Gotham Diary:
Joyful Beauty
22 July 2014

There is a great deal to argue with in David Carr’s Media Equation column today, but I wonder if it’s worth the trouble even to begin. Something is terribly missing from the piece, with its bland, hopeless/helpless acquiescence to the irrelevance of printed matter in today’s world: any sense of personal responsibility. To see what I mean, substitute “alcoholic beverages” for “the shimmering immediacy of now,” and similar terms for online immediacy, and watch the essay collapse into an apology for addiction.

I keep coming back to this:

Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)

If Western Civilization were a toddler whom Carr was about to drop into the boiling pit of a volcano, my horror would be more vivid but perhaps less resounding. Carr’s statement is a kind of Ground Zero for the expression of thoughtlessness. If, as I believe it is generally conceded, non-human forms of intelligence remain incapable of reflection, abstraction, imagination, and synthesis, then I am at a loss as to how thought is to occur in human minds no longer capable of “comprehension, concentration, and retention,” all of which are essential to the development as well as the criticism of ideas.

Carr writes as though there were nothing to be done, but at the heart of his argument there is nothing but the bad habit of watching things that aren’t actually in front of him.

Think about what happened when the Malaysian airliner was shot down in eastern Ukraine. No matter where you were, or what you were doing, an ambient feed of information pulsed and heaved all around you. Graphic images soon appeared in social media feeds and breathless news alerts arrived in the inboxes of anyone with even a casual interest.

“Think,” indeed! I heard about the plane, very incompletely, from a friend who called from a busy office and hung up before delivering the entire message. I took a look at the Times‘s Web site, saw roughly what had happened, and went back to what I was doing. The explosion of Malaysian Flight 17 is an awful thing, posing a terrible danger to world peace. Here we are, in the anniversary of the July Crisis that precipitated World War I, and the deaths of hundreds of perfectly innocent airline passengers cry out even more loudly than those of an archduke and his wife. But who is to blame? That was the question then, as it is now. The crash is precisely the kind of news that calls for considered restraint, checked impulses, and fully articulate responses. There is nothing to be gained from an immersion in the actualities of the tragedy.

I am more than ever convinced that vision at a distance poses the greatest environmental danger to humanity that we have yet introduced onto this planet. At some point in the very distant, just-prehistoric past — this was indeed the event that would create history itself — we learned the amazing blindness of reading. When we read — if we’re fluent at it — all consciousness of vision falls away. We tumble into a use of one of the senses that is not sensual, and in the ten millennia or so of our literacy, we have developed an ability to learn from the written word that has little or nothing to do with other ways of knowing about the world. I am convinced that, if our brains have not adapted to reading, they have adapted reading to our mental capacities. Literacy, like everything human, has a history, and it is a history that reflects the optimization of the written word to suit our inborn faculties. The mind of a literate reader, moreover, reads actively, interpreting words even as they are being read, placing them where they belong in an already furnished mind. Without literacy, there may be powerful impressions, but they never rise to the level of thought, much less thought that can be shared and disputed with others.

We still need to see what is actually around us. Cluttering our minds with the mediated visions of remote cameramen is an inexcusable and degrading substitute for reading, and for the thought that can’t take place without reading.

Roger Ebert once described film as “a machine that generates empathy.” I am a devoted believer in the power of film, but for the moment I want to turn Ebert’s statement around. Any visual material that does not generate empathy is rubbish. Everything from televised news to cat videos on the Internet to “educational” features of pseudoscientific intent is rubbish. Whatever does not elicit feelings of care for or solidarity with other human beings leaves you in the position of an idle, dirty voyeur — a rubbernecker of roadkill. Pornography were preferable.

***

I included sportscasts in the first draft of the foregoing denunciation. I have a terrible problem with sportscasts, but it does not involve a want of empathy, as I learned from personal experience during the World Cup. I watched none of the matches myself, of course — I really do take zero interest in other people’s balls — but I was elated by the excitement in the streets. During the US-Portugal game, the neighborhood was roused by cries of victory that set me to thinking what the churchbells and Te Deums of old must have been like. I heartily wish that the attraction of sports could be matched by a worthier source, but I understand that worth itself is not going to have a widespread appeal in the foreseeable future. I also wish for a kind of victory that did not involve loss. But the World Cup made me happy while it lasted.

What enrages me about David Carr’s fecklessness is his — what? Incapacity? Refusal? What enrages me is his failure to acknowledge his responsibility for upholding the worthwhile — a responsibility that ought, in an educated mind, to be cheerfully and eagerly embraced. I am not talking about broccoli here. I’m talking about Shakespeare and Churchill and Preston Sturges, Mozart and Verdi, Titian and Tiepolo. I’m talking about Jean Arthur singing the Iowa state song with a gang of GIs, or John de Lancie playing the oboe concerto that Richard Strauss wrote for him. I’m talking about joyful beauty that is not difficult to apprehend, no matter how much sharper a bit of learning can render that apprehension. I’m talking about Proust and remembering your own life. I’m talking about the endless puzzling pleasure of reducing complication to complexity.

David Carr again:

Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.

That is an obituary for humanity.

Daily Blague news update: Inescapable Regulation.

Reading Note:
Todd on Rutledge
21 July 2014

The question is, how long can I jump from one Ian Rutledge mystery to the next without getting sick of the series? There seems no danger of it at the moment. When Legacy of the Dead, the fourth novel in the set, lurched to what seemed a very premature conclusion, I rushed in from the balcony and sat down at the computer to buy the fifth, Watchers of Time. Then I went back out to my Kindle and skipped through the first chapter, which was all about the next crime, to find out how Rutledge was doing. I hadn’t doubt that he’d survive the shooting in Scotland, but what about all the loose ends? A quarter of the way through Watchers, I still don’t know. There’s a stack of letters from Rutledge’s godfather, David Trevor, waiting in his London flat, but Rutledge hasn’t felt up to dealing with them, what with having his arm bandaged to his side for a few weeks and then a sudden assignment in Norfolk. I do hope to hear some gratifying news about Fiona Campbell and little Ian. I have in any case learned that reading the Rutledge books in sequence is not an option but a requirement. It’s as though the novels were chapters in a greater book.

This does not mean that the naive reader, blundering in by mistake, is not clued into the vital statistics. Not too far into each book, sometimes concentrated in a few brisk paragraphs, sometimes spread out like debris from an exploded plane, there is a bit of business about Ian Rutledge’s war. As a captain at the Battle of the Somme, Rutledge got to know a brave Scots soldier who was promoted to the rank of corporal. Always outspoken about the folly of the battle, Hamish MacLeod eventually mutinied, refusing to lead his men into yet another pointless engagement with mortality. Rutledge had no choice but to have MacLeod executed by firing squad. (If ever there was a scene in an English novel that merited operatic treatment by Verdi, the Rutledge-MacLeod duet, “I Hate to Kill You/You Have to Kill Me” is it.) The firing squad muffed the job, and Rutledge was obliged to deliver a coup de grace. No sooner had he shot MacLeod than the salient was shelled, killing almost everybody and burying Rutledge alive — beneath the corpse of MacLeod! Two years later, Rutledge emerged from the fighting with a bad case of shell shock. A persistent doctor was able to bring him back from madness, but could not cure him of the haunting of Hamish MacLeod, who always seems to be standing behind Rutledge’s left shoulder, commenting, usually immoderately, on the situation at hand. Every so often, Rutledge fears that he has spoken his reply to MacLeod aloud.

This wartime episode, the background for what is essentially a great narrative gimmick, is rehashed in every novel, but never in quite the same way. It becomes a sort of wine-dark sea beneath the rosy-fingered dawn, a riff that for the normal reader, someone capable of waiting more than ten minutes between books, is a welcome refresher. As for me, the business is not at all repetitious (so far), but, on the contrary, it intensifies not only the strange but not implausible intimacy between the dead man and the living one but also the idiotic horror of the trench warfare that the Allies never learned how to fight. (More on that some other time.)

There is also a variable paragraph or two about a woman called Jean, to whom Rutledge was engaged in 1914. They were to be married in October of that year, but they put it off pending the the cessation of hostilities. The scene in which Jean visits Rutledge in hospital, but is so repelled by the man he has become that she literally runs from the room, is always played a little differently. Meanwhile, Jean continues to lead her own life. In the third novel, I think it was, Rutledge learned that Jean was engaged to be married to someone else. In the fourth, he sees her on the steps of St Margaret’s, Westminster, the church in which she’s to be married, presumably at some point in the novel that I’m reading now. Although he has rationally accepted the fact that they would have made an unhappy couple, Rutledge continues to mourn the loss of her.

The second gimmick in the series, and the source of a very subtle power, is the setting of each novel in successive months. The first mystery is solved in June 1919. Now, four books later, I have reached October of that year. Although an inspector at Scotland Yard, Rutledge is usually detailed to a rural area, largely because his superior officer can’t stand him and is in fact always praying that Rutledge will die in the line of duty. The weather and the various natural beauties of the English countryside figure largely in the text, just as they did in literature of the period. Only, here they make an ironic counterpoint to the mayhem that has been dealt to English society by the war, something that writers between the wars were inclined, rather desperately, to overlook, particularly in the entertainments of the detective novel. In those books, the War was emphatically seen as having happened elsewhere, usually in France or Belgium. England was held up, more than ever, as merry and olde. The Rutledge books rather elegantly junk such nostalgia. It ought to be noted that occasional references to previous cases intensify the richness of the tapestry.

Rutledge himself is intriguing, as something of a classic, elusive cipher. In the venerable tradition of English gentleman, he is both determined and understated. His inner life, disarrayed by the war and disturbed by the ghost of Hamish MacLeod, has no time or place for hobbies. If the case involves a handsome young woman of gentle birth, Rutledge is sure to develop tender feelings for her (provoking abusive warnings from Hamish, who tends to cast women as Delilahs), which stop, however, somewhat short of romance. Rutledge’s prize possession is his intuition, which allows him (if Hamish will only shut up) to see antecedents of the crime, always far more convoluted than the local police can grasp. Meanwhile, Rutledge himself is a field upon which the reader’s intuitions, whatever they might be, can agreeably be projected.

If I haven’t mentioned the author yet (in this entry), that’s because their authorship is easily the kinkiest thing about these mysteries. “Charles Todd” turns out to be a couple of Americans, Caroline Todd and her son, Charles. We are told no more about them than that they live in different American states. A photo at Amazon reveals them to be at opposite ends of middle age, or perhaps a bit older. They have been turning out Rutledge novels (and other works) since 1996, and they have developed a stylistic formula that flirts with quaintness without ever surrendering to it. Their comfortable tone makes welcome upholstery for tales that are as astringent as they are exciting.

A final word, about that excitement: like Jane Austen, Charles Todd tends to forgo thrills in the forward mid-section of every story. After all the introductions have been made, with one or two slightly surprising clues, Rutledge hunkers down to a prolonged period of being dissatisfied with the direction of the case, of which, as a Scotland Yard outsider, he is never fully in charge. While he taxes his recalcitrant intuition, the hapless accused, although innocent, drifts toward the cataract of the scaffold. Avenues of investigation are officially closed by officious pooh-bahs. Mounting frustration takes the place of suspense, generating a great deal of exhilaration when the pace begins to pick up. I ought to point out that Watchers of Time, exceptionally, has so far failed to propose a suspect. The hapless accused is thus replaced by the prospect of hapless further victims.

And, yes, I did go back and read the first chapter.

Daily Blague news update: Knausgaard-Free Days.

Gotham Diary:
Bread and Braun
18 July 2014

Yesterday afternoon, I knocked off two items on my to-do list. I baked two loaves of sourdough bread, and I watched The Marriage of Maria Braun. I had never seen the movie, and I hadn’t attempted sourdough in decades.

The bread, while edible enough (especially as toast), came out on the heavy, insufficiently leavened side. I was using a King Arthur recipe that calls for two teaspoons of instant yeast as well as a cup of sourdough starter, and the dough certainly doubled in bulk during its first rising. I think I cut the second rising short, following the recipe, which set a time of thirty minutes, instead of paying more attention to the evidence. Adherence to the recipe at this stage was typical. I had completely disregarded the instructions for handling sourdough starter that has been refrigerated for an extended period.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked is one of a handful of books that I can’t locate at the moment, so I can’t review its long recipe for sourdough bread. Cooked was my inspiration for giving sourdough another try. Kathleen loves sourdough bread, and I have come to like it — to prefer it, really. I have finally outgrown the romance of the pullman loaf, which is an idea rather than a flavor. White bread may still be perfect for club sandwiches, but it is pretty boring otherwise — as everyone who writes about bread and baking has been saying for as long as I’ve been reading. I get it now. But sourdough is tricky. The care and feeding of a starter, as the paste of yeast-infused flour and water is called, always seemed to me to be a fuss. My last attempt was dogged by a crock that kept getting lost in the fridge, neglected and ultimately abandoned. (I hate to think for how long, in the latter state, it took up shelf space.) If I were going to give it another try, I’d have to make it work within the short-order rhythms of a galley kitchen.

Auspicious smiles have not shone upon this project. When the starter starter arrived from King Arthur, I carefully put the accompanying crock in the dishwasher to get it nice and clean, but I left the starter itself on the counter, for about a week. Maybe longer. Then I looked at the instructions. One afternoon, finally, I set out to follow them. It was a matter of stirring flour and water into the starter, letting it rise, throwing some of the results away, and repeating the process. The throwing-away has always been a sore point for me, and, indeed, if the bread that I made yesterday falls short of satisfaction, it may well be because I threw the starter that the instructions told me to discard (before feeding the rest of the starter again, letting it rise, and proceeding with the bread recipe) into the mixing bowl, not the garbage can.

The mixing-bowl part was simplicity itself. No proofing yeast, no melting butter. There was nothing more to it than flour, water, sugar, salt, and starter. Oh, and those teaspoons of instant yeast. It will be a while before I attempt to make sourdough without them.

Compared to the white-bread dough that I’m used to, yesterday’s dough seemed very heavy, as if it needed more water. I resisted the impulse to fiddle. I put the dough in the rising tub (a dandy plastic container that I bought from King Arthur a thousand years ago, along with the drum that holds 25 pounds of flour) and went off to read. The dishwasher had just been started, and it would run for about an hour and a half — the time for the first rising specified in the recipe. I was not diligent about showing up in precisely ninety minutes, but I didn’t let the dough sit for two hours, either. Somewhere in between, I kneaded the ball of dough in my hands, weighed it — 1300 grams exactly! how weird is that? — weighed out two loaves, shaped them, and placed them on an oiled tin. Then I let them rise for an hour.

***

This is when I turned on The Marriage of Maria Braun. Ordering it from the Video Room was interesting. The clerk corrected my pronunciation: “It’s Maria Brawn,” he insisted, having been misled by my rudimentary German. Rainer Fassbinder’s movie came out in 1979, and made a big noise here a year or so later, when Kathleen and I arrived from law school. At that time, I made one of those half-conscious branching decisions that not only kept me away from Maria Braun but from Fassbinder altogether. To this day, I have only seen one other of his films, the 1974 remake of Effie Briest.

To see why I was watching The Marriage of Maria Braun at this particular moment, have a look at the old Daily Blague for last Tuesday. Not that you’ll learn anything really. Ian Penman’s LRB blog entry about Fassbinder’s heavily ironic use of a sportscast from the final game of the 1954 World Cup, in which Germany defeated Hungary at Bern, was just the sort of detail to intrigue me. I had to see it for myself.

In the event, I heard it. I couldn’t stay in the room after Maria blew out the flame instead of shutting off the gas. I knew what was going to happen — I read a few other things about the movie, including a piece by Roger Ebert, before ordering the DVD — and I couldn’t bear to wait for it. I crept back in from time to time, reassuring myself that the catastrophe would be indirect, shown from the outside of Maria’s villa, as indeed it was. But the waiting was unbearable. There was that long scene with the bookkeeper and the woman reading Oswald’s will… Finally, boom.

I will probably never be a Fassbinder fan. His sense of timing is too unlike my own. The length of most scenes is not quite right, sometimes too short, more often too long. There are a lot of sudden moves that make me wonder if I’ve missed something. Worst of all, Fassbinder’s style is a very Seventies thing, inclined to self-indulgent tedium masquerading as “art.” This isn’t helped by the uneven production values.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is the story of a woman that is also intended as an allegory of postwar Germany. The “economic miracle,” or Wirtschaftswunder of the period is cynically symbolized by Maria’s opportunism. At the beginning, she is seen with her new Wehrmacht officer husband, struggling with a clerk to get him to sign their marriage certificate while shells are falling. Then the introductory credits roll. In the next scene, Maria is struggling, with winning good humor, to make ends meet in the Occupation. When she learns that her husband has been killed in the war, Maria resorts of prostitution, becoming a hostess at a club for GIs and the mistress of a black officer. In a cartoonish sequence, Maria learns that she is pregnant and jokes with the officer about how they will raise the child. While they playfully undress one another, a third man appears at an open doorway, unseen by the lovers for the longest time. He turns out to be Hermann, Maria’s supposedly dead husband. Maria bops the officer on the head with a bottle, apparently killing him, and Hermann takes the rap. While he languishes in prison, Maria pursues new opportunities. A nice one presents itself in the form of a textile-plant proprietor called Oswald. Now the movie settles down somewhat. Maria, not only Oswald’s lover but also his business associate, flourishes but darkens. She becomes cruel and impatient. When she finally gets everything she wants, she loses it in a moment of carelessness — if carelessness is what it really is. The cheerful young woman with an eye for the main chance has gone slightly mad.

The best way to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun is as a fashion pageant, in which a very beautiful woman parades a series of stylish outfits that trace the history of fashion over a ten-year period. This may sound facetious, but I believe that Fassbinder’s film works better as an allegory than as a realistic narrative, and that the natural beauty of Maria — played by the never-lovelier Hannah Schygullah — is meant to be pitted against the opulence of her costumes, her bright-red lipstick and nail polish, and her modishly coiffed blond hair. It is only at the end that we see Maria in something like the state of nature, her hair disarrayed, her face bare of make-up, and her attire, hitherto always perfectly composed, now shifting with hysteric uncertainty.

In other words, the rise and fall of consumer capitalism. We are pleased to see Maria’s rise in the world, but then appalled to count the cost. She thought that she could pull it off, but she wasn’t properly reckoning with her own human nature. Fassbinder does make you think about that.

***

The sourdough recipe instructed me to slash the loaves before putting them in the oven. I botched this. My gashes were almost slices, producing very funny-looking baked bread. My attempt to dust the loaves with flour miscarried as well; it was more of a dumping than a dusting, and I had to use a pastry brush to sweep most of the flour away, as if I were clearing a sidewalk of snow.

Kathleen thought that it tasted great — last night. I toasted and buttered two slices, and she ate both of them at dinner, which was very unusual because we don’t generally have bread at meals, largely because Kathleen doesn’t care for it. This morning, however, the two buttered and toasted slices that she had with her breakfast tea seemed “heavy.” I had put the second loaf in a plastic bag, for her to take into the office. I decided that it wasn’t really good enough for that.

I shall try again next week.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: On Considering the Great American Novel.

Gotham Diary:
A Modest Thought
17 July 2014

It’s disappointing, really. Neil Genzlinger doesn’t really tell us how awful the new VH1 show, Dating Naked, must really be. There’s only one hint.

The shows are taking what used to be the long-term goal — getting married or seeing someone naked or both — and making it the starting point. As Chrissy, one of the geniuses in the first episode of “Dating Naked,” notes: “It is awkward meeting someone naked. I mean, usually you wait till sex.”

Yes, I remember when that is how it used to be. But Genzlinger doesn’t even tell us if Chrissy, philosopher that she is, is a contestant. It makes a difference, no? I mean, when Chrissy makes this “ingenious” observation, what is she wearing? Context is everything.

I don’t want to see this show for myself, but I want to how grindingly mortifying it must be to watch, to imagine what must be (or what ought to be) going through the contestants’ minds as they paddle their kayaks into the sunset. I want an assessment of pixellation as virtual costume. I want to read about this sink of depravity in all its gruesome detail. I want to see someone’s moral lightbulb burning.

Instead, Neil Genzlinger riffs about the jobs that are going to be lost, as nudity sweeps small-screen shows.

All-bare TV, while certainly clickbait for 14-year-old viewers and those who wish they still were, will be a net loss for at least some series. I, for one, am not watching “Naked Downton Abbey.” Without those costumes, it just won’t be the same.

Ha ha. But what can you expect from a man who watches television for a living?

I do wish that there was more to know about the history of being fourteen years old. When did it become so rancid? I suspect the conversion of tradition-bound young men into sex-crazed pervs began with the breakup of agrarian culture in the Nineteenth Century and the associated increase in mobility, which put so many people in the company of strangers. It was completed by the mediatization of sex, which began with the nickelodeons and their filmstrips of young girls combing their hair and getting ready for bed. These displacements offered the promise, basically, of anonymous sex — sex with people you didn’t know; sex, even, with people you couldn’t touch. This frictionless contact (frictionless because it isn’t really contact) can become as addictive as any drug, and, like drugs, make “normal” gratifications impossible. (For a diverting but humane tour of this sordid problem, see Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s illuminating Don Jon.) It is possible nowadays to become a sex expert without ever having brushed against love or caring. This is what  our traditional strictures against exposing children to carnal matters beyond their full understanding were intended to prevent.

Not only is that horse out of the barn, but the barn has burned down. We can’t go back, and there’s no point dreaming that we might. But we have to be candid about the mess underfoot, and find some new way of dealing with it. There ought to be counseling, for example, for men who wish they were still fourteen.

***

On Monday, Roy Jenkins’s Churchill arrived, and I began reading it yesterday. I’ve never read a book about Churchill, strangely enough. It is, of course, impossible to read at all widely in modern history — modern Anglophone history, I should say — without encountering Churchill with frequency; the man lived a very long life, was already a statesman at the beginning of World War I, became the statesman in World War II, and wrote a lot of highly literate books. The eloquence of his detractors was often memorable as well. He even had his own room in the Roosevelt White House. I have picked up the broad outline of Churchill’s colorful career in much the same way that you might learn about celebrities from the pages of Vanity Fair.

Jenkins’s book presents a more polished and better-organized portrait, but, in its first hundred pages at least, it hasn’t taken me so much as an inch closer to Churchill’s interior life. This is not a disappointment, because I don’t expect that Churchill had an interior life. He had a private life, of course, more or less grubby as every mortal being’s, but he didn’t inhabit it so much as visit it, when necessary, as you might visit a sick relative in hospital. A therapist might charge Churchill with repressing or suppressing his inner life, but I believe that he simply ignored it, and that ignoring it was never a problem for him. Indeed, what is Churchill’s story if not a magnificent instance of “acting out”? He was, from the very beginning of his military career, a man in the world; indeed, I can think of few men who more closely fit Hannah Arendt’s idea of the citizen. Between his military and his political exploits, he embodied the ancient Greek ideal that Arendt still found unbeatable — and all without depending on slaves!

The glittering extroversion of Jenkins’s Churchill reminds me of a recurring comment in the background of John Campbell’s biography of Jenkins. Praise of Jenkins was often qualified, it seemed to me, by the reservation that he was not “of course” a deep thinker. I find myself wondering what a deep thinker is. Is it someone who thinks about “deep” things? A philosopher, in other words. Schophenhauer, Nietzsche. Or is it someone who has a “deeper” way of thinking. In  other words, a poet. John Donne, Wallace Stevens. Is it a mathematician, or an engineer? An analyst, someone who patiently breaks things down to find their irreducible elements? Roy Jenkins was, indeed, none of these things, but I can’t can’t fault his thinking (as reflected in writings, from histories to budgets to Parliamentary speeches) for shallowness. Jenkins thought about important things for most of his life (even when he was enjoying his claret, I expect), and was far more inclined than Churchill to do so without the inducement of urgent excitement. Like Churchill, moreover, he pursued a life-long career of improving the quality of his thinking. Continuing education, for both men, was a vital part of everyday life.

The antithesis to “deep” seems, in the end, to be “worldly.” A difference to perpend.

Daily Blague news update: Flying Cars.

Gotham Diary:
More and Less
16 July 2014

Although her flight was delayed by the bad weather, Kathleen did make it home yesterday. She had had a wonderful week in Maine, but she was happy to be home. We had a light dinner of gazpacho, steamed shrimp and tapenade toasts. After clearing up, I returned to the second in the series of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge mysteries. Kathleen wandered in the Web, but presently lost her connection. With surprising calm, I looked into the matter and discovered that the router needed to be rebooted. I was too old and tired to fuss: I just did it.

Then I returned to my detective story. This morning, I lingered in bed an hour later than I’d done while Kathleen was away. This was disappointing, until I acknowledged that it was very comfortable to have Kathleen at home, lying next to me. What had felt like virtue while she was away contained a large measure of bleakness.

***

The first thing that struck me in this morning’s Times remains the first thing on my mind. It was an article, written by Anemona Hartocollis, about Dr Herbert Pardes, the former CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the gigantic complex of two of Manhattan’s largest medical centers. Dr Pardes has not drifted into retirement; he is currently the hospital’s vice chairman, and he earns a pretty penny, too, about a million dollars a year. What makes Dr Pardes so valuable to New York-Presbyterian? Longstanding relationships with substantial donors, it seems.

The tax filing said Dr. Pardes, a psychiatrist by background, worked 60 hours a week as executive vice chairman, the same as the chief executive. Ms. Manners said he concentrated on fund-raising and development, public policy initiatives and advocacy for academic medicine.

This all seems very wrong to me. I can’t think why the eighty year-old psychiatrist is putting in sixty-hour weeks, or even how. (How much of that time is spent schmoozing with billionaires?) Nor can I understand why, after a richly-rewarded career, Dr Pardes is not simply volunteering his wisdom.

But let’s not waste time with those questions. Let’s ask, instead, why our current moral climate not only tolerates but encourages such arrangements. A clue may be found in another section of the newspaper, where Eduardo Porter writes about corporate philanthropy. Corporate philanthropy is anything that does not directly swell the bottom line, and it is indefensible according to the Gospel according to Milton, just another form of theft. In 1914, Mr Porter reminds us, Henry Form doubled the salaries of his assembly-line workers, which sounds pretty altruistic until you learn that he wished to cut earnings (and dividends) so as to prevent the Dodge brothers, his shareholders, from piling up enough dough to build their own plant. In the prime of America’s domestic economy, what now would pass for philanthropy looked much more like self-interest.

The corporate health-care plans that boosted American medicine through several orders of magnitude between World War II and 1980 are a classic example of what really ought to be called corporate auto-philanthropy. All workers benefited from these plans, but at the start it was the educated executives who got the most out of them. These men and their family members were examined more regularly, leading to the more frequent discovery of a wider range of diseases. Executives tended to live near advanced medical centers, where they took the latest tests and tried the latest cures. I know this not because I read about it but because I was one of those family members. My executive father could not stop cackling with satisfaction at having gotten away with something morally inarguable. No matter how you looked at it, the provision of health care was virtuous. Of course it couldn’t last. The medical centers grew, but so did the numbers of patients. When all the workers began to make use of their benefits, the costs went through the roof, and the plans were cut back or dropped.

Modern corporate conduct makes me think of a spaceship so poorly designed that it lugs its booster rockets (which in actual aeronautics are jettisoned at the earliest opportunity) along on the entire mission. Shareholder investment is vital to the formation of any enterprise, but as soon as the balance of costs and revenues returns a surplus, it is time to fire the shareholders — with generous severance pay, to be sure. Operating surplus transforms investors into parasites.

Investment is of course required for expansion as well as for start-up, but I am inclined to restrict going concerns to financing their own growth. This seems to be the only way to deal with the circular arguments that surround the conundrum of “growth,” which is taken to be as essential business as oxygen is to life. They are not unlike the arguments about paying the likes of Dr Pardes — everybody else is doing it, so we’ve got to do it, too. The profoundly amoral nature of this line of thinking is overlooked, and the idea of the limited liability corporation taken much too far. Limited liability stems business managers’ exposure to financial failure. It does not bestow freedom from moral responsibility.

Dreaming of this improved moral climate, I cackle with satisfaction myself. Putting a damper on expansion and, even more, on consolidation means creating and preserving more jobs. It implements the humanist virtue of redundancy. Precisely because none of us is necessary, all of us are sacred.

But in the climate that we’re stuck with for the time being, the opposite is practiced: it is held that a few of us, a very small few, deserve to be the highly-remunerated chiefs of a shrinking number of mammoth enterprises — mammoth in value, that is, not in employment. No! As to employment, the more workers you can shed, the better the job you’re doing. The territory may have become metaphysical, but the objectives of today’s large companies is pretty much the same as that of the medieval princelings who were always at some kind of war. After a long march to liberal democracy, the little people are being crushed again.

More billionaires for Dr Pardes to court. Or maybe fewer, but with more billions.

Daily Blague news update: The Age of Cool.

Gotham Diary:
More
15 July 2014

By mistake, I bought a DVD of the second season of Endeavor, without having seen the episodes of the first. I neglected to mention this yesterday, when I reported on my English sojourn. Which is ongoing. Not only am I reading Charles Todd on the Kindle, but I’ve pulled down The Man in the Wooden Hat, the second volume of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy. I’ve had it for years, but never read it. It’s an alarmingly quick read, so I’ve put the third volume, Last Friends, in my shopping cart. On the horizon: John Campbell’s book about Mrs Thatcher, and two books by (not about) Roy Jenkins: his Churchill biography, and Twelve Cities. I’m in raptures to read the latter, not so much for its purple prose as to savor the parody of Jenkins’s style that I think is on the way, Craig Brown’s Twelve Tube Stations.

[The Warren Street station] is not, perhaps, a first-rate station, still less a second-rate station, but as the lower third-rate stations go, I have always considered it ranks really rather high, if not at the very top, then quite near the upper-middle.

Weeps. At first, I confused “Warren” with “Warwick,” the latter being the stop for Little Venice. I’ve actually been there, and it’s certainly nothing special. (I’ve walked by the Warren Street Station: are not I coolesque.) Anyway, I’ve ordered the first season of Endeavour. When Kathleen forgets the name of the actor who plays the young Inspector Morse, I say, “B-E-N,” with all the Annette Bening oomph that I can summon. “Endeavour,” if you didn’t know, is the Christian name that the mature Morse never admitted to. and “Filth” is an acronym for “Failed in London; Try Hong Kong.” Now, if I could only learn how to say Kingston Bagpuize, I’d be fixed. Or at least upper-middle.

***

If everybody’s tired of this Cool Britannia cruise, I can always go back to Hannah Arendt.

That’s not really a joke, because I haven’t left Arendt behind at all. I’ve stopped writing about her, but not writing about her ideas, which I now rather brassily pass off, if not as my own, then as common-sense observations. I see what I can get away with. Re-reading DBR entries from 2011 — I’m up to June at the moment — I’m impressed by how ready, how prepared, how pre-deformed, really, I was for her thinking. And, now that I’ve read most of her work — most of the published books, anyway — I’m back to chugging along my own course, but now with the aid of her much better navigational charts.

As I’ve written about before, Arendt had a terrible time with a concept that she invented, more or less as a dustbin into which to toss things but never to examine, called “the social.” Hannah Pitkin has writtten a very good book about “the social,” The Attack of the Blob, which I wrote a bit about in April. For quite a while, I steered clear of talk about “social” life or  “society,” not because I agreed with Arendt but because I wanted to see where abstinence would lead me. And it lead me back to an old friend, a term that I have used in the titles of two of my own productions, the abandoned Web site, Civil Pleasures and, much earlier, back before any Web sites of my own, a mailing-list weekly called “Civil Letters.”

What’s the difference between “social” and “civil”? That’s easy. It’s the difference between high school and parenthood. We are all, at some point, creatures of society, pinched and bent by peer pressures and political fads. Then (it is to be hoped) we grow up, and take part in shaping the world we live in: civil society. Instead of doing what everyone else does, we begin to do what we think is right. Little things, big things. The goal of civil society, to which each of us must make a personal contribution of some kind or other, is the protection of its members, who are simply our neighbors, without patronizing or infantilizing them. As a rule, civil society works indirectly: laws and customs conduce to the general benefit. That’s why our current laws about corporations (as persons, in particular) are so uncivil: they expose many of our neighbors to the caprices of a handful of business managers. To the extent that those managers are neighbors, they deserve protection, too; what they don’t deserve is privilege and advantage as a matter of law. Privileges and advantages will always be with us, just as will “special needs” — that awful euphemism for disadvantage. But the law —and our customs — ought to be more effectively blind to privilege and advantage than it is.

In a well-ordered civil society, everyone has a home that is decent and secure, and nobody worries about hunger or routine medical care. Everyone receives an education: an introduction to the world that we share, with a focus on the many problems that our struggles for a better world have encountered during recorded history. Economies strive to be local. I am not saying anything remotely visionary or imaginative here: it is nothing but a basic socialist program, and it has so far proved to be unattainable. I believe that the difficulty has always been impatience — that and a certain thick-headedness (among reformers) about private property, which is vital in principle if not absolutely. (By which I mean that the notion of unlimited private property is dubious.) Political reform is still saddled with the short-sighted zeal for immediate achievement that I look to women to see beyond.

Hannah Arendt believed that two things were essential for civil society: honest promises (promises that are kept) and generosity (or forgiveness). We would be fools to expect to meet with these boons at every turn, but we can certainly expect ourselves to offer them. While we must never offer more than we can actually give, we ought (to adapt an established principle of physical fitness) to offer a little more than is quite comfortable.

Above all, we must worry a lot less about our selves and a lot more about our minds.

Daily Blague news update: FIFA and Fassbinder.

Gotham Diary:
Seen by the Moon
14 July 2014

By the time I caught sight of the moon, it was well above the horizon and no longer supersized by the atmosphere, but it was still as orange as Halloween, its leering face unusually pronounced. It floated, undimmed, behind a thin veil of mist, and I was reminded of Turandot. Then its upper edge slipped behind the absolute horizontal of a bank of dense clouds. Slowly but quite perceptibly, the moon passed out of sight, leaving a radiant fog that just as slowly dissipated.

I kept taking my glasses off and then putting them back on to read. I would look up at the moon, and take them off again. I was sitting in the dark on the balcony, reading an Inspector Wexford novel on the Kindle. I had had a pleasant dinner in the dusk, cleaned up, and then returned to sit in my easy chair and finish the Wexford. If I hadn’t seen the moon earlier, that may well have been because of another cloud bank. It’s possible that I didn’t look. A disturbing possibility. Seeing it when I did was a surprise.

I thought how long the moon has been looking down on us. Most of what human beings have done on and to the Earth is not visible from the moon (to other humans, that is, as we found out). The Great Wall of China, for example — you can’t, urban legend notwithstanding, see it from the moon. But I wonder if the urban blazes of nocturnal light can be seen.

I thought about calling Kathleen, but I remembered that the lakeside cottage where she is staying with friends, in Maine, faces south and west. I forgot that she was having dinner at another house, one with a view as east-southeast as ours. When we talked later, she told me that they had all gone out on the deck to watch the moon glide above the pines. It was so big, and so orange.

***

While Kathleen has been in Maine, I’ve been in England — she actually, I vicariously, on the page. I went straight from John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins to the latest Ian Rutledge mystery by Charles Todd. Now, it is true that “Charles Todd” is the nom de plume of a mother-son writing team based in the United States, but the Rutledge books are set in England in the aftermath of World War I, when motorcars required cranking. The illusion of time and place is very convincing, while at the same time the psychological atmosphere is somewhat less stuffy than that of books written back then — the effect, perhaps, of greater candor about the losses to war. When I was done with Proof of Guilt, I turned to the Wexford, Shake Hands Forever, which I’d been reading at bedtime for over a week. I was about halfway through, and too engaged in the story not to be tired of turning back the pages in search of the last one that I remembered reading. So it was time to hunker down and finish it. When it came to a very satisfactory conclusion, I opened the first of the Charles Todds, A Test of Wills, which I’d bought earlier in the day.

Also, on Saturday night, I watched the 1979 film adaptation of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, with Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale. Breezy and heavily abbreviated, it was not as riveting as the book, but it brought the book back to mind. I don’t recall ever having been so caught up in an adventure story.

On Friday, though, I was very much here, in the doubled New York of today and of Garry Winogrand’s photographs from the time of my childhood and youth. The New York of today was not unpleasant, but Winogrand’s certainly was, and all the more sharply so for presenting things pretty much as I saw them myself. It’s easy to succumb to the vision of lost glamour purveyed by Mad Men, and even Ray Soleil, at the Museum on Friday, was favorably impressed by how much better-dressed everyone was fifty years ago. But who cares about clothes when the expressions that people are wearing attest to such disagreeable states of mind? Weariness is everywhere, followed closely by impatience and worry. Faces in the later photographs look less imprisoned but more lost. Overall, the upsetting looniness of Diane Arbus is slightly dissolved, not focused in bizarre individuals but dulled and generalized throughout the population.

Winogrand (1928-1984) is known, and somewhat despised, as a shutterbug, a photographer who took jillions of careless pictures and then chose the happy — or, in this case, unhappy — accidents. Whether as photographer or art editor, however, he developed an aesthetic sensibility strong enough to be successfully assumed by curators of the many rolls of film that remained undeveloped at the time of his death (from cancer). The images gathered for the exhibition currently at the Museum (as well as those that appear, additionally, in the catalogue) hang together as a portrait, in traces, of a wretchedly disappointed land. You would not want to visit it. I am glad to have outlived it. When I think of the schlubby herds of North Faced tourists shuffling up and down Fifth Avenue in Midtown, I bear in mind that, if they look a little vacant, they are at least buoyed up by companions with whom they’re laughing or quarreling. There is no companionship in Garry Winogrand.  There is only defensive alliance.

This was a world in which it was common knowledge that women could never be true friends, because women would inevitably betray friendship in pursuit of a man. This was a world in which only men knew how to think. This was a world in which women looked hard, or soiled, or both. Men looked wary or bored. Yes, men and women were “better-dressed,” with plenty of coats and ties and fur collars, but they were also unwillingly dressed. Their clothes didn’t quite fit, didn’t suit. Itchy pointlessness was pervasive.

This was clearly a society that would be as mortally undercut by the Internet and smartphones as Native Americans were by the introduction of European diseases. I certainly needed a stiff drink at the Balcony Lounge.

Daily Blague news update: Selfy.

Gotham Diary:
Uncle Roy
11 July 2014

When I came at last to the end of Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, I felt that I stood at the very abyss of mortality and oblivion, but also that there was nothing very frightening or even unsettling about it, because, when we fall into it, as each one of us does, we are unencumbered by bodies that might get hurt in the tumble. We are unencumbered even by ourselves. We have become whatever it is that other people remember about us — people who will also die one day; soon enough, there will be no one alive with a personal recollection of who we were — and therein lies the mystery, or at least the uncertainty, of death.

Consider Shakespeare for a moment. It is unlikely that the name of Shakespeare is going to be forgotten anytime soon. We have, more or less intact, the work that he produced during his lifetime and we know a good deal about his career. But the man himself remains almost invisible. There are no personal letters or diary entries. There are no public addresses. The man Shakespeare has been completely dissolved in the lines of his plays and his poems, and if it were even possible to precipitate his own character from the solution, we don’t know how to do it. Shakespeare is as unknown to us, as an individual, as the groundlings at the Globe.

Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) visited the United States often and numbered many well-known historians, economists, and statesmen among his American friends, but he was not, I think, ever well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Because he was never the British prime minister, he never stood in for his government in American journalism. Television was not his milieu. Exaggerating somewhat, one might almost say that it was easier to know Roy Jenkins himself than to know about him. Now, of course, there is no knowing Roy Jenkins. This is not to say that he is a mystery like Shakespeare. On the contrary, from the quantity that he wrote, and from the even greater quantity written about him (in newspapers and diaries), a very clear picture of the man emerges. But if you don’t know about Jenkins in the first place, you’d want to know why you ought to bother. Who was he, and what claim does he make on your attention?

There are two ways of answering both questions. The first is to pile up his political achievements. This will never be easy to do in the United States. The British and American political systems are so different that almost everything known about the one must be forgotten in order to learn about the other. You either grow up knowing what it means to be Home Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer or you don’t. Then there is the problem of ephemerality in politics. The social reforms that Jenkins put through as Home Secretary during his first stint in that office — the legalization of homosexuality and of abortion — proved lasting, but, even though Jenkins came to be regarded as the best chancellor of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the fruits of his “two years’ hard slog” at turning the British economy around, after a catastrophic devaluation of the pound, were crushed by the opportunism-as-usual of his successors. In later life, Jenkins led the formation of the Social Democratic Party, a centrist fusion of right-wing Labourites and Liberals. That is at least what he was hoping for. Whether or not his project met with success remains uncertain more than thirty years later. Upon inspection, the achievements disintegrate, leaving only a man who was in the news for over fifty years.

The alternative is riskier but more satisfying. It begins with the assumption — sometimes, in order to learn things, you must take other things on faith — that Roy Jenkins was a Great Man. Or, somewhat more modestly, that he did indeed live a “well-rounded life.” Roy Jenkins’s life was by no means devoid of sharp disappointments, but it is difficult to read about him at any length without the image taking shape of Jenkins sprawling comfortably at the mouth of a cornucopia. He came from a family of Welsh laborers, but he sparkled as an undergraduate at the Oxford Union. He married once, in 1945, and was survived by his widow; yet he maintained discreet relationships with at least two amies amoureuses of long standing. Until the very last years, he was healthy, and socially active to a degree that seems utterly at odds with his literary output — his earnings from which supported not only his family but his excellent wine cellar. A bon viveur, he was sincerely, earnestly, and not ineffectively devoted to the cause of eliminating poverty and squalor in Britain. Although he developed into a plummy mandarin who was thoroughly at home in the ceremonial folderol of Oxford — he was the university’s chancellor from 1987 until his death — Jenkins was, constitutionally, anti-patriarchal;  he believed that, given a modicum of comfort, each man is the best judge of his own happiness. (It must be pointed out that he grew up in a world without television, and that the role of broadcast journalism during his prime, in the Sixties, was quite limited; upon his return to Parliament, in 1983, he would find that television had ruined everything, although he never complained much about it.) Jenkins was a radical, willing to try anything new that promised to work, in search of stability.

In short, a man whom it is easy to regard as a tissue of contradictions, or, less kindly (as his many enemies on the left wing of the Labour Party were wont to call him), a hypocrite. If you lazily assume that a passion for claret does not sit well with political philanthropy, then Jenkins looks a fraud. If your idea of a political progressive cannot compass a fluent speechmaker who spends most of his generous lunch hours convivially dining in Clubland, then Jenkins will look like a covert Tory. If you insist on adherence to a rigorous ideology, Jenkins is a subversive counterrevolutionary. But if you are me, then all of these negative impressions add up to a thundering endorsement. Anyone with enemies like Jenkins’s is bound to appeal to me. Topping it all off is the man’s genial sense of humor.

***

If the world is a better place because Roy Jenkins made himself both useful and comfortable in it, he is nevertheless no kind of personal model for me. He was naturally shy, but he made many good friends, and almost everyone of any substance in the Home Counties was an acquaintance. He could never have gone (nor would he have thought it natural) for an entire week without having an actual, person-to-person conversation. Nor would he have been nearly so productive had he not been lucky enough to live in the style of a wealthy Victorian clergyman:

Of course, in recording the amount of time Jenkins has for reading and writing one must remember that he lived, by most people’s standards in the late twentieth century, an extraordinarily pampered life. All his domestic needs were taken care of… If he had a lot of time to read and write, it was because there was literally nothing else he was required to do except eat, drink, and talk. (634)

It takes biographer a John Campbell a long time to point this out, but the delay is not inapt. It would not have occurred to anyone writing when Jenkins was young, or even in his prime, to note that men of affairs needn’t trouble themselves with domestic or secretarial concerns. He lived in that twilight of servants where wives and personal assistants took the places of valets and parlormaids.

But the fact that, on these two points, my life could not be less like Roy Jenkins’s is a triviality. I should like to be as generous as Jenkins was, and, even more important, I should like to think as clearly. I fall short on both counts, but the example of this noble Roman inspires me to do better.

Bon weekend a tous!

Daily Blague news update: Revolutionary Reading.

Gotham Diary:
Continental
10 July 2014

Yesterday, I had a great and unexpected treat: the discovery, all on my own, of an admirable, arresting writer. I had heard nothing of Greg Baxter, or at any rate not enough to register. For that very reason, I ought not to have bought his first novel, The Apartment. But the photo on the jacket was enormously appealing, and, as jacket art goes, it’s evocative without being quite illustrative. A young woman in a red scarf appears to be crossing a bridge in a European city in the snow. “Europe” is signaled by the dolphin-based lantern that the young woman is about to pass and by the battlemented, cone-roofed buildings in the misty background. It is also signaled by a lack of specificity: the city could be anywhere in Europe cold enough for snow. In fact, the city is never identified, and I should not be surprised to learn that Baxter concocted it from bits and pieces of existing cities.

If the dust jacket drew me to The Apartment, I did not permit it to cloud my judgment of the novel itself. I read none of the copy, not even the blurbs. I read, instead, a few lengthy passages from the latter half of the novel. The writing was limpid and understated, its reserve betrayed by its thoughtfulness. Both passages appeared to be episodes, asides from a central narrative that I declined to learn about from the inside of the dust jacket. I very much wanted to discover The Apartment unaided.

When I got home, I finished the penultimate chapter of Roy Jenkins and opened The Apartment, just to have another taste. I began at the beginning, though.

It’s the middle of December, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I’d met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots. I threw the brown shoes away. I would have kept them for the spring, but I ruined them by heating them on the radiator at night.

I’m from the desert — a town with a small population. When I was seventeen, I left the town in the desert for a city in the desert. There were three million people in the city. There were a lot of straight, wide roads, and there weren’t many sidewalks. Though I lived and worked elsewhere more than I lived and worked in that city, I always returned — each time for a different reason. When I left six weeks ago, I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. I just went to the airport one morning and got on a flight. I didn’t even really pack. I had a few books and half a dozen shirts and toiletries and some other things. I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn’t say precisely why I picked this one.

This blend of detail and elision made an intoxicating cocktail, and I had no taste for anything else until I had swallowed the last drop, 192 pages later. I wanted to hear everything that this voice was prepared to tell me. I could tell from the sudden, unannounced departure from the desert city that it was the voice of a disaffected American male, wounded by meaninglessness but unlikely to whine about his pain.  The contents of his suitcase attested to a self-respect that would make him a bearable first-person narrator. The way he talked about his old brown shoes led me to believe that he was more interested in the world than in himself. I wanted to see how far he could go without telling me who he was (his name, for instance) or where he was, without seeming coy or peculiar. Impressively, he went all the way to the end. I don’t mean to spoil the novel for anyone, but I insist on a distinction between divulging plot points and observing that an author has met his own challenge. Also, there was that girl. How did this guy deal with girls? How would he deal with this one?

On a deeper level, I was curious about the narrative structure. How would a story that began with such quiet firmness fill the pages? The Apartment, as a book in the hand, is on the small side, and the type is not fine. The Apartment lies in the marches between novellas and novels, the difference between which is one of scale, although not the scale of length. It is the scale, rather, that runs from complication to complexity. Proceeding from former to the latter is a matter of heightening the sense of internal consistency. A novel as complex as a fine novella would be monotonous; novels require the combination of elements that don’t completely fit — that provide relief, as it were, from one another. In a novella — and I believe that The Apartment is an excellent example of the form, at least as I define it — there is no relief, only amplification. What appears to be a change of subject is in fact a change in the lighting.

I could not think about these structural matters until I finished reading The Apartment, but once I had done so I could think of nothing else. Stunned by the cohesive power of its form, I resisted the urge to analyze it — to index, with pen and paper, the shifts between central narrative and episode, between action in the present and action in the past, and to relate the shards of backflash in order to compose a coherent biography of the narrator. Perhaps I shall get to that someday; I really do want to read The Apartment again. Instead of taking notes, I contented myself with vague thoughts about WG Sebald and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Simply put, Greg Baxter has written a novel that is “Continental” in tone and sentiment. The unnamed narrator has been stilled by horrors in his past, and those horrors are not the melodramatic frights of popular fiction but the banal horrors of modern warfare. The narrator has not done anything unusual — for a smart American in Iraq. He has served as an intelligence officer, marking men whom he knows about but has never seen for death; later, he has returned for a lucrative gig as an intelligence contractor.

His anti-Americanism is expressed in impassioned interruptions of an otherwise reticent demeanor. Two instances, appearing two pages apart, sound a note of vituperation not often heard in American fiction. Perhaps it would be better to say that, unlike most anti-American fictional rhetoric, Baxter’s is not anti-humanist; he means to single Americans out for squalor. The heart of his darkness is an inability to come to terms with springing from its ashes.

My apartment [in the desert city] was just a few blocks from the football stadium, so near that on Sundays the roar of the crowd seemed like a great godlike breath tring to blow us over. I had not specifically sought a place by the stadium, but I liked living there, because it fed my hatred of the kingdom of ambitious stupidity, of the loud and gruesome happenstance of American domination. I hated that noise, and that stadium, and I hated everyone in it, and I sat for long periods on a couch I’d bought for nothing at a flea market, listening to the celestial ecstasy of the dumb luck of being born American. That collective whoop. I hated that country and every man and woman and child and bug alive in it. I had no idea what I wanted in life then, but I knew that I hated America, and I wished that it or I did not exist. And while I thought this, on Sundays, the stadium responded with great, ecstatic, dumb breaths. And when I went to my office, I dressed in a decent suit and put an American flag on the lapel. (122)

Two pages later, the narrator is driving to the desert town in which he grew up.

I really hated the place as a kid, and I had gone on hating it my whole life. In some ways I even recognized that what I really hated about America was the fact that I hated everything in proximity to this particular place, and the farther away I got, the less hatred I felt. (124)

The Apartment must be read in toto in order to appreciate the ferocity with these outburst rend its even tone. I was overwhelmed by the sense that I, too, should feel no less unpleasantly if I did not live on my island in that part of America that is least likely to bray.

Structurally, The Apartment resembles books like My Struggle. Into the more or less straightforward recount of the events of one day are folded recollections of various kinds, all of which intensify the narrator’s course through the present. Memories of Iraq are vivid but indistinct, like dreams. Encounters with strangers in and around the unnamed city suggest relocation rather than dislocation, offering the hope that the narrator will be able to refashion his interior with the help of a new language. Two episodes stood out for me because it was hard to believe that they had survived an American editor’s pen. They consist of nothing but conversational discourses, about Bach’s Chaconne and about baroque architecture.

There is the return to his desert village, elegiac in spite of itself. The reason for the visit is to reconnect with the memory of a childhood friend, a girl who died young of a rare disease. This girl from the edge of Texas (not named, but implicit) was haunted by her Slavic roots, and especially by a pair of Bosnian infants who somehow figured in her ancestry. This passion, cut short by illness, led to nothing but a stack of document boxes of interest to no one. It is a “Kafka-esque” story that has been twisted to make a point about America, as a land of people too shallow to develop characteristics that would hold anyone’s attention. And yet, also “Kafka-esque” is the sheer strangeness of American men. They seem to have been driven insane by opportunity (real or imagined.)

The  Apartment is a smart book that wears its intelligence lightly. It presents the figure of an American in the process of escaping American provincialism without merely trading it in for blasé sophistication. Here, at last, a truly serious American appears in a truly European setting. I hope that there’s more where it came from.

Daily Blague fun update: Eloise at the Crowne Plaza.

Gotham Diary:
Blandishments
9 July 2014

The problem is not Artificial Intelligence. The problem is human intelligence. That’s what we don’t understand. As Jaron Lanier tells Maureen Dowd in today’s column,

We’re still pretending that we’re inventing a brain when all we’ve come up with is a giant mash-up of real brains. We don’t yet understand how brains work, so we can’t build one.

Visionaries talk of building computers that can think better than human beings, perhaps by as soon as 2029. These prognosticators certainly have some idea of what “better” would be. More reliable memory! Greater pattern recognition! Awesome signal/noise filters! We can build all of these things, which is what keeps the visionaries excited. The superior components are already available. The problem is that we don’t know how to hook them up in a way that simulates an actual brain. As Lanier says, we don’t know how the damned thing works.

And it is possible that we never will. One of the many curious things about the brain is that it has evolved to process sensations, but not to experience them. There is a somatic hiatus between our sense organs and our brains, and another one between our brains and our minds. Perhaps the hiatus is actually an incredibly complex junction, where inputs from different receptors are shuffled and regrouped with dizzying speed. The issue might be more than the complexity of the wiring (or the trackage, to keep up junction motif), which, presumably, technological instruments (which are all designed to enhance the powers of our senses) would be capable of mapping. But there might also be a logic of signalling that, because it had no counterpart in our sensual world, could not be described in human language.

Brain research is hampered by immense ethical constraints on direct investigation. Experimenting with uninjured brains is clearly off-limits. We can’t open them up to tinker with their parts, or flood them with chemicals to see what happens, or plug them into alternative inputs. At best, we can explore the damaged areas of brains that have suffered trauma, and then only with a view to relieving the patient’s suffering. Most of our work on brains is indirect, as, for example, by fMRI, and it is not very precise.

We have thoughts, but we don’t understand the physical events that give rise to them.  To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet developed a physiological model that shows us what a thought looks like in the brain. That’s the second hiatus that I mentioned, the one that prevents our minds from understanding, in an experiential way, how brains work. It would seem that the evolution of the brain has selected for unconsciousness of the brain itself. We don’t have brains in order to understand them. We have brains in order to understand the world of our senses. The brain itself sits safely removed from that world. What the brain is not safe from, it appears, is the mind, which would like to probe it. But does the mind, embodied as it might be in phalanxes of researchers surrounded by exploratory gadgets, have the tools for such probing? There is no reason to think that it would.

The mind faces so many more interesting challenges!

***

It has always struck me that the search for artificial evidence, and the dream of robots who might replace human beings, is powered by an adolescent impatience with life as it is. It is in the nature of adolescents to be impatient, but modern secular culture, instead of bending away from the religious past toward more adult habits of mind, has replaced the old miracles with miracles yet to be seen. The idea of a forty year-old man collecting and reading superhero comic books makes me despair. How is one to resist the suspicion that imaginary powers figure in what ought to be mature thoughts for dealing with the many problems that face civil society, particularly that of environmental degradation.

Solutions to the environmental problem too often tend to be technological in nature, by which I mean that they allow us to continue doing what we’re doing. Technology will “fix it.” Quite aside from the unrealistic optimism of these schemes, there is the unattractive disinclination to deal with the mindlessness of what we’re doing. Most of our social structures, including the expectations and the facilities that allow and encourage us to degrade the environment, are essentially mindless; they were developed in ignorance of actual conditions. I say this often, but it bears repeating: as recently as two hundred years ago, it was not “conceivable” that the totality of mankind could ever have a lasting impact upon Planet Earth. Even today, much of what we do would be rapidly undone by natural processes if we were to disappear. But there have been many amplifications of our abilities to toxify the world, possibly beyond the power of natural processes to repair the damage. And we can simply destroy the biosphere with atomic weapons. These are not the results of mad scientists, but of mindless technologists — often working for business corporations with no thought whatever of anything but profit.

***

It is difficult to be optimistic — realistically optimistic — about humanity at a time when so many gifted human beings appear to know little more about their own human nature except what they do and don’t like about it. The urge to escape human nature, it is true, is not a new one; the search for transcendence follows ancient and well-worn paths. But the old ascetic goal of setting appetites aside has given way to the pursuit of a refined orgy of niched gratification. The smartphone promises a life of uninterrupted satisfaction, and transforms the merely optimal into the most desirable. There’s nothing wrong with smartphones; the failure lies in the deficient humanism of anyone willing to settle for such blandishments.

Understanding human intelligence can be approached from two directions. The technological limits to direct exploration of the brain have already been stated. But intelligence itself can also be pondered by the mind. It can, and of course has been, approached philosophically. I prefer to consider it phenomenologically (if I use that term aright), by considering the many works of human intelligence, together with its many struggles with the urges of the brain that are not considered intelligent. How have we made the world we live in? What were — and what were we not — thinking?

Daily Blague news update: Shocking.

Gotham Diary:
Luffing
8 July 2014

Kathleen left for Maine yesterday — she spends some time every July with her old friends from summer camp, three of whom have houses nearby — and took with her, as is usual but to an unusual degree, the wind from my sails. I feel it as a physiological, not an emotional effect. I feel stilled, inert. There seems to be no reason to do anything. Except, of course, to read.

Even reading got to be too much yesterday. John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins is a decidedly political biography, which is undoubtedly proper, but writing about politics on a fine grain risks reducing politics to a game — a game with many players, none of whom, however, is seen as clearly as the hero, skewing the very sense of game. Meanwhile, I have developed an idea of Roy Jenkins’s moral character, but almost indirectly, from crumbs left by Campbell’s narrative. I wish the book opened up more on the rugged humanism of Jenkins’s thought, which is probably more in evidence in his many books. (At the same time, can I wish that Campbell’s book were any longer?) After lunch yesterday, I had to put Roy Jenkins down for a rest, even though I had no inclination to do anything else.

In my inanition, I turned, eventually, to the movies.

The second movie that I watched, in the middle of the evening, was Witness for the Prosecution, Billy Wilder’s courtroom spectacular (1957). Charles Laughton plays to the hilt a curmudgeonly but mercurial barrister who engages our affection at once with the stream of insults with which he dismisses his nurse’s solicitude. He is recovering from a serious heart attack, and mustn’t undertake anything stressful; but stress is the very air to him, and in no time he is not only deprecating but positively thwarting his nanny. (Miss Plimsoll is brought to goggle-eyed bustling life by Elsa Lanchester.) Forbidden to do so, Sir Wilfrid nevertheless takes on a capital case.

Laughton’s distinguished performance plays in two carefully distinct registers. In chambers, or anywhere else out of court, Sir Wilfried is “natural” — impulsive, domineering, exasperated, and too engaged in what he’s about to be self-conscious about it. Standing in court, wearing wig and gown, Sir Wilfrid becomes a prima ballerina balancing alongside an abyss. Every syllable, every gesture is delivered in the proper measure and with a show of confidence driven by concealed desperation. We are always aware that the stakes are very high, and that Sir Wilfrid’s case is very weak — we may wonder a little if the barrister is right to believe in the innocence of his client. The uncertainty of victory makes Sir Wilfrid’s agile maneuvers genuinely exciting. Laughton’s Rabelaisian gusto infuses the act with great good humor. Witness for the Prosecution is, as courtroom dramas go, serious fun.

I have always preferred Alfred Hitchcock’s entry in this field, The Paradine Case, however, because the barrister in the case, played by Gregory Peck, mounts a far more complex, and in the end less disciplined performance in court. He is also wrong about his client, but the nature of his misunderstanding, which, unlike Sir Wilfrid’s, leads to a just outcome, leads directly to her immolation. There is also the spectacle of a professional man stumble blindly unaware in the traps of love. Tony Keane isn’t dancing alongside an abyss but tumbling into it. The pyrotechnics of a whodunit trial are pre-empted by slow-motion disaster.

The earlier, darker picture tells, therefore, a richer, more satisfying story. But there is another difference, one that prevents Wilder’s movie from being as great a comedy as Paradine Case is a study of doomed loves. That is the supporting casts. In The Paradine Case, the supporting actors are nothing less than magnificent. (Laughton himself is the judge, august on the bench but goatishly repellent in the drawing room.) In Witness, the actors playing Sir Wilfrid’s assistants and colleagues are all first-rate, from Henry Daniell as the solicitor to Torin Thatcher as the prosecutor. But the client and his wife are underserved.

Tyrone Power would die soon after Witness was released, and it is not hard to see clouds of ill-health in his performance as Leonard Vole. In those days, there was nothing youthful about being 44, but Power looks closer to fifty, worn and confused. He is doubly implausible; not only does he fail to seem British, but he doesn’t look much like a very good actor, either. There is a heartiness about his delivery that seems about ten years out of date. The final moments of his performance redeem all of this — he was acting a part in the beginning, and if he didn’t fool us, he fooled Sir Wilfrid. But the air of hokey melodrama clings to him nonetheless.

I have even more trouble with Marlene Dietrich. For most of the picture, she plays “Marlene Dietrich,” cool as a cucumber and three steps ahead of everybody else. But at the climax, her attempt at passionate embrace simply curdles. I don’t think that Wilder gives her enough time, or the right shots, to swing into the violently different emotional state to which her character is blasted by the surprise ending. Or it may be that Dietrich was too constitutional a stoic to unbend convincingly.

I was glad that I’d chosen the movie, though. It was just right for the occasion, and I returned to Roy Jenkins with a lighter heart.

***

The movie that I watched first, in the late afternoon, was Mogambo. I had never seen it before. A thousand years ago, in the dawn of videotape, I saw Red Dust, apparently the original of Mogambo, also starring Clark Gable, but I have no recollection of it, not of Jean Harlow and certainly not of Mary Astor. In Mogambo, those ladies are replaced by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, respectively. I did not care for it at all.

Mogambo was extensively shot in various parts of Africa, very much “on location.” This might be interesting if the movie’s central stories were not a pair of airless and trite romances. It is hard to see Clark Gable as anything but a George Clooney who has not only let himself go but also checked a major portion of his brain in a bus-station locker. Ava Gardner is a period vamp, all pointy breasts and puckered mouth, but she hasn’t got the wit to play a girl who just wants to have fun, so she slips into playing the vulgar bitch. It is Grace Kelly who makes Mogambo a must-see, not, assuredly, because she’s great, but because she shows the potential — still only potential — that attracted Alfred Hitchcock, who in three movies turned her into a great Hollywood star. It’s interesting to think of how much better Mogambo would have been with Lauren Bacall and Deborah Kerr. They might have been able to do something with Gable.

The highly detachable safari side of the story, with its tribal costumes and its gorillas, is not the sort of thing that draws me to the movies. I found it all utterly formulaic, but I suppose that that is what transmutes the alien into the exotic. Whenever lovers kissed against panoramic vistas, I had to look away, because the effect was spectacularly indecent.

Daily Blague news update: Company B.

Gotham Diary:
Money and Justice
7 July 2014

When I ordered a copy of John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins, the late British politician, I sensed that there would be something in the book “for me,” a personal message of some kind. I had no idea what the message would be, but it turned out that I was right to expect one. I’m still reading the book — I’ve almost reached the point where Jenkins abandoned his quarrelsome relationship with the Labour Party leadership for the presidency of the European Commission — so it is too soon to be framing any kind of review. But the message has been delivered.

Roy Jenkins was born into a Labour family, and he never wavered from the core Labour objective of eliminating poverty. But even before he left Oxford, on the eve of World War II, Jenkins was a bon viveur, and he would always have plenty of friends — especially lady friends — who came from conservative backgrounds. Creature comforts meant a great deal to him, as did his moderate but very steady diet of wining and dining. Shy and arrogant, he was drawn to people who interested him and almost unconscious of everyone else. He was a merciless debater, a master Parliamentarian whose articulate and entertaining speeches in and out of the House of Commons had an impact that one is tempted to call sexy. These orations seem always to have inspired somebody or other to conclude that Jenkins would be Prime Minister one day. That never happened, for reasons that make Campbell’s biography a fascinating case study.

Jenkins did not enter Parliament until 1948, by which time the Labour program of nationalization, subsidized health service, and anti-imperial austerity was well underway. From the start, he was concerned with what would happen next. This put him at odds with colleagues on the left wing of the party, who believed that the program must be seen through to its complete realization before any talk of “next.” In other words, Jenkins was no ideologue. Indeed, he would come to call himself a “radical,” by which he meant being free to do unexpected things, to make the most exciting use of sudden opportunities. Although the son of a coal miner (albeit one who made a very youthful transition to union management and middle-class respectability), Jenkins had no “labor” in his blood. He was never anything but an Oxford-educated politician who earned a considerable income as a writer. He was not marred by the generalized resentment that, for example, made Barbara Castle so inveterately scrappy. (Although she had to stop trusting Jenkins, because he put moral principles ahead of party, Castle could never stop liking him.) Also unlike Castle and other figures in Labour government, Jenkins did not believe in overwork. A quick study, he did what needed to be done without putting on a show of long hours. He protected his good life and pursued it unashamedly.

It is impossible for me not to admire Roy Jenkins. He had his faults, certainly, but they were not the kind of faults that I find it hard to forgive, because my own are so similar. (My own are also worse.) As so often is the case, now that I’m an old man, admiration springs without any associated idea of friendship. I should probably have found Jenkins to be glib, and I should probably have struck him as terminally unfocused. Beneath the surface, however, I feel a profound sympathy for the man as a thinker.

***

The story of Jenkins’s career can be reduced to a stark summary. Although he felt certain of his ground by the early Fifties, it would crumble beneath him for the rest of his life. He would find it ever more difficult to walk a path between the detached evils of his day, money and justice. Today, public life offers no ground at all for such a path.

Money and justice are things that every human being needs and wants. It is vital for people to be able to take of themselves and their families in security and comfort, while drawing deep if unthinking satisfaction from the sense that their communities are benevolently lawful. Without money and justice, men and women lose their grip on human nature, and become demoralized savages (much more confused, however, than any animal). But something almost as bad happens when there is too much money, or too much zeal for justice.

Politics in the democratic West has always shown an alarming tendency to polarize toward excess of one or the other. For many rich people, justice is little more than the facility that protects their private property. For many who are not and have never been rich, money is a commodity that ought to be distributed with rigorous equality. Robber barons and Marxists claim a disproportionate share of political discourse, which is probably why fewer and fewer people who aren’t either robber barons or Marxists pay any attention to politics. We grasp that robber barons and Marxists create one another, if only to have partners in argument. But their debate is idle and distracting.

What’s especially galling is to hear the attempt to harmonize money and justice dismissed as “a third way.” It is the only way.

***

The most exciting moment in Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life occurs on page 437 — I say this, having read but four pages further (with a good three hundred to go). During his second stint as Home Secretary, Jenkins delivered a speech that was broadly critical of government policies. He was taken aside by Barbara Castle, a fellow minister. Castle, as I say, liked Jenkins very much — women seemed to — but she was a firm believer in the party line. She worried that such outspoken speeches would ruin his career.

At this point, red in the face with sudden emotion, Roy said violently, “What makes you think I care about my political career? All that matters to me is what is happening in the world, which I think is heading for disaster. I can’t stand by and see us pretend everything is all right when I know we are heading for catastrophe.”

Where did Jenkins find the courage to speak so nobly? It’s no mystery to me: he lived a good life.

Daily Blague news update: Benefit Corporations.

Gotham Diary:
Taking Inventory
3 July 2014

It’s the eve of a holiday weekend, I’m going to be in the kitchen all afternoon, and all I want to be doing is reading The Silkworm. What could be more sublime than a screwball comedy, stripped of its pratfalls, and planted in a scary murder mystery? The mystery is gripping, but not as gripping as the screwball comedy — which, if you’ve read The Cuckoo’s Calling, and why didn’t you?, is astonishing simply for having continued. Robin Ellacott is still engaged to Matthew Cunliffe! Matthew, a handsome but priggish accountant, continues to throw hissy fits about Robin’s working for Cormoran Strike, the rogue detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan. So Robin has actually been reduced to fibbing to her fiancé! So often, that’s how trouble starts! Plus, they have rows all the time. Wait, there’s more! In a chapter that I read before I fell asleep last night, Strike is really impressed by Robin’s handling of their vehicle when a large truck jackknifes on the highway in bad weather. I’ll be interested to find out who killed the nasty old writer, but I can’t wait to see how the romantic complications among the sleuths work themselves out, and I won’t mind if JK Rowling takes seven books to sort them.

Kathleen asked me if I was thinking of reading the Harry Potter books after all. Certainly not, I said: they’re for children. But I’m grateful that they propelled Rowling into the bestsellersphere where she belongs. As a first-class writer and engineer of satisfying fictions, she restores a touch of dignity to the very idea of best-sellers. One thing the Cormoran Strike books have in common with the Harry Potters, though, is that you ought to read them in order.

***

Two weeks ago, I began reading old Daily Blague / reader entries, beginning in 2010, when the site was introduced. It did not take long to get through the first year’s entries; they were mortifyingly skimpy. I was a new grandfather! — my one and only excuse. Last week, however, when I started in on 2011, I noticed an immediate change, which was both gratifying and dismaying. As the entries were more substantial, they took longer to read and to appraise — I’m compiling a set of Evernotes, with links, comments, and snips — and it was impossible to read more than two months’ worth. Yesterday, I had to stop after just one. At this rate, I won’t catch up with the present until the beginning of next year.

Whether or not I’ll be able to knit a book out of old DBR entries remains to be seen, but I’ve got a framework for the project; I call it Inventory. If I were an ordinary writer, without a blog, I could just flesh out my outline, but a good deal of what I’d be writing has already been said, and possibly better said than any attempt at recapture. There are several subjects that I’ve addressed more than once, but with varying felicity; I was startled, yesterday, by a statement about my childhood that was sharper that anything that I could think of having said more recently. The appeal of editing existing texts is, for me, enormous, even though I suspect that material drawn from blog entries will make up a good deal less than half the length of a book. There is the possibility that I don’t really have a book in me, that the connective tissue linking ideas expressed in burst of blog will merely be lifeless filler. There is also the much brighter possibility that the mass of entries, as such, will inspire new connections.

It appears that some glitch in the updating of the code that governs the presentation of the site has garbled characters that require entry via the numeric keypad, most notably the em dash. My system operator is trying to determine the cause, and then we shall consider solutions. I was quite upset about this disfigurement when I discovered it, about a month ago, but it has certainly fired up the book project. Correcting garbled characters isn’t the only editing that those entries need. As a blogger, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of freedom to concoct long, complex, and frequently interrupted sentences. I’ve been like a child playing with blocks, seeing how far I can go before everything topples over. To some extent, the play is vital, for it opens up possibilities for ideas as well as for verbal curlicues. But it makes for tiresome reading in the long haul. I would become sick of my own writing if I were not so keen on tightening it up. A few of the entries that I’ve re-read stand out as perfectly presentable, but most seem to be sketches. Which is right and proper: that’s what a blog ought to be.

Writing this particular entry today, I’ve felt a strange self-consciousness: this isn’t the sort of thing that I’m going to want for my book! It’s true that “housekeeping” entries — writing about blogging — are the dreariest of all to re-read. They’re even  worse than attempts to describe a dream. It may have something to do with how I process experience. (This was, indeed, the subject of the remark that I found so surprising in yesterday’s reading.) If, looking back, I see something that, as it turned out, contributed positively to the way I’m trying to live now, then it’s a good thing. Everything else is relegated to a dump of regrets that I do not frequent. Writing about blogging almost always betrays confusion on some point or other that eventually works itself out in practice. This confusion might be evidence of something interesting, but, as experience goes, it belongs in the dump. Is anything more fatuous than confusion?

Speaking of housekeeping, I was chatting with Ray Soleil on the phone yesterday, complaining about books that I can’t shelve because there’s nowhere to put them. “There’s no room for another bookshelf,” said Ray, and my immediate reaction was to see that another bookshelf would just make the problem worse. It’s like building extra highways: they just increase traffic. I know that I am mortal and that I shall die, but I can’t seem to understand that I must also make my library smaller. I must raise my standards by yet another notch; each book must make a somewhat better case for my holding on to it.

Such fun.

Daily Blague news update: Corporate Sleepwalking.

Gotham Diary:
Gilded Unicorn
2 July 2014

Goofing off a bit yesterday, I read almost half of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), the novel set at Oxford in which detective novelist Harriet Vane is at last obliged to seek the help of her savior and would-be suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, to clear up some unpleasantness at fictional Shrewsbury College. The novel resolves with an interesting proposal — it goes untranslated:

Placetne, domina?
Placet.

This is more than a tribute to Harriet’s scholarly background; it is Lord Peter’s ingenious transmutation of the echoes of submission that cloud affirmative answers to the question, “Will you marry me?” into a request for approval, as of a thesis. “Does it please [you], professor?” “It pleases.” Throughout the novel, Harriet has engaged herself in a furious internal argument about marriage generally and marriage to Wimsey in particular. (Since getting her off the hook for murder, he has proposed several times a year.) She likes Wimsey very much, but doubts that their friendship could survive marriage. Working together on the Shrewsbury case brings Harriet closer to Lord Peter than she has ever been, and her thinking evolves. She finally decides that what draws the man to her is, indeed, her own fierce autonomy. She, and it, will be safe with him.

In the halls of Golden Age British crime, the Wimsey novels will always occupy a hallowed niche, partly because of the romantic yet savvy hero but also because, even in a genre remarkable for its braininess, they stand out for unashamed cosmopolitan learning. Sayers was of course a distinguished Dante scholar; her translation may not be the most mellifluous, but her annotations, which make the three Penguin volumes so fat, are indispensable. In Gaudy Night, there is no doubt that the dons of Shrewsbury are the scholarly equals of their male colleagues — even if some of those males are heard to groan in occasional demurral. Lord Peter himself beautifully responds to mention of “the question of women’s education” by asking, “Is it still a question?” Harriet Vane is in possession of a room of her own, not to mention plenty of guineas (earned by herself). It is true that Gaudy Night is more the climax of the Wimsey series than representative of it, and there is a shocking want of corpses. But Gaudy Night is also less a detective story than a character-based novel. It is not about crime, but about one woman’s struggle with her identity. In the end, she marries the guy, but this resolves her struggle only. It does not answer any larger questions about marriage and independence.

The uniqueness of the case is underlined by the paragon whose proposal Harriet at long last accepts. Lord Peter Wimsey is (we are invited to believe) the finest flower of British aristocracy. Handsome and brave, brilliant, self-possessed, and a complete gentleman, Wimsey nevertheless struggles with the dark absurdity of the Great War, which not only wounded him personally but brought crashing down the hopes and ideals of two centuries of liberal sway. Beneath the great surface charm there is deep melancholy. Beneath the melancholy, however, there is a high-spirited boy. It is the boy in him that earns him the steady disapproval of his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Denver — a disapproval that only makes us love him the more. Rich and well-connected, Wimsey pursues aristocratic leisure whenever he is not solving a mystery or manning a spot diplomatic move on behalf of the Foreign Office. Any woman with her head screwed on would think herself very lucky to be asked to be Lady Peter — except, of course, for Harriet Vane. I’d like to think that Gaudy Night has its place on the smart girl’s shelf, alongside Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.

As I finished the book, it occurred to me that I do not know, and have never known, any aristocrats — Europeans with titles. I haven’t even known any bogus ones. This is not at all surprising, given my course in life, but it seems a bit odd anyway, because I know so many aristocrats from novels. How much do real and fictional aristocrats have in common? For all I know, Lord Peter Wimsey is a gilded unicorn.

***

Thinking about aristocrats, social classes and social “background,” I wondered, somewhat tangentially, whether my father would have done as well in today’s corporate world as he did in that of half a century ago. (One thing’s certain: had he done as well, he’d have made a great deal more money doing it!) If I haven’t known any aristocrats, I’ve known a few CEOs (all long since retired); I grew up passing them hors d’oeuvres at my parents’ parties.

Just as television has “improved” since its early days, transforming itself from an innocuous and somewhat boring source of last-ditch entertainment to a narcotic monstrosity, so the CEOs have “gotten better,” too. They are more and more a distinct type of human being, and they are aware of this distinction from an early age: it is a kind of athleticism, not unlike the physical giftedness that marked the earliest European aristocrats, who were men strong enough to wage battle on horseback. Physical violence has of course been repressed in the modern counterpart, but the typical chief is younger and more in trim than he used to be, as if his body, no longer called upon to act brutally, nevertheless served as a kind of indispensable hood ornament. The real violence concerns the acquisition of power and money. Sometimes the CEOs do battle among themselves, and this makes for interesting stories in the Business Section. By and large, though, the violence is wrought upon hapless workers who can’t fight back. The modern CEO has learned what pre-industrial capitalists regarded as a rule second only to “buy low and sell high”: the ideal number of employees is zero.

Something else struck me, too, as my thoughts drifted away from Lord Peter Wimsey. The modern CEO is a champion of those who continue to believe that men are just better than women. Women have exploited the law to enforce an ever-rising baseline of gender equality. The CEOs have exploited finance to create ever-rising income inequality in which they stand out, as leading men have always liked to do, as top dogs. The billionaires are, largely if not exclusively, male. Betty Who? Gloria Who? Jane Who? Feminists seem to have missed this successful end run. When women ask to see more women in the CEO slot, they’re missing the point. The CEO slot, in its current form, ought not to exist. It’s as hostile to progressive democracy as the most ponderously constraining nobility ever was.

Daily Blague news update: Fault Lines.

Gotham Diary:
Weary Confidence
30 June 2014

Outwardly placid, summer so far as not been an easy time. The usual quota of life’s uncertainties is weighted down by the ongoing subway project, which appears to be in mild recession so far as equipment goes but which still makes something of a military checkpoint of the intersection of East 86th Street and Second venue. Making things darker still is the news that ownership of our building has changed hands. What if the new owner intends to demolish the building? I have no reason to believe that any such plan impends — except that it would make sense to me, while also being (not really) “the worst thing that could happen.”

Given this background, I’ve been something of an anxious reader. The Riddle of the Sands has me perched on the edge of my chair. I’m reading this classic spy thriller of 1903 because I was so piqued to learn that its author, Erskine Childers, was later involved in running guns to the Irish Republicans. It turns out that there is a lot to learn about Childers, but, right now, I’m up to my neck in dashing Edwardian gallantry — and learning the names of all those East Frisian islands. The undertow of longing for a brave and exciting war that was not the war that actually happened is rather sea-sickening.

***

And then there is Chapter II of Book Second of The Ambassadors, a mass of dense paragraphs in which the author takes highly idiosyncratic stock of his hero, having pointedly awaited his arrival in Paris (from Liverpool, Chester and London) to do so. The novel’s preceding paragraphs have followed what I call James’s “dramatic” template: a few scene-setting paragraphs followed by protracted conversations that quite often bring the stage to mind. These chapters have also featured Maria Gostrey, a character whom I have always found too interesting and appealing to regard as playing a supporting role, although that, of course, is what she does. There is also the phlegmatic lawyer, Waymarsh, whom I can never like: it’s because of men like him that men like me have a hard time in America. Waymarsh’s constitutional distrust of Europe is a crashing bore, and by chapter 2.2 (as it were), even Strether is tired of him.

Now, we have Strether alone, with no one to talk to. The narrator follows Strether from Cook’s or American Express, near the Opéra, to the Luxembourg Gardens, where newly-received letters from home are read and digested. At length, Strether retraces some of his steps, returning to the Right Bank to have a look at the building in which Chad Newsome, the young man whom it is Strether’s job to “rescue” and send back to his family (and family’s business) in Massachusetts, has a flat. There, he finds a young man lounging on Chad’s balcony. It is almost certainly not Chad himself, but Strether ends the chapter by crossing the Boulevard Malesherbes to pay a visit.

The walk to the Luxembourg and the time spent sitting there are filled in with an account of things that only Henry James would make. He hovers near his hero, and overhears many of the impressions that cross Strether’s mind as he passes through Paris for the second time in his life. The first visit, thirty years earlier, was a honeymoon trip with his even younger wife, from which he sailed back home with twelve “lemon colored” novels and dreams of a literary career. Those dreams have long since come to naught; the young wife died young, and their son died, too, as a schoolboy; Strether’s worldly career, finally, has been a succession of failures. I’m doing violence to the texture of this account by jamming details together, where they would belong in almost anyone else’s telling. James never stands back to give us a portrait view, not in this chapter or anywhere else; what we see is the application of brush strokes. And aside from the handful of personal details that I’ve mentioned, James is working here not on Strether himself but on the background of ashes in which, the man now sees, he has spent his mature life.

As usual, what we’re not told is interesting. Never are Mrs Newsome’s letters quoted. We are doomed to experience her as an offstage divinity, Strether’s generous but imperious patroness. Nor are Strether’s failures itemized. Instead:

The fact that he had failed, as he considered, in everything; in each relation and half a dozen trades, as he liked luxuriously to put it, might have made, might still make, for an empty present; but it stood solidly for a crowded past. It had not been, so much achievement missed, a light yoke or a short load.

Countervailing these gloomy reflections, but also inspiring them, is Strether’s sense of having made an escape. At this point, he chalks his invigoration up to fatigue. His life at home has ground him down, and now that he’s on holiday in the brightest of capitals he is immediately rejuvenated — quite as if Paris were an eagerly-swallowed tonic. So Strether concludes, but his author worries the point; and anyone who has read the book once before will recognize Strether’s weakness for happy explanations.

At a certain point, Strether’s thoughts turn to Chad, and, again, the narrative is pointedly selective. Strether has chosen to loiter in the Luxembourg because Chad no longer lives on this side of the Seine, so there won’t be any risk of running into the boy and his “Person,” the seductress who has presumably led him astray. But Chad did once spend some time in the Latin Quarter, and the hopeful plans that he wrote home about, plans that all too soon appeared to be a smokescreen, are revisited in such a way, and with such a conclusion, that what we are shown is the chance to be young and carefree in Paris that Strether himself should have liked to have.

He reconstructed a possible groping Chad of three or four years before, a Chad who had, after all, simply — for that was the only way to see it — been too vulgar for his privilege. Surely it was a privilege to have been young and happy just there. Well, the best thing Strether knew of him was that he had had such a dream.

Strether is wrong about almost everything here, so far as Chad goes, but what’s most wrong is his utter failure to see what these reflections ought to tell him about himself. James is writing as someone who also escaped, but who did so at an early age (and with the help of family money). I don’t think that he is imagining what his life would have been like had he stayed in Boston — nothing so literal as that. But he is projecting the climate, uncongenial to the point of unhealthiness, of a hostile American scene.

It had been a dreadful cheerful sociable solitude, a solitude of life or choice, of community; but though there had been people enough all round it there had been but three or four persons in it.

Strether continues to harbor the hope that he can make something of his American life. All he need do is to see through to success his mission on behalf of Mrs Newsome. If James produces any impression in this chapter, it is that of Strether’s weary confidence in himself — the very confidence that has doomed him to a life of heavy yokes and long loads. It will take the distant, almost inaudible thunder of a displeased goddess to wake him up.

Daily Blague news update: Death by Contractor.

Gotham Diary:
Ivory Tower
27 June 2014

Kathleen had to be in the office this morning, so she arranged for a car to fetch her. I remained tucked in while she got dressed, and, after she gave me a kiss and left, I fell back asleep. My punishment was a rather dreary dream of farewells and long drives. This came to a point in the fruitless search for a tote bag containing my laptop. I woke up and swung out of bed in a panic, but before my feet reached the floor I knew that I needn’t bother. So I dozed for a bit more. Some people never learn.

While I was reading Alice James, the book that I wrote about yesterday, part of my mind was puzzling out a striking correlation. Jean Strouse’s book came out in 1980, which was also the year in which I came out from law school in Indiana to settle down with Kathleen in New York. We lived in another apartment in this very building, but we’ve been where we are now for over thirty years. That stability is mirrored in the ongoing simplification of my affairs, as, over time, I have abandoned projects of less than signal importance and focused on things that really mattered. The dark humanism of Henry James — Alice’s brother — is certainly one of those things. It almost seems as if I, like Alice, have taken to my bed — I have, in that sense, certainly taken to my apartment — but not in order to attract attention and malinger in hypochondria. I did it (at first quite blindly and inefficiently) in order to learn how to think.

And I see now that I have built up a kind of coral reef of ideas. It is time to take stock of that. But not here.

***

In the London Review of Books, I read a review of a book called Dangerous to Know, by the centenarian journalist Chapman Pincher. Pincher’s specialty was armaments: he believed that Britain ought to be well-armed, and he cultivated military and diplomatic sources whose concerns he shared and was happy to share with his readers. I knew at once that my father-in-law would love to read this book, so I ordered a copy — his ninetieth birthday is coming up — from Amazon.uk. While I was at the site, I came across another book that I’d read about, John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life. Almost against my will, I ordered this door-stopper as well. When are you ever going to read that? my prudence demanded. Where do these impulses come from?

I groaned all over again when the book arrived, more loudly, in fact, because Roy Jenkins really is a doorstopper. Wherever will you put that thing? What usually happens to these big, serious books is that, lying at the bottom of piles, they accumulate an ectoplasm of guilt and remorse that makes them even more unreadable. By the time they are finally disposed of, unread, they have become an embarrassment. Something different happened yesterday. I picked up Roy Jenkins and began to read it. I soon found that I couldn’t put it down.

Although I certainly don’t know very much about him, Roy Jenkins is a figure of interest to me. He’s part hero, part warning. He was a complicated politician whose mature instinct was always for an inclusive center and for means of social improvement that would involve the least dislocation. At the same time, he didn’t give larger economic matters much thought; he was too much the traditional parliamentarian for that. At the end of his life, he slipped into ceremonious irrelevance because his skill at maneuver and debate atrophied his ability to think about the objects of political activity.

At the same time, he was a successful writer who supported a “well-rounded” lifestyle (with a taste for fine wine) with his publications. My closest contact with him, until yesterday, was his biography of Gladstone, which came out in 1995. I doubted very much that anybody could make Gladstone interesting to me, but Jenkins succeeded — or at least kept my yawns to a minimum (Gladstone could be such a Victorian humbug at times). Jenkins was clearly amused by the sprawl of Gladstone’s long life — the family history, the penchant for chopping down trees, the strange marks in his diary that signified no-one-knows-what about his meetings with prostitutes — and he shared his enthusiasm on the page. But is Gladstone the thoughtful book that it might be? No, because Jenkins never investigates the contradictions at the heart of the Victorian experiment.

Similarly, as the LRB convincingly argued, John Campbell does not investigate the economic developments that transformed the postwar West into its current condition of noxious inequality. Jenkins was too complacent about business organizations, too ready to see them as providers of jobs — which they certainly were, until just about the prime of his career. Then something happened. What this something might be, neither Jenkins nor any other liberal could tell, because it happened in a corner of the world that didn’t interest them and marked a development that they could not have imagined as anything but perverse. This was nothing less than the financialization of everything that eventually brought about the market valuation of the priceless.

This was not only a political catastrophe for liberals but a collapse of humanism overall. But the liberals, who prided themselves on their understanding of big pictures and bold prognostications, and who were humanism’s most significant defenders, lacked the intellectual wherewithal to see it coming. Indeed, in their globalizing zeal — Jenkins sacrificed his own chance at 10 Downing Street to his commitment to the EU — they facilitated the early stages of trans-sovereign finance. This isn’t to say that they ought to have been more protectionist in the common sense of that word. But they might have given more thought to the protection of the structures and scales that would insure the widespread prosperity of their constituents. Today’s liberals on both sides of the Atlantic seem not even to possess the rudiments of a program for reforming business organizations as such for the social benefit. This would involve imposing conditions on businesses that preserve capitalist projects wherever they are useful, while protecting economic health from the excessive (thus malignant) pursuit of profits. By “as such,” I mean that business organizations must also be protected from governmental interference. Once the political decisions about organization and regulation have been taken, there is nothing for the state but its exercise of ordinary police powers.

We need business. We need more businesses — lots more. And we need a government capable of providing the large-scale services that make gigantic business organizations as unnecessary as they are undesirable.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: Literally.

Reading Note:
Alice James
26 June 2014

Last night, for the first time in my life, I made a really good cheeseburger. The burger itself, a quarter-pound clump of ground chuck that I dropped into a hot cast-iron pan and pressed into a patty with a spatula, then cooked for two minutes on one side and for a minute on the other, was actually delicious. All by itself, it would have been a treat. But it was even better with a slice of melting cheese, a slice of red onion, a leaf of lettuce, and a toasted potato roll lathered with mustard. (I have a tendency to dress cheeseburgers with a slice of bacon. I was very glad to have resisted it last night.) Kathleen’s burger was served to her taste, with cheese and ketchup.

So simple, so fast, so tasty — where have I been? Not behind the counter at a diner stove, apparently.

The key to success in this production is something called “the smash.” I first came across it in a recent Williams-Sonoma catalogue. For about twenty dollars, I could buy a cast-iron thingy, a smaller version of those weights that some people use to inhibit curls in frying bacon, with which to flatten a clump of meat into a patty. For four hundred dollars, I could have my head examined to see why I didn’t just use a spatula. A simple spatula is what’s called for in Sam Sifton’s Dining Section article on the subject, “Deconstructing a Perfect Burger,” which appeared in yesterday’s Times. I’m not sure that “smash” is the word — trust men to infuse their food talk with violence — but the secret does seem to lie in shaping the burger in the hot pan, and not before. It is also important to use a pan, and not to cook burgers over (or under) an open flame: “The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.”

George Motz, the documentary filmmaker and hamburger expert whom Sifton consulted, believes that the ground beef is best untouched by human hands. He uses a spoon or an ice cream scoop to form his clumps, and he advises working with meat that has been chilled in the refrigerator.

The potato roll is almost as key an ingredient as a the ground chuck. It’s very light, and by readily absorbing all the juices, it intensifies the burger’s flavor.

***

Jean Strouse’s biography, Alice James, came out in 1980. I dimly remember reading about it, and deciding not to read about someone whose neurasthenic, bedridden life was so dismally disappointing. A couple of years ago, the book was reissued by NYRB (which a preface by Colm Tóibín that seems startlingly phoned-in). By then, I knew a lot more about the James family and had also read dozens of wry snippets (it seemed) from Alice’s diary. So I bought it, but I didn’t read it until this week.

Alice James is a disturbing read, because Alice James herself cannot hold the center of her own biography. This might sound like some kind of fault, but it is actually the point. Strouse is to be praised for refraining from pushing her heroine forward, and indeed from decking her subject out as a heroine. She does not crudely “make a case” for Alice James. This case, presumably, would be that Alice James might have been a woman of achievement if her upbringing had not been so stifling. That she might have made an impact on the world if her older brothers had not been so successful at making their own. Indeed, far from presenting Alice as an unrealized version of William or Henry James, Strouse shows us a woman whose circumstances were not that unusual in Victorian America, where many gifted daughters were paled by successful older brothers. What sets Alice apart from the run of such women is that her older brothers are still famous well over a century later. Henry James is, if anything, more “famous” than he was in his lifetime. That we know about Alice at all owes entirely to her brothers’ persistent renown.

That Alice is an interesting figure, moreover, owes much to the egotistical nuttiness of her father, Henry James, Sr. James père is an exasperating windbag upon whom I don’t care to dwell — it is almost enough to say that he was a good friend of Emerson. When William James complied a book of extracts from his father’s “literary remains,” he introduced it with a deadly candor completely at odds with his family’s habitual veneration of their dear old patriarch.

With all the richness of style, the ideas are singularly unvaried and few. Probably few authors have so devoted their entire lives to the monotonous elaboration of one single bundle of truths.

The man didn’t have to support himself as a writer; he lived on a nice inheritance. He had ideas; he fancied himself an expert. He dragged his children around England, Switzerland and France in search of the ideal schooling for his four boys. Nothing came up to his mark, and his sons never formed strong attachments outside the home. This did not impair William much, and it may have been a great boon for Henry, but for the two younger brothers, Garth Wilkerson and Robertson, it was probably the root of their weedy failures. Alice, of course, was never sent to school at all.

Henry James, Sr, also had ideas about men and women, and they were nicely exemplified by himself and his wife. Mary Walsh James was — well, the first thing that you want to say about her, once she comes into focus, is that she was not a “James.” She did not share her family’s febrile constitution. She was placid, literal, and inexorable. She “gave all but asked for nothing.” Strouse unpacks this ideal of maternal sacrifice enough to demonstrate that Alice could never, ever follow in her mother’s footsteps. Alice was clever, and even somewhat temperamental. As a woman, however — as a woman according to her father’s understanding, that is — she had no real alternative course. Believing that women were innately moral creatures, Alice’s father never understood that he denied his daughter that ability to be moral. She was never anything — for him — but an obedient receptacle. The idea of a creative life simply did not compute. So Alice got sick. That was an option. It turned out to be such a good solution to her conundrum that when, in her early forties, Alice learned of a breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver, she welcomed death with an ecstasy that would have been Wagnerian had it not been so decorous. From her late teens on, Alice was the object of her family’s loving and anxious concern. She thus secured their attention.

Until the cancer, of course, doctors couldn’t find anything “organically wrong” with Alice, so they diagnosed her as hysterical. She had a couple of dramatic, paralyzing breakdowns in her life, but for the most part she was a becalmed invalid. She got on well with her parents and her brothers, and she always had a passel of women friends to write letters to, but her somewhat petulant sarcasm and her mock-pompous rhetoric were not immediately appealing outside her coterie, especially issuing from her round, expectant face. No man ever expressed a romantic interest in her, and few seem to have sought her friendship. It is not surprising that the daughter of a benignant misogynist and the sister of brilliant brothers had little use for ordinary men, even the ordinary men of Boston and Cambridge.

Toward the end of her life, Alice kept a diary. Strouse stresses that this diary is not an undiscovered masterpiece. It has considerable documentary evidence, however; among other things, it shows what the family literary gift might produce with little or no discipline. Upon a surprise visit from William, she wrote,

What a strange experience it was, to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the allusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating particle sense was lost for an hour or so in the illusion that what is forever shattered had sprung up anew, and existed outside of our memories — where it is forever green!

This complicated passage cries out for editing and reshaping. So does most of what Strouse quotes from the diary.

We feel sorry for Alice, of course. But we also tire of her, despite (or perhaps because of) Strouse’s expert handling. Then we think of the hundreds of thousands of women whose lives were just a little less remarkable — for dramatic illness as for illustrious connections — and the waste of humanity assumes a massive horror, a feminine counterpart of the dead of the Somme. It is in awe of that horror that we close Strouse’s magisterial study. This is why we need to know Alice James.

Daily Blague news update: Klinghoffer and the Met.

Gotham Diary:
The App
25 June 2014

In the middle of lunch, the other day, a passing observation snagged my attention.

In this way, [Walter] Benjamin viewed the seventeenth-century drama as opening a prospect onto a very modern sense of spiritual emptiness and confusion.

I put The New York Review of Books down and gazed out the window. Spiritual emptiness and confusion. I have been hearing about these things all my life, yet I have never felt anything like them. Half the time, I have felt stupid, as if I weren’t getting a joke. The other day, it occurred to me that I had never experienced the loss implied by spiritual emptiness because I had never possessed, or thought I possessed, whatever it is that conduces to its opposite.

And what would that be?

At the time — at lunch — I thought that it might be a sense of entitlement. Jesus loves me, that I know. Really? As I saw it — and now, the time that I am talking about is childhood — Jesus was far more likely to scold, or at least to admonish me, than he was to love me. He asked me to love my neighbor as myself. These were all good things, I knew: we all ought to be and to do better, not out of duty but in order to put the world right. Even a child can understand that. But I did not see Jesus as a prop, as a support — as an insurance policy? — for my adventure in life. I had no such prop.

The curious thing is that I learned this from official Catholic catechism. Item one in The Baltimore Catechism, as I recall, was this Q & A:

Why did God make you?

God made me to know, love, and serve him.

The propping was all the other way. Thinking about this long-memorized text on my way to the market after lunch, I was shocked to see that it represented God as a spoiled child in search of a new and better doll. It seemed — I felt slightly faint — was the Church was blaspheming, big time. What kind of God was this? Anyway, I never felt that God was there for me, but only that I was there for God, which is probably why I lost interest in him almost as soon as I was old enough to think.

An interesting curlicue, and, typically, all about me. Today, revisiting the passage, which appears in Adam Kirsch’s review of a new biography of Benjamin, I put spiritual emptiness and confusion in a more appropriate perspective, the history of the modern West. It is generally conceded that a widespread loss meaning overcame the West in the wake of the Great War. It seems clear to me that this loss was actually one of confidence, not meaning. The preceding age, a century or more of revolution, social turmoil, industrial upheaval, and population explosion, was nevertheless marked by an almost mindless confidence. “Progress” was the capacious, almost palpable magic carpet that would carry civilization across the ruins of the old and the dislocations of the new to a paradise of leisure. Slavery was abolished, women were on the way to political equality with men; armed with bundles of progressive ideas, cheerful civilians walked right into something they could hardly believe still existed: unreconstructed empires and their imperial armies.

Even today, people are still asking, how did that happen?

The confidence, it seems, was — merely confidence. Confidence is very different from optimism. Optimism is the hope that things will turn out for the better, inspired not by confidence but by an awareness that expecting things to get worse is corrosive. Whatever happens tomorrow, you’re better off being an optimist today. Just don’t count on anything.

Confidence is a bluff; it anticipates, no less materially than heirs used to “anticipate” their fortunes, tomorrow’s happiness. Given tomorrow’s happiness, today’s decisions become a little less crucial. Because things are going to work out, right?

Confidence leads, inevitably, it seems, to ruin and despair. And, despite all the reasons against it, we are once again in a confident time. The modern West — significantly, its youngest cohorts, the ones who are going to spend their entire lives thrashing with the consequences — believes in The App. The App, when it’s discovered, will Fix Everything. Meanwhile, we ignore the reality around us as smugly as the prosperous bourgeoisie of the Nineteenth Century ignored poverty, human and environmental degradation, and smoldering social resentment. Why should we try to fix anything, when The App will do a better job? If and when.

Our faith in The App is, like the old faith in Progress, largely unconscious. It’s built into the new and rude virtual network of devices operated by pedestrians on collision courses with material reality. You cannot listen to mainstream television for ten minutes without hearing the peals of confidence exuded by self-assured men and savvy-sounding women. We’ve got it taken care of: just buy us! When the media is the message, you don’t have to be Plato to start thinking about leaving the global village — the cave, I mean.

***

For two days, I’ve been sorting through desk drawers, and also through the nice-looking boxes — I can never remember what they’re made of, but it’s not what I call it, rattan — which also serve as annexes to the desks. This has to be done every now and then, but the need was pressing because I could not overlook the fact that, during the past year, I rarely opened most of the drawers and never opened any of the boxes. I can no longer bear the idea that my house is a storage unit. Everything not in some kind of use must go!

And a lot of it did.

One type of item that always surfaces in these sortings is the notebook. I know that many people are far more seriously afflicted, but I have something of a notebook fetish. I have many notebooks, a few small, a few large, and a lot medium. Most of them are bound. There are Japanese notebooks with retro print on pale green covers. There are Field Notes. There’s a Moleskine knock-off. I have only recently lost sticky fingers for notebooks, which for years I acquired as women pile up lipsticks. I would imagine a kind of literary porn: there I am, scribbling a deathless thought, presumably against a scenic backdrop.

The reality — falls short. Many notebooks are abandoned after several pages of scribbling. The few that are full are not regularly comprehensible. I don’t think that my notes would make sense to anyone else, and a lot of them make no sense to me. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that I don’t make a lot of sense when I am the only person in the room. “Talking to myself” — transcribing flights of insight — I am something of a lunatic. I know what I’m talking about, and isn’t that all that matters? But, like a lunatic, I almost immediately forget the context from which the brainwave emerged. The next day, the “I” who reads the notebook, that “I” has no idea what I was talking about.

The sad truth is, I never learned how to take good notes. I realized this early enough to make a habit of never writing in books, but the notebook habit persisted, as fetishes will. What I did learn was to write coherent letters to friends, and it’s out of that that my skills as a blogger developed. The only context for what I say here is here, on this page. There are no “understood” special meanings. I assume that you, the reader, are a reasonably educated person who might nevertheless quite understandably never have heard of something I take for granted — which means that there is little, beyond a handful of stylistic conventions, that I can take for granted. And when I re-read old entries (as I’m doing now, in connection with a larger project), I am only very rarely puzzled by an elusive thought.

The question is, then, what to do with the notebooks. Should I just throw them all away unread? With every passing hour, this looks more like the right thing to do. Assuming that I go through them first, how should I go through them? I thought of scanning them, but while that solves the purely spatial problem, it doesn’t address the notebooks ontologically, as it were. Should I look for nuggets of eloquence and type them into Evernote?

Probably the worst thing that I can say about the notebooks that I have leafed through is that they don’t divulge personal or private material that I should prefer others not to see. They’re not even that useful.

Daily Blague news update: Performance Art.

Reading Note:
This & That
24 June 2014

It has been a good season for pulling books down from the shelf and reading them for the first time. There was David Nasaw’s Going Out, and then Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking. I’m in the middle of that. (Did you know that currants — as in Zante Currants, the small raisins — started out in English as grapes of Corinth?) Today, looking for something to read at lunch, I lighted upon Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James. It’s a real treat to come at the James Family story from a slightly different angle.

I’d have liked to read The Ambassadors, but I’m reading that in French. I read a chapter in English, and then, right away, the same chapter in French. I do not consult the dictionary, but I do look back, now and then, at the original. Jean Pavans’s recent translation is as complex syntactically as the original, but the vocabulary is, naturally, more contemporary. Thus Maria Gostrey’s term for Mrs Newcome and Lambert Strether, in their native Woollett, “swells,” which I found somewhat obscure, becomes “select(e)” in French: quite clear. This bilingual project forces me to pay very close attention to the original, as it’s to be my only key to uncertain words in French. I’d have certainly been obliged to look up “éclaboussures boueuses” if I hadn’t just read “fresh damp gusts.” Actually, I just did look up the French, sensing, upon closer inspection, that the translation is rather free on this point (“muddy splatters”). Interesting detail: words appearing in French in the original are marked with an asterisk. Bon!*

Pleasant as it is to go back and forth, I can only do so much at a time without flagging. Reading about Henry James’s invalid sister is an excellent stand-in.

Over the weekend, I read the three novellas by Michel Faber that are collected as The Courage Consort, the title of the first. “The Courage Consort” and “The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps” are the most clearly literary works of Faber’s that I’ve read so far. Under the Skin is as unliterary as a well-written book can be. The story sounds in science fiction (although it doesn’t really read as such, strange as it is), and the style is overtly workmanlike. But it is well-written, and there are unobtrusive nuances to be found. In this, Faber is the opposite of Stephen King, at least for me; King’s writing always breaks down into careless, almost clumsy bits, and leaves the impression that King doesn’t give a damn about language. He certainly doesn’t give my kind of damn! Faber does, so I’ll read anything. I was hooked by his Victorian melodrama, The Crimson Petal and the White. It made me feel almost sorry for Wilkie Collins, who could never have published anything remotely as carnally frank — but that he would have done, had it been possible, Faber’s artful re-creation left me in no doubt.

“The Courage Consort” is about a five-singer a capella group that retires to a Belgian chateau in the middle of a deep forest, in order to rehearse a difficult new work in a noise-free environment. The novella is told from the point of view of the group’s soprano, Catherine Courage, wife of Roger, the baritone and group leader (the pun, or double-meaning, is almost gracious). Catherine is very much lacking in courage at the start; the desire to go on living has somehow been drained out of her. Faber being Faber, there is shadow of Gothic menace in the woods that surround the chateau, and a good deal of play with the sense of being cut off from the world: despite being routinely flouted, this air of dangerous isolation persists. The story takes a surprising, but, in retrospect, perfectly natural turn toward the end, and “The Courage Consort” story closes with the prosperous satisfaction of an old New Yorker story. The same is true of “The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps,” set in Whitby, notorious as the point of entry into England for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampires are not the story’s objects of curiosity, however; an apparently grisly deathbed confession is. Again, the point of view is that of a woman, and at the end I realized that the same is true of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I would bet that Faber’s view of the male of the species through the eye of the female is as far as you can get from that of E L James, without being simply lesbian.

The final entry in The Courage Consort, “The Fahrenheit Twins,” is not so much a novella as a fable. At the very start, the realism so persuasive in the preceding fictions is called into question.

At the icy zenith of the world, far away from any other children, Tainto’lilith and Marko’cain knew no better than that life was bliss. Therefore, it was bliss.

By the end of the story, which is terrifying without the aid of any special effects, the twins know better. The only thing missing is an embossed invitation to decode the tale. For the time being, I’m content to take it at face value. I relish the sensation that Faber is up to something that is somehow beyond me. In a writer less fluent and interesting, such mystification would annoy me. Let that attest to my admiration for this Nederlander who writes in English and lives in Scotland.

That leaves only Some Rain Must Fall: And Other Stories for me to read before Michel Faber’s new book comes out in the fall.

***

Stopping in at Crawford Doyle on Friday, I was arrested by a book on the front counter, James Turner’s Philology: the Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. The French word for this book, at any rate with regard to me, would be incontournable: there is no way that I can get around reading this book. Happily, it is lucid, and authoritatively historical as well.

Why Philology? Ever since I read Auden’s remark about Hannah Arendt — that The Human Condition is an “etymology,” explaining the proper meaning of certain words — I’ve been considering Arendt not as a philosopher but as a philologist. Turner’s book unpacks what philology is and is not. Just as “philosophy” doesn’t mean, simply, “the love of wisdom,” so “philology” means more (or less) than “the love of words.” Turner’s account of grammar, as it developed in Alexandrian times (but in Pergamum), is particularly rich.

But in antiquity grammar meant much more than parsing sentences. Dionysius [Thrax] divided grammar into six parts. His pupil Tyrannion separated it, more influentially, into four modes of treating a text: recitation, explanation, emendation, and evaluation. This program boiled down to teaching people how to read, with sophisticated grasp, in a culture of oral reading where voice mattered as well as comprehension. Yet here grammar gains almost the breadth of philologia itself. And why should it not? What did a refined ancient reader need, besides well-modulated vocal cords? He … required a scroll purged of errors, mastery of the language written on it, and knowledge of the historical and mythological lore to which the writer referred. Add some arguments about etymology and you have a summary of Hellenistic philology and its associated antiquarian research.

Now you know why, even in Shakespeare’s day, they called it grammar school.

More to come: I’m only in the middle of Turner’s second chapter.

And on that note: Daily Blague news update: “Jirble.”

Mot Juste Note:
Knowing
23 June 2014

Very early in My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard steps forward from delivering the narrative to deliver himself of one of those chunks of authorial wisdom that have been depressing fiction readers since the time of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such a cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, five, sixty … Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning. My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it. (11)

Really? I thought. But I was already engaged with the struggle of the title, so I set this passage aside as obiter dicta. It refused, however, to fade away. It was a like an equation that couldn’t be solved — not until I substituted knowingness for knowledge. Knowledge is not stabilized and fixed. It is always becoming more complicated — with luck, more complex. Knausgaard isn’t talking about real knowledge. He’s talking about the stuff that you learn in school, that you have to know, more or less, if you’re going to take a place among adults in the Western World, especially among people who work with their minds. You are supposed to know about river deltas and molecules, but not much — just enough not to appear “ignorant.” This dossier of information is indeed meaningless — that is the point of it. It is meaningless in the same way that knowing how to walk is meaningless. You just do it.

The distractions of modern life make it very easy for adults to forgo the pursuit of real knowledge — which begins, of course, with a declaration of ignorance at odds with the presumption of knowledgeability with which we invest ourselves and our social and professional peers. Some professional people really are paid to learn more about the world — surgeons, engineers, genuine scholars. But most people are paid to deploy their training. The pursuit of knowledge is relegated to hobbies. Nevertheless, the pursuit of knowledge is not only meaningful but driven by meaning: it is one’s sense of the meaning of things that governs the questions that one will ask. We might call curiosity an ache of meaning. I don’t want to get tangled up in Knausgaard’s assertions about time and distance, but I can imagine proposing that curiosity is a resistance to time: it requires a halt or a pause, for the clearing up of doubt or the confirmation of a hunch.

Every educated man and woman is in a position to pursue the knowledge that conduces to a better understanding of the civil society in which we all live — that is, or used to be, the declared objective of humanist education. But nobody has the time. What nobody actually has, in fact, is a sense of where to begin. A crash course in astrophysics might well appear to be less daunting. But a crash course in astrophysics is not going to teach anyone how to learn more about the cosmos. Knowledge about civil society is different: there is always much to be learned by each of us. We begin by knowing nothing: upon reaching adulthood, we need to dismantle the adolescent training wheels of knowingness, so that we can begin to know.

How to begin? By thinking. Thinking about what other people think, and thinking about what you see every day. Why, or how, does civil society chug along from day to day, given all its worn and broken parts? And who is in charge? Such thoughts will lead to understanding, and behavior informed by understanding (as opposed to behavior dictated by knowingness) is our only hope as a species. Provided that we respect the property and preserve the safety of others, understanding can do nothing but good, and not the least of its benefits is a sense of the meaning of life.

The meaning of life, which can never be reduced to words, is to be found in your relationship to the world. The relationship certainly exists (although it must not be confused with your relation to society — other people), but if you are not aware of it, then life will seem meaningless. So, find it.

Daily Blague news update: Tough Monday.