Gotham Diary:
28 August 2014

Tomorrow, we go home. We will leave for town first thing in the morning. Of course we’d love to stay longer. Kathleen’s brother just left a few minutes ago, and it would have been nice to have more than one day just to ourselves. At the same time, I’m weary of cooking in someone else’s kitchen, without the resources of Fairway and, even more, Agata & Valentina, and I’ve begun to miss my pillows and my reading chair.

It’s great to be out here today, though, because of the invisible hurricane. Hundreds of miles out to sea, Hurrican Cristobal is spinning its way past Bermuda, past Nova Scotia. There is not a cloud in the sky, but the bay is choppy enough for a proper storm, and the wind is very high. The air feels so scrubbed that it is almost abrasive. And of course the surf is pounding like crazy: only a madman would go anywhere near the water. The beach has been paved hard and smooth by the sheets of water that have been swept ashore. I wish it were like that every day: great for walking!

I finished reading The Kindly Ones this morning. I remembered very little of it, which made me wonder whether I was paying attention when I read it in the Nineties. What I do remember is hating the next book, The Valley of Bones, almost until the end, when I suddenly understood the agony of Gwatkin. Dislike turned to love: I can’t wait to read it again. And indeed I may not.

The unseen storm, the prospect of packing and traveling, and the first stages of sorting through recollections of this fourth August in or around Ocean Beach have put me in a twaddlesome frame of mind. I’m inclined to write about the daily trivialities that I know I shall hate to read about later on. Every now and then, I manage to brace paragraphs of highly perishable fluff with a resonant girder, but when I fail, the result is so vacuous that, now mindful of the mortification, I’m averse to running the risk. I can’t write about what’s most on my mind, after four weeks of visits. Reflections on my grandson, his parents, my brother-in-law, and a clutch of old friends have been greatly intensified by the reading of Anthony Powell, but they have no place here and indeed I will reduce very few of them to writing of any kind. Most of my impressions will be folded into the ongoing conversation that I have been having with Kathleen for the past thirty-five years.

Half-seriously, I’m curious to know how Kant’s categorical imperative applies to the reading of novels — which of course implies the writing of novels. But bloviation on that interesting subject will have to be postponed. Kathleen has just returned from seeing her brother off, and she has presented me with this morning’s Times. Further twaddle forestalled, I wish

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
27 August 2014

In the middle of the afternoon, yesterday — more glorious weather — I found that I could not read another word. Not another word by anyone. Between David Cannadine and Anthony Powell, I was exhausted by the intake of highly literate English. If I didn’t want to read, though, I didn’t want to do anything else, either. I was at risk for being — shame of shames — bored.

The cure turned out to be homeopathic in nature. I remembered Friday’s crossword puzzle.

For a long time, I used to do the Times crossword puzzle every morning. I would do it on the Lex. Taking a seat in the first car of the subway, I would open and fold the newspaper and uncap a pen. I would finish the puzzle before the train reached my stop, at Bowling Green. It was a very standard sort of showing off; there were probably ten other people on the same train doing the same thing and meeting with the same success. The Times crossword puzzle was not very difficult, once you got the hang of the clues. Filling out the squares with a pen, and making no mistakes along the way, was the trick that never failed to excite the wonder of who didn’t exercise the knack. Even I was, now and then, weak-minded enough to be impressed.

Then there came a day when I could no longer be bothered to fill in “Ina” in response to the clue, “Actress Claire.” I had heard Risë Stevens sing, on the radio — her first name came up all the time, too, and she was a New Yorker, was she not? — but I had never seen a movie with Ina Claire, and, to the best of my knowledge, I still haven’t. The hang of the clues had finally asphyxiated my interest. I continued to work on the Sunday puzzle for a few years, but then along came Will Shortz.


It was Ray who started the puzzle, not long after he got out here, on Friday afternoon. He tried two clues before giving up. “I never do the crossword puzzle,” he said. “I can never get it.” I never did the crossword puzzle, either — anymore. But my appetite was whetted. I gave the puzzle a look. I couldn’t make head nor tail of most of the clues. For example, “Member of a ‘great’ quintet.” This gave me, I thought mistakenly, absolutely nothing to go on. A similar clue asked for the “Member of a Latin trio.” All I could think of was Tito Puente, which wouldn’t fit into four squares. After ten minutes or so, I folded the paper back up and set it aside in disgust.

I really do not want to write about Will Shortz and his leading role in the decline and fall of Western Civilization. The subject is too depressing. Suffice it to say that I remember the days when the crossword puzzle rewarded smart people for remembering things that they were supposed to have learned in school. Or at least to have bumped up against. Alas, poor Yorick, and all that. References to The Brady Bunch would have been infra dig. “Pop culture” was understood to be a seditious innovation spearheaded by Andy Warhol — if it was not an oxymoron, plain and simple. Wordplay for its own sake — especially of a punning nature — was felt to be grating and cheap.

But wordplay was already the motor of the infamously difficult Times of London puzzle, which was carried, as I recall, by New York Magazine. New York Magazine also played a leading role in the decline and fall. It started out as the Sunday supplement of the Herald Tribune, and was designed to compete not so much with the Times Magazine as with The New Yorker, which in the early Sixties was perceived as going through a patch of the fuddy-duddies. (New York’s tag line was “Consider the Alternative,” pointing a finger at Eustace Tilley.) Astringent new journalists such as Tom Wolfe said things that couldn’t be said, and New York made everyone sit up. When the Herald Tribune folded, the new magazine was established on its own footing. The critics were great. Alan Rich wrote about music; I read every word. When he announced that, like the Roman Catholic Mass, there ought to be, at any moment of the day, a performance of The Marriage of Figaro going on somewhere in the world, I felt that my cultural values had been pasted on a billboard. For a long time, New York Magazine was superb.

Then it became the magazine, as the joke had it, “for people desperately trying to survive in a thirty thousand dollar living room.” This would have been in the Eighties, when thirty thousand dollars was a lot of money to spend on the fittings of lounge. I wouldn’t have New York in the house. I had never liked that stupid old puzzle, anyway.


Yesterday, however, I was desperately trying to survive something, too, and the crossword puzzle seemed the only answer. I would rack my brains until they woke up. I would finish the damned thing if it killed me. Why, I would even cheat.

I hadn’t done a crossword puzzle since the advent of the Internet. I was shocked, really jolted, to discover that, if you type in the crossword puzzle clues verbatim, there are at least two sites that will provide you with answers.

Quite often, the attempted cheating was unavailing. I believed that Regulus A and Bellatrix were stars, but I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t racehorses, so I cheated. I did not find the answer, B Stars. I don’t know (or much care) what B stars might be, but the “b” was nailed by the answer to the lateral clue, which asked for “Something that goes from a pit to your stomach?”: BBQ sandwich. Cheating was helpful for refreshing “pop culture” references that I used to know before I stopped watching television (“Esther of ‘Good Times’” — Rolle) or for filling me in on developments since then (“‘Burn Notice’ grp.” — CIA). I avoided the Web sites that mainlined the answers, except for one of the last clues: “Masseur gratifier.” I should never have figured this one out in a million years, because I just don’t think in a way that would lead me to “Aah.” It’s embarrassing even to write down. But the “h” did help me out with another clue, “Parts of kingdoms.” I already had the first letter, “p,” and was worn out from trying to thing of geopolitical terms  that might fit, but the “h” steered me in the right direction immediately: phyla. As I say: wordplay.

I began to get the hang of the clues. The member of the Latin trio was Amat, while the member of the “great” quintet was Lake Ontario.

Long before I had filled in every square, I was feeling great. I had no idea that cheating could be such a shameless pleasure! Just the thing for vacation.

There was another clue even more maddening than the one about the masseur, and I went to for that one, too. “T.S. of literature,” in four letters, beginning with “g.” The answer was startling. John Irving — literature? I can remember when we thought so, but I was probably still watching television.

Gotham Diary:
26 August 2014

Last night, after dinner, I began reading The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. It is in this book that Powell recurs for the first time to his childhood home, a bungalow on a hill overlooking Aldershot, the army town near Windsor. It is the season before World War I, a time that seemed placid enough to those whose comforts were well-arranged, but that in fact was pregnant with menace, nowhere more so than in Britain, with crises on the Irish Question and trade union fronts threatening serious disorder — both averted by the greater but externalized catastrophe of the war — and the widespread vandalism of the suffragettes, ladies who acted like gorgons. Albert, the family cook in Nick Jenkins’s household, calls suffragettes “Virgin Marys,” and Powell muses on the similar instinct that led the ancient Greeks to speak of the Furies as the Eumenides, or Kindly Ones. I will be taking the measure of the title’s irony as I read.

Did I read this book as a teenager? I know that I owned a paperback copy; I can almost remember the cover art. At the time, The Kindly Ones was the end of the line. The Valley of Bones had been published in cloth, in Britain at least, and perhaps even The Soldier’s Art, but they would not appear in paper for some time, and, when they did, I was no longer interested. Somewhere in the neighborhood of At Lady Molly’s and Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the novel drifted over my head. From the very start, the cycle had been something of a disappointment: there was none of the jolly disaster of Decline and Fall and the other early novels of Evelyn Waugh. Powell’s writing was not only more richly upholstered but considerably more oblique, requiring, among other things, a greater familiarity with the mechanics of aristocracy than I possessed. I couldn’t seem to work out, for example, why Molly Jeavons was “Lady Molly,” while her sister Kathleen was “Lady Warminster.” I wasn’t sure that it mattered, either. For all the dense family interrelationships, there was little in the way of high-class high jinks.

I simply wasn’t old enough to appreciate the “small, violent drama” of the scene, in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (that most fabulous of titles!) in which Charles Stringham, drunk and determined to be drunker, is foiled by his benignant jailer, Tuffy Weedon; nor could I enjoy the fun of the mock-seduction scene that precedes it, in which Stringham accosts the rebarbative Mrs Maclintick as “Little Bo-Peep,” transforming her from a harridan into a party animal. It was all much too grown-up. At some length, and with many interruptions, Stringham, harping on the unhappiness of marriage, describes the “passive resistance” with which his wife, Peggy Stepney, used to greet him in the morning, rather stiffly disregarding his presence next to her in bed. He would run through all the possibilities of having given offense.

“Well, or course, in the end you discover that all this ill humour is nothing to do with yourself at all. In fact your wife is hardly aware that she is living in the same house with you. It was something that somebody said about her to someone who gossiped to somebody she knew when that somebody was having her hair done. Neither less nor more than that. All the same, it is you, her husband, who has to bear the brunt of these ill-chosen remarks by somebody about something. I’ve talked it all over with Ted Jeavons and he quite agrees.”

This was too bleak to tickle my adolescent sensibility. It wasn’t at all funny, and I wanted A Dance to the Music of Time to be funny. I doubt that I read as far as the scene that I have just mentioned; my hunch is that I had given up on waiting for the book to be funny. The subsequent volumes, with their air of military tedium, promised even less in the way of amusement. Thirty years later, it was, as it certainly ought to be, a different story.

Even now, I can be a little slow on the uptake. When I read the following passage yesterday (also from Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant), I had no idea what Widmerpool was talking about:

There was no doubt he was pleased about something. He seemed uncertain whether or not to reveal the reason for that. Then, suddenly, his gratification was explained.

“I have been moving in rather exalted circles lately,” he said, giving a very satisfied smile.


“No exactly royal — that is hardly the word yet … You understand me.”

“I think so.”

I didn’t. Not until the following chapter, when Nick runs into Chips Lovell in the tube, did I get it. Now I saw what Widmerpool means when he said to Nick,

“A new broom will soon get to work. I venture to hope that I may even myself participate in this healthier society to which we may look forward.”

“And you think we shall avoid war?”

“Certainly, I do. But I was speaking for once of society in its narrower sense — the fashionable world. There is much in the prospect before us that attracts me.”

Of course! Widmerpool has worked his way into the Fort Belvedere set, and convinced himself that the new king, Edward VIII, will  be permitted to marry the woman he loves and keep the throne. Widmerpool even foresees a place for himself at the new court! What a cluck. “Please do not press me for details,” says the ever would-be enigmatic Widmerpool — and Powell obliges, excising such key words as “Mrs Simpson” and “abdication.”


When Ray Soleil described the itinerary that we had worked out for his trip to England with Fossil Darling, I was virtually envious. It would be very nice to see the sights that they will see. But sightseeing has become somewhat tedious for me, because my neck is permanently stooped forward, and in order to see anything but the pavement on which I am walking I must come a complete stop and stretch my back rearwards. tilting at the hip. Given the diet of almost exclusively British prose that I’ve been digesting since the late winter, however, the regular reader might be forgiven for imagining that I would very much enjoy an English vacation.

But the English vacation that I am already enjoying involves something rather dearer to me than charming towns and bucolic landscapes — the English language. If only I could talk about this without invoking the noxious concept of “purity”!

Gotham Diary:
25 August 2014

Hobbling along into the final week of this year’s Fire Island sojourn, I am alarmed by new signs of decrepitude. The most worrisome is a tendency to get lost on my way back from the bathroom to the bed in the middle of the night. On two occasions, I walked in on guests before realizing where I was; happily no harm was done in either case. Last night, I came to on the sofa in the little television room. I knew where I was, and I scurried back to bed where I belonged, chilled to the bone by the damp seaside air. I dimly remembered the dreamed dismay of not being able to find a bed to lie down in. Oddly, this has never happened when I was alone in the house.

Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil came out for the weekend, but they left first thing yesterday morning. Early tomorrow morning, they’ll board a flight for a two-week junket in London and environs (including Paris for lunch). They’ll be attending several Proms concerts, and doing a lot of sightseeing: an English friend will drive them about the countryside to points from Bath to Rye, with Oxford, Blenheim, and Winchester between. Ray and Kathleen may even have lunch at some point. Kathleen will fly to London (for business) on Saturday, coming home Wednesday. She asked me if I’d like to come along, and even offered to upgrade to comfy seats, but I couldn’t possibly. The trip is too short, for one thing. More to the point, I’ve got the new season to begin.

There was a time when “the new season” meant concerts, plays, and parties. Now it means something more intimate and prosaic: establishing an order for everyday life that prioritizes and schedules various projects. There is the ever-loving problem of what to do with books: books in piles in the apartment, books at the back of shelves, books in the downtown storage unit, and so on. I am more keenly than ever aware that this book problem of mine is so peculiar to my time and socioeconomic niche that it will always be somewhat inexplicable; indeed, it is inexplicable to most people today. Ultimately, it is inexplicable even to me, for I really don’t know why I bought all those books — I don’t really know.

What was I thinking, for example, when I bought David Cannidine’s weighty tome, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy? Is it really an answer to say that I was thinking that I would read it — eventually? What reason did I have to think such a thing? It’s a scholarly survey, bristling with examples and percentages, that tells roughly the same story over and over again from slightly different perspectives. (Patrician participation in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Government are all treated separately, as are the erosions of landowning and local authority.) It’s not really my kind of book at all. Eventually, I read it because of my book problem: unless I read it, more or less right now, I am going to have to get rid of it.

When the book was new, twenty-odd years ago, I regarded it aspirationally: it would be a good thing for me to have read such a book. As a rule for distinguishing books to buy from those to leave in the shop, this is self-evidently pathetic. Nonetheless, I am glad to be reading it at last: I’m ready for it. What could be a gloomy dirge sparkles with donnish wit.

[I]f Curzon was in some ways disqualified [as a potential prime minister] by being a peer, he was even more disqualified by being Curzon. … For all his gifts, he was a slightly ridiculous anachronism; he was out of touch with post-war Britain; his oratory was stately but inaccessible; he was overbearing, rude, and inconsiderate; and he was totally unsuited to dealing with such figures as trade-union leaders. …

But as with Curzon, Halifax’s peerage was largely an excuse, a rationalization that concealed deeper explanations: for just as a titled landowner of Curzon’s temperament had been unsuitable for the job in the circumstances of 1923, so a titled landowner of Halifax’s characteristics was no more appropriate in the very different circumstances of 1940. He had spent most of his life as a decorative but essentially marginal figure in politics and in government, and the thought of real power, of great responsibility, of the grievous ordeal that lay before him and the nation, made him feel physically sick. He did not want the job, under these — or any? — circumstances. Like Curzon, it was not so much his peerage, as his temperament, that was the decisive and deciding factor. In this case, it seems clear, Halifax could have had the job for the asking, but he did not want it; he did not push his claims; and he gave his peerage as his excuse.

There might still be some notables in politics, but they conspicuously lacked the will, the temperament, the qualifications, the appetite, for the very highest office. Indeed, it was only the extraordinary events of 1940 and the peculiar qualities of leadership then deemed desirable, that could bring to the Premiership the first patrician since Balfour: a man virtually as anachronistic as Curzon, an isolated outsider almost as marginal to the politics of the thirties as the Cecils — Winston Churchill himself.

It may be yet another indication of decrepitude, but this passage makes me think of Barack Obama, who also seems to lack an appetite for leadership in crisis. While from some perspectives the president’s background might appear to be radically different from those of the gentlemen mentioned in the passage above, I believe that, in the ways that matter, it was essentially the same. As a bright young man endowed with a great cultural and not inconsiderable financial affluence, Barack Obama was taught to regard the world as his oyster. But like so many of his elite cohort (in which I certainly number myself as an undistinguished elderly member), he appears to have learned far more about optimizing his own opportunities than about the urgency of protecting the fragile world in which they arise.

Leadership in our time has come to seem to be a matter of telling people in other countries what to do. In fact, the United States has never more desperately needed a president capable of persuading his countrymen that their own bad behavior is more dangerous than any foreign tyrant’s. Americans have sunk into a lotus-land habit of expecting others to bear the burdens of maintaining a democracy. To claim that poverty is the fault of the poor, that market adversities are the result of inept regulation, that environmental degradation is a hoax perpetrated by anti-business interests, and to outsource all the unpleasant jobs to disenfranchised menials and corporate hacks — these are signs of civic depravity to rival anything in Suetonius or Gibbon. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and its readers have contracted an updated equivalent of the lead poisoning that drove wealthy ancient Romans mad.

And it must be acknowledged that to play golf on a day of mourning for the victim of a sadistic act of terrorism — it is arguably impious to do such a thing. It is unquestionably incompetent to be seen doing it.

Gotham Diary:
Et in Arcadia
22 August 2014

It seems to have rained rather heavily in the night, but I didn’t hear it, because, for once, I was really asleep, not dozing. After four or five skittery nights of catatonic consciousness — no tossing and turning, but no real rest, either; feeling rather like Madeline Usher — I was desperately tired yesterday. On my way to a quick dinner in the town last night I almost turned around at the end of the lane, and then again about fifty feet on. These second thoughts were warnings that I probably ought to have heeded, for the walk home afterward was disturbed by the horror of falling down — dare I call this the signature anxiety of old age? Had there been a bench, I’d have been tempted to sit down, although I should probably have resisted. Once or twice I felt dangerously lightheaded — or thought I did. In the clear light of morning, I suppose that there was nothing more to it than having set out for home a little too soon after wolfing down a cheeseburger.

I’d still be in bed but for two things, a tedious dream that was almost as discouraging as my walk home last night, and the metronomic drip of rainwater from a neighboring roof. I can assume that it was dripping water, now that I see the soaked decking. In bed, I could only worry that something was wrong somewhere, possibly in our house. Going back to sleep seemed both unattractive and unlikely, so I got up.

Thanks to the timing of the rain, I can say that I’ve enjoyed almost perfect weather during my five days of solitude. Sunny, clear, and cool, the air has been a gentle tonic. The only question is whether I’ve had enough.


Last Sunday night, after the ferry carried everyone else away, I began re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time. The extravagantly low-key opening, a tableau of ditch-diggers moving about a trench in a dark and wintry London street, is so potentially off-putting as to constitute a secret doorway to hell, not the dire hell of Dante but the modern hell of hapless egotism. Anthony Powell’s literary conceit is that, notwithstanding our unconscious preoccupation with self-importance, we are all bound in a mystical roundelay, crossing hands over and over again with familiar faces, changed by time in a way that is somehow unchanging. This recurrence has never seemed very realistic to me, but I can well imagine that it captures quite well the much more concentrated nature of the British elite, even at its most variegated. As for the egotism — the word comes up with a frequency that is almost dating — it seems exaggerated by the shock waves generated by Freudian theories. What distinguishes Dance from Powell’s earlier fiction is the intrusion of authorial asides in which laws of human behavior are proposed. These don’t strike me as very realistic, either. They seem to strain to connect contemporary anxiety with classical fatality. But the gesture is charming, even beautiful at times. Almost everything about A Dance to the Music of Time is — how else to put it? — lovely.

Even the gruesome bits, like this passage describing Nick Jenkins’s response to the revelation that his lover, Jean Duport, had an affair with her ex-brother-in-law, the oafish Jimmy Stripling, after her sister’s divorce (and long before intimacies with Nick).

She went white, as if she might be about to faint. I was myself overcome with a horrible feeling of nausea, as if one had suddenly woken from sleep and found oneself chained to a corpse. A desire to separate myself physically from her and the place we were in was linked with an overwhelming sensation that, more than ever, I wanted her for myself. To think of her as wife of Bob Duport was bad enough, but that she should also have been mistress of Jimmy Stripling was barely endurable. Yet it was hard to know how to frame a complaint regarding that matter even to myself. She had not been ‘unfaithful’ to me. This odious thing had happened at a time when I myself had no claim whatsoever over her. I tried to tranquillise myself by considering whether a liaison with some man, otherwise possible to like or admire, would have been preferable. In the face of such an alternative, I decided Stripling was on the whole better as he was: with all the nightmarish fantasies implicit in the situation. The mystery remained why she should choose that particular moment to reveal this experience of hers, making of it a kind of defiance.

When you are in love with someone, their life, past and present and future, becomes in a curious way part of your life; and yet, at the same time, since two separate human entities in fact remain, you merely carry your own prejudices into another person’s imagined existence; not even into their ‘real’ existence, because only they themselves can estimate what their ‘real’ existence has been. Indeed, the situation might be compared with that to be experienced in due course in the army where an officer is responsible for the conduct of troops stationed at a post too distant from him for the exercise of any effective control.

Not only was it painful enough to think of Jean giving herself to another man; the pain was intensified by supposing — what was, of course, not possible — that Stripling must appear to her in the same terms that he appeared to me. Yet clearly she had, once, at least, looked at Stripling with quite different eyes, or such a situation could never have arisen. Therefore, seeing Stripling as a man for whom it was evidently possible to feel at the very least a passing tendresse — perhaps even love — this incident, unforgettably horrible as it seemed to me at the time, would more rationally be regarded as a mere error of judgment. In love, however, there is no rationality. Besides, that she had seen him with eyes other than mine made things worse. In such ways one is bound, inescapably, to the actions of others.

This passage appears toward the end of the third novel in the cycle, The Acceptance World. This was, I am told, the novel that broke through to broad literary réclame, attracting a notice that the first two entries had not garnered. It is the most “Proustian” of the twelve: Nick’s agonized musings about love and eros will prove to be transitory as regards his own character; he will meet and settle down with Isobel Tolland presently. But the conception of love as one of the more intense manifestations of selfishness colors every romantic entanglement, especially those involving Kenneth Widmerpool. Time and time again, Jenkins will try and fail to imagine the possibility of feeling tenderness or love for Widmerpool, confounded by the evidence that women repeatedly do feel these things for his odd, ichthyomorphic schoolmate. There is no rationality in love. This is a very old Greek idea.

It’s curious to note what I remember and what I don’t. I’d forgotten entirely about Mildred Blaides, even though I dimly remembered General and Mrs Conyers (the women are sisters). Almost everything in the first three novels was familiar, but I don’t think I’d noticed that Pamela Flitton, the femme fatale of later developments, first appears as a seven year-old attendant at the wedding of Peggy Stepney and Charles Stringham. The first-time reader will easily grasp that Stringham’s marriage is not going to last very long, but, once recognized by the returning reader, little Pamela is as baleful as the wickedest fairy’s curse.

To hear me talk, you’d never know what fun A Dance to the Music of Time can be. So far, my favorite sentence, which really almost might be the motto of the entire set, concerns a character whom, like Widmerpool, I didn’t enjoy reading about, the first time through: Uncle Giles. Now I do.

His mastery of the hard-luck story was of a kind never achieved by persons not wholly concentrated on themselves.

Gotham Diary:
21 August 2014

More than halfway through this year’s stay on Fire Island, I’ve finally crossed the capricious line that separates real life from vacation. “Vacation,” of course, means “emptying out”; it referred originally to what happened at universities between terms. What needs to be emptied out during the vacations of today is that buffer of projects and responsibilities known as the to-do list. You’re not on vacation until you’ve lost the sense of having one.

Being me, I had a to-do list just for the vacation. It was really only a to-read list. I lugged a few heavyish books that needed, eventually, to be read. The heaviest was David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the English Aristocracy, published in 1990. I bought it when it came out, but I couldn’t read it, because it was just too depressing. Cannadine cleverly labels the world of aristocratic hegemony that preceded the decline and fall “Barset,” after Trollope’s imaginary shire. Barset was something of a dream even when Trollope created it, neater, better-ordered, and more virtuous than any actual county, and largely scrubbed clean of the grubbiness of the Industrial Revolution. I was not sufficiently grown-up in 1990 (aged 42) to watch with equanimity the crumpling of this dream by the pressures of political and economic change. I knew that it did crumple, certainly, and believed that, on balance, the crumpling was a good thing going forward; but, as John Fowles put it in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, there was probably never a more agreeable time to be a gentleman than the year 1850.

Now I can bear it. Having re-read George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England and Roy Jenkins’s biography of Winston Churchill, I’m familiar with many of the names that crop up in Cannadine’s text. Nobody is quite as admirable or benign as the nicer squires in Trollope. The grandees thrash about like doomed dinosaurs, slow to grasp the growing advantages of liquid over landed assets. Their supercilious eogtism makes it difficult to feel very sorry for them, and the gracious way of life that depended entirely on the labor of underpaid servants now seems somewhat inhuman. The political and economic changes that transformed English society in the century after 1870, however grey and plodding, no longer strike me as sordid or regrettable.

I also brought out the first two movements of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I was tempted to bring only one; although not as heavy as Decline and Fall, the Powells are substantial, and I wondered if I would actually get to the second movement, or set of three novels. I can report today that it is extremely unlikely that I shan’t. I’m barreling through The Acceptance World, the third novel in the first movement.

I have read the entire Dance once before, but this is a third reading of the first two movements, all of which had come out in paper in the middle of the Sixites. They weren’t what I wanted them to be. Although I couldn’t have put it so simply at the time, I wanted more Stringham and less Widmerpool. Much less Widmerpool. I still felt this way when the University of Chicago edition appeared in the Nineties. But now, just as I have matured sufficiently to listen to what David Cannadine has to say without dabbing my eye with a handkerchief, I understand that Kenneth Widmerpool is the whole point of A Dance to the Music of Time: he is the nightmarish doppelgänger of Powell’s stand-in, Nick Jenkins. As for Charles Stringham, he is no longer a disappointment on the score of not showing up in the narrative with greater frequency. He is, rather, what Powell understood him to be, merely a disappointment.


But before I survey Powell’s charms, I’d like to unscramble an anecdote that caused me a great deal of discomfort earlier this summer. We were having dinner with an old friend of Kathleen’s, a man whose charitable intentions are somewhat undercut by a formidably egotistical constitution. Voluble enough as a conversationalist, he does not put enough effort into pruning from his remarks implications that might embarrass or irritate his companions. Sometimes, he does not listen very carefully. When I said that I was thinking of re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time later in the summer, out at Fire Island — assuming, perhaps unreasonably, that, as Kathleen’s good friend, he would know that this trip to Fire Island would be in the nature of a family reunion — he fairly barked, “Oh! I could never go back there, to all that irresponsibility. That was thirty years ago!”

It’s perfectly clear to me what the man meant by this — now. But I was befuddled at the time, because it betrayed a misunderstanding so gross that I couldn’t acknowledge it. I could not imagine that he was talking about Fire Island, because how could he think that Kathleen or I would go back with our grandson in tow? So I tried to fit what he said to Powell’s book, which while it made even less sense was free of insulting repercussions.

For Kathleen’s friend, “Fire Island” is little more than “Fire Island Pines,” one of the two predominantly gay communities to the east of Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach does not exist for Kathleen’s friend. It does not exist for most New Yorkers. There is nothing chic about it, and most of the homeowners seem to hail from the mainland of Long Island. Although a youthful bar scene sprouts up on weekend nights, Ocean Beach is, emphatically, a family resort. Someday, I have no doubt, a gay family or two will take up residence (if this has not already happened), because Ocean Beach is a much more appropriate place for children than the Pines or Cherry Grove. After a burp or two, life will go on.

It is true that Megan spent a week in the Pines when she was eight going on nine. It was the time of the royal wedding, Charles and Diana. Kathleen and I had a half share in a house put together by Fossil Darling; our participation made the rental possible — technically. (We were so impecunious that Fossil floated us.) We came out every other weekend. Kathleen had known a very different Fire Island as a girl; her parents had rented and then owned a house in Dunewood, three or four communities to the west of Ocean Beach, and one of the last to be developed before the National Seashore designation, which saved Fire Island from Robert Moses’s plans for a highway to the Hamptons, put a moratorium on building. But she was game to give the Pines a try. Needless to say, once was enough. The novelty of Pine Clones — brawny fellows in flannel shirts, cutoffs, and what we used to call combat boots walking tiny dogs — wore off pretty fast. One day, we took a water taxi to Saltaire, near the western end of the island, and walked all the way back as far as Ocean Beach, which was, in 1981, no two words about it, a dump.

A few years later, one of our Pines housemates died of AIDS, and the summer of 1981 took on the aspect of a bad dream. It took thirty years for us to think about coming back to Fire Island, and it was Megan who led us back to Ocean Beach. Through an old college roommate who was also in New York, she found herself spending occasional weekends out here in the late Nineties. When, about ten years later, we were all thinking of where to take Will to the beach, it was an Ocean Beach realtor whom Megan had met that Kathleen contacted.

Kathleen’s old friend had also sojourned in the Pines. Later, he decided that the Pines life style was incompatible with his religion.

You will recall, however, that Anthony Powell’s book, not the habitable sand bar by the sea, was the subject of my sentence. I was thinking of reading A Dance to the Music of Time while out at Ocean Beach, although I didn’t say “Ocean Beach” because that wouldn’t have meant anything to Kathleen’s friend. Unfortunately, “Fire Island” meant so much (in its truncated sense) that it swamped what I’d meant to say.

The muddle was compounded by Kathleen’s misunderstanding me to be talking of Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran’s lapidary novel about A-list gay New Yorkers in the late Seventies. Dancer climaxes with a bonfire of alligator shirts on the beach at the Pines. One character walks into the sea, too jaded to go on living, while another perishes, back in Manhattan, in a bathhouse fire. It turned out that Kathleen knew nothing of Anthony Powell’s cycle. So, when I gave up trying to fit her friend’s comment to A Dance to the Music of Time, I found that it made somewhat more sense with reference to Holleran’s book.

It took about three weeks to snap out of all this confusion and to understand that Kathleen’s friend was under the impression, reprovingly enough, that we would be having a family vacation at the Pines, that we would be going back to all that irresponsibility, as he put it, something that he would never do. No longer mystified, I was furious. It’s a good thing that I didn’t understand him when we were having drinks before dinner at his house. Maybe it’s a good thing that, if I’m a thin-skinned old coot, I’m also a thick-headed one.

Gotham Diary:
In Relation, cont’d
20 August 2014

If last winter made an old man of me, this summer has not had much of a rejuvenating effect. On my afternoon walks on the beach, of which there have been only two, I made it no further than Atlantique, two communities to the east. I used to walk twice as far, all the way to Lonelyville.

It is not that I am too tired to walk further, just too bored. I used to find the walks relaxing; I felt that they cleared my mind somewhat. Now I just worry about being knocked over by a rogue wave. Yesterday’s waves were about what you’d expect on a moderately stormy day on Lake Michigan. They broke pitifully near the shoreline, but they sent up sheets of water that were now and then forceful enough to make me worry about losing my balance. The walkable, firm part of the beach was very narrow, and I had a hard time keeping to it. I found that the only way to proceed straight ahead, and avoid heading into the ocean, was to bend my steps ever so slightly to the right. Walking on the beach has become a challenge.

Walking into the little town, I’m more able to let my mind wander where it will, especially when there are few passers-by. Presently I arrive at my destination, oblivious.

Thinking is more than ever something that takes place while my fingers scurry over the keyboard — or, rather, when my eyes glance over the trail that they have left behind. Yesterday, I wrote a thinking-out-loud letter to an indulgent friend. I had been piqued by what seemed to me to be an illiterate but increasingly common way of speaking about cultural life. I mulled the usage over at the back of my mind for weeks if not months. Then, last week, I suddenly understood what people using this phrase were trying to say, and what the phrase betrayed about their understanding of culture. Interestingly, this new understanding on my part raised further questions. For a few days (as I mentioned earlier) I had the idea of sketching my thinking on a piece of paper. In the end, however, the thinking-out-loud letter did the job.

When I was through thinking out loud, I went back and rewrote the letter. I replaced the thinking with the thought. I saved both drafts in one Evernote. Polishing up the letter to my friend — it was now a reasonably clear sequence of paragraphs setting forth a relation between the phenomena of novelty, familiarity, and renewal — I was appalled to find that my missive was a tissue of obvious statements already known to anyone who has ever thought about art, literature, or just about anything. I could only hope that the relation of the statements brought something new to the matter.


For years, whenever people would ask me what I wrote about “on my blog,” I would blithely reply that I was still finding that out. Not having a very clear idea of what I was doing or of where I was going was part of the fun of writing here. At some point in the past twelve months, however, that vagueness has become somewhat intolerable. It’s not that I feel obliged to declare a major, as it were. The imperative is internal: I need, not so much to know what I’m doing, as to learn how to talk about it. There are two large difficulties. The first is to develop a way of writing that, while it might sound philosophical to some ears, is clearly not philosophy. The other is to make a case for the humanities that will compel not the admiration but the aspiration of my well-educated readers.

Why have I got such an aversion to philosophy? Because philosophers have always sought to learn about the world by thinking about it. Modern scientists began protesting against this outlook centuries ago. Scientists didn’t just think about the world, they measured it and experimented with it. They put it under the microscope and boiled it over the Bunsen burner. Eventually, the philosophers were left with nothing but moral problems. Here their lack of basic humanity was finally revealed in all its starkness. Just as they had once attempted to grasp the “out there” questions of astronomy and physics by consulting “in here” notions of what ought to be the case in a world presumed to be intelligently designed, so they now continued to project moral wisdom onto an external, objective sphere that could be probed by ratiocination. But morality is the most human of human concerns, and each of us carries everything that there is to know about it. What we need is articulateness, not analysis.

When I try to put the things that people think and then say in relation, I am not trying to erect a system that explains human society. I leave systems to the engineers. When I talk about the world, I am talking about the way we talk about it, with a view to discovering better ways of thinking and talking about it.

I believe that there is only one thing that we can learn about the world (especially the world morally considered) by thinking about it, and that is how human beings talk about the world. What do we say? What do we think we mean? How do our statements stand up together? I am not interested in logic or syntax. I am interested in the findings of cognitive science only to the extent that they show up inadequate speech patterns. I am interested in educated ways of talking. Where do they fall short? What do they consistently miss? How cunningly do they oversimplify?

I’m still stumbling, as you can see, toward an understanding of all of this that can be expressed in one or two clear sentences. When and if I get there, I’ll wonder what took me so long.

Gotham Diary:
In Relation
19 August 2014

One of the books that I’ve been re-reading this summer is John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. It’s an appealing book, but it disappoints. Nothing so strenuous as remaking transpires in its numerous brief chapters. What we get instead is a lovely sermon, replete with Matthew Arnold’s sweetness and light. We are exhorted to be our best selves, and to develop high-quality relationships with people and things of merit. Civilization is not only the best thing we’ve got, but a kind of mutual-aid operation. While it protects us from our grosser inclinations, we protect it from the ravages of time and ignorance. I agree with almost every positive statement that Armstrong makes. But I cannot imagine that his book would inspire anyone habituated to television as a pastime to turn off the set and improve his or her personal cultivation. While In Search of Civilization cheers on those of us who already appreciate the finer things in life, it does not outline a method for acquiring such appreciation.

How is the man in the couch supposed to begin? Armstrong recalls leading a group of tourists through Florence.

My tour group wanted to be there but did not have a clue what to do with the pictures, statues, buildings and histories on which the reputation of the place rests.

Armstrong quite rightly faults the people who do have a clue for failing to enlighten the public, but, again, he doesn’t propose a scheme for enlightenment. How do you make complex thought apprehendible to people with little experience of it — people for whom anything “serious” is likely to be boring? How do you configure a diet that introduces worthwhile sustenance at the right time? Serve it too early, and it’s cabbage. Withhold it too long, and it’s tepid tea. No wonder those with a taste for nectar devote themselves to cultivating their own gardens.

Having no better ideas myself, I can’t fault Armstrong. But I’m piqued by a thread that runs through his book: the idea that he is working up a philosophy of civilization. At the beginning, he describes a conversation on this very topic.

My friend at lunch was trying to saddle me with the task of discovering what other people have thought about civilization. Whereas what motivates me is something more personal. What do I think? To put it another way, I want to move from asking the historical question about how people happen to have defined civilization to the philosophical question about how we ought to define it.

I applaud Armstrong’s determination to keep things personal; indeed, one of the nicest things about In Search of Civilization is its resemblance to the Web log that I have been looking for for years but never found. But I disagree with the “other way” in which Armstrong states his mission. I don’t believe that a distinction can be made between the historical question and the definitional decision. I suspect that Armstrong wants to spare the reader, and perhaps himself as well, the trouble of sorting through attics of thought before coming to any decisions about what to keep and what to dump. But the replacement of history by philosophy is a mistake of ancient vintage. Plato was an early victim. Instead of inquiring into what is the case, and what has been the case before, Plato proposed to study what ought to be the case, for the simple reason that what ought to be the case must be the case. Centuries of scientific rigor have freed our natural inquiries from this distracting delusion, but the premise lingers on, particular in the purlieus of moral thought.


History is an awful jumble, incomparably messier than “one damned thing after another.” But civilization as we know it is the residue of history. If we don’t know it, then civilization is just so much rubbish taking up space in dusty museums. So we must begin by knowing it as the residue of history. Where did the artefacts of civilization come from? What are the origins of civilized behavior? We cannot hope to grasp the totality of history’s object — everything that has ever happened — but we can try to explain the history of what remains. We can edit and refine, correct and polish the explanations offered by those who have gone before us. The root of my personal optimism is the faith, perhaps inborn, that we can always understand things a little better, a little more completely.

Philosophy, with its notions of how things ought to be, is the last thing we need when trying to explain civilization. We need to stick to what has actually happened, so far as we can make it out. We need to set things out in relation to other things. There are thinkers who believe that the American Revolution was driven by high-minded ideals. There are other thinkers who trace it back to economic opportunism. The role of slavery in the foundation of the new sovereignty casts doubt on both propositions. (In the end, slavery makes no economic sense.) The historian’s job is to lay out the evidence in a way that reduces its complication — its tendency to contradict other evidence — to a complexity that is capable of accommodating inconsistency. For that’s what the American Revolution, like all  ambitious human enterprises, was: inconsistent.

History is empirical and skeptical; it concerns itself with material evidence. Until the Nineteenth Century, most of that evidence was coextensive with the remains of Mediterranean civilization — the temples, the antique histories, the Roman roads — that survived the convulsive gestation of modern Europe. History was philosophical in nature, prone to tell us what ought to have happened. Then historians began consulting bureaucratic archives. These documents were not created with any thought of history in mind, and that unselfconsciousness not only made them more trustworthy but created a counterweight to the wishful thinking of Mediterranean history. History as practiced in modern Europe now became the critical study that it remains today, a pursuit of ongoing and endless, ever more comprehensive reassessment.

History is the central discipline of the humanities because it weighs and considers men and women as they are and have been. It  rejects what ought to have been, so that we may see more clearly what we might become.

Gotham Diary:
18 August 2014

The only surprise about taking two weeks off from writing here every weekday was the absence of qualms. I wasn’t for a moment troubled by doubts that I might be making a mistake of some kind, staying away for so long, more or less without notice.

It was certainly the right thing to do — to give, that is, my undivided attention to my daughter and her family. This isn’t to say that I was with them every minute; hardly that. But I was always as available, mentally as well as personally, as I could be. It was only the other day, on Friday, that my mind began — resumed — operating on its own, and over the weekend I found myself wanting to take a piece of Megan’s drawing paper and sketch out an idea, something that I don’t usually do. Alas, I never got round to asking for the paper — a measure of my eagerness to smooth over personal issues that weren’t imperative.

Now I have a bundle of memories, most which I shall write out elsewhere. It was an intimate visit. On the whole, my time with Will was something richer but other than mere fun. When he sealed a thoughtful observation with the glance of his big brown eyes, or dissolved into a fit of helpless giggling, he transported me to another dimension, one in which childhood is troubled not by the accidents and pretences that characterized my own as by the plain limitations of the human condition.  To put it another way, Will’s life seems natural in a way that mine never was. I am inclined to resist the impulse to write about what he is like. Generalizations of that kind seem inappropriate to a subject who is four and a half years old. I’d rather collect a few good stories  —and I’d better collect them soon, before my memory plays tricks with me.

Today, however, I’m keen to get back to work.


There is plenty to get through. On the first of the month, after writing the last entry here, I went to the Whitney Museum, to see the Jeff Koons retrospective. For the moment, its enough to say that I was shocked by what I saw at the Whitney — so shocked that I couldn’t have written about it for days anyway.

While I was mulling over the moral failure of art critics to evaluate Koons’s productions in a fully adult manner, a separate but not unrelated crisis in public criticism came to light, in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, Missouri. Sad to say, there was nothing very distinctive about the death of Michael Brown. Brown appears to have been the victim of yet one more unnecessary, arguably wrongful killing in the annals of American racism. The unrest provoked by the official response to the shooting wasn’t new, either, at least to those of us who could remember the riots of the late Sixties. The novelty driving the Ferguson story was the pseudo-military tomfoolery of the police. It was the image of civil policemen confronting American citizens in Army drag that ignited national outrage. But there was nothing new about this, either — not really. The truly awful thing about Ferguson turns out to be that there is nothing new about it. As the background stories tumbled out, Ferguson took on the distinct air of plus ça change… Photographs taken by Danny Lyons in the early Sixties were arrayed alongside images from Missouri, illustrating the lack of alteration in hostility between white law enforcers and black protesters. We learned about the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, which gifts municipal police forces with retired arms and armor on the sole and astounding condition that these weapons be deployed within the year. But the 1033 Program has been active for over a decade. Ross Douthat mentioned “Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book,” The Rise of the Warrior Cop. But 2013 was last year, not last week. Where was there news?

Even the news that Captain Ronald Johnson, the black chief of the Missouri Highway Patrol and a man who grew up in the Ferguson area, has been unable to stop the criminal violence that the clash has unleashed isn’t really news. Insofar as it is news to the young users of Twitter who seem to have propelled the events in Ferguson into the national forum, our American History teachers haven’t been doing a very good job.

Once again, I find myself landing in the helplessness, or moral bankruptcy, of David Carr’s Media Equation report. I don’t expect ordinary men and women to keep abreast of developments in public affairs. But I do expect professional journalists and commentators to transcend the demands of media entertainment by fashioning a serious world view that engages public attention. It is not enough, to follow stories. I don’t mean that journalists ought to fabricate their own stories, but rather that they ought to lead ongoing stories into general discussion. If they can’t figure out how to do that, it’s hard to see what they’re good for.

In David Carr’s view, the Ferguson story began in Ferguson.

On Thursday, after the chaos, there was a huge in-migration of news media. Perhaps even absent the conflagration on Twitter, journalists would have shown up. Perhaps cable news would have turned hard toward the story, and the kind of coverage that eventually drew the attention of the president and the governor of Missouri would have taken place. Perhaps all the things that led to the security situation in Ferguson being handed over to cooler heads would have ensued. But nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.

But the Ferguson story began with, among other things, the implementation of the 1033 Program. Twitter was the ideal vehicle for propagating images of the armored car topped by sharpshooters, but no one would have turned to a social media site to follow the path taken by that “tank” from a war zone to an American suburb. Until Ferguson, the use of military resources by ordinary policemen was largely limited to drug raids and hostage situations that were unlikely to provoke public indignation. Nobody got excited about warrior cops until the cops themselves played the bad guys’ part — as they were sure to do, eventually, but as they would not have been in a position to do, had knowledgeable and influential Americans put a quick stop to the 1033 Program by effectively shaming it.

How did American journalism ever become so passive? How much longer are we going to have to take our chances with stories that play well on Twitter?

Time Out
1 August 2014

Two thoughts left over from Wednesday night’s Mostly Mozart concert:

If it had been up to me, I’d have nicknamed Mozart’s last symphony after Apollo, not Zeus. The work is the epitome of classic grandeur, but it is not mighty — there is something crude about might. I suppose that the fugato section at the end puts some listeners in mind of thunderbolts hurled from on high, but surely the dazzling of the sun comes to mind as well. But it’s too late, now.

As Louis Langrée took his first bow, I thought, here is a Frenchman in August, taking up his work instead of putting it down. (Most of Mosztly takes place between now and Labor Day.) I doubt that spending the month in New York constitutes any kind of vacation. When does M Langrée take his August?


Will and his parents will spend a week with us out on Fire Island — we head out a week from Monday — but they’ll also be spending next week with us here in New York, camping out in the apartment. Will is four-and-a-half now, and this will be his first visit to New York since he left it last fall. I’m curious to see how much he remembers. I wonder, for example, if he remembers the “dinner store,” the diner across the street (now under new management) where, on an outing alone with me, he hid himself under the table while I went to pay the check. He was two-something at the time, but already an accomplished scamp. Remembering my return to the table and not seeing Will, checking out the rest rooms, peering into the kitchen — this is worse than it actually was, because in the event I was so shocked that I didn’t feel anything. I do remember the moment of recognition, when I recalled that I was dealing with Will, and not some poor wandering babe. In that very instant I directed my gaze under the table, and there he was, grinning.

By now, he has probably moved on to Tube Alloys.

I’m racing through Roy Jenkins’s Churchill, so that it’s out of the way before everyone arrives. I’m thinking of taking A Dance to the Music of Time out to Fire Island. I’m also thinking, but that’s four hefty books. Re-reading entries from three years ago, I was reminded of being completely gripped by The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography/study of Robert Moses, a Big Book that I had put off reading for thirty years. It would be nice to have another book like that to dive into, but the only such volume that I’ve got on hand is the one volume abridgment of Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. I was never a great fan of Thatcher — quite the contrary — but I thought that it might be annealing to read another big book about recent British politics while the names and dates were still fresh from Campbell’s biography of Jenkins.

In Churchill, I’ve reached the final chapter concerned with World War II, and I am really rather depressed. I had thought, going in, that the trajectory of the War story would be just the opposite of what in fact it was. I thought that the story would begin with the dark near-despair of 1940 and end in triumph. Well, that’s not what happened at all, and certainly not to Churchill. He might have been regarded as the only man who could save Britain, but once it appeared that Britain was saved, the nation turned its back on him. Actually, I oughtn’t to say that; I haven’t got that far. Almost, but not quite. Whatever Churchill’s standing in Britain, however, it was greater than his standing among his allies, Roosevelt and Stalin, men to whom Britain, at the end of the war, was no longer a mighty, world-spanning empire but a smallish island in the North Sea. Churchill himself made it all much worse, or at least less gratifying, than it needed to be. His bulldog manner made him look, indeed, like something of a pet. He made a lot of noise, but he was generally ignored. His determination to preserve Greece from Communist rebels was just about the only one of his post-1942 initiatives that met with endorsement and success. Addicted to summits that meant much less to his hosts (and he was never allowed to play host) than they did to him, he traveled too much and neglected the home front. Instead of being the grand old man, gratefully welcoming American aid and focusing on the well-being of his countrymen, Churchill wore himself out on junkets and abandoned government to his colleagues. He became a tired old man.

He was who he was. Impossible for the most part; the utterly indispensable man for two or three years. He was a first-class orator, but an amateur statesman — perhaps because he saw politics and government as a kind of game. Games were all about his winning them. (I didn’t know that he was a crack polo player as a young man.) I used to wonder about the good judgment of a governing class that preferred to keep him at arm’s length, if not at some further distance. Now I’m amazed that Churchill was ever allowed to stand for a second election. He was, for the most part, a great nuisance.

Until he wasn’t.

The upshot is that Roy Jenkins appears, through the pages of his biography of Churchill, as the better man. The better man and the better statesman. Fortune denied Jenkins the opportunities that would have showcased his gifts in the way that Hitler’s encroachments showcased Churchill’s. Jenkins was on the wrong side of the war that would subvert his career. Just as he was launching the Social Democratic Party, creating a “Third Way” that would appeal intelligently to the vast British center, the jingoistic current generated by the Falklands War caused widespread stupidization. By the end of the Eighties, Jenkins ought to have been the Prime Minister, leading a popular new party,  but, thanks to contrary tides all round, he was not even in Parliament. Jenkins and Churchill therefore make an extremely interesting pair. The careers of both men highlight the role of chance, especially the chance of contemporaries. Politicians are made and broken by the people among whom they are placed, according to the accidents of time and place.

At the same time, Jenkins was probably right to assess himself as lacking the ruthlessness required to reach the top of the greasy pole. I can’t fault him for that; he accomplished many good things — and, what’s more, set a fine example — from such heights as he did attain.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
31 July 2014

Last night, we went to Mostly Mozart, and I came out feeling almost as pepped-up as I am by a Remicade infusion. I needed that! It had been a little too long since I’d taken a seat in a concert hall.

Good to know. My “retirement from the audience” was never intended to be total, but by letting my subscriptions lapse I lost the convenience of regularly-scheduled events. (Which had become an inconvenience: there were too many events.) Now I have to plan ahead and purchase tickets online. This is no longer the ordeal that it used to be. Now I know that two months, in the summer, is too long a break. I need to sit in a big room with a lot of other quiet people and listen to good music, well-performed. There’s plenty of that in New York, but I’m picky.

Many picky people are looking for the unusual, but my pickiness operates on a different plane. I’m not drawn by programs of seldom-heard compositions performed by musicians I’ve never heard of. I want to hear music that I know, but played as if I’ve never heard it before.

I got what I was looking for last night. Louis Langrée, who has just renewed his contract as Mostly Mozart’s music director, sprang through the Jupiter Symphony with an energetic grace that was truly Olympian. The pace and the volume of the music seemed to be physical symptoms of the conductor’s gift for music, as if Mozart, instead of writing his music on paper, had taken the more divine route of imparting it directly to Mr Langrée’s mind. The fact that I knew where every note belonged did not at all detract from the urgency of the performance. The thrill lies in the microscopic but cumulatively exciting differences between knowing what ought to happen and hearing what actually does happen. When I was new to concert music, I regarded these differences as mistakes. They certainly can be. (Wrong notes are always wrong.) But I learned that concerts were more interesting if I allowed the conductor try to persuade me that he knew better than I, or that, in any case, his alternative to my “correct” idea might be well worth hearing. More, as Ray Soleil says, for me.

Do you want to hear what the best bits were? I don’t really see any reason to add to Anthony Tommasini’s brisk paragraph of praise, except to note that the repeats were taken in the first two movements, making for a more substantial performance. People who don’t want to sit through repeats often argue that recordings have made them unnecessary; we all know this music now, and don’t need to hear the basic exposition twice in order to appreciate how the composer develops it. To this I can only reply that if I love a piece of music enough to pay money to cross town and take a chance on a performance, and the performance turns out to be a good one, I am only too happy to have two helpings.

Everything that I have said about last night’s Jupiter performance could be said just as well of any other performance, anywhere or anytime, merely altering the reference to the newspaper review as appropriate. All I can do is find new ways of saying it. That’s worthwhile, every so often. But doesn’t make for a viable routine. Whether from age or wisdom, I have discovered not only what I like but why, and these seem no more likely to change than the color of my eyes.

Although I paid close attention to the Jupiter, my mind drifted throughout the performance of Mozart’s Twenty-Third Piano Concerto that preceded the interval. Richard Goode was the pianist, and his imperturbably ego-free manner suited the music so well that I fell into a complete funk, trying to describe it as I listened. The word “genial” came to me, just as it did to Anthony Tommasini. But there’s a mystery to this concerto. It is neither as exciting nor as dramatic as its neighbors in Mozart’s oeuvre, and yet it stands, in comparison with the four concertos that begin with an identical dotted rhythm (the Sixteenth through the Nineteenth) as a work of stupefying sophistication. It’s as though by not trying to make a particular point, but just noodling his way through a clutch of pretty tunes, Mozart burst through the temporal bounds of style and created something that might, here and there, be taken for a counterfeit piece of neoclassicalism, perhaps of Edwardian vintage.

Complicating my reverie was the profound familiarity of the music. I won’t say that I can’t remember not knowing it. But I associate it with the pussy willows and damp air of the spring of 1967 — a long time ago. In other words, it brings back the willowy and damp sentiments of late adolescence, of feeling that I was growing up at last and that this music by Mozart sounded the note, melancholy at heart, of my distinction. Here I may refer to the allusion made in last night’s program notes (written by David Wright), to Chopin. When I was nineteen, Chopin was somewhat too “emotional” for me, so I put Mozart in his place and heard Mozart as Chopin. That’s how he sounded last night as well.

What I couldn’t quite figure out was why the music didn’t sound simply bland. It can indeed sound very bland, especially when summer orchestras relax and coast through it. Mr Langrée’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was no relaxed summer band, to be sure. And Mr Goode, while certainly relaxed, wasn’t coasting. He was poring, perusing — everything right up to but stopping short of probing. This is not music to probe, but music to play. Let it not be overlooked that he was playing.

And now I’ve gone and devoted my daily budget of words to a topic that I was going to glance over. Earlier yesterday, I spent several hours reading DBR entries from August, September, and October of 2011. I have gotten that far in my review of the site from its beginnings in 2010. The August entries were mostly brief missives from Fire Island, and of no interest to me now. What interests me now is more the solid stuff that I hope to gather up, prune and edit, and at least warn me away from repetition, when I set ought to order my thoughts on a somewhat larger scale. I’ve been tickled to read a few entries that look like molecules custom-designed for the embrace of what some readers doubtless regard as the pathogenic ideas of Hannah Arendt. There was none of that pleasure yesterday, though. I came away from the review pretty much sick of the sound of my own voice.

As I read, I copy each entry’s link into an Evernote note, and follow it with a telegraphic abstract and perhaps a quotation. The word that comes up most often in the abstracts, sadly, is “twaddle”: “Housekeeping twaddle”; “Photography twaddle”; “Blogging twaddle”; “Culinary twaddle.” As Pat Buckley once said in answer to her son’s questions about fashion, “Does anybody really want to read about this stuff?” That was the rather red-faced impression that I took from yesterday’s batch of old entries. I’m afraid that, when I get round to the third quarter of 2014, this entry will be summed up as “Concert twaddle.”

Daily Blague news update: Hole in the Mold.

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem V
30 July 2014

With this entry, I intend to wrap up this very preliminary discussion of the problem of the humanities in the modern West — how what was beautiful has become broccoli.

As I argued at the start, the pursuit of sensuous beauty by the artists of the early modern West was a response to the appropriation, by ruling princes, of the legacy of the antique world, both the “real” and the “mythical” (Hercules as well as Caesar). The stories of antiquity were centered on gods, goddesses, and mortal heroes who were conceived — particularly the heroes and the younger goddesses — as suitable for pictorial representation as nudes. At the same time, those stories were recycled by contemporary poets and writers in such a way that antique lore could become the shibboleth of entrée to princely courts. Only those who were seen to be familiar with this material were recognized as courtiers.

The relation between princes pursuing enhanced state power and artists pursuing association with princes characterized the art world of the West until the end of the Eighteenth Century. It was in terms of that relationship that the Western eye for beauty was developed. Inevitably, however, the humanist questions of classical antiquity were revived alongside the old stories. These questions — what does it mean to be mortal? what does it mean to love, and to be rejected? — had been asked by the ancients, but their attempts at answers had been superseded by Christian explanations. In the early modern courts, there was a shift away from answering questions in terms of divine love and immortal souls toward answering them in terms of aesthetic harmony. Just as Plato had called upon astronomers to explain the movements of celestial bodies in terms of uniform circular motion, so the growth of the humanities in the modern west always prioritized beauty.

The difference between Plato’s astronomy and the Western humanities is that Plato’s disciples weren’t creating anything. They were merely attempting explanations. The Western humanities, in contrast, created the countless galleries of art, libraries of books, public buildings and sculptures that were recognized, until the last century, as a matchless cultural achievement.

From the moment that young men who had no intention of taking holy orders began spending time in Europe’s universities, initially as little more than finishing schools, the Scholarly Humanities that I talked about yesterday were adapted for Honourable Humanist purposes. From the young aristocrats at Oxford and Heidelberg to the children of immigrants who made up the student body at the once-great Erasmus Hall high school in Brooklyn, liberal education transformed humanist questions into a humanizing project, the object of which was to impart a consciousness of problems and possibilities beyond the satisfaction of gross bodily demands for sustenance and comfort.

The touchstones of this project were the arts of the West. The humanist questions were materialized, as it were, in Old Master paintings and sonnets by Shakespeare and Donne. As the lessons percolated down through socio-economic layers that had never been offered education before, the focus on the courtly origins of beauty in the West were muted if not altogether extinguished, and artefacts deemed to be merely “pompous” were ignored. But it was believed in earnest that the instillation of a sense of beauty makes a major contribution to the richness of life.

Such faith began to fray when I was a student. The constellation of Western humanism was widely regarded as “irrelevant.” It reflected a bygone way of life whose values had been crushed in the course of two world wars and the onslaught of several totalitarian regimes, two of which were still in power. Critics argued that Western art in all its forms was little more than an instrument of social control, as if art were nothing more than the shibboleth that it had been at princely courts. The humanities were also seen as having been displaced by the sciences. Instead of asking armchair questions about love and death, scientists would hook people up to laboratory experiments and get some answers. The contribution of the humanities degenerated into something “good for you” — broccoli.

Fifty years on, this rejection of Honourable Humanism — the humanism pursued by educated men and women in the course of their domestic and professional lives — has yielded shallow generations of smart people with no perspective for evaluating human affairs. Everything of importance has, it is felt, yet to happen, but the novelties of the future are naively regarded as issuing from that future, and not from work done in the past. The history of every device begins, in popular understanding, with its launch, but in fact we are still living in the shadow of Xerox PARC, that long-shuttered corporate laboratory of now-unimaginable largesse. Western technology has a history — a history that explains much of its regrettable impact on the environment. Technology is not quite as non-humanist as many believe. That is because it is still produced by human beings.

Western humanism is much too multifarious and supple not to outgrow its dependence on the princely courts that gave birth to it, but it is important to understand the roots of humanism in order to shape it for present purposes. Beyond that, the centrality of beauty in Western humanism is what opens the universe to the common sense that the meaning of life is greater than our grasp. Without the sense of a world beyond, we despair: is this all there is?

The aesthetic of today appears to be inspired by a sense of the extra-terrestrial, the world that lies beyond our World, in which no human being could survive for an instant without massive (and somewhat dehumanizing) insulation. There is an impatience with our mortal frames that strikes me as the final exasperation of an empty-headed consumer society. I am convinced that this engenders a contempt for humanity, among the expressions of which are the horrific mass shootings that remind us so stringently that we remain earthbound organisms comprised largely of soft, semi-liquid tissue. How many young men must wish that they were not themselves but their hard and shiny smartphones!

The sense of beauty, once it has established itself in the human mind, is no longer something “good for you.” It is a source of delight and joy that reconciles us, ineffably, to our human limitations. It is up to you, as a member of the Honourable Elite, to remember this, and to look for pleasure where it may be found.

Daily Blague news update: Escape Hatch?

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem IV
29 July 2014

This is where you come in, as a member of the Honourable Elite.

If you read this Web log with any regularity, and (presumably) find it at least occasionally interesting, it is almost certain that you were given a reasonably good education and that you did not stop thinking when you collected your diploma. If you are an American, it is also (sadly) likely that you were not the first person in your family to go to college. (If you’re British, it’s less likely. You might even be Alan Bennett!) Having been raised by at least one educated parent, you were encouraged to do well in school, which you did, no matter what your grades were, because you wouldn’t be reading this if thought and reflection (not quite the same thing) were not some kind of habit, acquired long ago and with the inspiration of one or two very good teachers.

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. That’s part of what “Honourable” means, and why I apply the British spelling. I don’t mean to push the allusion to titles too far. You didn’t acquire membership status at birth. But you were given the opportunity and, judging by your presence here, you took it. You didn’t give it much thought — how could you have done? I just made up the title the other day.

What’s more, you probably believe that “the elite” is a term that refers to other people. Perhaps you are personally acquainted with one or two members of this “other people” elite, but it’s unlikely that you know more than one or two, or that you know them very well (unless they’re family members), because, if you did, then you would probably be too busy to be reading this. We think of this “other people” elite as made up of the men and women who “run things.” It makes sense to think of these men and women as constituting a “power elite.” The power elite is very important to the business of shunting money among and making executive decisions on behalf of public and private affairs, but it has little time or inclination for thought. For all their status, members of the power elite are likely to complain of stressful, overbooked schedules that put them at risk of collapse if they do not keep themselves physically fit. To the extent that they are problem solvers — as most of them are, most of the time — their minds proceed in the direction opposite to that of thought. When we solve a problem, we expect to cross something off a list. When we board a train of thought, we expect to see more of the world.

I do not mean to be dismissive of the power elite. But it cannot be denied that, money aside, it contributes little to our cultural life. In the old days, there used to be, every now and then, a prince capable of wielding cultural influence — Louis XIV and (even more) Joseph II come to mind. But princes of the old times were so powerful that being powerful did not take up every waking minute of the day. Nobody is that powerful anymore, except for a Bill Gates or two. And Bill Gates, although he came from a fine professional family (his mother was a regent of the State University), was not brought up to be a prince.

You, then, are (presumably) not a member of the power elite. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is that, without you, our cultural life would be diminished. Without the Honourable Elite collectively, cultural life would come to a complete standstill. Artists and poets and the like could not support themselves, either financially or as meaningful audiences, if they had none but each other to count on. Let’s get that straight. You matter.

If you’re like most Anglophones, you probably believe, paradoxically, that you are both lazy and deprived of leisure. Neither is the case. But you are probably somewhat disorganized when it comes to free time. Aren’t we all.

But you do matter.


Meanwhile, over here, we have “the humanities.” Whatever the humanities may be, they are called “the humanities” because they embody reflections on those aspects of the human condition that are peculiar to human beings. Mortality, for example, is common to all living things, but consciousness of mortality — the knowledge that you are going to die — appears to exist only in people. It is one of the most powerful motivations of humanist thought, and indeed arguably the most powerful, because full consciousness of mortality is beyond human comprehension. What does it mean to die? No one can say. (This is one reason why human meaning cannot be reduced to words. Another is that we experience meaning in our unique individuality, which puts it beyond the reach of a shared medium such as language.) No one can say what it means to die, but that hasn’t stopped anybody from thinking about it. What is love? What is friendship? What is evil? What is happiness, anyway? These are all peculiarly human questions, partial answers to which, sifted over centuries and from many voices, constitute the body of thinking that we call “the humanities.” Some of this thinking is expressed in words. Some of it is expressed, more obliquely but also more powerfully, as art.

Over a period of about five thousand years — a small, if not astronomically insignificant fraction of the age of the human race — the pursuit of the humanities has piled up a rich store of texts, objects, and skills (required by the performing arts). Political thought (if not the interplay of “politics” itself) is a branch of the humanities, as is psychology, to name another branch of inquiry into human life that has undergone severe reformation since the Eighteenth Century. Our table manners may not be humanist in nature (however human), but our thoughts about them are. Everything that human beings do is, potentially, an object of humanist thought. This includes, formidably, everything that human beings have ever done.

Just as there are two kinds of elite (according to me), there are two kinds of humanist activity. One we will call Scholarly Humanism. I don’t think that this needs further definition, because it is simply what most people mean by “the humanities” — something studied by smart people somewhere else. (“Other people” again.) The other is — yes! — the Honourable Humanities. This is experienced by you, a member of the Honourable Elite, whenever you read a book or attend a concert or visit a museum. Et cetera. It does not happen when just anybody does these things. It happens when you do them because, as the core of your education, you have been given an appreciative apparatus that would be unlikely to develop spontaneously in any human mind. This apparatus converts the raw sensory experience of words, shapes and movements into a sense of the meaning of things.

We may not be able to express the meaning of things, but that doesn’t stop our healthy insistence that the meaning of things must be beautiful.

Not broccoli. Beautiful.

Daily Blague news update: Econ, Yukon.

Gotham Diary:
Sometimes, the Teasing Peacock
28 July 2014

About a year before his death, in 2003, Roy Jenkins published a curious book called Twelve Cities, in which he combined thumbnail histories and architectural sketches of a dozen towns, ranging in size and importance from Cardiff and Bonn at one end to Berlin and New York at the other, with memoirs of his activities in each of these places — or of activities elsewhere of which something in a given city might by chance remind him. Jenkins’s style, a blend of twinkling mandarin and zealous discrimination, was the touchstone of the project. Freed from the narrative obligations of his great political biographies, Jenkins could simply write not only what he pleased but as he pleased — very much, I couldn’t help noticing, as one might write a Web log entry.

That Twelve Cities is self-indulgent cannot be disputed, but readers will disagree about whether the self being indulged is charming. For those whom Jenkins rubs, for one reason or another, the wrong way, the book will be absolutely unreadable, while for those who can’t help liking him even Glasgow becomes fascinating. Completely fascinating, I hasten to note: Jenkins does not inspire a desire to travel so much as he does the itch to turn the page and keep reading. It is actually Jenkins who is fascinating, not Glasgow, as the following arguable fatuity attests:

Glasgow’s industry also had a peculiar vividness, which is retained by such of that industry as remains. The cranes of Govan, still to be seen on the drive in from the airport, proclaim that this is Glasgow as emphatically as the Eiffel Tower identifies Paris, or the Statue of Liberty does New York, or the bridge and the Opera House do Sydney.

There is a photograph of the cranes of Govan, but, doubtless owing to my lack of perspicacity, I fail to see how they are different from the gantries of Elizabeth, still to be seen on the drive in from Newark. But I don’t complain; on the contrary, I treasure these examples of overreach. They inspired a delicious parody by the English humorist Craig Brown. One of Brown’s specialties is the parody diary, a series of which he wrote for Private Eye for about twenty years. His parody of Jenkins was called Twelve Tube Stations. John Campbell quoted two passages in his biography of Jenkins, and I thought I was going to die laughing. Here is a bit from an entry that Campbell did not quote (taken from Brown’s collection, The Lost Diaries, of which more anon), about the West Kensington station:

As I remember it, I had just stepped onto the ‘down’ escalator when the red carpet they had earlier laid upon it began to ‘ruck up’ at the bottom, causing myself and my honoured guests — who included the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Duke of Westminster and Dame Anna Neagle — to hurtle head-over-heels down forty-odd steps or more. An unfortunate occurrence, perhaps, but what it lacked in dignity it more than made up for in exhilaration, so we immediately climbed the stairs and did it all over again.

My copy of The Lost Diaries arrived almost a week before Twelve Cities showed up, by which time I’d come to doubt that Jenkins — always a thoughtful writer — could really have written anything to inspire such ridiculous delight. Happily, Twelve Cities swept away this doubt. If it is not funnier than Twelve Tube Stations, it is every bit as jolly, and Brown’s distillation captures most of the features that sparkle so smilingly in Jenkins’s memoir.

Even Brown would have been hard put to top an anecdote from the essay on Naples. This essay begins, as many do, with mention of Jenkins’s first visit to the city, which includes a description of the special train cars that the Italians placed at the disposal of a Parliamentary delegation of which Jenkins was a member. The run down to Naples was a side trip from Rome, itself a junket from Milan. In Naples, a few of the delegates made a point of calling on the great philosopher (and notable anti-fascist), Benedetto Croce, and almost missed their train back to Rome, boarding it, finally, ten minutes late. (“We sank into comfort, but were not popular.”) A few subsequent visits are noted, and then Jenkins asks the beguiling question, “But what is it that Naples conceals?” He launches into a summary history of Naples, focusing on the part about the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, also known (but not at the same time) as the Kingdom of Naples. This involves the Bourbon dynasts who ruled both Naples and Spain, and fastens on the man who ruled Naples as Charles II and then Spain as Charles III for many, many years. Jenkins has nice things to say about this monarch, but the careful reader will be asking, “What is it that Jenkins is building up to?” And then he delivers.

Charles III ranks high among the sovereigns of the Spanish decline —

(Note the contrary motion: ranks high, Spanish decline. This contrapuntal tic pervades Jenkins’s comparisons.)

— but for me his main impact was that he founded the order bearing his name, the grand cross of which carries the right to wear a pale blue and white sash, which exceeds even the Garter in refulgence, if not in its rarity. In the Prado collection of Goya portraits (and in one or two in Capodimonte [in Naples, lest we wonder as we wander]) nearly all the Spanish royals are wearing it. Until I subsequently took this in I did not appreciate its full status, although I had been given it in 1980, for opening negotiations which led to Spanish entry into the European community. I sometimes wear it at Buckingham Palace banquets for visiting heads of state, partly as a tease and partly as a bit of peacockery.

But altogether because he can.

Oh, that “sometimes”! It would be unkind to describe it as the insolence of a coal miner’s son who made good. It is entirely of a piece with Jenkins’s lifelong commitment to leading an enjoyable, if seriously industrious, life. Most people would find attendance at a single state banquet at Buckingham Palace to be an extraordinary lifetime experience, but Jenkins belonged to the nimbus of the great and the good who provide the human furniture at these occasions, much as the caterer provides the canapes. Sometimes he dons his refulgent sash. (But probably not for the banquet in honor of Nelson Mandela that is mentioned in another essay.) Sash-aying around Buck House, the teasing peacock winks.

I couldn’t like it more.

Daily Blague news update: Human People.

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem III
25 July 2014

Tante Hannah

Several months ago, I promised readers that I would set out a warning whenever Hannah Arendt was about to be discussed, and I’m keeping that promise now. Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” is really the key to this entire Broccoli Problem discussion, and the paragraph that I am about to quote was the lightning bolt that cleared a new perspective in my thinking about art. It is the second paragraph of the essay, following a preliminary discussion of “mass culture” as a contradiction in terms (as, of course, it is). When I read the essay the first time, I was not yet acquainted with the special, stinging meaning that the term “society” had for Arendt, but in the event she explains it in the course of the passage.

The question of mass culture raises first of all another and more fundamental problem, namely, the highly problematic relationship of society and culture. One needs only to recall to what an extent the entire movement of modern art started with a vehement rebellion of the artist against society as such (and not against a still unknown mass society) in order to become aware how much this earlier relationship must have left to be desired and thus to beware of the facile yearning of so many critics of mass culture for a Golden Age of good and genteel society. This yearning is much more widespread today in America than it is in Europe for the simple reason that America, though only too well acquainted with the barbarian philistinism of the nouveaux-riches, has only a nodding acquaintance with the equally annoying culture and educated philistinism of European society, where culture has acquired snob-value, where it has become a matter of status to be educated enough to appreciate culture; this lack of experience may even explain why American literature and painting has suddenly come to play such a decisive role in the development of modern art and why it can make its influence felt in countries whose intellectual and artistic vanguard has adopted outspoken anti-American attitudes. It has, however, the unfortunate consequence that the profound malaise which the very word “culture” is likely to evoke precisely among those who are its foremost representatives may go unnoticed or not be understood in its symptomatic significance.

This passage is all the more dense because Arendt is so far from her usual concerns; the arts and “culture” were rarely the focus of her writing. (One suspects that a good deal of the anti-bourgeois sentiment, as well as the cultural analysis, came from Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher, a man who took a much livelier interest in the arts.) But the central idea is very clear: the modernist movement in art was triggered by a rebellious distaste for the audience for art, circa 1900. It wasn’t that artists felt misunderstood; they no longer wished to be understood, not by the likes of the embourgeoised “cultured” class, whether of commercial or aristocratic background, that constituted the gallery-going public.

Arendt does not claim that there is anything new about the “annoying culture and philistinism of European society,” but she does say that “it has become a matter of status to be educated enough to appreciate culture.” In fact, as we have seen, the ability to appreciate culture was a status marker from the first days of the civil princely courts. What changed, by dribs and drabs throughout the Nineteenth Century, was the source of patronage. Such princes as remained on the scene withdrew from patronage of the arts, a matter now delegated to departments of public works and other more or less “democratic” organizations. Art designed to aggrandize living princes, by associating them with historical and mythological figures from the antique past, was replaced by art designed to extol national virtues. Beauty was no longer in the service of princely magnificence.


It took artists about a hundred years to realize that they found no meaning in the pursuit of beauty when it was not illuminated by the reflected glare of princely grandeur. What was beauty, without princes to bear it, to be adorned by it? What could beauty possibly mean, if it were destined for the salons of industrial tycoons of no public or patriotic significance? It is as though princely support had always been the meaning of beauty — just as, more obviously, beauty had given consequence to princes.

This is not to say that artists had never been happy to create beautiful things for patrons of less than princely degree. On the contrary, those lesser patrons constituted a long and lucrative slope, the pinnacle of which, reached only by “the best artists,” was royal commission. Over time, as the early modern period gave way to the high, final season of the ancien régime, it often happened that the best artists were not the ones who got the royal commissions. This interesting dissonance gave rise to the cluster of refusés, artists with ideas of beauty that were not courtly. (Preceding them, we have the lambent examples of Vermeer and Chardin.) But the paramountcy of some idea of beauty was not questioned — not so long as princes contributed to the discussion. When the arbiters of beauty no longer counted princes among them, the artists revolted.

What replaced beauty in the modernist aesthetic was, needless to say, not ugliness, but significance. In vulgar terms, modern art raised the question (as earlier art had not), what does it mean? From the start, the question was not an aesthetic one, but a sociological one, involving a sour joke that artists told about the public. Beauty continued to flash occasionally — the habit of pursuing it did not die all at once. But beauty was no longer taught to young artists, and eventually the connection between beauty and art was lost. Without beauty, however, art lost its meaning. The result is today’s circus of “conceptual art,” which has nothing to do with art at all but is instead a branch of graphic literature.

While significance can be reduced to words, meaning, I believe, cannot. The meaning of beauty is a fine example of ineffability. Beauty crumbles in description. It is also the case that, while anyone who asks what a picture of Louis XIV’s family in Olympian drag means is an idiot, the picture is loaded with significance. The placement of Monsieur in relation to his brother is meaningless (no matter where he sits or stands, he is represented as a god), but nonetheless of considerable significance.

Quibbles aside, beauty lost its authority when it ceased to be endorsed by princes and deployed as decoration for princely courts. That was all the authority it had ever had.

I have ventured to make an argument that beautiful art — as well as the Western eye for beauty that was behind it — was created to enhance the positions of great men — princes — and was itself enhanced by princely patronage. It might appear to follow from what I’ve said that beautiful has gone the way of princes. But although no one has taken the place that princes occupied in early modern Europe, it is possible that the greatness that princes were believed to embody may exist, if not in individuals, then in the hearts of modern cities, which are not so very unlike the old princely courts. The contemporary city is also a marketplace for the exchange of influence and benefit. The developers that rule our cities are neither distinguished nor inspiring, but they are, however short-sighted, as effective as Norman conquerors. There is a hope of better breeding for their successors, and every certainty that, once committed to the greatness of their cities, these collegial princes will call beauty back into service.

I have left something very important out of the discussion. Skilled artists retain a monopoly on the production of art, but their creations can inspire the eye for beauty in anyone who spends time with them, so long as that contact is free and candid — not snob-oriented, not “educated,” not courtly. Leading artists may no longer create beautiful artworks, but beautiful artworks continue to beguile spectators from the walls of galleries around the world. This secondary, unintended effect of beauty couches its deepest meaning. It is what inspires people like me to try to make a case for beauty. So far, as David Lehman’s Book Review talk of “the two cultures” makes clear, the case has not been made. My hunch, implicit throughout this essay, is that it is not that a particular argument, as yet not worked out, needs to be made, but that a particular kind of person has to make it.

A member of the elite — one who does not have a broccoli problem.

May I remind you that, if you can read this blog entry with any kind of ease and interest, you are a member of the elite.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: Silence and Slow Time.

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem II
24 July 2014

Before the beginning, there was the Church, and only the Church. All eyes were on God.

Let’s not quibble about when that changed. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. Let’s just say that, in the wake of the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the late 1340s, it was clear that the Church was no longer the only source of culture. There were princes and their courts. Priests were no longer the only Europeans who could read, or who read for pleasure. This had been the case for some time, perhaps, but let’s remember that Dante’s Comedy was Divine, and contrast that with the starkly secular entertainments of Boccaccio and Chaucer, the latter dying not quite a hundred years later. This was the beginning of the beginning of early modern Europe.

Just to keep things bold and simple, easy to apprehend, let’s consider the twinned cultural explosions that changed the face of European culture in the middle of the Fifteenth Century, the roughly simultaneous introduction of moveable type and the importation of Greek learning that followed the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. It was at around this time that Lorenzo Valla, an early modern philologist, demonstrated that the document by which the Papacy claimed secular control of Europe was an imposter, a charter composed several centuries too late to be legitimate. This was the end of the beginning of early modern Europe.

In between these two points, the princely court arose from its foundations. The foundations were, of course, military, and we will not explore them here. The courts built upon them in early modern Europe were, in contrast, centered on peace-time activities (although the hunt was always a form of preparation for war). Foremost among these was the exchange of influence and benefit. The prince required the support of his leading subjects, and this need was met by the influence of certain courtiers. In exchange, the prince dispensed benefits — pensions, offices, feudal rights, even valuable objects. The success of the court (and that of the sovereignty it commanded) depended on the smooth operation of this exchange.

If the prince had to learn how to distinguish good advice from bad, and loyal courtiers from potentially treacherous ones, so courtiers had to learn how to be influential. There were what we call social skills, such as the subtle leverage of deference and the careful modulation of praise and blame, to be mastered. There was also a great deal of knowledge to be amassed. It was vital for the influential courtier to know the history of his own court as well as those of neighboring ones. Very early, courtiers learned to conceal the effort that they took to acquire the polish and sophistication increasingly demanded of courtly appearances. The Italian word for this concealment is sprezzatura. The greatest concealment of all was the courtly palace itself.

Princes and their courtiers began to live in buildings that were not military fortifications (even if, like the great palaces of Florence and Rome, they could be defended from the mob). Instead of the naked tools of warfare, princes surrounded themselves with gardens and artworks, all of which advertised, indirectly, a princely potency that could thrive in peace. The presence of women at court made it clear that the prince no longer needed to live in an armed camp. War, sadly enough, did not go away. But it became detached from the daily life of the prince and his leading subjects. At court, a non-military war, long known by the name of “intrigue,” was fought among courtiers. This was the competition for access to the prince and to the benefits that he had to offer. At some courts, intrigue could be quite literally deadly, but princes and courtiers alike were aware that too much poison was bad for business. Courts and their exchange systems worked best when court was widely seen as a desirable place to be.

Thus were born the pleasures of the early modern court. These included music and dancing, which for several centuries the courtiers provided for themselves. They also included places in which to walk and talk. These places, the public parts of palaces and their gardens, were decorated by professional artists, and the conversation was inspired, increasingly, by books written by professional writers. The most successful artists and writers worked in harness, taking for the subjects of their productions the histories of the ancient world.


We are so accustomed to the look and feel of the European Renaissance that we forget how anomalous it was in the history of human affairs. In an era of increasing state power, the most privileged men and women professed to take an interest in the stories of a vanished world, one that they romanticized and claimed to regard as superior to their own. Why did they do such a thing?

At the beginning, it was probably just the pursuit of novelty, but as the richness of the ancient storehouses became clearer — with the manuscripts from Istanbul as well as from unearthed statuary such as the Laocoon — the tales of Greek gods and goddesses, shepherds and shepherdesses, bizarre metamorphoses, heroic adventures, and imperial exploits served as a code. Once upon a time, these tales were widely known to many people, but now they were not. If you knew them, you were in. If you didn’t, you were ridiculed and rejected. So, if you wanted to be an ambitious courtier, you read up on Aeneas and Caesar, equally “real” figures. You learned to identify Diana and Vulcan in the frescoes and canvases that adorned the palace wall. It may have had nothing to do with influence or the exercise of power, but it granted access to both.

We may may never get to the bottom of the synergy between the ancient lore and the idea of beauty that took hold in the Western eye during this early modern period. The ancients had, of course, developed an eye for beautiful sculpture, and this was more or less imitatively revived. But the painters of the Renaissance undertook something new, or at any rate something that had not developed very far in ancient times: the sensuous representation of naked flesh. The ambitious courtier had to know not only who Venus was, but how beautifully the painter had captured her breasts. It goes without saying that he had to learn to look at lovely nudes with a high-minded attitude cleared of any coarse response. As a final fillip, the courtier might rattle off a few apposite lines, not of Ovid or Horace, but of the new poets writing in the vernacular.

Princes regarded the sophistication of the court as an asset in itself. Cultural ostentation became an expression of temporal power and authority.

This was the nexus in which European art was born and established. Until the Twentieth Century, its eye informed the general ideas of beauty and desirability that prevailed among privileged and educated men and women. It governed the patronage of artists by princes, whose complaints about commissioned works invariably concerned the alleged absence of beauty.

Then, shortly before World War I, an influential assortment of artists decided to fire their patrons. The eye for beauty closed. More anon.

Daily Blague news update: Get It In Writing.

Gotham Diary:
The Broccoli Problem I
23 July 2014

In the Book Review this weekend, David Lehman published an essay, “Sing to Me, O Muse (But Keep It Brief),” that, in the course of assessing the state of poetry — the literary equivalent of recycled hints about keeping your nails long and lovely between manicures — delved into The Two Cultures, a book that ought to need no introduction here. Originally an essay, CP Snow’s fashionably “controversial” book proposed, as Lehman pithily puts it, that “humanistic values were possible without humanistic studies.” This infuriated many on what was already the liberal-arts wing of the higher-education divide, but the rage stopped there. “Put on the defensive,” Lehman writes, “advocates for the humanities have failed to make an effective case for their fields.” Fifty-odd years after Snow’s manifesto, the humanities are still on the defensive. They have yet to find a public champion capable of singing their praises without harping on the nutritional values of “culture” — broccoli.

Although I have thought and written about this situation for more than ten years, I’m still coming to grips with it. I’ve only just learned, for example, that “the broccoli problem” is a very good way of expressing the problem. If I never had a broccoli problem myself, in school or later, that’s not to say that I welcomed boring studies with an unnatural embrace. Something of a magpie as a child, I picked up shiny bits and bobs, some of which turned out later to have “cultural significance”; as I got older, my collections became more polished and coherent. Every once in a while, I would be overcome by the conviction that I really must learn more about something, but these enthusiasms were always more pleasurable than dutiful. Of course, I was a dilettante with nothing intelligent to say for most of my life, but the world wasn’t a worse place for that. I ought to note that my bone-deep aversion to serious rock ‘n’ roll was negatively liberating; the fire hoses of popular culture never had much for me to absorb. And, from a very early age, I was aware that I had an unusual, but quite inborn, consciousness of the past.

Consciousness of the past may be uncommon, but it is not rare. What I think distinguished my consciousness of the past was that it was not my past that interested me. Learning of my adoption at the age of seven effectively canceled any personal past. I could adopt my parents’ pasts, if I liked, but only on the understanding that they were not really mine to begin with. I was also free to adopt other pasts, and that is what I did. Even though I found military history tedious and unpleasant, and political history boring beyond belief, what kept me reading history generally was the dynastic tracery that linked the histories of all the European countries. I collected kings and dukes the way normal boys collected baseball cards. It was, for a long time, a sloppy, disorganized collection, full of holes and half-remembered bits, but it grew into an armature upon which a consciousness of European history took shape. Eventually I would take an interest in the politics, and even in the wars. But from the very start, I was most aware of the connections between princes and their patronage of the arts.

As an example, I first encountered Emperor Joseph II while reading about Mozart. Mozart, thanks to the inspiration of a muse to whom I can never discharge my gratitude, was the first serious composer in my life, and his music still sits at the center of my awareness of things, just as the birth of Jesus sits at the center of the calendar. Also from Mozart, I learned that Vienna lies more deeply in Central Europe than Salzburg does, and that it is due east even of Prague. One thing usually leads to another.

I never idealized the aristocratic way of life that prevailed in Europe until what, when I was growing up, was still “the last century” (the Nineteenth). I did not daydream about pomp and circumstance. I had no taste for ceremony, and I preferred a solitary life. Although I learned how to ride a horse before I was fully grown, I could not stop feeling sorry for the horse, having to lug me around, and, again, the repetitious introductory stages of riding partake of the ceremonial. I  should have been no good at all in the ancien régime and I knew it. Never for a moment have I ever wanted to turn the clock back. Even now!

But if didn’t admire the popes and princes personally, I appreciated their more material legacies — the portraits and the palaces, the plazas and gardens. I liked those very much. I just did. No broccoli problem whatsoever.

Well, some of the stuff was a bit rich. In bad taste, even — most of the painted ceilings that I’ve seen in person are pretty dreadful. I prefer magnificence to be somewhat understated and indirect. It is often easier to attain tasteful obliquity if one’s means are not unlimited. If kings had a lot of money, dukes had a bit less, and so on down the line, right to the prosperous burgher in his canal-side counting house. But wait. As early modern Europe developed, that burgher began to have as much money as a count, or perhaps even a duke. Why, he might even be lending to the crown! Rich burghers could afford the opulence of royal courts, but they generally opted for ostentation was on a smaller, more prudential scale. They picked and chose among the artefacts of earlier potentates. And when much of the old world was swept away after 1789, European men increasingly fell in behind a trend away from dress uniforms and in favor of the street clothes of the English gentleman. Talk about understatement!

That gentleman, however, might very well live in a Regency terrace, a row of graciously porticoed houses that exemplified the aesthetic principles first nourished at the courts of Renaissance princes. The world — our more permanent buildings and their more permanent furnishings — had grown much wider since the early days, and much more varied, but the eye of Europe’s art (which designed this world) remained the same.

More about that eye tomorrow, and about its shutting, in the artists’ strike known as “modernism,” soon. Woven in the narrative will be the rudiments of a history of the humanities in the modern west — leading, I hope, to a better understanding of why people actually believe that there are two cultures.

Daily Blague news update: Power, Not Prices.

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.