Vacation Diary:
Afterthoughts and Notes
August 2014 (II)

Monday 17th

Learning to relax: Yes, I’ve had to give it a try. In the past, I’ve come out to Fire Island with a simplified schedule, or what I thought would be one, But I couldn’t afford a schedule this year. I could follow the schedules of others, where necessary — if you want to get the Times, you have to get to Whitney’s Pantry before eleven — but I couldn’t plan for myself. As at home, I fell into a diet of reading, while writing less than half as much as I should have done in New York. I haven’t made dinner once, not for myself and not for guests. As long as I have to go the Pantry on weekdays, I have them make me a sandwich, something that they do almost to deli standards. By former standards, I’d just myself to be very lazy. Now I’ve learned the difference between lazy and relaxed. Lazy is putting off, or avoiding, responsibilities and obligations. Relaxed is making the most of having little in the way of either.

I’ve had to forget about Brahms and Mahler. I’m sure that they weren’t the only ones, but Brahms and Mahler developed a pattern of working out and bringing to completion their larger works (well, in Brahms’s case; all of Mahler’s were larger) at mountain-lake resorts, in the summer. This is a very attractive model, but for me this would require a printer and at least one more monitor — a lot of equipment to lug across the Great South Bay and along the narrow lanes of Ocean Beach — pulling it all in a wagon. Having all that stuff, and printing and cutting and pasting, is the last thing I want to do out here. I need to work, not only my work, but on my blood pressure, which has been significantly elevated in the past year by a meteor shower of stressors, with a couple of asteroids thrown in. I need to try not to worry.

Kathleen and her brother were out for the weekend, and they left after an early dinner. Kathleen said that she would call me when she got home. I know what this means — it means that she is not going to look at her phone, or even set it loud enough to hear the ring, until she gets home — but that knowledge wasn’t very helpful when, even two hours after her van was to have left Bay Shore, I hadn’t heard from her. I called both of her mobile phones, and after only two rings each call went to voicemail. My heart didn’t actually go cold, but that seems to be the best word for the low-frequency shock wave that swept through my rib cage as I put the phone down. There was nothing to do, no one to call. I knew — from experience, you betcha — that calling friends in town to ask if they’d heard of any road disasters would be an utterly pointless annoyance; on the very remote chance that they might know of one, they would immediately call me. So I tried to read. The book that I was reading did as good a job of distracting me, or most of me, from the crisis at hand. When the bells that announce a call from Kathleen chimed from the spires of what I think of as Te Deum Cathedral, I was not actually listening for them, and I hardly knew where to find the phone in my excitement.

Kathleen might have prevented my anxiety attack by texting at any number of points. When, still at the boarding stage, a passenger in the van declared that she needed a seatbelt, and for some reason this required everyone else to change seats. When, at the Triboro Bridge, it turned out that the van driver didn’t have his EZ Pass card. When, while waiting in one cash line, the was further delayed by vehicles cutting in from the other cash lane, where some sort of altercation was in progress. When, having reached Manhattan at last, another passenger asked to be left off at 125th Street, entailing a long drive afterward down Second Avenue instead of zip down the Drive. But, as I said, this never occurred to Kathleen. She might be running late, but she was okay. I don’t think that she makes conscious decisions not to text; it simply doesn’t occur to her. My habit of being hurled into the pit of despair by thirty-or forty-minute delays doesn’t register with Kathleen when she is okay and in transit.

But let’s look on the bright side: I was reading when she called. I was not staring at the phone or wondering “what to do.” My agitation remained fairly superficial. I even imagined taking a pill and going to sleep without hearing from her! There’s a resilience in this that I didn’t have as recently as two weeks ago.

***

The book that successfully pulled my mind away from worrying about Kathleen’s whereabouts was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I said a few things about this book in the previous entry, but mostly as a point of departure for talking about myself and about some recent thinking at this Web log. I wasn’t quite sure that I would be reading the entire book.

By Friday, I had come to believe that everyone who can must read this book right now. It is a book for right now, an extraordinarily lengthy news report that takes days, if not weeks, to digest, and that certainly requires conversations with other readers to grasp. Far From the Tree is a book about how to deal with the vexed notion of “identity” in contemporary America. Its way is to go out of its way to examine the complicated and often contradictory arguments with which all of us weigh and consider questions few of which were being asked as recently as forty years ago. Which is another way of saying that it invites all mature people to reconsider what they learned about the world when they were young.

I am going to try to avoid the appearance of summarizing Solomon’s book. To read it is to do a lot of heavy lifting — to understand that the book might well be much more comprehensive, and therefor physically heavier than it is. I’m also going to try to relate Solomon’s report to my own ideas about society and the world, “the world,” as regular readers will know, being practically a term of art for me, replete with specific denotations and by no means a synonym for “the earth.” (The world is an exclusively human construction, or, to put it even better, the construction of society.) I’m not going to do much of anything now, either. I have read seven of the twelve chapters, just over half.

Why does everybody have to read this book? Because, as a society, we need a lot of help replacing our binary presumptions. The extent to which binary presumptions are a natural human bias as well as a founding tic of Western thought is hard to say, and perhaps unnecessary, but we can agree that our American ideas of rationality rest on the syntactic construction of either/or but not both. You are either black or white, male or female, honest or dishonest. Rational as these statements might be, they are so unreasonable in the face of complex reality that their simplifcation is not only ludicrous but harmful. Rather than offer an example, I’ll simply point to Solomon’s chapter entitled “Deaf.” You may not be very interested in the problems of the hearing-impaired, but the ways in which those problems are being dealt with even denied (to be regarded as advantages instead) show human ingenuity at its most profuse, and also at its most conflicted; it would not be more than mildly tiresome to transpose the entire chapter into the key of nuclear capability. As on so many American fronts, organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with their opponents, and demonize them instead; while  individuals make thoughtful and often painful compromises. The beauty of Solomon’s ear is his wonderful ear for the fine discriminations that underlie those compromises. Nothing is simple, but Solomon makes it all readable.

As I said last week, a better time for me to read this book cannot be imagined. What a lucky break to find it loitering among the beach towels!

***

Tuesday 18th

This morning, when it was grey and humid and the air hovered on the warm side of the frontier of comfort, I read Andrew Solomon’s chapter on Down Syndrome. It was depressing for me, more depressing even than the first chapter, on deafness. I draw so much pleasure from most of what I hear, even in the city, that a world without sound would be a very dull one. Music (everything but rock — which proves my point), Kathleen’s voice, birds at twilight… even the honking of horns when 87th Street backs up, not a pleasant sound to be sure but a comic one that makes me run to the window to see how far back to First Avenue the congestion stretches. The sound of the surf, which varies in many ways with the weather. I like to think that my prose is suffused by my ear for music (and not just rhythm); when I edit my work, aside from catching typos and suboptimal usage, I’m trying to hear the music in the flow of words. I don’t mean to say that I feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy these things. There are plenty of people with perfect hearing who don’t enjoy them. And, as I get older, I live a quieter life; there is not always music playing. But a world without You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion? Impoverished.

But my hearing opens me to pleasures outside myself. Down Syndrome would limit the quality of pleasures that I could enjoy. It is difficult to read Far From the Tree without comparing and contrasting: which disability would be the worst? Which, of any two, the worse? I don’t entertain these idle distractions, but they pop up just the same, because it’s so conventional to give thanks for having been spared such afflictions. It’s what people do. Solomon, moreover, provokes two versions of the question: which impairment would be worse to endure, and, more emphatically, which would be worse to see inflicted on your child? (Solomon provides one answer to the second question, at the top of page 124.) I remind myself that, although, relative to the children in Far From the Tree, I’m normal, my daughter is normal, and (so far) my grandson is nrmal, this means little more than we find the world around us to be as convenient as it is for most of the people we know. Notwithstanding this normality, we get sick, endure sorrows, and will eventually die. Feeling pity for a disabled person is an ugly folly.

I walked to town to buy the Times and to have a sandwich made, walked back, and finished the chapter. It wasn’t time for lunch, so I picked up Ulysses and chugged through the seventh episode, which, according to the Wikepedia page that I’ve been consulting, is informally (and invisibly) entitled, “Aeolus.” Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus pass each other in the offices of a newspaper, but do not meet. Leopold is trying to made a publicity deal for an advertiser; Stephen is dropping off a letter written by the principal of the school where he teaches. The short sections are introduced by tabloid headlines. I remember a vogue for that sort of thing in the late Sixties; I associate it particularly with Donald Barthelme.

I figured out what was going on without referring to the crib at Wikipedia, but I couldn’t really follow what the characters were talking about. Nor was I trying very hard to do so. I am not so much reading the book as exposing myself to it. The story of the “vestals” who spit plum pits from their picnic atop the Nelson Column was droll, or at least drolly told, but I had no idea what it was doing there. I tried to figure out what “onehandled adulterer” meant until just a moment ago, when I realized that I’d somehow put Parnell atop the Nelson Column. Having lived for more than a few decades, and immersed myself in fancy-pants literature for most of that time, I catch most of the allusions without trying, but I can’t think why they’re there in the first place.

Plus, a lot of the subject matter is Ew! Bloom in the outhouse, for example. Worse, Bloom buys a bar of soap, and visits a bathhouse. The bath is elided, but the soap won’t go away: Bloom keeps pulling it out of one pocket and slipping it into another. There is an extravagant uncleanliness about Ulysses that strikes me as childishly antisocial.

If there’s one word that makes me wish I hadn’t picked up a book, it is “sweat.” I have a lot of trouble with sweat. I read somewhere that, if you’re very lucky, the microbes that reside on your skin will consume the entirety of the sebum that you excrete. Most of us play host to more finicky diners. What some microbes don’t consume causes body odor. If I don’t have that problem, it might well be that I don’t give it time to ripen. My microbes leave behind a film that both seals and burns. I feel wrapped in foil, and no abundance of balmy breezes will cool me off. Only a quick shower will save me. In all but the coldest weather, simply reading about sweat is unsettling enough to start me sweating.

I am also crawling through The Tale of Genji, which doesn’t at all begin the way I’ve been saying it would. It is, in fact, far more erotic than I took care to notice forty-odd years ago. Forty-odd years ago, I still needed things to be spelled out. Arthur Waley is understated about sex, but never the least bit mysterious. I was quite shocked, however, by the suggestion that, in one instance, Genji makes do with the sweet little brother of the woman whom he’s really after.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation of The Pillow Book is the perfect introduction to Waley’s beautiful translation of Genji. McKinney, like her predecessor, Ivan Morris, explains all the odd customs — women lurking behind screens when their lovers come calling, for example. Waley spends as little time on these details as possible. He remarks in a footnote that Heian houses were “arranged somewhat differently than ours,” and leaves it at that. If you read The Pillow Book first, the world of Genji will be much more familiar, and there will be less lumber to get in the way of the story, which is, after all, neither anthropological research nor shelter-magazine copy.

The weather was somewhat stifling yesterday, and only slightly worse than Sunday. While I was finishing the chapter on Down Syndrome, the sky cleared up and the air grew cooler. It’s warm in the sun, but almost chilly in the shade. That’s how I like it; that’s what I’m here to enjoy.

PS: I haven’t, on this vacation, been editing this pair of August entries. I’ll do that when I get home. Bear with, svp.

***

Wednesday 19th

The owner of the house we are renting is on her way over, to fetch some bottles of wine. Neither Kathleen nor I have met her, although I should recognize her from photographs mounted on the refrigerator. I was just about to say how glad I was that the house was presentable, when I realized that I hadn’t made the bed. And, to switch times, she walked in while I was pulling the sheet over the top of the duvet. She was surprised to find me all alone — quite reasonably, as houses here are either empty or lively.

The owner’s daughter and the daughter’s mother-in-law appeared presently, and all agreed that it was MUCH cooler here than where they’d been. That’s no surprise, either. The house is elevated, about six feet off the ground, and nothing stands between it and the bay breezes. I was invited to turn on the air-conditioning, an offer that I was happy to decline.

As it happened, I met the daughter yesterday. She stopped by to pick up a bicycle for her younger son. It was very nice to meet her, and to see her again today; but I’m glad that I met the owner, who was also very nice. The owner and her husband (who is also the owner, I expect, but Kathleen has had no dealings with him) will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tomorrow — unless it’s today. I’m never any good with temporal details when I’m in pass-the-hors-d’oeuvre mode.

Especially when I’m on vacation, something that began for me, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, after a walk on the beach last night. It was about six-thirty. I kicked off my beach shoes and washed away the sand, poured a glass of wine, and sat on the deck — for about a minute; the sun was still too high. An hour later (spent fiddling at the keyboard), the sun was near setting, and the sky was brilliant as usual. I was still in beach attire — an English polo shirt, bought years ago in Bermuda, with the ugliest oversized print motif ever devised, but in colors that I like, and denim trunks — and I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry, so dinner didn’t press. For the first time this season, I sat and thozed. Forgive the coinage (if it is one); I’ve run together “think” and “doze.” Dozing, you sleep without being aware of it. Last night, there was always something going through my head, but it was so light that I wasn’t aware of it.

***

Somehow, I managed to read about a hundred pages of Far From the Tree this morning. This included the long, penultimate chapter, “Transgender.” I had saved it for last, because it is the only one of the ten “conditions” that Solomon writes about that gives me any trouble, and I figured, rightly as it turned out, that I would be able to absorb its complications if I was in synch with Solomon’s analytic protocols.

Why do I have trouble with Transgender? I shouldn’t have been able to say, but now I know that there are many reasons. Changing gender looks optional; it does not cure a disability that is visible to anyone but the sufferer. In this, its an outlier. I now understand that changing gender can be as imperative as receiving an antibiotic. Another reason, and one that persists even after I’ve read the chapter, is disapproval of cosmetic mutilation. Solomon’s coverage of thisa issue is one reason why I spoke of complications a moment ago, and not complexities. The profusion of Solomon’s examples demonstrates the impossibility of generalizing about changing gender. Third, Transgender has also seemed to me to carry a heavy load of fantasy — and I am constitutionally chilly about fantasy. The little boy who wants to grow up to wear dresses is no more interesting to me than the one who wants to be president, or a fireman.

My fundamental reservation about Transgender, however, follows from my conviction that it displaces another problem. Solomon quotes Stephanie Brill:

“A male child who says, ‘I must be a girl because only girls want to do these things,’ is not showing evidence of being transgender; he’s showing evidence of sexism.”

I couldn’t agree more, nor could I more fiercely defend the right of boys and girls to do whatever they please absolutely without regard to what’s gender-appropriate. Interfering with harmless pastimes is just as impertinent as asking a married woman when she plans to have children. We need new conventions that respect dignity, autonomy, and privacy.*

I am not opposed to changing gender, just resistant. If I were convinced that such a change was key to a child’s happiness, I would not stand in the way. I might want to be convinced by a sympathetic therapist (sympathetic to the child, not to me), but this would only to prevent regrets down the road — which, Solomon shows us, do occur. (And of course I’m talking only about surgical interventions here. I was delighted to learn about Lupron, which forestalls puberty and its side-effects, playing for time.) So many of the conditions that Solomon writes about — nearly all of them — have changed complexion in recent decades, thanks to intertwined amplifications of identity activism and medical competence. Who knows how much of Far From the Tree will be dated in ten years?

* By privacy, I mean those instances in which interests and activities pursued in private are for one reason or another divulged in public. They remain private.

***

Friday 21st

Rain again. Before going to bed, I closed most of the doors and windows, but the rain, when it came, was soft and straight; I don’t think that any of it would have blown in. Dozing at daybreak, I wondered if it was peculiar of me to find the racket in the drainpipe, right outside the bedroom, so agreeable. If I had not known what it was, it would have been ugly and annoying.

When I went to bed, I had fifteen pages of The Moonstone yet to read. I had already stayed up very late, just to follow Ezra Jennings’s contribution to the story. Once I could be sure that Godfrey Ablewhite met with the death that he had coming, the tension snapped, and the words began to blur.

I wonder if The Moonstone has ever inspired a reader to become a Robinson Crusoe fan.

Yesterday morning, which was a bright as today is dismal, I declared a Total Holiday day. What this meant was that I would devote it to reading The Moonstone. Risking missing the Times, I stayed at the house until time for an early lunch at Maguire’s. There were still three copies of the newspaper when I passed the Pantry, and I bought one, but I did not read it until the middle of the afternoon, right before launching on Franklin Blake’s first narrative. At some point prior to four o’clock, I emptied a box of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan, added most of a stick of butter and an onion that I had cut in half and peeled, and set the pan over moderate heat. When I called Kathleen at four, as I usually do, the air was fragrant with Butter Sauce, as I’ve come to call this concoction (universally attributed to Marcella Hazan), because it is substantial in a way that’s quite different from the run of tomato sauces; it may not sound very appetizing to say so, but the butter contributes a meaty heft. When it came time to eat, I discovered that a Cuisinart pasta ladle is the perfect implement for keeping a Penguin Classic opean at the table. I took a walk on the beach, and did a load of laundry. I ran the dishwasher. Really, though, I did nothing but read The Moonstone.

The story is, of course, very good, an excellent yarn. But what I liked best was that Wilkie Collins was telling it. Collins can make shameless use of convenient coincidences that in lesser hands would be implausibly “melodramatic,” but he knows how to make them so uncanny that we’re compelled, for love of pleasure, to swallow them. Consider the spectacular demise of Sir Percival Glyde, burned to death in the blazing vestry of the church at Welmingham. (In The Woman in White.) It is nothing less than operatic that our hero, Walter Hartridge, is also on the scene, leading the effort to save Sir Percival’s life. But it is also operatically thrilling. When I was young, this was a guilty pleasure. Sensation was not cool. I wonder now, was that because of lingering modernism, or was it simply adolescent resistance to emotional display? I’m fairly sure that a lot of The Moonstone went over my head when I last read it, fifty-odd years ago. (Collins’s high-Victorian prose would have been too exuberant for me to follow with ease.) But I did recognize it as a guilty pleasure; and I began to hope that my life would be rich in guilty pleasures.

The part of The Moonstone that stuck with me was the character of Drusilla Clack — was there ever a better name? Miss Clack is a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances who has devoted her life to sanctimonious interference in the spiritual lives of others, especially those others who haven’t got much in the way of spiritual lives. Her family cannot dismiss her altogether, but they make their endurance plain. There suffering, of course, is grist for Clack’s mill: she is always on the lookout for the reversal of fortune that might soften someone up for the receipt of her evangelism. (She keeps herself supplied with inspirational tracts that bear such titles as “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons.”) Clack is a miracle of irony — she addresses the reader as sympathizer to her cause, as if unaware that sympathizers to her cause would not be reading novels — and the crowning touch is her hypocrisy, which, peeping out only rarely, here and there, has the astonishing effect of humanizing her.

And yet, I found myself pausing over a certain sort of passage, meant to be funny, or at least ridiculous, that I couldn’t help savoring at face value. In the following passage, the first such that I come across when I open the book, Miss Clack has just learned of Lady Verinder’s illness.

Little did my poor aunt imagine what a gush of devout thankfulness thrilled through me as she approached the close of her melancholy story. Here was a career of usefulness opened before me! Here was a beloved relative and perishing fellow-creature, on the eve of the great change, utterly unprepared; and let, providentially, to reveal her situation to Me! How can I describe the joy…

Yes, of course it’s ludicrous, and even inhuman to speak of joy here — but it is also quite essentially Christian, and aimed at transcendence. Imagine that Collins had the blasphemous idea of substituting Jesus for Clack. He would say much the same things; how would we react? It would be the wrecking of the novel, of course, but that such a notion should come to mind is testament to Collins’s gift for the rich ambiguity that holds us in thrall to the page even at moments of superb unlikeliness.

Reading The Moonstone was a bittersweet pleasure, because I knew that, when it came to an end, there would be No More. What would I do then, with nothing in my pile but The Tale of Genji and Ulysses, both of which would be somewhat medicinal after such Total Fun? Not to worry: Kathleen found my copy of The Lady and the Law, and she’ll be bringing out with her this afternoon. I won’t get to it until Sunday night or Monday, because she’s also bringing along Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil.

Bon weekend à tous!

Vacation Diary:
Notes & Afterthoughts
August 2015

Monday 3rd

In a little while, I’ve got to get started on pizza dough. My daughter and grandson are coming for dinner. (My son-in-law flew back to San Francisco this morning.) Megan and Will will show up sevenish, and I want to have everything ready to go by six-thirty. Will, I’m told, is crazy about spinach pizza, so I’ll be expanding my topping skills to encompass vegetables. I’m not sure what to do with the spinach ahead of time, but as it only takes a few minutes to cook — if cooking (aside from the pizza-baking ) is indeed necessary — I’ll confine the prep to scissoring and washing.

Aside from that, I have a little bit of paperwork to attend to. And some laundry to fold. Otherwise — you’d never know that I’m about to leave for three weeks.

Kathleen may be able to spend a few weekdays with me on Fire Island, but, for the most part, I’ll be alone. I’m taking The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which I haven’t read since college; a shopping bag full of stitching projects (as “needlepoint” is now called); and a few chunks of Reggiano Parmigiano. Also a few knives and a tea kettle. (And tea!) The usual togs; the usual digital equipment. Le minimum.

Here’s what I’m looking to on Fire Island: Nothing. Plenty of nothing. Day after uneventful day.

Which gives me an idea. The Tale of Genji. Arthur Waley’s translation — the only one I’ve read all the way through. Apparently there’s yet another new one. Someone was writing about it somewhere, and comparing it to the others that have appeared since Edward G Seidensticker’s, which I own but have not got through. As everybody knows, any translation of this ancient novel (c 1100) is a highly speculative business; so, I’ve decided to forswear attempts at accuracy in favor of beauty. Whoever-it-was mentioned that Junichiro Tanizaki consulted Waley when he translated Genji into modern Japanese.

The first quarter of The Tale of Genji is like the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty — almost impenetrable. It is little more than a court calendar, a gazette of important ritual functions, with accounts of who showed up and, more important, who wore what. How, you wonder, can this book have possibly earned the reputation it enjoys? When you read for the umpteenth time that Genji has been prevented from visiting a friend or a favorite because doing so would require him to travel in an unpropitious direction, you want to throw the book out the window. In the middle of the book, more or less, the title character dies. Now what? You persist (along with the writer) — hoping, possibly, that the difference between the Minister of the Right Hand will at long last be distinguished in some functional way from the Minister of the Left Hand.

With the object of her infatuation out of the way, the author is free to pay a more divided attention to her other characters, and pretty soon you realize that you are watching somebody learn how to write a novel.

An early case of Kill Your Darlings.

***

Tuesday 4th

The day began unpropitiously. I fell out of bed.

This is something that can happen; it has in fact happened once before. The question is, how much of this story do you want to hear? There would be no question at all, if it were not that my falling out of bed did not involve inebriation.

No, it was morning. I had gotten up, to see a man about polishing some shoe laces. Coming back to bed, I was overcome by the desire to sleep on my side.

Normally, I sleep on my back, in what might be called a deathbed position, head on pillow, laid out straight, my breathing barely apparent. I simply do not move in my sleep. (Kathleen is occasionally unnerved.) A bed that I alone have slept in does not need to be “made.” You just pull a blanket to, and you’re done. A corollary of this rule is that I cannot shift in bed without getting up and out of it, rearranging pillows and blankets, and, if I’m hoping to sleep on my side — my right side, never the left — crawling back in carefully, so that there’s a blanket between my legs. l’m excessively warm-blooded, you see. In the winter, people pull back from hugging me, aglow — you’re so warm! And indeed I am. I am oxidizing so profusely that I probably ought to be dead by now. Or perhaps its a very inefficient layer of subcutaneous fat, bringing my skin temperature much closer to 98.6º than other people’s. In any case, my skin cannot touch — my skin, not without becoming quite uncomfortably hot and sweaty. So there must be something between my legs when I sleep on my side.

For a long time, I didn’t know that I could do this, sleep on my side. It still feels like a new experience. I can do it for only an hour. At about that point, I am awakened by a right shoulder that aches like the dickens, and a feverishly hot right cheek. This morning, when I extricated myself from the sleeping-on-my-side position, I was not very careful about the blanket between my legs. As I turned onto my seat, I slid toward the edge of the bed and — kept going. My legs, caught in the blanket, eventually followed. I forgot to tell you that our bed is high, almost counter-height from the floor. So I fell about three feet, in a tumble of limbs. I bruised an elbow and an ankle, rattled a knee, and pulled (or maybe just tugged) a muscle in the groin. Kathleen helped me back into bed and gave me three anti-inflammatory tablets. I slept for a while and woke up feeling more or less intact, but also quite shaken, and even sorry for myself, about the fall.

When I went out to get the haircut that has to see me through three weeks of seaside living — and an anxious creature I was, let me tell you, wondering where we had put the canes in the new apartment, and feeling that a taxi to Frank Campbell would probably be the best idea; except that they’d tell me that I’d have to go to the Emergency Room at New York Hospital first; which only goes to show that you can’t even go straight to hell in this town — I wondered if I would ever see the apartment again. It was very touching.

Pop Quiz: How many readers guessed that I’ve almost finished reading Dancing In the Dark (My Struggle 4) by Karl Ove Knausgaard?

***

More about him some other time. I know that I’m on vacation, but my brains don’t. They’re as frisky as fillies today. First, there was the Op-Ed piece by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, about Congressional violence in the Nineteenth Century. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Houses of Congress could get as ugly as a bar in the wrong part of town. Freeman’s point wasn’t that the nation has been seriously polarized before — she wants to remind us that political stupidity, or rather, saying very stupid things in political contexts, makes for great ratings — I came away pondering the difference between now and then. Then, before the Civil War, there was really only one issue, and it wasn’t slavery so much as the expansion of slavery, into new states, such as Kansas. By the 1850s, the agreement to disagree had smashed up against an impasse.

But what is polarizing the United States today? Well, so many things! Immigration, social welfare, racism (and the discussion about racism), guns. These are the issues that you read about in the papers. Deeper inquiry might suggest that the the very model of Western democracy is broken, or at least so decadent that it has achieved the bizarre distinction of recapitulating the privileges of the ancien régime, only with different labels. The situations of Greece and Puerto Rico, to give just one example of ancien régime redux, have convinced me that far, far too many investors have felt privileged to buy the debt of these two polities; meaning, by privileged, that they could overlook the obvious risks of such investments because they’d be bailed out in case of disaster. So the disaster is befalling ordinary Greek and Puerto Rican people instead, people who had nothing to do with any of the borrowing and whose benefit from it was almost certainly highly indirect.

Most Americans seem to be aware that our political discourse is no longer addressing genuine issues, or addressing them with full engagement. Most politicians seem to be aware that the genuine issues cannot be effectively addressed, because to do so would rain on too many parades. There is a terrible mental confusion, possibly unavoidable, given the financialization of everything, about where economic discussion stops and political discussion begins. Attention spans are too short to allow anything to be sorted out. Everybody wants to be left alone — in the most interconnected society that humanity has ever known.

Is there a single issue that explains all the others? Sometimes, I think that it must be guns, but that’s because I am nowhere near as unambiguously opposed to anything as I am to the civilian possession of firearms. I believe that merely wanting to own guns is odious. The National Rifle Association might just as well be sponsoring slave auctions. I can see fighting another war of secession on the point. (Good riddance this time!) But that’s just me.

Second, there was Joanna Scott’s essay in this week’s issue of The Nation, “Liberating Reading.” It’s a review of some recent books about books — about modernist books, particularly. Several times in the piece, Scott worries about the future of the ability to read demanding literature. I share her concern, but more moderately, because I don’t think for a minute that the Internet has adversely affected literary life. Literary life has always thrived in its own elitist hothouse (and there’s nothing wrong with that), and if anyone has been having a go at the fenestration, it’s not the Amazonian e-book but the Brobdignagian b-boomers. Undermining “the canon” was well underway long before the introduction of the personal computer, and much longer before the connectivity of the Internet. It was guys my age what done it. As students, they complained about “relevance,” than which there are fewer more narcissistic distractions; then, quite horrifyingly, they went on to become teachers themselves. Now their pupils are running things, not surprisingly given their training, into the ground. If I don’t worry too much about the future of Reading, it’s because I firmly believe that most of my classmates had no business pursuing higher education.

In my old age, however, I have come to the unapoligetic conclusion that Modernism was worse than a mistake. I won’t belabor the point here yet again; it’s enough to point to John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Carey’s exposure of the links between Modernism and Hitlerism are thrillingly right and deserve to be more widely acknowledged.

It wasn’t Scott but Knausgaard who suggested that this might be a good time to read Buddenbrooks.

***

Thursday 6th

They just got here — Megan and Will. And then Kathleen walked in, back from an errand. We have an hour or more to kill before the cars arrive. Assuming normal traffic, we ought to be in the beach house well before six. At six o’clock, Kathleen has a conference call. She has not been terrifically busy during her first month at the new firm. Now that we’re off to Fire Island, she’s got three documents to prepare, which is a lot for even a long weekend.

Will is full of pep, hugely excited by the prospect of travel to a beach. I’m dumbly hoping that everything will go smoothly.

I was ruefully contemplating such a hope last night, right before the Chinese dinner arrived from Wa Jeal. We were all in a funk. It seemed that Will had lost a phone ,on my watch, that, while it no longer had a SIM card, was loaded with Megan’s contact information, including bank passwords and the like. It was one of the first iPhones, and it became terminally unreliable last week, when she and Ryan and Will were on the Jersey Shore. They bought a new phone at the mall and copied everything onto it. Both phones were now loaded with games for Will to play, and the old phone retained its WiFi connectivity. But there hadn’t been time to wipe off the personal data.

By the time dinner arrived, we all wore bright faces, even me, despite the fact that I’d proved to be guilty of not one but two lapses. It’s a good thing that all’s well that ends well, but sometimes a chewy story is left behind as well.

Megan had lunch yesterday with a good friend, so I took Will to what he used to call the “dinnerstore,” a coffee shop across the street. He was in something of a sulk, which I’ll explain some other time (or maybe not), so, when we sat down, he got out his mother’s old phones and donned his Sony headsets and proceeded to ignore me, saying only that he wasn’t hungry. I went ahead and ordered a grilled-cheese-and-bacon deluxe. Eventually, Will condescended to eat a few French fries, after cooling them off in his glass of icewater. He accepted a glass of milk, He even warmed to a dish of chocolate ice cream, making sure to consume all of the whipped cream on top. By the time we left the coffee shop, he was in fairly good spirits, just as I’d expected him to be.

On the street, he stopped to make sure that he had a certain piece of paper in his cargo shorts pocket. He was to carry this at all times: it bore his mother’s name and her phone number. “Do you have your phone?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, and I did not ask to see it, even though I felt that I was making a mistake. We went to Barnes & Noble and bought some stuff. Then we came home and played with stuff.

Much later, Megan, who had brought her very nice friend back to the apartment, to continue their get-together, asked after the phone. It wasn’t in Will’s pocket; it wasn’t anywhere. Stunned by the magnitude of my misjudgment — I ought to have asked to see the phone in the street; it was impossible that Will had left it anywhere but in the restaurant — I just about ran across the street to the coffee shop. No phone had been turned into the cashier, and I had to wait for two women to leave the booth before I could inspect it. No dice.

Back at home, Megan was sitting in the part of the living room that we call the boudoir, by the window, while I sat next to Kathleen in the middle of the room and stewed in remorse. It was very quiet. I sipped on my glass of wine and refrained from saying anything. Then, suddenly, I was on my feet. I can’t trace what recollection provoked this, but without saying a word, I swept into the bedroom, and there it was, lying exactly where my own phone lies when it’s being charged. I remembered that Will had reached for the phone in his pocket — while we were playing with stuff — because it was vibrating. I asked if it was low on power. Yes, he said. So I plugged it in and forgot all about it.

Well, Will didn’t forget all about it, but his recollection was, at least as stated, partial.

So that when Megan asked after the phone, I did what’s normal for me: I remembered making a mistake, and reaped the consequence of that mistake, even though that consequence had not materialized. This triggered the second lapse, the temporary obliteration of any memory of charging the old phone. This cascade of error was not even interrupted by Will’s statement that “Doodad took it.” This refutation of my claim that he had left it in the restaurant — for which I blamed myself, not him — together with the imputation that I, having taken it, then lost it, only intensified my mistaken convictions. In one sense, of course, it was quite true that I had taken it and then lost it.

A happy ending, but a troubling story — or at any rate testament to an exhausted mind.

***

Friday 7th

We are here, at the end of East Walk, the Summer Club. All is well, except little thises and thats. It has taken a full day for me to find the energy to get connected, and, now I’ve done it, I have nothing to say. Everyone is resting in the late-afternoon warmth. It’s not hot, really, and there is a very nice breeze to put some life into the ceiling fans. But the sun is steady, and the western (living) side of the house is baking in it.

As long as I was going to read The Tale of Genji, I thought I’d bring along Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but I couldn’t find it, so I ordered another copy — only to discover that Penguin now publishes a new translation. Ivan Morris has been replaced by Meredith McKinney. I find that I’m reading the book from the beginning, something I’ve never done before. It started innocently — I wanted to see what kind of apparatus McKinneey had provided. You can’t publish the Pillow Book without extensive notes. Morris also added a few line drawings, taken from old Japanese models, to give an idea of the costumes, the layout of palace rooms, and the carriages in which ladies traveled about the town. McKinney has added to all of this a few glossaries, identifying recurring figures and defining the ministerial and bureaucratic jobs.that give the male courtiers their identities (even if they don’t keep them very busy). As for the translation, it seems lighter-handed; where Morris’s Shonagon was something of a self-important shrew, McKinney’s is an amusing, perhaps slightly too witty woman.

I’ve also read two dozen pages of Ulysses.

***

Saturday 8th

This will be brief. Dinner is under preparation in the kitchen (not by me), while Megan is consoling Will in the wake of scrapes and bites and a very tiring couple of weeks. Kathleen, working on a document, was knocked out by it, too exhausted in her last waking moments to cover herself with anything but a pillow. A Brazilian playlist is tinkling in the corner.

The weather continues lovely. Going into the town for a midafternoon shop on a Saturday was regrettable, although we did get what we needed. (Except, garlic?) Will was hauled around in the gigantic wagon along with the provisions.

I’m gripped by The Woman in White. I ought to be stitching — it’s more convivial than trying to read, innit. I never manage to capture a good image of Will and the gang. I got a message saying that another computer on this network has the same IP address — that’s a new one. It must have something to do with the new MiFi card and a new Lenovo laptop that I haven’t got round to breaking in. Hence my continued reliance on this enormous old Pavilion, which wheezes with age I kid you not.

The whole point of this vacation, this emptying out, is to regain the composure and presence of mind to deal with the foregoing problems. I do hope that I’ll be able to remain in touch until then.

***

Monday 10th

For a few hours, I have been alone in the house. Kathleen left after dinner last night — we all walked over from Maguire’s to the ferry to see her off. Everyone else, Megan, Will, and the NOLAs, left on the same boat this afternoon. I pulled the wagon home and resumed my breathless reading of The Woman In White.

Will is living in the molten core of the pleasure principle. Now that he knows how to express his desires more or less clearly, he sees no reason why they ought not to be indulged. He knows that there are limits, but he would like to revise this arrangement. He can be very inventive. An apparently ingenuous account of what he has been watching on Nickelodeon — of what his mother has very regrettably missed — turns into an infomercial for something that he “needs.”

In another verbal development, he has learned to announce mishaps with an apology. “I’m sorry!” he says. In those cases where no crashing sounds are involved, it is then that you find out what Will is sorry for.

There was a lovely moment this morning — little more than a moment. He made up a game, involving a pail of water, a smaller, empty pail, a Tennage Ninja Turtle figure, and a few paper towels. It was a sort of laundry game: wet paper towels were squeezed over the turtle in the empty pail; then the turtle was dropped into the pail. This was more of a dropping, splashing game. Some sort of industrial process was clearly in operation. The process was repeated several times, always with variations. It was both infantile and scientific.

He told his mother this afternoon that he is never going to grow up and leave home. This accords with his frequent reminders that he is the kid, and, as such, entitled to be taken care of in the manner to which he is accustomed (see “needs”). It’s like trying to swim up a waterfall.

It is obvious that Will has a good heart. But, as his mother says, this is not the same thing as knowing right from wrong. She works tirelessly at teaching him which is what.

A week from today, Will will experience the first day of Kindergarten.

***

Tuesday11th

More connection problems. This is my reward for updating the MiFi card and not getting round to preparing a new laptop for travel. It is not the new laptop that’s at fault — it didn’t travel. I have sent a note to Mr Mei, pleading for help. Until I get some, I may be too distracted by uncertainty to write very well. Compounding the problem, I’m in Fairlie mode.

Readers of The Woman In White will recall Frederick Fairlie, the invalid uncle for whom any distraction from his collection of objets de vertu is an intolerable attack on his nervous composure. He says “no” to everything, but persistence can wear him down, provoking a flustered “yes.” Fittingly, this unpleasant hypochondriac, who rarely leaves his suite of rooms and can’t be bothered with the responsibilities of being the head of the household, succumbs to “paralysis” and death.

C’est moi, these days.

While there were other people in the house, the weather was glorious — sunny and clear and not too warm. Alone, I awoke to the sound of a gurgling drainpipe. I got up in time to prevent large puddles beneath the sliding-glass doors. At the moment, it is clearing up, although more rain, and perhaps even a storm, are predicted for later. This morning, however, was wonderfully gloomy. I burrowed into the sofa and finished Collins’s breakthrough “sensation” novel. I have always regarded The Woman In White as a novel that I read during or shortly after college, but precious little of it was familiar. I remember not liking it as much as The Moonstone, and I’m sure that I skimmed a great deal of Walter Hartright’s amorous heroics. The book, this time around, was as good as new.

What is it about Collins’s writing that makes the floridity of Victorian prose not only palatable but so palatable? Collins certainly pours it on as thick as anybody — he makes Trollope read like an austere modernist. And yet the copiousness of his verbiage is devoted to showing, not telling. He writes like a scenarist, not a lyricist. He wants to be sure that you have a visual sense of people and places, and he trusts you to respond with the appropriate mood. His narrative forms in The Woman In White, moreover, are limited to the diary entry and the memorandum. Walter Hartright, perhaps because he is a drawing-master, goes in for tone-poetry, but the far more representative Marian Halcombe prefers understatement. (That is but one example of Collins’s propensity for fiddling with gendered expectations.) A thorough study of Collins’s prosody would reveal, I expected, that very few of his words could be cut without impairing not only the sense but also the power of his fiction.

Almost any other novelist would have made more of Walter’s Honduran intermezzo. Not only does this episode take place entirely offstage, but it is drawn on only three times (I’m excluding mere mentions, which aren’t very numerous, either). There is Marian’s delirious but predictvely accurate dream of the three deaths that Walter escapes (plague, Indians, shipwreck); and then there are two moments in which Walter attributes his survival skills to his Central American sojourn. (And on one of these occasions, he’s wrong: he believes, erroneously, that he has shaken his tail.) In the space of an ordinary adventure, Conan Doyle would have dotted a Holmes story with vivid recollections of the sort of things that Walter saw and did on the archeological expedition that he joined in the vain attempt to forget Laura Fairlie, but, aside from Marian’s dream, we are offered no exotic asides. Collins might be accused by some readers of failing to make even merely adequate use of his material. I find it bracing: the Aztec ruins were a worrying presence that never quite showed up. Worrying, I say, because one of the things that makes A Woman In White exciting is its firmly-established setting in Victorian England.

And yet how, without a nervous intelligence honed in deadly jungles, would Walter have had the imagination to connect Mrs Clements’s remarks about the vestry door at Welmingham — an unlikely site for romantic rendezvous — with “the Secret”?

***

Wednesday 12th

Even in the age of e-books, there is always the question, for someone of my age, of what books to take along on vacation. This year, I chose the two most famous of Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels; I’ve read one of them, and must save the other (The Moonstone) for the last week; The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji, two books set in Heian Japan (both about a century older that I remembered when I recently dated The Pillow Book at 1100 CE; in fact, the millennium of Sei Shonagon’s death falls two years from now); and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m galloping through The Pillow Book, but I’m not always in the mood for it. As to Ulysses, I’ve put myself on a diet of twenty-five pages a day; more than that, I don’t care to read, if the first part is any indication. What can I say about e-books except that I’m not in the mood? There’s a book about World War II that I really ought to knock off, and maybe I’ll get to it; but yesterday, in my restlessness, I looked at the bookcase that comes with the house, and I found Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.

I remember deciding, when I read the reviews of this book, that it wasn’t for me. I have a problem with the “recognition” of what I used, before this book, to call “disabilities,” because it concedes to much to belief in the normal. There is no normal, except maybe in Wyoming (there aren’t many people in Wyoming, and they all live a thousand miles apart; in Wyoming, “antisocial” is normal), and we are all more or less disabled. Let’s just say that I’m focused on the pathologies of unimpaired everyday life. (“Impairment,” Andrew Solomon’s word for “disability,” is now mine as well.) I didn’t think I had the patience to read a ream of parents’ heartrending stories about deaf children, autistic children, schizophrenic children, and so on.

And I don’t. I skim through all of that. So why did I pick up the book?

Karl Ove Knausgaard had made me very uneasy about the way I’d been complaining, in many recent entries here, about having grown up an adopted child. There is nothing in my history to have warranted the dread with which Knausgaard approached his father — or, more often, which he felt whenever his father approached him. More to the point — the point being my claim that I was never understood by my mother — Knausgaard’s father never even troubled to understand his two boys. Why should he? He was the father, and it was up to them to understand him, to understand that he was a serious disciplinarian. Books 3 and 4 of My Struggle are so graphic about the misfit between natural parent and child that they almost make the adoption racket’s claim, that children can flourish in any healthy environment, persuasive. I came away from Knausgaard with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d been bellyaching.

Solomon’s book promised even more graphic examples. He has a chapter on child prodigies — couldn’t I really explain the gulf between my mother and me as a matter of raw intelligence? (In fact, I do. I just don’t let it go at that.) My father, I think, understood me pretty well, and even if he wasn’t sympathetic to my way of life (which was simply not a way of life at all, in his view, but merely a way of goofing off), he was never hostile, which my mother often was. I could quite conceivably have been born to such a couple.

Chastened by these thoughts, I resolved to swallow the medicine.

It’s much too soon to tell how Far From the Tree will shape my thoughts about adoption, but it has already revised my ideas about “identity,” a concept for which I have never had much patience. And it has introduced, in this revision, an analytical tool that I know will be helpful to me in my thinking about society. This tool is the distinction between vertical and horizontal characteristics. Homosexuality is the classic horizontal characteristic, because it is rarely shared between parent and child. Solomon’s discussion of this, in terms of his relation with his mother, is both lucid and open-ended. He understands that his mother sincerely believed that her son would be happier as a straight man, but he also knows that she did not like seeing herself as the mother of a gay man. For both of these reasons, she would have preferred a vertical alignment, one featuring heterosexuality.

Similarly, my mother wanted me to prosper in the world, and she also did not want to be associated with a subversive, possibly sadistic intellectual. (I used to think it was just my mother, but I’ve learned that bright people in any age are commonly thought to be cruel, because they argue “painful” positions.)

If I’m still disinclined to regard sexuality as an identity, that’s because identity, insofar as it concerns me at all, is a public mask, and sexuality is private. What proves my point is the tremendous shift in standards for same-sex affectionate public behavior. Twenty years ago, the sight of two grown men holding hands in the street was shockingly unconventional. Now it’s merely unusual in certain neighborhoods. Conventions are nothing if not malleable. Behavior formerly regarded as gay has become loving.

Solomon doesn’t talk much about conventions, except to deplore regrettable ones. I’m going to keep them in mind while I read his now fascinating book.

***

Yesterday, I mentioned that The Woman In White read almost as a completely new book the second time around. I can’t say the same of The Pillow Book, for several reasons. I’ve always kept a copy close-by, and I’ve opened it now and then to enjoy one of Sei Shonagon’s discriminating lists. Infuriating Things. Things That Should Be Small. Things That Prove Disillusioning. So charming, so Japanese, so ancient. The Pillow Book is one of those shibboleths for sophisticated people: because it is not generally taught in school, one comes across it in an accidental way — preferably by word of mouth from other sophisticated people. And you can just read the lists.

Which is what I’ve done. I’ve never actually read The Pillow Book through. I’ve always tended to give the long anecdotal entries a pass, largely because I can’t be bothered to find out who’s being talked about. Grand Counselor Yamanoi. Acting Captain Narinobu. Consultant Sukemasa. I blame Sei Shonagon for that. Specific men appear in her pages only to engage in raillery or to compete at poetry composition. (Undifferentiated men appear in amorous vignettes, and Sei Shonagon’s complaints about them are possibly the most familiar, today-sounding aspect of The Pillow Book.) We are given no idea of what these men do when they are not dallying with the empress’s ladies. Once, we see them at archery practice. “How boring,” say the ladies, moving on.

In her introduction to this translation, Meredith McKinney makes clear, in her introduction, the extent to which The Pillow Book is an exercise in looking at the bright side of things; she tells us what Sei Shonagon rigorously overlooked. Fujiwara Teishi, the empress whom she served, was, as was usual in these cases, the daughter of the Regent, a shogun-like figure who ran things while the emperor performed ceremonial functions. When this gentleman died, Teishi and her brothers lost power and influence to their uncle, Fujiwara Michinaga. Teishi was displaced by his daughter and her cousin, Soshi. One almost thinks Teishi fortunate in dying in childbirth shortly thereafter.

When I first encountered The Pillow Book, I naively thought that it recorded the life of a sophisticated, highly aesthetic court of nobility. In fact it ignores the thuggery of the top men, who never went anywhere without their “retainers.” Eventually, power would be seized from the court-bound Fujiwara and contested by provincial magnates, beginning Japan’s “medieval” period. But it would be a mistake to think that tough guys replaced cosmopolites.

One reason for regarding the Heian nobility as “advanced” is the richness of court costume, which imprinted cultural values on uniforms. Colors, patterns, textures, and fabrics were all richly associated with the seasons, with the cosmological relation of the emperor and his court to the natural world, and with status markers either borrowed or adapted from Chinese usage. The two most valued materials in The Pillow Book are both perishable: textiles and paper. (Let’s not forget reed blinds!) Precious metals and jewels are all but unknown. Porcelain is not much remarked upon. More than once, I’ve thought of the Heian court as not very distant cousins of those Native Americans who used to be called Plains Indians.

The pavilion that housed the empress often seems like a large tent. There are few rooms as we would call them, and most living takes place in “aisles,” covered verandas in which  numbers of women slept, often with male lovers, separated only by screens and blinds. I am never quite sure that I understand how it all worked. Aside from the wittiness, which, although couched in references that no longer ring any bells, remains apparent, almost everything else in The Pillow Book is simply bizarre, at least until you’ve read The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris’s book-length explanation. And even then. How’s this for fancy:

I do hate the sight of some swarthy, slovenly-looking woman with a hairpiece, laying about in broad daylight with a scrawny man with hair sprouting from his face. What kind of a picture do they think they make, lounging there for all to see? Of course this is not to say that they should stay sitting upright all night for fear people will find them disgusting — no one can see them when it’s dark, and besides, everyone else indulges in the same thing at night The decent thing to do is to get up early once it’s morning. [...] How dreary for two such people to have to look each other in the face when they get up! (104)

Ew!

***

Friday 14th

Dear Diary: Getting more relaxed by the minute. The other night, the louvered door to the laundry closet came off its mount and nearly knocked me down. I managed to pick it up and carry it off to a corner; I’ve a hunch that Ray Soleil will be able to fix it when he comes out next weekend. Taking a shower, I felt something in the ball of my big toe. About this I worried a bit more than the door. Had I stepped on something in the short space between the bedroom and the bath? Would I have to visit the island clinic in the morning, to prevent a recurrence of last year’s catastrophe? Within the hour, I felt nothing; Kathleen can take a look at it tonight. She and her brother are coming out on a late-afternoon ferry. I’m about ready for some company.

Last night, I went to Maguire’s at six and got a table to myself outside on the terrace, even though the place was packed. (There were a few other empty tables, but only a few.) Thursday is Lobsterpalooza night at Maguire’s, so I got that out of my system. The plastic bib broke, as it always does, and I dropped a spot of butter on my shorts, but I emerged without making too much of a mess, and plus I was stuffed. I had to ask them to wrap up a claw. Lobster is so much work! More and more, I find myself making menu choices that  entail  operations no more advanced than cutting food into pieces. I particularly avoid anything that is likely to drip. But it has been four years since my last lobster dinner at Maguire’s, plenty of time for it to sound like a fun idea again. Actually, I really liked the clam chowder at the start, even though I’m not sure that it’s actually made in the kitchen.

Back at the house, I finished The Pillow Book. On the back of Meredith McKinney’s Penguin edition, there’s a finely contradictory bit of marketing copy: “A fascinating exploration of life amongst the nobility at the height of idyllic Heian period, it describes the exquisite pleasures of a confned world in which poetry, love, fashion and whim dominated, and harsh reality was kept firmly at a distance.” I can almost see McKinney rolling her eyes. Idyllic? If so, then what harsh reality? Did those exquisite pleasures really dominate? They dominate The Pillow Book, yes; but that makes the book something of a fantasy. It is a fantasy that the Japanese have kept alive for a thousand years.

I shouldn’t say, however, that The Pillow Book offers much in the way of an exploration of love. Sei Shonagon never describes the pleasure of being with a lover. The pleasure, if any, begins afterward, when the lover has departed into the night. With luck, there will be a moon, and the woman — Sei Shonagon always displaces this experience into the third person — can gaze into the moonlight and savor her amorous memories. It sometimes seems as though she wouldn’t even bother with love if it didn’t culminate in the treat of a morning-after letter. In Entry 181, she presents, almost as a sublimated sexual fantasy, a scene that no gentlewoman could possibly witness: “It is delightful to see,” the entry begins, “someone who’s a great ladies’ man, and is pursuing numerous love affairs, arriving home at dawn from who knows what night-time tryst.” She goes on to rhapsodize about the gallant’s composition of his love note. She doesn’t tell us what he writes, only that he “puts his heart and soul” into it — as, presumably, only a practiced philanderer can. But she tells us what he’s wearing, and how carefully he grinds the ink, &c &c. After he sends the note, he loiters in his study, and even recites a sutra; but Sei Shonagon (in her fantasy) catches him out — he is only waiting for his lady’s reply. This isn’t love; it’s choreography.

Needless to say, naked bodies are unmentioned. It’s important to be attractive, but it’s more important to be well-dressed. Very well dressed. Sei Shonagon’s relentless focus on the choice of costume mirrors her studied appreciation of the spontaneous deployment of classic poetry. With her dozens of lists, she is recognizable as a modern-day curator. Indeed, if you wanted to make The Pillow Book “relevant” to callow readers, you could teach it as “The Sei Shonagon Collection.” It reads much more easily that way than it does as an account of a distant culture whose political underpinnings the author is determined to repress. Indeed, it is difficult to confront The Pillow Book as a whole without thinking of Versailles in the 1780s: Marie-Antoinette at her fake little farm.

I think that this entry has gone on long enough; I ought to start a new one. Meanwhile, bon weekend â tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Limits of Relief
31 July 2015

The end of July has become the end of the year for us. Next week, we’ll go out to Ocean Beach, on Fire Island, where I’ll settle for the rest of August. Just before Labor Day, we’ll come home and start the new year.

If we had known what lay ahead for the new year last year — well, if we’d known it all, we’d have taken it in stride. We’d know that the cellulitis in my left calf, caused by a deep cut, would be arrested before the onset of sepsis. We’d know that the apartment situation would work out nicely. We’d know that Kathleen would end the new year at a new firm, a move that in my view was almost disastrously overdue (and in this I was confirmed by events — that almost was a matter of weeks at most). But we didn’t know what lay ahead, so, as it all unfolded, sometimes at a glacial pace, we spent much of the new year in an atmosphere of alternating dread and crisis, crisis and dread.

We got through it. But my circulation took a beating, so I hope that we’re done with upheaval for a while.

***

The thing is, relief isn’t what it used to be.

First of all, we don’t really trust it, not the way we did when we were young. When we were young, we’d jump up and down and yell, Hooray! Nothing terrible is ever going to happen again! Now, we’re not at all sure that it’s really over. (And we know that terrible things are going to happen again.)

As if to illustrate the point, the doorbell just rang. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard it, over the rush of water coming from the adjacent bathroom, where the woman who does our serious housecleaning is freshening the tub. Because I’ve learned, finally, that the best way to deal with a bad situation is to stand up and grip it as quickly and calmly as possible, I got out of my chair and went to the front door, half anticipating the pleasure of having been mistaken about the bell. But when I opened the door, someone was there, someone holding something — of course, the orchid from the florist, usually delivered on the first of the month. I’d thought about canceling it, since I won’t be here for most of the time, but Kathleen will spend some of the weeknights in the apartment, and it seemed easier not to fuss. So I didn’t. And of course I’d forgotten about it. They say that you can’t feel hypertension, but I can. It will take a while to abate.

Second, relief puts an end, whether you want it to or not, to the charade of normality that you have been keeping up for the near and dear. Our friends knew about our situation, but they did not, I hope, see very much in the way of fretting. Why should we saddle them with that? (Kathleen and I spent a great deal of the year by ourselves for this reason.)

Third, relief is for everybody else. Our friends are happy that things have worked out; they don’t have to worry about us now. But our habit of keeping to ourselves has had consequences; our friends, not hearing from us as much as usual, reasonably assume that we’re busy doing other things. And it’s not that we need company, exactly. But it has been a long time since I last looked at my inbox so needily. It is almost always empty.

Finally, relief exposes the utter depletion of reserves, which takes us back to the first thing about relief: we don’t trust it. We don’t trust it, and we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to cope with new problems. Ergo, there is no call for relief!

***

All the difficulties that we had in the year just ended involved challenges to our control. Short of serious illness (but then, illness is also the perfect example), the loss of control is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; it is the welcome mat to the loss of a way of life. If you cannot manage your affairs, if you cannot avoid the interference of people with conflicting plans for the space that you occupy, then you fail. If, as in our case, the challenges involve housing and income (plus, I was in the hospital!), the scope of possible failure is close to total. The way of life to which you might be reduced might very well look like a paradise to someone a lot less lucky, but to lose one’s way of life is at any level a trauma. And of course it happens to everyone who lives long enough.

I saw Mr Holmes the other day. It’s a very satisfying picture, as well as what’s called a “feel-good” movie. I bring it up now to discuss Ian McKellen’s two performances. Yes, two. He plays Sherlock Holmes at 63, and Sherlock Holmes at 93. At 63, Holmes is on the late side of the prime of life, and it’s nice to see that Sir Ian, who is more than ten years older than that, seems to be in the same good shape. He gleams with a platinum soundness that makes youth look raw and unstable. He is very much in control.

But for the Sherlock Holmes of the present frame of the narrative, in the now of 1947, 63 was thirty years ago. The older Holmes has just returned from a voyage to Japan, in search of an ash tree whose leaves (or perhaps bark?) just might provide a drug that will arrest the decay of his memory. (A long-time bee-keeper, Holmes has given up on the alleged powers of royal jelly.) The former ace detective has taken to writing names on his shirt-cuffs, so that he won’t seem rude. He is also trying to recall the details of his last case — his failure in which caused him to retire from the field. What happened? All he knows is that John Watson’s account of it, which has been filmed, is bosh.

Holmes at 93 is not in control. He is slowly falling apart, which is to say that he looks like someone who is falling apart even when he isn’t. His face has lost its distinction, and his mouth appears to have a life of its own, his lips pursing as if quite helplessly to suck. His eyes are dulled by what seems to be distraction; he is no longer looking at the world around him. Instead, he is rummaging through the collapsed mineshaft of a faulty memory. Everything about Holmes suggests that sheer inertia is propelling his life. His body has taken over.

The actor has clearly been thinking about his own future, should he be lucky enough to experience it. And he and the filmmakers have a bit of hope to offer: the best medicine for old age is the company of a lively, good-natured child who asks a lot of questions.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
No Complaints
30 July 2015

Complaining about literature does not appeal to me. I prefer to observe an old legal maxim, which is too symmetrically cute in Latin not to state: Inclusio unius est exclusio alterius. (Not very sophisticated, is it. Nothing with est in it ever is.) What it means is that the statement of one thing implies the exclusion of other, unstated things. Let’s say that all the DBR entries, taken together, constitute what I have to say about books and such. They may be said to indicate, by exclusion, that the authors whom I never mention, whose works I never discuss, simply don’t appeal to me. I also happen to believe that, by and large, the reasons for their failure to appeal to me are not very interesting, at least as literary criticism.

When I’m writing about myself, however, it’s quite different. Writing about myself gives me the license to describe, for example what a torture Moby-Dick is to read, the disgust with Melville’s dreadful writing, adolescent intellectualisms, and depressingly anti-social spirit that caused me to put down the book two-thirds of the way through. I really don’t know which is worse: Moby-Dick itself, or the reputation that twentieth-century critics, trying to counter what they feared was a feminizing trend in literature, crafted for what was by then a rather neglected book. (Melville’s contemporaries didn’t think much of Moby-Dick, either.) But I don’t talk about Moby-Dick itself except to complain about what those critics wrought when they hoisted twaddle as a model.

This is by way of making it clear that nothing in what follows is to be taken as complaint about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 4: Dancing in the Dark. My argument is with Knausgaard’s younger self, not with the way in which the mature writer presents him.

At the beginning of this book, the narrator is eighteen. He already knows that he wants to be a writer. He gives us a list of the writers he admires. That is what I am going to complain about: the preferences of a high-school graduate. The author whom that narrator grew up to become, the Karl Ove Knausgaard who is nowadays closer to fifty than to forty, does not write like Jack Kerouac or J D Salinger. It has been a very long time since I last looked at Charles Bukowski, but I’d be surprised to perceive any signs of the American poet’s influence on My Struggle — the very title of which constitutes, as I see it, a rejection of the following aesthetic:

Books about young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life’s Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.

Everything they wanted I wanted too.

The great longing, which was ever-present in my breast, was dispelled when I read these books, only to return with tenfold strength the moment I put them down. It had been like that all the way through my latter years at school. I hated all authority, was an opponent of the whole bloody streamlined society I had grown up in, with its bourgeois values and materialistic view of humanity. I despised what I had learned at gymnas, even the stuff about literature; all I needed to know, all true knowledge, the only really essential knowledge as to be found in the books I read and the music I listened to. I wasn’t interested in money or status symbols; I knew that the essential value in life lay elsewhere. I didn’t want to study, had no wish to receive an education at a conventional institution like a university, I wanted to travel down through Europe, sleep on beaches, in cheap hotels, or at the homes of friends I made on the way. Take odd jobs to survive, wash plates at hotels, load or unload boats, pick oranges … That spring I had bought a book containing conceivable, and inconceivable, kind of job you could get in various European countries. But all of this was to culminate in a novel. I would sit writing in a Spanish village, go to Pamplona and run with the bulls, continue on down to Greece and sit writing on one of the islands and then, after a year or two, return to Norway with a novel in my rucksack. (3)

Alas, the realization of this grandly shambolic vision was to be thwarted, as we’re cued only a few pages later, by a quite different dream that also held the young Karl Ove in thrall: a passion for looking sharp in cool clothes and hanging out at discos, getting drunk and groping pretty girls. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggle was not between an idealistic youth and bourgeois society, but rather between the impulses of heroism and hedonism.

Why do I say alas?

***

Knausgaard is about twenty years younger than I am, which I point out as a way of suggesting that, when I was eighteen, this aesthetic — and please note that that’s what it is; it’s not a political program — was newer, fresher, and even more insistent. I see now, for the first time, that it was really just an updating of the old stories about knights slaying dragons, only with scruffy clothes instead of armor, and with balding bankers and discontented housewives instead of dragons, but it seemed new in 1960 because its animus was directed at things that really were new: household appliances, suburban ranchettes, bloated automobiles, and the maintenance of wives whose participation in the working world would be frowned upon. The moral and spiritual emptiness of this package, paying for which could tie a man down forever and crush the life out of him, was manifest. I don’t argue with that. I was there; I remember. I hope never again to see meretriciousness on that scale again. But to respond by writing angry novels while crashing on other people’s sofas never struck me as a better alternative. You could suffer in dishonest style, or you could suffer in honest discomfort. When I was growing up, these were the only apparent choices. It was godawful.

Then, the world turned. The world of dishonest style was broken, along with its legal and political underpinnings. People with alternatives to the WASP ascendancy other than becoming a beach bum stepped forward and insisted on changes, most notably the equalization of former “minorities.” Authority was questioned by people who had no intention of writing scathing novels on Greek islands. None of the struggles launched since the Sixties has been fully achieved, but together they have created many new choices, and only a few of those choices are tailored to the daydreams of half-educated white males.

In short, the posture of protest that was assumed by the young Karl Ove’s literary heroes has become as ridiculous as Moby-Dick. There will still be plenty of young men to “drop out” of the “rat-race” — to use happily obsolete terms — but their experiences will be of little interest to anyone else. There is nothing admirable in self-imposed poverty, unless of course it is in the service of others (requiring a selflessness unimaginable to young novelists), and the glamor of excess followed by rehab has been shredded almost to destruction. There is nothing new about the life-cycle of the wastrel. All that has happened is that we have given up on the idea that the wastrel might be somehow wise.

Criticizing bourgeois society — and it certainly has its faults — is a matter for political thought, not aesthetic response.

***

For the second day in a row, I have tried to use Knausgaard’s novel as a ramp to more personal territory, only to run out of time (or energy) before covering the ground. Yesterday, I meant to marvel at the intimate ambiguity of Karl Ove’s childhood, sometimes so like my own but mostly utterly unlike it. Today, I hoped to discuss at greater length — as my principal topic — the stultifying, as it were radioactive, impact of the Cold War on the humane imagination; an impact, by the way, that, looking back, I don’t think anyone overcame, not so long as the Cold War raged. This by way of toying with my favorite question: why has it taken me so long to get to where I am now? This would be opposite to the inquiry that the young Karl Ove proposed to write about (perhaps if only in being an inquiry), but perhaps it would be just as self-involved as a book by Philip Roth. I should hope not, because I’m more interested in the “historical forces” (ie changing social possibilities) that would explain my tardiness than I am in the fact that I’ve finally made it. It’s interesting to me that Knausgaard began writing My Struggle within a year of my remastering the model of this Web site, developments that emphasize our being contemporaries, rather than members of different generations.

One of these days, I shall have to begin an entry in medias res.

Reading Note:
Saved
29 July 2015

For a number of years, my old friend Fossil Darling used to spend a few hours every weekend walking a dog, a yellow lab nicknamed Lula, in Central Park. The dog belonged to neighbors who were either too busy or too infirm to keep up with Lula’s puppydog enthusiasm, a trait that in her case was unaccompanied by brains. Afterwards, Fossil would call me up and regale me with delightful anecdotes of the day’s outing — delightful to him. I winced whenever he described Lula’s raptures in the muckier margins of the Lake, and his own delight at being covered with muck when Lula returned to his side and shook herself off. At first, I suspected that Lula had bitten Fossil, and infected him with her idiocy. Later, I suspected that it was the other way round.

I’ve been reminded of Lula by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the principal character in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 3: Boyhood. In addition to the dramatically foreshadowed career as a writer who will not have left the world as he found it, Karl Ove is something of a strange duck. As he himself will tell you, tell anybody; just try to keep him from shouting it, he is very good in school, or at school. He’s only second best at math, but he’s best at all the other stuff. When his mother forbids comic books in the fourth grade, he reads library books instead, many of them classics that most kids won’t read until they have to, in college.

This learned and literate persona is at odds with the Lula side of his personality. If I remember My Struggle 2 correctly, Karl Ove will grow up to play soccer well enough for other players to want him on their teams, and presumably he is not inept as a child; but he seems to lack the gifts for every other kind of sport, as well as for defending himself in schoolyard fights, even though he is taller than most of the boys. And when he takes to mischief, the reader reflexively murmurs, oh, no…

But before we get to the mischief, we must understand two things about Karl Ove. First, he has an ogre of a father. To put it another way, the father has serious anger management issues. From time to time — there’s no predicting when — the father is overcome by a hostile, suspicious spirit that fills his eyes with a menacing gleam. All too often, these spells coincide with some sort of lapse or misbehavior that Karl Ove has tried hard to hide. These efforts at concealment, however, invariably alert the father’s radar. The physical aspect of the ensuing ordeal is usually limited to twisting Karl Ove’s ears and pulling him about the house, but child abuse does not require broken bones. The sound of the man’s “heavy step” upon the stair strikes almost as much fear into the reader’s heart as it does Karl Ove’s.

The other little detail is Karl Ove’s Christianity. This is, quite literally, the saving of him. There are, to be sure, aspects of meekness in Karl Ove’s makeup. He is naturally sympathetic, and one suspects that the lack of “strength” that allows other boys to pin him to the ground is more a lack of interest in fighting; I can’t recall an instance of Karl Ove’s trying to pin down anybody else. And it takes less than nothing to make Karl Ove cry. His eyes don’t shed so much as they hemorrhage tears. But then, one sick day, Karl Ove reads a book “published by a Christian company,” and is transfigured by the tale, which concerns a boy whose father has died and who must support his mother by foraging, a necessity that exposes him to the hateful attentions of a gang of bullies.

Not only did they hound and beat up this boy who was so different from them, they swore and stole as well and the inequity of this gang’s successes, in the light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the unfairness of it, I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to become a good person. From then on I would perform good deeds, help where I could, and never do anything wrong. I began to call myself a Christian. I was nine years old, there was no one else in my close vicinity who called himself a Christian, neither Mom nor Dad nor the parents of any of the other kids … and of course no young people, so it was a fairly solitary undertaking I initiated in Tybakken at the end of the seventies. I began to pray to God last thing at night and first thing in the morning. When, in the autumn, the others gathered to go apple scrumping down in Gamle Tybakken I told them not to go, I told them stealing was wrong. I never said this to all of them at once, I didn’t dare, I was well aware of the difference between group reactions, when everyone incited each other to do something or other, and individual reactions, when each person was forced to confront an issue head-on with no hiding place in a deindividuated crowd, and said to each one that apple scrumping was wrong, think about it, you don’t have to do it. But I didn’t want to be alone, so I accompanied them, stopped by the gate, and watched them sneak across the age-old fields in the dusk, walked beside them as they scoffed apples on the way back, their winter jackets bulging with fruit, and if anyone offered me anything I always refused, because dealing was no better than stealing. (283-4)

Am I alone in finding this passage hilarious? It’s as though Woody Allen had become a sainte nitouche. The self-preserving self-satisfaction is too innocent to be unattractive, but it is ludicrous all the same, never more so than at the moment when, having been punished for something by his father and boiling with thirst for revenge, Karl Ove asks the What-Would-Jesus-Do question and decides to forgive. This could be intolerably cloying, but Knausgaard knows how to capture the ridiculous angle. I would perform good deeds … and never do anything wrong. Over time, the scope of bad deeds narrows down to the use of  swear-words, which Karl Ove shuns, at least until the incident in the garbage dump with the beer bottle and a black beetle (299).

Nevertheless, piety does put a stop to lighting fires in the woods and dropping stones on passing cars. Karl Ove is simply not cut out for a life of crime. He is the one who always gets caught, and, childish delusions notwithstanding, he is incapable of dissembling. When a particularly large stone connects with the roof of a sedan, buckling it but just missing the windshield, Karl Ove is transfixed by the enormity of what he has done. As always, he is immobilized by panic. Rooted to the ground, he is quickly accosted by the furious driver, and of course he gives his actual name and address. By the same token, he does not tell his parents what has happened; he keeps hoping that the driver will forget to call, and in fact so much time goes by that he begins to think that he may have gotten away with it. So they hear it from the driver first. What a cluck this kid is! Only Jesus can keep him out of trouble.

***

There is a je ne sais quoi about My Struggle — a lightness of touch, an air almost of inconsequence, of causes without effects — that one might associate with a book about childhood, especially a book about childhood in a relatively poor country (albeit one on the verge of reaping great oil wealth) on the edge of the habitable world. Electronic appliances and automobiles aside, it could all be taking place in the 1880s. But I attribute this simplicity to something else, to a tremendous resistance on Knausgaard’s part to the vernacular of Freud. What’s missing from My Struggle is what I think Tom Wolfe called the “hydraulics” of Freudian theory — pressures: the repressions, the suppressions, the expressions, explosive or neurotic, of psychic forces. Even the simplicity is a mirage; what’s missing is not complexity but mechanism, the if-then necessities that make machines work the way we want them to. If Karl Ove suffers from abominable conceit, then his friendship with happy-go-lucky Geir is not necessarily doomed. Human beings remain unpredictable except in one respect: they display an all but overwhelming desire to get along with their nearest and dearest, whether they understand them or not. Even when no one is really being “good enough.” It is a hard world, but it is obstinately sociable. Much of what Knausgaard presents is what we have lost to therapies and devices.

Page de Cahier:
On Chinatown
28 July 2015

The other night, we watched Chinatown. It had been haunting Kathleen, spontaneously coming to mind — lines here (“Get the girl”), scenes there (the boy on the pony) — for several days. When she first mentioned this to me, Kathleen thought that actually watching the movie would be too disturbing, but I convinced her that it would be the only way to lay the spectre to rest — the spectre of Evelyn Mulwray, whom, every time, Kathleen hopes will drive far off into the night, but who never does.

Chinatown has become famous for its screenplay, which is credited to Robert Towne, but which director Roman Polanski apparently edited rather heavily. The magic of the plot is its growing ambiguity. What begins as a story about corruption in Los Angeles’s water-management department shades into a case of incest. The water problem obviously effects everybody, to some degree; beyond a handful of people, the incest is nobody’s business. Somehow the same detective finds himself investigating both, and the vast disproportion in scale between these plot lines — the one immense, but abstract; the other intensely, horribly personal — creates a tension that the film exploits well. (Polanski would repeat the trick with The Ghost Writer.) The scenario is alternatively expansive and intimate, and it ends with a dreadfully intimate embrace in public. But since this happens in Chinatown, there are no consequences — the public there doesn’t matter.

Having many times observed Chinatown as a magnificent infernal machine, I tried to sit back and watch it naively, as if I didn’t know what was coming next. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It entails soaking up a scene for all it can tell you. With a little practice, you experience a rush of visual details that effectively blocks the recollection of prior viewings. What I took in this time, along with a renewed sense of the film’s striking beauty, was the power of Faye Dunaway’s performance.

“And Jack Nicholson’s,” you’ll say. But I don’t say. Nicholson is perfect as the detective, but he is also an Everyman, a stand-in for all of us. He’s sympathetic, but he’s not extraordinary; we wouldn’t like him if he were. Dunaway is extraordinary. She is like a star from the studio days. She is as volcanic as Nicholson is cool. Dunaway has the chops of a great tragédienne, but she knows how to tune them down for the silver screen, how to overflow the brim of her goblet without getting anybody wet. It’s a great gift. In other movies that are favorites of mine, The Eyes of Laura Mars and Mommie Dearest, hers is unquestionably the leading role, and her brilliance is certainly not surprising. In Chinatown, she is a co-star but it might be better to regard her as a supporting actress, if only in the sense that she supports Jack Nicholson. As the film proceeds, Evelyn Mulwray becomes more interested in Jake Gittes, with the result that Jake Gittes becomes more interesting himself, or at any rate less the generic hard-boiled gumshoe that we expect in these productions. It provokes a performance that ends with a living-dead gaze that Hemingway would have been proud to describe.

Also along the way, Dunaway creates a female space — a place that men cannot touch. Evelyn has built this space as a redoubt against her terrible family dynamics, and Dunaway brings it into the movie. The other women in Chinatown accept the fate of living in a man’s world. There aren’t very many of them, just Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) and Sophie the secretary (Nandu Hinds). Evelyn’s sister/daughter, Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer), is a special case. Katherine has only one distinct line: she says “Hello” to Gittes. This verbal silence, this limitation of Katherine to sobs and wails, leaves it Evelyn to articulate the darkness, which she does while betraying the horror with involuntary gestures, such as stumbling over the word “father” and crossing her breasts with her arms when she learns that Gittes has seen her father. The film bestows all the grand accoutrements of studio-era womanliness upon Evelyn Mulwray, and then strips her of them with a brutality that Dunaway fully registers — again, without overdoing things. I spent a lot of time watching her eyes. (These are almost comic in the nursing-home scene, popping out to dessert-plate size as Evelyn takes in Gittes’s improvisatory genius.) Unlike a compleat film goddess, Evelyn responds and reacts to Gittes: this is what I mean by Dunaway’s supporting Nicholson. Although stupendously attractive, Dunaway’s Evelyn remains a woman of mortal endowments. She does not know everything, and she cannot see around corners. Indeed, the key of the performance is that, as the climax approaches, Dunaway reveals that she is a damsel in distress.

I kept thinking of Bette Davis — not that Davis was ever permitted to play a role as raw and rotten and yet completely sympathetic as Evelyn Mulwray. Chinatown would have been unthinkable in the studio era. And I’m not just thinking of the censorship. Those great dramas of the late Thirties and the Forties, to my mind the first crop of great movies (I find the adoration of silent movies bizarre), were made by men and women who hadn’t grown up watching anything like them: they were making everything up. It took a few generations to produce filmmakers who knew every trick as if by instinct, and who could present complex screenplays without complication. The list of great “old” movies is impressive; after watching Chinatown, Kathleen and I named an easy dozen, from LA Confidential and Mulholland Falls to Quiz Show and Billy Bathgate, from Seabiscuit to Public Enemy. You can do it, too.

Why did Hollis and Evelyn Mulwray have to die? Was it because Noah Cross wanted to regain control of the water system, or possession of his unfortunate offspring? He wanted both, but which was more important? To consider either answer as the winner is to be pestered to botheration by the other. Chinatown knows no peace.

Reactionaries at Play:
The Nobs Did It
27 July 2015

Increasingly, we see the two world wars of the first half of the Twentieth Century as parts of a whole, as detached installments of a single horror. As our distance from the conflicts increases, we recognize with ever-greater clarity the extent to which the Great War (1914-1918) left unfinished business, or even created new business, for Bellona and her minions to sort out in World War II. Everybody knows that perceived inequities in the Treaty of Versailles, which transformed an armistice into a defeat for Germany, rankled badly enough for Nazi thugs to work massive discontent to their advantage. Someday, these wars will be given a collective name, and be thereafter known as one thing.

But first, we have to understand why they happened.

Each one begins, I think, with that mystery: why? Why did the “July crisis” result in declarations of war between countries ruled by cousins? Why did France fall? As I have nothing to do but let such questions tumble in my unoccupied brain, it does not altogether surprise me that not only have I arrived at what feel like answers to these questions, but that they are the same answer.

Before proceeding further, I want to thank Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s Number Two, who famously observed (or did he?) that, even in 1972, it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is understood to have put an end to aristocratic privilege in the West. A class of hereditary nobles that had hitherto been subject to laws very different from, and in most cases much lighter than, those imposed on ordinary people, lost its claim to special treatment. By and large, this is indeed what happened. But there was an exception, an area of public life from which the aristocracy did not fade: the military. Europe’s aristocracy was composed, of course, of the descendants of medieval warriors, but it is easy to overlook that, while many of those descendants became pampered hedonists who couldn’t be bothered to defend anything beyond their own personal honor, the armed forces of Europe were always overseen by members of the nobility. Monarchs exerted increasing control over military affairs, but they never displaced the men who had been brought up to fight on horseback. A compromise was worked out (in most jurisdictions): only competent aristocrats were allowed to make important decisions, and talented yeoman were inducted into the nobility from time to time. This arrangement survived the trauma of 1789, even in France. An “officer,” if not a bluebood, was expected to be a “gentleman” — that is, a man with an unearned income that allowed him to hone his martial skills. The cadets in officer-training schools usually came from propertied families. In the United States, the service academies admitted only those young men recommended by Senators; in an ostensibly classless society, it would be difficult to mirror the mechanics of Old-World military privilege more effectively.

From the first sound of the tocsin that preceded the guns of August, 1914, it has been asked why the cousins who sat on the thrones of Europe did not prevent the war. The question itself is telling. Russia aside, each of the Great War’s belligerents was a democracy of some kind. Notwithstanding the crowned heads, all had elected assemblies headed by powerful ministers. It was not up to the kings to say “no” to war. Curiously, however, the ministers don’t seem to have been any more in favor of hostilities. The standard way to resolve this puzzle is to point to mounting anxieties over arms buildups that, in the flashpoint of Serbian responsibility for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (or at least its complacency), pushed somebody or other into making a bad judgment. Some like to blame Kaiser Wilhelm II, a very childish man, for handing Austria a “blank check” (unconditional support for any campaign against Serbia), while others go after the weak Tsar, Nikolai II, who consented to the mobilization (or “semi-mobilization” — you can no more be “semi-mobilized” than you can be “semi-pregnant”) that did indeed trigger the German declaration of war. Round and round go the explanations and the accusations. Reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s terrific study of the run-up to the war, I found it impossible not to blame the Serbians, who, in Clark’s telling, seemed to be perfectly aware of playing with dynamite.

When the dust settled after the Great War, the kings were mostly swept away, and the titles of their aristocratic subjects were just as empty. This is a major motif in the anthem of loss that commemorates the way of life that failed to survive the war — a life that was gracious and leisured for those who could afford it, but also glamorized by titled ladies in large hats. Princesses and countesses were received at courts — there were still courts. Courts had marginal political power, but they were the clubhouses of the military leadership: the real men at any courtly function were wearing uniforms. Why, then, would these brilliant assemblages have committed suicide or fratricide by going to war against each another?

As to suicide, no one could be sure that that was would happen; and, of all people, aristocratic generals would be the last to foresee such an outcome.

As to fratricide, to ask the question is to misunderstand the aristocratic mind. From the beginning, aristocrats were the fighting class. That is what they did. As usual, my mind runs blank on specific examples, but there are plenty of stories about two knights, brought up from birth in the deepest friendship but consigned by indelible allegiances to opposed liege lords, who dutifully hacked away at one another in battle, as brutally as possible but with tears streaming down their cheeks. To the aristocratic mind, such stories have a happy ending.

In any case, the fight would not be gratuitous. It would, if successful, undermine those democratic regimes, putting an end to the deplorable influence of the shopkeepers of the third estate. It was even conceivable — just — that an even earlier dream of the aristocracy might be achieved: the unwinding of royal authority and centralized government. Once again, aristocrats might be the only truly free men on earth. Free, even, of the nationalities that they bore under protest. Kings and ministers were bound to their sovereignties, to the conceptual boundaries that demarcated the different countries of Europe. But an aristocrat was the lord of his acres, and his acres weren’t going anywhere.

There was no need for a plot, no need for conscious decisions. There was no need for collective action of any kind. All the noble generals had to do was frighten kings and ministers with tall tales about the other armies and what they might do. Their implicit message was : Rest assured, Sire, that I shall make it clear that I told you so. And this is exactly what they all did, those chiefs of staff, quite as if reading from a common script. There was no script, but there was a shared spirit, and it was this spirit that drove the nations of Europe into a war that, individualists that they were, the aristocrats were wrong about: it couldn’t be won by anybody.

Why, in June of 1940, did the French leadership, a cohort of politicians and industrialists, decide that France could only lose to a German offensive? I claim no great powers of discernment in presenting my answer, for it is a quotation from a book.

As for Reynaud [the French prime minister], he had called into his government Ybarnegaray and Marin, two reactionaries whose only surface virtue was a blustering show of war spirit. Raised to power by Socialist votes, Reynaud had turned toward men whom he trusted because they were of his own Rightist background — Pétain, Mandel, Ybarnegaray, Marin. All his Rightest friends except Mandel joined in smothering him. They felt that making war against Hitler he was betraying his own class.

This is AJ Liebling, whose report on the Fall of France appeared in the first two August, 1940 issues of The New Yorker. Liebling’s essential claim — that war with Hitler would be a betrayal of the soul of France — resonated deeply with me because of other things that I had read, especially Frederick Brown’s Fighting for the Soul of France, a history of the Third Republic through the Dreyfus case. I saw, beyond Liebling’s conclusions, that men like Pétain decided that it would be a good thing to let Hitler destroy, not France, but the Third Republic, a regime deeply hated by conservative Catholics, particularly those from titled families. As it happens, Liebling’s report is collected in an anthology of New Yorker writing from the Forties that also includes Janet Flanner’s profile of Marshal Pétain.

Now he was to have the undisputed, and for once undivided, glory of governing what was left of his beloved country, of leading her back, in a bitter penitence for her democracy and her defeat, to a restoration of the autocracy of her great seventeenth-century past, in which he thought her future still lay.

Sometimes, figuring things out is simply a matter of reading the right things at the right time. No effort required: understanding clicks into view.

Whatever they come to be called, the two world wars were wars launched against the political influence of ordinary people.

Dollars and Sense Dept:
Singularity
24 July 2015

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, there is a piece by Edmund Phelps, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Columbia Center on Capitalism and Society. He asks, “What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?” If I read it with cocked eyebrows, that’s because Columbia is the home of Glenn Hubbard, Bush family adviser and shill for financial rapine — also the dean of the B School there, I believe. (Hubbard ends his generally deer-in-headlights contribution to Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job with a hateful sneer.) As I read Phelps’s piece, though, I calmed down; Phelps’s goal, a society of mass flourishing, is clearly the right one. His brief discussion of economic inclusion struck me immediately as something that ought to be the subject of more political conversations.

I liked the way Phelps laid out the disappointments of capitalist democracy in the West. But when I got to his proposals for fixing things, for getting our economies back on track, I began emitting helpless noises, mostly whimpers but sometimes little screams. Nooooooo!

It’s not that Phelps’s ideas are bad. They’re just impossible. Totally impossible. Phelps seems to be unaware that the complex of technological innovations that we call the Industrial Revolution was a singularity. He seems to think that we can engineer another one.

I think of things that can’t happen again. The discovery of fire. The development of writing. You’ll say, “What about printing — surely that could be invented only once.” Technically true, perhaps, but as Andrew Pettegree shows in his important study, The Book in the Renaissance, printing launched a new business — publishing — that was beset by all sorts of marketing and distribution problems, and wouldn’t you know that many of these problems have recurred in our new digital age. The things that can’t be repeated aren’t technological breakthroughs so much as they are intellectual breakthroughs, real changes in human understanding of the world.

The Industrial Revolution was a complex of innovations each of which could be traced back to a single idea: the reproduction of things. Hitherto, artisans had created products that differed in minuscule but not insignificant ways. The screws that were made to hold one vessel together might not fit another vessel of the same kind, even one made by the same artisan. It didn’t seem to be very important. I’m not sure why it did become important — I suspect that the demands of scientific experiments, such as Lavoisier’s, for precision instruments were crucial — but I know that its importance emerged in the minds of technically sophisticated thinkers in the latter two-thirds of the Eighteenth Century. Rather than produce a thing, it became important to reproduce a model. It seems obvious now. Every iPhone is like every other, functionally identical in that it operates and can be repaired just like every other. But the goods produced before the Industrial Revolution were not uniform. This meant that the mathematical principles that governed, say, the operation of steam boilers might not apply equally to all steam boilers. With explosive results! The ever-expanding textile mills that blossomed on either side of 1800 depended on a uniformity of parts, so that they could run more or less autonomously, with no more supervision than an uneducated attendant could provide.

The railroads exemplified this singularity by demonstrating that a steady stream of replaceable parts could produce an all-but-infinite railroad. You could lay as much track, with uniform rails at a uniform gauge, with as many locomotive engines pulling as many railroad cars, as you might have need for. From Day One of animal husbandry until 1837, the possibilities of travel were absolutely limited by the speed and endurance of horses on land and the strength and persistence of winds at sea. Throughout early modern times, government-sponsored improvements in road conditions cut travel times between major cities by what seemed to be significant amounts, but these marginal improvements were blown to insignificance by the railroads. Not only did railroads cover distances much faster, but, even more, they carried orders of magnitude more passengers and goods.

The Industrial Revolution culminated with the harnessing of electric power, a breakthrough no less dependent upon the reproduction of goods. We often speak of mass production as if it were simply a matter of making a lot of things. But mass production is really the mass reproduction of one thing, always the same.

Are there more singularities ahead? Sure! Why not? But it is a terrible mistake to assume that somehow, if we roll up our sleeves, we can whip up another Industrial Revolution, and recreate the dynamism and innovation that Phelps calls for. We can tease out refinements, and indeed will continue to do just this for many years to come. But there will never be anything like the job creation that the Industrial Revolution engendered. And we should be glad about that, because those jobs were too often proto-robotic. They required workers to behave like machines. One of the final flowerings of the Industrial Revolution just might be the mass production of robots — by robots. But before we say goodbye to the Industrial Revolution, let’s remember that the discovery of microbes and the development of modern pharmaceuticals depended heavily on — you guessed it — the reproduction of models.

Does this mean that there won’t be any jobs? Not if we’re clever. Not if we can figure out how to “monetize” the task ahead — undoing all the damage of the Industrial Revolution!

We don’t need innovation in the field of making stuff. We need innovation in the field of sustaining, maintaining, and, in more cases than is desirable, discarding the stuff we make. We need to figure out how to pay people to do these things, which are just as vital and useful to all of us as the cotton mills and the railroads ever were and still are. We need breakthroughs in architecture and engineering. We need buildings and bridges that we can maintain and improve without ripping out walls or closing roads. Keeping things in good repair ought not to be as environmentally degrading as erecting them. (We’ll know that we’ve got where we need to be when a house can be built within a garden without the trampling of a single daffodil.) As I have said, we need to replace “Built to Last” with “Built to Upgrade.” And we need to make upgrading pay.

Maybe what we need is a breakthrough in the idea of Money.

The biggest difference between the Industrial Revolution for which Edmund Phelps is nostalgic and the Sustainable Revolution that can’t happen until we’ve stopped looking at the Industrial Revolution for inspiration is the colossal consumption of nonrenewable resources that fueled the Industrial Revolution. The wealth creation of the Industrial Revolution came at the cost of Earth depletion. That cannot be allowed to happen again, even were it possible.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Poems
23 July 2015

There is not much to say today. I am thinking about loss — and I have suffered very little of it.

I am thinking about loss because I am reading Colm Tóibín’s book about Elizabeth Bishop, and reading most of the poems to which he refers.

I had put off this project because of its gay-studies possibilities: sometimes, the focus on homosexuality expands discussions, but, more often, it seems to narrow them, and I often wish that Tóibín, one of our best critics, would consider the work of some non-homosexual writers who appeal to him — there must be a clutch.

As it turns out, On Elizabeth Bishop is not a gay-studies book, because, while he was working on it, Tóibín was surprised by a new recognition. He had thought that his youthful interest in certain writers, Bishop among them, was rooted in the problem, common to them, of alternative sexual preference, but there turned out to be something deeper and darker that he shared with them: the loss of a parent in childhood or adolescence.

I thought at once of William Maxwell, the central event of whose creative life was the death of his mother in the influenza epidemic that followed World War I. How great it would be if Colm Tóibín wrote about William Maxwell! There would even be the gay angle that is provided by The Folded Leaf, which some gay critics have adopted as a “gay novel.” Maxwell rather furiously insisted that this was not his intention, but such remarks, while interesting, are never dispositive.

Anyway, between William Maxwell and Tóibín on Bishop, I’ve been reading a lot about loss. I’ve learned, with a new crystal clarity, that loss provokes some people to recreate what they’ve lost in language that registers and accepts that loss.

***

How do you lose what you’ve never had? The question is absurd. And yet I did lose it. I lost it even as I was born, wrapped up and carried away forever from the woman who bore me. The protocol of the time suggests that she was never allowed to hold or even to see me, which would have been terrible for her but which also seems so shockingly inhuman to me, now, that the enormity of what I call the Adoption Racket overwhelms my ability to consider one woman’s grief. I try to imagine it, but I am interrupted by a visceral hatred for the people who, with the best intentions in the world, took her child away. And who took me away from her. What I lost was the company of my biological kin. Most people quite reasonably take this for granted. If it’s no bed of roses, it is almost everybody’s bed of whatever. It wasn’t just the loss of kin, either. It was the loss of the right to propose that my biological kin might have regarded me as strange. The adoption racketeers have always been able to find adopted children ready to insist that their adoptive parents were just as loving as birth parents could have been, and that they love their adoptive parents as much as if they were their birth parents, and so on. More credulous than I am now, I used to feel unlucky in this regard — my case hadn’t worked out so well.

And what the hell do I mean by that? I was fed, clothed, schooled, and sheltered as well as anybody ought to be. I was treated kindly and reasonably. My welfare was never overlooked for a second. So what am I whining about?

Well, I am not whining about Barbara and Bill Keefe, that’s for sure. They have my deepest sympathy, in fact: they’re the ones who were unlucky. They got the kid who looked sure to grow up to march with the Irish Guard at Notre Dame, but who so very much didn’t. Why, he didn’t even go to the games! One Saturday afternoon, in fact, he went to a poetry reading instead. What had they done?

And I can tell you why I’m not whining about the Adoption Racket, either, and why whining is not what I’m doing: I’m outraged by the brainless optimism, coupled with a willingness to do unspeakable, unnatural things, that characterized American policy in the Cold War. It may seem grandiose, but at this particular moment, sitting here in my quiet book room, I can connect what happened to me and my mother with what happened to Vietnam and Iraq. The bad thinking behind the one and the others is stamped by the same American brand of hubris. We can do it because we’re special.

What’s special about America is that it was settled by social misfits who wanted to do things their way. They would have fought like spiders if the country hadn’t been so vast and largely empty. Their children had to figure out how to settle down. As they did so, they decorated their civil society with bric-à-brac from an ornamental mythology: Washington crossing the Delaware, the first Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, the Founding Fathers and their democracy thing. If we were an honest people, we would cover the Capitol’s walls with Saul Steinberg’s lampoons.

No, there is nothing special about this country, least of all the feeling special. Lucky, certainly: the land was special. But ours is a country like any other. I take that back: it is still at least two countries trying to coexist under one umbrella, just as it was at its inception.

***

I have endeavored to write this slowly, as if I were working on a poem, getting everything right and writing it clearly. There has been a great deal of excision. I have serious misgivings about some of the statements made, particularly the one that links the first thing that happened to me with military misadventures. But these misgivings are stylistic: the editorial board here prefers a temperate gloss, and generally disapproves of italicizing words like “outrage.” I am also dismayed by a sense of having said almost all of this before, on not a few occasions.

There is also the “so what?” factor. So you were adopted: deal with it. The funny thing is that I thought that I had dealt with it. I can remember joking, when adopted people began looking into their origins, that one family was enough for me. (It makes me angry to remember this flippancy: I want to slap the man I was then.)

But then, I began keeping this Web log, charting the course of my mind, building up something that few people have the leisure to develop, an articulate view of the world. Articulate and articulated — I am always making connections. More and more, I find that what obstructs these connections, or makes them obscure, is the received dishonesty of American life, the practical insincerity of American idealism. Perhaps other nations are dishonest, too, but this is the nation that I know. This is the nation that thought it best to spare my unmarried mother the embarrassment of an inconvenient child, and to spare me the stigma of illegitimacy. The dishonesty of what happened as a result of this thinking was far worse than a lie. It was the willful disregard of human nature, of everything that has ever been known about mothers and infants. We can do it because we’re special.

I have tried to write this as a poem, mindful, above all other things, of the truth that it is far worse, in a poem, to utter a lie than to say nothing at all.

Reading Note:
For Shame
22 July 2015

“Trumpusconi” — Frank Bruni’s coinage — ought to be the word of the hour, for however many hours it takes to determine the damage that television has done to the voting public. The Italians have been through this already, and perhaps they have inoculated themselves against a recurrence. Why not vote for the egomaniacal dork who rattles on about possessing the longest this or the priciest that, whose sex life is a string of superlatives? Maybe you honestly admire him, because he’s one of you, only with longer and pricier. Maybe you want to flip the bird to the tired and corrupt institutions that ought to be running the country. Maybe it’s enough that belly-floppers make the biggest splash.

I’ve read that the Huffington Post has relegated Trump news to the entertainment section, as if this comment to its readers has a correlative in the population at large. Italy showed us that voters are capable of folding entertainment and politics into one section.

Timur Vermes’s satire, Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da), comes to mind all the time now. In the satire, a rematerialized Hitler promptly becomes a media star, getting top ratings on his own show. The brunt of the satire is the complacency of today’s Germany, which is too fond of thinking that it’s Hitler-proof, but Look Who’s Back also suggests that Hitler’s rise to power was a media event as well. The media were different, and the chemistry was different (you have to attend a rally to get really excited by it), but by the time Hitler took power, he was the most popular political figure. The question of his experience in government meant nothing to most Germans. To have had no experience was closer to the ideal.

Hitler did teach us that applauding an obsessive crank with big ideas about Lebensraum can lead to very uncool outputs. Better to back the guy who’s deranged about more personal assets.

If Trump’s bubble pops in the next couple of weeks, as Nick Cohn predicts, precisely because it is a “media-driven” bubble, then we can all sigh with relief, and I’ll limit my remarks about television’s utter ghastliness, it’s essential emptiness. Otherwise…

***

Granta — to read, or not to read? That is the question, at least for this 67 year-old reader. I flip through the new issue when it arrives. Most names are unfamiliar. The photography is unappealing — deadening, really. I’ve given up on poetry that isn’t written in blank verse. (And I still can’t make up my mind about Emily Dickinson: is she healthy?) The fiction is as likely as not to be tedious. Drawn by the fancy title, I’ll admit, I gave Greg Jackson’s “Epithalamium” a try. I had to stop on the third page, when “Dueva had proceeded to call Hara a — . (I was already having plenty of trouble with the nomenclature; there’s also a character called “Lyric.”) This is the kind of writing that usually — only time will tell — has the shelf life of fresh fish, and I have retired from taking the trouble to discern the few exceptions. You read it.

Partly because this quarter’s issue, Possession, has a fascinating image on its cover (by Julie Cockburn), I put it where it would be sure to be read, if you know what I mean, and I came across Marc Bojanowski’s “This Is New.” “Shortly after I lost my job teaching,” it began, “I began taking my daughter on walks through the rural cemetery near the housing tract where we lived.” I continued to read, non-committally, prepared to put it down at the first sign of tiresomeness. Teaching and housing tracts are no longer of much interest to me. There might have been a hook in the mention of a cemetery; looking back, I can see that, if I were teaching a writing course (!), I’d hail it as a masterstroke. For one thing: the cemetery is the only open space in the neighborhood; what does that tell you about this sorry land? For another: the richness of this question all but demands that the image of the cemetery be dropped, as as a way of suggesting that there is nothing more to be said about the national bankruptcy. But this mandarin analysis had nothing to do with my first encounter with “This Is New.”

A few dozen words later:

And in her toddler’s voice I would momentarily forget that I’d lost my job and shamed myself and humiliated our family; I would forget that I’d become a stay-at-home dad and that my wife was supporting us financially.

Usually, men who have shamed themselves and humiliated their families do not go on to become stay-at-home dads. Isn’t that your experience, too? In fiction, I mean. So, now I was really curious.

“This Is New” feels shorter than it is, because it is packed with occluded clichés. I mean that to be complimentary. An occluded cliché is, obviously, one that you can’t see. It is concealed by being suggested but not mentioned. In this case, the cliché is a string of familiar images: the community college, the underemployed teacher, the unsophisticated students, the community of tract houses, the precarious personal finances. These are all mentioned without comment; we fill in the tiresome clichés ourselves, or watch them unpack themselves all over the reading room of our minds — but Bojanowski has moved on. He gives us just enough not-enough-time to savor his details, only some of which involve the shameful act that cost the narrator his job.

The paragraph that begins with the passage quoted above ends with this: “… I would forget that none of this would have happened if I’d just taken a deep breath, suppressed my emotions and said to the young woman, “Leave. Now.” What happened?

What happened was that the narrator, overwhelmed by the irritation caused by a student — a nineteen year-old black woman, who, having  been rude, and then insulting, to the teacher, proceeded to engage with her cellphone during the showing of a documentary in class, and, further, refused to put it away — smacked the phone out of her hand (while she was filming him). That was the shameful act.

I’m not sure that I understand the title, but my impression is that it refers to the inescapability of notoriety wrought by the Internet. You can’t move to another state where nobody knows what you’ve done, or where it will take a long time for your past to catch up with you. I also believe that the story launches a complaint: what the teacher did was not shameful. It was the student who was behaving shamefully, or shamelessly.

I’m curious to know whether “This Is New” was written before or after last summer’s outbreak of protesting violence in Ferguson — an event that for one reason or another tipped the scales, inspiring many Americans — most, it’s to be hoped — to cry out, Enough! Black Lives Matter! Stop Killing Us! Let us finally recognize the persistence of racism and resolve to put an end to it. Let us try to undo the wickedness of Richard Nixon’s foulest deed, which had nothing to do with Watergate or Vietnam or even Chile: the “Southern Strategy.” A strategy for Republican Party victories that was found to be quite useful in other parts of the United States as well. Let us put the WASP dream of white ascendancy firmly in the past.

But, the same token, let us also stop permitting members of minority groups to exploit past oppression to excuse civil misbehavior. In the middle of a class, the young black woman student addresses the white male teacher as “white boy.” Surely that is as unacceptable as her misuse of the phone.

If it is not, there is no point to keeping our schools open.

Gotham Diary:
Roughing It
21 July 2015

Shall I tell you about the mouse?

Or is it mice? If it’s mice, it’s now mice minus one. That’s to say that a mouse was removed from the apartment — alive.

Before she left the office last night, Kathleen told me that she wanted to order Chinese — she has become fond of the neighborhood restaurant’s Kung Pao Chicken. So, when she came home, I was reading in the bedroom, and not fixing dinner. We chatted for a moment, and I excused myself for a moment to refill a tumbler of wine. The light was off in the dusky kitchen. Standing at the fridge, I heard something. I was pretty sure that I knew what it was, and I was right: there was a mouse crawling around in the recycled Fairway bag of refuse. I gently detached the bag’s handles from the hook, well off the floor, from which I hang garbage bags, and managed to tie them in a knot even as I was coursing toward the front door. By now, I could see the mouse through the plastic bag. It was very small. It was squeezing itself along the inside of the bag. My hope was to reach the garbage chute before the mouse chewed its way out. I wasn’t running, but I was moving much faster than I normally do, even to catch a train. From the old apartment, the garbage chute was almost across the corridor. It’s more of a hike from here.

We never had mice in the old apartment.

I can’t remember just when we first saw a mouse down here, but it was well after we settled in. A long time passed before the second sighting. Recently, however, I’d been seeing a mouse, or catching its darting out of the corner of my eye, just about every other day, and I was steeling myself to say something to the management office about it. Why, you might ask, was I hanging garbage from a hook, however “well off the floor”? Did I not understand anything about mice? Had I forgotten “Hickory Dickory Dock”? And how to square the rather disappointing answer to these questions with the precautions that I had been taking, such as emptying shopping bags as soon as I got home from the store, whether anything actually needed to be put away (in the fridge, say) or not? I am forced to conclude that it was curiosity. The mouse was, first of all, not a rat. It was small and brown and not repellent, and aside from a gnawed piece of cheese (this led to the prompt emptying of shopping bags), it left no traces. If I hadn’t seen it, I shouldn’t have known it was there.

I was learning its route. Its destination, of course, was the kitchen. Several times, my walking in from the living room triggered a dash across the floor and under the dishwasher. I was fairly certain that the space beneath the dishwasher was a dead end for the mouse, because I never saw it scurry in the other way. It would wait until things got quiet, and then work its way back to the point of entry, which, from a series of observations, I concluded must be through one of Kathleen’s two closets. I also concluded that it did not live or linger in that closet, because Kathleen never encountered it there.

Every time I saw the mouse, I was a little bit upset — there really ought not to be mice in the apartment — but the upset was always outweighed by curiosity. Let’s see what happens next.

Now you know why I was in trouble all the time as a child.

(Speaking of curiosity, I did think about buying a cat. I rejected the idea every time — Kathleen wouldn’t have it; the upholstery would be scratched to shreds; kitty litter — but it kept popping back up. I thought about mousetraps, too, and the trip to the emergency room that would inevitably follow trying to set one.)

Moving almost as determinedly as the mouse, I reached the garbage chute, opened it, and pushed the bag through. I doubt very much that the fall of four floors hurt the mouse, although it’s always possible that the bag landed on shards of glass. In any case, I don’t expect that particular mouse to return. All in all, I’m quite pleased at the way things worked out, quite literally tied up with a bow.

Nevertheless, returning to the apartment from the garbage chute, I worried about having a heart attack. The spigot of adrenaline had unquestionably been opened. Carrying a living, squirming thing in a tied-up bag was very disconcerting. What if it burst through the bag and bit my hand in a fit of pique? I was reminded of the lobster, the lobster that wasn’t dead yet.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that killing a lobster with a chef’s knife is easy. Even Julia Child says so. (Or maybe what she says is that “French chefs get used to it.”) You hold the lobster on the counter with one hand, while you plunge the sharp knife into the interstice between the shell on the head and the shell on the thorax. This, you are assured, kills the lobster “instantly.” Well, maybe. But the one time I tried it, when I flipped over the lobster to cut off the tail, the tail flipped, with a great deal of energy, and it’s a good thing that no one else was in the kitchen, because who knows where the chef’s knife flew. I had been sufficiently macho to plunge the knife into the lobster’s neck, but only on the understanding that this brutal act would put an immediate stop to all signs of life. The idea that a lobster that I was trying to kill might fight back did not bear processing.

I have since learned that, if you need to start a recipe with dead but uncooked lobster, you can cheat: a few minutes in boiling water will kill the thing without doing much cooking. I have also learned that uncooked lobster meat clings to the shell. As if glued on! I haven’t found out how French chefs deal with that.

The moral of the story is: now you know why I always say that my idea of “roughing it” is staying at home.

Dystopia Parkway:
Implants
20 July 2015

Don’t let it ever be said that I’m nostalgic for the Cold War. It was a bleak and stupid conflict, and it made millions of lives wretched. But it did have one virtue: it focused the attention of élites everywhere on a handful of issues. As a global, zero-sum game, it got everyone’s attention. The enormous pressure of its risks kept everything organized. Every action was designed to counter the opponent, no matter how ultimately self-defeating. (Consider widespread American support of Third-World tyrants.) Everybody’s to-do list was harmonized.

All that came to an end with the Cold War’s. The stupidity of Cold War “thinking” floated free. “We won!” crowed the Americans.

Ha.

Ha.

Did you see Kingsman: The Secret Service, when it came out last year? Probably not. Supposedly a larky variation on the James Bond theme, Kingsman is in fact not very entertaining. The first half meanders uncertainly between satire and danger: you don’t know whether to laugh or to close your eyes. The second half is stuffed with action and adventure, but the horrors are occasionally too kinky for genre expectations. As I recall, Kingsman was a disappointment for its producers.

However understandable, this is a shame. Kingsman is another kind of movie altogether: the Object Lesson. It makes you think, and the things that it makes you think about are not presented as cool or fun. There’s an element of science fiction, but it’s too grimly plausible to be dazzling. (And then, just when you’ve got used to this unpleasantness, the movie dazzles — with truly astonishing inappropriateness.) I was disturbed by Kingsman for days after seeing it. Seeing it a second time, I was even more disturbed, but by something else in the movie.

The story is simply told. (And, to keep it simple, I’m going to omit the actors’ names, which can easily be found at IMDb.) The bad guy, Valentine, is a telecom tycoon who has dreamed up a solution to overpopulation. He will give away mobile phones with free cellular service. When everybody’s got one, he’ll beam a signal that will make everybody crazy: totally hostile and totally unsympathetic. Everybody will kill everybody else! For some reason that wasn’t very clear to me, Valentine wants to get the élites of the world behind his scheme. (It’s not as though they could stop him.) The holdouts, people like the Princess of Sweden (or maybe it’s Denmark) who are disgusted by Valentine’s proposed “cull,” are imprisoned. The supporters are implanted with devices, located at the base of their brains, that will explode if they ever try to betray the plot.

Which of course the Kingsmen, a secret service in Britain that appears to act independently of any sovereignty (just like Valentine), must foil. But we’re not going to talk about the heroes, appealing as in this film they are.

The idea of drastically reducing the population of the earth has appealed to Western élites since the time of Malthus. One dreadful legacy of the Enlightenment was the almost automatic division of humanity into two classes: those who could understand and implement the Enlightenment program, and those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t. This was, it turned out, a far more categorical division than the one that had distinguished, in the ancien régime, hereditary nobles from peasants and burghers. The new line is easier to cross, certainly — but this seems to intensify the contempt of those who crossed it for those who didn’t.

This contempt is the product of a failure of imagination that always besets élites when they feel existentially threatened. The challenge must be dealt with — eliminated — at once. In our time, it is not easy to encounter an essay about our environmental future that is truly innocent of the hope that some terrible disease will solve the overpopulation problem for us. The rich will inoculate and quarantine themselves whilst the plague ranges round. After a time, there will be no more unnecessary people.

Kingsman stamps a comic-book glossiness on this terrible fantasy.

After days of feeling almost sick about the nightmare of violently cruel solutions to global problems, I calmed down and realized that our population problem is just like every other environmental problem that we have: one that can solved only over generations, by humane planning that seeks to persuade, without binding, our grandchildren and their grandchildren and so on. Planning that alters as circumstances alter, but that always proceed toward sustainable population levels without denying anyone a genuinely satisfying life (no doping). We’ll talk about such plans some other time.

After seeing the film a second time, it was the élites themselves who got my attention. Valentine, in the best evil-genius tradition, operates a mountain fastness. Here he keeps his imprisoned critics; here he entertains his willing supporters, who are given enough notice of the coming cull to make their way to his remote caves, where they live it up in a sort of disco nightclub. This cheesy setting is of course intended to be an implicit criticism of the rich people who hang out there, and for that reason, it ought to strike a false note, because rich people wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place. They take their fashion cues from Monocle! But: rich people do take fashion cues — in fact, they live by them. Élites have enough money to throw everything away and replace it with the latest accoutrements. If Monocle were to endorse disco clubs, Davos would be remodeled into a mineshaft.

And then there are those implants. The movie’s implants are fictional, in that they have not been implanted in our fearless leaders. But, reading Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times, it was very hard to resist the suspicion that Europe’s leaders have at the very least been complicit in a program of voluntary brainwashing. In his latest piece about the Greek migraine, he writes about the introduction of the Euro.

The only big mistake of the euroskeptics was underestimating just how much damage the single currency would do.

The point is that it wasn’t at all hard to see, right from the beginning, that currency union without political union was a very dubious project. So why did Europe go ahead with it?

Mainly, I’d say, because the idea of the euro sounded so good. That is, it sounded forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea.

Indeed, within Europe’s elite it quickly became very hard to raise objections to the currency project. I remember the atmosphere of the early 1990s very well: anyone who questioned the desirability of the euro was effectively shut out of the discussion. Furthermore, if you were an American expressing doubts you were invariably accused of ulterior motives — of being hostile to Europe, or wanting to preserve the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege.”

And his final comment makes something like those implants seem to be the only explanation for ongoing idiocy.

But we’re not having a clear discussion of these options, because European discourse is still dominated by ideas the continent’s elite would like to be true, but aren’t. And Europe is paying a terrible price for this monstrous self-indulgence.

The good thing about the Cold War, I’m sorry to say, is that there was no room for monstrous self-indulgence. But there is now.

Gotham Diary:
Muddling Away From Muddles
17 July 2015

Writer’s block is not something that I’m familiar with, but I seem to be having a taste of it this morning. It’s very quiet, and it promises to be a quiet day — although I may have lunch with Fossil Darling, Ray Soleil, and Ms NOLA. That wasn’t on the schedule until just now. Loose talk about hanging out at the Museum and seeing the Sargent show coalesced into a plan to gather at lunch, followed by a tour of the exhibition. Fossil and Ray have a concert at seven, so what “hanging out at the Museum” on a Friday afternoon usually means (cocktails on the roof or elsewhere, with a bit of art thrown in if absolutely necessary) is not on offer. Kathleen had thought of joining us — her contribution to the loose talk — but this morning she wondered if she could get away from work before a late dinner. I haven’t made up my mind about anything, but I’m inclined to pass on lunch, because, as I say, it’s quiet, and I’m enjoying the quiet.

But I tremble at the thought of writing about it. Surely there could be no more immediate invitation to bring on more chaos and upheaval.

Signs that I may no longer be capable of managing our personal finances have followed last week’s false alarm about massively overdue rent. Yes, that was a false alarm; the building’s accountants had deposited our rent in an account tied to our old apartment. It was all quickly corrected. But I had menacing robocalls from the mobile phone providers (AT&T for regular phones; Verizon for MiFi) and the cable company, all regarding overdue bills. For the life of me, I couldn’t see that the AT&T bill was overdue, but I paid it by credit over the phone, which means that next months bills will be the higher for it. I had to do the same with the other two accounts, which really were overdue. As sometimes happens, I never received a June bill for the cable, and had not yet got round to paying this month’s bill. (Yes, it’s a bit late in the month to be doing that, but I’ve got excuses as long as my legs.) I haven’t yet figured out what was wrong with the MiFi bill, but I must have missed one a while back, and not noticed it. Sure enough, when I opened the envelope, I discovered that I owed somewhat more that I thought — although not the amount on the statement. It was all a harrying muddle, and I must take full responsibility — mitigated, privately, by that long list of excuses.

Part of the muddle is just me — I was not put on earth to be an accountant. But a greater part, I think, is my search for computer assistance, which, so far as paying bills goes, has tied me to Quicken for over twenty years. In the early days, I liked Quicken a lot; it did just what I wanted it to do, and very little else. Over time, the part of Quicken that is useful to me — printing checks — seemed more and more marginal to the software. Then, last November, there was a horrible snafu, in which six weeks’ worth of data was erased. This was not Quicken’s fault. Rather it was one of those disasters that have become not uncommon in our automated world, in which sooner or later a hitherto unsuspected weak spot in one’s backup procedures is pressed at the wrong time, and gives way. Ordinarily, you learn from the mistake and move on, improving security. But by last November, I was sick to death of Quicken. I also suspected that it lulled me into thinking that it was taking care of things, when of course it knew nothing but what I fed it.

(I ought to point out here that Kathleen has retained serious accountants to prepare our tax returns for years. I don’t have anything to do with the complicated stuff.)

So I began keeping records in Evernote, even though Evernote won’t, so far as I know, add up a column of figures and tell me how much I’ve spent on books or groceries this month. The figures are there, but you have to add them yourself. Well, I thought, that might not be a bad idea. It would engage me more fully in keeping track of our expenses. Of course, I had no habits for being engaged, on a weekdaily basis, with grubby money matters, and I still don’t have very effective ones, but I think I’m on the way. Meanwhile, however, muddle.

The other day, I discovered that you can make checklists with Evernote: a lightbulb moment. Yesterday afternoon, I designed a template for the monthly bills — one with two checkboxes for every account. I check the first box when the bill is received, and I make a note of the amount. I check the second box when the check is written. Since I do this on Evernote, I can manage the list at my household office in the dining ell, and then write checks pursuant to the checklist in the bookroom, where the printer is, without dragging any of the bills or other paperwork from one place to another.

I’m still using Quicken to print checks. I’m looking into Moneydance, but reserving any decision on that until the new way of doing things has established itself, and unexpected phone calls are a thing of the past.

This might seem incredibly trivial, I know, but to me it expresses an important — really rather vitally important, when you get down to it — cognitive problem. I believe that how you work and where you work determines the quality of what you do. There are many people who might disagree. Kathleen, who can work anywhere and under any conditions, is at the same time a crisis worker, almost incapable of dealing with a project unless there is a deadline, and, in the case of personal matters, a past-due deadline. Hating crisis as I do, I’ve always tried to integrate the boring parts into the fun parts, and also to make the boring parts less boring and possibly even fun. There isn’t a lot of practical wisdom out there on this problem, and perhaps there can’t be, because everyone’s integration is going to be unique. I have learned a few things, though.

The reason for my taking personal finance out of the bookroom and into the dining ell, where I sit right next to the kitchen — an arrangement not possible in the old apartment, where there was no dining area, and hence no table near the kitchen — is that personal finance is more like cooking than writing. I don’t mean to suggest that writing is a crisis sort of thing when I way that it does require freedom from distraction. Everybody knows this. It’s not so much the writing that requires it as the thinking behind the writing. Another thing that seems to be well understood is that libraries provide good environments for writing, especially if they’re private and you’re alone in them. Writing in a library encourages a range of broadening and enriching extensions, from the consultation of authorities to the indulgence of literary whims. My conclusion is there ought not to be anything in a writing room that is not conducive to writing.

Personal finance is like keeping the refrigerator in order: it’s much less off-putting if you manage to do a little of it at a time. Avoiding crisis is the secret. Never having too much of it to do at any one time is a blessing. What successful housekeeping comes down to is the clever stage-managing of distractions, where all the distractions are elements of housework. Having just emptied the dishwasher, why not sit down at the table with a cup of tea and open the one or two bills that arrived in the day’s mail, marking them down on a checklist and tucking them in a drawer (always the same drawer, a drawer used for nothing else). Then, sit back and ruminate on menus. Remember to order a 25-pound bag of flour.

Last night, after a long afternoon of paperwork, I made fried chicken, even though I thought I was too tired. I wanted to make it last night because the woman who cleans our bathrooms and the kitchen every other week was due this morning. So, even though fried chicken isn’t the messy production that it used to be, there are spatters, and the routine of wiping down the counters removes the afterodors of frying. (In the event, Sonja was unable to come.) I had bought six pieces of chicken at Agata & Valentina after lunch, and soaked them in buttermilk during the afternoon. Shortly before Kathleen left the office, I dredged the chicken in corn meal, cornstarch, flour, salt, and cayenne pepper (which I’d added to the buttermilk as well). The chicken went into the fridge for about forty minutes, during the latter part of which I heated up a bottle of peanut oil. Peanut oil is the secret of frying. Its fragrance is the lightest, and it does not break down (as canola oil does) at high temperatures.

I fried the chicken for two minutes on a side over high heat. Then for four minutes on one side over moderate heat, and two-and-a-half minutes on the other side. Finally, I left the chicken to cook over low heat for three minutes.

It was delicious. Sometimes, it’s more delicious, but it’s always delicious. Applesauce, cucumber salad, and cobs of corn completed the plates. For dessert, we tucked into a raspberry-lemon tart, also from Agata. We each ate two pieces of chicken, and could not have touched a third, not with the prospect of the tart.

After all that paperwork, cooking was fun.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Isostasy
16 July 2015

Ray Soleil just this minute sent me a link, with the following note: “What worries me is that Hitler was also thought a “priceless boob” by the elite of Germany, and look what happened….” Ray and I are on the same page about a lot of things, so I wasn’t surprised when the link took me to a piece of Donald Trump propaganda. (At Daily Kos, of course.) I suppose it could be a hoax, but I am sure that Trump will disavow it as such. Somebody goofed. Some bright young intern was tasked with finding an archival image of World War II-era soldiers, and he did what he was told, only the soldiers are Wehrmacht, not GIs. (The actual stock photo that was used suggests to me that there are Wehrmacht re-enactors.) I don’t know where Ray got the “priceless boob” line — it doesn’t crop up on the Daily Kos page, but it certainly fits, and, yes, it worries me, too — although it’s difficult to deny that the Donald has been a member of the American élite since he was a kid.

I’m not worried about another Hitler. There will never be another Hitler — Timur Vermes’s hilarious and almost plausible satire notwithstanding. Every political malefactor in Western history has developed his or her own brand of poison, to which everyone at the time was susceptible. The next “Hitler” won’t look or act anything like our Adolf.

But there will always be élites. What worries me — and I’m not saying this for the first time; it’s pretty much the fundamental anxiety of this writer — is the difficulty that élites have when it comes to understanding everybody else. The élite of the ancien régime in France, of course, failed to see the need to understand anybody else, and that’s why the ancien régime ended at the guillotine. Since then, it has become clear that one of the problems of democracy is that there are still élites. Democracy does not level the field. It is arguable that the citizens of a democracy don’t even want it to — Americans are particularly resistant to “class warfare.” Democracies still require the services of governors and capitalists. Most people, it turns out, aren’t all that interested in public affairs. All they ask is that things be “okay.”

It is very hard, if you live among the élite, to know what “okay” means. The problem is that few members of the élite are willing to try to find out — as if the French ancien régime had not ended as it did.

Benefits and burdens are distributed unequally in our modern democracies. (Totalitarian attempts to even things out have failed dismally.) I believe, however, that it makes sense to assume that they are distributed isostatically. What I mean by this is that everyone gets roughly the same amount of both. Big piles of benefits for the élite, yes; but also big piles of burdens. Now, here is a structural problem with élites: they use their benefits to offload the burdens. (This is what Trump did when he hired some doofus to create a banner.) They pay other people to do the things that they don’t want to do — the burdens. But determining what hoi polloi mean by “okay” is a non-delegable duty. You have to think for yourself. You can’t hire a consultancy that it is in the business of telling you what you want to hear.

The oldest problem with democracy, the one that ruled it out as a viable political form for the thinkers of classical antiquity, is its vulnerability to demagogues. Demagogues — and Donald Trump has always been one — stoke grievances. Anger can be very clarifying when it comes time to take political action. Trump appeals to non-élite white men who play golf, and to women who devote themselves to taking care of and enduring such men. Not to mention the men who would play golf if they could afford it. I can’t explain the link between golf and Trump, but it might have something to do with the elegant simplicity of the game — just a serious of strokes. You do the same thing over and over again, making minor adjustments for circumstances. Very minor adjustments.

Trump does the same thing over and over. Unlike the other Republican Party hopefuls, he does not wallow in policy. He doesn’t have a coherent program, a strategy for “starving the beast” or clearing the American stables of the “takers’” 47%. He says: America used to be great. Let’s be great again. He means: the United States won World War II, but it rewarded its soldiers with a unilateral and highly unpopular expansion of “civil rights.” Let’s undo that.

Trump is not proposing to chop off the heads of businessmen who sent our manufacturing jobs out of the country in order to maximize profits, incidentally keeping the number of golfers low. His intended audience wouldn’t listen. Contrary to everything that the Chicago School of economics insists upon, voters are nowhere near as interested in money as they are in pride. Their toes got stepped on in the Sixties and Seventies, and they’re sore about never having been offered an apology.

The Civil Rights movement is understood by too many progressives as a good thing that was long overdue — period. They don’t ask why it happened when it did. That’s to say that they don’t see it as a campaign in the Cold War. In the postwar world, the United States was richer and mightier than any other land — but this only made the spectacle of Jim Crow more embarrassing. All the other countries, of whatever political stripe, could say, “Yes, America is rich and powerful. But look at the South!” And now that the formerly isolationist United States stood tall in the global eye, it had to confront what it had managed to ignore, the denial of full citizenship (and, worse, of civil decency) to African Americans, former slaves who even now had not attained freedom. There had always been American opposition to Jim Crow, but Dixiecrats in Congress managed to marginalize it. Lyndon Johnson, who ought to have been one of them, upended the Dixiecrats’ hegemony. Johnson fought hard to reduce the influence of bigots in national affairs so that the United States would be as respectable as it was mighty.

Like so many Cold War initiatives, however — like the Cold War initiative that crippled Johnson’s effectiveness as a “Great Society” leader, the misadventure in Vietnam — the Civil Rights reforms were misguided. They shared, as so many Cold War policies did, the totalitarian preference for top-down edicts. They were ultimatums. The virtues of their objectives were occluded by the obnoxiousness of their enforcement. And Richard Nixon, who followed Johnson in the White House, knew just how to exploit the ensuing resentment, without appearing to backtrack on Civil Rights at all!

Am I afraid of Donald Trump in the White House? Not until I find out who his running mate is, if it comes to that. Meanwhile, progressives ought to be asking why Trump is so popular, and answering the question without resorting to variations on the word “stupid.”

Gotham Diary:
New Forms
15 July 2015

“New forms!” wails Konstantin. Doesn’t he? It’s just about all I remember from The Seagull. (I am not a fan of Chekhov — there, I said it.) Among other things, I find Konstantin unspeakably tedious, and, until yesterday, his call for new artistic forms expressed nothing more than the emotional acne of adolescence.

I still don’t think much of Konstantin, but I do see that we are very much in the middle of developing new forms. There’s no need to wish for them; they’re taking shape as we write.

I touched yesterday on the problem of fiction and nonfiction. What is the difference, anyway? It seems to depend on the context. In a New York Times news story, we expect that every statement refers to a documented actuality: this happened here, and that person said or did that. An incidental indicator of a news story’s veracity is its clunkiness. It takes a while for all the actualities that are involved whenever something happens to sort themselves out. And the process by which they do sort themselves out — a process that takes place in our minds — is the same process that enables novelists to create their fictions. A magazine article about an event, written weeks or months later, with plenty of time for reflection and consideration, is already halfway to fiction.

History is the story that we tell ourselves about what happened, and the story changes over time. Most people don’t read enough history, over a long period of time, to realize that history has its fashions just like everything else. History has its own history. Now, the vernacular view of shifts in historical accounts is that history written today is better than older histories; historians are always working hard to get things right. So today’s history is true, it is nonfiction. But this is a short-sighted simplification. It is true that historians endeavor to stick to actualities. But the weight that they assign to different actualities, the emphasis that they place on certain parts of the story, does not reflect an actuality. It cannot. The most important kind of statement that history makes — this is more important than that — is an actuality only in the sense that the judgment took place in someone’s mind.

(An interesting difference between history and fiction occurs to me. In a novel, a character might suddenly realize that he has fallen in love. The historian will confine himself to the time and place of the wedding — with perhaps a word or two about the bride.)

The tension between fact and fiction is mirrored in another avenue of literature. Along this avenue, as we might say, the fronts of the houses present those rational judgments about the world to which we give the names criticism and autobiography, while the more relaxed rear ends deal in feelings and memoir. Until very recently, each end had a strong gender association, which I hope I don’t need to spell out. These days, a lot of street-fronts are being remodeled to look more like memoirs. It used to be absolutely forbidden for a critic to interject a note of personal feeling. Feelings were thought to be an unmanly weakness, and an impertinence as well. Nobody was interested in anybody else’s feelings! But now we understand that feelings are where everything begins with us.

We also understand — see my entry on World Theory — that nothing in the world is permanent without us. The Japanese rebuild the temple at Nara at regular intervals, and regard it as over a thousand years old. The Tour Eiffel and the Empire State Building look like they’re built to last forever, but neither would survive a century of absolute neglect. The mere existence of the greatest book in the world, whatever you think that might be, depends on its readers’ ability to convince other people to read it. For some reason, a lot of men have trouble accepting this contingency. They want to believe that, once a thing is made, whether it’s a skyscraper or a novel, it’s “out there in the world,” leading its own life, forever. This might tell us why such men would make terrible mothers, but I still can’t quite explain it. Why do some men seem happiest when they’re done with something?

Feelings are no longer irrelevant or impertinent. “Objectivity” is a fairy tale. The value of a piece of criticism doesn’t lie as much in the rigor of its logical analysis as it does in the emotional responses that inspired it. I don’t want to read criticism that hides this essential information; I want to know how the critic feels. Criticism must therefore be infused with memoir.

For example, I don’t think that I should have engaged so deeply with Edward Mendelson’s views on the work and character of William Maxwell if I had not rather sloppily mistaken him for Daniel Mendelsohn. I admire Daniel Mendelsohn, although I never fully agree with him. I read and enjoy his pieces knowing that I am not going to agree with a lot of what he says. So it was not alarming to find that I disagreed with much of what Edward Mendelson had to say. And it made perfect sense that Mendelson held Maxwell’s fables in high esteem; I should expect Mendelsohn to do the same. I used to do the same thing myself. (I still love the fables, but I don’t want to write about them until I’ve read them all, re-reading the ones that I love in the process.)

It did surprise me that the tone of Mendelson’s piece was unkind — until I woke up to the fact that it wasn’t by Mendelsohn.

***

In the last two or three years, I have ever more consciously striven to write entries that blend memoir and criticism as seamlessly as I can. This means that many entries are too teachy-preachy for readers who like stories, while others are too ephemeral for readers who are discomfited by the personal. It’s a good thing that I’m used to feeling like Edith Wharton — too fashionable for Boston, too intellectual for New York.

I don’t expect to change readers’ minds, but I do hope to leave behind an example.

Reading Note:
The Thread So Far
14 July 2015

It seems to have started with Kate Bolick’s Spinster, which I read in late April. Bolick prompted me to look into Maeve Brennan, the New Yorker‘s Long-Winded Lady. At about the same time, Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, came out.

It was that conjunction, that accidental pairing of two New Yorker writers (who formed a sort of pair in real life) that made the magazine, and not any particular writer, my new center of gravity. I read Kunkel’s earlier biography of Harold Ross, the magazine’s founding editor, and from this I learned the measure of Ross’s industry, his devotion to The New Yorker as expressed in hours reading proofs and launching queries that, sometimes, reflected a good deal of sophisticated knowledgeability. I explored Wolcott Gibbs and A J Liebling, who were no longer writing for The New Yorker when I began to read it, but whose prose styles are still recognizable as templates for today’s magazine. I read Gardner Botsford’s memoir, and want to read it again. I dug up a copy of Here at The New Yorker, only to find that I am still as allergic to Brendan Gill’s chatty complacency as I was when it came out. Turning in the other direction, I decided to re-read The Château, and I have been lost in the work of William Maxwell ever since.

Which brings me to Barbara Burkhardt’s William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Burkhardt struck up a friendship with Maxwell while she was writing her dissertation on his novels, and he chose her to help organize his papers and shepherd them to the University of Illinois, the school they had in common. Her book is solid and I daresay reliable, but it is also somewhat academic, given to repeating key words and prone to slightly fatuous claims, such as that each of Maxwell’s books constituted an important step in his development. I’d withhold my complaints altogether if there were another book about Maxwell, more focused on his life and on his career as a New Yorker editor, but,  if there is, I don’t know about it.

The ground for my renewed interest in Maxwell — I had something of a crush on him in college, and sometimes that’s fatal, not because you outgrow a writer but because you don’t know that you’ve grown up, that he or she is no longer the same writer who appealed to your youth; for years, I wrongly thought that I “knew” Maxwell — was prepared by Philippa Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, when I had a crush on her, a few years ago. Beauman quoted many letters between Taylor and Maxwell, who was almost her only editor; her stories were published in The New Yorker or they weren’t published at all. I began to see Maxwell in a different light, and I’d like to see more. But Maxwell’s career as an editor is not really in Burkhardt’s brief. You can learn more about Maxwell’s life from the Chronology that editor Christopher Carduff has appended to the Library of America volumes. It’s from that source that I learned the answer to two questions that I couldn’t stop itching: where, exactly, on East 86th Street did Maxwell and his family live (544); and whether the Maxwell girls, Kate and Brookie went to the Brearley (they did — or at least Kate started out at Kindergarten there). Christopher Carduff, by the way, has brought all of Maeve Brennan’s stories back into print. Hats off!

I’ve even been roaming The New Yorker archives, fishing out two stories that Carduff declined to include in the LoA books. The first one, “Never To Hear Silence,” was published in 1937. It is brief but painful: a young scientist whose work has been invalidated by an innocent error has to listen to his wife’s nonstop advice about what to do about it. The young man’s problems clearly surpass his troubles at the lab: he has married the wrong woman, and cemented his mistake with two children. There is a slightness about the story, relative to Maxwell’s other stories, that explains Carduff’s decision; but I’d have included it anyway, because it attracted the interest of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor at The New Yorker, and she became one of the several mentors who helped William Maxwell become himself. The story is also quite short.

My other catch is more doubtful, and has no place in the LoA. When it appeared, in 1964, it was signed “Gifford Brown,” a pseudonym that Maxwell used whenever he was writing about his older brother, or some other person who might take offense. Edward Mendelson mentions it in the NYRB essay that I touched on yesterday.

One omitted story, “The News of the Week in Review” (1964), is an acid portrait of a neighbor in Westchester, where Maxwell had a country house. He published the story under the name Gifford Brown, a pseudonym he used when he didn’t want neighbors or relatives to notice the unpleasant things he was writing about them. The secular saint portrayed by Maxwell’s friends could never have written it, but the real Maxwell did.

I don’t know what Maxwell is up to here. I’m not entirely sure that I can attach the “acid portrait” to the right character. Is it Reinhold, the garrulous neighbor who asks to have the narrator’s Sunday Times if he’s done with it, or Weidler, an off-stage figure with whom Reinhold is engaged in a dispute about the posting of roadside mailboxes? This mailbox imbroglio reminded me of many such trivial crises during my time on Candlewood Lake, but I can’t see choking a story out of it, unless it’s to point out how trivial rural crises can be. (The story betrays many signs of the animosity between country people and encroaching suburbanites.) Nor could I discern the feelings of the narrator about any of this. Of course, I read the story contentiously myself, aiming not to enjoy it but to determine if Mendelson is making any sense, and I’m not sure that he is. It’s all a muddle. Clouding the whole business is Maxwell’s use of the pseudonym, which indicates that even he took it all too seriously.

Whether, when I’ve gone through all of Maxwell (whether or not that means re-reading They Came Like Swallows and The Folded Leaf), I’ll continue this New Yorker thread is hard to say. With Maxwell, the atmosphere is quiet, not effervescent with intoxicated anecdotes. Maxwell does not inspire questions about who slept with whom. That sort of gossip is never interesting for very long, and without some altogether new tidbit it is simply unappetizing. Maxwell’s questions take the opposite direction. What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction — that sort of thing.

During the Cold War, the line between fiction and nonfiction was closely policed. That’s part of why books like In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song were thought to be so challenging when they were published. What they challenged was that line. The line has been effaced, but not the widespread feeling that it ought to be there. Children of the scientific revolution, we like to know  whether what we’re being told is actual or hypothetical. This does not, however, capture the difference between what we mean by “true” and “false,” which are much bigger, more complicated words. The vulgar association of truth with actuality is a failing that springs from the natural hostility of the commercial mind to the unbridled imagination.

In our spoken dealings with each other, it is probably best to be frank about what we know to be the case. Writing, however, requires more testing. Almost everything that is written down is a kind of history, a claim that something did or didn’t happen. What thinking minds have discovered in recent years is that the fictional can be true. Middlemarch is true in a way that no history of England at the time of the Reform Bill could possibly be. We have come to see the virtues of touching up accounts of actual occurrences with fictional devices, some of them as innocent as the stitching together into one speech of internally consistent remarks made by one person on two occasions, some of them a lot more inventive. One of the purposes of education is to provide readers with the ability to gauge how close the alignment of actuality and truth ought to be in any given case.

William Maxwell’s work teaches us that truth and falsity are not philosophical absolutes, at least not for the likes of us mortals. They will help us to distinguish what happened from what didn’t only indirectly, by calling on things that we know that are not part of the story. Why else should I find that what Maxwell says happened in Lincoln, Illnois in the winter of 1918-19 is interesting? There are still people who believe that fiction is a waste of time because it’s “just made up.” But made up of what? Great literature is made up of truth. In that regard, it all really happened.

Reading Note:
Finding Fault
13 July 2015

Which way is up?

Over the weekend, which I devoted just about exclusively to reading William Maxwell (or reading about him), I discovered an essay from The New York Review of Books that I missed when it appeared, in 2010. Edward Mendelson writes à propos of the Library of America publication, in two volumes, of the bulk of Maxwell’s fiction — the very books that I have been leafing through. Less than attentive, I confused Mendelson with Daniel Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn is a classicist who writes about popular entertainment as well, and I was piqued to find that he was taking a look at Maxwell, who wouldn’t seem to fit beneath any of his rubrics (a third being the problem of the gay artist). Except he wasn’t: it was Edward Mendelson, without the second ‘s’ but also without the ‘h,’ who was going after Maxwell.

The NYRB essay, entitled “The Perils of His Magic Circle,” provides an occasion for Mendelson to discredit literature that refuses to take moral stands. Maxwell is made out to be something other than the “saintly” mentor who glows forth from every page of what can only be called a tribute album, A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch. Here, Maxwell is a magus, a high priest of “low church” modernism whose highly autobiographical fiction paints an unflattering self-portrait, but whose friends were too charmed by his manner to realize that he was exploiting them. Mendelson quotes a passage from the story, “Over By the River,” which I was going to write about anyway. Maxwell’s stand-in, George Carrington, looks at himself in the mirror while shaving.

There was a fatal flaw in his character: Nobody was ever as real to him as he was to himself. If people knew how little he cared whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.

To Mendelson, this is the self-indictment of moral depravity. But I don’t read it that way at all. It is not a confession, a positive admission of social bankruptcy. It is a feeling, sentimentally unsentimental, that, Edward Mendelson aside, we all have, whenever we’re confronted with the absolutely isolated doom of our bodies. (That George should think this while shaving makes perfect sense to me: what could be more Sisyphean than beginning every day with a razor?) There is a part of us that couldn’t care more whether other people live or die if it wanted to, because it simply doesn’t see them. It doesn’t hear, feel, or smell them, either. It is lodged deep in the gut and it feeds on weariness. That’s not all there is to us, of course, but it’s there, always.

“Over By the River,” a story that it took Maxwell many years to write, or, rather, I should say, many years to arrange to his satisfaction, is a nosegay of vignettes. Some of the blossoms show off the two little Carrington girls, who are prone to nightmares (the younger one especially) and to everlasting colds. Their parents, Iris and George, are comically perplexed by parenthood: no one is as responsible for their daughters’ welfare as they are, but no one is less equipped to take care of them. There is always an expert — a doctor, a teacher, perhaps even Jimmy, the elevator man — who knows more about how to make the Carringtons’ world work than the Carringtons do themselves. You might say that they don’t even know how to be grown-ups. In one odd, almost misfit scene, George finds himself at a penthouse cocktail party, helplessly tossed between the tedious and the tantalizing possibilities of casual chit-chat.

The story’s setting is the Carrington’s Upper East Side apartment and the neighborhood in which it sits. The Carrington’s address is 1 Gracie Square, a few blocks from where I’m writing. Its immediate neighborhood, which stretches along the East River from Gracie Mansion, at 88th Street, to the Brearley School, at 83rd, comprises Carl Schurz Park, Finley Walk, and the East End Avenue remainder of the old Henderson Place. Regular readers will have seen many photographs of this neighborhood over the years. I can think of no piece of fiction more densely packed with details that are personally familiar to me.

And that’s what “Over By the River” is, a collection of details before which states of mind are fanned out. There is no plot. Maxwell’s disdain for plots is, for Mendelson, another sign of moral deficiency. He writes,

All of Maxwell’s novels have a story but no plot. A plot is the means by which fiction portrays the consequences of actions, but it is not like a pool table; one event never mechanically causes another. In a plot each event provokes other events by making it possible for them to happen—possible but not inevitable, because human beings are always free to choose their response to provocation. Maxwell succumbed to an error common among writers who, as he did, organize their work for the finest possible rhythms and textures: the error of thinking of plot as mechanical and therefore trivial. As he explained to John Updike: “Plot, shmot.”

And then, concentrating this point somewhat,

He was incapable of thinking about erotic and moral choices for the same reason he was contemptuous about plot: he cared about art and the past, not about choices that might shape the future.

William Maxwell was certainly a fatalist. We are brought into this world without being aware of it, and we are subjected to Hamlet’s slings and arrows. We grow up to have personalities that seem little less determined than our skeletal peculiarities. Stuff happens, much of it awful. And yet Mendelson overlooks, in this condemnation of Maxwell’s lack of vision, the very choice that he damns elsewhere: Maxwell’s pursuit of a literary career.

Maxwell’s friends make vague, veiled allusions to the emotional price his wife and daughters paid for his ascetic devotion to art.

Maxwell was always thinking about choices that might shape the future. They just weren’t Mendelson’s choices.

Which way is up? Reading Maxwell is always agreeable: the man writes very well, and his judgment is sound. But where is he taking me? Through the pages of his little hobby, yet another History of Logan County, Illinois? To the corner of an overfurnished room in which we listen, as in Proust, for the sound of a beloved mother’s voice, and the delicious rustle of her skirts? Into the mind of an affable young man in need of psychoanalysis? And what about this suggestion of Mendelson’s, that Maxwell was not really a good man?

And is it important to answer any of these questions?

Journal of Creaks:
The Best Part
10 July 2015

There’s no denying that I’ve become a lousy neighbor on the Web. Writing a thousand words or more every weekday, I read almost nothing. There is a pile-up of entangled explanations; what cannot be said is that I simply “got out of the habit” of reading other people’s blogs (such as remain). One of those explanations has to do with a very particular cause of Web fatigue.

I call it nailbiting, because it’s that unattractive — and pointless. Here is a précis of the idle complaint that I have read Enough, Already!

OMG, I can’t read anymore, can’t pay attention to a book, I’m always checking my email and Twitter and Instagram and don’t get me started on the YouTubes. The other day, I was so distracted texting that I walked into a cop. Assaulting an officer, he said! I know I should stop, but I can’t, I can’t! Now I’ve got a deadline for a ten-thousand word piece that will be universally TL/DR’d. Why go on?

For a long time, I responded to these lamentations with sardonic snorts. I get very little interesting email. (I have two Gmail accounts, one of them very successfully limited to long-form correspondents — people who respond at length. A week can go by without anything at all showing up in this account’s inbox.) I gave up on Twitter almost as soon as I signed up — I simply don’t understand it. Facebook can be fun; I rarely update, but I like to make snappy comments. Facebook is also vital for family connections. But it does not take very much time. I turn to it more or less the way I turn to FreeCell — to unwind, or to pass a small fragment of time. As for my phone, it does not ring very often; some days, it does not ring at all. I use the phone to check out the weather, to send the odd where-are-you-now text, and to set a timer for the laundry. An alarm rings at 9:45 every morning to remind me to take my pills.

I used to think, the quiet life is so lovely, so easy, so — quiet. What’s the matter with these young people?

For a clever guy, I can be pretty dumb. I am always urging people to remember the role of luck in our lives, and to resist taking 100% credit for successes, but that apparently didn’t stop me from feeling gratified about finally figuring out how to live a well-ordered life, even if I am at death’s door, more or less. (Everybody my age is.) In fact, I didn’t figure anything out. I did what I’ve always done: I followed my body. My body, now ancient and no longer restless, likes a quiet life.

It’s true that I myself have always wanted a quiet life — that’s why I’m feeling so “successful.” But my younger body had other plans. It wanted to go out at night. It found bars to be exciting, even interesting places (!). It was morbidly convinced that something tremendously memorable was happening somewhere else. The parts of my younger brain that were responsible for speech were not well integrated, leading to remarks that ought to have been catastrophic.

Now my younger body has become my older body, and I enjoy peace and quiet at last.

The moral of this story is:

(a) Stop with the nailbiting. Stop complaining about your addiction to social media. It’s normal! In his column today, David Brooks writes, “Being online is like being a part of the greatest cocktail party ever and it is going on all the time.” Yes! That’s the way it is! I shudder to think what I’d have made of myself if this cocktail party had been going on in the days of my younger body. We are living in an age of speakeasies, and to know the address is to know the password. Just remember: You’ll grow out of it. Well, your body will.

(b) Bear in mind that youth=unripeness=immaturity, age=ripeness=maturity. Do not struggle for maturity when you are only thirty. Strive to build good habits by all means, but do not imagine that you have achieved maturity prematurely! You really shouldn’t want to: premature maturity is often pretty sad. Maturity comes only with experience. Experience is not fun; it is not the same thing as “experiences.” It involves a wearying passage of time. But you’ll find that out for yourself. What I’m really saying is this: try to stay alive so that you can enjoy the best part.

(c) The best part is also the worst part. You will be, after all, at death’s door. Your body will be falling apart and giving you a lot of grief. You will spend an itself-sickening amount of time with doctors. All that aside, it is still the best part.

(d) Ergo, take it from me!

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Clerical Error
9 July 2015

For a few days, I pray, it is going to be very quiet around here. Kathleen has flown up to Maine for her annual vacation/bucolic spa retreat/collapse. She stays with old friends; they were camp counselors together, back in the early Seventies. (They were all campers together before that.) Two of them have houses on a nearby lake (it’s called a “pond”); a third alumna has a house right across the much bigger lake from the old camp. Now that they’re all respectable matrons, they find themselves roped in for an afternoon, or even a full day, of volunteer housekeeping; last year, they squared away the meeting house and museum. The owner of the camp, a grandson of the man who ran it when they were girls, is a little bit afraid of them; it seems that Kathleen’s cohort is unique in keeping watch from a nearby vantage.

I always wonder what the current campers make of them, although I’m sure that it involves the usual reactions: a bit of shuddering, and a determination never to “look like that.” Plus, how weird is it that the old broads know all the songs. Could they really have been young once, too? Meanwhile, Kathleen and her friends laugh over old scrapes and near-scandals that the youngsters, to hear them, would turn pale as the high moon.

But the important thing is that Kathleen is allowed to sleep unconscionably late, and to take naps before meals — to the preparation of which she is called upon to contribute nothing.

Kathleen almost always packs for a trip after dinner. If it’s a short business trip, or a weekend with her father in North Carolina, the packing takes a few hours. If it’s for a longer trip, and she has just, say, changed the place of her employment, and her brain is fully occupied churning out a manic stock ticker full of unfamiliar symbols, packing takes longer, and is somewhat frenetic. I didn’t complain or say anything, but I was a nervous wreck by the time she crawled into bed. I myself am a very organized packer: I know where everything is; I always take the same things and proceed in the same order, and I am always done much sooner than I expect to be. But that’s because I used to be like Kathleen, or perhaps much worse, and had to reform or die. When Kathleen packs the way she did last night, I’m clawed back to the bad old days, as if by the ghost of Christmas Missed. It’s too awful.

As further proof that my blameless way of life is no protection, this morning, shortly after Kathleen called to say that she had landed safely and so on, the house phone rang. I don’t like it when the house phone rings, unless I’m waiting for Chinese delivery or a case of Absolut. I have nothing to fear from the FBI or the KGB, but I’m a fervent dreader of the Wrong Man scenario — the nightmare of which is always heralded by an unexpected doorbell — in our case, the doorman calling on the house phone. The doorman on duty is new, and I haven’t worked out his accent yet (it’s not Latino), so I didn’t fully understand him, but I gathered that a Mrs Somebody from “our office” wanted to come up to the apartment. In thirty-five years’ residence in this building, no one from”the office” has ever visited our apartment. Within seconds, I was little more than a gaggle of chattering bones. In the middle of writing a letter, I found that I could not type, I was shaking so badly. Mrs Somebody kept failing to ring the doorbell, giving me more than enough time to make the bed — really, too much more.

Then Kathleen called again. Trying to tell her what was going on, while trembling all the more with gratitude for having her at the other end of the phone, I was barely more comprehensible than Leporello announcing the Stone Guest. She kept insisting that it would be all right, but I recognized this as yet another herald of the Wrong Man scenario.

The house phone rang once more. This time, it was Mrs Somebody herself. Her voice was vaguely familiar. I asked what the trouble was, and she said that she didn’t like to discuss it in the lobby — because, of course, you can’t use the house phone from the office, you have to go out to the doorman’s desk — but she did let on that the problem was “our account.” Could I come downstairs and talk about it? I said I’d be right down. I grabbed a blank check and a Post-It and headed for the elevator.

A few months ago, while I was paying the bills, I noticed that an inexplicable “past due” figure, in the amount of $7000, was appearing at the bottom of our rent bill. What could that mean? And why weren’t we being hounded about it? In the old days — but then, Helmsley Spear did know what they were doing — a shaming notice would have been slipped under our door by the twentieth of the month. I asked Kathleen to talk to the office about it (because I’m a chickenshit when it comes to the office, as my paroxyms of shaking betrayed), but she had too many other things on her mind.

But our problem wasn’t the $7000. The nice woman who keeps the office humming directed me to a glassed-in conference room, where I was joined by another nice woman, the one who showed us the apartments that we might take in the lieu of the one that we should have to leave. So this was Mrs Somebody! Perhaps she had remarried. We sat down and I asked what the problem was. She showed me a piece of paper with a table on it. I didn’t really understand the table until it was no longer necessary, but she told me that we had not paid rent in April, May, or June. When I said, basically, What?, she scrunched her face and said, “I know, it’s so weird, you’re always so punctual.”

I wrote out the check for the July rent, which I had intended to hand in tomorrow, and assured Mrs S that I would produce copies of the canceled checks for April, May, and June, which I had written and mailed and which I’d ticked off a list in conference with Kathleen, who, every couple of days, reviews our banking situation. The checks had all cleared; somebody other than us had that money. As I explained this (because we are so punctual &c), the pressure dropped to normal. There was no longer an emergency, with eviction notices and sheriff’s tape lurking in the background. I went back upstairs quite relieved. I called Kathleen to tell her how things had worked out, and she agreed to contact the bank later this afternoon.

When I hung up, I realized that I’d forgotten to make a note of the rent payment’s check number — that’s why I had taken the Post-It. Too dizzy to think of anything else to do, I went back downstairs to the office. After a minute, Mrs S came forward and told me the number. I thanked her and left. Then, out in the hallway, as I was about to press the elevator button, she called me back. “You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “They were crediting the money to your old apartment.”

She’s a nice lady. She didn’t apologize for the misunderstanding, but this is New York. Her smile made me whole.

And, now, can we please be quiet for a few days?

Bonbon:
What’s the Question?
8 July 2015

A friend has sent me a recent law review article on the subject of same-sex marriage. My friend, who is married to another man, with whom he is the father of two children, tells me that many of his gay friends find the article offensive, although he does not. I look forward to reading it this weekend. I really do, too, because the very first footnote, which I couldn’t help glancing at, mentions the old Consistory Court, an English body that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the church (later the Church of England) had its own court system, and was deferred to by the civil courts in the determination of essentially ecclesiastical matters.

Just seeing the word got my fountain of youth burbling. A long time ago and far away, I spent a good part of my days with folios dating from the end of the Seventeenth Century, and smaller books even older than that, in my study of the medieval handling of the question of bastardy.

All my materials are somewhere in storage, so I can’t quote from the old books (lucky you), which were written in Law French anyway. Every so often, it is pleasant to think how very, very, very different legal practices were in the days of Edward II (1307-1327) — and yet perfectly recognizable as English.

Given that land was the most valuable thing under the sun, most lawsuits contested the ownership of real estate; and since real estate was owned by rich people, property law was complicated. We’re not going to go into that, though; we’re simply going to consider the report of a case. You probably won’t be surprised to find that it is not headed, Smith v Jones. What you might find surprising is that the report ends without telling you who won, Smith or Jones. It is not that the outcome of the case was of no earthly interest to the lawyers, but simply that the outcome was determined by the pleadings — which you can read in the report.

The report is in fact nothing but a dialogue between various named persons. Over time, the student of these materials learns which persons are the lawyers and which the judges. (Over time, some lawyers become judges — it’s practically Rumpole.) The dialogue is an argument that constitutes the pleadings. Now, pleadings in today’s world are thickish documents full of the allegations stating the grounds for a lawsuit. They will be proved or disproved at trial. In the old days, pleadings were an argument about how to frame a question. In medieval practice, this question, which would be asked of a jury (what we today call witnesses), pretty much determined how the actual trial would be run, and sometimes where. The lawyers, arguing in Westminster Hall at the beginning of the proceedings, tried to get one another to slip up and say something that would settle the question to be asked. Contentions about bastards provide an illuminating example.

The common law of England and the teachings of the Church differed on the matter of bastardy. Originally, Christian leaders did not acknowledge the stain of bastardy at all, which certainly does seem to be a “Christian” way of refusing to judge children by the sins of their parents. But in the Eleventh Century, it was seen that something must be done about priests who were leaving their parishes to their sons. (Yes!) Since a priest wasn’t supposed to get married, he could not have legitimate children, and if only legitimate children were allowed to enter the priesthood, then the undesirable practice would be stopped, albeit by a circuitous route. By the Fourteenth Century, ecclesiastical jurists in England agreed with their civil brothers that children born out of wedlock were bastards, illegitimate, whatever. But. The Church held that bastardy could be cured by the subsequent marriage of the parents. And why not? If the point of the exercise was to keep the sons of priests out of the priesthood, and a priest could never get married, then a cure was perfectly reasonable — desirable, in fact.

The common law still doesn’t agree, however. Its thinking on this point is still governed by considerations of honour. Just ask the Hon Benjamin George Lascelles, cousin to Her Majesty the Queen. When he was born, at Bath in 1978, his parents were not married. They did get married the following year, and in 1980 they had a second son, Alexander Edgar Lascelles. It is Alexander, not his older brother, who is in line to become the next Earl of Harewood.

Let’s say that Benjamin took possession of the family seat. Alexander would come into court and claim that possession ought to be his. Benjamin’s lawyers would argue that he was the eldest son of the previous tenant. Alexander’s would counter that his parents were married after the birth of Benjamin: puis né. That would be the Gotcha moment. The judge would instruct the clerk to issue a summons. Jurors — men of local importance presumed to know what was what — would swear to answer the question truthfully. In this case, they would agree that Benjamin’s parents were married after he was born, and the estate would go to Alexander.

Observe that what we call lawyers and what we call witnesses never intersected. The lawyers were in London. The witnesses were everywhere else.

It was also accepted that civil courts ought to leave ecclesiastic issues to the ecclesiastical courts. The mention of certain words would trigger an automatic change of venue, from civil to ecclesiastical courts. “Bastard” was such a word. In the case of Benjamin and Alexander, the one thing that Alexander’s lawyer must never do would be to state that Benjamin was a bastard. If he did, the case would be sent to the priests, who of course would decide, in accord with Church teachings, that Benjamin was not a bastard, because his parents did get married eventually. Benjamin would remain in possession.

Alexander would be happy to learn that the jurisdiction of today’s Consistory Court is limiting to the disciplining of clerics.