law that counters inclination, and against utilitarianism’s calculation of benefits) the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the attaining of a self that is mine to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world that I can actually desire. (33)

If I can extract any idea, not to mention a lovely one, from writing such as this, I’d better keep going. The important word in all that, the word that links the philosophizing to film, is “desire.”

***

Wednesday 16th

I’ve just re-read Brian Morton’s Breakable You. It’s startling to discover that I first read this novel nine years ago, and that I wrote about it not here but at my old Web site, Portico. It’s more than a little mortifying to read what I wrote then; it seems somewhat stilted, and it reminds me why I no longer attempt “book reviews.” I re-read Breakable You now because of Happiness, the memoir, by Morton’s wife, Heather Harpham, of their daughter’s blood disease and harrowing (but successful!) bone-marrow transplant. In what I recalled of Breakable You, the chapter about the little girl’s similar but fatal ordeal did not figure, and when it was mentioned by Harpham at a book signing, I thought that I must have another look. In any case, it had been too long since I had enjoyed one of the ten best novels I know.

I don’t, however, want to talk about little Zahra, who is already dead when we hear about her. It would be interesting to compare and contrast Happiness with Morton’s vastly compressed account in the twelfth chapter of Breakable You. But I wouldn’t be the person to undertake it. Just as Happiness gripped me more as a portrait of a marriage than as a medical history, so Breakable You is for me a book about grown-up love, whether between lovers or parents and children. It is a book about caring — about the problem of taking care of loved ones in everyday life. Illness, with its sirens and emergencies, pre-empts this problem by putting it in the hands of professionals, and leaving loved ones feeling helpless, the worst sensation that a caring person can have.

What I want to talk about is Adam Weller and the question of evil. I see that, on my Portico page, I refused to specify the awful thing that Adam Weller does, his crime against humanity, really, when I wrote about Breakable You in 2008. I did call him “a pluperfect shit,” but I supported this charge with nothing more damning than evidence of self-centeredness. Adam’s self-centeredness, however, is surrounded by a black hole of uninterest into which everything that is not useful or interesting to him simply disappears. Literary ethics, parental love — it makes no difference. If they don’t serve him, they don’t exist.

In Breakable You, Adam does two completely separate terrible things. Different readers will disagree about which is worse. The second offense occurs at the end of the book. Chastened by the defection of his young and lively mistress, Adam strokes his conscience by paying a visit to his daughter, Maud. Maud has checked herself into a clinic that she has visited twice before in her young life; this time, it’s voluntary, but only technically, because she has broken down as a mother and cannot tend to her infant son, who cries all the time. During the visit, which of course Adam finds very despressing, Maud tells her father that the food is terrible and that she longs for Internet access — forbidden because the older male patients root out porn sites — in order to keep up with her PhD peers. Still diminished, Adam resolves to visit her the next night, and he does so, bringing a bag of treats from Zabar’s. While waiting at the clinic for visiting hours to begin, however, he strikes up a flirtation with another visitor, an attractive woman who seems prepared to respond to further advances. His self-confidence restored, his itch for penance evaporates, and he walks out of the clinic without having seen Maud, dumps the Zabar’s bag in the garbage, and heads back to Manhattan and a literary dinner at Elaine’s, a renewed man. As with many of Adam’s sins, no one will ever know. This only makes him more despicable.

The other offense is infamous and gross, but the only victim is the literary community at its most abstract: a body of memories. Before the novel begins, Adam’s old friend and rival author, Izzy Cantor, has died. Not long into the action, Izzy’s widow, Ruth, summons Adam: it turns out that Izzy left a completed but unread manuscript. Would Adam take a look at it? Reluctantly — for he expects the novel to be a bore — Adam agrees.

Adam had come to realize that the problem with Izzy’s writing was the problem with Izzy. He didn’t have enough of the devil in him. Izzy always wanted to be the nice guy. He wanted to take care of everybody. This made him a wonderful husband and father: steadier, more responsible, more caring than Adam had ever dreamed of being. But it had made him a bland writer.

In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe than any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters dide something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. It was as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a novelist or a social worker. (99)

Having read all of Brian Morton’s novels, I can well imagine that the charge against Izzy has been laid against his creator as well, and about Adam there is an aura of determination to present a character who really cannot be forgiven. Nine years ago, I wrote that Morton “clearly cares about his characters — even Adam, whose faults would not be so lovingly drawn if his creator truly despised him.” Now, I’m  not so sure. Instead of “lovingly drawn,” I might say “scrupulously anatomized.” But I pull back from branding Adam as evil.

The element that distinguishes evil from other varieties of badness is gratuitousness, and this is something of which I find sane human beings to be incapable. You could argue that sadists derive gratuitous pleasure from the suffering of others, but sadism is far too implicated in the expression of power to be purposeless. (Curiously, “sadism” today seems almost to have been detached from sexual cruelty, its original expression.) Adam has many grubby reasons for his aloof, unpunished wickedness. Izzy’s book, published under Izzy’s name, would cast Adam’s reputation into a chilly shade. His first tactic is to persuade Ruth that the book is not good enough to publish. When, shortly thereafter, she dies of cancer, the way is cleared to claim the book as his own, especially after Izzy’s unliterary daughter begs Adam to take possession of Izzy’s papers, among which lies a carbon copy of the novel. Step by step, in a gothic progression that brought Richard III very much to my mind, Adam compasses the crime of literary appropriation. He will be the famous writer; his reputation will be resurrected from the infertility of fallow years.

More and more, “evil” seems to be shorthand for “I can’t bear to think about it.” But the bad behavior of someone like Adam Weller requires very close attention. The conditions that allow him to escape the consequences of his misdeeds are almost as reprehensible as he is. Everyone close to Adam suspects — or knows — that he is a beast, but because his surface is sleek and civically virtuous, it’s easier to put up with him than to complain: that’s a problem, too. Adam is an injustice for which we have not yet evolved a remedy — a remedy not just for his victims, but for us all.

***

Thursday 17th

Last month, The New Yorker published Alexandra Schwartz’s rave review — I want to come back to that cliché — of Conversations With Friends, the first novel by a twenty-something Irishwoman named Sally Rooney. Before saying a word about her fiction, Schwartz informed us that Rooney is an ace debater, the best in Europe, actually, in her year on the circuit as a college student. I regard debating as a dubious activity — so does Rooney, apparently; she gave it up — but it certainly teaches one not to waste words, and surely there is nothing so intimidating as sound knowledge presented with fierce concision. I was panting with dread by the time Schwartz got round to the book, concisely enough, in the second paragraph of her review. By the end of the piece, I was raving. I ordered the book immediately. Then, by some miracle, I forgot almost all of the plot details that Schwartz had divulged. During the brief period between order and delivery, I thought of Conversation With Friends as the book by the smart girl from Trinity.

The thing is, I don’t trust myself to discuss this book in such a way that you’ll forget everything that I say, except that it’s very, very good. I can do no more, for example, than refer to a piece of email that appears at a climactic point. I read it with a racing pulse. Like so much email, and despite the recipient’s hunch that it has been heavily edited, it is a naked document, luridly revealing the contortions of a violently uncomfortable consciousness, contradicting itself again and again in spirit if not in statement, hopelessly stuck on the urge to be enraged and forgiving at once. Already, I think I’ve said too much!

How about this: the only thing that happens in this book that doesn’t happen in almost every book about a college student and a somewhat older married man who have an affair is that the girl discovers that she has endometriosis. This is certainly an interesting disease for a woman in her position to develop; from a novelist’s standpoint, it provides a powerful way of externalizing her heroine’s agonies, manifesting her pain in real symptoms, instead of the loops of acrimonious verbiage that are usually spun out. But it does not really explain how Rooney makes her story so interesting, nay gripping, to begin with. There are no exotic ingredients involved. But then, I forget: it is not I who am having the affair. It is a brilliant virgin. For her, this is all new, and not what she expected, and by giving us that, the twisted novelty of it all, Rooney makes it new for us.

Perhaps it’s age. As I get older, youth seems more and more dangerous. Being young amounts to little more, in my long view, than being ignorant, and, like the writer of the email, torn between contradictory viewpoints. Smart young people especially are uncomfortably aware of their ignorance. At the same time, they think they know where this ignorance sits, and how to avoid its very bad advice. The dissonance makes them occasionally reckless. Both Frances, the girl in Conversations With Friends, and Nick, the married man, who is also a generically great-looking B-list actor, are more complicated and more vulnerable than they think. In the middle of the novel, there is a moment when Frances, thwarted by a momentary impasse, says something so wounding to Nick that I was afraid that he might take his own life. My reaction was not so very melodramatic; I must have already sensed what I presently learned, which was that Nick has been hospitalized with depression. I read Conversations With Friends as if, on every page, it were only moments away from veering into bloody catastrophe.

There were a few lighter moments, in which it seemed to me that Frances was conducting an illicit affair with herself, with an obbligato carbon unit acting as a sort of sex doll/punching bag. (But these were early moments, before Nick revealed himself to be a genuinely appealing human being, the very opposite of the self-seeking shit that he is set up to be.) In the old days, women having affairs (in novels) deluded themselves into thinking that they could contain their love, keep it under control and in proportion, only to find out that love is not love that knows control. Today’s smart girl — and I keep saying “girl” because Frances is so palpably not grown up — thinks that she can keep things superficial and not fall in love at all. To fall in love is humiliating. To fall in love with a married man and then discover that you hate his wife is humiliating. To respond to humiliation by cutting yourself is humiliating. But the humiliation abrades the bored self-respect with which Frances has navigated her life so far, shearing it away like a callus. The novel’s thrillingly romantic final line signals Frances’s surrender to adulthood. You don’t know which is more overpowering: that, or Rooney’s literary triumph.

***

As I looked back the sex scenes in Conversations With Friends, which are indeed all about surrender, my signals were interrupted by lines that couldn’t have come from the novel, such as:

And here he was with this woman, this woman who had nothing to do with his life, pushing his cock into her anus, something he’d never done before with any woman and had never wanted to do, but with [her] he wanted to do everything, but he didn’t want to want to do everything with her, because…

This couldn’t be Rooney’s Nick. What else had I been reading lately? Oh, yes: Breakable You. The passage appears on page 119, and the elided “her” is Maud Weller. The man having the thought is Samir. Both novels involve what Maud calls a “sexual carnival,” and both couples “do everything.” Neither novelist is especially graphic, but both are explicit about variety. And both follow variety to the point of pain. Never having experienced this kind of pain, I take it on faith in these writers’ authority that it is sweet rather than perverse, pain without malevolence. But I am allergic to pain. I shut down at mere discomfort. “He wanted to do everything.” I’ve heard people say this — well, I’ve read it, if I haven’t exactly heard it — often enough that it no longer seems crazy, which it did for a long time. Now I just file it alongside “I would like to climb Mount Everest.” My body has no curiosity whatever.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Clowns of Bohemia
August 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 8th

Ross Douthat said something interesting in his Sunday Times piece. (He’s almost always interesting, but you know what I mean.)

The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.

He’s right, of course, except that “liberalism,” mainstream or otherwise, has nothing to do with this development. The moment you go “a little bit insane,” you’re no longer a liberal.

Dispassion is both an essential component and a major defect of liberalism. It is what allows the liberal to sympathize with positions that he does not hold, to understand “where they’re coming from” and to try to work out accommodations. This desire to accommodate, this ability to compromise, these are the traits that non-liberals revile. To the illiberal mind, dispassion signals an inability to care. The liberal mind is painfully aware of the ease with which caring leads to conflict. Accommodation is very difficult — and it is not always possible. But the liberal keeps trying. Right now, true liberals are as rare as any endangered species.

When Douthat goes on to say, “Liberalism used to recognize the complexities of immigration,” what he’s really saying is that liberalism has dropped out of mainstream political discourse. The ghost of liberal approval of certain positions on certain issues hovers over the center-left, but the distaste for zealousness has disappeared. “Liberalism” is a term that so-called educated people used to respect, even if they didn’t know what it meant, but now it just seems weak and confused. It was an important banner in the Cold War. Now it is an empty shell, nailed to a post as a shooting target.

How did this happen? Liberalism has long been expelled from its native, Republican party, and it has never been welcomed by Democrats. I have suggested elsewhere that liberalism has been fatally corrupted by a belief in meritocracy. Meritocracy suits the liberal mind, which is uncomfortable pronouncing judgments on people and fears the abuse of discretion. Much better just to make everyone sit an exam. But there are too many important human qualities that can’t be tested.

“Liberalism” has become identified with feminism, environmentalism, and the embrace of social diversity, but there is nothing liberal about any of these issues, especially the last. You can be a liberal feminist or a liberal environmentalist, but your willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy and sincerity (if not the correctness) of conservative opposition to these “isms” will probably discredit you in the eyes of more ardent advocates.

It doesn’t seem to be much different on the other side. Real conservatism is the party of faith in God. It is not a front for the Chamber of Commerce, and it ought to steer clear of greedy plutocrats.

What we’re left with in this country is a pair of radicalized blocs. On one side, people cry out for social justice. On the other, they demand the end of the state. There is no interest in politics. But why would there be, when everything that’s “real” happens on a screen?

***

Wednesday 9th

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote in his Times column that he is going to pay less attention to the President. That may be a tall order, but if it means that he is going to talk less about what he sees, I’m all for it. It’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since the Inauguration. This is not because I’ve succumbed to magical thinking, and believe that Grump will go away if I ignore him. It’s rather because I’m waiting for something to happen. So far, nothing has. If you set the tumult in the West Wing to one side — I remember the good old days, when no one knew where the West Wing was, much less who was in it — all you have is the failure to Repeal and Replace. I realize that this could change. We could have fire and fury. But nothing has happened yet, certainly nothing worth paying attention to. More dismaying is the fact that nothing has happened in the Democratic Party, either.

For a few days, recently, I wondered if we’re not in for a repeat of the Carter Administration. I got the idea from something that I read somewhere, and was haunted by the way I had carried on, in the early Reagan days, about what a bad president Jimmy Carter was. “The worst!” I cried. Jimmy Carter was so bad that, even with his incumbent’s advantage, he could not defeat an ageing actor. I was in my early thirties at the time, and not very seasoned. Now that I’ve seen more of what the country can come up with, Carter doesn’t seem so bad.

Then I was reading a book about China. It was published in 1992, when lots of China-watchers believed that the Tiananmen Square massacre would bring the Communist Party down. Nobody in 1992 could foresee what the Internet was going to do for China — in terms of manufacturing profits, not political liberation — or that the sons of Mao’s adjutants were going to assume power as if by hereditary right. The book — The Tyranny of History, by WJF Jenner — is invaluable even in its unrealized expectations, but I’m particularly glad to have re-read it because it made me realize that Grump is less like Carter and more like Mao. Like Grump, Mao bored easily, and he could take only so much peace and quiet. So far, there is little to suggest that the President has the Chairman’s ability to whip up chaos — something like the Cultural Revolution, say — throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Far more interesting than anything going on in Washington is the firing of James Damore at Google. I’m with Voltaire on this one: we have to fight to the death to protect people’s right to say stupid things. At the same time, not everything can be overlooked. Insults, for example. Was Damore’s memo insulting? It was disrespectful, but that’s something else. Advocates of political correctness ought to reflect that careful speech has done very little to advance the struggle against racism in this country. It may even have done positive harm, by lulling bystanders into believing that racism is a thing of the past. The same can be said for misogyny. If there are men who believe that women lack the equipment to cope with stress, then how are we going to know who they are unless we let them speak their minds with impunity? Only then can we investigate their valorization of stress, and thank them for pointing out that women lack the equipment to be self-destructive.

***

The other day, I weathered an attack of the vapors by watching A Thousand Clowns. I had just rescued the videotape from the room by the freight elevator where Ray Soleil had dumped a bag of discardenda from the storage unit. I had declined to paw through the tapes at the unit itself, because I had just culled piles of LPs and books and was tired of making decisions. Back at the apartment, though, I saw A Thousand Clowns peeping out from a shopping bag, and I grabbed it.

It was a very big movie in 1965, at least for me. For the first time, I watched a grown-up, played by Jason Robards, Jr, stage a protest against the regimentation of nine-to-five life. It is a doomed gesture, of course; in the end, to keep not only the custody of his tween nephew (a fantastic Barry Gordon) but also the romantic interest of Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris at her most winsome), Murray Burns puts on a suit and goes back to work — writing gags for a TV clown. But the movie is an extended day off, an ode to the joy of playing hookey in Manhattan. And what a Manhattan it was! The light in midtown was always dusty with particulate matter. The men in their fedoras, the women in their gloves — it all really existed; I saw it myself. The Metropolitan Opera House was under construction! In the Wall Street skyline (seen from the Statue of Liberty), rectangles had only begun to dwarf the spires.

A Thousand Clowns started out as a Broadway show, and Fred Coe’s film toggles between theatrical scenes, set mostly in a one-room walkup, and cinematic montages, in which many local landmarks make an appearance. There is a feeling, also palpable in Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), of a new world waiting to crack through the old edifice. It’s much easier to see the old than the new, because the new hasn’t really taken shape yet; it’s just about to. The harshness of the change is blared by Don Walker’s marching-band score, which promises a more carefree life to come even as it makes fun of the commuters running to catch a bus. Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography suffers the period’s addiction to zooms whenever the camera is set up out of doors.

What keeps the movie from flying off into fecklessness is Martin Balsam’s award-winning performance as Murray’s brother, who has settled down to the responsibilities of a wife and three kids. He used to be a free spirit, too, but he has matured, and his tired but proud defense of bourgeois commitment makes Murray look stunted. Also arresting is the performance by William Daniels, as a social worker who’s supposed to be a figure of fun. According to IMDb, Daniels hasn’t made all that many feature films, but he always seems hugely familiar, probably because he always plays the same character, a creature of the period, the respectable, rule-bound priss who battens down his massive anxieties by insisting on correct procedure. He gives a little something extra in Coe’s picture, and never misses a chance to be inadvertently funny.

***

Thursday 10th

It’s a small world — in another sort of way. Ray Soleil dropped by yesterday afternoon, in connection with our impending evacuation of the downtown storage unit*, and as we chatted over iced tea I showed him a book that I was reading, Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Flipping through the pages, I was surprised by a bit of artwork that I hadn’t noticed before (the book is illustrated with drawings and photos), not having got that far in the text. It was an Al Hirschfeld drawing for the Times, and it didn’t take me long to see that it was his rendering of A Thousand Clowns! There they were, Jason Robards, Jr and Barry Gordon, strumming their guitars and (you could almost hear it) singing “Yes, sir, that’s my baby”— but not, surely, to Barbara Harris. Could that be Sandy Dennis? Indeed it was. Sandy Dennis played Sandra Markowitz in the 1962 Broadway production of A Thousand Clowns. Here I had just been writing about the movie, and a book that I happened to be reading tossed me a delightful picture of the play on which it was based. Of all the Hirschfelds that Tamara Shopsin could have picked!

Her choice of A Thousand Clowns seems by no means accidental. It quite beautifully suits her winsome and comic memoir of la vie de Bohème in the middle and late decades of the last century, when Manhattan was a teeming dump of crazy genuine diversity and not the bloated pied-à-terre that it has become. I’m not quite sure what prompted me to buy Arbitrary Stupid Goal, because I have strict rules about new acquisitions on the library front (having no more room for books), involving parameters that Shopsin’s book doesn’t meet. Moment of weakness, I guess. I had never heard of Shopsin or her family or her family’s famous restaurant, which makes a lot of sense and leads me directly to say that this is what books are for: to take you to places that you can’t or wouldn’t want to visit. The restaurant described in Arbitrary Stupid Goal is an outstanding example of the latter — for me. First of all, it’s tiny and crowded, and probably not very quiet. Second, it’s full of famous people. Third and most, it’s definitely not my kind of cuisine. But the book is a delight, and I’m afraid that I’m going to have to keep it, and find out how to put it right next to Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli.

A Thousand Clowns and Arbitrary Stupid Goal have something else in common — although maybe it’s not really something else. Maybe it’s already included in the New York chapter of Bohemia. They’re both the same certain kind of Jewish. There’s nothing religious about this, nothing even racial. Post-tribal at the most. This certain kind of Jewish manifests itself in a way of speaking that, like Irish English, expresses a heightened consciousness of how the language works along with a complete lack of respect for its formalities. Grammatically, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a Superfund site; nobody under the age of thirty ought to be allowed to read it, lest its pungent vernacular denature basic literary standards. In A Thousand Clowns, the tone is just the opposite, mock-polite and faux bureaucratic. But in both cases, things don’t mean what they say. They mean things that it’s not cool to say, things that can only be hinted at by articulate indirection. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand. Maybe you do have to be a New Yorker.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Once known jocularly as “Westphalia,” because “that’s where we keep detritus.” The jocularity evaporated more than five years ago. If I were to give the storage unit a nickname today, it would be “Don’t!”

Gotham Diary:
Bubbles
August 2017 (I)

1, 2 and 3 August

Tuesday 1st

Yesterday, the new record-player arrived. I could call it a phonograph, but that would be untrue to the experience of playing records, which is what I did for an hour or two in the afternoon. Playing records was something that teenagers did in the Fifties and Sixties. It didn’t matter whether the records were pop, classical, or jazz. Or comedy — comedy was very popular with brainy kids. Later, when we acquired components, we would refer to the stereo. The record-player itself gave way to the turntable. Unlike record-players, turntables were incapable of making a sound; you had to hook them up to amplifiers, which in turn fed speakers. If an amplifier included a radio dial, as most did but rarely mine, it was called a receiver.

Last week, Ray Soleil, who is diligently evacuating our storage unit — as of Friday afternoon, if all goes according to schedule, there will be no more books in the room, not a one — brought a few dozen LPs that I’d elected to save up to the apartment. When I unpacked the record-player, an inexpensive Ion product, and plugged in the power (and figured out how to turn it on), I reached for one of the oldest LPs in the bunch: Heavenly Echoes of My Fair Lady, played by George Feier, “with rhythm accompaniment.”

The record belonged to my parents and is quite scratchy. I don’t know how they came to have it. Did someone take them to the Café Carlyle, where George Feier was as much a fixture as Bobby Short would be later on? It’s hard to see them there, but this would have been in 1956 or 1957, when My Fair Lady was the toast of the town, and my mother was still in her thirties. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible that someone simply gave them the record as a gift.

The album cover is a sketch of George Feier at the piano. Overhead, on clouds not terribly like the one that Al Hirschfeld created for his iconic poster for the musical, several gentlemen in various historical costumes are standing around. They are, of course, great composers. The “heavenly echoes” are Feier’s parodies of the showtunes, each written in a composer’s recognizable style, which, in case you don’t get it, is supplemented by an obvious quote from the composer’s actual music. Bach and Mozart are immediately identifiable, and, when I appropriated the LP, sometime between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I duly labeled them with a ball-point pen. I got Liszt and Johann Strauss right, too. But I identified Verdi as Rachmaninoff before scratching that out and labeling him correctly — once you listened to Feier’s entertainment, you knew who the parodied composers were. Rachmaninoff and Chopin confounded me. On  Chopin’s frock coat, “Rach” and “Chopin” are both scratched out, and “Rach” written again; while Rachmaninoff’s figure bears a scratched-out “Rogers,” ostensibly corrected by “Loewe.” I must have decided that the composer of “The Rain in Spain” was also in heaven, and I already knew enough about Broadway to assume that Richard Rodgers must be connected to a hit show. I won’t describe my later defacement of the album cover further than to say that it involves the name of Sigmund Romberg and constitutes embarrassing testimony to my very uncertain early-adolescent tastes. It amazes me that the LP and its jacket are still in my possession.

While the record played, I sat in my chair and sipped iced tea. I don’t usually sit around listening to things. I listen to music when I’m in the kitchen, or doing housework. (I find that I can no longer read or write if music is playing.) But listening to music usually involves a playlist on an iPod that lasts for hours. Listening to records, in contrast, is a matter of playing one or two cuts from an LP and then moving on to something else. It was one thing to sit through George Feier; the rest of my record playing was more ambulatory. If I sat down, it was only to get up again in a minute. I hadn’t heard any of these records in years — decades — and a lot of what I played yesterday was frankly surprising. Beverly Sills’s recording of Victor Herbert’s “Art Is Calling To Me” — a novelty march sung by a princess who dreams of being a “peachy screechy cantatrice” — is strangely muffled, as if Sills were singing from inside a double bass. In my first recording of Bach’s Cantata BWV 78, the second number, a duet, “Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten,” is sung not by two women but by two choir sections, and the sopranos are rather shrill. The harpsichord, taking the place of the more conventional positif organ, is not entirely audible. But this was how I got to know the music and I loved it; it does sound somehow more angelic. Lovely as ever was the mazurka from Messager’s Isoline, which I’ve never been able to find on CD; I don’t know why the piece isn’t better known. The last cut on that LP, oddly, is a recording of Berlioz’s grandiose arrangement of “La Marseillaise,” with the final verse sung by children, joined by the adults at the thundering end. I couldn’t resist revisiting this performance, although the anthem itself, bellicose and nationalistic, always makes me squirm.

In a different key, I listened to “Phobos and Deimos Visit Mars,” from an electronic album by Larry Fast called Synergy: Cords. The LP is translucent and milky white. And then I listened to something that I do have on CD, as well as in MP3 format, “Simoon,” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. I kept that LP because of its cover art, which turns out to be shockingly prophetic of Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina. But if there was ever a song made for playing records, it is “Simoon.” This sinuous rhumba transports the listener right into a Gong Li movie set in Shanghai in the Thirties (but not Shanghai). The room filled with virtual cigarette smoke.

It goes without saying that the record player comes equipped with a USB cable; the point is to play the records once, to feed the music into the computer, and then, if you live in an apartment and are haunted by Marie Kondo, to get rid of the vinyl. But I can’t even think about that until I’ve shredded all the bank statements and other useless documents that slumbered in the storage unit, and found places for the thirty-odd books that decided to keep at home. Playing records was very charming, but I don’t know when I’ll do it again, once I’ve sampled everything that arrived last week.

Then I went out. I don’t usually go out in the late afternoon, either, but there was a reading at the Barnes & Noble up 86th Street that I didn’t want to miss. You could say that I’d been playing records as a way of passing the time without getting caught up in something. Which is pretty much how it was, when we used to listen to records while we waited to grow up.

***

Wednesday 2nd

The reading at Barnes & Noble that I mentioned yesterday was given by Heather Harpham, to promote her new — and her first — book, Happiness. I had not heard of Heather before receiving, sometime last month, a circular email from her husband, the novelist Brian Morton, announcing the event. I am a great admirer of Brian’s novels, and, as my use of first names suggests, I have exchanged a few letters with him over the years. Since he lives and works pretty much where I grew up, notoriously “sixteen miles from Times Square,” I have blathered about taking the train up to Bronxville and having lunch with him, and I still hope to do that. At the moment, hobbling up 86th Street the two blocks to Lexington Avenue was just about the most I could do.

Although I have re-read Brian’s novels several times, and notwithstanding the sporadic emails, I wouldn’t say that I know him personally. He gives every evidence of being a private person, and also seems to be the sort of man, rare enough, who would much rather hear what other people are thinking about than talking about himself. So when I read a few lines of publicity prose about Happiness, I developed an almost instant Too Much Information rash. It seemed a betrayal of our cordial non-intimacy to learn that when Heather got pregnant, shortly after the turn of the century, Brian didn’t want to be a father. He was forty-five, Heather nearly fifteen years younger. He was comfortable in his Upper West Side life — but don’t let me get in the way.

After our third date, we went back to his apartment. He was a studio dweller on the Upper West Side, twenty-sixth floor, a view of the George Washington Bridge, which he revered. A wall of windows and little else. He had a single pot and stacks of books. Against the barrenness, he’d waged the smallest possible stand — a decorative postage stamp. Joe Louis.

***

But Brian knew how to work. His life was ordered, boundaried to the extreme. A man who, by his own admission, ate broccoli with brown rice and garlic every night for dinner. A man who pruned back the trivial decisions, who wore French Blue dress shirts and black pants every day of the week for consistency’s sake. A man with an embedded internal clock, which told him to sit and write at the same hour, day after day. A man with a gift, and the dense garden of his habit grown around it for protection. (12-13)

I think that Heather puts this all very well, very well, and in a voice that I find distinctively her own. (The “dense garden of habit” is the richest metaphor that I’ve encountered this year — so rich that I have to ask, is it a metaphor?) I suppose that, if you don’t pay attention, Heather might sound like just another woman writing about her child’s harrowing disease, and, on the basis of the snips that I read before I had the chance to open the book, that is what I was expecting. Despite the risk of betrayal, I would read Happiness out of loyalty to Brian.

But loyalty to Brian is hard for any reader to sustain after the first couple of pages, because Heather uses snapshots of falling in love with him in New York as somewhat ironic cushions to soften the blow of her newborn daughter’s endangered life not so very many months later in San Francisco. There is something wrong with the child’s blood: her red blood cells don’t mature, but fall apart, releasing raw iron into her body. Keeping her alive requires transfusions, monthly. And while Heather tries to cope with this chaos — as I understand it, although Gracie’s disease was cured, it was never actually diagnosed — Brian is back East in his dense garden. Wounded by his rejection of fatherhood and marriage, Heather has returned to her native Marin County and she has not kept in touch. For all intents and purposes, she and Brian have broken up, and, although his readiness to provide child support is never in doubt, Heather is set to be a single mom.

That’s very well what might have happened, had Gracie been healthy. It wasn’t long after I realized that I wasn’t reading Happiness out of loyalty to Brian or to anybody else — that I was reading Happiness because I couldn’t put it down — that I began to expect Heather to surprise me. I knew that the story was going to end happily; Gracie was present at the reading, after all, and her mother told the audience that she was cured. But I also knew, not too far in, that the story was not really about Gracie, or about illness and the dread of waiting for test results, even though there’s plenty of all that. The story was about a marriage, a marriage that did not survive a crisis but that was undertaken because of one, a wedding that took more than four years to perform. It is a story told by one party to the marriage, very much alone and uncertain about her partner, and not from the bogus viewpoint of the first person plural. Happiness is full of small gusts of dark anger. The anger passes; the bruises heal. But the distance between spouses is registered, and without the pretense of even-handedness. Writing the book, I should say, Heather Harpham was not angry at Brian Morton. But she certainly had been angry with him, sometimes murderously so. Through it all, she loved him. I can think of very few novels that have encompassed the emotional complexity of marriage as well as this memoir, and even fewer that portray marriages between two such well-intentioned people. In the following passage, these well-intentioned people, closer to the end of their ordeal than they dare think, are also exhausted.

We brush our teeth, climb under the covers, in silence. It is obvious what should happen next; it has been weeks. Maybe months. I’ve lost track. But it is equally obvious this is not going to happen. I turn away, but let my foot drift over to touch Brian, the smallest of conciliatory gestures. He doesn’t move away or toward me; just lets my foot rest against his. Toes to toes, the best we can do. Brian turns to face me. “Alone is one way to get through adversity, but is it the best way?” This formulation is a joke, something we say. That’s one way to … whatever the thing is … but is it the best way? No response from me. No giggle, no touch. Silence.

“In hard times,” Brian says, “people typically do better when they huddle together for warmth.”

“Who are you, Shackleton? I know how to cope with adversity, Brian, but thanks for the lesson.”

This silences us both. I have no idea why I’m lashing out. Gracie is OK, she’s sleeping not six miles away. But I am bizarrely furious. Fury in search of an object.

We’ve been dangled by our ankles while children dropped around us; children fell. Surely there is someone to blame. (258)

Yes: children. Gracie has a younger sibling, and the younger sibling saves Gracie’s life. Of course it is her parents who do this, by engendering the sibling, which, characteristically, they manage to do in spite of themselves. Everything that blooms in this book, flower or weed, is the fruit of one relationship, one pair of stumbling human beings, determined to do the right thing, even when they don’t agree what that is, while never being misled by ideals, the narcissistic voice of righteousness. From time to time, righteousness blows through Heather at gale force, but it never knocks her down. As for Brian, Happiness is not his story. And although the TMI problem faded almost immediately, I did learn enough about Brian Morton to doubt that he is ever going to tell it.

***

Thursday 3rd

A few years ago, a regular reader suggested that I have a look at William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). I bought it, but did not look at it; the book drifted farther and farther from my reading pile, and a couple of weeks ago I rescued it from the storage unit, whither I think it was sent when we moved into this apartment and many very hasty decisions were made. Janeway’s book is clearly daunting, not really meant for general readers. I hate to think what it cost: the paper is very heavy, and the general presentation is that of a classy textbook. The dust jacket is not particularly inviting. The title takes the top half, while the bottom shows a smartphone; there’s a blurb in between. The pale blue background creates the clinical effect of a handbook on the side-effects of chemotherapy.

I did what I often do with perplexing books: I began in the middle, with the chapter called “The Banality of Bubbles.” It turned out to be a sharp history of European and American bubbles since the tulip craze, including a few that I hadn’t really heard of, such as the joint-stock bubble of the 1690s, which was swept into oblivion by the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Midway through the following chapter, “Explaining Bubbles,” though, I realized that I was going to have to go back to the beginning if I was to make sense of the author’s frequent references to “the three-player game” and to “Cash and Control.”

Janeway, a venture capitalist at Warburg Pincus with a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, is a very serious contrarian. He rejects neoliberal economic theory, the efficient market hypothesis, and all the bad ideas that landed us in the soup in 2008. I’ve worked my way back to where I was in the book, and am now in the middle of “The Necessity of Bubbles,” but although this might sound callow, Janeway makes an important distinction between asset bubbles and credit bubbles. The latter are not so good. But without bubbles, there is no innovation, because innovation, in his view, arises from waste, from spending millions of dollars on hundreds of start-ups so that one or two will pan out. He is also a believer in big-state capitalism, but I haven’t reached his discussion of that, so I’ll limit myself to observing that he recognizes and applauds the government’s role in fostering medical and technological advances.

It is all fairly difficult to digest, because although Janeway is a clear writer who avoids jargon, he is very much writing from deep within the enterprise space, where the physics is a little different from out here on city streets. And as a historian, he is informed but somewhat amateur; he does not always frame the developments that he writes about as clearly as a professional might do. But it’s also true that I’m reading against him, noting the places where his enthusiasm for innovation occludes the importance of sustainability.

As I’ve written at least once, I think that the arc of innovation that arose in the Eighteenth Century has touched ground. I don’t mean that there won’t be anything new in the future; for all I know, we’re on the eve of the most sweeping innovation of all. But I believe that we have passed the point at which we can abandon the old when we adopt the new. There is simply too much of the old. We need a government that will take the maintenance of American infrastructure as a serious national-security issue, and spend on bridges and aqueducts instead what it is currently blowing on weapons that seem designed for wars that nobody is ever going to fight. (It is certainly time for hackers to be militarized.) Our cities are surrounded by peripheries that need to be repurposed with large-scale vision. Sprawl makes no sense to anyone but the opportunistic, small-time developer, and has degenerated into a gamble that most players will lose. In short, we have a lot of junk to take care of; it is not going to go away. We need an Upkeep Economy.

Paradoxically, this may require some innovations in finance. No, no more of that! I hear you cry. But I’m not thinking of novel financial instruments. I’m thinking of micro- or even nano-transactions, payments or levies so small but so numerous that funds pile up automatically and painlessly. I’m thinking of an EZ Pass that you carry in your wallet and that charges you a penny every time you step out on the pavement. Or the first time every day that you step out on the pavement — it really won’t do to get too specific at this stage. A tenth of a penny! Those pennies would be marked for funding the repavement of the street. Funds might even be used to develop better paving technologies — quicker, less intrusive, more lasting — replacing the role of asset bubbles in innovation with activity bubbles. In a way, I suppose, I’m trying to turn the waste process of innovation around, and run it in reverse. I don’t command the language or abstraction of economics well enough to explain what that might mean, and in fact it might be impossible. But my thoughts bend in that direction.

Certainly it had never occurred to me that innovation depends on financial bubbles. If that’s the case, then we might explain the Industrial Revolution not in the conventional terms of technological advances but rather in terms of financial preparedness: by the end of the Eighteenth Century, Western economies had experienced several bubbles (albeit unproductive ones), which, instead of inoculating investors against them, appear to have created an itch. Not everybody who participates in a bubble loses his shirt! As Janeway points out, the American railroad bubble of the 1850s provided the Union with the transportation network that played such a great role in its victory.

Pop!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
October 2017 (II)

Tuesday 12th

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations… but don’t worry! I haven’t got very far, and I don’t have anything to say, yet. I’m too busy trying to learn something.

Wittgenstein does, however, have an excellent bedside manner. He is calm and curious and he never shouts. Unlike Plato and Kant, he does not squint at you as if to say that perhaps you do not deserve treatment. Nor does he give the impression, which I always get from Descartes, of a well-behaved madman, the crackpot nature of whose theories threatens to reveal itself at any minute. The medicine that Wittgenstein pours out does not taste horrible. Regardless of whether what he’s saying makes any sense, he is reassuring. He has made my problem with philosophy go away, at least a little.

A very popular feature in the Times Magazine every Sunday deals with “ethical” questions that readers submit to such experts as Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Should I tell my sister that her husband is having an affair?” I never read it. The urge behind these questions is always, plainly, gossip. Insofar as gossip serves as a social regulator, making sure that nobody gets away with any fast moves, that’s as it should be, but it’s wrong, I think, to confuse gossip with the distinction of right from wrong. As an American, I have lived my entire intellectual life in an atmosphere of gentle pragmatism, which is governed by two principles — you do what you can, and you can always do better — and one caveat: if you beat yourself up, you’ll be no good for anything. I am rarely troubled by doubts about the right thing to do under the circumstances. This may account for my problem with philosophy: it bogs down under circumstances.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, however, I have at least been able to put philosophy in perspective. To be exact, it’s a perspective that relates philosophy to other ways of using words to settle questions of right and wrong. The law is one. By “the law” I mean the professional practice of law, with all of its technicalities and terms of art, that is brought to bear on everyday problems in and out of courtrooms. In the West, we have two very different types of everyday law, one that speaks English and one that’s inherited from the Romans. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of philosophers and theologians, we in the West settle our disputes in court. Many laymen feel that this is a mistake, but it has the advantage of operating without violence.

Poetry is another mode of talking about truth. Poems aren’t very good at deciding cases, but they remind us of the peculiar dimensions of the human space in which we live. The morality of poetry is a morality of diction: not of right and wrong but of good and better.

I don’t know what to do with philology or linguistics. Is philology just linguistics applied to ancient texts, a history of Western languages, in effect? Is linguistics a species of philosophy, or a branch of biology? What do we want these disciplines to tell us? The difference between philosophy, even as Wittgenstein practices it, and linguistics seems to be philosophy’s working assumption that there is something permanent about the language that the philosopher uses. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky appear to believe something of the sort, but I think they’re mistaken. The only thing that languages have in common — the different languages, with their simplifying labels (French, Urdu, &c), that people speak today, but also the different languages that each language has been throughout its history — is the need to provide a reliable medium for communication. Solutions to this need have varied widely.

Meanwhile, “Platte!” “Slab!”

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Dissolu Typique
July 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 28 July

Monday 24th

Every now and then, I have to remind myself that I discovered Nancy Mitford in a perfectly respectable manner, one that she would have approved. I read her books. Not the novels, but the full-length historical portraits that came later, of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great. (Voltaire in Love was never given the coffee-table treatment that created a new genre in Louis XIV and provided a new format for the book about Pompadour.) These three books were early treasures in my library — I still have them — long before my first wife handed me a copy of Hons and Rebels, and Nancy Mitford became Head Girl of the Peers’ Daughters Traveling Circus.

People often wonder why the antics of these spoiled darlings continue to interest readers. The answer is right there in the question: readers. Nothing that the sisters did became real (much less funny) until it was retold as a story, to accompanying “shrieks.” Many were written down in letters from one sister to another. Jessica’s nearly-libelous memoir brought a lot of these tales to the public, and the public was entertained. It wasn’t all laughs; there were plenty of dark chapters. But over the years the corpus of Materia Mitfordica grew and grew. Letters were published, biographies assembled. Nancy’s novels were re-examined, to compare them with what really happened. And most of the girls went on living from decade to decade. Already in the public eye as early as 1930, the sisters held on — four of them, anyway — until the mid Nineties. The youngest, Deborah, grew enormously in stature as the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of a Stately Home that she and her husband had heroically saved from the maw of the tax man, and the marketer of many cannily upscale agricultural products. She was a monument herself by the time of her death, at 94, in 2014. (It is hard to imagine that there won’t be a big book about her; I only hope that I live to read it.) Diana, the notorious Nazi-defender— to her dying day, she refused to recant her support of her husband’s support of Hitler — died in the Paris heat wave of 2003, the author of several taut volumes of her own, aged 93 and beautiful to the end. Jessica had quieted down some by the time she succumbed, very quickly, to lung cancer, but her books, especially the hilarious, muckraking American Way of Death, were still in print. Print, print, print: almost everything was in print. Even letters from Unity, eventually. Unity was the one who became Hitler’s soul mate, his dream of English aristocracy. The two of them would sit by the fire and chat about who knows what — it drove the rest of his entourage crazy  with courtly anxieties. Unity shot herself when the war broke out, but she lived, somewhat damaged, for another nine years, being the second sibling to die. The first had been her brother, Tom, in Burma in 1945, shot in action. Nancy died in 1973, also of cancer, which seems to have gripped her right about the time when the love her life, Gaston Palewski, married somebody else.

And then there was Pamela. Younger than Nancy by three years and never brilliant in the way that her other sisters couldn’t seem to help being, Pam never wrote any books, and none were written about her. She remained quite staunchly out of the limelight — which, as I hasten to repeat, was a literary limelight. Pam’s life was by no means dull. She drove, by herself, all over Europe in the Thirties. She married a wealthy genius. She lived in Switzerland for some time. She knew as much about animal husbandry as any county matron in England, and was also a noted cook. She was famous for being able to remember every meal that she had ever had. But she was never in the newspapers. She never troubled her parents with eccentric views or naughty adventures. Everybody loved her, and there must have been two or three dozen women just like her in her class and generation.

For now, you see, there is a book: The Other Mitford: Pamela’s Story. It’s cheeky to say that the author, Diana Alexander, was Pam’s “daily” for several years, suggesting a char’s eye view of an Honourable, but Alexander also claims to be a journalist, a professional at loose ends when Pam, who lived across the green in the same Cotswold village, needed someone to clean her house. My faith in this claim was shaken by clauses appearing in two nearly neighboring sentences.

“… and on one occasion she told Pat and I, well in advance…” (137)

“… it was us who persuaded her to let us run the lukewarm water …” (140)

It may also seem churlish to report that there are enough repetitions in the book to  raise the suspicion that it is an unedited collection of separate, previously printed articles. But worse than churlishness will probably be my frank observation that Pam does not emerge as an individual until the end of the book, when she settles into her house in Caudle Green and becomes a presence in her biographer’s life. We are to be grateful for the addition to the Mitford corpus of stories that bear out the claim that Pam was the sister who took most after her thrifty mother.

The sheets were not always laundered after each guest, however. … Pam would announce, if her sisters’ visits were in close proximity, : “Debo is coming to stay next week and Diana will be here in two weeks’ time, so one of them can sleep on this side and other on that.” When one sister had left, Pam would stand on one side of the bed and me on the other, and we would tug the creases out of the side which had been slept on. This was not an easy task since these sheets were Irish linen (what else?) and creased very easily. If the sisters knew about this it must have amused them greatly; it was just one more example of Woman’s “carefulness.” (134)

Until these later, chapters, however, The Other Mitford is about the other Mitfords, and if you cooked it down to boil off all the well-known tales, you would be left with a sentence of three words: “Pam didn’t complain.”

There is a thrilling moment when Pam is buying a cut of meat for Diana on a visit to Paris.

To prevent any misunderstanding as to which cut should be used, she stood up and pointing to her own body pronounced: “Il faut le couper LA.” (150)

It’s so easy to imagine: Julia Child as a Mitford Girl! Isn’t that really all that was needed? It’s a poignant moment, really, especially in light of an earlier anecdote showing Pam to be a “natural” in front of the television camera. But Pam, unlike Mrs Child and her sisters, was simply not a restless person. She went about her life with quiet determination and appears to have been deeply contented. The Other Mitford is an oddly successful book, because it makes the case, with inexplicable interest, that it ought never to have been undertaken.

***

Wednesday 26th

Kathleen got home from her weekend with old friends in Maine shortly before eight last night; at five-thirty this morning, she left the apartment for Bermuda. She is giving a speech there on Friday. She worked at it on the plane. How? I asked, when she called from her room at the Hamilton Princess. How wasn’t she dead tired? How did she stay awake during the flight? Adrenaline is the answer. The speech is a big deal, and she wants it to be perfect.

So I slept in for her. She’ll be home on Saturday, with no plans to go anywhere very soon. Except, I forgot, Boston next week.

***

Kathleen wanted Chinese for dinner last night, so we had that. (I really ought to learn how to make sesame chicken myself.) We talked about the hypocrisy of liberal education. There was no scorn or contempt in what we said; we are both liberals up to our eyeballs and beyond. But there are difficulties that must be acknowledged. In a way, liberal education is perfectly straightforward: it teaches you how to be liberal. This means, above all, agreeing to disagree and to cooperate with people who see things a little differently. People who are not liberals call this “compromise” — and “hypocrisy” as well. But the hypocrisy of liberal education is that you don’t learn the stuff on the syllabus, not really. You cram it. You bone up on it, write papers about it, argue about it in seminars — and then you forget it. Liberal education does not produce scholars. Heavens, no! If there’s one thing that you’ve got to learn in the course of acquiring a liberal education, it’s the urgency of not giving the impression of being a pedant.

Liberalism relies perhaps a little too heavily on esprit de corps. If you’re in with a good gang, great things may happen, but in many liberal groups, small local chapters of liberalism, as it were, in offices of every kind — it is difficult to think of a liberal activity that does not take place in an office — the wear-and-tear of agreeing to disagree can get to be disenchanting. Liberal education teaches you how to sit through meetings, and even how to contribute to them without being disruptive, but it sometimes happens that disruption is what’s needed most. Only persons gifted with a special charisma are allowed to disrupt a liberal gathering, though, and such persons are rare. Others will be quietly but firmly shooed away, and business will continue as usual.

This raises the question that always lurks in the background: is liberalism a position or a style? If it is a position, it is a position of compromise — awkward to hold for any length of time. Considered as a style, however, liberalism makes more sense. For there are positions with which the liberal declines to agree to disagree, and they are the positions of extremists. On the one hand, social-justice radical egalitarians. Liberals are allergic to the egalitarian ideal, because their liberal education teaches them that the pursuit of absolute equality leads to pointless bloodshed. In the end, even the top Maoists have their little luxuries; or perhaps it would be better to say that that’s only the beginning. Liberals are also allergic to the views of those who have not had liberal educations. It doesn’t really matter what those views might be, because the problem is that they are never expressed very well. (See “charisma,” above.) Considering the totalitarian impulse of radicals on the left, liberalism does seem very much a style, a manner of living with difference. Radicals hate difference.

On the other side, conservatives. Now, to begin with, there are no conservatives in the United States, because there has never been a landed class working hand-in-glove with an established religion to perpetuate the status quo. So-called conservatives in America are really just anarchists. (The only difference between the radical left and the radical right is their very different sense of what “brotherhood” means.) True conservatives believe that everyone has a place in society, and that the secret to earthly happiness is knowing and accepting yours. Compassionate conservatives will guarantee every peasant a chance to work the plow. As I have already suggested, however, liberals are horrified by peasants. Because liberals are tremendous snobs about not being snobs, they tell themselves that it is not the peasants who horrify them, but the very possibility of peasantry. Liberals are always dreaming of ways of transforming peasants into liberals. This why they talk so incessantly about the importance of getting a (liberal) education.

A future made up of all-liberals seems perfectly plausible. Robots would do all the hard work, and liberals would keep them in their place — because it is perfectly all right for a machine to be a peasant. But what about the people who aren’t cut out to be liberals? In the early days of liberalism, liberals were property-owners. Now liberals are knowledge- and skill-owners. They are professionals. Not everyone can be a professional, surely. It is at this point that I am always reminded of Alan Blinder’s prediction, made ten or more years ago in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Blinder foresaw a polity in which rentiers, the actual owners of everything, would be serviced by educated professionals and by uneducated yardmen and housemaids. There would be no other kinds of jobs at all. Not a very liberal vision.

***

Reviewing a new book about Truman and MacArthur in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Andrew Bacevich writes,

At no time during the sixty-plus years since MacArthur’s downfall have existing civil-military arrangements worked as advertised. That is to say, never has the interaction of military and civilian leaders, conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect, privileging the national interest rather than personal ambition and institutional agendas, yielded consistently enlightened policies. This remains one of the dirty little secrets the American elite is reluctant to own up to.

As I’ve already written a thousand words today, I’ll have to leave this passage for future discussion. Just to get your thinking started, though, I’d change “existing” to “American,” so that I could change “American” to “liberal.” And I would point out that making a habit of compromise is bound to fill dark corners with dirty little secrets. One thing that the liberal élite needs, it seems to me, is a self-cleaning feature.

***

Friday 28th

What do you do with funny little books? Do you keep them on the shelf, long after their jokes have become familiar, or do you put them in a box and send them to the attic? It’s very much a matter of mood. If you’re relaxed, and ready for a laugh, then you’ll keep these booklets near. If you’re stressed, and trying to make room for serious books, then off they’ll go.

I must have been stressed: At some point or other, probably when we moved into this apartment a couple of years ago, I sent The Preppy Handbook and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook to storage. I brought them home the other day to give them a good look; this time, either I’ll keep them in my house or I’ll donate them to Housing Works. Kathleen and I did not find The Preppy Handbook altogether convincing when it appeared, and it’s possible that its English counterpart strikes just as many false notes that we can’t hear. (The case could also be made that there’s nothing in Sloane Ranger that isn’t presented even more briskly in Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Sometimes, funny little books lose their funny. But I also brought home something that I’m finding funnier than ever.

I hope that a few regular readers have their own copies of Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s little book of verses — a pamphlet, really — Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967; Penguin, 1980). For those who have not encountered this book, I’m going to offer a rain check to anyone unfamiliar with French. Even if your French is Énarque level, I caution you against too-rapidly trying to make sense of van Rooten’s title. I’ll remind you instead of those books that were popular for a while a few years ago — big funny books that I had no trouble getting rid of last summer — that were full of 3-D illustrations if you could manage to relax your eyes just right. Subtitled The d’Antin Manuscript, van Rooten’s book is not what it appears to be. To be blunt: it is not in French.

Papa, blague chipe
A vieux inouï houle
Y est-ce art? Y est-ce art? Trépas que se foulent
Aune format masure, en nouant format thème
En nouant fleur-de-lis de bois de solive en deliènne.

What does this mean? But surely you already know! All you have to do is loosen up!

Easier said than done. Loosening up requires tying yourself to the mast. You must first of all resist the sense of the words, which of course don’t make any sense, notwithstanding the hilarious pedantry of van Rooten’s tongue-in-cheek annotations. Then you have to resist the words themselves, listening to the sounds line by line. But in order to do this, you have to read the lines as if — as if you didn’t know how to read French, but, at the same time, very quickly. If you don’t read it quickly, you’ll never get the third line to yield

Three bags full.

And finally, you have to hear what you’re saying as if you were a Frenchman whose English accent wasn’t very good.

Année olive tous guetteurs.

There are 40 nursery rhymes in this collection of renderings from Mother Goose (now you can give the title another try), and you can give yourself a good headache by tackling more than five at a time. It’ll be worth it. Because cracking the code is not really the best part. The best part is carrying around in your mind the absurdity of

Myriade évitent lames

or

Dissolu typique, c’tiède homme

or

Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne

There’s something about “dissolu typique” that explains those little piggies. I’ll be honest, though: I googled Mander ce châle. Among others.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Madeleine Montpellier
July 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 21 July

Monday 17th

On Thursday afternoon, I finally got round to the ironing. It had piled up for a few weeks. I could make the usual excuses, but they’re never usual, they’re always unique, except that they all mask the blend of laziness and fatigue that makes the prospect of ironing extremely uninviting. The ironing is not especially tedious; I don’t do shirts or anything complicated, just flat pieces like napkins and handkerchiefs. It’s more the getting things out and putting them away that’s the nuisance. I have enough napkings to go about three weeks without ironing, which is what often happens. Last Thursday, there were three weeks’ worth of laundry to iron and hardly any napkins on the pantry shelf.

So I set up the board and plugged in the iron and picked a movie to watch. Having nothing in mind, I pulled out the first drawer of DVDs and grabbed a bunch of about ten discs. Atonement was the first, followed by L’auberge espagnole. I flipped through the rest, but couldn’t settle on one. Then I went through the bunch again. This time, I made a selection: Away From Her. Perhaps it would be better to say that Away From Her was selected. An odd choice, I thought. A movie about a long-married couple faced with the wife’s dementia would make pretty penitential entertainment for the ironing. On top of that — and this is no small thing — Away From Her is not only Canadian but set in Canada, based on a celebrated short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” by Canada’s best-known writer, Alice Munro. (Writer/director Sarah Polley is also Canadian.) Here is the Canadian predicament as I see it: all the gloom of Scandinavia is drained of its glamour by the proximity of and general resemblance to the American Midwest. I am bewildered that anyone lives in Ontario.  (Then I shrug my shoulders; after all, I remember, people live everywhere.)

On the plus side: Julie Christie.

As I was waking up this morning, something about the movie came to mind, and I thought that I would write about it. But first, it might be a good idea to read Munro’s story again. I had to get out the ladder (which is kept right next to the ironing board), because I’ve gathered all the Everyman’s Library titles on the top shelf of a book case in the living room, and although I can reach them, I can’t read their spines, which are far enough away so that reading glasses are no help. There might be a copy of the story in one of the collections in the bookroom, but I remembered that the Everyman’s Library collection included it — even that it is the last story in the volume.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation is about as faithful as one could wish, so far as tone and detail go, but it is a movie, and necessarily more diffuse than the story. The story is all about Grant, the husband, a retired professor of Norse literature. The sheer fact of Gordon Pinsent, whether or not he gives a wonderful performance (he does), diverts the flow of attention out into the world that Grant has to live in; this is always the case with movies. Grant’s infidelity — “philandering” in the story — is alluded to by Polley as delicately as possibly, just to explain his extremely conceited idea that Fiona, the beautiful wife whom he has brought to an assisted-living facility and who seems to have forgotten who he is after the first month’s probationary absence, might be working her revenge. Of course, if such a mad retribution were conceivable anywhere, it would be in a story by Alice Munro.

Perhaps because Polley’s movie is not so much about Grant but about the upheaval that Alzheimer’s wreaks in people’s lives, it is not nearly as concerned about Grant or Fiona in the past as it is about where they go from here. And yet Polley takes Grant’s jealous suspicion more seriously than Munro herself. Grant actually voices the idea to a nurse. It does give Julie Christie something to do besides looking sad and amazingly beautiful for her age (and also, oddly, more than a little like Ginger Rogers). The story’s Fiona doesn’t have much to say, but Away From Her is about doing just that, warding Grant away from her. She is desperately polite to him: “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, I s’pose” is a refrain. At one sharper moment, she flutters her hand even more desperately and beseeches her husband, “Don’t…” Don’t what? Don’t remind her of the life that she has lost? That would mean that she hasn’t quite lost it, that she still remembers life with him.

It’s the sort of scene that won Christie an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. There is nothing like it in the story.

Elided in the film is the difference between the couple’s backgrounds. Fiona’s is upper-middle-class: her father was an eminent cardiologist. Grant’s is plain. He is the kind of man who is vastly overrepresented in literature, because his intellectual gifts have set him apart from his origins, saddling him with lifelong doubt and alienation. Portrait of the artist! (You might say that Munro’s artistic secret sauce has been the experience on which she has drawn to show what this looks like when it’s a young woman, for a change, who goes off to university and a life of sophistication.) I can see that including this element of the narrative might clutter the film, but it provides a cinching bond in the story.

In the facility, Fiona doesn’t just forget who Grant is, she takes up with another man, Aubrey. She is bereft when Aubrey is removed by his wife. It turns out that the wife, Marian, had parked him there for a few months while she took a break; she cannot afford to keep him in the home full time without losing her house. Grant finds this out when he visits Marian, and asks her to let him take Aubrey to visit the disconsolate Fiona. The movie expatiates with grace and humor on the relationship between Grant and Marian, and while Munro’s ironies are not altogether blunted, her bleakness is greatly relieved by a shot of romance. In the story, Grant realizes that the only way to make Fiona happy is to take up his philandering again, but it heart won’t be in it.

And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves — they had got too airy-fairy, or stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives of their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant’s socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. In Grant’s case, he suspected, they pretty well believed it was both.

That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about the life. A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts. Free to dream up the fine, generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy.

What a jerk, she would be thinking now.

“What a jerk,” says the movie’s Marian, the breathtaking Olympia Dukakis, as she closes the door on Grant. But if she’s thinking what Munro says she’s probably thinking, we don’t know it, and we certainly don’t know that Grant imagines it’s what she’s thinking.

***

Tuesday 18th

What I was thinking about as I woke up yesterday morning was the role of Madeleine Montpellier, in Away From Her. In Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” there is no character with that name, but only an unnamed supervisor, a woman who has two conversations with Grant, both about the rules at the assisted-living facility into whose care he has put his demented wife, Fiona. It would be going to far to say that Munro’s supervisor has no personality, only an official persona, but she is certainly a pale presence in comparison to the movie’s Madeleine. The transformation of the supervisor into Madeleine almost perfectly overlaps the transformation of a story about a man into a movie about a couple. In the process, and quite incidentally to the story of Grant and Fiona (and Aubrey and Marian, to complete our quartet of intimates), Madeleine embodies what, as I woke up in a mist of forgotten dreams, struck me as a difficulty of liberal society.

One of the differences between reading fiction and watching movies, for me anyway, is that consciousness of the writer’s craft, moments in which an apt turn of phrase stands out from the flow of the narrative, intensify the satisfaction of the fiction. There are two passages in Mansfield Park (so it struck me when I read the novel a few months ago) where Jane Austen’s imitations of Samuel Johnson’s Augustan, authoritative, but ever-so-slightly paradoxical manner raise the entire novel’s pitch of truth. Here is one of them.

I believe there is scarcely a young lady in the United Kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than to have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (Chapter 41)

It isn’t just the phrasing, of course; Austen’s decision to make this pronouncement when and where she does is also part of its excellence. Taken out of context, “the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man” loses some of its punch; I have to note that it refers to Fanny Price’s feeling that she is being persecuted by the unwanted attentions of Henry Crawford. Although superficially severe, the passage is actually rather comical — but the point is that, no matter how long I dawdle over it, I am not distracted from the power of Mansfield Park as an essentially true story. Language such as Austen’s provides incessant confirmation of that truth. Nobody else could have told the story of Fanny Price nearly so well.

So it is with the passage from the end of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” that I quoted yesterday. The contempt for people like Grant expressed by the sentence fragment, “A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts,” not only diminishes, in his own sight, the life that Grant has tried to lead but connects seamlessly to the fact that, like Grant, I have also had occasion to imagine the people around me feeling similar scorn for my complicated thoughts. The language swallows me up in an act of sympathy.

Watching movies, in contrast, is a social event. Other people are other people. Instead of characters on the page whom I must flesh out, I see actors pretending to be people that they’re not. If the actors and director are skilled, this does not get in the way of the movie’s narrative, but I remain conscious of a doubling that is additive: the character is there on the screen before me, and so is the actor impersonating him. This makes movie-watching a very complex pleasure. When I watch Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith, part of my mind is remembering the other Carole Lombard movies that I know. (It is also remembering the work of Hitchcock himself.) Sometimes, these recollections obtrude upon my consciousness, but they manage somehow not to interrupt the movie.

I found Wendy Crewson’s Madeleine Montpellier to be a gripping, almost terrifying character. She is everything that a board of directors would look for in a hospital supervisor. She is cheerful, resourceful, attentive, and politely firm. She remembers everyone’s name — and everything else as well. But as Crewson plays her, Madeleine’s self-control is not quite complete. How could such a paragon of capability not be pestered by moments of impatience? And it is this potential for impatience that gives Madeleine her immense authority. You do not want to tempt it. You might wind up on the facility’s second floor.

A close reading of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” might reveal the precise extent to which Munro borrows horror-movie techniques to invest “the second floor” with the nightmare of dementia. When the movie takes us to the second floor, it doesn’t look so bad; the furniture is almost as nice. That almost all the patients are slumped in their bathrobes, frowning but not appearing to see anything, and that so many of these patients are women, seems to correspond with expectations of what terminal illness might look like. There is no suggestion of mistreatment. But the story never visits the second floor; it is an unseen menace, rather like our experience of hell. When the supervisor informs Grant that Fiona may have to be taken up to the second floor, because, in Aubrey’s absence, she seems to have given up, Grant redoubles his efforts to reunite his wife with Marian’s husband.

In the movie, Fiona is transferred to the second floor. It is not itself a descent into hell, but in the movie, the story’s note of hellishness is translated, like a demon, into the person of Madeleine Montpellier. Like the supervisor in the story, she has the authority to send patients to the second floor, but in Crewson’s body this authority flashes like lightning, as if everything that she beholds, visitors included, is potential second-floor material. It is not that Madeleine is a sadist, eager to push helpless victims into a terminal ward. It’s rather that she is determined to maintain a certain level of mental hygiene on the ground floor. No matter how twinkling Madeleine’s smile might be, her eye is on a constant lookout for lapses from well-being. In her spotless domain, the only problem is the population of people who are losing their minds. That’s all right, but only so long as they don’t spoil the spotlessness.

In the story, there is a nurse, and the nurse has a name, Kristy. In the movie, Kristy is very well played by Kristen Thomson, and her role is nicely filled out, especially in connection with Grant’s suspicion that Fiona might be faking, if not her incipient dementia, then at least her affection for Aubrey. Interestingly, however, two of Kristy’s lines in the story are handed over to the movie’s Madeleine. The first one concerns the flowers that Grant brings on his first visit to Fiona. “They must have cost a fortune” sounds much more judgmental coming from Madeleine than it does (in the story) coming from Kristy. But the second switched line is actually seismic. It occurs while Fiona and Aubrey are weeping over their farewells.

“I just wish his wife would hurry up and get here,” Kristy said. “I wish she’d get him out of here and cut the agony short.”

From Kristy, this is only human. From Madeleine, it is a frightening slip of character, a dreadful outburst of impatience.

***

Friday 21st

In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the history of liberalism. I haven’t made a study of the matter; I’ve simply tried to organize what I already know.

Liberalism is a bit more than three hundred years old. It arose in England, and came into focus during the short reign of James II. James hoped to replicate in Britain the centralized, authoritarian régime of his cousin, Louis XIV of France. Louis’s approach, which is often called “absolutist,” was one solution to the problem of state power that all but defined the sovereignties of Western Europe as they emerged from medieval precariousness. Liberalism was another. The roots of absolutism and liberalism in their respective countries can be traced back to the Thirteenth Century and beyond, but it was at the end of the Seventeenth that they clicked into focus.

The problem of state power is this: what is the role of the “great men” — the males of the royal family, the leading aristocrats, the higher clergy, and, with the passage of time, the plainly rich — in the exercise of power? Is the monarch or other ruler truly supreme, or is he obliged to defer to his council? From Charlemagne’s time on (and Charlemagne died in 814), every reign of meaningful duration arrived, ad hoc, at some answer to this question, only to have the arrangement put at risk by the following coronation. Rocky as medieval disagreements might be, the Protestant Reformation introduced incendiary violence; by this I mean to point out that Europeans did not make steady progress over centuries of grappling with the issue. In 1688, however, the fires in Great Britain were put out once and for all (as it turned out) with the institution of limited monarchy. The ruler alone was not supreme; indeed, when acting alone, the ruler had no power at all. It was only when acting in concert with the council that the monarch exercised authority. Over time, the council in England had evolved from a posse of hotheaded horsemen into the robustly articulated institution of Parliament. Great Britain to this day is ruled by something called “the Crown in Parliament.”

English liberalism was based on the wisdom of experience that held that men of substance are the best judges of their own affairs, and this kernel of thought is the one constant in liberal thinking throughout its history. Although hailed as “democratic” by later, mostly Victorian writers, the first English liberals were plainly oligarchic.

The sole object of society and civil government in their view was to preserve rights and to ignore almost entirely the functions or duties of citizens. By this theory all the stress was laid on the privileges of property-owners until it became doubtful if the really poor had any rights at all theoretically. (Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy. Oxford, 1939, p. 6)

Setting aside the “really poor,” the middling classes enjoyed a steady growth throughout the Eighteenth Century, and then an explosion of wealth with the Industrial Revolution. The power of the oligarchs was correspondingly reduced, and eventually — with the reformation of the House of Lords twenty years ago — reformed out of existence. But the liberal idea remained; there were simply many more “men of substance.” Women, too. Two commonplaces have fueled liberal legitimacy throughout the overtly democratic Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A rising tide manifestly lifted all boats (even if, regrettably, not everybody was sitting in one), and the best way to acquire and maintain a boat was to get an education. These commonplaces were taken to be universal truths, but in fact they were time-bound functions of the great transition launched by the harnessing of steam power. I believe that this transition is complete; the widespread employment that constituted the rising tide has ebbed, and promises to ebb further, as the Industrial Revolution completes its inexorable search for an automated, robotic workforce.

The absolutist view held that divinely inspired kings, working with a divinely-established church, could establish the rules of right living, self-evident to the intelligent and justifiably imposed upon the dim. The liberal view was expressed by Adam Smith, who pointed out that while the butcher and the baker don’t care very much about our welfare, they do care about their dinner. He was only making respectable the thought of Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London and learned English well enough to write a poem called “The Grumbling Hive.” This brief and sparkly satire brought no end of opprobrium upon its author (who later bulked it out with essays and “remarks,” under the title The Fable of the Bees) not because of the acuity of his acerbic couplets about worldly and impious London but because of his insistence that its prosperity depended on its viciousness: almost half of the poem describes the downfall of the hive when Jove actually listens to the bees’ prayers and puts a stop to fraud. This was too bald, and although Mandeville is probably the first penetrating thinker on the subject of liberal economics, you will not find The Fable of the Bees on many canonizing reading lists.

It is not difficult to see why a political outlook that, come what may, always favors oligarchies and thrives in commercial opulence is not altogether popular today.

It is also easy to see why liberalism’s horror of coercion is a problem. At least since the palmy days of Gladstone, liberals have been split on the merits of social engineering — whether it is possible, or even desirable, to enact social changes. This may have something to do with doubts about the ability of statesmen to conceive of viable alterations to the body politic, but it has much more to do with distaste for obliging that body to accept alterations. As time passes, it becomes more obvious that the passage of Civil Rights acts in the 1960s and thereafter was not enough to end racism in America, not by a long shot. The alternatives to those laws, however, were even less attractive. Doing nothing, waiting for the country to outgrow its bigotry over time, was morally repugnant to many. Doing too much more, however, would have required the strongman tactics that we deplore in Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Philippines’ Duterte; forcibly integrating schools was as far as the nation’s liberal establishment could go. Throughout its history, liberalism has scrambled for compromise positions that excite little passion. Which is fine with liberals, who by and large dislike and distrust passion, especially in public life.

***

What has this to do with Madeleine Montpellier, you may well ask. Well, there I was, half-asleep last Monday morning, and it suddenly struck me that Madeleine Montpellier could be the face of liberal democracy. She encourages us to behave well enough to remain on the ground floor. And when I say “us,” I mean us, members of the liberal élite, educated as in no other subject in reading the implications of her smiles and frowns. Imagine how blandly impenetrable she must look to people who haven’t had that education, who need more than a wink or a nudge to keep themselves in order. It is very easy to hear Madeleine Montpellier dismiss such people as “deplorables.” People like Marian. I just wish…

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Economy and Justice
July 2017 (II)

10, 12 and 13 July

Monday 10th

Over the weekend, I read something that was so congruent with my own thinking that it was better than being published myself, and rather more like exciting, desperately looked-for proof of intelligent life in a distant galaxy. It was a book review in the Times Book Review, by law professor James Kwak. The title of the book, by Jesse Eisinger, isn’t very nice: The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. The answer to the question raised in the subtitle is provided by Professor Kwak:

Increasingly, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on opposite sides of the table are the same people, just at different points in their careers. Conducting a criminal investigation of an executive isn’t just risky; in addition to jeopardizing a future partnership at a prestigious law firm, perhaps most important, it incurs “social discomfort,” especially for the well-mannered overachievers who now populate the Justice Department. No one wants to be a class traitor, especially when the members of one’s class are such nice people.

***

After decades in which Wall Street masters of the universe were lionized in the media and popular culture, star investment bankers — rich, usually white men in nice suits — just don’t match the popular image of criminals. Democrats as well as Republicans cozied up to big business, outsourcing the Treasury Department to Wall Street and the Justice Department to corporate law firms. Even after the financial system collapsed, the Obama administration’s priority was to bail out the megabanks — to “foam the runway,” in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s words. The Justice Department became increasingly staffed by intelligent, status-seeking, conformist graduates of the nation’s top law schools — all of whom had friends on Wall Street and in the defense bar. In that environment, the easy choice was to play along, strike a deal with an impressive-sounding fine (to be absorbed by shareholders) that held no one responsible, and avoid risking an acquittal or a hung jury. (The book’s title comes from then-U.S. Attorney James Comey’s name for prosecutors who had never lost a trial.) Corruption can take many forms — not just bags of cash under the table, but a creeping rot that saps our collective motivation to pursue the cause of justice. As Upton Sinclair might have written were he alive today: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his résumé depends upon his not understanding it. [Emphasis supplied]

It would be difficult to find a more sterling example of élite bankruptcy: the Justice Department, in this reading, is corrupted by its staff’s craven hopes for remunerative futures. There is no actual wrong-doing, but by the same token, there is no actual right-doing, either. Our institutional arrangements are worse than inadequate.

I have two answers, two solutions, to the underlying problem. First, we must strip corporations of “natural person” status. Without this status, a corporation could neither be party to a criminal lawsuit nor represented in such a suit by counsel. Only the actual human beings in charge of operation could be charged with criminal conduct. Given a healthy alteration of corporate law that would deny corporate funds to employees for the purpose of paying legal expenses, my bet is that, overall, the business of representing corporations would become less lucrative over time. This would make the second step easier to impose: the door between public and private service ought to be closed. This need not be formal or overt. If government lawyers are paid more, while private attorneys’ fees drop, the careerism captured by Professor Kwak’s review would become unusual and eventually shameful.

For shareholders, the upside to abandoning corporate personhood would be that their investments would no longer be diminished by immense fines. The downside would be that, if cleaning up after reckless behavior were no longer a legitimate cost of doing business, there would be a lot less “creative destruction.” I’m not so sure that that would be bad for the rest of us.

The United States’s meritocratic élite faces a severe crisis of legitimacy at the moment, and it is impossible to dismiss President Trump’s grandstanding anti-élitism as mere opportunism. Jesse Eisinger’s book points to a house on fire. We had better put it out.

***

Corporations are legal fictions. They exist nowhere but on paper, and it is what is written on that paper that constitutes the only evidence of corporate existence. The purpose of the fiction is to stabilize the ownership of certain kinds of property, historically churches, schools, and hospitals. The ownership of these institutions is “embodied” in the corporation that continues unchanging even as the different people who manage it over time come and go.

The modern business corporation added (in the middle of the Nineteenth Century) something very useful to the fiction: limited liability. The liability of a business corporation itself is unlimited. If it cannot pay its debts, it is bankrupted. But the liability of the shareholders is limited to the extent of their investments. This is why corporate structure is so important to a new business, as a protection to investors. Capitalism would be impossible, or at least very dangerous, without it.

In the United States, corporations have been regarded as “natural persons” since 1886 — more or less. It was in that year that a certain case came before the Supreme Court. For unusual reasons, the Court’s adjudication of the case is cloudy, but its authority has nevertheless been respected. As one consequence of the ruling, corporations have been permitted to contribute to political campaigns. More remarkably, this disembodied legal fiction can be charged with crime. These are win-win arrangements for senior executives. They can increase their own personal political contributions by dipping into the largesse of the corporate treasury. And, as Jesse Eisinger’s book demonstrates, they can leave their shareholders holding the bag for bad behavior.

Because I am not a silly person, I do not believe that a legal fiction can misbehave. There must be some other culprit.

***

Wednesday 12th

The other day, as I was tearing through the last chapters of James Lasdun’s exciting, disturbing novel, The Fall Guy, I was brought up short short by the protagonist’s culinary note on the evening’s dinner, its menu featuring a leg of venison, cooked sous-vide.

Topping up his drink, he salted the lean crimson meat, vacuum sealed it in one of the plastic pouches, and set it to cook. He’d picked up boysenberrries for a compote, a red cabbage to braise with a slab of pig cheek, and potatoes for a herbed spaetzle.

It was the red cabbage braised with pig cheek that stopped me. This was more signal than side-dish. The very nonchalance of the remark fairly screamed sophistication. I wondered a little why Lasdun was interrupting the tense atmosphere with a prosaic roll-call of elaborate dishes. A part of my mind reflected that, when I was growing up, no cook would have prepared a dish of red cabbage and pig cheek and called it that. There would have been a fancy name of some kind. In those days, you were supposed to know that “Crécy” meant carrots and “Florentine” meant spinach, so humble vegetables need not be named. Nowadays it is just the opposite, because the ingredients are, if humble, rather unusual. Pig’s cheek? That’s guanciale, isn’t it? No hiding behind Italian here, however! Something was going on.

This passage came immediately to mind when I read David Brooks’s column in yesterday’s Times. The column was extraordinarily interesting overall, because it not only addressed the issues that I’ve been discussing in connection with meritocracy but woke me to the current state of play, which I had rather overlooked. For the most part, his subject was higher education and highly-taxed affluent neighborhoods, the two most prominent institutions by which the favored fifth — the top economic quintile of Americans — ensures that its children will inherit its advantages. But I want you to look at the brief passage in which Brooks shows how food is put to work in this cause.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Not a light bulb but a flood lamp illuminated the scene: it was like catching a clutch of domino-wearing conspirators in flagrante. Once upon a time, it was done with utensils: faced by an array of silverware alongside your plate, how did you determine which one to use in order to eat what had just been put in front of you? This was a mine field for the unsophisticated and a spectator sport for the well-mannered. Now it is the food itself. How do you know what has just been put in front of you? And are you supposed to dig in with relish when someone tells you that it’s pig cheek?

It would be wrong to attribute the desire to exclude 80% of Americans to the increasingly middle-aged high-achievers whose lives in the best ZIP codes look just like everybody else’s, only newer, shinier, sleeker, and quieter. Today’s ostentation is unlike earlier styles, in that it strives to be unnoticeable, at least in the middle distance. To be cynical, I’d venture that the favored fifth would prefer that the rest of their countrymen not notice the countless little ways in which it lives the nicer life. The pig’s cheek is a kind of smiling shibboleth, intended only to reassure the members of the tribe, which is, after all, composed of people who grew up all over the place. Pig’s cheek puts everybody with access on the same page. Finally, I understand the ubiquity of short ribs on restaurant menus.

But no matter how much of this signalling remains invisible or meaningless to the 80%, some of it is always going to be intercepted, by the likes of David Brooks’s hapless friend, not to mention J D Vance. And what’s going to anger the have-nots is not so much the not having as the faux sharing. Brooks takes his friend to a place that specializes in gourmet — sandwiches? Pig cheek? What is this fake vernacular? Donald Trump, in his gilded baroque condo, at least knows how to be rich!

This is another one of the problems that the liberal meritocratic élite is going to have to work on if it has any hopes of returning to power. Ordinary Americans have had it with the élite’s stuck-up pose of being just folks.

***

Friday 13th

Last week, I wrote that “five more sessions” ought to be all that I’d need to finish sorting my books in the storage unit. In the event — the other day — it took only one. I could certainly whittle the number of keepers by a boxload, and I probably shall — but I needn’t. My conscience is clear. Everything in the unit is ready to be disposed of by other hands. This afternoon, I spent an hour there going through LPs, and out of at least a hundred discs I set aside about a dozen to hold on to. I’m done.

Instead of dilating upon this historic, or at least liberating, occasion, I’d like to share my solution to the American political mess. I’ve got it all figured out.

No, this is not going to funny. But it does make me feel good, because even if it’s not likely to happen tomorrow or in time for the next elections, it makes sense. That it’s also quite simple may be proof that I’ve lost my mind, but then again maybe not.

Remember Nixon’s Southern Strategy? The old Dixiecrats were persuaded to change their political allegiance. Almost overnight, they became Republicans, members of the once-hated party of Reconstruction. (As long as we’re on the subject: Nixon also recognized the People’s Republic of China, something even less likely to have been forecast for his terms in office. Really, anything’s possible.) The Southern Strategy worked because the white people of the South suddenly realized, after having been betrayed by Lyndon Johnson, the prime mover of civil rights in America, that they weren’t really Democrats at all. They weren’t exactly Republicans, either, but they took over the party and changed it to suit themselves.

It’s time for this to happen again. This time, the turncoats that I have in mind are the Favored Fifth, the top economic quintile in the country, the people who have all the best jobs, live in the best ZIP codes, eat the best food, and send their kids to the fanciest schools. At the moment, a good many of these people tend to vote Democratic. Lots of them supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they are really no more Democratic than the Dixiecrats were. Like the Dixiecrats, they were electrified by the advance of Civil Rights, but their reaction was more confused. The problem was the term “liberal.” Liberalism has always been tangled in contradictions, mostly between a lively regard for property rights and a somewhat dimmer faith that the injustice of social inequality will work itself out eventually. The sleight of hand in liberal thinking holds that inequality, although it will clearly be an injustice when it is trampled out of existence in the happy future, is not an injustice right now, because it can’t be helped.

When it you get down to it, “liberal Democrat” is a contradiction in terms. We ought to stop expecting liberals to support the Democratic Party. They don’t, not really, and they never will. They are all Rockefeller Republicans at heart, and this is a good thing for the nation. It’s time for the Favored Fifth to return to its natural home. That nationalists and white supremacists and evangelicals won’t be happy to receive them makes it so much the better.

I would rechristen this revived Republican Party the Economy Party, because maintaining the economic health of the nation would be its priority. For starters, a number of business consolidations might be reversed, recreating some of the many jobs that have been lost to that profoundly inhuman objective, “economy of scale.” The new Economists would not forget that they take their name from the idea of the household, and that even if nations are not bound to handle money quite the same as housekeepers are, they are still charged with the primary job of nurturing people.

Democrats, meanwhile, would support their own newly-named Justice Party. Bernie Sanders, the ACLU, Ralph Nader — I’m not so sure about Elizabeth Warren’s place in this new alignment. One of the great things about the Economy Party would be that Warren would make its best watchdog.

On and on I could go, but the only thing that I feel it necessary to add is that Justice and Economy would be friendly antagonists, not mortal enemies. If liberals would just give up pretending to be Democrats, the friction generated by their awkward pose would cease to provide a flourishing atmosphere for extremists of all kinds.

Just a thought.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Startled
July 2017 (I)

5 and 7 July

Wednesday 5th

In the paper today, I see that Edward Albee’s will calls for the destruction of work left unfinished at his death. This provision comes as no surprise, given the late playwright’s peppery disposition, but it ought to be ignored. Control of works of art ought to come to an end with the artist’s death, for much the same reason that courts do not honor instructions to erect statues in memory of the deceased.

By all means, let the playwright’s estate continue to collect the royalties and other emoluments that Albee enjoyed while he lived; let that continue unto the generations. But control is odious. Already, Albee’s executors have interfered with the casting of a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the West Coast. To what good? Eventually, the work will pass into the public domain, and producers of Albee’s plays, should there be any, will enjoy the same freedom of interpretation that invigorates and sometimes even enlightens Shakespeare’s. Why wait? Why not detach the moolah from the author’s dead hand now, while people who saw original, authorized productions are still alive to make comparisons? Why permit Albee to sink his own ship? The idea that the artist’s memory is somehow honored by respecting testamentary wishes is plain foolishness: it is obscene to permit the dead to exert “creative” control. Die, you zombie!

It is difficult not to regard Albee’s instruction as so much magical thinking. Not convinced that he would ever actually come to an end, Albee did not man up and destroy the papers himself. As a fallback, in case he was wrong, he would leave the dirty work (and some tricky decisions) to his executors. From a moral standpoint, Albee’s shirking makes his will doubly unenforceable.

***

Formality, etiquette, propriety, decorum — we Americans aren’t very clear on the precise meaning of any of these terms, because we’re basically agreed that they’re all bad things, except maybe at funerals. We like to think that we have cast them aside, even though human beings cannot live in society without rules for certain occasions. American informality has become almost as rigid, and certainly as predictable, as its sometime opposite.

My mother hated formality, but she was sentimental about a few ritual observances. Holiday dinners, as a result, could be confusing. There was a great deal of fuss and bustle, but this did not improve my mother’s mediocre cooking, particularly when it came to “holiday” dishes such as creamed vegetables. The mood was always festive but the food was never the real centerpiece. (So, what are we doing here?) And tradition was always at the mercy of caprice: when we moved to Houston, boxes of wonderful old glass Christmas ornaments were left behind; my mother had discovered the decorator tree, a prefab eternal number with flocked foliage and blue satin balls.

Growing up Catholic, I learned that rituals are really supposed to mean something. It was clear in the late Fifties that our secular rites no longer meant much of anything to anybody. Widespread sentimentality aside, the prevailing spirit during patriotic displays was “let’s get it over with.” As I look back on the Sixties, I see one long battle against propriety; what kept it going for year after year was stiff opposition, literally: the resistance of the dead. Things had always been thus and so. It seems that much of this warfare was confined to affluent strata on the Coasts; Vice President Pence is still set against dining alone with a woman not his wife. Kathleen, who has had countless business lunches and dinners alone with men who were not moi, rolls her eyes.

I was never a fan of standing around doing the comme il faut. But I was curious about the worlds in which propriety and formality, now reduced to dead relics, had been formed. What had they been thinking?

Etiquette, I believe, is designed to sort people by status. When making introductions, you introduce the less important person to the more important person: “Your Majesty, may I please introduce Joe Schmoe” — not the other way round. In America, etiquette identified the established élite: the old families (who still owned local firms), the notable professionals and clergymen. This élite met with deference until World War II. By the end of that ordeal, progressive thinking worked a change in the mentality of the West: the established élite would be replaced by a meritocratic élite. I have already mentioned some of the drawbacks of meritocracy, which is not so much a bad idea as an incompletely developed one. The “testably talented,” as I prefer to think of them, come from nowhere and owe gratitude to none but the puzzlers at ETS. They have little or no social presence as such (as meritocratic élites); they don’t expect deference and don’t get it. This leaves the bulk of ordinary people without much sense of who is important in the world, a gap that, as we have seen, is quickly filled by bogus celebrities. The established élite, meanwhile, have long since sold up and retired to Hobe Sound, whence never to return. The cultural values of which they were the exponents fade out of view, and are likewise replaced by thoughtlessness. While it’s too bad about the resulting neglect of the arts, the real catastrophe is the the disappearance of exemplary behavior — self-respect and noblesse oblige — that the established élite (at its best) made a point of displaying.

I believe that “popular culture” is an oxymoron: there can be no such thing. Culture is not to be confused with passing fads and fancies. Ultimately, the élite at hand is responsible for establishing the tone of society. Had she been more of a thinker, Margaret Thatcher might have observed — what the failures of socialism have taught us — that there is no such thing as “the people.” There most certainly is such a thing as society, but how on earth are we to achieve a coherent one if meritocrats at the top don’t see the point of it? And, by the way: what, aside from what’s on the test, do they know about life?

More anon.

***

Friday 7th

For eighteen years now, or nearly, Kathleen and I have rented a rather large storage unit — large for Manhattan, that is; you could fit a Smart Car in it, but nothing bigger — at the other end of our extended neighborhood, the Upper East Side. It is my hope to evacuate the unit very early in the nineteenth, if not sooner. Arrangements have been made to cart off the odds and ends that remain; all that I have to do is make decisions about the books. There is no room in the apartment for any more books, but we happen to rent a smaller, and much less expensive storage unit at the northern tip of the island. Never mind why; I’ll be here all day if we get into that. There is room in the small unit for a few boxes of books. Most of the books in the large unit, though, have to go.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of old paper — bank statements and the like — have been brought from the large storage unit, where it has festered since we sold our lake house in 1999, to the apartment. Prudence dictates that it be shredded. The small shredder that has taken care of my regular needs for several years is not up to the job, so we have acquired a bigger one, a shredder on wheels, a quiet shredder. It was advertised as capable of shredding eighteen sheets of paper at a time, but this is nonsense, unfortunately; seven or eight pages is the practical maximum, and all but the thinnest envelopes must be opened and their contents unfolded. Emptying the bin is another drag. It’s easy enough to tip the contents into a large trash bag, but just try tipping a second binload into that bag! Regular-sized garbage bags can take one load apiece, but they do not open wide enough to fit over the top of the bin. With what feels like a good deal of body English, however, the transfer can be effected. Most of the shredded paper in the bin coheres into a tangled ball, and it passes from the bin into the bag as if it were a dying organism fished from the sea, resisting at first but then suddenly bulging forth. It’s almost gross.

Yesterday, I had my first go at the books, and made quite startling progress. If I keep going at that rate, I shall be done in four or five more sessions; I had planned on ten. Only last year, I labored for weeks to fill fifteen boxes with books to give away. Severity comes more easily now. I have re-read so many books in recent months, found right here in the bookcases at home, that it has become much easier to distinguish books that I’m likely to look at again from books that I’m not. This has nothing to do with the usual aspirational eyewash, which of course would make it impossible to get rid of anything, because “you never know what might be interesting.” Having perused the spines on the shelves as often as I have, you do know.

The consolation of these amusements is that I will never have to entertain myself with them again. But I am too old to believe it. So, today, having been busy for what feels like weeks, I’m doing nothing.

***

In the current issue of Harper’s, Zadie Smith writes about Jordan Peele’s Get Out — by far, the oddest movie that I have seen in a very long time. The oddness, as I think everyone who has seen it will agree, lies in its being both scary to watch and hilarious to remember. In retrospect, the white folk are so ludicrous! Deadly, yes; but ridiculous, too. They think they want to be black! They think that would be way cool. It’s a grim joke, but it’s still a joke. When the young villainess sifts through the photos of all the young men whom she has traduced, her evil blurs into pathetic comedy. What’s wrong with a nice white boyfriend? Can’t she get one? Peele made me hear black audiences asking this question, and it made me laugh.

What makes me just as uneasy, but without the laughter, is the parade of magazine covers featuring black faces at The New Yorker. When I was a new reader, back in the Sixties, New Yorker covers were studiously un-topical; they reflected the passing seasons instead. Human figures appeared from time to time, but rarely as characters. This changed with the arrival of Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman. The cover became just another “drawing” — a cartoon — like the ones inside the magazine. The seasons still have a place, but social commentary that would have given William Shawn ulcers is far more common. And now, it seems, there is a quiet campaign to compensate for decades of racial — racist? — disregard. The Independence Day cover (July 3) brought the old and new together with Kadir Nelson’s crisp picture of a long-limbed black woman in a blue starry bathing suit, holding a red-and-white striped beach ball. It would be impossible to describe her expression as welcoming.

Que faire? What is to be done? I mean, by me, right now. Covers such as Nelson’s make me feel that I have been doing something wrong, and that I must change my ways at once. But just what it is that I’ve been doing wrong remains vague, and maybe the warning isn’t meant for me. The cover seems intended to be startling, but am I betraying a surreptitious racism by feeling startled? Had the cover appeared fifty years ago, it would have produced unimaginable commotion, perhaps even Senate hearings; “startling” would not have been the word. But if it’s the right word now, it’s clear that “shocking” isn’t. We are on our way somewhere, and there is a first time for everything. But I do wish that Nelson’s woman looked happier to see me, even though I can well understand why she wouldn’t.

I also wish that I liked Zadie Smith’s fiction as much as her essays — but I’ll take the essays!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Muddles
June 2017 (IV)

28 and 29 June

Wednesday 28th

In a screed published at n+1, Nikil Saval’s fury boils down a very intriguing equation.

What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen.

This is so nicely put that it has the force of a revelation. Sure, we already “knew” it. We were aware, for example, that antitrust jurisprudence in the United States has been eroded to a brainless fixation with low prices. We understood that endless consumption, much less the endless growth of consumption, is unsustainable on its face. We sensed the circularity of everyone’s taking in everyone else’s wash in the extent to which Wal-Mart customers have jobs on a par with those of Wal-Mart employees. And I must have written somewhere that one of the professional class’s worst failings has been its opting out of public services. But Saval has steamrolled these complications into a nugget of wisdom: the only first step on the way to reversing environmental degradation is for citizens to stop being consumers.

Obviously, citizens have to eat. They have to get to work. Everyone needs a new couch from time to time. Far be it from me to preach a minimalist line! We can’t live without consuming resources. The difference between a citizen and a consumer is that the citizen frets about those resources. Are they renewable? If not, what happens when they’re exhausted? The citizen strives to consume only what can be replaced, and to do so in a way that does not foul his neighborhood or anybody else’s. The citizen supports government with taxes so that it can maintain a safe and healthy social infrastructure that would not be provided otherwise.

Citizenship has become a problem because the walls that used to demarcate and separate internally homogeneous communities have not only broken down but been ripped away in a whirlwind of raised consciousness. Nobody wants to recognize this as a problem that we have to solve. There are plenty of Americans who want to go back to the way things were, even if most of them aren’t old enough to remember what that was actually like; while plenty of others want to replace atavistic bonds with elective affinities. But the awful truth is that citizenship, at least when it’s a matter of shouldering the burdens of citizenship and not just enjoying the benefits, is a lot more enthusiastically undertaken when the folks marching in the parade look just like the folks watching from the sidewalks. This is a truth that is almost universally unacknowledged. Maybe just acknowledging it would help us. It would certainly be a start on the way to looking at each other with greater penetration and sympathy.

Of course, there is no need to Saval to mention capitalism. The apparent nexus of capitalism (a means of funding enterprise), markets (sites for trading goods), and consumers (egalitarian shoppers) is just that: apparent, as much historical accident as anything. If anything, the consumer is the bastard child of the French Revolution and socialism, demanding equal access to what everybody else has, whether it’s needed or not; genuine capitalists are parsimonious. These terms have gotten horribly mixed up in the course of my lifetime, and instead of taking on new meanings, they’ve mostly collapsed into whatever-I-want-it-to-signify incoherence.

***

Thursday 29th

Just now, I came across a very interesting post on a Web site that I hadn’t seen before, The Fifth Wave. It’s about my favorite subject, the failed American élite. The author — whether Adam Gurri or Martin Gurri I can’t tell — writes, as I hope I do, from inside the élite, and yet I feel that in both our cases it is without any self-interest that we declare the inevitability of élites. They arise naturally at the top of any society. The problem is that élites have children, and the children grow up at the top. This has obvious advantages (for everyone) but also some tricky disadvantages. We know a lot, anecdotally, about the disadvantages, but we don’t know much about preventing them. Very little attention has been given to the education of élite children, doubtless because of their powerful parents. It occurs to me out of the blue that one of the rare good things about the medieval propertied class was the practice of sending sons to grow up in the households of other landowners, usually wealthier ones. This must have been helpfully, if only partially, humbling.

Mr Gurri discusses the thought of Ortega y Gassett at length. The idea of an élite that is comprised of people whom others admire is a very appealing one. But it is greatly at odds with the theory and practice of meritocracy. Admiration has precious little to do with the rise of testably talented individuals, who learn among other things how to excite the admiration of the élites, not the people whose respect is essential to élitist legitimacy. Meritocracy produces an élite of the unknown, which is certainly part of the problem in throughout the West.

In a surprising acknowledgment of failure, a group of central bankers meeting at Sintra, in Portugal, to address the prospect of “robocalypse” — the takeover of blue-collar jobs by robots — has “conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out.” But wait. The “concession” appears without attribution in Jack Ewing’s Times story. Perhaps the bankers, who included Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi, never said any such thing at Sintra. Still, it’s a start. It would be wrong, I think, to call this snag in economists’ attention a dereliction. But it’s an example of the way in which highly-trained élites can miss new developments. More specifically, it’s an example of the tendency of liberal economists to let employment take care of itself, interfering only indirectly with monetary controls and the like.

Another failure that comes to mind is more collaborative in nature, with economists and journalists muddling together to leave economic terminology in a shambles. One of the most pernicious confusions is that of capitalism, a very important economic tool, albeit one whose usefulness is more probably more limited than would-be “capitalists” like to think, with the windfall fortunes that have accrued to a handful of lucky entrepreneurs and their heirs. If economists and journalists took the trouble to distinguish the one from the other, it might be politically feasible to put some limits on the windfalls without hobbling the effectiveness of the tool. As it is, far too many well-educated Americans are uneasily convinced that capitalism is some kind of necessary evil, while the real evil, insanely protected mountains of money, are allowed to continue piling up, almost certainly never to be taxed. On another front capitalism the tool is confused with the corporation, a legal construct.

If we were thinking more clearly, we might borrow some thinking from the idea of copyright, but first we’d have to clean up the mess that has accumulated around it in the age of “intellectual property.” Copyright (and its sibling, the patent) creates a temporary monopoly, as the reward for good ideas. We have seen the duration of these monopolies pushed further and further into the future, when in fact they ought to be shortened and their ownership limited to actual human beings. Thanks to sloppy thinking, patent and copyright holders have been encouraged to forget that their monopolies are gifts bestowed by society, not manifestations of personal genius or persistence. The very idea of contracting the reach of patents and copyright would probably be denounced as “socialist” — that ultimate insult, a term as nearly devoid of literal denotation as one of our most unprintable vulgarities.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Two Revolutions of circa 1800
June 2017 (III)

20 and 23 June

Tuesday 20th

Although outwardly quiet, my weekend was convulsed by two intellectual earthquakes. But why do I put it like that? Earthquakes are destructive, at least in the short term, and nothing was destroyed in my mind except for some inherited constraints, the sudden absence of which allows me to see farther and wider than ever. Both upheavals will have a great impact on the writing project — which is why, I think, they occurred at all. The pressure that revising the writing project has had on the jumble of ideas in my brain sometimes seems equal to the task of crushing coal into diamonds. As things fit better together, they are altered. My stock of metaphors cannot keep up.

Very brief summaries, then. First, and arguably more important, I responded to an essay in the Book Review with a statement. I mumbled it the first time, but not the second. Adam Kirsch’s piece about criticism and democracy is good so far as it goes.

A critic is just a reader or viewer or listener who makes the question explicit and tries to answer it publicly, for the benefit of other potential readers or viewers or listeners. In doing so, she operates on the assumption that the audience for a work, the recipient of a gift, is entitled to make a judgment on its worth. The realm of judgment is plural. Everyone brings his or her own values and standards to the work of judging. This means that it is also, essentially, democratic. No canon of taste or critical authority can compel people to like what they don’t like.

But I saw that it must be taken further. The goad was probably buried in the preceding sentences:

Yet as anyone who has received an ill-fitting or unsuitable present knows, the thought is not the only thing that counts. Once a work of art emerges from its creator’s study or studio, it becomes the possession of anyone who interacts with it, and therefore it is open to judgment: Do I actually derive pleasure and enlightenment from it?

We look to critics to tell us whether something is good or bad — and then we go ahead and do exactly as we please. I think that we have outgrown this understanding of criticism. We don’t need Leavises or Blooms to separate the wheat from the chaff, because, metaphors of nutrition aside, one man’s chaff is another man’s wheat. And what’s wheat today may become chaff next year. Critical judgment must shed its binary character and become, instead, relational. (This is NOT the “same thing” as relative.) For the critic, confronted by a work of art, or anything else, from which anybody derives pleasure — the critic’s pleasure is incidental — the question is this: Where does the item, whether an idea or a baseball bat, stand with relation to everything else? Where does it go?

Where do you put it, I mumbled. Then I said it aloud. Where do you put it?

The final mystery of the writing project cleared up instantly. The last section will provide a floor plan of the World, or at least some considerations that ought to be borne in mind in the process of laying it out. This is the critic’s job, and as it is also a kind of housekeeping, it is never done. For all the apparent stability of durable monuments and even of the old books in libraries, the World is constantly changing. No one critic can keep up with more than a fraction of it. (Critics may well find that in future they spend their time talking not to “laymen” but to other critics.) No critic has the last word, and seldom is heard a disparaging one. More anon.

***

About the other bit of excitement I shall say rather less, because I haven’t reached the mumble stage yet. It was brought about by a book that I carried back home from storage last week. A ticket stub that I’d used as a bookmark suggested that I got tired of the book in 2007 and set it aside, but I don’t remember reading a word of it before. It was one of those treasures, so often more promising than delivering, that I used to pick up on the sale tables in the Museum’s bookshop. It’s John North’s The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance.

I’ve always liked Holbein’s double portrait of the French ambassadors who conducted a special mission to Henry VIII in 1533. It has some of the appeal of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: the flamboyant courtier on the left and the discreet clergyman on the right are a fine pair of salt and pepper shakers. And then there is all that impressive gadgetry littering the shelf on which they lean! What does that stuff do, and do the two guys know how to make it work? What is it supposed to tell us about them? I must say that I got over the “charm” of the anamorphic skull in the foreground many decades ago. It is of course a memento mori, but, now I learn, that’s not all. In North’s almost delirious unpacking, it is also a marker of Golgotha, for the entire composition is in part a meditation on the Crucifixion. According to North, the astronomical and time-keeping devices on the top shelf provide the picture with the timestamp of 4 PM, Good Friday 1533. But the very idea of putting precision instruments to such liturgical use is somewhat outlandish, and the association with the darkest day in the Christian calendar (and yet the brightest?) is certainly, given the face of the picture itself, occult.

Whether or not North’s enthusiasm runs away with him — whether or not the hexagrams and the horoscope square that he locates, tacit in the design of the picture are “really there,” or were actually intended by the painter (I find it difficult to doubt) — I found his exploration infectious. My own enthusiasm has a different cast. Most educated viewers would probably regard The Ambassadors as a picture of “Renaissance men,” distinctive, modern-ish individuals conversant with the latest scientific equipment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But even educated viewers might slip into forgetting that the cosmological views of these bright-looking fellows would have been stoutly antique. Nobody, in 1533, seriously questioned the geocentric understanding of the universe. The earth was still at the center of things, and God still peeped through the little star-holes in the outermost sphere of the firmament. Whatever their style, these men belonged, intellectually, to the Middle Ages. It would be another century before men of their stamp seriously considered what we now take for granted about outer space.

But what made the shift inevitable is right there beside them: those instruments. Those precision instruments. When I was taught the history of science in college, it was as a succession of Kuhnian paradigms. The impact of tools on paradigm shifts was not stressed; tools were for engineers. (We might indeed have been consciously aping the condescension of medieval thinkers.) But a thorn was planted in my mind by what I learned, a seed called phlogiston. From time to time in my adult life I would be annoyed by my inability to remember just what phlogiston was, and I would go back and read James Bryant Conant’s Case Study on the subject, only to lose my grip on phlogiston all over again. Eventually, I realized that phlogiston theory was done in not so much by a better idea as it was by Lavoisier’s precision instruments, especially his vacuum chambers. Oxygen would not have been discovered without his battery of devices. How did people learn to make them? This was a field that had little to with scientific theory. And wasn’t it curious that Lavoisier was a contemporary of James Watt, who put precision instrumentation to such different use?

So The Ambassadors shows us, like no other picture I can think of, the past and the future in one glance. That they were hopelessly muddled when Jean de Dinteville (the man on the left) took his new painting back to Polisy, in the neighborhood of Troyes, is embodied in North’s description of a book that Kepler would write early in the next century about a new star in Cygnus, a constellation that Holbein’s painting foregrounds.

Three generations had passed since The Ambassadors had been painted and still Kepler did not consider it incongruous to write a book of more than two hundred pages in which theology, astronomy, and revisionist astrology were intermingled from beginning to end. (325)

For the moment, I have reached a sense that something links the development of precision instruments in the West with the demand for political liberty — that the connection between the two sets of revolutions that culminated at the very end of the Eighteenth Century was a matter not of big ideas but of material tools. More anon.

***

Friday 23rd

How to say this in as few words as possible? The revolutions are over. Will they be undone?

Prior to 1800, almost everybody alive was a peasant. This was a constant, everywhere. For all the changes in empire, religion, population density, and all that stuff that we call “art history,” most people died where they were born and did the same chores that their parents had done. And nothing that anybody did had much of an impact on Planet Earth. Attempts to control the endless cycles of war and peace, of feast and famine, were fruitless.

Looking back, we can make out, sometimes clearly, sometimes only dimly, the developments that would break those cycles at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As the revolutions approached, it was obvious to attentive minds that great change was in the offing. But why the revolutions took the form that they did is less interesting than their simultaneity.

There were two sets of revolutions. The political one, erupting first in the future United States and then in France, overturned old régimes and experimented with new constitutions. There was a great deal of violence — far more in the United States than Americans like to think. There was reaction. Unlike all previous revolutions, however, these political upheavals sustained their momentum and were not put down.

The technological revolution began in Britain. It, too, might be thought of as two revolutions rather than one, for the development of the steam engine and the growth of cotton mills were independent for several decades before being harnessed — as a solution to labor problems, not just for the sake of technology. The climax of this revolution was the railway locomotive, a steam engine on wheels.

Between them, these revolutions changed almost everything about life as the old peasant class had known it. Interestingly, the thin crusts of privileged, powerful people that were as immemorial as the peasantry were able to use the wealth that the revolutions put in some of their pockets to preserve and even intensify old modes of life. That is what conveys the illusion, when we look back over the Nineteenth Century, of a continuity, through all the revolutionary turmoil, of luxury. For ordinary people, however, society was suddenly dynamic, by which I mean that children no longer necessarily followed in their parents’ footsteps. Wherever the old ways of doing things — traditions — stood in the way of revolutionary change, they were torn down and swept away. The past disappeared into merely personal experience. Perhaps because things changed so quickly and constantly, adaptation was often superficial. Beneath the resilience, old habits of thinking and longing persisted. The increase in prosperity was accompanied by an increased sense of loss.

Many former peasants fared much worse in the new revolutionary world. More dangerous than political violence were the insalubrious tenements into which urbanized laborers were herded. Antagonism between laborers and employers exceeded anything seen between peasants and their masters. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, it was generally understood that the revolutions could not be left to laissez faire outcomes. The first half of the Twentieth Century saw major, sometimes disastrous attempts to lessen the brutality of the revolutionary world. New revolutions undertook to continue the work of the old, on the political and technological fronts alike. Many of the new measures were horribly drastic, and a terrible war ensued. But when it was over, the peasant class and its successor proletariat had disappeared. So, except for ornamental purposes, had the relics of the old ruling classes. Everyone, circa 1950, was middle class, or about to be. Everyone was a consumer.

But for everyone to attain consumer equality would require unprecedented growth. The only way to assure such growth would be to remove all controls on markets. Free trade alone could bring prosperity to all.

The result, as we know, has been not universal prosperity, but an unsustainable mess of environmental degradations. Almost as bad are the signs that the revolutions are over. Instead of spreading among the population, wealth puddles in dense concentrations. And the labor that increased global prosperity during the technological revolution’s heyday is everywhere being performed by machines. Are we too dazed and confused to move forward? What does moving forward look like? Is equitable ecological prosperity possible? Are we on a slide back into the ancien régime?

In case you’re having trouble imagining such a reverse, let me remind you that many Tuscan peasants on the eve of the revolutions were descended from highly literate, sophisticated business families whose fortunes had been undone by the depredations of war and empire centuries earlier.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Common Tongue
June 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 15 June

Monday 12th

One thing you can’t argue about: Britain has a far more interesting political structure than we do. While we mumble “2020″ over and over, nobody knows when the next general election will be held across the pond. How long will Theresa May hold on to the top job? Will the deal with the DUP work out? It almost makes one forget about Brexit.

Meanwhile, in New York, corporate funding has been pulled from the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, because Gregg Henry in the title role has been dressed up in Grump drag. (The show opens tonight.) I can’t make up my mind on this one. As Rebecca Mead points out in The New Yorker, Shakespeare’s play hardly endorses tyrannicide. But when I think of all the trouble that Giuseppe Verdi went through with censors who worried that his operas might give troublemakers ideas, a mere cut in funding doesn’t seem like a big deal.

I am beginning an investigation into why modern democracies don’t settle into massive Common Party centrism. The other day, I read somewhere that what got the Germans back on their feet after the War — the West Germans, I mean — was the extinction of pre-war political extremes. The conservative Junker class was obliterated, and the Communists went East. It’s too bad that there isn’t some natural method for purging public life of troublemakers, or that sometimes troublemakers are the only people who can make anything happen. But we are still new at this.

Over the weekend, Richard Reeves, a think-tanker at Brookings and emigré from Peterborough, England, published a piece that, for me at least, restructures our political discourse. For too long, he argues, the “favored fifth” at the top of the American economy has been taking cover behind the “income inequality” issue. Income inequality is an issue, no doubt about it, but as Reeves says, the upper middle class, which gets most of the education, staffs the professions — including journalism — almost completely, and derives a whizbang government handout in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction, has no business claiming to belong to “the 99%.”

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

That, sadly, has become the fall-back excuse of the people who actually run the country, whether or not they believe in the mirage of the “liberal élite.” If everybody is doing it, then demoralization is inevitable. Not to mention skyrocketing tuitions — which many in the favored fifth manage not to pay. The people who voted for Donald Trump are right to hate this cohort. I can only hope that it wakes up and shakes off its bad habits before the tumbrils roll out.

***

Tuesday 13th

The dust jacket of John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio is a family job: one brother (Stephen) provided the design, while another (Dominick) snapped the author photograph. It is not a very flattering photograph; it makes the author look round and clueless, which the contents of the book make it clear that he is not. Perhaps this is exactly the disguise that gained him entrée to the offices of Twentieth Century Fox.

The portraits in The Studio are not flattering. They are not mocking or humiliating, but still. What were the executives expecting? There’s one little scene in which Richard Zanuck, then the production head and viceroy of his father, Darryl (who regarded Hollywood during this period as terra non grata), asks his secretary for the first name of someone about to come into a meeting. Then he greets the man by name. “Hi, Bob.” People do this all the time; one rather takes it for granted. There is certainly nothing egregious about sham familiarity in America. And yet its presence as an anecdote can only signify that Zanuck is something of a fake. Since everyone else in the book is shown to be something of a fake, even the pipe-smoking, circumspect David Brown (husband of Helen G), this is not much of a point. It’s true that “inside looks” like The Studio were still pretty unusual in the late Sixties.

I suppose that the bit stands out because, unlike most of the The Studio, it has not aged well. That a fifty year-old book about movie-making remains a compelling read is even more astonishing when you consider that the movies that were being made while Dunne was on the lot included such immortal fatuities as Dr Doolittle and The Sweet Ride. And Star! I remember when Life Magazine ran a picture of Julie Andrews on a trapeze as a cover. If it weren’t for that, I’d have wondered if the film was smothered on the cutting room floor, never to be exhibited in public. In the desultory stab at an epilogue that precedes the final scene — the red-carpet Los Angeles opening of Dr Doolittle — Dunne doesn’t bother to tell us what an utter flop Star! was. Then again, The Studio is no case study.

At the outset, Dunne implies — or at least I inferred — that his interest in the Studio is anthropological.

I had the feeling that by spending some time at the Studio I could get close to the texture of life on the subtropical abstraction that used to be called The Motion Picture Capital of the World; that by watching motion picture people at work I could see and perhaps understand their ethic.

The book might have been five or six times longer if this were what Dunne had given us. But Dunne already understood the ethic of motion picture people. Hollywood is often jokingly described as high school with money, and there’s probably a lot of truth in that if you’re talking about the stars and the people who make them look good. For the guys in the office, though, whether it’s Zanuck’s tony paneled sanctum or the back room of a bungalow, Hollywood is a special kind of gambling den that requires the players either to do an insane amount of hard work or to worry nonstop about things that they can’t control. It isn’t fun. The ethic of motion picture people is to produce motion pictures in a hostile environment for the benefit of a capricious public.

This is what Dunne shows us, and yet at the same time it’s the very thing that his book conceals. For The Studio is an amusing read. It is a masterpiece of deadpan, brilliantly edited understatement. Dunne never so much as hints, for example, that Dr Doolittle is a foolish project, a children’s movie that is unaccountably test-previewed on adults only. He never suggests that the time in which Rex Harrison might have breathed life into the material has long since passed. The absurdity of diapering costumed animals for the premiere — they pull up, with their handlers, in limousines — is allowed to speak for itself. Dunne never gets in the way of a good snort. It may not be fun to make movies, but the problems entailed are rich in irony and slapstick. I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand tripping over the train of her gown in rehearsals of Hello, Dolly! She does it again and again. I’m less surprised by Zanuck’s imprimatur than by Dunne’s survival.

Planet of the Apes was also in production while Dunne was roaming the Studio — it shared its producer, Arthur Jacobs, with Dr Doolittle. It would be a big success, although Dunne’s book reminds us that we can’t be sure who reaped the rewards. The Studio? The producer? Other? I see at Wikipedia that it took Sammy Davis, Jr, to complain about the racist tone of the film, which now seems obviously designed to respond to white anxieties about black equality. (I say that, however, without ever having seen it.) No one thought so at Twentieth Century Fox; and if the idea crossed Dunne’s mind, he decided to keep it to himself.

The Sixties was a crude period for Hollywood. The film industry had grown up in a very different world, one that in retrospect from 1968 must have seemed a paradise of simplicity. In the Golden Age, almost everyone in the audience was poor, or had relatives who were. David Nasaw’s brilliant Going Out shows how the illusion of pre-war simplicity was created by excluding blacks from general audiences. Also missing from the old world was the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. And there was no television. The people who made movies in the Fifties and Sixties had a lot of new issues to get used to. John Gregory Dunne took some terrific snapshots of them trying.

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Thursday 15th

There’s a piece about St Augustine in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t know why. It’s not a review of some new book, and I’m unaware of any other factor that would make Stephen Greenblatt’s essay timely. But I read it with the greatest interest, because Augustine of Hippo is among the blackest of my beasts. He may have been as brilliant as fans such as Garry Wills claim that he was, but he put that brilliance to toxic use when he explicated the Christian catechism of sexuality. It’s not unlikely that somebody else would have come along spouting ideas just as bad, but as it is we have Augustine to thank for centuries — millennia, nearly — of misery and inquisition.

When I read The Confessions, finally, about ten years ago, I was disgusted by the preening self-deprecation of a figure who, while he would never have sex with a man, would never truly love a woman, either. It is not an uncommon profile among human males, and undoubtedly the sheer ordinariness of Augustine’s constitution contributed to the influence of his views. But it is regrettable that a grasp of human possibility as unimaginative as his determined Christian orthodoxy for fifteen hundred years and more. Augustine’s extraordinary egotism pressed him to generalize his own peculiar experience of sex, and to lay down the rights and wrongs of it for every man and woman. The generalizing principle was his notion of original sin, undoubtedly the most cloacal distillate conceivable of classical dreams of golden ages and superlunary perfections, a nightmare legacy of Hellenic thought.

Greenblatt opens an angle of perspective that was new to me — and here I must say that, while I can read about Augustine, I cannot bear the man himself; if presented with a trolley problem in which I had to decide between Augustine and Hitler, I might very well be paralyzed. Never having come closer to Augustine’s promulgations on sexuality than Peter Brown’s The Body and Society, I was unaware that what came to bother Augustine most about sex was its “unquiet, involuntary character.”

How weird is it, Augustine thought, that we cannot simply command this crucial part of the body. …

Augustine returned again and again to the same set of questions. Whose body is this, anyway? Where does desire come from? Why am I not in command of my own penis?

It is difficult to impossible Augustine framing questions in quite this way, but I don’t think that Greenblatt is mistaken. What Augustine understood about the workings of the body is hardly worth trying to recreate. An armchair investigator, he was prepared to say anything plausible that met his argumentative needs. Did he object to the heart because its beating is uncontrollable? Did he exploit intestinal irregularity as the basis for dietary restrictions? (He might have done, come to think of it.) It makes “perfect sense” that a man like Augustine would regard his penis as a kind of limb, protruding from his body and therefore to be faulted for not sharing the submissiveness of hands and feet, legs and arms.

Why am I not in command of my own penis is a complaint that almost every man faces at some time or other, but it is not, for all that, a serious question. For it to be a serious question, one would have to suppose that sex would be nearly as interesting as it is without its involuntary quality. What’s so deplorable about Augustine as a teacher about sex is that he seems never to have found it interesting. It was simply an appetite that, in earlier years, he looked forward to giving up — “but not yet, Lord.” He kept a mistress, with whom he had a son, for many years, before packing her off to Africa so that he could marry a patrician. The wedding fell through because, I suppose, the Lord had waited long enough. I can’t help but feel happy for the prospective bride, who would have been just another receptacle for Augustine’s penis. Once the appetite was outgrown, or at any rate foresworn, Augustine threw himself into the project of demonizing it for everyone.

If I do have a quarrel with Greenblatt, it is for his assertion that sex is “the greatest bodily pleasure.” This puts it on a continuum with bodily pleasures where it does not belong. I think it somewhat reductive to call sex a pleasure at all. It is what it is, something at least slightly different for each one of us, and nobody has any business making universal claims about the nature of sexual experience. It would appear on balance that, for Augustine, it was more humiliation than pleasure, too enslaving to be quite enjoyable. The idea of sex as fun is recent. It’s recent not because human beings have taken a long time to figure out that it can be, but because it took centuries, and no end of social upheaval, for Augustine’s strictures to lose their persuasive force, which however continue to cripple the Catholic Church, a confraternity of celibate males.

I think it better to leave it at this: sex is very interesting. And yet there is very little to say about it that is worth hearing, because so much of what is precious about sex lies outside the meadows of our common tongue.

Bon week-end à tous!